Here is a prospect question that applies to those of us who play in redraft, keeper, and dynasty leagues: Which rookie hitter will be the most valuable fantasy player in 2021?
I’m going to track the answer to that question throughout the season with the Rookie Ladder. Today we introduce the initial hitters’ rookie ladder for the 2021 season. This is my first best guess as to where the 2021 rookie class will finish in terms of fantasy value at the end of the 2021 MLB season.
I’m sure that there will be plenty of twists and turns along the way, full of pop-up surprises and high prospect pedigree disappointments. So, I will be checking in bi-weekly to update the ladder rankings and provide notes on each player as the season progresses.
What went into the initial projections?
I started with a simple concept. My initial premise is that the rookie who will have the most productive 2021 season is the player who combines skill with opportunity. Then I broke each category down into smaller component parts.
For ‘skill’, I first looked at the DataMonster’s Fantasy Prospect Value Tool. The tool crunches all available data on a prospect’s minor league record and then gives a number of value indicators for that prospect. An indicator that I relied upon for determining a rookie’s potential fantasy skill in 2021 is the hitter’s ‘Elite Rate’. A hitter’s Elite Rate is a weighted probability of whether the hitter will be an above-average player for fantasy purposes. Higher is better. I’ve listed DataMonster’s Elite Rate next to each player blurb under the ladder.
The next tool I used to evaluate each hitter’s skill is Crosby Spencer’s 2021 Player Projections. These projections contain a measure called ‘FVALUE’ for each hitter. FVALUE is simply the total value of standings gain points in fantasy for each hitter if he were to play a full season with 650 PAs. FVALUE is perfect for these skill determinations because it omits playing time from the equation in projecting out the player’s statistical performance for the upcoming season.
Finally, I peeked at Baseball Prospectus’s DRC+ projections for each hitter and used my own judgment based on my history of looking at prospect performance in the minor leagues for the past several seasons.
For ‘opportunity’, I started by looking at each player’s expected role for his club on FanGraphs RosterResource. This was the basic starting point, and a player projected in a starter’s role for the 2021 season gets an initial bump in the rookie ladder.
I also considered whether each player was on his organization’s 40-man roster, as well as the number of option seasons he has remaining. The reasoning being that a player currently on the team’s 40-man roster and with less than his full complement of three option years is more likely to be used at the MLB level than a player who is currently not on the team’s 40-man roster.
Finally, I looked at the playing time situation ahead of each of these rookies on their organization’s depth chart and used my own judgment as to whether the prospect in question could replace the MLB talent currently in front of him.
Then I squinted, looked at my google sheet with mock seriousness, and shuffled some players around applying my own biases. The result? Your first rookie ladder of the 2021 season:
|Randy Arozarena||TBR||OF||7||18.49||Starting LF||Yes||2|
|Ke'Bryan Hayes||PIT||3B||0.8||11.83||Starting 3B||Yes||2|
|Dylan Carlson||STL||OF||25.6||15.8||Starting RF||Yes||3|
|Nick Madrigal||CWS||2B||3.3||15.82||Starting 2B||Yes||3|
|Bobby Dalbec||BOS||1B||5.2||12.09||Starting 1B||Yes||2|
|Pavin Smith||ARI||1B||4.2||N/A||Starting RF||Yes||3|
|Taylor Trammell||SEA||OF||5.9||14.28||Starting LF||Yes||3|
|Ryan Mountcastle||BAL||1B||1.8||13.8||Starting 1B||Yes||2|
|Cristian Pache||ATL||OF||12.6||12.67||Starting CF||Yes||2|
|Bobby Witt Jr.||KCR||SS||N/A||N/A||AA||No||3|
Randy Arozarena – OF – Tampa Bay Rays
Elite Rate: 7.0
Randy Arozarena was traded to the City of Tampa in the deal that sent prospect LHP and former 1st round draft pick Matthew Liberatore to St. Louis. A late-bloomer in prospect circles, Arozarena proceeded to light the MLB on fire in the playoffs, setting records and leading the Rays on a push for the AL Pennant.
Arozarena is now poised to hit in the upper third of a potent Rays lineup. There are 20/20 projections all over the place, and Arozarena has the skill to blow that line out of the water. His minor league track record shows borderline elite productivity. He’s entering his prime age-26 season. His 2020 BABIP wasn’t even high. Quite frankly, it’s difficult to find a wart on this guy.
Ke’Bryan Hayes – 3B – Pittsburgh Pirates
Elite Rate: 0.8
The first thing to bear in mind with Ke’Bryan Hayes is that his Elite Rate is based on his minor league performance from 2019. It’s actually an interesting thought experiment to consider Hayes both before and after his MLB debut. The minor league version of Ke’Bryan never posted an ISO above .150, looking like a patient contact hitter with some doubles power. The MLB version of Hayes last year made the scouts who projected more power potential due to his plus hit tool and potential physical maturation look like geniuses.
Hayes’ ISO surged above .300 in his 2020 debut. He hit 4 of his 5 home runs to straightaway center field. However, his max exit velocity on the season was 110 mph, more in line with average raw power than the plus raw power his home run locations would suggest. The good news is, even if his in-game power output takes a step back, his plus hit, plate approach and defense all make him a valuable player anyway.
Dylan Carlson – OF – St. Louis Cardinals
Elite Rate: 25.6
Dylan Carlson’s Elite Rate of 25.6 is the highest of any player on this list, so there’s a case that Carlson possesses more fantasy upside than any other hitter here. A quick look at his DataMonster range of outcomes chart shows a cluster of high upside potential outcomes based on his 2019 performance at Double-A:
Carlson carries a bag of tools that can play at an All-Star level in a corner outfield position. His 2020 was a little rough, but that can be chalked up to a small sample where he was trying to find his feet in the strangest season in baseball history. But even within that small sample, there was a smaller 50 PA sample at the end of the season where Carlson’s rolling xwOBA was well above the MLB average. And he’s still only 22 years old, so there’s plenty of time for him to figure things out
Nick Madrigal – 2B – Chicago White Sox
Elite Rate: 3.3
A man already acquiring many nicknames among the White Sox fanbase (many of which are unmentionable here) the divisive Nick Madrigal made his MLB debut in 2020. He did essentially what you’d expect him to do at the plate last season. He got his bat on everything he swung at, dropping Texas leaguers all over the place and racking up a .340 batting average. He also posted a higher OBP (.376) than SLG (.369).
Unexpectedly, Madrigal also made a series of base-running blunders, one of which injured his shoulder and ended his season prematurely. He was supposed to be a smart ballplayer who would take advantage of the situations presented to him in games, but he often looked lost and over-pressing on the basepaths last year. With so much of his fantasy value ultimately tied to his ability to steal bases, Madrigal will need to be a lot smarter to live up to his future fantasy potential. Especially with Tony La Russa calling the shots in the White Sox dugout this year.
Andrew Vaughn – LF/1B/DH – Chicago White Sox
Elite Rate: 4.7
Eloy Jimenez hangs on a wall while attempting to rob a meaningless home run in an even more meaningless spring training game, and all of the sudden Andrew Vaughn jumps 20 spots up the rookie ladder for 2021. The collective groan of fantasy owners and White Sox fans upon hearing Thursday’s news that Eloy’s injury might keep him out for 6 months slowly turned into a collective eyebrow raise at the team’s statement that Vaughn will get reps in left field for the remainder of spring training.
If Vaughn can acquit himself just well enough in the outfield to keep his special bat in the lineup, his fantasy owners should be rejoicing today. Vaughn can really hit, as he’s shown in college, his quick 2019 minor league debut, and his appearances in MLB spring training in each of the past two seasons. It’s a 60 hit, 60 power bat with potential for a 70 hit given his plate discipline and ability to spray line drives all over the park.
Bobby Dalbec – 1B – Boston Red Sox
Elite Rate: 5.2
Bobby Dalbec has consistently shown big-time raw power during his professional career. The knock on Dalbec is that, of course, is that his big raw juice also comes with big-time whiffs. And this is true. A number of reputable projection systems have him with a median outcome of 35% or greater strikeout rates in the majors this year.
However, I think this all misses the point. The key to Dalbec’s destiny as a fantasy performer probably relies on his ability to draw walks. The double-digit walk rate he posted in his MLB debut makes the total offensive package palpable by providing an OBP floor. However, the bad news is that, along with his propensity for whiffs, Dalbec also chased pitches out of the zone at a rate 5% higher than the average major leaguer. He’s playing a dangerous game.
Pavin Smith – RF – Arizona Diamondbacks
Elite Rate: 4.9
My initial pavlovian response to seeing Pavin Smith on this list was ‘UVA kid, hits the ball on the ground too much.’ And he kind of still does. His batting record is filled with pulled ground balls, which have been the cause of death of many an MLB career. But Smith’s stoic, borderline passive plate approach gives him a great OBP floor. His Chase% last season was a measly 18.2%, 10 percentage points below the Major League average.
Smith sprayed some line drive last year, but his minor league line drive rate was persistently below average. In Double-A ball in 2019, he did manage to lift the ball with more frequency, dropping his groundball rate down to 43% and pushing his ISO up to .175. If he can replicate those changes at the MLB level, there’s a little more upside for him in 2021.
Wander Franco – SS – Tampa Bay Rays
Elite Rate: 16.7
In an alternate universe where the MLB was run like the NBA, Tampa Bay would have cleared out Willy Adames and allowed him to sign an extension elsewhere to give the starting shortstop job to the young wunderkid, Wander Franco. But, last I checked, this is still the MLB and the Tampa Bay Rays still lead the way in arbitration shenanigans.
If this list were based on talent alone, Wander would be hanging with Arozarena near the top of this list. The catch, of course, is that Wander is a full six years younger than Randy. There are concerns about Franco’s ability to lift and drive the ball in game situations. But I believe his plus hands, pitch recognition, flexibility, and extension will let him hit for power at the highest level.
The tweak he might need to get there is becoming more selective in his approach. He can get his bat to everything, but that means making contact with a lot of pitches that are designed to stay on the ground. The Statcast era has shown us that it is exceptionally hard to maintain a high contact rate and a high barrel rate at the same time. If Franco’s comes, he is a potential first-round pick in redraft leagues.
Taylor Trammell – OF – Seattle Mariners
Elite Rate: 5.9
Two organizations ago, Taylor Trammell was a Futures Game MVP, displaying as much upside as any prospect in baseball. Since then, he’s had to persevere while being shipped around in trades and struggling to find his place in the baseball world. However, moving from San Diego to Seattle has really opened up the possibility that Trammell could start the year as the Mariners’ primary left-fielder. And if that happens, the potential for him to put up some solid fantasy numbers are there.
Trammell, still only 23 years old, has a patient plate approach that should get him on base at a good clip. Once he’s on base, Trammell possesses double-plus speed that should allow him to rack up stolen bases. Although he’s not a power-hitter per se, he is a threat for extra bases and has the pop to turn mistakes into home runs. He’s turned heads so far this spring, and if he keeps knocking on the door the Mariners might just have to give him the job.
Ryan Mountcastle – 1B – Baltimore Orioles
Elite Rate: 1.8
The RotoFanatic crew were a little surprised that Ryan Mountcastle appears below Pavin Smith on this list. If you look at the two players using the Data Monster’s Prospect Comparison Tool, you can see why Smith has a slight edge in the rankings:
Smith projects to have a better shot a higher fantasy impact than Mountcastle. You can see that Smith’s right-hand tail is longer and a little denser than Mountcastle’s.
Now, with that being said, I can see Mountcastle pushing for the top of the rookie ladder by the end of the season. Unlike Smith, Mountcastle has a minor league track record of lifting the ball in the air and consequently hitting for some power. He has also flashed the ability to spray line drives around the park. His all-fields approach is evident in his MLB spray chart from 2020:
Roster Resource currently has Mountcastle featuring as the starting first baseman and cleanup hitter for the Orioles. If that holds throughout the season, I would almost guarantee that Mountcastle finishes the year higher up the rookie ladder.
OTHER NOTABLE PROSPECTS
Alex Kirilloff has been sent down to the alternate site already, extinguishing hopes that he would appear as Minnesota’s starting left fielder to begin the year. Kirilloff has a similar profile to fellow AL Central rookie Andrew Vaughn, so if he gets the opportunity to get his bat in the lineup I believe it will play.
Jarred Kelenic is high on the list given his immense skill set, but the Mariners are already committed to manipulating his service time in 2021. Ditto for fellow Mariner prospect Julio Rodriguez, though J-Rod could probably stand a little more refinement to his approach at the MLB level.
Tyler Stephenson could easily climb if he can lock in as the #1 backstop option in Cincy. Same logic applies to Joey Bart in San Francisco, but Bart struggled immensely in his brief 2020 MLB debut. San Diego’s Luis Campusano has a higher projected Elite Rate than either guy, but he’s 3rd on the catching depth chart and I don’t envision the club giving him the reigns to this pitching staff at 22 years old.
Cristian Pache has a great path to an everyday gig, and his glove and speed could easily keep him there. Pache’s issue is that his hit tool still lags behind the others. Jazz Chisholm is in a similar boat, but probably has a less clear path to everyday ABs.
San Diego’s Ha-seong Kim feels low here. There’s uncertainty with him making the leap from the KBO and San Diego’s crowded roster.
Cleveland’s Nolan Jones has already been optioned back to minor league camp. However, he spent time learning to play the outfield over the last year and might be an answer to that baseball club’s anemic outfield offense.
Adley Rutschman, Josh Jung, and J.J. Bleday are all more likely to appear high up on this list in 2022 vs 2021 just given their position on the 40-man roster. But there have been grumblings about all four receiving MLB playing time this season. Jung suffered a stress fracture in his foot this spring, requiring surgery which will delay his season by 6-8 weeks.
Dayton Moore was just messing with us in regards to Bobby Witt Jr., right?