26 Under 26 Part 1

As I prepare myself for another fantasy baseball season (which seems to be a year-round endeavor these days, and I’m not complaining), I love to see how everyone is valuing “The Next Big Things”. I think as a whole the fantasy community generally overvalues youth in hopes of landing the next Albert Pujols or Ryan Braun. Then when someone does struggle out of the gate (as many, perhaps most, do), they are cast aside as a failure by a large segment of the community as another next big thing is put on a pedestal. This then creates value in subsequent seasons for the “failures”.

I used to heavily favor youth in my gameplan, probably to a fault. But in recent years I’ve become much more risk averse and therefore have curbed my desire to acquire rookies unless they present tremendous value. Of course they are caveats to all strategies based on the draft you’re in. I won’t get into those right now because that’s probably a whole other 2000-word piece. I want to present a group of 26 players 26 & under who I think are ready for a significant step forward. There aren’t any superstars on this list. Everyone knows that Prince Fielder is a stud who will deliver. Same with Troy Tulowitzki, Justin Upton and Evan Longoria. These are first and second rounders that I don’t need to cover. That isn’t to say the list is a group of unknowns. That’s not the case at all. It’s just a group of young players poised for a step forward that will give them value beyond their average draft position (ADP).

I’ve ranked the 26 players based on their overall value in my estimation:

26. Jesus Flores, C – Washington Nationals – I wanted to rate him as high as 23rd, but the presence of Ivan Rodriguez makes that impossible. Despite being 100 years old, Pudge is still churning out the at-bats however poor they may be and that will relegate Flores to a sub-400 AB season barring an injury or a complete fade of Pudge’s skills (I’m talking even worse than his .664 OPS from last year). Flores has had flashes and through 90 at-bats last year, he appeared to be in on his way towards a breakout season hitting .311/.382/.522. Injuries would relegate him to just three at-bats the rest of the way. Even in 350 at-bats, he could pop 12-14 home runs with a .270 average. That’s a pretty solid C2, heck it wouldn’t be the worst C1 given the wasteland that is catching.

25. Steve Pearce, 1B – Pittsburgh Pirates – After just 165 at-bats last year, Pearce should be ready for a full workload in 2010. It’s make or break time for him with the Pirates as they are starting to build something bordering on legitimacy with this front office and he will be pressed out of action if he hits .206 again. I see Pearce putting up a Garrett Jones-type season (low 20s in home runs with 10-12 stolen bases) except across 450-500 ABs instead of the 314 Jones used to hit 21 bombs with a .293 average. Pearce struggles far too much against righties to hit .293 like Jones without vast improvement, but he can mash lefties enough to sustain a .265 average. He’s definitely an NL-Only league option right now, but like Jones he could emerge into an option across all formats.

24. Buster Posey, C – San Francisco GiantsI discussed Posey for 2010 in a piece some time back. I think he will be impactful as a mid-level catcher, but the fantasy community appears to have learned from Matt Wieters a season ago. Posey isn’t going outrageously early and that’s good because he is very unlikely to have a massive season. Geovany Soto’s 2008 is an exception to how rookie catchers perform while Wieters’ struggles relative to expectations is more in line with what you should expect. There is so much demand defensively and with handling the staff that hitting becomes secondary. Play up Posey’s poor showing at the AFL when he was clearly gassed from such a laborious season and hopefully you can drive his value down even further. A hot spring would likely put him in the Wieters Zone, but stay strong and value him around what John Baker was last year, at least in terms of overall value ($11). … Stupid Bengie Molina!!!

23. Chris Young, OF – Arizona Diamondbacks – Yes, I love the guy. I know I’m not alone but this bandwagon has cleared out since the beginning of 2009. It is so hard to forget the 32 home runs and 27 stolen bases from 2007. At 26, it’s not unreasonable to believe he can get back to that level or better, but it is going to take significant improvements from Young. He must change his approach if he wants to stick around in this league. The simple fact is that his tools alone, which are plentiful, won’t get him through 162 games. At least not 162 games at the major league level. This is his last chance to a relevant fantasy asset. He will come cheap and could return massive dividends.

22. Eric Young Jr., 2B – Colorado Rockies – Young doesn’t have a guaranteed spot in 2010, but he will contend with Clint Barmes and could push his way into some outfield at-bats, too. His primary asset is a ridiculous amount of speed. In the minors since 2006, he’s stolen 87, 73, 46 and 58 bases while hitting between .290 and .299. His ceiling in 2010 would be a Juan Pierre clone, but I wouldn’t bank on the batting average coming right away. Though it was just 57 at-bats, Young looked lost at the dish during his big league stint in August and September. On the low end, he will be a cheap speed option in NL-Only leagues struggling for regular at-bats. Keep an eye on his battle for playing time in Spring Training and pay accordingly.

21. Ryan Sweeney, OF – Oakland A’s – I’m a big fan of Sweeney’s. He’s a very good hitter and he managed to stay relatively healthy and log 484 at-bats. His primary contribution is a high batting average as evidenced by his .293 last year and .291 in 1928 minor league at-bats. He’s got the ability to hit .310-.320, but it remains to be seen how much more he can offer apart from that. He doesn’t do much by way of home runs or stolen bases while his runs scored and driven totals are hampered by being on an anemic squad in Oakland. At 25 (in February), he is still growing as a hitter so I think we will see more power come perhaps even in 2010. I think his ceiling is about 12-14, especially in that cavernous ballpark. He has the ability to match that figure in stolen bases, but given his injury history I don’t see the A’s putting any unnecessary pressure on his body and allowing him to run much more than he did last year.

20. Lastings Milledge, OF – Pittsburgh Pirates – Some idiot thought this guy was going to be HUGE last year. Yep, it was me. The only huge stat he posted in 2009 was games missed: 97. In late June he was traded from the Nationals to the Pirates where he will now be a left fielder after the emergence of uber-prospect Andrew McCutchen in center. Milledge, like a handful of guys on this list, is someone who has been labeled a bust already despite the fact that he isn’t yet 25 years old (April 5th) and has 1117 at-bats spreading across parts of three seasons and one full season. He’s the kind of guy who starts reaching his potential and people write stupid articles headlined, “Where Did Milledge Come From?” as if he’s a complete unknown or as if there wasn’t a colossal overreaction to bury these kids the instant they don’t come up and hit like Ryan Braun. Milledge is a very good power/speed capable of topping his 14 HR/24 SB season from 2008, but probably not right away. I would use that season as a gauge of what Milledge is capable of, but don’t pay for based off of that season for the simple fact that it’s completely unnecessary. He’s available VERY late across all formats.

I will do another part with 19-11 and then 10-1 soon.

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