By: Andrew Thell
1) Jason Heyward, OF, Atlanta Braves:
Stephen Strasburg, below, gets more hype, but Atlanta’s right fielder of the future is poised to make the biggest impact this season. The Braves missed out on overpaying for Johnny Damon this winter, which means Heyward will get an opportunity to be the Braves starting right fielder on Opening Day. Heyward has been making the most of that chance, going 10-for-22 and reaching safely in all 10 games in which he’s played this spring and playing solid defense while just about locking up the job.
Heyward is a big man, but he’s not just a masher – he has all the tools to excel at the plate, in the field and on the bases. Standing at 6-4, 220 lbs. and born in 1989, Heyward already has the plate approach of a veteran, above-average speed and a cannon arm. Heyward is listed as Baseball America’s No.1 prospect and comes in second on Baseball Prospectus‘ list heading into the season. He’s the complete package and ready to make a big splash before his 21st birthday.
Jason Heyward photo credit: Icon SMI
2) Neftali Feliz, RP, Texas Rangers:
Feliz got his MLB debut last season pitching out of the bullpen for Texas and looked stellar doing it. The Rangers prized prospect made 20 appearances and struck out 39 hitters while allowing 8 walks in just 31 innings en route to a jaw-dropping 1.74 ERA, 0.68 WHIP and .124 BAA. Those numbers don’t lie either, as Feliz throws a fastball in the 96-100 MPH range that simply leaps out of his hand and also features a curve and changeup that should develop as plus pitches.
He will eventually be featured in Texas’ starting rotation, but with a lackluster spring it looks like Feliz will spend another season in a long-relief role in the Rangers bullpen before making the move to the rotation for 2011. Even so, fantasy leaguers should take note – he’s not in the same class as Strasburg in the long run, but there may not be another pitcher in baseball who can give you the per-inning upside Feliz offers.
3) Stephen Strasburg, SP, Washington Nationals:
The No. 1 overall pick last year, Strasburg is the most electric young pitcher in baseball and the most hyped draft pick in recent memory. He features a 94-97 MPH fastball that tops out at 101, a giant power curve and a changeup with excellent command (195 Ks to just 19 BBs as a senior at San Diego State). His stuff is so impressive and MLB-ready that there was speculation he could see time with the Nationals late last year, but Washington wisely didn’t push their prized prospect. The speculation was on once again heading into camp in 2010, and the youngster poured fuel on the fire by starting the spring with five scoreless innings while regularly hitting in the high 90s on the radar gun and blowing by professional hitters.
Once again, though, the Nationals will prudently exercise caution and have the phenom start the season in the minors to get his arm ready for pitching on an MLB schedule (and will, conveniently, likely delay his service time in the process). We can expect to see the top pitching prospect in baseball make his debut this season, and it’ll be fun to watch with that 97-101 MPH fastball of his, but the fact that he’ll likely be in the minors the first few months bumps him down to third here.
4) Brian Matusz, SP, Baltimore Orioles:
The first pitcher taken in 2008, Matusz had already reached the bigs by the end of his first full season and has been impressive this spring, striking out 10 batters over four innings in his first two starts (though also giving up four runs) before holding a largely-intact Phillies lineup to three hits and one run in five innings in his third turn. He’s polished for his age, featuring four strong pitches: a low-90s fastball, sharp curve, decent slider and great changeup – all of which he can throw for strikes. The Orioles should slot Matusz into the back end of their starting rotation from day one and he is capable of producing a respectable line from the get-go, though that park and the fact that he pitches in the AL East should severely limit expectations.
5) Carlos Santana, C, Cleveland Indians:
After an offseason surgery on his right hand the Indians’ top prospect will start the 2010 season at Triple-A Columbus, but he’s fully healed and should be mashing for the big league club before long. Santana isn’t the best catcher prospect in baseball, that honor goes to the Yankees’ Jesus Montero (even if he’s unlikely to stick behind the plate), but he is the most likely to make an impact this season at the always talent-starved position.
While he’s unlikely to ever be a great catcher, unlike Montero, Santana does have a plus arm and the tools to stay at the position. However, it’s his offense fantasy owners are concerned about – and the kid doesn’t disappoint at the plate. The 2008 California League MVP and 2009 Eastern League MVP posted a .943 OPS, 23 home runs and a league-leading 90 walks last season. After a few solid weeks at Triple-A we could see a call-up for Santana, and that kind of plate approach should play well at the Major League level out of the box; 15-20 HRs with a solid .370 OBP isn’t out of reach.