Fantasy owners love rookies.
I've always liked Eric Karabell's theory on the rookie obsession in fantasy; he explains that people "like the unknown only because the guy doesn't stink yet." That's probably a large part of it. People don't want to draft a player with a track record of failure, certainly not ones they have previously owned. At least with the player with no track record, there's always a chance at greatness.
This season has been no different, as it's a rookie named Brandon Belt who has been one of the most popular pickups, after the San Francisco Giants announced that the 22-year-old (he'll turn 23 on April 20) would begin the season in the big leagues, as their starting first baseman. Before Belt had even accrued a plate appearance in the major leagues, he was one of fantasy baseball's hottest pickups.
But that's with good reason.
Just look at what Belt during his first full professional season in the minor leagues: .352 batting average, .455 on-base percentage, .620 slugging percentage, 23 home runs, 112 RBIs, 22 stolen bases, 15.6 percent walk rate, 20.1 percent strikeout rate, 27.7 percent line-drive rate.
With the possible exception of his strikeout rate, which to be fair still beat 2010's average number in the major leagues (20.7 percent), Belt's numbers -- all of them -- can be classified as unquestionably elite. Granted, the competition wasn't nearly what he'll experience with the Giants, as 77 of his 136 games were played in high Class A and 46 in Double-A, but if you're prospecting, Belt seems to possess every skill that a fantasy owner loves in a young hitter.
Of course, Alex Gordon, another 22-year-old at the time of his debut, had gaudy first-pro-year statistics and flopped, a constant reminder that not all prospects are instantly destined for stardom. Consider that the worst-case scenario for Belt. As for the best, why can't he have a rookie campaign within range of Joey Votto's in 2008?
Though his first four big league games, Belt has four walks, one home run and one stolen base, and perhaps more importantly he had a single and a walk against one of the tougher lefties in the game, Clayton Kershaw, on Opening Day. Expect occasional struggles, which if timed poorly could present an issue once Cody Ross is ready to return from the disabled list, but there's no reason Belt shouldn't be able to meet or exceed our projected .264/.331/.434 rates. Scale his 212 projected at-bats to 500, and he'd have 14 homers and 66 RBIs; I think that's conservative. More likely, he'll be a candidate for 20 and 75, plus 10-12 steals.
Belt isn't the only rookie making a name for himself in the season's early stages, he's just the one with the most prominent name. Let's also provide fantasy owners some introductions to some of 2011's lesser-known first-year players:
J.P. Arencibia, C, Toronto Blue Jays: Apparently he's the master of first impressions, because in his first big league game of 2011, he did exactly what he did in his first big league game of 2010: hit two home runs. There's little denying Arencibia's power, as he hit 32 homers in 104 games for Triple-A Las Vegas last season and averaged one homer per 19.5 at-bats during his minor league career. Strikeouts, however, are a significant problem for him, and should lead to a low batting average and a lot of cold spells. During his minor league career, Arencibia struck out in 22.0 percent of his at-bats. But scanning big league rosters, is his skill set really much different than that of free-swinging, power-hitting catchers like John Buck or Miguel Olivo, and can't it be argued that Arencibia's upside is significantly greater than either? I was hesitant to pay much for Arencibia in the preseason, as outlined in "30 Questions," but that's partly because I regarded him and Buck as similar values. Buck does have one advantage over the rookie, however: He's going to start more often, as the Blue Jays plan to use Jose Molina as the personal catcher for Kyle Drabek, Jo-Jo Reyes and, when he's healthy, Brandon Morrow. That's three-fifths of the team's rotation, so don't expect a regular's complement of at-bats.
Mark Trumbo, 1B, Los Angeles Angels: With Kendrys Morales still nursing his injured ankle, first base is wide open for Trumbo, a right-handed slugger who clubbed 36 homers for Triple-A Salt Lake last season and six in 25 games during spring training. While his .275/.330/.474 career minor league rates should be taken with a grain of salt due to his having played most of it in hitter-friendly leagues, Trumbo should be able to provide a decent amount of pop, both to the Angels and fantasy owners, at least on a short-term basis. He might sit against an occasional right-hander, as he did this past Saturday, but should receive enough at-bats to be of help in AL-only and deep mixed formats.
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 125 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
TOP 125 HITTERS
Brent Morel, 3B, Chicago White Sox: Though his reputation is greater as a defender than as a hitter, Morel has a grip on the starting role at third base for the White Sox, and at least handles the bat well enough to be meaningful in AL-only formats. A .305 career minor league hitter, Morel batted .303 in 19 spring games, and is 4-for-14 (.286 AVG) in his first three regular-season contests. More importantly, he's quick enough to steal a base, having swiped three in his first 24 career games and as many as 25 in a single season in Class A ball in 2009. If he shapes up as a .275-hitting, double-digit power and speed performer, he'd be a worthwhile third baseman or corner infielder in deeper leagues.
Brad Emaus, 2B, New York Mets: The deeeeeep sleeper of the bunch, Emaus grabbed the starting second-base job with the Mets despite a lackluster spring; he batted .294 (15-for-51) with one home run, much of his success a product of one standout game against the St. Louis Cardinals. Still, he has the skills to deserve at least a brief opportunity in the role, having produced a .364 on-base percentage during his minor league career and double-digit homers and steals in each of his past three seasons. Listing Emaus here is nothing more than a "lottery ticket" endorsement in deep NL-only leagues; he could flop and be returned to the Toronto Blue Jays before the end of the month. But considering the Mets seem to hate the idea of losing this Rule 5 pick, might he receive enough opportunities to settle in as an above-average big league regular?
Starlin Castro, SS, Chicago Cubs: Just 21 years old, Castro has looked like a player far older and more experienced, at least judging by his rookie-year returns, spring training numbers and performance so far in 2011. A .348/.386/.621 hitter in 21 spring training contests, Castro has carried his hot hitting into the regular season, batting .476 (10-for-21) with two doubles, two triples and two walks in his first five games. Power might not yet be his forté -- give him another year or two considering his young age -- but his 31 doubles in 125 games in 2010 hint it'll come eventually. Could it be as soon as this year? Castro did go deep four times in 66 spring at-bats, so it's not unthinkable he could finish with homers in the teens. I still anticipate some streakiness, but he's looking like a legit big leaguer right now.
Howard Kendrick, 2B, Angels: After three injury-marred seasons and a fully healthy, yet disappointing 2010 campaign, Kendrick finally appears ready to realize his potential at the age of 27. He has hit safely in each of his first five games, batting .429 overall (9-for-21), and has three home runs, seven shy of his entire 2010 total in the category. Such a power explosion shouldn't be shocking; Kendrick did double 41 times last season. Most encouraging is that he's off to a hot start, after shaping up as a second-half hitter in his first five big league seasons; he's a lifetime .314 hitter after the All-Star break. Kendrick has always had the ability to hit for a high average, and if he can add 15-20 homer potential to his double-digit steals, he'll rank as one of the game's most valuable middle infielders.
Mark Teixeira, 1B, New York Yankees: Not that anyone needs to be told that Teixeira is one of fantasy baseball's most valuable sluggers, but his hot start to 2011 is actually a little out of character for him, and certainly a promising sign for his full-season outlook. Through his first five games he has four home runs; consider that it took him an average of 25 games -- and never fewer than 13 -- to hit that many in each of his first eight seasons. That Teixeira has already homered from the right side of the plate -- generally considered his weaker power but stronger batting-average side -- is also a plus, as it signals his swing being in midseason form, rather than merely his capitalizing upon Yankee Stadium's short right-field porch. Gone might be the days of frustrating early-season Teixeira performances, like 2010 when he had just .221/.338/.387 rates through May. If that's true, keep in mind that his May-September career numbers project to a 40 homers and 120 RBIs annually.
Derek Jeter, SS, Yankees: Remember all the talk about the adjustments he was making to his swing during spring training? So much for that, as after a 2-for-10 opening-series performance, Jeter scrapped his new swing for the one that earned him 2,927 career hits entering 2011. He's still hitting a slew of ground balls; he has a 76.5 percent rate in five games after leading the majors with a 65.7 percent rate in 2010. Jeter is also struggling in another area just as he did last season, scuffling with .077/.188/.077 rates against right-handers thus far. The best cases for Jeter rebounding are such casually bandied about phrases as, "It's early," and, "Maybe the contract squabbles will motivate him," except that neither of those has any sort of statistical backing. The numbers say Jeter is picking up right where he left off, and that's not a good thing.
Adam LaRoche, 1B, Washington Nationals: He's playing with a slight tear in the labrum in his left shoulder, and while he claims that a late-March cortisone shot has helped, LaRoche might take some time before returning to 100 percent. He's off to a 3-for-16 (.188) start through four games, and let's not forget that LaRoche is historically a poor first-half performer who saves his best for after the All-Star break. He's a lifetime .295/.354/.535 second-half hitter, numbers that make him quite the attractive fantasy option during those months, but his .252/.326/.447 first-half numbers rate him as barely an average first baseman. Don't expect much better production from LaRoche as long as his shoulder remains an issue.
Michael Morse, OF, Nationals: There's a reason we caution not to read too much into spring training statistics, because in many instances those numbers are fattened by easy matchups against pitchers destined to spend much of the year buried in the minor leagues. In Morse's case, his absurd spring stats -- nine homers and 18 RBIs in 66 at-bats -- were so outstanding that it's understandable that people were buying in with those late-spring drafts. After all, he consistently hit, even against quality competition in late-March contests. But through four regular-season games, he's 2-for-13 (.154) with six strikeouts, both of his hits singles. Listing him here isn't a signal to bail on Morse, who still has the power potential to be worth that late-round pick, but it's a hint that his stock might soon be in jeopardy if he doesn't quickly turn things around. Remember, the Nationals have Roger Bernadina lurking in Triple-A, and he's a left-hander, meaning the possibility of his being promoted and stealing the better half of a potential platoon.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.