Top 20 prospects: Longoria tops the list

"I really don't give a crap about where players rank in other rankings. I don't consider them when doing my own rankings, and it doesn't bother me if I'm really high on a guy no one else likes. I go see players, I evaluate them, and I rank them. That's it." -- ESPN's Keith Law, Jan. 31, 2008, in a recent chat about his top 100 prospects.

Yes, I realize it's my first ESPN column, and I'm already resorting to quoting someone else instead of demonstrating my own eloquence. But I couldn't have said it better myself.

As such, the list below is not a typical prospects list. There are two reasons for that: This list is referring to impact in 2008 only, and it's geared specifically to fantasy players. Just something to keep in mind -- along with the quote above -- as you peruse.

How do I evaluate prospects? By studying their numbers, watching them play as much as possible and talking to them to get an idea of their makeup, intangibles and what they are working on, such as new pitches or mechanical adjustments. All this is to help me get the most complete picture of a player as possible in order to make an informed decision.

In making up this list, team situations and projected playing time this season are huge factors. For instance, a top prospect would be virtually meaningless in fantasy play this season if he does little more than get a September call-up. A prospect who might not have the talent of another player might be a better fantasy play simply because of opportunity. I love Travis Snider and Matt LaPorta as much as the next person, but it's hard to see either getting any significant major league time this season.

There will be fluctuations in this list based on spring training developments, such as a player getting hurt to open up a job or a change on the depth chart. Therefore, we need to examine a team's projected depth charts closely and try to balance a player's upside with his projected role this season. Oh, and one more thing, I didn't include any of the players signed out of Japan this offseason, as I don't really consider them to be 'prospects.'"

1. Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays

Projected 2008 role: starting third baseman

The expectations for Longoria will be high, if for no other reason than because of the stellar offensive debut of another third baseman, Ryan Braun, last season. But Longoria might just live up to the precedent set, including the 30-homer portion of it. Longoria isn't going to give fantasy owners double-digit steals like Braun or Alex Gordon could, but he will provide power production and on-base percentage. He has power to all fields, and even when he gets fooled on a pitch, he can make the adjustment, thanks to his great bat speed. He also has good patience at the plate and will wait for pitches he can make solid contact with. "The main thing I continue to focus on is my pitch selection," Longoria said. "Working counts better, getting into better hitting situations, and not missing those pitches I get to hit." As an added bonus, Longoria is a plus defender at the hot corner, so the concerns that delayed Braun's debut last season are not a factor. A season similar to Ryan Zimmerman's .287-20-110 debut in 2006 is a reasonable expectation.

2. Joba Chamberlain, SP, Yankees

Projected 2008 role: Reliever, eventually ending up in Yankees rotation

The hype machine will be in full force, and I suppose I'm not helping matters any by ranking him here. Chamberlain is a potential ace. He has an electric fastball, two plus breaking balls, a plus changeup, great mound presence and a mean streak. He just needs to show that he can stay healthy over a full season; his previous season high for innings is 117. The Yankees will do with him what the Dodgers did with Chad Billingsley last season, starting him in the bullpen before moving him into the rotation later this season. Even then he still could put up 150 outstanding innings. Watch how the Yankees plan to use him in spring training.

3. Jay Bruce, OF, Reds

Projected 2008 role: starting center fielder

This place on the list assumes that Bruce will win the starting job in center field out of spring training. The trade of Josh Hamilton was made with this in mind. Ryan Freel could then go back to his super-utility role, and Norris Hopper would become a reserve outfielder, both roles that best suit those guys. There is the possibility Bruce could struggle this spring and open at Triple-A, in which case he obviously would move down this list a bit. There is very little that Bruce can't do on the baseball field, though, and he has the ability to someday hit 35 homers in the big leagues. For now, he can still be a plus in all roto categories. The concerns are the fact he is just 20 years old and might need a bit more time at Triple-A, and that he's a bit too much of a free swinger at the moment. But given his track record and natural ability, I'm not betting against him.

4. Colby Rasmus, OF, Cardinals

Projected 2008 role: starting center fielder

Considering his competition is Skip Schumaker and Ryan Ludwick, Rasmus should win the Opening Day job in center field for the Cards. If he doesn't, he likely won't be in the minors for too long, much like Hunter Pence wasn't in 2007. The 21-year-old has a prototypical sweet lefty swing with developing power and speed on the basepaths, in addition to plus defense. He also has an idea what he's doing at the plate, successfully hitting third, as well as batting leadoff at times, and waiting for pitches he can drive in the minors. He possesses legitimate 20/20 potential for his fantasy owners. "I got a lot better at going the other way this past season," Rasmus said. "But it's not really my strong suit, so I need to continue to work at it." Rasmus posted .275-29-72-18 numbers at Double-A despite losing almost 15 pounds during the season because of a sinus infection. Nick Markakis made a successful jump from Double-A to the majors two seasons ago, and Rasmus is perfectly capable of equaling that feat. There are a lot of similarities in their games.

5. Clay Buchholz, SP, Red Sox

Projected 2008 role: starting rotation

We all know about Buchholz's no-hitter in his second big league start, and suffice it to say that Buchholz is no Bud Smith, who threw a no-hitter as a rookie in 2001 only to vanish shortly thereafter. The 23-year-old led all minor league starters last season with more than 12 strikeouts per nine innings. He doesn't have the raw heat of Chamberlain, but he pitches comfortably in the low to mid-90s with a curve that could soon rank among the best in the game and a plus changeup. The usual injury caveats about young pitchers aside, Buchholz has top-of-the-rotation ability. If for some reason he doesn't win a job this spring, I wouldn't worry, because he won't be in the minors for long.

6. Carlos Gomez, OF, Twins

Projected 2008 role: starting center fielder

Gomez will be given every chance to assume the center field job in Minnesota as the Twins seek to get some immediate return from the Johan Santana trade. Why does Gomez rate so high on this list? Well, this is a fantasy-oriented list, and Gomez brings those coveted steals to the table. He has the potential for category-changing thefts while playing everyday for the Twins, and at the very least should be good for 25-30 swipes. Despite the fact that Gomez's bat might not be ready for the big leagues yet, his speed and ability to leg out infield hits can keep his batting average respectable in the short term. For example, a 21-year-old Carl Crawford hit .281 with 55 steals as a rookie but would have hit just .219 if his infield hits were subtracted from the equation. Gomez still needs to learn the strike zone, and his power is pretty much nonexistent at the moment, but his speed and defense should keep him in the lineup.

7. Cameron Maybin, OF, Marlins

Projected 2008 role: starting center fielder

On tools alone, Maybin is among the best prospects in the minors, with the raw talent to be a top contributor in all five roto categories. The biggest thing for him right now is turning the tools into actual baseball production. He eventually will hit in the big leagues, but his bat isn't ready yet. He was pushed up the ladder fast and has just 30 games above Class A. "I tinkered a lot with my stance [last season], trying to find something that was comfortable," said Maybin, who thinks he finally settled on something he liked at the Arizona Fall League. "The more at-bats I get, the more consistent I'm going to be at the plate. I just need experience." If nothing else, he can at least provide steals in the short term, and he will hit a few out of the park here and there, too. But expect a lot of strikeouts. Like Gomez, his immediate asset from a fantasy perspective in the short term is speed on the basepaths. The whole package will take a little bit longer to develop, but his talent is undeniable, and he should have a starting job.

8. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds

Projected 2008 role: starting first baseman

In theory, the first baseman's job in Cincy is Votto's to lose, but Scott Hatteberg is still around, and one never knows with veteran-lover Dusty Baker. Votto has a nice offensive package, with patience at the plate and the ability to hit to all fields. Eventually he could eclipse .300 with a good on-base percentage while hitting 20-plus homers. He's even capable of double-digit steals. I wasn't as high on Votto a couple of seasons ago, but I've seen the adjustments he has made at the plate and how he has been able to shorten what was once a long swing without it affecting his output. The X factor is how many at-bats Hatteberg gets this season, but Votto is perfectly capable of holding down the starting job if given the opportunity.

9. Daric Barton, 1B, Athletics

Projected 2008 role: starting first baseman

Barton will hit for average, post a good on-base percentage and stroke a bunch of doubles. His bat is ready for full-time major league duty, and he has freakish strike zone judgment. He has posted more walks than strikeouts in each of his professional seasons. The only question mark is how much power he's going to produce. He might max out at only 10 homers or so, but there is the potential here for some Kevin Youkilis-type numbers with slightly less pop. He should be the starting first baseman, barring a huge spring from Dan Johnson.

10. Geovany Soto, C, Cubs

Projected 2008 role: starting catcher

Soto will be the Cubs' Opening Day backstop after a season of ridiculous production that helped him earn the MVP award in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. Soto finally got serious about his conditioning and got away from being pull-happy, learning to go the other way and hit to all fields. While last season's numbers (.353 with 26 homers at Triple-A and a .389 average in 54 major league at-bats) were a bit over his head, he should be good for 15-20 homers and a useful batting average in what could be a weaker catcher's pool this year than it has been in recent seasons.

11. Homer Bailey, SP, Reds

Projected 2008 role: Reds rotation

The hype about Bailey has been legitimate, but people have been expecting too much out of him too soon. Even when Bailey was summoned to the majors last season, he hadn't demonstrated an ability to be more than a five-inning pitcher at the Triple-A level. Considering the control problems he was having at Triple-A, it was foolish to expect it to be any different at the major league level. A year later, where are we? Bailey has the stuff to develop into a true No. 1 starter. He has a mid-90s heater, can cut his fastball to give hitters a different look, and his curve is a bona fide out pitch. Command and control are the only things holding him back, but the 21-year-old eventually will harness his great stuff. Bailey has the kind of raw talent and makeup that could help him improve very quickly, and he will open the season in the Reds' rotation. The combination of talent and opportunity demand attention.

12. Jacoby Ellsbury, OF, Red Sox

Projected 2008 role: eventual starting center fielder

Coco Crisp could have a big fantasy impact this season, and not because of his own offensive production. If Crisp is not dealt before the start of the season, Ellsbury's inevitable ascension to the starting center field job might be delayed for a bit. Considering Ellsbury went 50-for-57 in steals last season across three levels, that is significant. Though he might never hit more than 10 homers in a season, he will hit for average and provide a ton of steals, along with Gold Glove defense in center. He's ready to do that right now, but Crisp's presence makes his playing time picture somewhat murky at the moment. Ellsbury could still win the job outright coming out of spring training even if Crisp is still around, and if he does that, he easily moves into the top five on this list.

13. J.R. Towles, C, Astros

Projected 2008 role: starting catcher

Towles will be Houston's starting backstop this season, and his offensive potential is intriguing. He has been under the radar because of injury problems over his first three professional seasons (just 165 games in that span) but has the ability to approach the .300 mark and post homer totals in the high teens with his pull power. He has a longer swing, but he has shown can control the strike zone. He'll even swipe a bag or two here and there. If he can stay off the disabled list, he could be a poor man's version of Russell Martin. The downside is that he might not be polished enough yet for the major league level, much like Chris Iannetta in Colorado last season, but he'll be given every chance to settle into a starting role.

14. Chase Headley, 3B/LF, Padres

Projected 2008 role: eventual Padres left fielder

Headley will wage a serious spring training battle for a platoon role in left field, and he'll also spell Kevin Kouzmanoff at third base. Headley is a natural third baseman but has shown enough in offseason work to make the Padres think he can handle the outfield enough to get his bat into the lineup. I talked to him after he hit .291 with 12 homers at high Class A in 2006, and he said he had plans to add more bulk to his frame and get stronger, as well as improving his already-good bat speed. He told me, point blank, "I think I can be a guy that hits .300 with 20 homers." Last season's numbers at Double-A: .330-20-78. The switch-hitter has off-the-charts intangibles and makeup, and he knows how to make adjustments in his swing to stay on track. Not only does he get the most out of his tools, he plays above them. On offensive potential alone, he rates much higher on this list, but the current questions surrounding his playing time bump him down a bit. If he wins a semi-regular job, be ready to invest.

15. Andy LaRoche, 3B, Dodgers

Projected 2008 role: potential starting third baseman

The Dodgers would do well to stick LaRoche in the lineup every day at third base and not worry about it, instead of fooling around with Nomar Garciaparra as a starter. LaRoche has excellent knowledge of the strike zone, can hit to all fields and is a potential middle-of-the-order bat as his power develops. He didn't put up solid numbers in his limited major league time last season, but he was not overmatched at the plate either. "Last year, I think I tried to do too much," LaRoche said. "Line drives. That's all it takes, and the home runs will come. I don't have to try and hit one every time up, just try to drive the ball the opposite field and relax." LaRoche will try to win the third base job in spring training and would move up this list if he does so, even with Nomar stealing time here and there. Garciaparra has not been the picture of health in recent seasons, adding to LaRoche's chances of seeing significant playing time

16. Franklin Morales, SP, Rockies

Projected 2008 role: Rockies rotation

Morales is not guaranteed to win a rotation spot out of spring training, but considering his competition for the last spot behind Jeff Francis, Aaron Cook, Ubaldo Jimenez and Jason Hirsh is Mark Redman, Josh Towers and Kip Wells, Morales likely will win the job sooner or later. The southpaw can reach the mid-90s with his fastball, possesses an above-average curve and developed his changeup enough last season to give him another weapon against right-handed batters. He threw 20 straight shutout innings to begin his major league career. The last piece of his development is being a more consistent strike thrower and improving his overall command, but he has the makings of a solid No. 2 starter down the road.

17. Ian Kennedy, SP, Yankees

Projected 2008 role: starting rotation

Kennedy has multiple avenues to a spot in the Yankees' rotation this season. He will open as the fifth starter if Chamberlain begins in the bullpen, he could beat out Mike Mussina for a job during the spring, or assume a spot if the fading Mussina falters early in the season. The funny thing is Kennedy is a lot like a young Mussina in many respects. The right-hander made it to the big leagues in basically his first season as a professional, having appeared in just one game in 2006 after being a first-round pick that year. Kennedy posted a 1.91 ERA in 26 minor league games to earn a big league call-up. He throws four pitches, with only his changeup really standing out, but he can hit his spots with all of them and has excellent command and control thanks to a clean and consistent delivery, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. We'll have to see how many innings Kennedy ultimately gets if he starts the season in the bullpen, but he eventually will move into the rotation and be successful.

18. Johnny Cueto, SP, Reds

Projected 2008 role: starter in waiting at Triple-A

Homer Bailey gets the press, but there are some scouts who like Cueto better. I'm not ready to go that far, but Cueto is the more polished pitcher at this stage. He posted a 170/34 K/BB ratio in 161 innings in 2007, accelerating through three levels of the minors and allowing less than a hit per inning. The key was a new changeup that worked well off of his mid-90s fastball, giving him a quality third pitch to use against lefties and complement the nice tilt on his slider. Cueto reminds me a lot of another diminutive right-hander, Ian Snell, with a bit better control. He does need to do a better job of getting the ball down in the zone a bit more consistently, but he knows how to pitch and set up hitters, and he can throw strikes with all of his offerings. He's down this far on the list only because it appears the 22-year-old could spend a good chunk of time at Triple-A this season, but if Edinson Volquez's control wanders again and Matt Belisle is, well, Matt Belisle, he could be in the rotation quickly.

19. Adam Miller, SP, Indians

Projected 2008 role: starting rotation

A finger injury kept Miller from joining the Indians' rotation in the first half of last season, and then he had a late-season elbow problem, but he was pitching again in the Arizona Fall League. Miller is a potential top-of-the-rotation starter who just needs to stay out of the trainer's room. That's easier said than done, but his delivery and mechanics are sound. "All I can do is try to work on my arm strength this offseason," Miller said. "But it's kind of hard to train to prevent a finger injury." When his arm is healthy, he can dial it up to 95 mph with a plus slider and a solid changeup. He also throws a sinker that can get a ton of ground ball outs when he's not getting swings and misses. He faces an uphill battle to win the fifth starter's job out of spring training, but he likely will be the first in line for a call-up, or he could bide his time in the big league bullpen. On talent, he deserves to be ranked higher, but health and opportunity questions push him down the list.

20. Nyjer Morgan, OF, Pirates

Projected 2008 role: potential starting center fielder/fourth outfielder

Morgan is a riskier pick because of his playing time situation, but there is some great steals upside here. He will battle for the starting center field job during spring training with Nate McLouth, who quietly hit 13 homers and went 22-for-23 on the basepaths in 329 at-bats last season. However, Morgan possesses true game-changing speed, better leadoff skills and potential Gold Glove defense in center field, which might convince the Pirates to give him the job. He stole 33 bases in just 76 games last season, and he didn't miss a beat when thrust into the Pirates' starting lineup over the final month, showing the potential to hit .300 with a decent on-base percentage. "I think I had a better understanding of the mental aspect of the game this past season," Morgan said. "Everything is about consistency day in and day out, and that's what I took away [from my time in the big leagues]." Yes, Andrew McCutchen is coming up fast in the system, but he's not ready for the big leagues yet and likely will see a lot of minor league time this season. Morgan is a definite sleeper, so watch the spring training reports closely. Even as a fourth outfielder, Morgan could be a nice source of cheap speed in single-league play.

Prospects 21-70

Jason Grey is a graduate of the MLB Scouting Bureau's Scout Development Program, and has won two Tout Wars titles, one LABR title, and numerous other national "experts" competitions.