The proof is in the pudding, not the prospects. We just have no empirical proof the top prospects can provide the bang for their buck on draft day. The prospects can wind up suspects, and rookies generally don't make for great picks.
But fantasy owners still love the next big thing, and this year should break in some of the biggest rookies of our generation. Yu Darvish joins from Japan, Bryce Harper may debut for the Nationals as a teenager, and Mike Trout is going to attempt to do what a Salmon (Tim) did for the Angels almost 20 years ago (1993), win AL Rookie of the Year. Oh, and one man named Matt Moore already shutout the two-time AL champion Rangers last postseason and is still rookie-eligible.
This is a class that has some big-time fantasy potential long term, even first-rounder types in the cases of Harper and Trout. The 2012 rookie class might even rival the top-shelf '01 class that introduced Albert Pujols and Ichiro Suzuki to the fantasy annals.
It is this hype that makes attempting to pick these players this spring risky. The odds are they are not going to come at a reasonable value -- unless something like not making the team (Harper might not and Trout won't) drags their draft position in the late rounds. Rookies are best valued to the fantasy owner as a stopgap during the season or a sudden midseason, impact call-up, like Mark Trumbo, Eric Hosmer, Ivan Nova and Jordan Walden were a year ago.
Regardless, the top rookies to target on draft day (Part IV) is a necessary piece of SI.com's six-part series on finding breakouts before they happen or sleepers on draft day. Unlike the 27-year olds, third-year starting pitchers and injury-risk sleepers, we have yet to see a season of these rookies below, so anything can and will result with putting your picks on them.
Here are the top 10 rookies to target on draft day (with MockDraftCentral.com's Average Draft Position):
Harper might not have made a lot of friends along the way, but he still looks every bit as advertised, a long-term star, if not a legend in the making. In order to make it through the hype and expectations you have to be a little bit cocky. If his confidence is any indicator, Harper is going to be great right away. Manager Davy Johnson is determined to have the 19-year-old wunderkind make the team this spring and all it will take is a spring as good as the first a year ago. Harper shouldn't be expected to hit .300, 30 homers or steal 30 bases as a rookie, but he is talented enough that nothing should surprise us. A .290-20-80-80-15 line would do nicely relative to draft position.
Trout is a year older than Harper, but he has worlds more pro experience. The problem is the Angels have a lot of outfielders making a lot of money ahead of him on the depth chart and the future multi-category star is going to have to bide his time in Triple-A to start the season. When he arrives, he can't be expected to be the .300-25-100-120-40 player he projects to be, but even half of that from June on would be a boon to fantasy rosters in any league.
Darvish comes labeled as the best Japanese pitching prospect in history, so naturally you have to see him as a threat to better the numbers of first-year imports Hideo Nomo (13-6, 2.54 with 236 strikeouts in 191 1/3 innings) or Daisuke Matsuzaka (15-12, 4.40 with 201 strikeouts in 204 2/3 innings). If Darvish can beat those numbers, he is going to be the most important rookie picked this spring. With the contending Rangers, he should be able to. Consider him a bargain after the top 100 players are off the board.
If Moore didn't toss that series-opening gem against the Rangers last October, we might have considered Moore a potential bargain on draft day. Instead, he is likely to be the first rookie picked. That makes him a bit dangerous, even if he runs away and wins a rotation spot this spring. Don't get us wrong; Moore has loads of potential in the short and long term, but expecting ace-like numbers out of a rookie pitcher in his first full major league season (when his arm isn't necessarily built up to handle the 200-inning grind) is a risky proposition. Moore is certainly worth considering and can have a Jeremy Hellickson-like AL Rookie of the Year campaign (13-10, 2.95 with 117 strikeouts in 189 innings), but Hellickson was a late-round pick in most formats a season ago. Moore won't come as affordably this draft day.
Montero is a catcher, but he might not qualify there in your league on draft day. You might have to burn your DH spot on him in the draft and until he gains five games behind the plate for the Mariners. He is slated to be their DH and part-time catcher out of spring training, but it could take a month to gain true catcher eligibility (14 games at DH, three games at catcher a year ago). Ignoring the position-eligibility, Montero is going to be a true slugger for fantasy owners. In fact, thinking he can hit .280 with 20 homers might be the low-end of the projection spectrum in his first full major league season.
All rookies are wild cards, but Cespedes might be the toughest one to peg right away. You have to figure the contract the cash-strapped A's gave him makes him a likely job winner this spring, but who knows? Cespedes has decent power, maybe even 25-plus HR potential, and could be an impact player right away, but we should get a good sense in spring if Cespedes is closer to Kendrys Morales than former Met Jorge Toca as far as Cuban import position players go.
If he was going to be given the first shot at the White Sox's closer's role this spring, Reed would be a candidate to perform on the level of 2011 NL Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel, who was the best closer in fantasy as a rookie. Reed has that kind of overwhelming stuff. Matt Thornton might initially win the job for Robin Ventura's White Sox, but Reed will have to be owned in all rotisserie leagues if he makes the team as a setup man. Ultimately, Reed is the White Sox closer of the future, assuming Chris Sale transitions to the rotation as the White Sox project. Watch this position battle very closely through spring and perhaps even in the early going of the season.
Mesoraco is an ideal sleeper for fantasy owners, because many hate picking catchers and tend to save that position for very late on draft day. Well, Mesoraco has the Reds' catcher job to win in spring training (vs. veteran reserve Ryan Hanigan) and can project to hit 20-plus homers annually in that Cincy Great American Bandbox. Mesoraco is one of the few top rookies to actually be a bit under the radar right now.
If the Braves weren't so deep with major league starters and major league ready pitching prospects, Teheran (Tuh-hair-an) might be at the top of this rookies list. Instead, he will have to settle for the No. 7 slot (on this list and in terms of Braves starters behind Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens, Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor and, another rookie, Randall Delgado). Teheran is only seventh because of his age and innings totals (a career-high 165 innings last year). In terms of stuff, talent and Triple-A numbers (15-3, 2.55 with 122 strikeouts in 145 innings), Teheran might be the best prospect in baseball ... albeit one relegated to Triple-A by no fault of his own. He might be seventh entering spring, but he could be the Braves' No. 1 starter by the end of this year.
New Cubs GM Theo Epstein pulled a coup getting Rizzo from the Padres, but Epstein is also commanding manager Dale Sveum to have the Cubs play Bryan LaHair at first base and bat him cleanup. That puts Rizzo back in Triple-A, where he mashed a year ago (. 331-26-101). LaHair, 29 and not rookie eligible, topped that in Triple-A with a .331-38-109-91-2 (..405-. 664) statline. Rizzo is going back to Triple-A to wait for LaHair to falter, or slug his own way to the majors. Rizzo is going to be one of the hottest sluggers to track in the early months in the minors this season, which will make him tough to acquire in-season in deeper leagues. You almost have to draft Rizzo and keep him stashed in hopes he arrives and stars with the rebuilding Cubs.
The Padres made some offseason deals that ostensibly wound up making them choose the gap-hitting Alonso over the arc-swinging slugger Rizzo, who failed in his month-long trial last summer. Alonso has a good strikeout-to-walk rate and the ability to hit .300 in the majors, but his lack of top shelf power and having to hit in spacious Petco Park makes him less intriguing at the first-base position in fantasy. That should make him a bargain, though, so perhaps if you miss out on a big slugger at first, Alonso can be a great fallback option. The Padres are at least committed to him now, because of the high-profile trades they made putting their eggs in his basket.
Spring training always tends to reveal some surprises, like Mike Leake making the Reds rotation two years ago without having ever thrown a professional pitch, or Neftali Feliz stretching out to start but winding right back up as the Rangers' closer (that could happen again, too, right?). With that in mind, here are some rookie pitchers with serious upside. Even if they don't make their team's rotation out of spring, you will want to track them closely in the high levels of the minors in April through May.
RHP Shelby Miller, 21, Cardinals (394) -- Miller showed a power fastball last season that makes him one of the best pitching prospects in baseball. He has more long-term projectability than Moore and perhaps Teheran, too. The reason he isn't near the top of our list is because of the slim chance he has to win a rotation spot out of spring training, but crazier things have happened. If Miller is in the Cardinals rotation, he is a must-have in all leagues.
LHP Drew Pomeranz, 23, Rockies (397) -- He didn't show high-end stuff in his cup of coffee last year, but the Rockies have a burgeoning ace on their hands. He'll come cheap this draft day and might even compete for NL Rookie of the Year honors.
LHP Danny Hultzen, 22, Mariners (436) -- The No. 2 overall pick last June, Hultzen comes with more hype and more of a wide-open rotation spot in Seattle than Leake had in 2010. He is going to be given a chance to win a rotation spot after the trade of Michael Pineda and can be valuable in fantasy before ever throwing an official professional pitch.
RHP Jarrod Parker, 23, Athletics (401) -- Parker wasn't as great as he can be a year ago, but he was recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery, and the D'backs did get a very good young veteran arm in Trevor Cahill for him this winter. If Parker wins a rotation spot this spring, he can be the ace of the A's staff right away.
RHP Jacob Turner, 20, Tigers (441) -- The Tigers don't mess around with young pitchers. If they're healthy and able to throw strikes, they pitch in pennant races. Turner did a year ago, just like Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello did in years prior. Long term, Turner slots somewhere between the two statistically and he can be as valuable as Porcello even this year, whenever his call to the rotation comes for good.
RHP Trevor Bauer, 21, Diamondbacks (464) -- The Diamondbacks considered Bauer a candidate to help after signing his first pro contract last August, but they held him back. They won't do that this spring. He can win a rotation spot if he's ready and has the stuff to get off to a great start in his D'backs debut. Bauer, who broke Mark Prior's Pac-10 strikeout record last year, is more stretched out than most at this stage.
RHP Randall Delgado, 22, Braves (448) -- He doesn't have the ceiling of Teheran or even the readiness of Beachy or Minor, but he figures to be a big part of the Braves' 2012 season, and success. Delgado has a better chance to win the No. 5 starter's spot than Teheran, so we have to keep him on the radar this spring. Watch him closely to see if he can outpitch Minor, or even Beachy, to win a rotation spot.
LHP Wei-Yin Chen, 26, Orioles (408) -- The Orioles imported two Far Eastern pitchers this spring, and since Tsuyoshi Wada, 31, is already dealing with a sore elbow and Chen is closer to the prime age, we will go with Chen as the prospect to have. He will be starting for the Orioles, which doesn't suggest much, but there are a lot of well-regarded pitching prospects in that system (still, despite some struggles a year ago by Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman). If Chen wins a rotation spot, it will say a lot about his potential -- at least enough to not ignore him like so many might with Matusz, Arrieta and Tillman.
There are thousands of minor-leaguers to track and hundreds who can impact fantasy in any given year, so this shouldn't be your last reference to prospects this season. We do a weekly prospect column at SI.com that focuses on the potential impact minor-leaguers and it will be the reference guide for finding the call-ups before they happen.
In the meantime, here are some players who aren't necessarily elite prospects, but could prove fantasy-worthy if they earn a significant amount of at-bats this spring:
SS Zack Cozart, 26, Reds (346) -- The starting shortstop job has been handed to him this spring and he turns 27 this season, so there is plenty of room for a breakthrough here. In fact, as a sleeper of a late-round shortstop with pop in a hitter's park, he probably should be in the top 10 above. A big spring will land him there.
3B Todd Frazier, 26, Reds (NR in Top 500) -- The best news about this potential rookie slugger is that Scott Rolen is old and injury prone. Frazier also happens to have some pop in his bat and could be a great fit in the Reds lineup while hitting in a ballpark that could suit him nicely. Watch Rolen's health closely this spring. Frazier could really work his way into a large role.
SS Tyler Pastornicky, 22, Braves (369) -- He has the starting shortstop job with the Braves to lose this spring and he profiles as a slap-hitting base-stealer that can come in handy in deeper rotisserie formats. He might even develop into a .300-hitter in the majors. His most useful asset initially is the starting opportunity before him, though.
Leonys Martin, 22 (turns 23 March 8), Rangers (459) -- This Cuban import has a chance to earn a full-time starting job as a center fielder for Texas this spring and he profiles as a prototype leadoff man, according to Baseball America. That means walks, steals and not a whole lot of power. Consider him an AL-only rotisserie flier.
C Wilin Rosario, 23, Rockies (442) -- If you miss out on Montero or Mesoraco as potential rookie catcher breakthroughs, you will want to keep an eye on Rosario, who still might make the Rockies and get a significant number of at-bats. The Rockies traded a promising Chris Iannetta this winter to open up the catcher of the future path for Rosario, who can slug 20-plus homers annually.
Norichika Aoki, 30, Brewers (452) -- He is another import you might hear about this spring, but the most important thing you should know is there is little chance he will slot as an everyday player -- particularly with Ryan Braun winning his suspension appeal. He profiles best as a reserve outfielder, but one than that roll the gap and steal a base off the bench for owners in deeper rotisserie leagues.
Finally, there are some prospects whoe going to make our eyes pop out of our heads when we read their daily exploits down on the farm every morning. Many, though, appear a bit young to expect a call-up this season. Things can change quickly when a team has a need, though, so watch these names once the minor league seasons open:
3B Nolan Arenado, 21 (turns 22 April 16), Rockies (487) -- Arenado broke through with huge offensive numbers in hitters' leagues last season. He also wowed scouts in the Arizona Fall League, the annual showcase that tends to put players on the fast track the following season. Arenado is not blocked in Colorado, so if he has a huge spring or a hot start in Double-A, he could become a big-time June call-up.
SS Manny Machado, 19, Orioles (NR in Top 500) -- Machado is perhaps the best prospect with no chance to make the major leagues this season. He started to show his power in Class A last season and projects to be a big-time run producer once he arrives. That is still a year or two away from happening, and he still needs to show some offensive consistency.
Jurickson Profar, 19, Rangers (NR in Top 500) -- Profar had a breakthrough teenage campaign that reminds of the speed-and-power combo at shortstop we saw with a Hanley Ramirez. His numbers are going to look awfully tantalizing, but he won't be called up, like Machado.
We have certainly left some big-time names out, but there will be plenty of time to keep you up to date on who's next in fantasy baseball this season. Enjoy your prospect mining. It is one of the truly great aspects of competing in fantasy baseball.
Eric Mack writes fantasy for SI.com. You can also find him on Twitter, where you can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice @EricMackFantasy. He reads all the messages there (guaranteed) and takes them very, very personally (not really).