Not all the best players make the opening day roster. Not all the best pickups are of immediate value. Rather than settle for second-rate production commensurate with the sort you could find on the waiver wire, sometimes it makes more sense to stash away a prospect in the hopes of a big payoff later.
But you have to be selective about it. You don't know for sure when that prospect will get the call, and you don't know for sure that he'll be impactful when he does. If you devote too many roster spots to prospects or dig in your heels for one in particular, an entire procession of breakthrough talent could pass you by.
I think these 12 are enough to get us started. Naturally, they don't all need to be drafted in every league. In leagues where fewer than 300 players are rostered, I probably wouldn't bother with any of them. I also want to stress that these 12 are only to get us started. Younger, higher-upside prospects like Elly De La Cruz, Zac Veen and Jasson Dominguez could shorten their timetables in short order, leapfrogging some of these players. That's why I'll be keeping you updated with a Prospects Report throughout the year.
If you're wondering why I've omitted Jordan Walker, Anthony Volpe and Oscar Colas, it's because I think they have a good enough shot at making the opening day roster that I don't want to confine them to a "stash" list. Suffice it to say if they're sent to the minors, they'll shoot to the top of this list.
I should also note that the recently demoted Vaughn Grissom, while indeed a minor-leaguer, technically isn't a prospect because he has too many big-league at-bats already. I suspect he'll be the Braves shortstop sooner than not, though, and would place him no lower than third on this list if he qualified.
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1) Sal Frelick, OF, Brewers
2022 minors: .331 BA (492 AB), 11 HR, 24 SB, .883 OPS, 52 BB, 63 K
The hype for Frelick may seem overblown given that he's lacking in the most fundamental Fantasy skill, power hitting. But he's so talented in every other way, specializing in those categories that are most difficult to fill late, that he'll soon be a godsend in five-outfielder leagues especially. He offers more assurances than the typical prospect, having already mastered Triple-A with a .365 (69 for 189) batting average and more walks (19) than strikeouts (16) in 46 games. His 70-grade speed will allow him to feast on the new pickoff limitations, and his plate discipline is tailor-made for the leadoff spot. Plus, right field is already looking like a trouble spot for the Brewers.
2) Brandon Pfaadt, SP, Diamondbacks
2022 minors: 11-7, 3.83 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 167 IP, 33 BB, 218 K
Pfaadt was the best of the pitchers competing for the fifth starter job this spring, striking out 15 in 12 innings with a 3.75 ERA, but the Diamondbacks have nonetheless asked him to wait his turn, presumably because he's not on the 40-man roster yet. They're currently devoting rotation spots to a fading Madison Bumgarner and ever-dim Zach Davies, so if they're at all in the hunt early, Pfaadt likely forces the issue. He's already done some amazing things in the minors, his 218 strikeouts last year representing the most for any minor-leaguer since 2001. He also delivered a 2.63 ERA at the same hitter-friendly level (Triple-A Reno) where Ryne Nelson had a 5.43 ERA and Drey Jameson a 6.95 ERA.
3) Brett Baty, 3B, Mets
2022 minors: .315 BA (362 AB), 19 HR, .943 OPS, 49 BB, 104 K
Helping Baty's case is that he's eligible at what figures to be the most painful position for anyone who didn't make an early-round investment in it. Multiple somebodies in your league will be dying for third base help by the hope he's up -- which, to be fair, could still be opening day. Ultimately, I think Eduardo Escobar's big September after recovering from an oblique injury grants him a temporary reprieve, but he's gotten some exposure to left field this spring, perhaps in anticipation of shifting to a utility role. Baty impressed in the little we saw of him last year, delivering superlative exit velocities, even against fellow left-handers, and striking out at just a 19 percent rate.
4) Francisco Alvarez, C, Mets
2022 minors: .260 BA (411 AB), 27 HR, .885 OPS, 70 BB, 123 K
The Mets gave Alvarez a glimpse of the majors late last year but didn't give him an honest chance this spring. They're not ready to entrust a major-league staff to him and want to further his development behind the plate rather than confine him to DH. Fair enough, but the underlying presumption is that his bat is already big-league ready at age 21, which is an exciting thought at a position known for anemic offense. My own presumption is that they'll eventually get to a point where they're willing to let him do some on-the-job learning, splitting his time between catcher and DH, presumably once some of their aging bats succumb to injury. They do have championship aspirations, after all.
5) Matt Mervis, 1B, Cubs
2022 minors: .309 BA (512 AB), 36 HR, 40 2B, .984 OPS, 50 BB, 107 K
After a meteoric rise through the Cubs' system last year and an equally impressive showing in the Arizona Fall League, Mervis has scuffled his way through March, making a minimal contribution in the Cactus League and going just 1 for 13 for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic. Early in the offseason, he looked like he'd be one of the Rookie of the Year front-runners, but the hype died down soon after the Cubs signed Eric Hosmer and Trey Mancini. There wasn't much riding on Mervis' spring performance, in other words, but Hosmer is only a speed bump if the 24-year-old picks up where he left off at Triple-A, delivering massive power numbers with surprising contact skills.
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6) Edouard Julien, 2B, Twins
2022 minors: .300 BA (400 AB), 17 HR, 19 SB, .931 OPS, 98 BB, 125 K
While the World Baseball Classic didn't do much to raise Mervis' profile, it did wonders for Julien, who hit .538 (7 for 13) with two homers and two doubles for Team Canada. He also walked five times in four games, which is what he does best, so much that I've taken to calling him the French Emperor of Walks as a nod to Kevin Youkilis' Moneyball-inspired nickname. In two minor-league seasons, Julien has a .437 on-base percentage. He legitimately hits the ball hard, too, so this isn't another Cavan Biggio in the making. Best of all, the Twins have left themselves pretty thin around the infield after dealing away Luis Arraez and Gio Urshela this offseason.
7) Christian Encarnacion-Strand, 3B, Reds
2022 minors: .304 BA (484 AB), 32 HR, .955 OPS, 40 BB, 137 K
Arguably the biggest riser of spring training, Encarnacion-Strand looked like he might force his way into the starting lineup with a .577 (16 for 26) batting average and four home runs. And these weren't your ordinary home runs. One of them looked like this:
Oh my, Christian Encarnacion-Strand! Where did this ball land? pic.twitter.com/O5WmjUSeQp— MLB (@MLB) March 4, 2023
Of course, the 23-year-old's power wasn't in question given that he homered 32 times between High-A and Double-A, driving in 114 runs in just 122 games. Most impressive is that he struck out just twice in 12 games, showing an improved focus that might propel him to new heights offensively. Encarnacion-Strand's opening day hopes came to an abrupt end once Joey Votto declared himself fully recovered from offseason biceps and rotator cuff surgery, but the former MVP is clearly playing out the string now at age 39.
8) Logan O'Hoppe, C, Angels
2022 minors: .283 BA (360 AB), 26 HR, .961 OPS, 70 BB, 74 K
The presumption even dating back to last September was that O'Hoppe would open the year as the primary catcher, but with catcher depth being hard to find, it sounds like the Angels are unwilling to forfeit Matt Thaiss to make it happen. Thaiss is out of minor-league options, so he and Max Stassi will split the role while O'Hoppe stays incubated at Triple-A. As with Grissom for the Braves, though, this seems like a very temporary arrangement, and O'Hoppe figures to keep the pressure on after hitting. 283 with 26 homers and a .416 on-base percentage in 104 games at Double-A last year. The one complication is that the stash may only be worth it in two-catcher leagues.
9) Gavin Stone, SP, Dodgers
2022 minors: 9-6, 1.48 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 121 2/3 IP, 44 BB, 168 K
Stone brought a bananas changeup to work with him in his latest spring outing Sunday, striking out eight over three scoreless innings of relief. His ERA across three levels last year looks like a typo, and yet the most impressive number of all is that he allowed just three home runs, inducing weak contact with a deep and thoughtful arsenal while also averaging 12.4 K/9.
Gavin Stone's 8Ks in 3 innings. 😯— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) March 20, 2023
That changeup is gonna be a problem. pic.twitter.com/AlfrjBgh0O
There are a couple names ahead of him in the pecking order, but Clayton Kershaw and Dustin May are no strangers to injury, with Noah Syndergaard being something of a wild card himself. The 24-year-old Stone will be primed to step in, and he threw enough innings in 2022 to last deep into the year.
10) Colton Cowser, OF, Orioles
2022 minors: .278 BA (510 AB), 19 HR, 18 SB, .874 OPS, 94 BB, 174 K
Cowser was drafted fifth overall in 2021, so it stands to reason he'd move quickly. As a 23-year-old who's already made a mockery of Double-A, batting .341 with a 1.037 OPS in 49 games there last year, he has a case to be in the lineup now. The problem is that the Orioles are fairly accomplished around the outfield -- with Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander currently occupying spots -- so it might take an injury to clear the way for Cowser. Then again, Santander in particular is no stranger to those, and he might be better served moving to DH. My hunch is the Orioles will find a way once Cowser has definitively mastered Triple-A.
11) Curtis Mead, 3B, Rays
2022 minors: .298 BA (282 AB), 13 HR, 27 2B, .922 OPS, 36 BB, 62 K
Mead was limited this spring after an elbow injury shut him down early last year, but he still managed to make an impression with a two-homer game on March 4. The Aussie is everything a team could want in a hitter, drilling line drives all over the field with good enough exit velocities to send some over the fence, but he's so limited defensively that finding at-bats for him could prove to be a challenge. Never underestimate the Rays' creativity, though. They're as much in the hunt as ever and could use a little more firepower in their lineup. Harold Ramirez or Isaac Paredes could easily step aside if Mead is bringing the hammer at Triple-A Durham.
12) Michael Busch, 2B, Dodgers
2022 minors: .274 BA (552 AB), 32 HR, .881 OPS, 74 BB, 167 K
I thought by now the 25-year-old Busch would have already gotten some run in the majors. In fact, he occupied the No. 10 spot on this list a year ago. But the Dodgers have moved him at a deliberate pace even as he's continued to impress with his power and plate discipline. It's a Max Muncy-like profile, and the Dodgers may have need for another such player given how thin they've spread themselves in the infield. The Gavin Lux injury has already exposed this weakness. Still, the team seems committed to a youth movement this year and is more likely than ever to fill its needs internally. Miguel Vargas could shift to third base or left field if and when Busch's services are required.