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2011 Top 20 Rookies

Rankings compiled by Baseball America staff

Text by John Manuel

As much as Baseball America loves prospects, we love rookies more. It's when prospects turn into big leaguers, when they turn the tassel, walk across that stage and graduate from minor to major leaguer. These 20 players are the ones we want to never again appear in a Prospect Handbook.

1. Jeremy Hellickson, Rays, rhp

Age: 23

Best Case: After getting his feet wet with 36 solid innings a year ago, Hellickson makes a seamless transition into the Rays' rotation. A healthy Hellickson could position himself for a playoff rotation spot if the Rays' offseason gambles pay off. A 190-inning, 15-win season seems within his grasp. 

Worst Case:The Rays' rebuilt bullpen blows some leads, Hellickson's confidence takes a hit and he gives up a few too many homers, relegating him to a fifth starter role or perhaps even yielding his rotation spot to veteran Andy Sonnanstine.

Competition: Sonnanstine.

2. Freddie Freeman, Braves, 1b

Age: 21

Best Case: Freeman ends the Braves' revolving door at first base and becomes a presence in the lineup as the No. 6 hitter. Posting .280/.350/.475 numbers with 15-20 homers would give Atlanta a significant upgrade over recent-vintage first basemen such as Troy Glaus and Scott Thorman.

Worst Case: Freeman started slowly in 2010 and posted a solid but unspectacular .723 OPS against lefthanded pitchers. Another slow start and poor platoon splits could render Freeman a part-time player.

Competition: Joe Mather, Eric Hinske.

3. Aroldis Chapman, Reds, lhp

Age: 23

Best Case: The Reds ease Chapman into his first full big league season as a middle reliever, but Chapman's dominance either convinces the Reds to put him in the rotation, where he has more value, or as Francisco Cordero's replacement as the closer.

Worst Case: Chapman displayed a wild streak in 2010, understandable considering he throws harder than anyone alive. If that returns in 2011, it's hard to see him picking up high-leverage innings for a team that won the National League Central last season and is a strong contender again in '11.

Competition: Cincinnati's entire rotation, Cordero.

4. Domonic Brown, Phillies, of

Age: 23

Best Case: Brown shakes off his winter ball blues (he went 2-for-29 in the Dominican), hits the ground running after returning from his hand injury and provides the Phillies' aging, streaky lineup with a youthful jolt of energy. With his strike-zone judgment, Brown should approach an .800 OPS with 10-15 homers as a rookie.

Worst Case: Brown's rough edges show up against lefthanders and on defense, his broken hand sets him bacck, and the Phillies' overly-lefthanded lineup prompts manager Charlie Manuel to use veteran Ben Francisco more often in right field than Brown.

Competition: Francisco, John Mayberry Jr.

5. Mike Minor, Braves, lhp

Age: 23

Best Case: Minor's velocity jumped back up into the low 90s for much of 2010 as he threw more four-seam fastballs than he had in college and thrived by working off the pitch. With the improved, sustained velocity, a strong changeup and sharper breaking stuff than he showed in the minors, Minor emerges as a strong No. 5 starter.

Worst Case: As Atlanta's only lefty in the rotation, he'll have a long rope. But Brandon Beachy showed in a September callup that he's almost ready for prime time as well. If Minor's stuff is more 2009 Vanderbilt than 2010 minors, he loses his rotation spot to Beachy or eventually top prospect Julio Teheran.

Competition: Beachy, Terehan, Kenshin Kawakami

6. Kyle Drabek, Blue Jays, rhp

Age: 23

Best Case: After getting his feet wet in September, Drabek earns a spot in Toronto's youthful rotation from Day One and holds it all year. He'll have to polish up his changeup this spring, but if he does, he should be able to get strikeouts with his plus fastball and wipeout curveball.

Worst Case: Drabek's future as a starter hinges on the changeup. The Jays do have some rotation depth, though, so it's possible that Drabek might be shifted to the bullpen if he struggles against lefthanded hitters. His top two pitches give him a chance to thrive in that role, but the Jays could use a top-flight starter more than a top closer.

Competition: Jesse Litsch, Marc Rzepczynski, Zach Stewart, Brad Mills, Jo-Jo Reyes

7. Danny Espinosa, Nationals, 2b

Age: 23

Best Case: Espinosa got plenty of playing time late in 2010 and has the power that makes him a good fit offensively for second base, slugging .447 and hitting more homers (six) in his 103 at-bats than the rest of the Nats' starters at second combined (five). Healthy, he provides both pop and better defense at second than predecessors Cristian Guzman and Adam Kennedy.

Worst Case: Espinosa was strikeout-prone in 2010 (30 in the majors, 116 in 481 minor league at-bats), and needs to make better contact for his bat to play in Washington. But his opportunity is as clear-cut as anyone on this list.

Competition: Alberto Gonzalez, Alex Cora.

8. Chris Sale, White Sox, lhp

Age: 22

Best Case: Sale hit 100 mph with his fastball in the majors, and the White Sox have plenty of power arms to go with him on the South Side this year. If the White Sox need him—for example, in case of another Jake Peavy injury—Sale's three pitches make him an X-factor for their rotation. Otherwise, he forms a potent power-lefty combo in the bullpen with Matt Thornton.

Worst Case: Sale's just going through his first spring training; it wouldn't be a shock if he endures a dead-arm period or finds big leaguers tougher to dominate now that there's a scouting book on him. Some minor league time to adjust to the rotation could be in the offing.

Competition: Lucas Harrell (rotation), Will Ohman (bullpen)

9. Craig Kimbrel, Braves, rhp

Age: 22

Best Case: Tested in the crucible of the postseason last year, Kimbrel comes out tougher and nails down Atlanta's closer role. He teams with Jonny Venters to give Atlanta an inexpensive power duo at the back of the bullpen and keys another Braves playoffs run.

Worst Case: Kimbrel had bouts of wildness in the minors, and walks are a no-no for closers. Venters has more experience and closer stuff, and veterans such as Scott Linebrink and George Sherrill have enough closing experience for Kimbrel to be sent down to Triple-A if he can't find the strike zone.

Competition: Venters, Linebrink, Sherrill

10. Jesus Montero, Yankees, c/dh

Age: 21

Best Case: The Yankees' aging lineup could use some righthanded thump to complement Alex Rodriguez. Montero slugged better than .500 each of the last two years in the minors, with 38 home runs. With Francisco Cervelli injured, Montero plays passable defense, push his way past Russell Martin as the Yanks' primary catcher and posts 300-400 productive at-bats.

Worst Case: Russell Martin is healthy and hits, the Yankees' starting pitching is shaky enough that a rookie can't be trusted to handle them, and Montero's own receiving and staff-handling skills require more Triple-A seasoning.

Competition: Martin, Cervelli, Jorge Posada

11. Brandon Belt, Giants, 1b/of

Age: 22

Best Case: With his defensive chops at first base and enough athleticism (and arm strength) to play left field, Belt hits his way to San Francisco. It may take a month in the minors, as it did last year for Buster Posey, but Belt provides a lefthanded punch that only Aubrey Huff (who plays the same positions) can match in the Giants' lineup.

Worst Case: Belt has played just 59 games above Class A, with just 13 in Triple-A. The Giants have plenty of veteran pieces in the outfield corners, and if Belt doesn't burst from the gates like he did in 2010, he may not see San Francisco before September.

Competition: Mark DeRosa, Pat Burrell, Travis Ishikawa, Nate Schierholtz, Cody Ross

12. Mike Moustakas, Royals, 3b

Age: 22

Best Case: Wilson Betemit hits enough early to be traded, and veteran Pedro Feliz doesn't hit enough to be a factor. In either scenario, Moustakas rakes after a midseason promotion and serves notice to Royals fans that significant help is not too far away.

Worst Case: Betemit is just fine while Moustakas has poor luck with his high-contact, low-walk approach. It's possible that the thrifty Royals could keep Moustakas on the farm all year in the interest of starting his arbitration clock as late as possible.

Competition: Betemit, Feliz, Mike Aviles.

13. Desmond Jennings, Rays, of

Age: 24

Best Case: Jennings is on this list for a second time, and a hand injury compromised his power in 2010. Healthier, Jennings shows enough pop to warrant a spot in Tampa, which decides it needs his speed in right field to help make up for the free agent loss of Carl Crawford in left.

Worst Case: The Rays lost a lot of offense in Crawford and Carlos Pena and will need lineup-wide contributions to make up for it. If the power drain Jennings experienced last year (.393 slugging in Triple-A) was no fluke, he'll spend the season on the Durham-to-Tampa shuttle.

Competition:  Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist.

14. Brent Morel, White Sox, 3b

Age: 23

Best Case: Morel provides steady, at times spectacular defense at third base, especially when staff leader Mark Buehrle (the White Sox's only lefthander), is on the mound. A .270/.340/.440 line wouldn't be all-star worthy, but it would help Morel do a nifty Joe Crede impersonation.

Worst Case: The White Sox's lineup leans heavily to the right. Manager Ozzie Guillen could see enough in veterans Omar Vizquel and Mark Teahen to keep them as the big league platoon while sending Morel out for more seasoning at Triple-A.

Competition: Teahen, Vizquel

15. Michael Pineda, Mariners, rhp

Age: 22

Best Case: Pineda seizes a spot in the Mariners' rotation from Day One and provides a power complement to ace Felix Hernandez and a staff of relative soft-tossers. With injury-prone veteran Erik Bedard and Triple-A veterans such as Luke French and David Pauley on hand, Pineda has a clear path to 20-30 starts.

Worst Case: Pineda has just 12 starts above Double-A, and has never thrown more than 140 innings in a minor league season. The Mariners could hold him back to evaluate their veterans and push back Pineda's arbitration clock, limiting him to 10-12 big league starts.

Competition: French, Pauley, Nate Robertson.

16. Jake McGee, Rays, lhp

Age: 24

Best Case: The 2004 draft already has produced 40 percent of the Rays' rotation (Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis), and McGee seems poised to permanently join them in Tampa. He's the hardest-throwing lefty in the system and pitched well out of the bullpen, with 33 strikeouts in his last 22 innings overall.

Worst Case: J.P. Howell bounces back healthy and earns the closer role, and veterans such as Kyle Farnsworth and fellow '04 draftee Andy Sonnanstine hold down the Tampa bullpen. The Rays could hold McGee back for more Triple-A experience, or to save him for the stretch run.

Competition: Farnsworth, Sonnanstine, Cesar Ramos, Adam Russell

17. J.P. Arencibia, Blue Jays, c

Age: 25

Best Case: A free swinger, Arencibia showed improved patience in Triple-A last season and carries that over to his first full major league season. He'll never be mistaken for Gene Tenace, but his power to all fields and average defensive tools keep him in the lineup as a solid regular. 

Worst Case: If Arencibia can't control the strike zone a bit better, more advanced pitchers will carve him up, as was the case in September (5-for-35 MLB debut). He has to hit to stick in the lineup, as his glove won't match that of veteran Jose Molina.

Competition: Molina, Ryan Budde

18. Cory Luebke, Padres, lhp

Age: 26

Best Case: It's hard for Luebke to be more prepared, as he's thrown more than 430 minor league innings with a 3.49 career ERA, and he made three solid starts in September last season. Healthy, he should push for 30 starts in the Padres' rotation.

Worst Case: Luebke resembles the more experienced Wade LeBlanc in polish and repertoire, and while he throws harder, he has more to prove than LeBlanc. A strong spring by veteran Aaron Harang could push Luebke and LeBlanc to compete for only one spot.

Competition: LeBlanc, Harang.

19. Jordan Walden, Angels, rhp

Age: 23

Best Case: Walden emerges as one of the game's hardest throwers and emerges as the Angels' new Bobby Jenks, a power-armed closer that they didn't let get away. A confident Walden could replace Fernando Rodney and rack up saves.

Worst Case: Walden walked a batter every other inning a year ago, his first as a closer. His inexperience and bouts of wildness could relegate him to low-leverage, middle-relief duty, particularly if he doesn't improve his secondary stuff.

Competition: Jason Bulger, Michael Kohn, Bobby Cassevah, Kevin Jepsen, Rich Thompson.

20. Dustin Ackley, Mariners, 2b

Age: 23

Best Case: Ackley consolidates the second-half gains he made in 2010 and becomes the hitting machine he was at North Carolina. As his defense catches up to his offense, Ackley forces Brendan Ryan to the bench and gives the Mariners a third contact-oriented speed bat in the lineup to go with Ichiro Suzuki and Chone Figgins.

Worst Case: Ackley's glove proves not ready for Safeco, especially when contrasted with those of Ryan and Jack Wilson. If Ackley can't handle the middle infield defensively, another position switch (to the outfield) may be in the offing.

Competition: Ryan, Figgins.