Rival managers in your fantasy league already know about the top hitting prospects in the minors, so you won’t beat them to the punch on players like Byron Buxton, Kris Bryant or Carlos Correa. However, in simulation formats that factor defensive ability, such as Strat-O-Matic or Diamond Mind, the shrewd manager can maximize value in the draft by identifying players who can both hit and field a critical position.
That’s not to say that Buxton, Bryant and Correa don’t supply defensive value (because the opposite is true). Correa, in particular, continues to attract attention for his plus glove and plus arm, having won successive best defensive shortstop honors in our Best Tools surveys for the Midwest (2013) and California (2014) leagues.
Unless a sim league manager holds a top draft pick, though, he won’t have access to the elite prospects. That’s OK, because here we’re going to provide a dozen alternatives, all of whom are up-the-middle prospects who project to be above-average defenders and at-least-average hitters. This way you can draft with confidence in Strat or DM leagues, knowing that in most seasons the player will contribute on both sides of the ball. (Please note that not all of these players will excel in Roto fantasy formats, however, because that format doesn’t account for defensive contributions.)
Every player included here entered the season in good standing, ranking as the top defensive catcher, infielder or outfielder in his organization, as per the 2014 Prospect Handbook, and if a player won a defensive category in this year’s Best Tools survey, that’s noted too. Players are presented in alphabetical order.
Albert Almora, cf, Cubs
• Best Defensive Outfielder: Florida State League
Almora never has walked much, but the 2012 first-rounder makes a ton of hard contact with a short, quick righthanded stroke. Some scouts grade him as a future plus hitter, though with below-average power and average run times, he’s more of a table-setter than middle-of-the-order force. A quick first step helps Almora excel in center field, where he has Gold Glove potential. Currently adjusting to the level of competition at Double-A Tennessee, he is at least a year away from reaching Chicago.
J.P. Crawford, ss, Phillies
A lefthanded-hitting shortstop who makes plenty of contact and controls the strike zone, Crawford has stood out this season almost more for his athleticism and defensive play. The 2013 first-rounder carries a .290 average across two Class A levels this season, draws his share of walks and projects as a plus defender with a strong, accurate arm. He looks like a first-division starter at this point, though he’s about two years away from the majors as he plays at high Class A Clearwater.
Austin Hedges, c, Padres
• Best Defensive Catcher: Texas League
One of the finest catching prospects in the minors, Hedges receives easy plus grades for his receiving, blocking, quick release, arm strength and accuracy. Like most young catchers, though, his bat requires further development. Don’t lose faith even in what’s shaping up to be a lost year at the plate. Hedges just turned 22 and plays at Double-A San Antonio, where he has shown a quick, line-drive hitting approach that ought to translate into better results down the line.
Francisco Lindor, ss, Indians
• Best Defensive Shortstop: Eastern League
Lindor, who checked in at No. 6 on the Midseason Top 50 ranking, is a smart shortstop who projects as a plus defender despite lacking overwhelming raw speed, range or arm strength. That’s how highly evaluators regard his actions, instincts and plus hands. The 2011 first-rounder is a solid fundamental player who grades as an at-least-average hitter who will draw walks, hit the ball to the gaps and steal bases. The switch-hitting Lindor recently received a promotion to Triple-A Columbus, so look for him in Cleveland next season.
Deven Marrero, ss, Red Sox
Marrero’s stock is on the rise after batting .291/.371/.433 in 68 games at Double-A Portland this season, though the 2012 first-rounder has struggled mightily following a promotion to Triple-A. Give him time to adjust to that level (and the majors) and the potential to hit for average, get on base and attack the gaps is there. It’s on defense that Marrero really shines, however, with plus range, plus arm strength, plus agility and the ability to hold down shortstop for a long time.
Reese McGuire, c, Pirates
• Best Defensive Catcher: South Atlantic League
Those sim managers willing to play the long game may one day be rewarded with a first-division catcher if they pick up McGuire now. Just as scouts project pitchers to add velocity as they mature, they too project young catchers with good swings to improve their feel to hit. So while McGuire has a .630-something OPS as a 19-year-old at low Class A now, he has the line-drive, lefty swing to hit for average and gap power down the line. No need to worry about his defensive ability, arm or agility, because they all project to be plus.
Raul A. Mondesi, ss, Royals
The Royals aggressively pushed the 19-year-old Mondesi to high Class A Wilmington this year, but his bat wasn’t quite ready for the jump. Case in point: He has hit a meager .197 in 203 at-bats since the Carolina League all-star break. Mondesi draws praise from scouts, though, because of his cannon arm and double-plus range and speed. He must make more contact to reach his ceiling as an average hitter with gap power, though the refinement process could take several years.
Joc Pederson, cf, Dodgers
With enough range to handle center field in the big leagues, enough power to hit in the middle of the lineup and enough speed to swipe 20 bases, Pederson is one of the more intriguing power/speed prospects in the game. Just as strikeouts have been a problem for toolsy predecessors such as Colby Rasmus and George Springer, Pederson too will see his value fluctuate from year to year based on production on contact. On the plus side, he doesn’t have a below-average tool, which gives him a higher floor than many prospects.
J.T. Realmuto, c, Marlins
• Best Defensive Catcher: Southern League
A unanimous selection as best defensive catcher in the Southern League, Realmuto is a young backstop who is only just beginning to blossom. He has improved every facet of his game at Double-A Jacksonville this season—walking more, striking out less and hitting for more power—while improving his blocking and game-calling enough to earn the trust of big league manager Mike Redmond when the Marlins called on him for a trial run in June. Of particular note: Realmuto has toned down his swing this season to stay middle-field and not spin off the ball.
Luis Sardinas, ss, Rangers
Much like Raul A. Mondesi, Sardinas is a young, switch-hitting Latin American shortstop who excites scouts with plus speed, range and arm strength. He makes steady contact and can impact the game by stealing a key base or by making a crucial defensive stop. He’s a career .288 hitter in the minors despite being promoted rapidly, so most scouts expect that Sardinas will one day hit for average.
Summoned to the big leagues this month, Taylor blasted 22 homers and stole 35 bases in the minors, mostly at Double-A Harrisburg, which goes a long way toward explaining his appeal to evaluators. The converted infielder also is a fine defensive center fielder, earning plus grades for his range, speed and arm strength. As with Joc Pederson, frequency of contact will play a large role in Taylor’s success or failure in the majors, but scouts are betting his bat speed and strike-zone judgment will win out.
Tyrone Taylor, cf, Brewers
Taylor leads the Florida State League in hits, doubles and extra-base hits at high Class A Brevard County, so he might not be a sleeper prospect for much longer. He barrels the ball consistently and doesn’t strike out excessively, giving him a chance to hit for average with gap power. Taylor already draws plus grades for his range, speed and arm strength, making him a strong candidate for a long big league career as a righty-hitting, on-base-oriented starter.
Keep An Eye On
The following two prospects merit attention for their defensive acumen and raw power, but they must first prove they can hit to profile as major league starters.
Justin O’Conner, c, Rays
• Best Defensive Catcher: Florida State League
Evaluators fall in love with O’Conner’s defensive game. He has perhaps the best catcher’s arm in the minors—he’s nabbed 52 percent of basestealers this season—and he blocks and receives the ball with aplomb. Whether he can hit for average has been an open question, but O’Conner has enjoyed his finest offensive season in 2014, batting .283/.322/.475 with 46 extra-base hits in 92 games, mostly at high Class A Charlotte. His strikeout rate continues to shrink with experience, helping him get to above-average power more frequently.
Bubba Starling, cf, Royals
• Best Defensive Outfielder: Carolina League
Nothing has come easy for Starling since he signed for $7.5 million as the fifth pick in the 2011 draft. He has hit just .238 in more than 1,200 career plate appearances—thanks to sky-high strikeout rates and trouble with breaking pitches—though his secondary skills (power, patience) are intriguing. Starling will continue to get chances because he’s a ball hawk in center field, with easy plus range, arm strength and accuracy, but don’t make him a priority target just yet.