There is a lot of hype building around Texans Rangers rookie Wyatt Langford, who homered three times between Friday and Saturday's games and is now hitting .353/.450/.882 in his first six spring games so far. Last year's No. 4 overall pick tore through the minors after getting drafted, hitting 10 homers and stealing 12 bases in 44 games, while walking 36 times to just 34 strikeouts on his way up to Triple-A. There are questions about whether he's going to break camp with the Rangers, but he might just force their hands – and Fantasy players' hands, too. 

I've got Langford in the top 120 of my rankings right now, in the same range as other high-end prospects like Jackson Chourio and Evan Carter, who we're expecting to crack the Opening Day roster, and Langford might just be the best prospect of the group. And I've seen more than one excited Fantasy analyst say something to the effect of, "This might be your last chance to draft Langford outside of the first round for the next half-decade." 

And I agree, it might. So, today, we're going to take a look at 10 players being drafted outside the first few rounds in most leagues right now (most of them well outside the first few rounds) who could play their way into the first-round discussion this time next year. And we're starting with Langford, but you can just consider him as a stand-in for Chourio, Carter, Jackson Holliday, and the other elite prospects looking to make the Opening Day roster. 

Next Year's First-Round Contenders

Mar 1, 2024; Scottsdale, Arizona, USA; Texas Rangers left fielder Wyatt Langford (82) bats against the San Francisco Giants during the third inning at Scottsdale Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports IMAGN

Wyatt Langford, OF, Rangers

What does it look like? In BaseballProspectus' top prospects write-up, their "reckless Fantasy comp" for Langford was Ryan Braun, who had 34 homers, 15 steals, and 188 combined runs and RBI in just 113 games as a rookie. 

I don't expect Langford or any other rookie to be that good, but it's not out of the realm of possibility for players who are this supremely talented. Fernando Tatis and Acuña were first-round type contributors as rookies, and Bobby Witt was being drafted as one this time a year ago despite not playing quite at that level in his first season. And, as I wrote earlier in the spring, when rookie top prospects get pushed into the top-100 in ADP, they tend to be very good bets for Fantasy – from 2014 through 2023, the nine rookies with an ADP between 50 and 100 were worth $18.36 on average in 5x5 leagues, compared to $7.3 for all players drafted in that range in the same time period. Even if Langford, Jackson Chourio, Jackson Holliday, and Evan Carter don't play their way into the first-round discussion for 2025, history suggests they're still likely to be very good buys for Fantasy. 

Elly De La Cruz, SS, Reds

What does it look like? He does his best Acuña impersonation. We're talking a realistic 30-60 ceiling, which is pretty bonkers, because Acuña and Corbin Carroll are the only players to ever go even 25-50 before. And neither 30 nor 60 is likely De La Cruz's ceiling. 

De La Cruz had major holes in his game as a rookie, there's no question about it. He hit just .191/.272/.355 after the All-Star break, and was completely lost against left-handed pitching, hitting .184/.231/.263 with a 40% strikeout rate against them. And yet, his 162-game pace was 21 homers, 58 steals, and 184 runs-plus-RBI. He might be in Triple-A by June, but he might be top-five in MVP voting by October. There might be no player with a wide range of outcomes, but a first-round ADP in 2025 is well within that range. 

Luis Robert, OF, White Sox

What does it look like? He just does it again, right? There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about Robert, with his lengthy injury history and what could be a truly dreadful White Sox lineup around him. But he was also a top-18 player last year despite his lowest batting average since 2020. 

Robert's quality of contact took a big step forward in 2023, with a career-best .471 expected wOBA on contact that largely backs up the career-high 38 homers. He had to trade some contact to get there, with his worst strikeout rate (28.9%) since he was a rookie. If he can consolidate that quality of contact gains with some improvement in strikeout rate, Robert has a pretty obvious path to first-round value … if he stays healthy. He played 145 games last season, but has also been on the IL six times in four seasons, and had trouble staying healthy in the minors before that. Without that injury track record, Robert might be a second-rounder in all drafts right now. 

Gunnar Henderson, 3B, Orioles

What does it look like? What if they just built the entire season around the second half? Henderson was a pretty significant disappointment for much of his first full season, as he was hitting just .246/.342/.455 at the All-Star break. But his underlying numbers suggested better days were ahead, and they were certainly proven right.

Henderson's post-ASB 162-game pace looked like this: .264 average, 130 runs, 34 homers, 104 RBI, and 11 steals. He's got a bit of swing-and-miss in his game, enough that it's probably not reasonable to expect a .290 batting average from him, but he could be a legitimate four-category superstar, especially if he turns that 86th percentile sprint speed into more like 20 steals. He might be what we hoped Bo Bichette would be. 

Cody Bellinger, OF, Cubs

What does it look like? What if he taps back into the power he used to have? I don't think it's reasonable to expect anything close to 47 homers again like he had in 2019, but could he get to 35? His 162-game pace last season was 32, after all. 

Now, I'm pretty skeptical about Bellinger's 2023 numbers, as you should know by now. But, because of the improvements he made in his contact rate last season, he could be a very, very good source of batting average again, with 25-steal upside. He's another one who needs to consolidate the gains he made last season while building on them, but he was already the No. 12 player in Roto leagues despite missing 32 games. Another healthy season with better underlying skill metrics could get him back in that discussion. 

Oneil Cruz, SS, Pirates

What does it look like? Is there a comp for what a fully realized version of Cruz might be? He's a 6-foot-7 shortstop who was in the 98th percentile in sprint speed two years ago and hit the hardest ball in Statcast history. 30-30 is on the table, with the raw power for  40-homer upside if he can get the right combination of flyball rate and contact rate.

Last season, Francisco Lindor was a top-10 player in Fantasy despite hitting .254. He needed 31 homers and 31 steals to get there, plus 206 combined runs and RBI, and honestly, it's the run production that might be the biggest hurdle. Cruz is unproven at the MLB level, but he clearly has top of the scale raw power, and his athleticism is solid-plus, at least. But he's in a tough hitter's park and the Pirates aren't at the point where the lineup around him is even as good as the Mets were last season. But, for what Cruz can control, there's a first-round ceiling. 

Nolan Jones, OF, Rockies

What does it look like? What if he's just the next Car-Go? Carlos Gonzalez never struck out quite as much as Jones did last season, but he did have one season where he hit .302 despite a 27.1% strikeout rate because he hit the ball extremely hard and played half his games at Coors Field. Jones hits the ball extremely hard and also plays half his games at Coors Field, and while a repeat of last year's .401 BABIP seems unlikely, four of the top 26 BABIP seasons over the past 20 years have come at Coors Field, and there have been six in that span of at least .375 among qualifiers. In the Statcast era, Rockies hitters on the whole have also outperformed their expected BA by .018, which means Jones' .249 xBA from last season should probably have been more like .267. 

Which is to say, he might just hit .280 or .290 next season even if he keeps striking out a ton – it wouldn't be that much of an outlier. And Jones looks like a legit 30-homer guy, and 30 steals might not be asking too much – he had 20 of each in just 106 games last season. A .280 average with 30-30 is something only one hitter (Acuña) pulled off last season, and even if you lower the threshold to 25-25, you only add Kyle Tucker and Corbin Carroll … so, three first-rounders. This one's easy to see coming to fruition. 

Am I too low on Nolan Jones? 

Esteury Ruiz, OF, Athletics

What does it look like? What if he's just … bad as a hitter? Ruiz stole 60 bases in his 114 starts last season, despite 30 of them coming as the No. 9 hitter. That's an 85-steal pace, a mark nobody has hit at the MLB level since Rickey Henderson in 1988. Ruiz was a top-60 player in Roto last season despite starting just 70% of the A's games. 

And, he did it despite hitting just .254 with five homers and a pace of fewer than 60 runs and RBI. Ruiz is probably never going to be a great hitter in the majors, but what if he's just normal bad – what if he could hit like Amed Rosario, who hit .263/.305/.378 last season? That's a low bar, but it might be enough to get Ruiz to the leadoff spot consistently enough to push for 90 runs. And he might steal that many bases, too. You probably scoffed at Ruiz's inclusion here, but he might legitimately belong in the first round if he just did that – even if nobody would ever likely draft him that high. 

Yoshinobu Yamamoto, SP, Dodgers

What does it look like? What if he's just, like, the best pitcher in baseball? The Dodgers are paying him like it, and the only disappointing thing about his first spring start last week was that he was so utterly dominant in his two innings of work that he only threw 19 pitches. I wanted to see more!

What we saw was, well, incredible. And exactly as advertised. He made the Rangers best hitters look downright foolish, with his mid-90s fastball that The Athletic's pitching guru Eno Sarris predicted would be a top-20 four-seamer in the majors, and a splitter that might already be the best in the majors. There are some concerns here, in part because we've just never seen Yamamoto against MLB-quality competition for more than just a few innings at a time, and his upside might be limited by the schedule – it sounds like the Dodgers will likely treat him like the Mets did with Kodai Senga last season, keeping him as close to an every-sixth-day routine as possible in the transition from Japan. This means we might only get 180 or so elite innings from Yamamoto. There's an outcome here where Yamamoto is the best pitcher in baseball on a per-inning basis, and that might be enough to get him in the first-round discussion next year with a projected innings increase. 

Tarik Skubal, SP, Tigers

What does it look like? Last season -- essentially. Skubal's surface-level numbers were incredible, with a 2.80 ERA, 0.896 WHIP, and 11.4 K/9, so if he just did that for 180 innings, you're at least in the first-round discussion, right? That's a 230-strikeout pace, with potential league-leading ratios and Skubal's underlying metrics were arguably even better, with only one closer besting him in expected ERA last season. 

But … what if he gets better? Skubal has experienced yet another velocity jump in spring training – after getting up to a career-high 95.8 mph last season, he averaged 97.5 in his first spring start. I have my questions about how sustainable all this is, given Skubal's history of elbow injuries, but if he stays healthy, Skubal looks like he might just belong in the "best pitcher in baseball discussion."