Another month without any published material has come and gone. Meanwhile, Matt Shoemaker earned himself American League Pitcher of the Month and Rookie of the Month honors for August. Good thing I wrote my glowing endorsement for him on July 25. It will be interest to see how he’s ranked next year. Julio Teheran, Michael Wacha, Sonny Gray and Tony Cingrani were touted prospects and drafted Nos. 29, 32, 41 and 44 on average in ESPN live drafts this year after pretty amazing 2013s. So, what now for Shoemaker? He was never a touted prospect; most fans still probably don’t know who he is, similar to how I anticipate Corey Kluber will get robbed of Cy Young votes this year simply because he isn’t a name-brand ace.
Alas, there will be doubts about Shoemaker’s ability to repeat his performance — his swinging strike and contact rates have tailed off a bit since I wrote about him a month ago, and he doesn’t occupy the strike zone enough for me to think the walk rate is sustainable — which could make him a 2015 draft day bargain. Starting pitching is deeper than ever, so it would not surprise me whatsoever to see Shoemaker make a variety of “just missed” lists, right outside the Top 60 pitchers or so, with an average draft positions of maybe 45th for starting pitchers.
If I had to run a quick-‘n’-dirty projection for next year right now, it would look something like:
Bearish: 180 IP, 11 W, 3.15 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 160 K
Bullish: 200 IP, 13 W, 2.94 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 189 K
FYI, those are both pretty darn good projections, good for what will probably be Top-30 in my 2015 rankings.
Let’s get to what I really wanted to discuss: 2015 fantasy prospect sleepers. Many notable prospect lists are published prior to the start of each season, and a handful are updated as the season unfolds. Case in point, ESPN’s Keith Law published his updated Top 50 list about a month ago. Obviously, the list accounts for the triumphs — and tribulations — of current and now-former top prospects in whichever league(s) the player performed this season as of July 17.
Today’s scouting report has two faces: the qualitative, through which we award players a grade of 20 through 80 for their five tools; and the quantitative, through which we assess the progress of a player based on what he has actually accomplished.
It’s all good and well that prospect lists exist — especially updated ones. But, frankly, there isn’t room on the list for everyone, and the lists often span more than just players who are Major League-ready.
Thus, I occasionally look at Minor League leaderboards and try to find less-trendy fantasy prospects to scoop in the late rounds of a draft or spend a dollar on in the twilight of an auction. I create a list and periodically update it, tracking the player’s progress or lack thereof.
In alphabetical order, here are some players who, given playing time, could be impact players in 2015:
Steven Moya, DET OF | 40 Hit, 60 Power, 50 Run (MLB.com)
It wouldn’t surprise me if 99 percent of baseball fans outside of Michigan knew Moya was called up when the Tigers’ roster expanded. Absent from all major prospect lists, Moya belted 35 home run, swiped 16 bases and batted .276 in 133 games at Double-A Erie. Those are numbers that could get anyone all hot and bothered. It’s not a huge surprise to me why he wasn’t so highly touted: he combined for only 42 home runs and 16 stolen bases combined in his first four years in the minors. What’s overlooked, though, is he debuted when he was 17, and he has obviously made great strides as he fills out at the ripe age of 22. All that glimmers is not gold, however; Moya struck out in almost 30 percent of plate appearances while walking only 4 percent of the time. There’s a lot of potential for bust simply because he may never catch up to Major League pitching.
Looking forward: Moya is currently buried on the depth chart, as he was called up more for depth and reps than impact contributions. Still, right fielder Torii Hunter‘s contract expires this year, leaving Moya to compete with Rajai Davis, J.D. Martinez and Ezequiel Carrera (whom I actually like as a speedy, Leonys Martin-type of outfielder). Davis is underrated and Martinez has reestablished himself as a credible starter, although it remains to be seen if he sustains it, but I would not be the least bit surprised to see Moya win a starting role over Carrera — or all of them, really. His plate discipline is problematic, though; even notorious free-swinger Pedro Alvarez had better discipline before his call-up. Still, not all prospects with poor hit tools are doomed to bust, but given his relatively unknown prospect status — he’s buried at No. 7 in the Tigers’ organizational depth, according to MLB.com — he could be a low-risk, high-reward (and also high-volatility) player in 2015.
Steven Souza, WAS OF | 40 Hit, 50 Power, 50 Run (MLB.com)
Souza is perhaps the most talented and enigmatic of the three players listed here, based strictly on 2014 performance and MLB.com’s scouting grades. Like Moya, Souza didn’t make any preseason or midseason top-prospect lists, despite hitting 18 home runs, stealing 26 bases and batting a whopping .350 across 407 Triple-A plate appearances. (In there defense, Souza was really, really bad prior to 2012, and was busted for PEDs in 2010.)
Again, if you live outside of New England and knew Souza was recently called up when rosters expanded: congratulations! All of Souza’s numbers — his speed, his power and especially his hit tool — correlate very poorly with how MLB.com evaluated him above. Even if the power and speed do somehow project to be average, his plate discipline is very evidently better than below-average: he struck out in 18.4 percent of plate appearances and walked in 12.8 percent of them. And he achieved this in Triple-A, not Double-A, where Moya flailed away. Future Cleveland Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor allegedly has a 70-hit tool, yet posted strikeout and walk rates of 19.5 and 5.2 percent — not at all elite. Trust the statistics.
Looking forward: The only things standing between Souza and a starting role in 2015 is Denard Span‘s 2015 team option (who has performed well enough to earn it and then some) and the next guy on this list. Thus, Souza may be doomed to a fourth-outfielder role next year until Bryce Harper inevitably injures himself, so Souza’s heyday may not truly come until 2016. If he somehow assumes the first baseman role, it would be hard to rely on a guy who hits 15 home runs, steals 10 bases, bats .275. But if he eventually moves to the outfield where he belongs, or gets traded, his potential /.280/.340/.380 would be serviceable in fantasy leagues.
Michael Taylor, WAS OF | 40 Hit, 50 Power, 60 Run (MLB.com)
Shoot. I kind of forgot that Taylor and Souza are on the same Triple-A team battling for the same potential center-field opening that will, realistically speaking, not be vacated by Span next year. Taylor got a brief look earlier in the year and promptly hit a home run — but also struck out eight times in 22 trips to the plate. It’s difficult to ignore his 22 home runs, 34 stolen bases and .313 average at Double-A Harrisburg, and the 51 steals at Single-A Potomac last year add a nice touch. Like Moya, the hit tool as graded by MLB.com is probably accurate: Taylor struck out 130 times in 441 plate appearances (25 percent), but at least he walked more than the league average.
Looking forward: Taylor and Souza are theoretically competing with each other, which could make either of them offseason trade bait. Taylor, however, spent the majority of this year in Double-A, only recently getting promoted, so he may have a year of development ahead of him, despite being ahead of Souza on MLB.com’s organizational depth for the Nationals (Nos. 5 and 7). It’s also worth noting that Souza is listed as third on the depth chart at first base, and Adam LaRoche is in the final year of his contract, so it’s possible that Taylor earns the fourth-outfielder role and Souza earns first base outright (or becomes the backup to Kevin Frandsen… yuck). Ultimately, it’s hard to ignore any potential 20/20 players, and he looks like another guy who could get there, albeit with a low batting average.
If I had to guess which of these three players will make the biggest impact in 2015, I would say Moya, who I think has the highest bust potential but also the highest ceiling. Souza is the safest and will make for an adequate, and perhaps enticing, replacement given the event of an injury in the Nationals’ outfield. Taylor has the same kind of boom-or-bust potential as Moya, albeit with a little less power and a little more speed.
San Francisco Giants first baseman Brandon Belt will never be more valuable than he is now. Many expected his breakout, and it seems those who invested in the late bloomer will be rewarded handsomely, depending on how much they paid for him or in which round they drafted him. He leads MLB tied for most home runs (5) with Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Mark Trumbo, a free-swinging, powerful fella. Those are important words, because that is exactly what Belt has been so far.
The sample size is very small — 35 plate appearances — but the statistics are telling: He has 10 strikeouts and zero walks. Meanwhile, Belt is batting .343, which is buoyed by a .350 batting average on balls in play (BAbip). Savvy readers will be quick to point out that his 2012 and 2013 BAbips were both .351, so perhaps that’s his baseline. And it’s possible. But that would be his saving grace. If his BAbip fell to a league-average level around .300, we’re looking at Trumbo numbers, or maybe even (Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman) Pedro Alvarez numbers.
It’s realistic to think he will walk a little more and strike out a little less. His fly ball rate is conducive for home runs given his power, but it’s unrealistic to think he will hit a third of all fly balls out of the park. That’s territory reserved for, well, no one. Only a dozen batters hit 15 percent of fly balls as home runs (15% HR/FB), all of them fabled power hitters. Even Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Edwin Encarnacion and Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz notched HR/FB rates of 14.0 percent and 12.6 percent, respectively.
I think projecting a HR/FB rate of 13 percent is fair, and it would afford him 30 to 35 home runs for the season — a tremendous performance, indeed. But the batting average is bound to plummet (not that it took a rocket scientist to know he can’t sustain a .343 batting average), and it’s entirely dependent on his plate discipline and whether or not his BAbip is actually real. Today’s power hitters have pretty polarized BAbips, and it mostly comes down to their plate discipline: Ortiz, Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim outfielder Mike Trout and Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt all struck out in, at most, 20 percent of plate appearances last year, and all of them posted BAbips above .320. Meanwhile, Alvarez, Oakland Athletics third baseman Brandon Moss, New York Yankees outfielder Alfonso Soriano, and Chicago White Sox designated hitter Adam Dunn all strike out in at least 25 percent of plate appearances, and only Moss posted a BAbip above .300 (fun fact: it was .301).
It’s possible that Belt is a unique breed of hitter that can strike out a lot and hit for a high batting average on balls in play, and it’s certainly possible he sustains it for the rest of the season. But strikeout-prone power hitters tend to be batting average liabilities — one of the reasons why Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis is, I think, due for some heavy batting average regression.
This has all been a long-winded way of me saying: Belt’s batting average will regress to the mean, but it’s impossible to know whether he’ll end up hitting .295 or .245. Even somewhere in the middle means it’s a long way to fall for Belt.
I would absolutely sell high on Belt, depending on the format. If I’m in a dynasty league, or I can keep him next year at a discount, then I would be inclined to keep him. But if I owned him and had the opportunity to swipe Cincinnati Reds outfielder Jay Bruce from a panicked owner, I would pull the trigger. Bruce will probably hit more home runs the rest of the way, and his batting average will only trend upward while Belt’s trends downward.
When it comes down to it, I think Belt will hit about .275 and end up with 32 home runs. But I also think the possibility of him pulling a Justin Upton or Domonic Brown circa 2013, during which both players hit 12 home runs in one month and slept the rest of the year, is very real.
Meanwhile, Trumbo has also hit five home runs. This isn’t anything new from him, although the frequency and earliness of the bombs is surely delightful for owners. It’s worth keeping in mind that Trumbo hit no fewer than five home runs and no more than seven in any given month last year. It’s possible he surpasses his monthly high from last year by next week, but it’s also worth noting he hit seven, nine and eight home runs in May through July of 2012, only to go cold in the other three months. Every player has ups and downs, and I would be wary that such a high in April will lead to, say, an equally low August, as he regresses to the mean.
It probably sounds like I’m super down on these guys, but I’m not. I swear! It’s just that smart fantasy owner knows when to sell high and buy low, and even Trumbo can be a sell-high candidate. He will probably also hit 32 home runs, just like Belt, but if you can somehow trade him for a slow-to-start Encarnacion, who has the potential to hit 40 bombs, I would again pull the trigger. That’s at least 10 more home runs you would have otherwise gotten had you kept Trumbo all year, and Encarnacion will hit for a better average in the long run.
Other home run leaders, per ESPN’s MLB home page: Blue Jays outfielders Melky Cabrera and Jose Bautista (both at 4), Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter (3), White Sox outfielder Alejandro De Aza (3), Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun (3), and Colorado Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez (3). Bautista, Braun and Gonzalez are legit. Cabrera is not legit, but that’s not to say he doesn’t have power. I projected him for 14 home runs and 11 stolen bases, but at this point I think he’s well on his way to a 15/15 season supplemented by a .280 batting average at the top of Toronto’s batting order. De Aza and Hunter also have pop, but they are not noteworthy hitters — go ahead and sell high, but they are still valuable commodities otherwise.
Rankings based on standard 5×5 rotisserie format.
Name – R / RBI / HR / SB / BA
- Miguel Cabrera – 105 / 124 / 39 / 4 / .332
- Adrian Beltre – 95 / 106 / 31 / 1 / .297
- Evan Longoria – 93 / 108 / 32 / 2 / .282
- David Wright – 88 / 90 / 22 / 20 / .299
- Ryan Zimmerman – 84 / 85 / 24 / 4 / .283
- Josh Donaldson – 78 / 81 / 22 / 6 / .274
- Manny Machado – 86 / 74 / 19 / 6 / .276
- Kyle Seager – 75 / 78 / 21 / 11 / .259
- Pedro Alvarez – 68 / 94 / 33 / 1 / .238
- Aramis Ramirez – 61 / 76 / 20 / 2 / .291
- Xander Bogaerts
- Pablo Sandoval – 65 / 77 / 15 / 1 / .289
- Will Middlebrooks – 54 / 74 / 23 / 5 / .256
- Chase Headley – 64 / 64 / 14 / 12 / .259
- Nolan Arenado – 59 / 62 / 13 / 2 / .282
- Brett Lawrie – 59 / 50 / 11 / 12 / .268
- I think 19 home runs for Machado is waaaaaaay too optimistic. I would be happy for just 14 bombs again. Still, taking those five homers away doesn’t affect his placement in the rankings, as he’s being buoyed by counting stats and a reliable batting average (compared to everyone on the list who follows him).
- Bogaerts is a sneaky pick for power up the middle once he moves to shortstop. He may be worth a bump in the rankings for that. I don’t want to get too optimistic the numbers he can put up, but somewhere between 15 to 20 home runs and a .290 batting average (hence, why he’s snugly between Ramirez and Sandoval) sounds about right.
- For all of Ramirez’s consistency, he’s a good bet to bounce back. However, he hit a career-high percentage of ground balls, something of which he may not fully control, but he still needs to hit fly balls to hit home runs. If you can squeak 150 games out of him, he’s still good for 20 homers, but that may be asking too much at this point.
- I will not, not, not support Lawrie. I get it: he was a top prospect once with massive potential. Now what? Am I going to put a basically unproven third baseman in my top 10 with the hopes this will be his breakout year? No way. If I miss the Lawrie train as it leaves the station, and he goes off this year, then so be it. But I have Middlebrooks with huge power (31 home runs per 162 games) and the opportunity to have third base to himself. His BAbip 2012 was high and then it tanked in 2013. Watch it find a happy medium in 2014 as Middlebrooks is able to keep the keystone to himself.