As the week began, a number of top prospects had yet to get their bats going. Entering play on Monday, the list of scuffling hitters included our #11 overall fantasy prospect, Rafael Devers (.143 batting average), along with #25 Nick Williams (.192), #31 Tim Anderson (.154), #35 Franklin Barreto (.182), #36 Gleyber Torres (.114), #39 Manuel Margot (.156), #79 Daz Cameron (.129), #82 Jacob Nottingham (.148), #84 Javier Guerra (.179), and #91 Tyler Stephenson (.154). With the obvious caveats that a) the MiLB season is less than two weeks old and b) stat geeks do not pay quite as much attention to batting average as we once did, one does wonder what to make of these particular prospects and their early-season struggles.
The common thread among these nine scufflers is that they all are young for their current level of competition. Devers and Torres, both still only 19 years old, have not yet thrived in High-A ball the way they did last season in Low-A. Williams, 22, is the 7th-youngest player in the Triple-A International League. Anderson is only a few months older. Barreto, Margot, Nottingham, and Cameron all rank among the ten youngest players in their respective leagues. Guerra, 20, is competing in the High-A California League, while the Low-A Midwest League represents the second consecutive aggressive assignment for Stephenson, 19.
None of this should come as a surprise to savvy baseball fans, but it is worth remembering and reminding oneself how young some of these elite prospects really are. I, for one, need such periodic reminders. Several days ago I sat down to scribble out a few preliminary notes for an updated list of top prospects, and I found myself penalizing these players for what amounts to ten days of bad baseball. That would be absurd regardless of their ages; it is particularly absurd in light of them.
The struggles of young players tell us simply that baseball, at its best, can be humbling. If they are as good as we think, then they'll find their way soon enough.
On to the games...
All day I looked forward to the duel between two of the best pitchers in the Double-A Southern League, LHP Amir Garrett of the Pensacola Blue Wahoos (Reds) and one of my favorite prospects, LHP Josh Hader of the Biloxi Shuckers (Brewers). Garrett ranked 76th overall in our Fake Teams offseason Consensus Top 100 Fantasy Prospects List, while Hader came in at 94th. Both could make the Top 50 when we update the list later this summer. On this particular evening neither pitcher was at his absolute best, yet in both cases there was much to admire.
Despite not having his best strikeout stuff, Garrett made it through 6 innings on only 82 pitches. He had good control of his slider. By the second inning he looked to have settled into the game, and in the third inning he struck out the side. His final line was good enough for a quality start (6 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 5 K).
Those numbers, however, do not tell the full story of Garrett's evening. He surrendered hard contact in nearly every inning, and his fastball appeared to fool no one. Part of his problem stemmed from Biloxi's impressive lineup, which, at the top, included prospects Tyrone Taylor, Brett Phillips, Nathan Orf, Jacob Nottingham, and Garrett Cooper. Nottingham walked in the first inning, and the other four made solid contact, which allowed Biloxi to take an early 1-0 lead. More hard contact followed in the 4th inning before Javier Betancourt extended Biloxi's lead with a 2-run bloop single. It is very much to Garrett's credit that he posted solid numbers, got through six innings, and kept his team in the game despite not having his overpowering fastball.
Hader's final line looks a bit more curious (4 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 3 BB, 7 K). Of course it's wonderful that he allowed no hits and amassed 7 Ks, but this was the second time in three starts that it took Hader more than 80 pitches to complete 4 innings. That cannot become a trend. Credit Pensacola's hitters, who must have fouled off several dozen of Hader's fastballs. For a team that failed to record a hit, the Blue Wahoos showed a solid, patient approach at the plate.
Despite his inability to put away hitters with his fastball, Hader's performance was very encouraging. In a 22-pitch 1st inning he recorded 2 strikeouts. One came on a beautiful changeup, and the other came on a nasty slider. In the 2nd inning he struck out Pensacola OF Phillip Ervin, again on a changeup. This is significant because Hader is known for his dominant fastball, whereas the secondary stuff always seems to grade average or below. If he has developed an above-average offspeed and breaking pitch--and perhaps the Brewers want him to focus on those pitches--then look out: he could be a frontline starter.
Fantasy owners in redraft leagues should see each of these starters in the Majors by sometime in 2017. If you're in a dynasty league and thinking about targeting one or the other in a trade, now would be the time, especially if Hader has developed a consistent slider and changeup.
The early game between the Toledo Mud Hens (Tigers) and Indianapolis Indians (Pirates) of the Triple-A International League did not feature a rehabbing Jung-ho Kang, but it did include 2B Alen Hanson and 1B Josh Bell, two of Pittsburgh's top 10 fantasy prospects. Hanson swiped two bases in the first inning and is off to a fast start overall, while Bell has started a bit slowly. Both remain in the Pirates' long-term plans. The question, of course, is when will they arrive at PNC Park? John Jaso's performance to-date has given Bell time for more seasoning in Triple-A. Josh Harrison's contract extension and move to 2B appear to have blocked Hanson for the foreseeable future. Time will tell. Meanwhile, fantasy owners hoping for 2016 contributions from Hanson or Bell might be disappointed.
Elsewhere, the scuffling Quad Cities River Bandits (Astros) took on the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Brewers) in a Midwest-League matinee. It was the second time in a week that I decided to take a peek at Wisconsin, but I hadn't yet seen the River Bandits, whose roster includes the aforementioned Daz Cameron and last year's first-round selection, our 47th-ranked prospect, OF Kyle Tucker. Cameron did not look like a .129 hitter. In the first inning he flied out to deep center and later ripped a double down the left-field line. Tucker's first two ABs ended with pop-ups on the first pitch he saw, though he later tripled and scored. Both players have pedestrian numbers in large part because the River Bandits as a team have struggled to score runs. In both cases, though, the physical talent is obvious. They'll be fantasy factors by 2019.
The Timber Rattlers' top two prospects, OF Monte Harrison and SS Isan Diaz, also showed some good things. Harrison finished 0-for-3 with a walk and 2 Ks, but he looks like a much more confident player at the plate than he did a year ago. He's working deep into counts and then just missing his pitch on 3-1 or 3-2. If he stays patient, his payoff will come. Diaz, meanwhile, always looks like the best player on the field, even when the field includes a pair of Top 100 prospects, which Diaz himself soon might be. He entered the game with a .921 OPS and promptly hit a double off the centerfield wall. He later walked but was picked off second base. He and Harrison also will introduce themselves to the fantasy world before decade's end.
In fact, as a general rule I would encourage anyone interested in fantasy prospects to pay attention to Colorado Springs, Biloxi, Brevard County, and Wisconsin--Milwaukee's four full-season affiliates. The Brewers' system is not yet the best in baseball, but it might be the deepest.
A High-A Carolina League clash between the Salem Red Sox (Red Sox) and Carolina Mudcats (Braves) headlined the evening slate. This is also the second time I've seen the Mudcats and star SS Dansby Swanson, the first overall pick in the 2015 draft and our #13 overall fantasy prospect. Much as I liked Swanson at Vanderbilt, and though I ranked him #11 overall in my personal rankings, I always had a nagging concern that he could prove to be a better baseball player than fantasy prospect. I am no longer concerned. In the field, Swanson has an undeniable presence about him, as if he knows--and everyone else knows--that he's the best player out there. At the plate he is equally impressive. He entered the game batting .367 and leading the Carolina League in doubles with 7. In the first inning he added to that total with a rocket into the left field corner. At a premium position, Swanson will hit for average and extra bases and should develop some power, as well. He'll also steal bases, perhaps 20 or more. He's the cornerstone of the Braves' rebuilding effort and a future early-round fantasy selection.
Speaking of future fantasy studs, the Salem lineup boasts three of them: 2B Yoan Moncada (ranked #4 overall), 3B Rafael Devers (#11), and OF Andrew Benintendi (#29). Of the three, Moncada looks to have the most upside. Like Swanson, he has a presence about him that is difficult to describe. He combines patience and plate discipline with an ability to wreak havoc on the bases; he stole his league-leading 13th base in this game, scored on a sacrifice fly, and later drew a bases-loaded walk. Benintendi, meanwhile, showed off a sweet left-handed swing on a seventh-inning, 2-run triple to the right-centerfield gap. Both Moncada and Benintendi look the part of future fantasy studs, with Moncada having the edge because he plays a middle-infield position.
Two teenaged prospects continued to struggle. Devers's timing looked off as he swung through multiple fastballs early in the game, and Carolina OF Braxton Davidson does not yet look comfortable at the plate.
It's worth noting, too, that Red Sox starter Travis Lakins pitched very well and looked like a very good athlete on the mound; he made a great defensive play to cut down a baserunner at home.
What I'll Watch This Weekend:
Four of the top teams in Double-A will go head-to-head this weekend. In the Southern League, the 9-4 Jackson Generals (Mariners) will travel to Pensacola to battle the 9-5 Blue Wahoos. Saturday's game, in particular, looks delicious, as it should feature a duel between the Wahoos' Amir Garrett and Jackson's Edwin Diaz. Elsewhere, the 9-3 Frisco RoughRiders (Rangers) will face the 8-4 Corpus Christi Hooks (Astros) in a Texas-League showdown headlined by Frisco OF Lewis Brinson (#28) and Corpus Christi SS Alex Bregman (#15).
Enjoy the games!