The Fringe Five is a weekly regular-season exercise, introduced a few years ago by the present author, wherein that same author utilizes regressed stats, scouting reports, and also his own fallible intuition to identify and/or continue monitoring the most compelling fringe prospects in all of baseball.
Central to the exercise, of course, is a definition of the word fringe, a term which possesses different connotations for different sorts of readers. For the purposes of the column this year, a fringe prospect (and therefore one eligible for inclusion among the Five) is any rookie-eligible player at High-A or above who (a) was omitted from the preseason prospect lists produced by Baseball Prospectus, MLB.com, John Sickels, and (most importantly) FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel* and also who (b) is currently absent from a major-league roster. Players appearing on any updated, midseason-type list will also be excluded from eligibility.
*Note: I’ve excluded Baseball America’s list this year not due to any complaints with their coverage, but simply because said list is now behind a paywall.
For those interested in learning how Fringe Five players have fared at the major-league level, this recent post offers that kind of information. The short answer: better than a reasonable person would have have expected. In the final analysis, though, the basic idea here is to recognize those prospects who are perhaps receiving less notoriety than their talents or performance might otherwise warrant.
The right-handed Baez appeared among the Five on a couple of occasions last year. Signed for just $49,000 out of the Dominican in 2011, Baez features arm speed atypical of such modest pedigree.
Nor is he necessarily what colleague Eric Longenhagen would characterize as an “arm-strength lottery ticket”: Baez exhibited sufficient polish last season to record one of the better strikeout- and walk-rate differentials at High-A last season. He then struck out nearly a third of the batters he faced in a late-season two-start stay with Double-A Erie.
Baez was assigned to the Eastern League to begin the 2018 season, as well, and was excellent in his debut against Reading, striking out 10 of 17 batters faced while walking just one (box). A second start — in this case, against Bowie (box) — was more modest (20 TBF, 3 K, 1 BB), but the overall result after a week is strong.
Here’s a sequence from Baez’s first start, featuring a breaking ball, a slightly more impressive breaking ball, and then a high fastball for the strikeout:
Josh James, RHP, Houston (Profile)
Selected in the 34th round of the 2014 draft out of Western Oklahoma State College, James appears to have entered the season with as little fanfare as possible, absent both from FanGraphs’ audit of the Houston system and also MLB.com’s top-30 list. James’ indicators have been decent, actually, but he’s been old for his levels and reports of the stuff — like this one care of Dave DeFreitas from mid-2016 — haven’t been effusive with praise.
Nevertheless, James has been dominant in his first two appearances of the season, first striking out seven of 15 batters on April 5th in an extended relief outing and then nine of 18 opponents in an actual start on April 10th. The result is one of the top strikeout- and walk-rate differentials across the entire minors leagues.
According to a source of Eric Longenhagen’s, James is benefiting from increased velocity and general physical improvement. In any case, the latter of his two appearances suggested he’s prepared to use his breaking ball with some frequency. Here, for example, he went to the pitch four consecutive times for a strikeout of Seattle prospect Chuck Taylor.
Nicky Lopez, SS, Kansas City (Profile)
While college shortstops tend not to become major-league shortstops, Lopez is a possible exception to that trend. A fifth-round pick out of Creighton in 2015, Lopez has made almost all his professional starts at the position, has drawn praise from Eric Longenhagen for his defense, and is well acquitted by the advanced metrics.
Lopez lacks much power on contact and has already begun the season by putting more than 64% of his batted balls on the ground — so a mechanical change of some sort would likely be necessary for any real power to emerge. That said, he has unusually strong control of the plate, having recorded more walks than strikeouts as a pro and produced one of the lowest swinging-strike rates at Double-A last year following his promotion to that level. If not an awe-inspiring profile, it’s still likely a useful one.
Max Schrock, 2B, St. Louis (Profile)
The author of this post is afflicted by all manner of loathsome affectations. Like referring to all red wines as “claret,” for example. Or like referring to himself constantly in the third person, for other example. He is truly disgusting on the inside and out.
Having said that, it’s worth noting that the constant appearance of Max Schrock among these Fringe Five posts is not the expression of a loathsome affectation but rather a sincere belief in Schrock’s capacities as a ballplayer.
Traded from Oakland to St. Louis this past offseason in the deal that sent Stephen Piscotty to the A’s, Schrock has begun the season in almost precisely the same fashion as he passed the entire 2017 campaign — in this case, against Triple-A opponents and not the Double-A sort. In 33 plate appearances, Schrock has struck out just once. He has recorded the fifth-best swinging-strike rate of the 244 qualified hitters at Triple-A. He’s homered once. He’s played second base just fine according to the best public estimate of minor-league defense.
Here, for the reader’s consideration, is confusing video of Schrock’s home run from April 5th:
And here, for almost no reason at all, is slow-motion footage of Schrock’s swing on that homer:
Zack Short, SS, Chicago NL (Profile)
Few batters in the minors last year managed to avoid both the whiff and the ground ball the way Short did. He finished among the High-A leaders in both categories after having done basically the same thing earlier in the season at Low-A. It’s the same offensive skill set possessed by Ian Kinsler and Daniel Murphy profile and Justin Turner profile — and, perhaps most notably, Cardinal infielder Matt Carpenter. Combined with defensive skills that have allowed him to make basically all his professional starts at shortstop, Short is a candidate to contribute on both sides of the ball.
So far, Short has replicated his success from last year, if not necessarily his process. In 30 plate appearances with Double-A Tennessee, he’s recorded a .261/.433/.478 line and 170 wRC+, placing him among the league’s leaders. He’s also basically doubled his swinging-strike rate, though, and struck out in two-fifths of his plate appearances.
It’s likely his success on contact regresses, but it’s also likely he begins making more contact. If he approximates his production from last season, he’ll already have considerably exceeded the typical outcome for a 17th-round pick.
The Next Five
These are players on whom the author might potentially become fixated.
Scott Blewett, RHP, Kansas City (Double-A Texas League)
J.T. Brubaker, RHP, Pittsburgh (Double-A Eastern League)
Joe Dunand, SS, Miami (High-A Florida State League)
Lourdes Gurriel Jr., 2B, Toronto (Double-A Eastern League)
Nate Orf, 2B/3B/OF, Milwaukee (Triple-A Pacific Coast League)
Fringe Five Scoreboard
Here is the top-10 list of players who have appeared among either the Fringe Five (FF) or Next Five (NF) so far this season. For mostly arbitrary reasons, players are assessed three points for each week they’ve appeared among the Fringe Five; a single point, for each week among the Next Five.
|8||Lourdes Gurriel Jr.||Blue Jays||2B||0||1||1|
Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.