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.
JT Brubaker, RHP, Pittsburgh (Profile)
After twice appearing among the Next Five portion of this weekly exercise last year, Brubaker returned to that space in last week’s dispatch, as well. That was on the strength of his first two starts, during which he struck out 13 of 45 batters faced (or just under 30%). Brubaker was even better this past Wednesday, recording a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 8:1 against 23 batters while facing Cleveland’s Double-A affiliate (box).
Nor is Brubaker well acquitted merely by the numbers. The 24-year-old right-hander sat at 93-97 mph with his fastball during the Fall League, according to lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen, who also suggests that Brubaker possesses “late-blooming traits.”
Brubaker appeared to throw two different breaking pitches against Akron, first this shorter-breaking (and typically less effective) slider/cutter type pitch…
… and then a more vertically oriented pitch with which he got multiple whiffs below the zone (like the two featured here):
David Fletcher, 2B/SS, Los Angeles AL (Profile)
A sixth-round pick by the Angels out of Loyola Marymount back in 2015, Fletcher’s professional career to this point has been defined by his above-average contact skills and capacity to handle (if not thrive at) shortstop. What he hasn’t done so much is record “extra-base hits.” Indeed, entering the season, Fletcher had failed to produce an isolated-power figure above .080 since his Rookie-level ball.
However, through 66 plate appearances in 2018, Fletcher has recorded a .197 ISO, all while preserving — and indeed, improving upon — his bat-to-ball skills. All told, the 23-year-old has compiled 32 total bases against just one strikeout. For reference, the top mark by a qualified major-league batter in 2017 was the 4.9 total bases for every strikeout posted by Jose Ramirez last season.
It’s unlikely Fletcher has changed entirely. Eric Longenhagen characterized his power as “well below average” in his (Longenhagen’s) audit of the Angels system this winter. Moreover, Fletcher continues to put more than 50% of his batted balls on the ground. In any case, the development merits some attention. These paragraphs represent an attempt to provide that attention.
Josh James, RHP, Houston (Profile)
For the second straight week, James appears among the Five proper — largely because of how, for the second straight week, he looked something close to invincible on the mound. In his second start and third overall appearance of the season, the right-hander faced Seattle’s Double-A affiliate, recording a 7:0 strikeout-to-walk ratio against 19 batters over 5.0 innings (box). James has now produced the third-best strikeout- and walk-rate differential among all the minor leagues’ 450 qualified pitchers.
His success thus far appears to be due, in no small part, to improved arm speed. According to human reggaeton horn Kiley McDaniel, James has been “up to 98 [and] has had a big velo jump each of the last two years.” Beyond that newfound velocity, James seemed to have some modest success with his changeup, as well — a pitch that didn’t appear (to this author’s admittedly unqualified eye) to figure as prominently in his first start.
Here’s what seems to be a change for a first-pitch strike, for example:
And what also seems to be a changeup, for a different first-pitch strike:
Nate Orf, 2B/3B, Milwaukee (Profile)
The greatest injustice is to be born. The second-greatest is to die. Nate Orf, like all of us, is condemned to both of these indignities. And not only those two, but a third — namely, to still be toiling in the minors as a 28-year-old.
This now represents at least the third separate season in which Orf’s name has appeared among the Five. And, actually, he has exhibited signs of improvement since his first appearance, having lowered his ground-ball rate last year while still retaining his above-average contact rates. His translated defensive numbers continue to suggest that he’s an asset afield, as well. Through 48 plate appearances, he has recorded walk and strikeout rates of 6.3% and 10.4%, respectively, indicating that his control of the plate remains strong. One cannot “free” Nate Orf, because no one is free. At the very least, however, the Brewers could promote him to Milwaukee.
Josh Rojas, 2B/3B, Houston (Profile)
There aren’t many players who both (a) pass their age-24 season at High-A and then (b) enjoy much success in the majors. And while Rojas is technically listed at 24 years old, that figure is a bit misleading in his case: his birthday, June 30th, falls on the final day of the “baseball calendar.” Had he been ushered into this baleful world just a day later, he’d be considered a 23-year-old by this weblog.
Even after accounting for the age-related calculus, Rojas still has impeccable fringe bona fides. Like he stayed at Hawaii through his senior season, for example. And like he wasn’t selected by the Astros until the 26th round of the 2017 draft. And yet, in spite of the modest pedigree, Rojas has already exhibited some promise as a professional. Through 65 plate appearances this season, for example, he’s walked (16.9%) more than he’s struck out (10.8%), posted a .130 isolated-power figure (higher than the Carolina League average), and already produced a 9-for-9 stolen-base record — all while creating value on defense, as well.
Finally, no qualified batter at High-A has done a better impression of Matt Carpenter than Rojas, who has avoided both the swing-and-miss and ground ball better than 229 other hitters.
|9||Alex Call||White Sox||23||56||10.8%||25.7%||0.5||1.8||1.1|
The Next Five
These are players on whom the author might potentially become fixated.
Jeff Brigham, RHP, Miami (Double-A Southern League)
Joe Dunand, SS, Miami (High-A Florida State League)
Esteban Quiroz, 2B, Boston (Double-A Eastern League)
Zack Short, SS, Chicago NL (Double-A Southern League)
Garrett Stubbs, C, Houston (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.
Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.