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.
David Fletcher, 2B/SS, Los Angeles AL (Profile)
As noted in last week’s edition of this same column, David Fletcher has only ever once produced an isolated-power figure above .080 in a professional season during which he’s also compiled more than 100 plate appearances. As things currently stand with Triple-A Salt Lake City, however, Fletcher could fail to record an extra-base hit in any of his next 106 at-bats and he’d still post something slightly better than an .080 ISO.*
*As of Thursday afternoon, at least. Fletcher actually added a stupid double and stupid homer last night, meaning his extra-base drought could extend even longer.
Incredibly, Fletcher has produced these unprecedented power numbers while also striking out at a much lower rate than usual. Which, actually, that’s not entirely accurate: Fletcher isn’t just striking out less often, he’s striking out almost never. In 86 plate appearances entering yesterday, he’d recorded just one strikeout, a figure in close proximity to — some would say the closest proximity to — zero strikeouts.
Brian Howard, RHP, Oakland (Profile)
Probably one objective means by which to determine whether a minor leaguer ought to be regarded as a fringe sort of prospect is if the bonus he received upon signing a professional contract compares unfavorably to the median salary of an American high-school teacher. By that lone criterion, Brian Howard is wildly eligible for this weekly exercise. An eighth-round selection by Oakland last year following his senior season at TCU, Howard got just $40,000 from the Athletics.
In the meantime, however, he hasn’t performed like a fringe prospect. In 52.1 professional innings — including 21.1 of them this season in the California League — the 23-year-old right-hander has recorded a 58:8 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His 35.8% strikeout rate currently represents the fourth-best mark among all High-A pitchers.
Nor does any of this acknowledge Howard’s most noteworthy trait — namely, his height. He’s 6-foot-9. Despite possessing long limbs, though, he exhibits above-average command. According to Eric Longenhagen, who saw him this spring, the fastball sits at 91-93 mph (higher than some older published figures). He also appears to throw no fewer than three secondary pitches.
Here are examples of each from his April 13th start at San Jose, during which he recorded a 10:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio (box).
First, a breaking ball that features almost exclusively glove-side movement:
And then a breaking ball that’s defined mostly by vertical, downward movement:
And, finally, what appears to be a changeup:
Luis Rengifo, 2B/3B, Los Angeles AL (Profile)
For a number of obvious reasons — and also some other reasons known only to area law-enforcement officials — the present author is rarely treated to “privileged information.” That said, a recent correspondence with someone in baseball has produced some actual privileged information on the topic of Angels prospect Luis Rengifo — namely, that both his game power and raw power are regarded by certain scouts as 20s on the 20-80 scouting scale.
That is, clearly, not a glowing report. Nevertheless, there’s a lot to like about Rengifo. Signed for $360,000 by the Mariners shortly after July 2nd of 2013, Rengifo has been traded twice in the meantime, first to the Rays and then to the Angels just a week before the start of the 2018 season. Despite his somewhat itinerant path, he seems always to have possessed a well-rounded game, producing somewhat promising contact numbers and somewhat promising baserunnung numbers and somewhat promising defensive numbers. The result has been a somewhat promising young player.
Rengifo’s start to the 2018 campaign represents a change not in type but of volume. Rengifo, still just 21, has struck out less often than usual while producing more runs on the bases than usual — all in his first exposure to High-A competition. The defense might even be better than usual, according to the methodology employed by Baseball Prospectus. He had a triple in two plate appearances last night before the author fell asleep at his keyboard (box).
Josh Rojas, 2B/3B, Houston (Profile)
After making his inaugural appearance in the most recent edition of the Five, Rojas remains here on the merits of another strong week. Between last Friday and yesterday afternoon, the 23-year-old infielder produced a 3:3 walk-to-strikeout ratio, .263 isolated-power figure, and 3-for-3 stolen-base record in 22 plate appearances. He continues to possess the lowest swinging-strike rate of any qualifier at High-A. At the same time, he has also recorded one of the lower ground-ball rates. That’s a difficult needle to thread.
Of some interest, as well, is Rojas’s success as a baserunner. Among the 230 qualified batters across High-A, Rojas has produced the second-highest stolen-base total and highest stolen-base-runs total and second-highest speed score.
Here’s overwhelming video of his most recent stolen base:
And equally emotional footage of his second-most-recent stolen base:
LaMonte Wade, OF, Minnesota (Profile)
Upon further examination, it seems as though LaMonte Wade should have probably appeared in every edition of this column since he was selected in the ninth round of the 2015 draft. As a professional, Wade has recorded more walks (185) than strikeouts (155), produced modest but not anemic power numbers, and created value afield according to the methodologies employed by Baseball Prospectus and Clay Davenport.
On the one hand, maybe he’s not a center fielder in the majors. On the other, he’s already projected by Steamer to record a 97 wRC+ — i.e. better than the offensive marks forecast for Robbie Grossman (96 wRC+) or Eddie Rosario (94 wRC+).or Byron Buxton (91 wRC+).
The Next Five
These are players on whom the author might potentially become fixated.
J.T. Brubaker, RHP, Pittsburgh (Double-A Eastern League)
Josh James, RHP, Houston (Double-A Texas League)
Max Schrock, 2B, St. Louis (Triple-A Pacific League)
Erik Swanson, RHP, New York AL (Double-A Eastern League)
Taylor Widener, RHP, Arizona (Double-A Southern 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.