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 somewhat 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.
Jonathan Hernandez, RHP, Texas (Profile)
Hernandez appeared here last week among that group designated as the Next Five. In his lone start since then, the right-hander recorded 11 strikeouts and just one walk while facing 27 batters in 8.0 innings for High-A Down East (box). Over his last three appearances now, Hernandez has produced strikeout and walk rates of 44.4% and 5.6%, respectively, in 20.0 innings.
Signed originally out of the Dominican Republic for $300,000 during the 2012-13 international signing period, Hernandez looked more like a “pitchability righty” in his first exposure to professional ball, according to Eric Longenhagen. More recently, however, the 21-year-old has developed greater arm speed, sitting 93-96 mph during a recent start.
There’s some concern, also according to Longenhagen, that Hernandez’s arm slot might leave him vulnerable to left-handed batters. Thus far this season, he’s actually been quite strong on that account, recording better strikeout and walk figures against left-handed batters (40.0-point K-BB%) than right-handed ones (19.8).
Here’s footage from a recent start of Hernandez striking out a left-handed batter on three pitches — what appears to be a pair of breaking balls follows by a stiff, but effective changeup:
And here’s slow-motion footage of that final pitch, with what appears to be the sort of pronation typical of a changeup:
David Fletcher, 2B/SS, Los Angeles AL (Profile)
In 2017, David Fletcher recorded 217 plate appearances with Salt Lake in the Pacific Coast League. Recently, Fletcher passed that plate-appearance threshold for this season, as well. The differences between the two campaigns are stark.
Some of the improvement is clearly the result of more batted balls landing safely. Whether that’s a product of better contact quality or mere fortune isn’t clear. But Fletcher has exhibited improvement by a number of other criteria that reveal something like “true talent” in a sample of this size. In 2018, one finds, Fletcher has walked more often and struck out less often and accumulated more total bases per hit. By that last measure, in particular, Fletcher’s current season represents a great departure from his previous one: as of today, he’d produce an isolated-power figure identical to last year’s only if he recorded zero extra-base hits in his next 552 at-bats.
Josh James, RHP, Houston (Profile)
James possesses a kind of build and carriage atypical of major-league starters — or starters of the present era, at least. Watching his most recent start, for example, I was reminded of Luis Tiant. Not in the mechanics — James’s delivery borrows less from the ecstatic convulsions exhibited by charismatic believers — but the proportions, I mean. On the other hand, that is also perhaps a poor comparison and one which I am willing to revise if confronted with even the smallest resistance.
In any case, it’s all working. After overwhelming Double-A hitters for the first month of the season, James passed the most recent month overwhelming Triple-A hitters, recording one of the top walk- and strikeout-rate differentials in the Pacific Coast League. His most recent start was one of his best: over 7.0 innings, James recorded a 9:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio against 28 batters (box).
Chris Paddack, RHP, San Diego (Profile)
Paddack has been active for roughly four weeks this season and this already marks the third occasion on which he’s appeared here. In his only action since last week’s edition of the Five, Paddack’s final line wasn’t actually all that great, the right-hander allowing five runs over 5.0 innings (box). With the exception of a couple homers, though, his performance was just as indicative of real talent as the previous five had been. To wit: of the 23 batters he faced, Paddack struck out eight (34.8%) and walked none.
Before the season, Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel wrote of Paddack that “without surgery, he likely would’ve posted strong enough numbers to appear on the actual top 100.” Now healthy, he certainly appears to be posting strong enough numbers to appear within the actual top 100.
Josh Rojas, 2B/3B, Houston (Profile)
Rojas possesses a violently modest pedigree. A 26th-round pick during last year’s draft and the recipient of just a $1,000 signing bonus shortly after that, Rojas also began the present campaign as a member of High-A Buies Creek in what represents his age-24 season. In the absence of an actual statistical model, one would estimate that a prospect with similar indicators would produce roughly 0.0 WAR in the major leagues.
To date, that estimate would be technically correct: Rojas has accumulated no wins — nor even any at-bats — at the major-league level. However, what he’s done at High-A and, now, Double-A portend something much better than that. After producing basically all the best numbers in the Carolina League, Rojas has done basically the same exact thing in the Texas League. Nor is it merely the results that are excellent, but the indicators, too: he’s swung and missed less often than almost every other hitter while also having produced better power on contact than almost everyone, too. Steamer already projects him to record a batting line just 10% worse than major-league average if he were to earn a major-league promotion today.
Video footage from a game earlier this week reveals the kind of power Rojas is capable of producing on contact despite a relatively modest frame, first on a sharply hit single up the middle:
And then a home run:
And, finally, a double:
The Next Five
These are players on whom the author might potentially become fixated.
Gavin Lux, 2B/SS, Los Angeles NL (High-A California League)
Cedric Mullins, OF, Baltimore (Double-A Eastern League)
Jared Oliva, OF, Pittsburgh (High-A Florida State League)
Luis Rengifo, 2B/SS, Los Angeles AL (Double-A Southern League)
Erik Swanson, RHP, New York AL (Triple-A International 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.