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 within Longenhagen and McDaniel’s most recent update — and the updates published by Jeffrey Paternostro of Baseball Prospectus and John Sickels at Minor League Ball — have also been excluded from consideration.
*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.
Nicky Lopez, SS, Kansas City (Profile)
Because of his modest power, Lopez hasn’t produced many stretches this year that command attention. Between the most recent edition of the Five and the end of the season, for example, the Royals shortstop recorded a .095 isolated-power mark and 101 wRC+ in 48 plate appearances. That resembles, more or less, his line over 256 plate appearances at Triple-A, as well.
While other players with similarly unassuming minor-league track records (Mookie Betts, Jose Ramirez) have developed power as a major leaguers, one can’t depend on such a transformation. In the case of Lopez, however, that’s of little concern: even in his present incarnation, he’s likely to be an asset at the next level.
Consider, by way of example, Lopez’s work this season compared to an infielder who’s put together a strong major-league career without a real power breakout:
As a 23-year-old in the Pacific Coast League, Joe Panik produced an average-or-better walk rate, decidedly better-than-average strikeout rate, and slightly below-average power mark. As a 23-year-old in the PCL, Nicky Lopez has done basically the same thing. Panik has averaged 2.5 WAR per 600 plate appearances in the majors while playing second base exclusively. Reasons suggests that Lopez, who’s made starts both at shortstop and second this season, ought to match — if not surpass — Panik’s defensive contributions, thus putting even less pressure on the bat.
Gavin Lux, SS, Los Angeles NL (Profile)
Of all the players who appear in this final edition of the Five for 2018, Lux is probably the most likely to be included among top-100 lists this coming offseason. He’s already ascended to Double-A and, despite being quite young for the level, has performed well, recording strong offensive indicators while also playing shortstop. Much the same can be said of former member of the Fringe Five, Detroit prospect Isaac Paredes, whom Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel recently ranked at No. 93 on THE BOARD.
Lux was particularly impressive in the concluding week-plus of the minor league’s regular season, recording strikeout and walk rates of 15.9% and 11.4%, respectively, while producing a .189 isolated-power mark and 8.0 speed score, the last of which metrics (i.e. speed score) correlates pretty strongly with baserunning runs at the major-league level. As noted Longenhagen recently in a chat, a swing change is likely responsible for Lux’s success this season.
Erik Swanson, RHP, New York AL (Profile)
In his limited time at Triple-A last year, Boston third baseman Rafael Devers recorded a 196 wRC+ in 38 plate appearances. In his limited time at Triple-A this year, Boston third baseman Rafael Devers recorded a 163 wRC+ in 22 plate appearances. Those figures aren’t predictive in any real sense. They are thoroughly descriptive of what occurred, however, and what they describe is how Rafael Devers more or less overwhelmed Triple-A opponents.
One Triple-A opponent against whom Devers has exhibited less success, however, is Erik Swanson. Devers and Swanson faced each other on August 31st (box). Here’s the conclusion of the former’s first plate appearance from that game:
And of his third plate appearance, as well:
Rafael Devers has flaws as a ballplayer, certainly. He swings and misses a little. He’s probably not as selective as he should be. That said, he’s been an average major-league hitter over his 600-plus plate appearances at that level. He’s basically proven he belongs there as a 21-year-old. Yet here he is, swinging and missing at two of Erik Swanson’s fastballs.
Devers isn’t the only hitter against whom Swanson fared well in the concluding weeks of the campaign. Over his final two appearances of the Triple-A regular season, the right-hander produced strikeout and walk rates of 28.3% and 6.5% while facing 46 batters in 12.1 innings. Indeed, he produced similar marks over the whole last month of the campaign (30.1 IP, 118 TBF, 27.1% K, 5.9% BB).
Josh VanMeter, UT, Cincinnati (Profile)
Selected originally by the Padres out of an Indiana high school in the fifth round of the 2013 draft, VanMeter’s margin for error as a prospect has always been rather thin. While having generally exhibited strong bat-to-ball skills and defensive versatility, he has also lacked the power on contact or capacity to play shortstop that would have rendered a major-league career more likely.
After a poor first run at Double-A in 2016, VanMeter was traded by San Diego to Cincinnati in the deal that sent catcher Luis Torrens to the Padres. VanMeter was no better at Double-A in 2017, but had a strong 100-plus plate appearances in the Southern League this season before earning a promotion to Triple-A. VanMeter performed particularly well in the concluding days of the campaign, recording walk and strikeout rates of 10.2% and 15.7%, respectively — plus a .310 isolated-power mark — in 127 plate appearances in August and September. The way in which the Reds have deployed him suggests he’s more of a second baseman/left fielder. If he can play the former at something like a league-average level, he would appear to have a chance at becoming a regular. If not, then he can probably still fulfill a role similar to the one Tommy La Stella has with the Cubs.
Taylor Widener, RHP, Arizona (Profile)
This represents Widener’s second appearance among the Five proper this year. As noted when he was first included here, back in mid-June, Widener is a possible candidate for a relief role in the majors due both to his low-ish arm slot and repertoire. As also noted then, however, Widener’s performances have occasionally indicated that he could .
Whatever the case, he was excellent over the final month of the season, recording strikeout and walk rates of 32.8% and 6.4%, respectively, against 125 batters in 31.0 innings. The first of those marks was eighth-best among pitchers at High-A or above who faced 75 or more batters.
Here, for the benefit of all humanity, is video footage documenting one of the aforementioned strikeouts — in this case, by way of what appears to be a changeup, regarded as the weakest pitch in Widener’s repertoire:
The Next Five
These are players on whom the author might potentially become fixated.
Brock Burke, LHP, Tampa Bay (Double-A Southern League)
Austin Davidson, 1B/OF, Washington (Double-A Eastern League)
Richie Martin, 2B/SS, Oakland (Double-A Texas League)
Edward Olivares, OF, San Diego (High-A California League)
Zack Short, SS, Chicago NL (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.