The Fringe Five: Baseball’s Most Compelling Fringe Prospects

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 in the Five) is any rookie-eligible player at High-A or above who (a) received a future value grade of 45 or less from lead prospect analyst Dan Farnsworth during the course of his organizational lists and who (b) was omitted from the preseason prospect lists produced by Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and John Sickels, and also who (c) is currently absent from a major-league roster. Players appearing on an updated prospect list or, otherwise, selected in the first round of the current season’s amateur draft will also be excluded from eligibility.

In the final analysis, the basic idea is this: to recognize those prospects who are perhaps receiving less notoriety than their talents or performance might otherwise warrant.


Jharel Cotton, RHP, Los Angeles NL (Profile)
The right-handed Cotton made up one-third — along with Angels prospect Sherman Johnson (included below) and also Detroit’s Matt Boyd — made up one-third of a three-way tie atop last year’s arbitrarily calculated Fringe Five Scoreboard. This appearance today marks Cotton’s first of the 2016 campaign — although very possibly not his last. Over the last two seasons, Cotton has produced among the top strikeout- and walk-rate figures throughout all affiliated baseball, recording marks of 28.0% and 7.2%, respectively, over 222.1 innings in 2014-15. Organization-mate Julio Urias, meanwhile — regarded almost universally as a top-five prospect in baseball — has recorded strikeout and walk rates of 28.7% and 8.6%, respectively, over that same interval. Urias obviously has youth on his side (he’s nearly five years younger than Cotton), but that is a product more of Urias’s singularity and less of Cotton’s inadequacy. In any case, Cotton has begun his 2016 season in roughly the same fashion as he completed his 2014 and -15 campaigns, recording strikeout and walk rates of 27.9% and 6.6%, respectively, over three starts and 14.2 innings in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. How’s he done it? By means of a fastball that reaches the mid-90s. And also by means of a changeup, which the following video footage appears to depict both in regular and slow motion.

This video footage:

Edison Frias, RHP, Houston (Profile)
Frias appeared in the season debut of the Five on the strength of a strong 2015 season and a promising combination of arm speed and overall stuff. He hasn’t had much in the way of opportunity yet in 2016, recording just two appearances so far, both of them as the latter half of a piggyback start. Even the most punctilious among us, however, would labor to find a flaw in the results. Against 33 batters in 8.0 innings, Frias has produced an 11:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio while conceding zero home runs. The more impressive appearance is also the more recent one, during which the 25-year-old right-hander struck out seven of the 17 Springfield Cardinals he faced (box). As for the stuff, that’s been promising, as well — as the footage below documents. Here one finds Frias facing St. Louis prospect Harrison Bader. After having struck out Bader in their first encounter — by way, in that case, of curveballs on the outside part of the plate — Frias began the next plate appearances with hard moving fastballs, breaking Bader’s bat on not just the first, but also the second, pitch of the AB.


Sherman Johnson, 2B/3B, Los Angeles AL (Profile)
This represents the third appearance by Johnson among the Five so far this year — in only three total editions of that same weekly exercise. This continues a trend established last year, when the (now) 25-year-old second baseman finished the season atop the arbitrarily calculated Fringe Five Scoreboard. Whereas Johnson produced merely strong indicators last year, however, he’s complemented that so far this season with actual strong results, too. He recorded a nearly even walk-to-strikeout ratio in 2015, for example. A .240 BABIP, however, conspired to suppress Johnson’s overall batting numbers, leaving him with just a .204/.325/.314 slash line. Through 44 plate appearances in 2016, Johnson has recorded not only even better plate-discipline marks (25.0% and 18.2% walk and strikeout rates, respectively), but also a .375 BABIP. The result? A slash line of .303/.477/.515 — one of the top adjusted batting marks in the Texas League. He continues to exhibit above-average speed. He continues to occupy a place on the more challenging end of the defensive spectrum. He continues to profile as a likely productive major leaguer. Johnson has missed Arkansas’ last couple games; however, the problem (reported as a “stiff neck”) would appear to be relatively minor.

Ildemaro Vargas, SS, Arizona (Profile)
One could easily overlook the unlikelihood of Vargas’s accomplishment as a ballplayer. Because, regard: there are elements of his current profile which are largely unspectacular. He’s a 24-year-old playing at Double-A, basically the precise average age among batters at that level. He’s a slightly above-average hitter by the numbers. He plays shortstop. “A promising player,” one is inclined to say, “if not necessarily a top prospect.” Only, consider: Vargas played zero of his 86 minor-league games last year, when he was 23, above the Low-A level. Now consider moreover how, when the 2015 season began, he was a member not of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ farm system, but rather of the indy-league Bridgeport Bluefish. Vargas produced the second-lowest strikeout rate in affiliated baseball last year, however, and has parlayed that success into a strong start for Double-A Mobile, with which club he’s recorded a nearly 1:1 walk-to-strikeout ratio while also playing shortstop and exhibiting a little power.

Here he is neither walking nor striking out nor playing shortstop, but definitely exhibiting a little power:

Aaron Wilkerson, RHP, Boston (Profile)
Like Vargas above, Wilkerson is a product of independent-league baseball. Where Vargas played merely 30 games one spring for the Atlantic League, however — and only then after having passed the previous seven seasons as a member of affiliated baseball — the right-handed Wilkerson has belonged to rosters in no fewer than three different indy leagues. And unlike Vargas, who was sufficiently coveted to have been signed as a 16-year-old out of Venezuela, Wilkerson wasn’t signed at all out of his college, NAIA school Cumberland University in Tennessee. He made his debut in affiliated ball in 2014. As a 25-year-old. At short-season A-ball. Included among the Five last week on the strength of excellent numbers and surprisingly competent arm speed, Wilkerson has recorded one start in the meantime, against Colorado’s Double-A affiliate, producing a 5:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio against 21 batters over 6.0 innings (box).

The Next Five
These are players on whom the author might potentially become fixated.

Willians Astudillo, C, Atlanta (Double-A Southern League)
Pedro Fernandez, RHP, Kansas City (High-A Carolina League)
Junior Guerra, RHP, Milwaukee (Triple-A Pacific Coast League)
Tim Locastro, 2B/SS, Los Angeles NL (High-A California League)
Jason Vosler, 3B, Chicago NL (High-A Carolina League)

Fringe Five Scoreboard
Here are the top-10 the players to have appeared among either the Fringe Five (FF) or Next Five (NF) so far this season (which is to say, today). 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.

Fringe Five Scoreboard, 2016
1 Sherman Johnson Angels 2B/3B 3 0 9
2 Edison Frias Astros RHP 2 1 7
3 Aaron Wilkerson Red Sox RHP 2 0 6
4 Tim Locastro Dodgers 2B/SS 1 2 5
5 Junior Guerra Brewers RHP 1 1 4
Willians Astudillo Braves C 1 1 4
7 Adam Frazier Pirates SS/CF 1 0 3
Bruce Caldwell Cardinals 2B/3B 1 0 3
Ildemaro Vargas D-backs SS 1 0 3
Jharel Cotton Dodgers RHP 1 0 3
Jose Martinez Royals OF 1 0 3

Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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8 years ago

1 minute before the tweet for this article, Evan Drellich tweeted that Wilkerson was promoted to AAA.