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.

*****

Chih-Wei Hu, RHP, Tampa Bay (Profile)
Hu was selected for the Five this week, at some level, as a pretense for the author to search for — and render into GIF form — footage of the right-hander’s palm ball. Like most human endeavors, however, this one proved futile. Among the pitches utilized by Hu to record the seven strikeouts he collected in his most recent start, none of them appear to have been a palm ball — or, at the very least, none of them appear to have been a palm ball worthy of reproduction. The start was notable for at least two other reasons, though. One: it represented Hu’s debut for Triple-A Durham. Two: Hu continued to exhibit the sort of capacity to induce swings and misses that he had during his first two starts, with Double-A Montgomery. Over three starts and 11.2 innings to begin the season now, Hu has produced a 35.0% strikeout rate. As just as 22-year-old. As was the case when he appeared among the Five on a couple of occasions last year, Hu possesses sufficient arm speed to suggest that he’s not benefiting entirely from deception or polish.

Below is footage of the last plate appearances from Hu’s most recent starts. Against Dariel Alvarez, who recorded a strikeout rate below 12% last year at Triple-A, Hu throws three consecutive fastballs — the middle of them appearing to exhibit more arm-side run than the rest — for a strikeout.

Sherman Johnson, 2B/3B, Los Angeles AL (Profile)
In the event that the reader was suddenly under the impression that life is something other than a hellscape of overwhelming and collective murder, he or she is invited to read this passage from the Wikipedia entry on the tarantula hawk, a type of horrifying wasp:

The female tarantula hawk wasp stings and paralyzes a tarantula, then drags the specimen to a specially prepared brooding nest, where a single egg is laid on the spider’s abdomen, and the entrance is covered…. When the wasp larva hatches, it creates a small hole in the spider’s abdomen, then enters and feeds voraciously, avoiding vital organs for as long as possible to keep the spider alive… Finally, the wasp becomes an adult, and emerges from the spider’s abdomen to continue the life cycle.

In addition to deepening the reader’s understanding of entomology, this introduction to the tarantula hawk’s macabre breeding practices serves another purpose, as well — namely, to serve as grounds for an analogy involving Sherman Johnson. Because Johnson — or the idea of Johnson, at least — is not unlike a larva that’s been embedded in a dumb weekly column called the Fringe Five. Except, instead of eating that column from the inside out, what the idea of Sherman Johnson does instead is to impregnate it with hope. False hope? Yes. Of course. By definition, all hope is false hope. But that doesn’t mitigate its therapeutic powers.

In conclusion, Johnson has produced a walk- and strikeout-differential of +5.3 points this season while exhibiting basically every other skill, as well.

Jaime Schultz, RHP, Tampa Bay (Profile)
There’s little disagreement about Schultz’s main virtue — namely, his arm speed. In his Rays list last year, Kiley McDaniel cited the right-hander’s “big stuff.” In his Rays list this offseason, Dan Farnsworth rated Schultz’s fastball as a “plus-plus” pitch. And the extant objective data agree: according to PITCHf/x, Schultz produced the eighth-highest average fastball velocity among all starters in the 2014 edition of the Arizona Fall League — right between hard-throwing Kyle Zimmer and hard-throwing Tyler Glasnow. There’s also been no disagreement about Schultz’s greatest weakness — namely, his lack of command. During his first three professional seasons (2013-15), Schultz’s recorded a 13.9% walk rate in 299.1 innings. The prevailing sentiment has been that Schultz is destined for the bullpen. But the subtext has also been that, if he developed some kind of usable command, Schultz likely had the other tools to survive as a starter. Which, this is almost the entire logic behind Schultz’s appearance in the Five this week. Because he’s exhibited some command, is why. Across four starts and 21.0 innings for Triple-A Durham, the 24-year-old Schutlz has walked roughly 7% of batters — or, (also roughly) half his usual figure.

Here he is during his most recent start, a 12-strikeout performance, throwing a fastball at 94 mph and then curveball with considerable depth to Pittsburgh prospect Alen Hanson:

Ildemaro Vargas, SS, Arizona (Profile)
This represents Vargas’s second appearance among the Five in as many weeks — which is to say, the maximum number of possible appearances during that same interval. Those who read last week’s entry regarding Vargas will remember that he was signed by Arizona out of the independent Atlantic League. And that he passed his age-23 season last year at Low-A, which is an older age to be at Low-A. Those who read last week’s entry will also remember, however, that he produced the second-lowest strikeout rate among affiliated batters in 2015. And that, by all indications, he plays a competent shortstop. Those who didn’t read last week’s entry will, by definition, remember none of these things. This doesn’t render them any less true. In either case, Vargas produced another strong week, recording a 2:3 walk-to-strikeout ratio in 33 plate appearances since the last edition of the Five, while also hitting a home run.

Chesny Young, 2B, Chicago NL (Profile)
Selected by the Cubs out of Mercer University in the 14th round of the 2014 draft, Young exhibited excellent control of the strike zone and promising defensive skills over his first two professional seasons. What he didn’t exhibit was power, recording only a .068 ISO and just a single home run in ca. 800 plate appearances during that same interval. What’s different about the 2016 campaign is that, in addition to exhibiting even more excellent control of the strike zone, Young has also recorded a .147 ISO and two home runs in just 85 plate appearances. Or, rephrased in slightly misleading but also still totally factual terms: in less than a month of play, Young has already tripled his career home-run total. Here’s a possible explanation for that series of events: that Young has benefited from increased physical strength or improved swing mechanics. Here’s another one, though: random variation. In either case, he’s produced the best walk and strikeout rates in all of Double-A baseball while also demonstrating some power on contact while also playing second base while also producing a 10-for-12 stolen-base record.

Here’s recent footage from Abraham Zapruder’s actual home-movie camera of Young recording one of his three professional homers:

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

Willians Astudillo, C, Atlanta (Double-A Southern League)
Jharel Cotton, RHP, Los Angeles NL (Triple-A Pacific Coast League)
Yandy Diaz, 3B, Cleveland (Double-A Eastern League)
Pedro Fernandez, RHP, Kansas City (High-A Carolina League)
Aaron Wilkerson, RHP, Boston (Triple-A International 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
Name Team POS FF NF PTS
1 Sherman Johnson Angels 2B/3B 4 0 12
2 Aaron Wilkerson Red Sox RHP 2 1 7
Edison Frias Astros RHP 2 1 7
4 Ildemaro Vargas D-backs SS 2 0 6
5 Tim Locastro Dodgers 2B/SS 1 2 5
Willians Astudillo Braves C 1 2 5
7 Jharel Cotton Dodgers RHP 1 1 4
Junior Guerra Brewers RHP 1 1 4
9 Adam Frazier Pirates SS/CF 1 0 3
Bruce Caldwell Cardinals 2B/3B 1 0 3
Chesny Young Cubs 2B 1 0 3
Chih-Wei Hu Rays RHP 1 0 3
Jaime Schultz Rays RHP 1 0 3
Jose Martinez Royals OF 1 0 3
Pedro Fernandez Royals RHP 0 3 3





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

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This Week’s Fridge Five:

1. Leftover bacon sundae from hipster place in Brooklyn
2. Deep-fried quesalupa
3. 24-pack of Dee Gordon power shakes (strawberry flavor)
4. ??? (can’t tell by look or taste test)
5. Leftover side of champion steer from Cespedes barbecue (actually in freezer).