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 America, Baseball Prospectus, MLB.com, John Sickels*, and (most importantly) lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen and also who (b) is currently absent from a major-league roster. Players appearing on a midseason list will also be excluded from eligibility.
*All 200 names!
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.
Matt Cooper, RHP, Chicago AL (Profile)
For the duration of his professional career, Cooper has mostly looked like the sort of polished collegiate pitcher who’s capable of thriving against less refined competition in the lower minors but who lacks the arm speed to succeed against more advanced hitters. In 213.0 innings as a professional, the right-hander has produced strikeout and walk rates of 33.3% and 6.8%, respectively. Statistically, that renders him the minor-league equivalent of Max Scherzer or Noah Syndergaard — except for that Cooper (a) recorded many of those innings in a relief capacity and (b) has typically thrown a fastball that travels about 10 mph slower than either Scherzer or Syndergaard’s.
As I say, he’s typically thrown such a fastball. At midseason of last year, however, reports suggested that he’d added a bit of velocity, sitting more comfortably in the low 90s. And, promisingly, he’s proved capable of surviving thus far against Double-A competition. After a successful run as a reliever in the Southern League last year, the former 16th-round pick has recorded strikeout and walk rates of 47.1% and 5.9%, respectively, over the course of two starts so far in 2017.
Here’s video from last season of what appears to be Cooper’s changeup thrown from a very high arm slot:
Seranthony Dominguez, RHP, Philadelphia (Profile)
While all three pitchers (Dominguez plus Cooper and Winkelman) included in this edition of the Five have recorded excellent fielding-independent numbers over the course of the very short season, Dominguez best complements those numbers with raw physical talent. The 22-year-old right-hander has been throwing his fastball between 94 and 97 mph, according to Eric Longenhagen. That fastball seems to exhibit promising cutting action, as well — as suggested by the video evidence below from Dominguez’ last start of 2016.
As noted, the results have been excellent: over 13.0 innings (spread out between two starts and a relief performance), Dominguez has produced strikeout and walk rates of 41.7% and 8.3%, respectively — numbers that he’s complemented with a 57% ground-ball rate.
Michael Russell, SS/1B, Tampa Bay (Profile)
A fifth-round selection out of UNC in 2014, Russell features a decidedly unorthodox profile all around. Mostly a shortstop in college, he recorded the majority of his starts for Low-A Bowling Green last year at first base — or, that’s what he did until midseason, at least. Starting on July 24th, however, he proceeded to tally 30 consecutive starts back at shortstop, ending the season at that position.
One could see a reasonable argument for either case. On the one hand, Russell is listed at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds — which is to say, he’s quite large. On the other hand, he compiled a 51-for-60 stolen-base record over his first 172 professional games — which is to say, he demonstrated unusual athleticism relative to his size. Whatever the case, he’s posted reasonable defensive numbers according to the methodologies employed both by Baseball Prospectus and Clay Davenport.
Nor does any of this recognize his virtues as a hitter. Russell struck out in just 14.0% of his plate appearances in the Midwest League last year while also recording a .157 isolated-slugging figure. He’s more or less preserved those rates so far this season after skipping High-A and moving directly to Double-A. He’s split time between third base and short.
Max Schrock, 2B, Oakland (Profile)
A colleague recently asked how earnestly I believed my own claim from January of 2016 that Max Schrock would someday win a Most Valuable Player award in the majors. “Not very earnestly,” is what I answered. That’s not because I doubt Max Schrock’s ballplaying abilities, though — I believe in them very much — but rather because I doubt the merits of doing anything in earnest. Imagine pondering seriously the athletic potential of another human. Imagine investing some measure of self-worth on the outcome of that other human’s athletic career. These thoughts are too preposterous!
As for Schrock, his major-league prospects aren’t preposterous. He possesses elite contact ability and the capacity to play second base. Or maybe the capacity to play second base. But definitely elite contact ability. And he’s already exhibiting that elite contact ability as a 22-year-old at Double-A.
Ildemaro Vargas, SS, Arizona (Profile)
Vargas finished third on last year’s arbitrarily calculated Fringe Five Scoreboard on the strength both of excellent contact skills and above-average defensive value. Apropos the first of those qualities, one finds that Vargas actually recorded the lowest strikeout rate (6.7%) of any qualified batter above Rookie-level ball in 2016 — this, of course, occurring the season after he recorded the second-lowest strikeout rate (4.2%) of any qualified batter above Rookie-level ball. That sort of contact ability creates a high floor for Vargas’s offense — which, combined with Vargas’s average shortstop defense, creates a high floor for Vargas as an overall ballplayer.
Over the first couple weeks of the 2017 campaign, Vargas has been basically the same player as each of the past two seasons. He’s recorded basically the same strikeout rate (6.5%). He’s also played some second base and center field — although that’s largely in deference to offseason acquisition Ketel Marte.
The Next Five
These are players on whom the author might potentially become fixated.
Sherman Johnson, 2B/3B, Los Angeles AL (Triple-A Pacific Coast League)
Tim Locastro, SS/CF, Los Angeles NL (Double-A Texas League)
Nicky Lopez, SS, Kansas City (High-A Carolina League)
Brandon Lowe, 2B, Tampa Bay (High-A Florida State League)
Alex Winkelman, LHP, Houston (High-A Carolina 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 (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.
|2||Matt Cooper||White Sox||RHP||1||0||3|
Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.