The Fringe Five: Baseball’s Most Compelling Fringe Prospects

Fringe Five Scoreboards: 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013.

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 any updated list — such as the revised top 100 released last week by Baseball America — 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.

*****

Thairo Estrada, 2B/SS, New York AL (Profile)
I selected Estrada as Cistulli’s Guy on Eric Longenhagen’s organizational list for the Yankees. Like a number of other players who received that same distinction on other clubs, Estrada’s profile entering the season was marked by above-average contact skills and the promise of defensive value. Unlike some of those other players, however, Estrada also featured youth relative to level. Consider: of the 100 players who recorded more than 136 at-bats in the Florida State League last season — a list which includes top-100 sorts like Corey Ray and Amed Rosario — only Toronto prospect Richard Urena was younger.

Now at Double-A in just his age-21 season, Estrada has somehow produced even stronger numbers than last year. He’s recorded a strikeout rate of just 10.1% after posting a 13.1% mark at High-A last year. He’s also made two-thirds of his starts at shortstop after having largely moved off the position in 2015 and -16. He’s been a net positive there, according to Clay Davenport’s fielding-runs methodology.

Here’s footage of Estrada hitting one home run — specifically, in this case, during spring training:

Wilmer Font, RHP, Los Angeles NL (Profile)
This past November, Chris Mitchell — with the aid of his KATOH projection system — identified Font as one of the most promising members of the offseason’s minor-league free-agent class. Earlier this month, Mitchell published his first installment of the most improved pitching prospects according to KATOH. Font appeared at the top of that particular list. Notably, none of the data used by Mitchell accounts for Font’s most recent and probably best start as a professional. This past Monday, facing the Giants’ Triple-A affiliate, Font recorded a 15:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and conceded just two hits against 24 total batters over 7.0 innings (box). He’s now produced the best strikeout- and walk-rate differential (K-BB%) of the 99 qualified pitchers across Triple-A.

As Mitchell himself notes, Font isn’t a “prospect” in the usual sense. He turns 27 in two weeks, for example. Also: he made his major-league debut back in 2012. Nonetheless, he retains his rookie eligibility. And the physical tools to survive in the majors appear to be present: according to Brooks Baseball’s data, for instance, Font recorded an average fastball velocity greater than 93 mph over two spring-training appearances this March.

A cursory examination of the video from his most recent start suggests he features strong fastball command. Like in this case…

… and in this one…

… and in this one, too…

… all from the first inning of his most recent start.

Brandon Lowe, 2B, Tampa Bay (Profile)
This represents Lowe’s debut appearance among the Five, although he’s been one of the last cuts on multiple occasions this year. His omission hasn’t been a product of concern regarding his offensive skills. Through roughly 150 plate appearances, Lowe has recorded a higher walk than strikeout rate (16.4% and 13.8%, respectively) as well as the third-best isolated-power mark (.238) among the Florida State League’s 91 qualifiers. Complemented by average second-base defense, that would amount to a very promising profile.

Average second-base defense isn’t a foregone conclusion in Lowe’s case, however. As Eric Longenhagen noted in his Rays prospect list, Lowe has possibly lost some mobility to injury. The defensive numbers from last year support that observation: Lowe recorded -14 runs at second base in 85 games last season according to Clay Davenport’s methodology. Baseball Prospectus arrived at a similar mark. So far this year, however, Lowe profiles as something much closer to average by both methods. In light of his offensive skills, merely average is a very positive outcome for Lowe.

Josh Morgan, SS/C, Texas (Profile)
Morgan has recorded negative fielding-run marks both at shortstop and catcher this season, according to the methodology used by Clay Davenport. What else he’s done, though, is produce the second-lowest strikeout rate (11.3%) in the Carolina League while also posting an isolated-power figure (.171) roughly 40 points higher than league average. Strikeout rate and isolated-power are useful metrics for assessing prospects — both because those figures become reliable in relatively small samples and also because they’re fairly predictive of future performance.

In Morgan’s case, that’s promising. Consider, by way of example, major-league batters from the past five seasons who’ve recorded similar strikeout-rate and isolated-power marks as Morgan this year:

Josh Morgan Comps, 2012-16
Name Team Season PA K% ISO wRC+ Off Def WAR
Jonathan Lucroy Brewers 2014 655 10.8% .164 133 22.5 14.6 6.2
Adrian Beltre Rangers 2014 614 12.1% .168 142 28.6 4.7 5.8
Buster Posey Giants 2014 605 11.4% .179 142 25.5 7.0 5.5
Adrian Beltre Rangers 2015 619 10.5% .166 109 10.7 13.8 4.8
Jonathan Lucroy Brewers 2013 580 11.9% .175 116 4.2 10.2 3.4
J.J. Hardy Orioles 2013 644 11.3% .170 99 -3.8 13.3 3.3
Josh Reddick Athletics 2015 582 11.2% .177 118 17.4 -8.0 3.0
Ian Kinsler Rangers 2012 731 12.3% .166 100 3.5 0.5 3.0
Justin Morneau Rockies 2014 550 10.9% .177 122 10.5 -3.3 2.6
Ben Zobrist – – – 2015 535 10.5% .173 123 13.2 -11.5 2.0
Average – – – – – – 612 11.3% .172 120 13.2 4.1 4.0
Qualified MLB batters who recorded strikeout rate between 10.3% and 12.3% plus ISO between .161 and .181.

What this table reveals isn’t merely that comparable players to Morgan have produced roughly four wins per season, but that they’ve reached that mark while recording an average of just four fielding runs above average. There are indications Morgan could routinely hit such a mark. He isn’t an excellent shortstop, for example, but could probably serve as an above-average second or third baseman. He isn’t an excellent catcher, either, but he’s just begun playing the position this year. There are a number of paths, in other words, by which Morgan could complement his offensive promise with defensive value.

Nik Turley, LHP, Minnesota (Profile)
Turley appeared among the Five three weeks ago. He’s actually both ascended to and returned from Triple-A in the meantime. He was effective with the Twins’ International League affiliate, striking out just fewer than a third of the batters he faced over 6.0 innings. More notable, however, is his latest appearance, during which he recorded a 9:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio against just 14 batters over 4.0 innings (box). At the Double-A level now, the left-hander has produced a 52.3% strikeout rate in 24.0 innings.

Turley’s repertoire appears to remain the same — which is to say, constituted almost entirely by fastballs and curveballs. Here, for illustrative purposes, is footage of Turley throwing both those pitches to record strikes two and three against Philadelphia prospect Jorge Alfaro:

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

Jose Cardona, CF, Texas (Double-A Texas League)
Vladimir Gutierrez, RHP, Cincinnati (High-A Florida State League)
Garrett Hampson, 2B/SS, Colorado (High-A California League)
Cole Tucker, SS, Pittsburgh (High-A Florida State League)
Ildemaro Vargas, SS, Arizona (Triple-A Pacific Coast 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.

Fringe Five Scoreboard, 2017
Name Team POS FF NF PTS
1 Max Schrock Athletics 2B 3 1 10
2 Michael Russell Rays 2B/SS 2 2 8
3 Jason Vosler Cubs 3B 2 0 6
4 Josh Morgan Rangers SS/C 2 0 6
5 Nik Turley Twins LHP 2 0 6
6 Brandon Lowe Rays 2B 1 2 5
7 Ildemaro Vargas D-backs SS 1 2 5
8 Sherman Johnson Angels 2B/3B 1 2 5
9 Beau Burrows Tigers RHP 1 1 4
10 Cameron Perkins Phillies OF 1 1 4
11 Garrett Stubbs Astros C 1 1 4
12 Mike Tauchman Rockies OF 1 1 4
13 Vladimir Gutierrez Reds RHP 1 1 4

We hoped you liked reading The Fringe Five: Baseball’s Most Compelling Fringe Prospects by Carson Cistulli!

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

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