The Fringe Five: Baseball’s Most Compelling Fringe Prospects by Carson Cistulli February 10, 2014 The Fringe Five is a weekly regular-season exercise, introduced last April by the present author, wherein that same ridiculous author utilizes regressed stats, scouting reports, and also his own heart 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 last year, a fringe prospect (and therefore one eligible for inclusion in the Five) was any rookie-eligible player at High-A or above both (a) absent from all of three notable preseason top-100 prospect lists and also (b) not currently playing in the majors. A more thorough discussion of eligibility, and the criteria for determining it, can be found here. The basic idea, though: to recognize those prospects who are perhaps receiving less notoriety than their talents might otherwise warrant. What follows is a special and very exclusive Preseason Edition of the Fringe Five. Because, as of press time, the top-prospect lists for 2014 are still under construction, the author has had to utilize a combination of organizational prospects lists and sound judgment to anticipate who may and may not be eligible for “fringe” status at the beginning of 2014. In any case, a number of fixtures from the Fringe Five in 2013 are almost certain to be ineligible: Boston’s Mookie Betts, for example, as well as White Sox infield prospect Marcus Semien. Hard-throwing Cleveland right-hander Danny Salazar, the top fringe pitching prospect of 2013, is ineligible for a different reason: with 52.0 major-league innings, he’s now an entirely grizzled veteran. Note that projections have been prorated — to 550 plate appearances for batters, to 150 innings for pitchers. Defensive figures (denoted by Def) account both for positional adjustment and UZR, and are presented relative to league average. Note that, in many cases, defensive value has been calculated entirely by positional adjustment based on the relevant player’s minor-league defensive starts in 2013. Pitcher WAR has been calculated using kwERA — that is, an ERA estimator which utilizes only strikeouts and walks — so as to remove the vagaries of park effects, and probably also because the author has no idea what he’s doing. ***** Dean Anna, MI, New York AL (Profile) PA BB% K% BABIP wRC+ BsR Off Def* WAR 550 8.7% 13.4% .293 96 0 -2 4 2.1 Anna’s name has appeared multiple times during the 2013-14 offseason within the electronic pages of FanGraphs — always, it should be noted, due to the efforts of the present author. One reason why is because, according to Steamer, the middle-infield-type produced the major-league equivalent of about three wins with San Diego Triple-A affiliate Tucson in 2013. A second reason is, still according to Steamer, Anna is projected to produce about two wins in 2014 — given something like regular playing time, at least. Yet, what one finds is that, despite having acquired the skills of an average major leaguer, Anna has yet to actually record a major-league plate appearance. “Curious thing, that” one says, affecting for a moment the speech pattern of a Briton. “Indeed,” says that first one’s companion, using a word that both Britons and Americans use with some frequency. Anna was traded to the Yankees, for whom he’ll maybe be competing for a bench spot in support of Derek Jeter et al. Paolo Espino, RHP, Chicago NL (Profile) IP K% BB% kwERA kwERA- WAR 150 17.3% 8.9% 4.30 111 1.1 Like Anna above, the right-handed Espino produced a notable (and probably surprising) MLE line in 2013. Also like Anna, Espino (a) is entering his age-27 season, (b) has no major-league experience whatsoever, and (c) isn’t returning in 2014 to the club with which he’s otherwise spent the entirety of his professional career. There’s almost no way in which Paolo Espino and Dean Anna are unalike, is what one finds more or less. Particularly encouraging with regard to Espino is how well he finished the 2013 season. Over his last five starts — all with Cleveland’s Triple-A affiliate, Columbus — Espino recorded a 38:3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 29.0 innings. He appears to have maintained that level into the Venezuelan Winter League, as well, where he produced one of the very best performances among starting pitchers of all the four Caribbean leagues. There’s enough evidence to suggest that Espino might have fundamentally changed as a pitcher somehow in 2013. Whether the newest version of Espino is capable of being effective in the majors remains a mysterious mystery. Thomas La Stella, 2B, Atlanta (Profile) PA BB% K% BABIP wRC+ BsR Off Def* WAR 550 8.3% 10.9% .302 113 0 8 2 3.0 It’s generally hard to find players who are likely to produce above-average numbers both offensively and defensively. Of the 141 major-league batters last year, for example, to accumulate 500 or more plate appearances — a group one would naturally expect to’ve produced better numbers, anyway, on account of they’re the ones receiving all the playing time — only about a quarter (or, 38 total) recorded positive figures in both capacities. Excellent at baseball, is generally what they were. At least average at baseball, is what literally all of them were. Incidentally, this appears to be the sort of player Thomas La Stella is. Steamer projects him to post better than a 100 wRC+. As a second baseman — even a slightly below-average one — he’s likely to post an overall defensive figure (which includes the WAR positional adjustment) above zero, as well. With Dan Uggla’s struggles, La Stella might actually enter 2014 as a starter. Mike O’Neill, COF, St. Louis (Profile) PA BB% K% BABIP wRC+ BsR Off Def* WAR 550 10.5% 7.8% .307 111 0 7 -6 2.0 Mike O’Neill appears in this first edition of the Fringe Five for 2014 because it is Mike O’Neill’s destiny, probably, to appear in basically every edition of the Fringe Five. Indeed, it would not be the very greatest of exaggerations to suggest that the Fringe Five is, in some ways, designed specifically for Mike O’Neill. Consider, for example, the hastily crafted Venn diagram below, designed to represent the properties of different baseball prospects. On the right side of the diagram, one finds the circle representing tools. Tools are qualities, such as speed and (for pitchers) velocity, that are generally a product of athleticism and physical strength. They’re typically celebrated by talent evaluators. On the left side, one finds baseball-specfic skills — i.e. qualities, such as plate discipline or (for pitchers) the capacity to throw an excellent changeup, that are also important for producing wins but which are generally less celebrated by talent evaluators. Mike O’Neill is the furthest point on the left side of this diagram. On a half-related note, is this observation: only four of the 141 batters to record 500-plus plate appearances last season also produced a positive walk-strikeout differential (Edwin Encarnacion, Norichika Aoki, Marco Scutaro, and Alberto Callaspo). Mike O’Neill is projected to do that. Aaron West, RHP, Houston (Profile) IP K% BB% kwERA kwERA- WAR 150 15.7% 6.8% 4.24 110 1.2 The lack of enthusiasm nationally for West is a bit curious — insofar, that is, as (a) he’s a starting pitcher who touches 98 mph and (b) starting pitchers who touch 98 mph are generally the exact sort for whom there’s enthusiasm nationally. That West, moreover, has walked only 26 of the 714 batters he’s faced professionally (or, 3.6%) continues to suggest that he ought to be receiving more attention. Perhaps one partial solution to this unsolved mystery is how he (i.e. West) was drafted in the 17th round, which isn’t generally where one finds Hot Talent. Another possible explanation is that West’s ERA (5.22) in the High-A California League obscured the otherwise excellent (and probably more telling) numbers of his 2013 season. To wit: 108.2 IP, 9.3 K/9, 1.4 BB/9, 0.6 HR/9, 2.56 FIP. That he also is capable of reading Persian, apparently, also counts in his favor — so far as Goddamn Belovedness is concerned, at least. Reason indicates that he’ll begin the season at Double-A Corpus Christi. Reason also indicates that he won’t continue in relative obscurity for much longer. ***** The Next Five Clayton Blackburn, RHP, San Francisco (Profile) The right-handed Blackburn appeared multiple times last season, too, among the Next Five. There’s nothing of particular note about his repertoire, it seems — which is likely why’ll he’ll be omitted from preseason top-100 prospect lists. Still, the performances have been excellent and his command of the aforementioned repertoire generally receives praise. Of note, as well: on a rate basis, his Steamer projection is basically identical to left-hander Edwin Escobar’s, a player invoked even more frequently on last year’s Fringe Five posts and also the second-ranked prospect on both Marc Hulet and also Baseball America’s organizational lists Billy Burns, OF, Oakland (Profile) It’s possible to make the case — and, in fact, the author has attempted that very thing — to make the case that Billy Burns was the best minor-league base-stealer in terms of total runs/wins produced of 2013. That’s not the sort of distinction upon which, looking back from middle-age, a player wants to hang the proverbial hat. Still, for one (i.e. a player) who’s only just finished his age-23 season, it’s not a bad thing. Nor does efficiency on the bases appear to be Burns’ only asset. His defense receives excellent reviews. Moreover, he’s demonstrated a discerning eye. For a hitter with one professional home runs (i.e. Burns’ total through 2013), that won’t necessarily translate into great major-league walk rates. Given a choice, though, discipline is better than no discipline. Traded to Oakland this offseason, he’ll begin 2014 either in Double- or Triple-A, it appears. Severino Gonzalez, RHP, Philadelphia (Profile) Gonzalez made his debut among the Fringe Five last year in the final edition of same for 2013. Here are some true facts invoked about the right-hander in that piece which remain unchanged — namely, that (a) Gonzalez was signed originally out of Panama by Philadelphia in 2011 for just $14 thousand, that (b) he recorded a 119:22 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 103.2 innings across three levels in 2013, and that (c) questions regarding the quality of his repertoire exist. New information — specifically the sort which appears in the form of his Steamer projection for 2014 — suggests that, as a major leaguer, Gonzalez would produce strikeout and walk rates of 18.5% and 7.6%, respectively, and a FIP of 4.05. Impressive, that, for a pitcher who’s thrown now a total of 6.2 innings at Double-A or above. Cory Mazzoni, RHP, New York NL (Profile) One method for estimating a pitcher’s likely future effectiveness in a very small sample is just to find the difference between that same pitcher’s strikeout and walk rates. It’s strikeout- and walk-rate differential, for example, which serve as the basis of kwERA, a half-toy pitching metric popularized by Tom Tango. The strikeout and walk rates of 22.0% and 8.9%, respectively, projected for Mazzoni by Steamer yield a differential of 13.1 points — a figure which would have tied him, with Doug Fister, for 45th among the 96 major-league pitchers in 2013 to record 150-plus innings. This isn’t to suggest that Mazzoni will definitely be a league-average starter already in 2014. What it does suggest, however, is that there’s a distinct probability of him exceeding expectations in 2014. Cesar Puello, COF, New York NL (Profile) To select Puello for the present list is to cheat a bit so far as the author’s self-imposed rules for eligibility are concerned. Indeed, the Dominican-born outfielder actually did appear, at No. 77, on Baseball America’s top-100 prospect list for 2011. Perhaps other lists included him, as well. Still, he was absent from top-prospect lists entering 2013 and, probably owing (at least partially) to his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal, is absent both from Marc Hulet‘s and Baseball America’s (i.e. the major ones available as of press time) respective Mets lists this offseason. Like some other names on this preseaon edition of the Fringe Five, Puello produced a pretty valuable translated line. Entering just his age-23 season, there’s time for development, certainly.