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Introducing a Weekly Exercise: The Fringe Five

For more or less the entirety of his tenure at FanGraphs, the present author has made a habit of entwining his own wellbeing with the fate of this or that fringe player. There was, initially, a season-long love affair with Rangers right-hander Colby Lewis — not a prospect at the time, Lewis, but just returning to the United States (where he’d been unsuccessful) from Japan (where he’d been very successful).

Following that, certain bold claims (never to be regretted by the author!) were made about Charlie Blackmon and his future as a major leaguer. Is it possible that a short play was written about Tommy Milone? No: it’s a certainty! More recently, loving panegyrics have been crafted in honor of Chase Anderson‘s changeup (link) and Phil Irwin‘s curveball (link and link and link), while a scouting video of Tony Cingrani set to the comedy jokes of Anthony Jeselnik was also definitely made this winter, for some reason.

This is not an affectation, I assure you. For whatever reason, I’m drawn in my deepest heart to those players who (a) exhibit success of one sort or another but also (b) lack those qualities that would earn them Highest Praise from (conspicuously able) prospect analysts.

In light of this preoccupation, I’ve made a decision to produce a weekly piece for the site, appearing each Tuesday, that focuses on a small cadre of less-than-top prospects. The column, called The Fringe Five, will be a means of monitoring the status of those players upon whom I’ve set my figurative sights, and to formalize somewhat the process by which I affix my attention on such players.

Essential to this endeavor, of course, is first to create a working definition of fringe. While there’s no consensus definition of the word as it relates to baseballing prospects, so far as I know, my sense is that it’s designed to characterize a player whose probability of succeeding in the majors is minimal. Regarding that point, work by Scott McKinney from a couple years ago reveals that

about 30% of position players ranked 21-100 [on Baseball America’s top-100 prospect list] succeed in the majors (with the success rate declining over that ranking range from about 36% to about 25%) [and] about 20% of pitchers ranked 21-100 succeed in the majors (with the success rate declining over that ranking range from about 22% to about 15%)

If even a prospect on Baseball America’s top-100 list has only a 20-30% chance of making the majors, it stands to reason that prospects eligible for, but nonetheless omitted from, those top-100 lists will have even less of an opportunity of succeeding in the majors.

In light of same, eligibility for The Fringe Five will require (for the present, at least) the following:

• Rookie-eligibility (i.e. fewer than 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched), and

• Absence from a 25-man roster (i.e. not in the major leagues currently), and

• Absence from any of three noted top-100 prospect lists (Baseball America’s, Bullpen Banter’s, plus Marc Hulet’s own), and

• The capacity to stir something within the author’s manly bosom.

Because new information becomes available constantly — and because a preseason top-100 list is decidedly less relevant in August than in April — the third criterion above will change eventually. How it will change is still a question on which I’m meditating. For now, let’s regard it as what professional men everywhere probably refer to as a “TBD situation.”

In addition, for the moment I’ll likely only be selecting players from the five highest minor leagues: the Triple-A International and Pacific Coast Leagues, and then then Eastern, Southern, and Texas Leagues in Double-A — partly because the world doesn’t need me commenting upon every possible minor league, but also because part of the exercise is to identify players who are closer to the majors than not.

This first edition of the Fringe Five is informed, at some level, by early-season performances, but also — and more substantially — by performances from last season and during the Arizona Fall League.

Below (and arranged alphabetically) are the Fringe Five for the present moment, followed directly by the Next Five — which is to say, the next five players who were most closely considered for, but didn’t ultimately make, the Fringe Five.

Chase Anderson, RHP, Arizona (Profile)
At 25, Anderson is the oldest player on this inaugural edition of the Fringe Five. Even so, he’s been impressive. His 97:25 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 104.0 innings last season earned him a place near the top of the SCOUT pitching leaderboards for the Double-A Southern League — between more highly prized prospects Danny Hultzen (Seattle) and Tyler Skaggs (also of Arizona). He was also one of the top pitchers in the Arizona Fall League this past offseason. His changeup appears to be beautiful and full of beauty, as this GIF from the AFL Rising Stars game documents:

Anderson 1

Wilmer Flores, 2B/3B, New York NL (Profile)
Is it cheating to include a player who has previously appeared on Baseball America’s top-100 list, but wasn’t present on any lists before the 2013 season? “No,” is the answer to that. And: “Because I’m creating the rules as I go along,” is the inadequate justification. As can happen with Latin prospects who receive attention at a very young age, Flores has already scaled the heights of prospectdom and descended on the other side. Still, at just 21 years old, he’s controlling the hell out of the Triple-A strike zone, having posted a 5:3 walk-to-strikeout in his first 53 plate appearances at that level.

Corban Joseph, 2B, New York AL (Profile)
It remains to be seen whether Corban Joseph can handle second base defensively. What doesn’t remain to be seen is how, like Flores above, Corban Joseph combines contact skills with plate discipline. After finishing near the top of the SCOUT batting leaderboard last season in the Double-A Eastern League, he proceeded to do almost that exact thing — again, as a 23-year-old — in the Triple-A International League. He’s begun the 2013 season by posting a 6:4 walk-to-strikeout ratio in 41 plate appearances.

Joc Pederson, OF, Los Angeles NL (Profile)
The author is plagiarizing himself from earlier today when he writes that outfielder Joc Pederson was an 11th-round pick in 2010 by the Dodgers out of Palo Alto (CA) High School. Prospect analyst Mike Newman discussed him briefly during his most recent appearance on FanGraphs Audio, noting that, while toolsy, Pederson would ultimately probably lack the range for center and the power traditionally associated with corner outfielders — but that he might be useful as a regular, anyway. Pederson was among the top prospect-age hitters in High-A last season, according to SCOUT, and has begun this season atop the batting leaderboard in the Southern League, as well. ZiPS, incidentally, regards him as basically a league-average player already.

Marcus Semien, SS, Chicago AL (Profile)
It would be fair to say that, prior to about yesterday, that the author had heard of White Sox shortstop Marcus Semien zero times. Here’s something that seems to be true of Semien, however: that he was originally taken in the sixth round of the 2011 draft out of the University of California. And here’s another: that part of his future value is tied to his ability to play shortstop ably — a prospect about which the internet demonstrates some guarded optimism. As of Monday, Semien had posted a 5:3 walk-to-strikeout ratio and home run in his first 48 plate appearances — putting him just behind Pederson on the SCOUT batting leaderboard for the Southern League.

The Next Five
Brian Flynn, LHP, Miami (Double-A Southern League)
Greg Garcia, SS, St. Louis (Triple-A Pacific Coast League)
Chris Heston, RHP, San Francisco (Triple-A Pacific Coast League)
Rafael Montero, RHP, New York NL (Double-A Eastern League)
Zach Walters, SS, Washington (Triple-A International League)