Prospect Watch: Two Graduates from the Fringe Five

Each weekday during the minor-league season, FanGraphs is providing a status update on multiple rookie-eligible players. Note that Age denotes the relevant prospect’s baseball age (i.e. as of July 1st of the current year); Top-15, the prospect’s place on Marc Hulet’s preseason organizational list; and Top-100, that same prospect’s rank on Hulet’s overall top-100 list.

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The Fringe Five is a weekly column in which the author attempts to identify the most compelling rookie-eligible players not to have appeared on a top-100 prospect list. What follows is an inspection of two players who appeared frequently among the Five last year, but became ineligible this year owing to their growing prospect status.

Mookie Betts, 2B, Boston (Profile)
Level: Double-A   Age: 21   Top-15: 4th   Top-100: 59th
Line: 102 PA, 9.8% BB, 7.8% K, .422/.471/.689 (.425 BABIP), 10/12 SB

Summary
Betts is capable of most everything on a baseball field — including to play multiple positions on it, probably.

Notes
As was mostly the case with Class-A and High-A last season, Double-A doesn’t appear to offer enough in the way of talent to contend with the Venerable Betts. He’s produced in basically every way that’s possible: by taking walks, by avoiding strikeouts, by hitting some home runs, by converting other sorts of batted balls into hits, by stealing bases. Even regressing his BABIP into a range that might ultimately be considered sustainable doesn’t really take away much of the splendor from the overall line.

Another sign of Betts’ excellence: before the season, Steamer produced a projected 0.2 WAR for Betts per 600 plate appearances. A month later, that figure has risen to 1.1 per 600.

While it’s probably never wise to take for granted a prospect’s major-league ability so long as he’s in the minors, it’s also probably fair to say that one pressing question concerning Betts is that of opportunity. He’s continued to play exclusively at second base this season — at which position there’s room at Boston’s Triple-A affiliate. At the major-league level, however, that’s less the case.

Worldwide expert on Mookie Betts, WEEI’s Alex Speier, wrote at some length on Betts’ possible defensive future just a couple days ago. A sample from same:

[W]hile Betts has been portrayed as a redundancy given the presence of Pedroia, the Sox view him as anything but. He is the one player in the organization with the potential to emerge as a standout, multi-dimensional force while having the athleticism and skill set to address holes at different spots on the diamond.

At a time when the Sox are preparing to play the Rays, they can look into the other dugout at a player like Ben Zobrist — someone whose impact has been magnified by his ability to play seven positions in the big leagues (all four infield spots and all three outfield positions) and see a hint of the kind of impact Betts could one day make.

The Zobrist comparison is a compelling one, insofar as (a) Zobrist has recorded the third-highest WAR total in all the major leagues since 2009 and (b) given his youth, Betts might represent what’s possible when an all-around useful player such as Zobrist actually begins his career in earnest before age 28.

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Maikel Franco, 3B, Philadelphia (Profile)
Level: Triple-A   Age: 21    Top-15: 1st   Top-100: 27th
Line: 94 PA, 6.4% BB, 19.1% K, .172/.234/.253 (.206 BABIP)

Summary
Age is actually something more than a number.

Notes
Before embarking on any real discussion of Franco’s performance thus far — which isn’t a particularly great performance thus far — it’s essential to acknowledge that he’s currently the fourth-youngest field player in all of Triple-A, behind only Ronald Torreyes (Houston), Jose Ramirez (Cleveland), and Javier Baez (Chicago NL). While, as Dan Szymborski astutely points out in his Hardball Times piece from yesterday, it’s not really the case that a “neat, tidy, aging curve” exists for every player, it’s also true that when a prospect is asked to contend with much older talent, that’s usually a sign of a future major-league career.

“What kind of future major-league career?” is a question that seems reasonable to ask.

To get the most basic sense of the answer, what I did was merely to identify the four-youngest players in Triple-A from 2006 to -08 — i.e. the earliest three years for which FanGraphs has complete minor-league data. Here are the players who meet that criteria, from 2006: Asdrubal Cabrera, Adam Jones, Felix Pie, and Ryan Sweeney. And from 2007: Daric Barton, Jones (again), Sweeney (again), and Brandon Wood. And from 2008: Andrew McCutchen, Colby Rasmus, Matt Tuiasosopo, and Neil Walker.

And here are their respective career numbers, sorted by WAR per 550 plate appearances:

Name G PA wRC+ WAR WAR550
Andrew McCutchen 760 3291 139 28.2 4.7
Colby Rasmus 715 2762 102 12.8 2.5
Adam Jones 970 3908 107 17.4 2.4
Neil Walker 574 2363 111 9.3 2.2
Asdrubal Cabrera 845 3566 105 13.4 2.1
Ryan Sweeney 624 2171 94 7.4 1.9
Daric Barton 545 2075 102 7.0 1.9
Matt Tuiasosopo 152 401 79 -0.3 -0.4
Felix Pie 425 1082 72 -1.2 -0.6
Brandon Wood 272 751 36 -2.9 -2.1
Average 588 2237 95 9.1 1.5
Median 599 2267 102 8.4 2.0

It occurs to me, having assembled the above collection of players, that, to perform an evaluation of this nature with regard to Franco specifically, it might make more sense to consider the, say, second- through sixth-youngest players in Triple-A over a three-year span — thus placing the fourth-youngest player in the middle of that group. I’ve already produced the relevant data, however, and am too consumed by sloth to repeat the process.

What one extracts from this collection of players, however, is (first) that all of them graduated to the majors and that (second) seven of the ten have produced wins at an average-or-better rate. Quite promising, all of that.

In the case of Franco, specifically, it’s the case that no little part of his value both now and in the future is tied to his ability to hit home runs. He’s done that only once this season, but that’s also probably not particularly representative of his true talent in that regard. So, for a number of reasons, the alarm regarding his slow start ought to be minimal.



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