The Fringe Five: Baseball’s Most Compelling Fringe Prospects

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 this year, a fringe prospect (and therefore one eligible for inclusion in the Five) is 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. Players appearing on the midseason prospect lists produced by those same notable sources or, otherwise, selected in the first round of the current season’s amateur draft will also be excluded from eligibility.

*In this case, those produced by Baseball America, ESPN’s Keith Law, and our own Marc Hulet.

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.

*****

Austin Barnes, C/2B, Miami (Profile)
In the first three professional seasons following his selection (as a ninth-rounder, out of Arizona State) in the 2011 draft, the 24-year-old Barnes produced almost exactly a 1:1 walk-to-strikeout ratio over 1300-plus plate appearances. Nor has that trend abated into his fourth season: in just over 400 plate appearances this year between High- and Double-A, Barnes has recorded walk and strikeout rates of 12.5% and 12.7%, respectively. Of particular note with regard to Barnes, however, is his positional flexibility: after dedicating most of 2012 to second base and 2013 to catcher, he’s demonstrated the capacity to play both this year. Regard: since his June 1st promotion to Jacksonville, Barnes has made 24 starts at catcher, 12 more at second base, and even 7 at third base. What value a player might add in serving both as a team’s starting second baseman and backup catcher, the author is unable to say. But not no value, is probably the case.

Here’s video from July 23rd of Barnes hitting one of his five July home runs — a skill (i.e. home-run hitting) which, were he to continue demonstrating it regularly, would make him a particularly dangerous and valuable player:

Taylor Cole, RHP, Toronto (Profile)
With his appearance this week among the Five, the right-handed Cole now occupies the top spot (tied with left-handed Houston prospect Thomas Shirley) on the somewhat aribitrary Fringe Five Scoreboard. Since his inclusion here last week, Cole recorded a 9:2 strikeout-to-walk ratio against 21 batters over 5.1 innings in a July 26th start versus Tampa Bay’s Florida State League affiliate Charlotte (box).

Unfortunately, recent video footage of Cole remains non-extant. From a collection of audio highlights available at MiLB.com, however, one learns that, during his July 21st start, Cole:

  • Struck out no fewer than six batters via pitches in the dirt — all of them, it would seem, by way of the changeup.
  • Threw a fastball at 91 mph.
  • Recorded a career-high 12 strikeouts.

Tony Kemp, 2B, Houston (Profile)
It’s not unusual for a prospect, after moving away from the elevated run environments of the California League, to record less impressive raw power numbers with his next club. Less common is for that same sort of player to more than double his home-run rate following his promotion to Double-A. Yet this is manifestly what Houston second-base prospect Tony Kemp has done. The numbers, granted, remain generally modest: Kemp’s four homers with Corpus Christi in 153 plate appearances prorates to something like only 15-16 over a full season. Relative to his stature (5-7, 165), it’s a notable things, however — and, in conjunction with his excellent plate-discipline numbers, above-average footspeed, and defensive acumen, a promising development.

Cody Kukuk, LHP, Boston (Profile)
Kukuk is unlike a number of pitchers one might regard as fringe insofar as neither arm speed nor a lack of competent secondary pitches — nor age relative to level, nor even injury concern — is what’s preventing him from greater and more favorable attention. Consider the following passage, by way of example:

Kukuk’s fastball… [sat] at 93, while registering as high as 97 in the season’s final months. His hard slider continues to evade bats, and even his changeup was a swing-and-miss offering by season’s end.

That’s an excerpt from the most recent edition of Baseball America’s Prospect Handbook — and yet the editors of that same publication ranked Kukuk 21st among Red Sox prospects. Because why is almost entirely due to the 16.8% walk rate Kukuk recorded over 107.0 innings last year with Class-A Greenville. Of late, however, the 21-year-old has produced decided more palatable figures in that regard. In July, for example, Kukuk walked only nine of the 92 batters he faced with High-A Salem — while striking out 30 of those same batters. Impressive, that. Should such numbers become reflective of his true talent, Kukuk would would then be an unavoidably talented pitcher.

Here’s an idea — courtesy video by Nathanial Stoltz from April — an idea of how Kukuk’s changeup might appear to someone who’s just had his pupils dilated:

Kukuk CH

And here, in this case, to someone with dilated pupils and an unusually slow experience of time:

Kukuk CH Slow

Scott Schebler, OF, Los Angeles NL (Profile)
Broadly speaking, Schebler is a sort of offensive counterpart to the pitcher Kukuk (above). While not uniformly celebrated for his tools, Schebler has demonstrated enough both of power (21 HR per 600 PA) and speed (14 SB per 600 PA) as a professional to warrant some attention. What he’s lacked, though — and what, besides his lack of draft pedigree, has likely conspired to mute enthusiasm for his future — is plate discipline. Entering 2014, Schebler had recorded walk and strikeout rates of just 5.7% and 24.1% over 1463 plate appearances. This season, however, he’s demonstrated improvement on both accounts — and, particularly of late, has turned his figurative lemons into equally figurative lemonade. Over the entire week, for example, between July 21 and 27, Schebler recorded 31 plate appearances without a strikeout — this, while also drawing five walks.

Here’s footage of Schebler from earlier in July both hitting the ball hard and then running fast — two skills which, as noted, he appears to possess in concert:

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

Brian Johnson, LHP, Boston (Double-A Eastern League)
Dario Pizzano, OF, Seattle (Double-A Southern League)
Michael Reed, OF, Milwaukee (High-A Florida State League)
Glenn Sparkman, RHP, Kansas City (High-A Carolina League)
Austin Voth, RHP, Washington (Double-A Eastern League)

Fringe Five Scoreboard
Here are the top-10 the players to 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.

Name Team POS FF NF PTS
Taylor Cole Blue Jays RHP 6 1 19
Thomas Shirley Astros LHP 6 1 19
Jace Peterson Padres SS 5 2 17
Jose Ramirez Indians 2B 5 1 16
Ben Lively Reds RHP 4 2 14
Billy McKinney Cubs OF 3 5 14
Josh Hader Astros LHP 4 2 14
Robert Kral Padres C 3 5 14
Seth Mejias-Brean Reds 3B 4 2 14
Dario Pizzano Mariners OF 3 4 13



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Carson Cistulli occasionally publishes spirited ejaculations at The New Enthusiast.


10 Responses to “The Fringe Five: Baseball’s Most Compelling Fringe Prospects”

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  1. Yirmiyahu says:

    Craig Biggio aside, C/2B is a bizarre combination. Not a lot of overlapping skills there.

    Also: #KeepNotgraphs #KillCistulli

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  2. #KeepNotGraphs says:

    #KeepNotGraphs #KillCistulli

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  3. Matt Kemp says:

    Is it a good thing or a bad thing to get my pupils dilated right before I take the field?

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  4. Theo Fanboy says:

    Confession: I’m always personally offended when no Cubs prospect makes the Fringe Five.

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  5. Cicero says:

    Ryan Casteel

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  6. Kevin says:

    How has Sean Coyle not made this list at all this year? Kids been raking.

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