The Fringe Five: Baseball’s Most Compelling Fringe Prospects

Fringe Five Scoreboards: 2017 | 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 Prospectus, MLB.com, John Sickels, and (most importantly) FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel* and also who (b) is currently absent from a major-league roster. Players appearing on any updated, midseason-type list will also be excluded from eligibility.

*Note: I’ve excluded Baseball America’s list this year not due to any complaints with their coverage, but simply because said list is now behind a paywall.

For those interested in learning how Fringe Five players have fared at the major-league level, this somewhat recent post offers that kind of information. The short answer: better than a reasonable person would have have expected. In the final analysis, though, the basic idea here is to recognize those prospects who are perhaps receiving less notoriety than their talents or performance might otherwise warrant.

*****

Jalen Beeks, LHP, Boston (Profile)
Beeks is here because his body of work over the first month of the season is impossible to ignore. In six starts for Triple-A Pawtucket, the left-hander has recorded strikeout and walk rates of 40.9% and 6.3%, respectively, the former of those representing the highest mark among all qualified minor-league pitchers. He’s basically the Josh Hader or Andrew Miller of the International League, except in a starting capacity.

One reason Beeks is unlikely to replicate that sort of performance in the majors is because no one has every replicated that sort of performance in the majors. Another, though, is because Beeks — for all his strikeouts — doesn’t actually possess much in the way of swing-and-miss stuff. Consider, for example, all six of the strikeouts from his most recent appearance (box):

All but one of Beeks’ strikeouts was recorded by means of a rather ordinary fastball; the sixth, a short breaking ball on a called third strike. Nor does this pattern appear to be anomalous. An examination of Beeks’ last three starts seems to reveal an inordinately high ratio of strikeouts by way of the fastball and/or the called third strike. And while, as noted, he has the top strikeout rate among all minor-league qualifiers, his swinging-strike rate ranks 61st among that same population. Of course, this doesn’t render his present achievement any less remarkable. It merely suggests that it’s unlikely to translate directly to the majors.

Santiago Espinal, 2B/SS, Boston (Profile)
Espinal appeared among the Next Five portion of last week’s edition. In the seven days since, though, he’s strengthened his case for inclusion here, recording an isolated-power mark of .370 while striking out in just three of his 29 plate appearances.

Selected out of Miami-Dade College in the 10th round of the 2016 draft, Espinal signed for just $50,000. In light of his diminutive stature, Espinal doesn’t appear to offer much projection on the power. Indeed, entering the season, he’d hit just four homers in over 600 professional appearances. Through just 133 plate appearances of the present campaign, however, Espinal already has five.

As is the case with many player to demonstrate this kind of improvement in the majors, Espinal is hitting many fewer batted balls on the ground. In fact, his ability to avoid both the whiff and ground is tops among players at High-A:

The Matt Carpenters of High-A, 2018
Rank Name Team Age PA SwStr% GB% zSwStr zGB zTotal
1 Santiago Espinal Red Sox 23 133 6.6% 30.0% 1.4 1.7 1.6
2 Josh Rojas Astros 24 105 4.8% 35.1% 1.9 1.1 1.5
3 Austin Listi Phillies 24 123 9.8% 25.6% 0.6 2.2 1.4
4 Luis Carpio Mets 20 112 8.1% 30.7% 1.0 1.6 1.3
5 Austin Upshaw Cubs 21 101 8.0% 31.0% 1.1 1.6 1.3

In addition to these promising indicators, Espinal also add defensive value, having made all 29 of his starts in the field at shortstop, where he receives fair if not excellent reviews from the advanced metrics.

David Fletcher, 2B/SS, Los Angeles AL (Profile)
Here is David Fletcher again, appearing withing this weekly column called the Fringe Five. What do we know about David Fletcher? That he was a sixth-round selection out of Loyola Marymount in 2015. That he plays multiple positions but mostly shortstop. That, for every 20 plate appearances this year, he has recorded just one strikeout. That he has already surpassed his home-run total from last season at the same level and in the same park.

Precisely a year ago today, Eric Longenhagen stated that Fletcher “lacks enough power to play every day.” More recently than that, Longenhagen wrote of Fletcher that he possesses “well-below-average power.” Meanwhile, what Fletcher has done is to record the 18th-highest isolated-power mark in the Pacific Coast League among 115 qualifiers, placing him above the 80th percentile. He’s not hitting the ball in the air more frequently, so perhaps this is the product of nothing. Whatever happens, he would need to record zero extra-base hits over his next 350 at-bats to post an ISO as low as last year’s.

Josh James, RHP, Houston (Profile)
James’s most recent start wasn’t without some flaws. The right-hander struck out over a third of the 20 batters he faced, but he also walked three of them and allowed a homer (box). Of greater interest, however, is the context within which that start occurred: after recording his first six appearances of the season for Double-A Corpus Christi, James made this one as part of Houston’s Triple-A affiliate in Fresno.

As noted in this space previously, James has exhibited increased velocity this season. Not previously noted in this space is any attempt to identify the cause of that velocity spike. Regarding that point, however, it appears as though a diagnosis of sleep apnea and the attendant treatment have benefited James considerably.

From Jake Kaplan at The Athletic ($):

James opted to try sleeping with the assistance of a CPAP machine (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure), a common means of therapy for sleep apnea that features a mask. He wears the mask to bed every night, he said, and tried to use it even on the long overnight bus rides in the Texas League.

Vastly improved, mostly uninterrupted sleep has James much more energized and in better moods, he said, and also has eliminated his previous need to nap during the day. The CPAP machine is attached to an app that generates a report on his sleeping, and James said now he wakes up maybe only once or twice a night.

“I just wanted to stop snoring and see if I could get some better sleep and not feel as bad,” he said. “(I’m) unbelievably energized. Even sleeping four or five hours with the machine is 10 times better than sleeping 10 hours without it.”

James currently possesses the top strikeout rate (tied with Jalen Beeks) among all pitchers to have recorded 20-plus innings at the High-A level or above.

Zack Short, SS, Chicago NL (Profile)
At points during the final month of the 2017 season, Zack Short appeared to possess one of most promising skillsets of those players omitted from the industry’s most notable top-prospects lists. At points over the first month of the present season, however, he has looked decidedly more pedestrian.

Following a promotion to the Carolina League last year, Short demonstrated excellent contact skills, producing a swinging-strike rate (6.6%) that placed in the 95th percentile among all High-A batters with 200 or more plate appearances. After striking out in more than a third of his April plate appearances, however, it seemed as though he might have hit a wall against more advanced competition.

Recently, Short has more closely approximated his 2017 numbers. In 31 plate appearances since last week’s column, he’s recorded walk and strikeout rates of 16.1% apiece — in addition to .333 isolated-power mark on the strength of five doubles and a homer. He has made all his defensive starts for Double-A Tennessee at shortstop, meanwhile.

Here’s video which, despite certainly resembling archival footage from 1973, actually depicts Short homering just last week:

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

Jonathan Loaisiga, RHP, New York AL (Double-A Eastern League)
Dennis Santana, RHP, Los Angeles NL (Double-A Texas League)
Erik Swanson, RHP, New York AL (Double-A Eastern League)
Luis Rengifo, 2B/SS, Los Angeles AL (High-A California League)
LaMonte Wade, OF, Minnesota (Double-A Southern 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, 2018
Name Team POS FF NF PTS
1 Josh James Astros RHP 4 1 13
2 David Fletcher Angels 2B/SS 4 0 12
3 Josh Rojas Astros 2B/3B 3 0 9
4 Nate Orf Brewers 2B/3B 2 1 7
5 Zack Short Cubs SS 2 1 7
6 J.T. Brubaker Pirates RHP 1 3 6
7 Luis Rengifo Angels 2B/SS 1 2 5
8 Erik Swanson Yankees RHP 1 1 4
9 LaMonte Wade Twins OF 1 1 4
10 Max Schrock Cardinals 2B 1 1 4
11 Santiago Espinal Red Sox 2B/SS 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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while you’re looking at Fletcher, how about Michael Hermosillo?