FANTASY BASEBALL: PROSPECT PENDULUM

Ben Carsley May 28, 2012

As we’ve discussed in previous weeks, one of the most important factors in determining a prospect’s Fantasy value is his ETA to the majors. Many times a prospect’s long-term projection will not change thanks to an injury, bump in the road or organizational acquisition. That doesn’t always matter in the Fantasy world, though, as owners are frequently looking for players who can make an immediate impact on their roster.

In this week’s Prospect Pendulum, we’ll look at three Top 100 prospects who’ve seen their ETA’s altered since 2012 began, as well as a former top prospect in decline and two promising names for 2013 and beyond. Remember — just because there have been no major promotions or injuries in a given week doesn’t mean there’s no news to be discerned in the world of minor league baseball. With so many players and variables at stake, there’s always someone to examine.

On The Upswing

Anthony Rizzo (1B, CHC)

It’s poor form to wish for a player to do poorly, but Rizzo owners have been watching the play of Brian LaHair and banging their heads against the wall for the past two months, as the journeyman produced enough to keep the Cubs’ slugging first base prospect in the minors. While LaHair hit .390 with a .471 OBP and incredible .780 SLG in April, those numbers have fallen to .231/.333/.436 this month, and LaHair has proven to be all but useless against southpaws. All Rizzo has done in the meanwhile has been the best hitter in the minors.

Anthony Rizzo should be owned in all leagues once the Cubs give him the call. Photo credit SD Dirk.

Through 193 at-bats, Rizzo is hitting an astounding .351 with a .415 OBP, 16 homers and 11 doubles. He’s cut his strikeouts nearly three percent from the 21.5-percent he posted last season, and he’s driven in 43 runs and swiped two bases to boot. Rizzo has been dominant, and there’s no reason to keep him in the minors much longer. I’ve always been a little higher on Rizzo than most, and ranked him as the 22nd-best Fantasy prospect headed into the season. He’s unlikely to be a .300 hitter in the majors, but a .280-40-110 line with a .360-plus OBP is within his reach over a full season, and he can start posting those types of numbers immediately. Rizzo will be up within two weeks, and when he is activated he’s a must-add in all leagues. Starlin Castro may be the Cubs’ best player right now, but he won’t be for long.

Jackie Bradley Jr. (OF, BOS)

Bradley was a star during his junior season at South Carolina, winning the 2010 College World Series Most Outstanding Player award to cap off a tremendous year that had most scouts believing he’d be an early draft pick. After battling through injuries during his senior campaign, Bradley fell to the 40th pick in the 2011 draft, where the Red Sox grabbed him. Bradley is now flashing the same potential he showed in college in the mid-minors, raking in High-A to the tune of a .361 average and an unheard of .495 OBP. If he keeps hitting at this rate, he’ll be in Double-A before season’s end.

Bradley’s .402 Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) means he’s going to come back down to Earth a bit, but it’s unsurprising that a player with his college pedigree would be successful so quickly. I compared Bradley to David DeJesus when he was drafted, and that’s exactly the type of player he’s on the fast-track to becoming. That means he’s not a player who’s likely to be taken early in Fantasy drafts, but a fourth or fifth OF who can hit .300 with 10 homers, 100 runs scored and 15-plus steals is a valuable commodity. Because of his outfield defense Bradley’s a better prospect for the Red Sox than he is for Fantasy owners, but he’s still worth an add in deeper dynasty leagues right now. The way he’s flying through the minors, he could see MLB action by the middle of 2013.

Tony Cingrani (SP, CIN)

It came down to a battle between Cingrani, J.C. Sulbaran and Kyle Lotzkar for the final two spots in my preseason Reds Top 10 Fantasy prospects list, with the former two beating out the man listed here. I’m still a big Sulbaran believer and Lotzkar’s been decent over a small sample size, but listing either ahead of Cingrani was clearly a mistake. Despite pitching in the hitter-friendly California League, Cingrani has posted a 12.10 K/9, 2.10 BB/9 and 1.72 FIP through 51.1 encouraging innings, and looks like one of 2012’s most improved prospects.

It’s easy to look at Cingrani’s numbers and project stardom, but there are a few qualifiers we need to consider. His secondary stuff is inconsistent and his fastball doesn’t move much, leading many to ultimately project Cingrani as a high-leverage reliever. He’ll also be 23 in a few months and is still in High-A, so it’s not like he’s young for his level, but the former Rice Owl likely won’t stay in Bakersfield for long. Expect Cingrani to be promoted to Double-A by the end of June, and monitor his progress from there. If he’s still demonstrating this type of control while starting, feel free to add him in deeper dynasty leagues. He’s not a future ace, but lefties with his kind of stuff and control find ways to stay in the majors for a long time. In some ways, he reminds me of Diamondbacks prospect Pat Corbin.

Swaying Backwards

Hak-Ju Lee (SS, TB)

Lee was regarded by most as a Top 30-40 prospect headed into the 2012 season, but I ranked him at 51 for a simple reason — he’s a better MLB prospect than he is a Fantasy one. Lee’s speed can be of use to Fantasy players, but his defense cannot, and those two tools stand out above his others at this point in his career. Lee’s done little to quell fears surrounding his hit tool thus far in 2012, as the 22-year-old is hitting just .232 and striking out in nearly 20-percent of his at-bats a quarter of the way through the season. Unfortunately for his dynasty league owners, Lee has actually performed worse in May than he did in April, meaning there’s little to suggest a turnaround is in his immediate future.

Lee has already stolen 13 bases, and he has the requisite speed to steal 25-plus per season once an established major leaguer, but that won’t matter as much if he’s a liability in the AVG, HR and RBI categories. Lee is a lock to stay at shortstop and so he will have some Fantasy worth by that virtue alone. But if he’s just going to become another soft-hitting middle infielder with speed, he doesn’t deserve to be on any Top Fantasy prospects lists. Don’t give up on Lee yet — he didn’t forget how to hit overnight — but if you expected him to hit .300 in the majors, now’s a good time to realize you’re safer projecting him in the .270-.280 range. Other than a possible cup of coffee in September, don’t expect to see him in the majors until 2013.

James Paxton (SP, SEA)

Ranked as the 53rd-best prospect headed into 2012, Paxton’s experienced an up-and-down 2012 campaign, dominating in some starts while faltering in others. The good? Paxton’s 10.10 K/9 and 52-percent ground ball rate. The bad? A 6.22 BB/9 and 4.49 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) mark. Paxton is now 23, but has just 141.1 career IP under his belt, and none of those innings have come above Double-A. The real reason Paxton is listed as “Swaying Backwards,” though, is that he left his last start with a knee injury. Considering his control issues, if he has to miss significant time as well, it’s unlikely he’ll be a Fantasy factor in 2012.

As mentioned above, Paxton’s had a huge problem with consistency this season. Fifteen of Paxton’s 20 earned runs have come over just three of his games, but he’s walked too many batters on a regular basis, issuing three or more free passes in half of his 10 starts. He’s also averaging under five innings a start, and there’s nothing in his advanced stats to suggest he’s been a victim of bad luck. It’s premature to write Paxton off before we know the severity of his injury, but with Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen ahead of him on the minor league depth chart, it’s not hard to envision a scenario in which Paxton doesn’t see the majors until 2013. His long-term prognosis doesn’t change much — he’s still a potential No. 4/5 Fantasy SP — but dynasty leaguers hoping for a lift from Paxton this year should start looking elsewhere.

Josh Vitters (3B, CHC)

If your dynasty league is over a season old, odds are at least one owner has rostered Vitters at some point. Once billed as one of the premier third base prospects in baseball, Vitters has never quite figured it out, and has seen his career derailed by middling power and an unwillingness to walk. Some scouts believed that Vitters’ hand-eye coordination would allow him to hit for a high enough average to make his OBP bearable, but as he languishes with a .263/.314/.410 line in Triple-A, it’s becoming clear that’s not the case.

If Vitters can’t break his way into the Cubs lineup now, he likely never will. Starting third baseman Ian Stewart is laying waste to the “change of scenery” theory, hitting just .193/.285/.329 through 158 PA. The only other real organizational competition Vitters has comes from Jeff Baker, who’s best suited to a utility role, and fellow former top prospect Adrian Cardenas, who’s failed to realize the potential he showed in the Phillies system several years ago. Odds are Vitters will get a chance to stick in the majors sometime in late June or early July. There’s not much in his recent MLB track record to suggest he’ll be successful, though, and Vitters’ ceiling at this point is as an average third baseman. He shouldn’t be owned in any dynasty league that keeps fewer than 120 prospects.

Notes

Looking for a breakout prospect to add to your roster? Check out Pirates shortstop Alen Hanson, currently hitting .319 with a .379 OBP, six homers and 13 steals in Single-A. He’s athletic with plus speed and some pop, but might not stick at shortstop and questions about his hit tool remain. Still, he’s worth monitoring.

Joe Benson ranked as No. 88 on my Top 100 list coming into the season, but 2012 is chalking up to be a lost season for the outfielder. Benson failed to make the big league club out of Spring Training, was demoted to Double-A after floundering in Rochester and will now miss two months thanks to wrist surgery. He’s droppable in all dynasty leagues.

Carlos Martinez’s delivery has worried scouts for years, and now he’s hit the DL with a sore shoulder. The Cardinals didn’t seem overly alarmed by the incident, and claim it’s just precautionary, but monitor this situation closely. Martinez has performed well in 2012, but has thrown just 33 innings in High-A.

Yasmani Grandal: .309/.425/.485 in Triple-A. Nick Hundley: .168/.266/.345 in the majors. It’s only a matter of time.

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