The Promise of Youth

Eno Sarris

George Springer is in the big leagues! George Springer may not work out.

That’s the stark reality when it comes to prospects. Even the very best can be a crapshoot. A top-ten position player prospect has nearly a 40% bust rate. Springer was ranked 18th on Baseball America’s list going into the season, so he has as much of a chance to be a bust (41%) as to be superior (40%).

Move down the list, and it just gets worse. A pitcher ranked between 30th and 50th on that sort of prospect list has an 80% bust rate. 80%! By the time you leave the top 100, your pitcher has a one-in-ten shot at respectability in the big leagues.


So remember this when you’re after the next hot thing in a redraft league. You’re not only asking your prospect to be a great player — the benchmark for productivity in a 12-team mixed league is actually very high — but you’re asking him to be a great player in his first year.

Let’s name the tiers after prospects in the minor leagues that are likely to come up this year, in order of their likelihood of contributing this year.

Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The “Gregory Polanco” Tier.)

Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox

While Travis Snider and Jose Tabata muck about in the major leagues, a top-ten prospect is killing it at their position in the minor leagues. Polanco’s second taste of Triple-A has him hitting over .400 with power and speed, but the real best news is that his strikeout rate once again dropped. Power with a strikeout rate under 10% is virtually unheard of, and it bodes really well for his ability to help right away. Take a look at George Springer’s strikeouts, and know that strikeouts and batting average inversely correlated — the batting average on a K is zero. With Tabata possibly hurting himself today, it's unclear if Polanco's time frame has changed. Travis Snider is the one playing almost every day, and playing okay. Still, if this team needs a jolt on the offensive side, it's Polanco that will provide it.

There are cracks now in the elite tier. Craig Kimbrel’s shoulder hurts, but he’s throwing catch and will supposedly avoid the DL, so David Carpenter is not the hottest of pickups. Kenley Jansen blew the save Tuesday night, but he had some help. His cutter is now headed to the plate two and a half miles per hour faster, and his strikeout rate has risen with it. Right now, more than half of the balls put in play off him are hits, and that won’t continue. He should get used to his new velocity soon and right the ship. Koji Uehara threw 86 innings last year, a full 20 more than he’d ever thrown before. No surprise that his shoulder hurts. He’s supposedly fine and will return to the Boston bullpen Thursday. You can drop Edward Mujica now.

Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The “George Springer“ Tier.)

Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis Cardinals
Jason Grilli, Pittsburgh Pirates
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Joe Nathan, Detroit Tigers
Addison Reed, Arizona Diamondbacks

It’s tempting to put someone from the Cubs here, but that team doesn’t seem like it’s in a hurry to bring up their top two positional prospects. And anyway, those guys have things to work on. Kris Bryant may be an outfielder, so he has a bit of time to prove he can be a third baseman. If he can’t, his bat is ready, and might be ahead of Springer’s when it comes to batting average leagues. Javier Baez needs to improve his defense at short, and anyway the big league team has a decent shortstop. So Springer it is, despite his career strikeout rate over 25% in the minor leagues. He’s likely to hit for a bad batting average (with a good OBP), but the man who went 37/45 between Double- and Triple-A last year has enough power and speed upside to matter in any league. The bust rate comes from those strikeouts though.

Trevor Rosenthal should right the ship, and given his position on a team that will score some runs, and his talent, which is good enough to put together a double-digit strikeout rate with a great WHIP, he could be elite soon. There’s no real reason to doubt him. Sure, his velocity is down a bit, 96 instead of 97, but between April and August, there’s usually about a mile per hour to be gained in your average fastball velocity. Also: 96 is good. Otherwise, his swinging strike rate is there, and though his walk rate isn’t great right now, it’s note terrible. A couple walk-less innings will fix that.

Jason Grilli’s velocity says he’s good, but the command isn’t quite there, and his injury is often a harbinger of surgery. But he could join the elite tier with a nice healthy stretch too. Sergio Romo’s velocity is up a tick, and he’s throwing the change up twice as much as he ever did before. Maybe a postseason of rest is what he needed for a nice healthy year. Though the change isn’t getting whiffs like an average change (9% swinging strike rate, average is 15%), just having confidence in it might be enough to improve his work against lefties.

And let’s invite Addison Reed into the rock-steady group. His team isn’t winning a ton of games, but he’s enjoying the weaker league, as his swinging strike rate is into the elite territory right now, and his strikeout rate has risen with it. He regained some of the velocity he lost last year, and he’s showing his customary command.

Read about the more volatile closer situations on the next page.

Tier 3: Okay Options (6) (AKA: The “Archie Bradley” Tier.)

Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Tommy Hunter, Baltimore Orioles
Grant Balfour, Tampa Bay Rays
Fernando Rodney, Seattle Mariners
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies

Taijuan Walker might have been here if his shoulder wasn’t barking. So it’s the other top-ten pitching prospect, Archie Bradley, who finally cracks the tierage. Bradley has had command issues, but so far in Triple-A, he’s showing his best walk rate. With great velocity and as strong breaker, and a major league rotation that’s breaking records (in a bad way), opportunity and talent are lining up here.

Steve Cishek’s velocity is way down (89 from 92), so he’s not going to move up any further, but his nice swinging strike rate (and accompanying strikeout rate) are enough to push him to the top of this tier. In a similar way, it’s nice to see Rafael Soriano’s swinging strike rate return, but his velocity is once again down, now all the way to 90.8 mph. It’s hard to put the stamp of approval on either guy at those velocities.

Grant Balfour and Tommy Hunter are showing slightly higher velocities at 92 and 96 respectively, but the rankings aren’t solely based on those numbers. Instead, it’s instructive to look at Balfour’s pitching mix changes. He’s throwing the fastball less than he’s ever thrown it before — down to 50% from over 65% the last two years and 76% for his career — and he’s not finding the zone. That’s what the fastball is for, strikes. So far it hasn’t bit him, but his walk rate does reflect this change, and paired with his offseason, it’s worth wondering about him.

It looks like Fernando Rodney’s velocity is back up. There’s nobody in the bullpen that’s really pushing him, and though he’s walking everyone as he usually does, at least he’s striking everyone out too. He’s doing better than I thought he would.

Not only has Jonathan Papelbon’s velocity slipped, but so has his release point. We’ve been saying this for a long time, but there are a lot of injury markers here. The release point slipping, the velocity declining, and his dropping zone percentage — that’s the trifecta for in-season injury prediction. So, I’d be shopping him as hard as possible right now if I owned any shares of him.  

Tier 4: Question Marks (6) (AKA: The “Kevin Gausman” Tier.)

Ernesto Frieri, Anaheim Angels
Joakim Soria, Texas Rangers
John Axford, Cleveland Indians
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
LaTroy Hawkins, Colorado Rockies
Sergio Santos, Toronto Blue Jays

Kevin Gausman has a 96 mph fastball, an elite split-finger change, and a slider that needs a little work. He’s had a history of great command, and his rotation needs him — Miguel Gonzalez is finally seeing his peripherals catch up to him, and there’s nobody in that pen that really has ace-like upside, as good as Chris Tillman has been. Down here in this tier, he’s the best you can do.

Ernesto Frieri? He’s always a risk for homers. Even he probably hasn’t deserved three in his first six-plus innings, though. The good news is that he’s showing better command and his velocity is still there. And Tuesday’s blown save was somehow his first. The bad news is that the swinging strike rate on that slider suggests that it’s not a great pitch, and for some reason he’s throwing it more. If he loses the job, I guess it’s Joe Smith, but Smith just had a terrible outing and is throwing 87-88. Michael Kohn has the strikeouts and gas, and is getting regular usage. He is a dark horse, particularly because Dane De La Rosa is having shoulder issues and is not showing the velocity he was showing in the past. It’s this lack of decent backups that solidifies Frieri a bit.

Dunno what’s going on with Joakim Soria, honestly. The strikeout rate is there, the swinging strikes, the command is slowly coming back… he’s missing the grounders, and he’s only stranded 40% of his runners (league average is 70%), but anything can happen in five innings. I guess the velocity is down to a career low. In any case, it sounds like Alexi Ogando might get some chances. He’s got more strikeouts and gas, so he’s a decent pickup if you’re looking for saves.

LaTroy Hawkins is over 40 and threatening to break the record for the lowest strikeout rate by a closer. And yet he’s making it work. And even more damning is how bad Rex Brothers has been. Brothers has seen his velocity drop another tick-plus, he can’t find the zone, and he’s not getting any whiffs. In fact, Adam Ottavino has seemingly passed him. Ottavino is throwing as hard as Brothers, and everything’s working for him. Those four holds suggest he’s the setup man.

Tier 5: Rollercoaster Rides (8) (AKA: The “Andrew Heaney” Tier.)

Francisco Rodriguez (first chair), Jim Henderson (second chair), Milwaukee Brewers
Luke Gregerson (first chair), Jim Johnson (second chair), Oakland Athletics
Matt Lindstrom (first chair), Daniel Webb (second chair), Chicago White Sox
Hector Rondon (first chair), Pedro Strop (second chair), Chicago Cubs
Jose Valverde (first chair), Gonzalez Germen (second chair), New York Mets
Jonathan Broxton (first chair), J.J. Hoover (second chair), Cincinnati Reds
Shawn Kelley (first chair), Adam Warren (second chair), New York Yankees
Chad Qualls (first chair), Anthony Bass (second chair), Houston Astros

Andrew Heaney was ranked 30th on that Baseball America list, so it’s more likely that he is a bust than a success. But he has command of three pitches and a nice home park waiting for him in the big leagues. He’s worth monitoring.

This is how crazy the early season has been for bullpens: there are eight bullpens in the red. Would you really move any of these out of the basement? Francisco Rodriguez is the closest to climbing out, but he’s not cracking 90, and he’s throwing his change-up more than he ever has. That doesn’t seem like a recipe for success, particularly if he returns to the command that he used to show — put a hitter in a 3-0 count waiting for an 88 mph fastball and he’s ready to eat. I like Luke Gregerson some (for his multiple sliders), but he’s throwing 87 and throwing his slider (at 81) like its his fastball. Not even Romo does that. Jim Johnson’s good couple innings on Tuesday might change that bullpen setup quickly.

The flaws continue as you delve deeper. Matt Lindstrom always had fewer strikeouts than his velocity suggested he should, but now he’s at a career-low in velocity, and strikeouts, and Daniel Webb is looking better every day. Nate Jones will be relevant when he returns. Nobody even knows who the closer is in the other Chicago pen right now, but at least there’s opportunity there for a full-time role, which is more than you can say for the Reds’ and Yankees’ situations. The bet here is on Hector Rondon — his control problems haven’t been as pronounced as Pedro Strop’s, and he got the last save, which is really the first question you should ask. It’s worth pointing out that Pedro Strop has the velocity and strikeouts in this small sample, though, so really this is a pick ’em.

In the deepest of leagues, Matt Albers, Chad Qualls and Anthony Bass — even Josh Fields — are ownable. In your standard 12-team mixer, I’m not sure. Albers is throwing his slider more than ever, and is showing a career-high in velocity. The weird thing is that he’s never been a strikeout pitcher, the slider has never gotten good whiff rates before, and we’re talking about a 31-year-old with a career six-to-four strikeout-to-walk ratio. I’m slightly more intrigued with former starter Anthony Bass, who’s up to 94+ in the pen, and has a history of having a great slider. He’s also gotten the last two saves. Chad Qualls is the adequate veteran, but as a sinker/slider guy, he’s more about grounders than Ks, and that’s not your typical closer profile.

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Aroldis Chapman (face), Cincinnati Reds
Casey Janssen (shoulder, back), Toronto Blue Jays
Bobby Parnell (elbow), New York Mets
Jesse Crain (calf, biceps), Houston Astros

Aroldis Chapman is already throwing the ball, so he might be ready sooner than expected. Casey Janssen is supposed to start a rehab assignment next week, and though I think Sergio Santos could take that role back eventually, I’m guessing the team will give Janssen back his job at first.

The Deposed

Jim Henderson, Milwaukee Brewers
Jose Veras, Chicago Cubs

I still think he could get himself off this list, especially with all the junk Francisco Rodriguez is throwing, and the velocity that’s returning to Henderson’s fastball, but for now, I guess he’s here. Jim Johnson is closer to getting his job back. I expect to see Jose Valverde, LaTroy Hawkins, and Matt Lindstrom here eventually, assuming Huston Street and Jonathan Papelbon show up in the list just inches above.

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The Steals Department

With Dee Gordon’s strikeout and walk rates, he’s slightly more appealing than Emilio Bonifacio, but both should be owned in all leagues right now, if only for plug and play stolen bases at different positions. It’s still kind of hard to depend on either full-time though — neither is playing every day. With Juan Lagares hurt, it looks like Eric Young will be playing every day in the short term. He belongs in the same conversation, but his strikeout rate suggests that his batting average won’t help (and we know his power won’t. Rajai Davis hasn’t become a full-time player despite the Andy Dirks injury… Maybe mixed leaguers looking for an every-day starter should be looking at Charlie Blackmon instead. He won’t steal you 40+, but he could steal you 20+ with actual power, and that’s a different way to increase your speed. In a short sample like we’ve got now, it’s difficult to look at any stat too closely, but at least Blackmon is making a ton of a contact. His 2.7% swinging strike rate is top three in the league, and he’s seen 186 pitches, so that’s a bigger sample than you’ll see if you use plate appearances.

The ownership rates on Lorenzo Cain are still low enough to give him a shout out in the deep league portion of this piece. He still strikes out too much for a guy like him, but he has a little power and speed and is playing more than other guys you’ll see on similar wires. I still think Abraham Almonte will cut the strikeout rate and be a good player with power and speed, and I still like Aaron Hicks, especially since they’re still playing him every day. Those in deeper leagues have to scrape lower: with Brian Roberts hurt, you might get some steals from Scott Sizemore maybe. Cody Ross is close to a return! Kirk Nieuwenhuis might play some with Lagares hurt, and he could steal a base or two. J.B. Shuck will play every day now that Kole Calhoun is hurt too. That’s about it.