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September 18, 2013

Fantasy Fool's Gold

American League Outfielders

by Ben Carsley

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The AL outfield prospect scene is the California goldfield of fantasy fool’s gold players.

That’s partially due to sheer numbers: there are more outfield prospects than offensive prospects of any other ilk (#analysis). It’s also partially due to the requisite skill sets that outfielders possess. Some are very fast. Some are very powerful. And some tease enough of both tools to make fantasy owners feel special feelings.

Yet with all this potential for fantasy glory comes an equal chance of heartbreak. And so without further ado, the next piece in our Fantasy Fool’s Gold series is comprised of five AL outfielders. You can check out the venerable Bret Sayre’s piece on NL outfielders from yesterday here.

Abraham Almonte, OF, Mariners
Perhaps one of the more obscure players in this series, those of you with exceedingly good memories, too much time on your hands, or both may remember Almonte as a former prospect of note in the Yankees system. He put up a TAv of .282 as a 19-year-old in Single-A in 2009, which briefly put him on the prospect map. After a few years of relative obscurity, Almonte was dealt to Seattle for Shawn Kelley in the offseason. He’s apparently attracted to rain or failed offensive prospects, as Almonte has performed well enough this season to reach the majors, where he’s currently hitting .313 through 54 PA.

So has Seattle finally found a diamond in the rough among in its pile of broken prospect toys? Don’t bet on it. Almonte was hitting well in Double-A this season when the M’s decided to promote him to Triple-A, where he hit an outstanding .314/.403/.491 in 396 PA. That line was buoyed by a .363 BABIP, though, and the power he’s shown this year looks fluky compared to the rest of his MiLB career. While it’s natural that a 24-year-old would start hitting for more pop, Almonte is just 5-foot-9 and power has never been a part of his projection. To his credit, he does possess above-average speed and has gone 26-for-34 in stolen-base attempts this season.

It’s possible that Almonte is a late-ish bloomer who’s finally figured it out and can stay on a shallow M’s team for a while. But even if he does spend the majority of 2014 in the majors, there’s not much to suggest he’ll contribute enough in any one category or cumulatively to warrant attention in mixed leagues. In a sadistic way, it’s fun to imagine an organization failing to develop Jesus Montero and bringing the best out of Almonte, but don’t bank on those odds.

Jackie Bradley, OF, Red Sox
I think Bradley is an excellent prospect and a strong alternative in center field for the Red Sox next season should Jacoby Ellsbury prove too expensive to retain. It’s worth reminding you, then, that this series is about fantasy value only, and despite Bradley’s first-division ceiling and strong showing in Triple-A this season, he’s not destined for fantasy greatness. As a native Bostonian, let me explain before a bearded crowd carrying pitchforks and torches forms outside my door.

Bradley’s three strongest attributes as a prospect are his defensive prowess in center field, his ability to hit for average, and his ability to get on base. Only two of those categories count in some fantasy leagues, and in many only one—average—directly matters. Despite Bradley’s outstanding defensive profile, he works more on instinct and angles than speed. Bradley went just 7-for-14 in stolen-base attempts in Triple-A this year, and while he’s a threat to swipe 10-15 in the majors, he’ll need to work on his efficiency. Bradley’s not devoid of power, but the .469 SLG he’s posted in Pawtucket this year is a bit higher than what I’d personally expect him to post in the majors.

Is a player who hits .280 with 10-12 homers and steals and 90-plus runs worthy of mixed-league attention? Sure, and that player may even be a starter if your league counts OBP. But said player is not a star and should not start for a fantasy team in contention in a moderately sized league. Bradley is good and should be on your radar, but even as a full-time player he wouldn’t be a top-50 outfield option.

Tyler Naquin, OF, Indians
This is our sixth edition of Fantasy Fool’s Gold and my fourth post in this series. During my pre-writing research phase, I’ve probably grilled the BP prospect team on somewhere between 40-60 players. This list includes such prospective fantasy gems (and I say that sarcastically) as Jordan Lennerton, Brandon Drury, and Cesar Hernandez. Yet no player has drawn as emphatic a response from our team as Naquin, who seems to be the pyrite poster boy in the eyes of some of our talent evaluators.

Naquin was drafted 15th overall in 2012, and was considered a bit of a reach by many prospect pundits and analysts at the time. Still, as a player with college experience and a reasonably sound approach at the plate, Naquin found himself starting 2013 at High-A, where he performed fairly well. The 22-year-old hit .277/.345/.424 with nine homers and 14 steals, though he was caught on the bases seven times. Also alarming was Naquin’s 22.5 percent strikeout rate and the fact that his line was bolstered by a .351 BABIP. The Indians promoted the former first-rounder to Double-A late in the season anyway, and he struggled. He’ll likely open 2014 back in Akron, with an outside shot at seeing MLB time late next season.

From a “real-life” prospect status, Naquin’s biggest issue is that he has the bat of a center fielder but may only have the defensive chops to play right. From a fantasy point of view, that’s not a terribly attractive profile even if he does stay in center, given that the majority of leagues don’t differentiate between outfield spots. If we play this optimistically and say Naquin’s upside lies somewhere in the range of a .270 average with 8-10 homers and steals each, that could make him a passable starter in AL-only or very, very deep mixed leagues. There’s not much in his scouting reports to suggest he’ll profile as a starter in standard leagues, though, despite his draft pedigree.

Trayce Thompson, OF, White Sox
Whereas many of the players on this list are here because they’re putting up numbers in the minors they won’t be able to replicate in the majors, Thompson is here for another reason: seduction. There may be nothing sexy about his .229/.321/.383 line in Double-A, but it’s incredibly easy to talk yourself into Thompson from a fantasy point of view. He has big raw power and above-average speed. He’s one year removed from an excellent campaign in High-A. And when he does reach the majors, Thompson is likely to play half of his games in the hitter-friendly confines of U.S. Cellular Field.

But don’t be fooled: Thompon’s 2013 struggles are directly tied to well-documented red flags from his scouting reports. It can be difficult for Thompson to use his raw power in games because he strikes out frequently. Thompson’s 2013 strikeout clip of 23.6 percent is actually his lowest in any meaningful sample, but it’s come at the expensive of his power: Thompson’s 2013 ISO of .154 is nearly 90 points lower than his 2012 mark. His 10.2 percent walk rate represents a step up from a season ago, but scouts still worry about Thompson’s pitch recognition skills. The 22-year-old is also not a lock to stay in center field despite above average speed, with right field his possible long-term destination.

While Thompson’s been the victim of some less-than-stellar luck this season—his TAv is .288—he’ll likely need to begin 2014 back at Double-A until he proves he can hit for a more competitive average, reach base at a higher clip, and avoid the type of two-month slump he endured in July and August. If it does start clicking for Thompson he’s certainly a guy to keep an eye on, as there’s little in front of him in Chicago’s system and the power/speed combo makes him interesting. He has a relatively low probability of reaching his ceiling, though, and even at his peak might just be a two-trick fantasy pony. He’s not worth stashing in leagues with fewer than 150 MiLB keepers.

Mason Williams, OF, Yankees
Williams might be the most controversial player listed so far, and like Thompson, he’s here more for his scouting reports than for his 2013 stat line. Yet given the hype Williams received before the season and his natural tools, it’s worth flagging Williams as a player who might not be able to post the type of fantasy numbers you’d expect. Between a disappointing 2013 season, potential issues with his makeup, and an offensive skill set that could as easily lead to “bust” as it could to “boom,” Williams is a player for fantasy owners to weigh carefully.

The 22-year-old’s struggles this season have been chronicled frequently. After posting a wRC+ of 130 in Single-A last year, Williams managed just a 95 mark in High-A in 2013. He hit .261/.327/.350 in 461 PA, going just 15-for-22 in stolen-base attempts and failing to showcase the same type of pop he did a year before. About the only positives to come from his stint in Tampa are his strikeout and walk rates, which fell and rose, respectively, from 2013. The Yankees decided to promote Williams to Double-A despite his pedestrian High-A performance, and the results in a 17-game sample were not pretty. As such, I’d expect to see Williams start 2014 in Trenton.

I understand the argument for Williams. Players with potential 20-homer pop and 25-steal speed are in short order, and if you put a player like that in Yankee Stadium the numbers could be scary. Williams could take a step forward next year and make me look foolish, but dynasty league owners at least need to recognize the incredible risk that Williams carries with him. His upside may be the highest of any player on this list, but he is not particularly likely to reach those heights. If you can package him in a deal for a young established MLB player this offseason, you should consider it.

Ben Carsley is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

1 comment has been left for this article.

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