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March 18, 2013

Five to Watch

The Top Prospect Edition

by Bret Sayre

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While it’s true that spring training statistics are barely worth the internet parchment on which they are printed, spring training performances are another story. Racking up impressive statistics has little to no value to you, the fantasy player, but overall performances beget changes in player roles and confidence (or lack thereof) in player health. And it’s the contextual nature of the performance that is a net positive or negative for a player’s fantasy value in the upcoming season. To paraphrase a modern-day proverb, Rick Porcello doesn’t have to be faster than the bear—he just has to be faster than Drew Smyly to get a fantasy bump for the 2013 season.

This mini-series will focus on players who have a chance to increase or decrease their fantasy values based on their performances during spring training. And we’ll continue today by looking at five more players who have been impact prospects at some point in their careers. Each of these five players, now fighting for fantasy relevance, was once considered one of the top 50 prospects in baseball (some more recently than others), as ranked here at Baseball Prospectus or by Baseball America.

Domonic Brown (BP’s fourth-ranked prospect in 2011)

Against all odds, it looks like Brown is actually going to have a job all to himself in 2013. What he will do with it is an entirely different story. Now 25 years old, Brown has had a total of 433 major-league at-bats—and he has not been overly impressive. His career 703 OPS isn’t going to wow anyone, but there are positives that hint at improvements in the near future.

Over the last two seasons, he’s hit 10 home runs in 371 at-bats, and his bat has far more power potential—which Brown feels that he’s finally unlocking. Sure, he’s hitting .375 with four homers in 56 spring training at-bats, but it’s not about that. Brown has been working with new Phillies assistant hitting coach Wally Joyner for over a month now, and he’s been thrilled with the results. The buy-in from Brown is the most important part of this, as the Phillies have tweaked and re-tweaked his swing over the past few seasons with poor results.

The expectations have been huge for Brown ever since he broke out in the Florida State League back in 2009. He had the potential to hit for a very good average and put up 20-20 seasons. If he is finally starting to tap into that hitting prowess, he could approach the type of fantasy profile he was supposed to provide, only with less speed. The approach has never been an issue, as he has a career walk rate of over 10 percent and a strikeout rate that has improved in each of his three stints in the majors, most recently sitting at 16 percent in 2012.

The optimism is starting to spread, as Brown’s NFBC ADP has moved up from 403 to 307 overall in the last month. In fact, he went for $10 in a local auction I participated in on Sunday (with roughly 20 percent keeper inflation). This means that if you want him, you’re going to have to shell out a little more than you probably expected coming into the spring. However, the higher price tag does not mean that Brown can’t provide surplus value—at least not yet.

Scott Kazmir (BA’s seventh-ranked prospect in 2005)

Yes, it appears we’re doing this again. Kazmir’s signing was met with a fair amount of skepticism and assumed lunacy when it was announced earlier this offseason. Of course, this was entirely fair, as he had just registered a 5.34 ERA in 64 innings with the Independent League Sugarland Skeeters. He was outpitched by rotation-mate, and former major-league outfielder, Jason Lane. Yes, that Jason Lane had a 3.17 ERA in 110 2/3 innings.

For all the successes and failures that Kazmir has had in his career, it’s alarming to see that he is still only 29 years old. But this is also a pitcher who hasn’t had an ERA below 4.89 since 2008, when his average fastball velocity was still nearly 92 mph. If you’ve been playing fantasy over the last five years, you’ve been burned by owning Kazmir. It’s just something we’ve all been through.

And so far this spring, Kazmir has been sitting at 90-92 mph with that fastball. He also hasn’t given up a run in eight spring training innings, striking out eight and walking one. According to all reports from Indians’ beat writers, Kazmir is the man to beat for the fifth spot in their rotation. It’s an incredible story, and one that even bears watching for fantasy. This isn’t a “sure, he could be worth owning in shallow mixed leagues” situation, but in deep mixed and AL-only formats, Kazmir becomes flier-worthy.

Kevin Gausman (BP’s 13th-ranked prospect this year)

There’s been a pitching prospect getting people all kinds of excited this spring in Orioles camp—and it’s not Dylan Bundy. Gausman has no chance of making the team out of spring training, but that doesn’t make what he’s doing any less worthy of your attention With mid-90s heat, a changeup that is a true out pitch, and a developing slider that could be another plus pitch in time, Gausman has been making a name for himself over the past few weeks.

The fourth overall pick in the 2012 draft, Gausman only threw 15 innings during the 2012 season—the statistics of which are completely insignificant. The scouting report was the only piece of the puzzle that mattered, and our own Jason Parks had some very high praise for Gausman in the Orioles Top 10 Prospects List:

“With excellent size and three pitches that will eventually grade out in the plus range, Gausman is built to be a major-league starter for a very long time. Refining his command and overall secondary execution can push him forward in 2013, and it shouldn’t take long for the 22-year-old to make a name for himself in the Orioles rotation. Going forward, Bundy and Gausman have the potential to form one of the most potent one-two punches in the game.”

If Bundy is the Orioles’ sixth starter, Gausman is proving that he’s ready to be their seventh. And while it likely won’t happen before the All-Star break, Gausman has a very good chance to log some major-league time in the second half of the season—making him a potential must-grab in keeper/dynasty formats, and even a player to monitor in AL-only redraft leagues.

Jason Castro (BA’s 41st-ranked prospect in 2010)

Even with all of the fantasy depth at the catcher position, Castro is seldom mentioned among the viable options. Perhaps it’s because he plays in Houston, or because he’s only accumulated 257 at-bats in the last two years, after missing the entire 2011 season with a torn ACL and a month of 2012 with a strained meniscus.

Regardless of the reason for his anonymity, Castro did show some signs of life in 2012. He struggled to get going at the beginning of the season, but during his last 200 plate appearances, Castro hit .281/.362/.468 with six homers homers and 21 RBI.  And he’s followed that up by completely going off this spring. After Sunday’s game, in which he hit another home run—his fourth of the spring—Castro is slugging 1.000 in 23 at-bats. Yes, it’s a small sample, even as far as small spring samples are concerned, but it’s still a positive sign.

Castro will have no competition for playing time in Houston this year, as the second catcher on the depth chart is Carlos Corporan, who has a career 597 OPS. Now, this isn’t a guy who might pop up and hit 25+ homers, but he’s talented enough to hit .270 with 10-12 bombs. He needs to be on the radar in all AL-only and two-catcher formats.

Franklin Gutierrez (BA’s 31st-ranked prospect in 2004)

The most important thing you need to know about Gutierrez is that according to Baseball Reference, his nickname is “Death to Flying Things.” Of course, it’s completely warranted, as he was widely recognized by both scouts and fielding statistics to be one of the best defensive center fielders in the game a few years ago. But, over the past two seasons, his offensive struggles have sent him to the back of our collective subconscious. In 2011, he hit .224 with one home run in 344 plate appearances. In 2012, he missed all but 40 games of the season due to a strained pectoral muscle and a concussion.

The other thing to keep in mind about Gutierrez is that he has always had a huge split between right-handed and left-handed pitching. His career OPS of 830 versus southpaws dwarfs his career 636 OPS against righties. And this was only exacerbated during the 2012 season, when those same splits were 1.160 versus 397—and no, that’s not a typo. The reason this is important is that if Gutierrez isn’t doing enough with the bat and the glove against right-handers, the Mariners can start shifting Michael Saunders into center against them, limiting the playing time that Gutierrez receives.

But so far this spring, he’s making a case to be the regular center fielder in Seattle. In just 21 at-bats, Gutierrez has hit three home runs and driven in 10. And the most promising part of this small sample is that he’s hit two of those three home runs against right-handed pitching, including one off Yovani Gallardo. Gutierrez could be worth a look in deep mixed and AL-only formats if he stays hot. After all, it’s only been two years since he delivered back-to-back seasons with double-digit homers and steals.

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

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