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September 11, 2013

Fantasy Fool's Gold

Second Base Prospects

by Ben Carsley

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Our first two editions of Fantasy Fool’s Gold made much ado about power. Covering the catcher, first base and third base positions, a common critique of the players profiled in our first two installments revolved around a lack of pop.

Thankfully, such expectations are not foisted upon men who occupy the keystone. That’s good, because with the players listed below, power is once again in short supply.

In this edition, we bring you five second-base prospects who, like so much in life, may ultimately disappoint you from a fantasy perspective. Per usual, many of the observations below come from the BP minor-league team.

Cesar Hernandez, 2B, Phillies
Signed along with Freddy Galvis out of Venezuela in 2013, Hernandez has been around for so long now that it’s sort of hard to believe he’s just 23. The Phillies have consistently pushed Hernandez somewhat aggressively in his assignments, which led to the second baseman reaching Triple-A as a 22-year-old last season. He looked a bit overmatched his first time through the minors’ highest level, but this year Hernandez has hit quite well in Lehigh Valley while earning his first cups of coffee in the majors.

In 104 games and 440 PA in Triple-A, Hernandez hit .309/.375/.402 this season, marking a continuation of two of his most prominent trends: he can hit for average and he can’t hit for power. Hernandez’ BABIP of .384 is obviously unsustainable and brings his average into doubt, but he walked at a 9.3 percent clip, meaning he’s not solely relying on his line-drive-producing stroke to reach base. Hernandez also went 32-for-40 in stolen base attempts, though he projects to be more of a 10-15 stolen base guy in the majors. A good defender, Hernandez could be a no. 2 hitter with a decent average and not much else if it all comes together, but that’s not really enough for fantasy relevance.

We can now address the elephant in the room as well: Chase Utley recently signed an extension that will see him in Philadelphia at least through 2015, and possibly several years beyond. Utley is undoubtedly a much better player than Hernandez, but the move is disappointing in that it likely relegates Hernandez to a backup infielder role, unless Ruben Amaro Jr. decides to trade him for a Proven Closer or for Michael Young’s Soul or something. Hernandez may be able to serve as a viable NL-only two-trick pony (AVG, SB) if Utley goes down at some point next year, but that’s really his ceiling.

Micah Johnson, 2B, White Sox
Johnson is on this list for one simple reason: he’s swiped 84 bases in 601 PA between Low-A, High-A, and Double-A this season. A ninth-round pick out of Indiana in 2009, Johnson fell that far in the draft due to injury but was once projected to go significantly higher. He’s showing why in 2013, putting up a .312/.373/.451 line while shooting through the low minors, reaching Birmingham in late August. As such, it’s likely tempting for dynasty owners who keep tabs on MiLB box scores to add Johnson to their rosters.

That’s only a good idea if you’re playing in a really deep keeper, though. Despite Johnson’s speed, there are two major obstacles standing in his way: he’s not very efficient on the bases and he’s going to have a tough time sticking at second base. While Johnson has swiped 84 bases, he’s also been thrown out 26 times this season, which meshes with previous reports on Johnson, indicating his 70-grade speed plays a grade lower in games. Johnson has also made 29 errors as a 2B, and Mark Anderson wrote that Johnson “has hands of stone,” and that a move to the outfield is likely.

Johnson is certainly one of the more intriguing prospects in a very shallow White Sox system. But, it would take a perfect developmental storm for him to get on base enough to steal, steal efficiently enough to be let loose, and for the SBs he will accumulate to come with 2B eligibility. He’s perhaps more likely destined for a pinch-runner/fifth-outfielder role, which nullifies much of his fantasy value.

Joe Panik, 2B/SS, Giants
Panik is representative of several other players on this list in that he’s a decent bet to serve as a major-league starter at second base for a few seasons, but is a poor bet to be of fantasy worth while doing so. A surprising first-round pick by the Giants in 2011, Panik’s selection drew ire from draft analysts at the time, but he’s had a nice MiLB career to this point. In 599 PA in Double-A, Panik has hit for a solid but unsexy .257/.333/.347 line with 10 steals for a TAv of .256. Always viewed as a long shot to stick at short, the Giants had him play 117 of his 140 games at second this year.

Yet despite his first-round pedigree and the shallowness of the MI position, Panik is best ignored in fantasy leagues. As Jason Parks described in this write-up back in May, Panik is a “gamer” who does a lot of things well despite a lack of elite tools, and as such he’s likely to force his way into a starting lineup. But offensive tools are really all we care about, and Panik lacks a single one that can be described as plus. He hasn’t hit for any meaningful power yet, he’s been thrown out in a third of his steal attempts this year, and while Panik doesn’t strike out much, he’s not a real threat to hit for a high average either.

It’s convenient to peg Panik as the second baseman and no. 2 hitter of the Giants’ future after Marco Scutaro’s contract ends post-2015, but that miscasts Panik as a player capable of batting near the top of the lineup. Instead, he should serve as a no. 8 hitter, where he doesn’t figure to score or drive in a ton of runs, hit for any more, or steal many bases. Best case scenario, some good BABIP fortune lets him hit .280 or so, but that’s a sad best-case scenario. It should also be noted that the first person who inevitably makes their fantasy baseball team name “Panik! At The Disco” in a year or two will not be going to heaven.

Jose Ramirez, 2B/3B, Indians
A popular sleeper prospect before the season began, Ramirez is a young, speedy infielder who burst onto the scene in 2012, hitting .354/.403/.462 in his full-season debut in 67 games in Single-A. The Indians pushed him with a very aggressive assignment, placing Ramirez in Double-A as a 20-year-old and deciding to let the Dominican sink or swim. Ramirez rewarded the Indians’ faith by hitting .272/.325/.349 while stealing 38 bases in 54 attempts. His performance is so impressive in context that the Indians summoned him to the majors as a September call-up, where he’s seen time at second and third base.

You have to be impressed with what Ramirez has done this year, and he’s certainly solidified his status as a future MLB contributor, but his rapid ascent through the minors shouldn’t be confused with future fantasy stardom. Ramirez’ ability to hit at such a young age has been impressive, and a .290 BABIP and his nearly identical K% and BB% all portend sustainable success. That being said, Ramirez has no power in his bat, and that’s something MLB pitching is going to be able to exploit. His stolen-base total also suggests that he has plenty left to learn before he can be viewed as a reliable stolen base threat, although scouts do credit him with plus-plus speed.

Ramirez should spend most if not all of 2014 in the minors despite his impressive 2013 campaign, yet that’s not why I’m most concerned about his future fantasy value. The Indians had Ramirez play 53 games at shortstop, 50 games at second base, and eight games at third base this year. At the major-league level, Jason Kipnis is entrenched at second for the next few years, Asdrubal Cabrera will eventually give way to Francisco Lindor at short, and Ramirez lacks any semblance of a normal 3B profile. There’s a possibility he’s being developed as a speed-first super-sub, which would make him fun to watch if deployed effectively but wildly frustrating from a fantasy perspective. Let’s watch how the Indians’ depth chart and Ramirez’ development play out, but don’t count on him for any meaningful fantasy contribution in the short term, and be leery of what he’ll provide long term as well.

Alex Yarbrough, 2B, Angels
The Angels are desperate for positive signs from any of their non-Mike Trout players these days, and Yarbrough provided the organization with one of its few bright spots in 2013. Another 2012 pick, Yarbrough hit for a .313/.341/.459 line in 615 PA in High-A, swiping 14 steals and knocking 11 homers along the way. Most view Yarbrough as a safe bet to stay at second base with modest range but good instincts and hands, and it’s not hard to be a fan of his smooth left-handed swing.

There’s a key word in that last graph that relays why Yarbrough shouldn’t be considered a great fantasy prospect, though, and that word is “modest.” Yarbrough’s best tool is probably his bat, but he doesn’t walk much (4.4 BB percentage) and is unlikely to reach base enough to profile as a top-of-the-order guy. While he’s hit 11 homers this year his power is very much in question, with some thinking it may only play at grade 30 in games. And Yarbrough isn’t a burner either, meaning modest stolen base totals are in his future. Add that all up, and you get a second baseman who isn’t contributing enough in any one fantasy category to be a starter.

It also must be pointed out that organizational depth is a fickle mistress. Despite the Angels’ underwhelming MiLB system and a lack of talent at some MLB positions, Yarbrough finds himself blocked by both Taylor Lindsey and Howie Kendrick. With the latter signed through 2015 and the former arguably now the best prospect in Los Angeles’ system, Yarbrough’s ascent through the upper minors is likely to be a slow one, baring a trade. That ETA, coupled with his lack of upside, makes Yarbrough better left in your free agent pool. That being said, he’s worth flagging in case the power he showed this year is exhibited in Double-A next year, too.

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

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