The post-hype asset class is less undervalued that it once was, but there remains a tendency to understate upside when a player doesn’t immediately hint at it. Call it post-hype, post-prospect or whatever you want, just don’t ignore the potential development because someone new came along that hasn’t had his shine dulled by major league competition. Here are five members of the junior circuit whose early career performance has raised legitimate questions, but who also have room for growth.
Kevin Gausman, RHP, Baltimore Orioles
After bouncing back and forth during 2015’s summer months, Gausman has ridden that Norfolk-Baltimore shuttle for the last time. In addition to geographic stability, he also figures to finally have a steady role in the Orioles’ otherwise ghastly rotation. Gausman was pretty solid in the 100 innings he notched as a big league starter last season, posting a 3.75 K:BB ratio and a 92 cFIP, a number sheds some positive light on his underlying skillset. It’s only been three years since Gausman was the fourth pick in the draft and immediately ranked as a top-15 prospect in baseball. Baltimore’s funny business in the meantime might have helped you forget just how high-class his pedigree is. The premium stuff that could lead to a big breakout is still present, including a four-seamer with top-10 velocity and swing rate (including plenty of whiffs) and a splitter that ranks as one of the best offspeed pitches in the game. That splitter gets more swings and misses than any other, save Danny Salazar’s ungodly version. Gausman pitched only 126 innings last year and the Orioles would wise to proceed with caution given how much they’ve jerked him around, so don’t expect SP3 earnings even if the stat line might look like an SP3.
Brett Lawrie, 2B/3B, Chicago White Sox
Lawrie’s promising debut was 1,862 plate appearances ago, but it wouldn’t be a post-hype piece without a reference to the enigmatic former Blue Jay and Athletic. Lawrie moves to the South Side for 2015 and the change in home park will help his most relevant fantasy tool play up. Lawrie’s stick still carries plenty of thump, even if the dreams of a power-speed combo and helpful batting average have long since faded. Lawrie’s batted-ball distance in 2015 was a career best and the average length of his 16 home runs (408 feet) bettered Paul Goldschmidt and Kris Bryant, among many others. He was quite obviously selling out pull the ball a long ways and subsequently, career-worst chase and contact rates led to career-worst walk and strikeout rates. On the bright side, he turned a bunch of former pop-outs into liners, which provided stability to his batting average even as his approach crumbled. Somehow, Lawrie will play the entire 2016 season at age 26. A 20-homer season isn’t out of the question and if he can pull that off without sinking your average, a top ten finish at the keystone is a possibility.
Jose Ramirez, 2B/SS, Cleveland Indians
Ramirez was one of my favorite end-game targets entering 2015 and he proceeded to hit .219 in 355 major league appearances that sandwiched a mid-season demotion to Triple-A. Naturally, I’m doubling down. Despite the poor batting average, Ramirez’s exceptional contact rates stayed intact on pitches both in and out of the zone. Further, he became far more selective, lowering his swing rate by 7.5 percentage points, year-over-year. A player who has the willingness to wait for his pitch and the ability to put wood on it when it comes should profile as something more than the batting average liability he was last season. The big question is whether Ramirez can find enough playing time to be relevant. The Indians’ middle infield jobs are pretty well locked up but 37-year-old Juan Uribe is the presumptive starter at the hot corner and the Indians’ outfield is poor. Ramirez is a solid defender and has played all over the place this spring. If he does the same during the regular season and finds 400 or more at-bats, he has 20-plus-steal upside. Most viewed Ramirez as little more than a bridge to Francisco Lindor and now that Lindor is entrenched, Ramirez is a forgotten man. Entering his age-23 season, you can get him for a song.
Eddie Rosario, OF, Minnesota Twins|
Let’s just start with the elephant in the room: Rosario’s plate discipline is horrid and he’s going to have to tone down the aggressiveness to have any sustained success. Among qualifiers, only Pablo Sandoval, Adam Jones, and Avisail Garcia chased more pitches outside the zone. For a player who exhibited a below-average contact rate, hacking at everything is a sub-optimal strategy. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that Rosario played most of 2015 at age 23 after forfeiting 50 games worth of precious development time in 2014 to a drug suspension. Rosario was rated the 60th-best prospect in baseball entering that season, primarily because of bat-to-ball skill and untapped power potential. He was an excellent defender in left-field last season and should be penciled in every day until if and when the approach submarines his usefulness. I’d expect to see more contact in his second major league season and a 15-15 power-speed projection might be a shade optimistic, but by no means unreasonable.
Aaron Sanchez, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays
Sanchez earned a spot in the rotation to open 2015 and made 11 starts before missing time with a lat strain. His 3.55 ERA in those turns was a mirage. Sanchez walked 38 batters in 66 innings (5.05 BB/9) and only struck out 42 (5.73 K/9), an underwhelming number for anyone and especially for a young flamethrower with supposed great stuff. He pitched out of the ‘pen upon returning from the disabled list and was much better, even if the strikeouts never appeared. Sanchez was also excellent in relief during his 2014 debut and that history, along with his minor league track record of command struggles has most presuming a long-term role in high leverage. That might ultimately be true, but Sanchez is currently bidding for the fifth spot in Toronto’s rotation. Sanchez spent his offseason working out at Duke University with the same crew that got Marcus Stroman from a torn ACL to the ALDS in six months. He reportedly showed up to camp with added bulk and strength [insert best shape of life joke here]. The early results have been impressive, with Sanchez walking just one better in his nine innings of work [insert spring training stats caveat here]. He still needs a passable offspeed pitch to complement his mid-90s gas and nasty yakker, but if he can keep the free passes under control, there’s enough time yet to re-establish himself as a starting pitcher. If he gets the job – and really, the alternatives aren’t very compelling – he’ll be a WHIP risk with strikeout upside who should be able to prevent runs thanks to a ground ball heavy approach.