As power numbers have dwindled in recent years, dynasty owners have been focused on adding speed to their rosters in any way possible. Billy Hamilton stole 56 stolen bases in 2014 and finished as a top-50 contributor in virtually all formats, despite hitting .250 and compiling a sub-.300 on-base percentage. Hamilton’s 72 runs scored were not good enough to rank him in the top 60 hitters overall, so the vast majority of his value was tied to one category. Fantasy overlord Bret Sayre ranked Hamilton the 16th-best outfield dynasty commodity this winter, outlining the value that a top-flight base-stealer can add to a dynasty league roster.
As a dynasty owner, finding speed in the minors is often a tricky proposition. A prospect like Garin Cecchini can swipe 51 bases in Low-A ball in 2012 but fail to surpass 15 steals in a season as he’s moved up the latter due to the more advanced ability of pitchers and catchers to control the running game. That’s why it’s always important to listen to the great BP Prospect team to have them tell you who has elite speed and who is feasting on poor battery combinations in the lower minors.
Let’s take a look at three top-of-the-order options who should be able to continue to translate their elite speed into stolen-base production at the highest level:
Smith was selected in the fifth round of the 2012 draft from Santa Fe (FL) Community College by the Padres and came over to this Braves this winter as part of the Justin Upton trade. Smith has true 80-grade speed and used it to steal 64 bags in 80 attempts in 2013, his first full season of pro ball at Low-A Fort Wayne in the Midwest League. He then added 88 steals (in 114 attempts) across two levels in 2014, which led all of the minors. While there remain questions from our BP Prospect team about Smith’s long-term role, he’s done nothing but get on base since turning pro, compiling a career .385 OBP and reaching the Double-A level this season. The main question with Smith was how his hit tool would play at the higher levels, because there are no questions about his ability to handle center field. He appears to be holding his own in his first taste of Double-A as a 22-year-old, posting a .345/.395/.430 line in his first 159 plate appearances in 2015, chipping in 15 steals in 17 attempts while hitting atop the Mississippi order. Smith needs to improve upon his eight percent walk rate in the early going, but with only Cameron Maybin, Todd Cunningham (MLB), and Eury Perez (Triple-A) ahead of him on the organizational depth chart, he could find himself challenging for a starting role in center with the Braves as soon as the 2016 season.
Alford was Mr. Baseball and Mr. Football in the state of Mississippi as a senior in 2012 and was taken by the Blue Jays in the third round before signing for $750,000. Toronto agreed to let him focus on his football career at Southern Miss, where he started five games at quarterback as a true freshman for the winless Golden Eagles, saw his coach get fired, and transferred to Ole Miss. Alford sat out the 2013 football season due to NCAA transfer rules and was only able to get on the field as a safety to make six tackles in four games in 2014 before leaving the team to focus exclusively on baseball going forward.
After getting only 50 plate appearances of experience at the complex level during the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Alford received 60 plate appearances at the end of 2014 in the Appy League and the Midwest League, then went to Australia to play winter ball against much older competition. Alford got 152 much-needed plate appearances in Australia and was invited to big-league camp this spring.
The Jays assigned Alford to Lansing (Low-A) of the Midwest League to start the 2015 season, where the now 20-year-old Alford has thrived, as evidenced by his .327/.479/.430 line to start the year. His .479 OBP leads the minors, and 11 of his 35 hits have been doubles. Alford has shown remarkable patience for a player with so little baseball experience, walking in 21 percent of his plate appearances. His numbers are propped up by his .467 BABIP, but Alford’s manageable 24 percent strikeout shows that he hasn’t been overmatched to this point in his first full professional season. Alford needs much more development time, but the Blue Jays have certainly shown a tendency to challenge players they feel can handle it, so who knows what their plan with Alford will entail.
Alford is an elite all-around athlete and was clocked running the 40-yard dash at 4.45 seconds during his football playing days, but has yet to translate his speed into stolen bases in the minors (he only has six in 2015). Still, scouts agree that with experience, he should be able to establish himself as a legitimate threat on the basepaths.
Quinn is perhaps the player in the minors whose speed has been most frequently compared to Billy Hamilton’s. However, it’s been a struggle for him to find a position to this point in his career; he started out as a shortstop and moved to center field this season in his first taste of Double-A ball due to the emergence of J.P. Crawford in the Phillies system. There have been serious questions about Quinn’s hit tool (and his ability to stay healthy) prior to this season, much of which stemmed from Quinn taking up switch-hitting only as he entered the Phillies organization. There have been promising eyewitness reports on him this season from our BP Prospect team, leading me to believe that he may hit enough to utilize his 80-grade speed at the big-league level.
Quinn’s .310/.355/.456 line has no doubt been buoyed by a .379 BABIP in his first 190 plate appearances, but his .146 ISO would be a career high, and his current 18.9 percent strikeout rate would rank as the lowest mark in his career. Quinn’s 22 steals in 29 attempts rank him in the top 10 in the minors, but he will have to improve his walk rate as his reaches the upper levels, as it currently sits at just over six percent. With the Phillies looking at a lengthy rebuild, it’s hard to see how Quinn won’t get a shot at the center field job at some point over the next few seasons.