Making sense of the rookie projections for the prospects featured on this year’s BP 101 isn’t as straight-forward a task as the raw numbers indicate. There’s interplay here – interplay! – with opportunity. While a handful of these guys project to log significant billable hours in The Show, the outlook for even those prospects currently installed in the high minors is extremely context-dependent. Given the depth chart uncertainties and shorter (relative) professional track records, PECOTA tends to skew conservative by trade in its handling of younger players, and that is easily the first takeaway when glancing at the 101 projections.
Per their respective depth charts, just two of the hitting prospects on our list are expected to log full campaigns in starting roles, but the good news is that both should come off reasonably well in their full-season debuts. Catching glimpse of the Andy Marte comp may be enough to send a couple elderly Dodger fans to the hospital, but otherwise readers will note a pretty swell outlook on balance for our top prospect, Corey Seager. Swell, at least, as far as outlooks for 22-year-old rookies go. Seager’s .272 TAv paces all of the rookie hitters likely to muster 300 plate appearances, and the defensive metrics of his debut were good enough to call for neutral value at the six-spot in a full season. PECOTA likes him for a three-win season, which would immediately install him among the game’s elite shortstops if it indeed comes to pass.
Interestingly, Seager’s offensive advantage over no. 2 prospect Byron Buxton drives a split decision for PECOTA’s value predictions, with the shortstop claiming the mantle of highest VORP while Buxton’s elite defensive projection in center field (his anticipated plus-25 fielding runs would trail only Kevin Kiermaier’s output from 2015) drives the Twin’s WARP crown. On the whole, PECOTA sees a tougher slog offensively for Buxton, whose aggregate TAv checks in south of league-average. But component-wise, his 45 extra-base hits (including 10 triples) and 25 stolen bases sneak in a welcome nod to the kind of explosive, impact-across-the-board skill set that lies at the heart of Buxton’s elite pedigree.
Elsewhere, Trea Turner is the only other guy to project for a lion’s share of playing time for his team, lining up as he currently does to grab about 60 percent of the shortstop plate appearances for Washington. Stephen Drew and Danny Espinosa figure to offer a tight safety net, but PECOTA likes what it sees in the youngster. A near-average TAv and solid +6 fielding forecast combine to have Turner angling for nearly two and a half WARP in just under 400 plate appearances.
What about robot helium, you ask? Of course you do, why wouldn’t you want to know about such things? PECOTA slaps double-digit “breakout” percentages (that is, the likelihood that a player will improve upon his baseline projection by at least 20 percent next year) on three prospects: Tim Anderson of the White Sox, Austin Meadows of the Pirates, and Max Kepler of the Twins. Anderson comes with the largest present gap—his current forecast to a .229 TAv is one of the lower marks for a prospect who has spent a year at Double-A—and this jives nicely with his scouting report as a supremely tooled but higher-variance project. Kepler’s outburst at Double-A last year followed several years of cautious scouting optimism in the face of underwhelming production, and it left PECOTA hedging its bets: The German’s 21-point spread between breakout and collapse potentials is the widest gap of any 101er.
Strictly in terms of offensive output, power is treated most reverentially by the system. A.J. Reed paces all hitters with a predicted .284 TAv that is well clear of Joey Gallo’s second-best mark of .273, and I intend to remind the machines of my unfettered infatuation with Reed’s power and patience combination when they rise up on us. Meanwhile, Gallo’s three comps of Giancarlo Stanton, Chris Davis, and Javier Baez say an awful lot about his boom and bust elements in just six words.
And from the “Computers: They’re Just Like Us” files, one area in which PECOTA struggles a bit to process context involves guys who have failed to produce outsized numbers while playing consistently young for the level. Raul Mondesi makes for one of the tougher prospects on this list to evaluate on account of Kansas City’s hyper-aggressive promotion schedule and his extreme age-to-level deficit throughout his minor league career. His .246/.293/.365 composite line in over 1,500 professional plate appearances does little to inspire the system despite his relative proximity to the big leagues.
While the drink may have led Old Hoss to the grave, the lack of a single projected shutout for any pitcher on this list surely has him spinning around in it. Innings totals on the whole trend extremely conservative for even those pitchers who figure to see a decent amount of time in the bigs. Minor-league usage patterns tend to be lighter as teams build up the stamina of their young hurlers and manage for injury risk. The lack of sustained performance airing it out over several full professional seasons, along with standard adjustment regressions for pre-peak production, drives an expectation by the system that no rookie starter will average six innings a start.
Top pitching prospect (and no. 3 overall) Lucas Giolito should enter the year on track for a post-Super Two call-up, and PECOTA affords him around 21 starts of reasonable production out of the gate. His player comp to Justin Nicolino is a fun one, both in terms of the pure stuff and expected future outcomes. Nicolino always trended more toward “solid floor” for his prospect value, but his inability to miss bats in his first 74 big-league innings last year tested the limits of the profile. He did show an ability to mitigate hard contact and work out of jams, to where his rookie year production stood on two feet. But the odds he faces by relying on so much defensive performance behind him are much, much longer than Giolito’s. The Nats’ future-rookie boasts a full menu of electric stuff that affords him a sizeable margin for error in getting big-league hitters out while he works on normalizing processes and honing command. The uber-rare “true ace” distinction points him on a vastly different trajectory than Nicolino. That these two project to similar initial statistical outputs at the highest level is a testament to how weird baseball can be, not to mention how stylistically varied its most successful pitchers.
Tyler Glasnow projects for the only sub-4.00 DRA on this list, albeit in all of five big-league starts (and eight total appearances). Glasnow’s place on Pittsburgh’s depth chart reflects both the quality of organizational depth above him and his own unfinished development. Still, the system’s bullishness on a quick assimilation is interesting given the lingering concerns about repeatability and his subsequent command inconsistency—a deficiency that doesn’t tend to lend itself well to initial big-league success. PECOTA is enamored with the bat-missing fastball-curve combo, however, as—again, small sample grains of salt—he’s one of only three hurlers to garner double-digit strikeouts-per-nine consideration.
Jose De Leon is one of the other, and PECOTA churns with wanton lust for the right-hander’s extreme whiff rate and strong control. De Leon’s strikeout rate and ERA both project to set the pace among the high-minors guys. He doesn’t yet crack the Dodgers’ depth chart, but he’s one of the better arms capable of forcing an issue if he continues to prove so difficult to square at Double- and/or Triple-A.
On the flipside, Sean Newcomb—another “big whiffs, wonky command” guy like Glasnow (right down to the concerns about how he’ll harness his frame) —is one of just two pitchers on the list to have reached Double-A but project to a DRA north of five. Both Newcomb’s whiff and walk rates crack the top five, and PECOTA doesn’t trust his relative lack of professional innings in assigning risk to his command profile.
But of the 10 hurlers that PECOTA projects for triple-digit big-league innings next year, the system is far and away most skeptical of Mark Appel’s outlook, proving that the dawn of truly functional artificial intelligence may indeed be upon us. Adam McInturff and Brendan Gawlowski (with a hat tip to Kate Morrison) recently broke down Appel’s appeal (and flaws. So many flaws.) in this excellent prospect debate. Suffice to say, a volatile and uninspiring rookie prognostication fits the bill. Appel’s predicted 1.29 home runs-per-nine is far and away the most of any of the arms projected for a legitimate innings total, as his mediocre strikeout numbers mean more balls flying around Citizen’s Bank Ballpark, and his steadily declining groundball rate suggests far too many of those balls will have some air under them.
The most front-and-center performer of the lot projects to be Steven Matz, who pencils right into the Mets’ rotation. PECOTA projects nice things for Matz, including three strikeouts for every walk and a strong effort to limit batting average on balls in play. That comes on the heels of a debut in which Matz registered league-average whiff rates with two pitches and induced his share of burned worms thanks to well-above-average movement on both his fastball and cambio. The only other pitching prospect projected to break camp with a rotation spot is Jon Gray, and while PECOTA trusts his nasty slider to help drive a strong whiff rate, it worries about the hard and plentiful contact batters made against his poorly commanded fastball. His projected 1.7 WARP would put him on par with Chad Bettis’ team-leading total of a year ago, so all told a solid if unspectacular set of expectations for the 24-year-old.
Thanks to Rob McQuown and Stan Croussett for research assistance.