Around this time last year, I started taking a look at prospects whose early-season performance had their dynasty stocks on the rise. While it’s awfully early to be diving into minor league stat lines, it’s not an exercise completely devoid of merit. You may well miss more than you hit, but last year’s early-June leaderboard mining revealed prospects such as Jacob Nottingham, Trey Mancini, and Cody Reed as prospects whose value was changing dramatically.
I hope it goes without saying that you should always try to pair stat line scouting with actual reports if you can find the information. To that end, you should definitely be reading the amazing work done by our prospect team: daily minor league updates, Monday morning ten packs, eyewitness accounts, notes from the field, chats, mailbag Q&As. It’s quite staggering how prolific they are as a unit, and how much my dynasty game has improved by soaking it all in.
Productive as they are, there is a significant early adoption advantage in the prospect acquisition game, especially in deeper leagues. You might not have time to wait for scouting reports to hit the public domain. Turning over the bottom of a dynasty roster is important in leagues of all sizes. This time of year—when new rebuilders are born out of slow starts—can be a crucial time for upgrading your farm system. So, hit those leaderboards and make some adds if you have the roster spots to do so. Just be sure to flip again if you see a report down the road that doesn’t quite match what the numbers alone tell you.
Rafael Bautista, OF, Harrisburg Senators (Nationals)
Bautista leads the Eastern League with 29 steals, the second-highest total in Double-A. That shouldn’t be too surprising; Bautista has run everywhere he’s been as a pro. He stole 23 bags in 52 games in an injury-shortened 2015, a nice 69 in a full 2014 Sally season, and another 26 in the GCL in his first stateside appearance back in 2013. All that adds up to swipe every other game or so. Minor-league stolen-base totals should be taken with a grain of salt, but Bautista possesses true double-plus speed and the fact that he’s converted 29 of 33 attempts this season tells you that he’s more than a guy with straight-line speed who can pick on weak batteries. Speed is an integral part of Bautista’s above-average defensive ability too, but his continued development at the plate will determine whether he’s a fourth outfielder or a starting centerfielder. Bautista has improved his walk rate dramatically, more than doubling it from last year. While you’d like to see him hit better than .258, pairing a .346 OBP with his speed makes an eventual leadoff role something to dream on. There is still no power to speak of, nor any reasonable projection of power to come. He won't need it to have a big fantasy impact as long as he continues to get on base.
Brandon Dixon, 2B, Pensacola Blue Wahoos (Reds)
Dixon is on some kind of tear, slamming eight bombs in his past six contests and improving his season line to .322/.372/.617 in the process. The 24-year-old former third-round pick out of Arizona is having a statistically impressive season after a productive half-season in the Cal League that was discounted because of the league, age-at-level concerns, and a rough tour in Double-A. Dixon began his 2015 season in Tulsa and was demoted to Rancho Cucamonga, where he popped 11 homers in 45 games. That earned him a return ticket to the Texas League in mid-August. He wasn’t any better the second time around, though he did finish with some shiny fantasy stats in the form of eight homers and 16 steals. After a successful Fall League campaign, Dixon moved from the Dodgers organization to the Reds in the three-way deal that sent Todd Frazier to Chicago. In addition to the contextual concerns, swing-and-miss has tempered long-term enthusiasm on Dixon. In keeping with the rest of his professional resume, he’s striking out a quarter of the time this season. There is also skepticism about whether Dixon can stay at second base, and I think corner outfield is a more likely landing spot. If he runs and hits for power, you won’t care where he plays. I’ll be watching closely for a report to indicate whether there is any reason to change the outlook or if this is just a red-hot streak.
Guillermo Heredia, OF, Jackson Generals (Mariners)
If you’re simply looking at a Double-A leaderboard, you could be forgiven for gliding right past Heredia, a 25-year-old whose stats don’t jump off the page. It’s important to remember the backstory here, though. Heredia hadn’t played organized baseball in two years before inking with the Mariners for $500,000, a modest sum relative to the numbers received by recent Cuban signees. When evaluators last saw Heredia in game action, he was struggling through his second straight Serie Nacional season after slashing .343/.439/.527 as a 21-year-old in 2011. His glove kept him at the forefront of the national scene in Cuba even as he struggled at the plate; Heredia’s defense is good enough that he was Cuba’s starting center fielder at the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Heredia’s defense continues to provide the foundation for his major league future, but his start with the stick has been encouraging. His triple-slash currently sits at .292/.387/.398 and he has struck out one fewer time than he’s walked. Heredia’s footspeed hasn’t translated to success on the basepaths yet, as he’s been thrown out in four of six attempts. There’s a decent chance this is an empty batting average profile in a best case scenario—he’ll be better in OBP formats—but his floor is rising and a potential everyday player is a worthy investment for you deep leaguers out there.
Carson Kelly, C, Springfield Cardinals (Cardinals)
Let’s start with the part that’s least relevant for our game: Kelly is a hell of a catcher. According to our metrics, Kelly has the third best FRAA among catchers in Double-A and the 10th-best among those at Double-A or higher. That’s mighty impressive when you consider that he’s a converted third baseman who didn’t catch until 2014. It’s more impressive still when you consider he’s been one of the youngest players at his level throughout his development and is currently one of the ten youngest players in the Texas League. Kelly’s full-season 2015 line was .219/.263/.332, which ain’t pretty, but he was much better towards the end of the season and his age, league, home park, and position buy him quite a bit of leeway. Kelly’s line looks far better in 2016, though most or all of the 54 point jump in his batting average can be explained away by an 80 point increase in a BABIP; his .239 mark last year was the lowest in the Florida State League by ten points, for which he can partially blame the park in Palm Beach. Kelly’s approach continues to need work and a 4.2 percent walk in 2016 is worrisome. What I’m really looking for, though, is whether Kelly can get to a little more of the raw power that helped make him a second round pick in 2012. If so, his profile edges away from a backup floor and toward an everyday player. Be patient even though he only has eight extra-base hits to date.
Jamie Westbrook, 2B, Mobile BayBears (Diamondbacks)
Westbrook is hitting .284/.342/.373 in 2016, so it’s a little strange to be discussing him as a riser given that he hit 17 home runs as part of a .319/.357/.510 triple-slash in 2015. Those numbers came in the Cal League, so they were appropriately discounted this offseason even though Westbrook played most of the season at 20 years old. What we should have taken out of 2015 has little to do with the raw numbers. Instead, we should recognize that Westbrook is capable of producing at a level that exceeds his reputation. That’s evidenced by the fact that Westbrook simply outperformed many more highly regarded prospects who played in a similar environment. Westbrook’s .331 TAv was the 18th-highest at the classification (minimum 100 at-bats) and bettered Franklin Barreto, Raimel Tapia, and Cody Bellinger, all similar-aged players who also spent the full year in California. I’m not suggesting Westbrook is as good a prospect as any of them, but it’s lazy to write off his season as a product of context and stay married to your pre-2015 idea of his eventuality. I don’t expect Westbrook to approach last year’s raw power total, though reports do suggest he makes plenty of hard contact as a result of a quick bat, a trait he’ll need to show in order to have continued success against pitchers with more velocity. That Westbrook continues to hit while improving both his walk and strikeout rates at Double-A, where he’s once again one of the youngest players in the league, validates his status as a prospect with a major league future. Like so many small guys with limited projectability, Westbrook will need to show it at every level before he gains acceptance.