A chasm deeper than the Mariana Trench has long existed between scouts and evaluators on opposite ends of the spectrum regarding A.J. Reed and Dan Vogelbach. Among the most polarizing power-hitting prospects in the game, there were those who regarded their raw hit tool, power, and superb selectivity at the dish as reasons to anoint them legit #dudes. On the other hand, there were those who still had their doubts. Whether it concerned their ability to hit left-handed pitching (completely fair) or their weight and conditioning (not really fair) is an entirely different matter.
At this time last year, Reed looked like a burgeoning four-category fantasy superstar after leading the minor leagues in home runs (34), slugging percentage (.612), and OPS (1.044) in 135 games between High-A Lancaster and Double-A Corpus Christi in 2015. Baseball Prospectus’ very own Bret Sayre and Ben Carsley ranked him as the 12th– and 19th-best prospect in fantasy baseball on their respective Dynasty 101 lists entering last season. Then, it all fell apart.
On the heels of a lackluster major-league debut, in which he hit .164/.270/.262 (striking out in 34 percent of his 141 plate appearances), we aren’t any closer to knowing whether Reed will fulfill his potential as an everyday first baseman. While his numbers rebounded across the board at Triple-A Fresno, where he hit .291/.368/.556 with 15 home runs in 70 games, he lacks a clear path to everyday at-bats in Houston. Reed’s long-term future is still very much up in the air.
Vogelbach’s stock trended in the exact opposite direction after hitting a staggering .292/.417/.505 with 50 extra-base hits (23 home runs) and a 97-to-101 BB:K ratio over 563 plate appearances between Triple-A Iowa and Tacoma. “He rakes,” Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto told the Seattle Times after acquiring the 23-year-old slugger in late July. “He rakes everywhere he’s ever been. He’s an elite strike-zone controller with well above-average power. He has absolutely tormented right-handed pitching, especially this year.”
It’s difficult to envision Vogelbach as a fantasy superstar, but he’s a much safer bet to produce long-term value across three-categories. He’s also primed to make an immediate impact as Seattle’s righty-masher in 2017. Meanwhile, Reed still has the potential to evolve into a 30-plus home run hitter with a .270-.280 average annually. It may not happen in Houston, but if he’s traded to an organization willing to hand him a full season of major-league at bats, his fantasy value could skyrocket overnight.
All of this leads back to a central question: Who would you rather own in a dynasty league right now?
There’s a legitimate case to be made that Vogelbach was the best hitter in the minor leagues last season. By BP’s True Average (TAv), which measures total offensive value (while adjusting for park and league quality) scaled to batting average, Vogelbach’s .334 mark ranked second out of 129 Triple-A hitters with at least 400 plate appearances last season. Pairing him with veteran lefty-specialist Danny Valencia, as the strong side of a platoon role (facing right-handed pitching almost exclusively), insulates the majority of the immediate batting average risk. Vogelbach struck out in just 18 percent of his 563 minor-league plate appearances last year, so there aren’t any major contact issues to worry about, especially if he doesn’t have to face southpaws.
Reed is exactly the type of power hitter that makes extremely hard contact, and puts the ball on the ground often enough, that he should sustain a high BABIP throughout his career. Yet, his struggles against major-league pitching, as evidenced by a 34 percent strikeout rate in his brief debut, cast enough doubt on his ability to reach the .280 ceiling we discussed earlier anytime soon. I’m not willing to blindly assume that Reed makes the necessary adjustments and overtakes Vogelbach in the future. Advantage: Vogelbach
This is an area where Vogelbach (16.7 percent walk rate in Triple-A) has a clear-cut advantage over the vast majority of first base prospects. Unfortunately, Reed isn’t one of those guys. The Kentucky product still managed to walk in nearly 13 percent of his major-league plate appearances and was at 11 percent in Triple-A. The slight edge goes to Vogelbach’s plate discipline right now, but this might as well be a draw. They’re both going to be valuable assets in OBP-formats for a long time. Advantage: Vogelbach
Safeco Field is no longer a death sentence for left-handed power. Per Baseball Info Solutions three-year park factors, it’s graded out as the fourth most favorable (out of 15 American League ballparks) for left-handed home run power since 2014. Vogelbach, who cranked 23 home runs last year, has the raw power necessary to approach 15-18 home runs this season, even in a part time role. However, the massive power potential is what makes Reed such an enticing fantasy proposition. A 30-plus home run ceiling as an everyday first basemen is not an unrealistic outcome. It’s also the singular reason to invest in him with confidence going forward. Advantage: Reed
I don’t know. We don’t say that often enough. Vogelbach and Reed profile as middle of the order mashers for contending franchises (assuming Reed isn’t traded) that should have plenty of opportunities in both departments. The ceiling/upside with Reed is tantalizing enough that you almost certainly have to give him the edge over Vogelbach. Both may ultimately end up as platoon first basemen/designated hitters, but there is still a chance that Reed solves the lefty equation and becomes a monster. Advantage: Reed
No seriously, come on! For the official record, Vogelbach has exactly one stolen base in 209 games above A-ball. Reed has zero in 168. Advantage: Push
Neither has missed significant time due to injury in recent years. They’re likely to end up as designated hitters in the long run, so it’s not a significant factor for the sake of this comparison. A stable health grade does have some legitimate long-term value, so don’t underestimate it… Advantage: Push
Contextual Factors and 2017 Impact
The central question regarding Reed is where he fits into the Astros immediate future, especially following the offseason acquisitions of veteran left-handed hitters Brian McCann, Josh Reddick, Nori Aoki and switch-hitting Carlos Beltran. Factor in presence of Evan Gattis and Yulieski Gurriel as well, and there isn’t a clear path to everyday at-bats for the to make an impact in 2017. Unless he’s traded, there’s a realistic chance he spends the majority of the upcoming campaign in Triple-A.
The vast majority of Vogelbach’s appeal is that he’s going to get an opportunity in Seattle right away in 2017. A below-average defense at the cold corner, it’s entirely possible that Vogelbach may be forced to transition to designated hitter full-time in the future. Forecasting positional eligibility is often a fool’s errand, but it matters from a fantasy context. Reed is a viable, league-average defender, and should be able to stick there long-term. Still. Advantage: Vogelbach
Arguably the biggest challenge associated with compiling dynasty rankings or prospect lists, is determining how much weight to place on a potential ceiling, juxtaposed by the value of a realistic floor. Judging the probability a hitter like Reed exceeding that baseline projection, after 45 games in which he struggled against major-league competition, is incredibly difficult.
Simply put, there’s no doubt that Reed will be the more valuable fantasy asset if he makes the necessary adjustments against major-league pitching. However, he’s unlikely to be afforded that opportunity with Houston in 2017. Vogelbach lacks the lofty ceiling, but the odds of him reaching a relatively safe floor as a righty-masher on the strong side of a platoon in 2017 virtually a guarantee. Advantage: Vogelbach
Dynasty owners in the win-now phase of their contention cycle should gravitate towards the immediate impact of Vogelbach. However, rebuilding franchises should strongly consider investing in the long-term upside of Reed. It may not happen in Houston, but he’s going to get another opportunity very soon.
And the winner is… Dan Vogelbach.
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What's the chance they start letting him bat vs. lefties in 2018 and beyond? What will it take for them to give him a chance? Or does the presence of Valencia mean Vogelbach is trapped in a platoon till Valencia leaves?