With the California League’s All-Star game in the books, the season’s first half has shuffled off this mortal coil. After a down year for top-end talent last year, the league has been defined thus far by significantly more “wow” talent, mostly concentrated among the top rungs of pitching staffs far and wide. Below you’ll find the complete All-Star rosters for reference, and then we’ll get into the league’s best and most interesting fantasy prospects.
The Top Five Fantasy Prospects
Yeah, that’s a lot of pitching, which is less than ideal for a High-A league’s top five fantasy prospects. Far as I’m concerned, there’s another arm sixth in Mitchell White, to boot. And I’m not even counting among my considerations here Anderson Espinoza, a top-25 overall prospect before the season who has subsequently missed all of it with an elbow injury.
There’s a lot of talent on this list, though, risk be damned. Brendan Rodgers is a top-three overall fantasy prospect. After catching him for nine games between injury and promotion, there’s no doubt in my mind about that. On the merits of being a potential 6 Hit/6 Power true shortstop alone, he’s a monster. Add in the team and future ballpark context and … yeah.
This batch of arms is not your average concentration of ceiling at the High-A level. Puk has some of the nastiest pure stuff in the minor leagues, working high 90s with an additional couple ticks of perceived velocity courtesy of big extension and a long stride. A complementary slider in the high 80s flashes plus, and a change in the same band flirts with above-average projection. He makes for a high-risk, high-reward proposition in fantasy, as his extreme length and stiffer physicality can lead to the command wandering for dangerous stretches. He’s got top-10 starter upside, but a lot of gains to be made in his pitch-to-pitch consistency if he’s ever going to get close to that.
Buehler positively dominated the league for five (abbreviated) starts and 16 innings before quickly ascending to Double-A, where he has continued to dominate. He probably shouldn’t qualify for this list, but whatever, it’s my list, and he qualifies because he’s an awesome prospect. J.H. Schroeder has the goods here, but the punchline is that questions about his durability and whether his smaller frame and reconstructed elbow ligament can hold up to the rigors of 200-plus innings are the only reason he’s not among the elite pitching prospects in the game right now. And even accounting for them he’s comfortably in the top 10.
On the other end of the spectrum to Buehler’s rapid ascent, organization-mate Yadier Alvarez has no less upside, but a longer horizon towards approaching it. Part of the issue with Alvarez at present is that his body has grown faster than his ability to control it. But while he’s still growing into his man size and strength, the ingredients of a fluid, highly repeatable delivery are there to see. His length is a lot to overcome, however, and it’s going to take some time for him to learn how. The stuff’s outstanding, and liberal projection is warranted.
Rounding out the top five is Quantrill, the best starter on what has been a pitching-stacked Lake Elsinore squad all year. Quantrill’s another guy who still has a good deal of gap between present and future skills, which I realize is a shocking statement about a pitcher in High A—especially one still less than a hundred professional innings removed from Tommy John surgery. Quantrill’s delivery tends to combust into flames at inopportune times right now, but when that’s not happening he’ll flash really intriguing stuff, highlighted by a devastating changeup that is the league’s best. His strikeout potential even in spite of some possible agita-inducing ratio risk makes him an attractive fantasy pitching prospect (as these things go) in moderate-depth leagues.
Peters and Hilliard down South, Reynolds and Bishop up North
DJ Peters and Sam Hilliard profile very similarly for me, though they get to their value in slightly different ways. Peters has bat speed and power you can’t really teach. He’s big and powerful, a Drago type created by a corporate research division. Lots of triple-digit exit velocities on his resume this year. Lots of whiffs, too. He’s long. His swing is long. It’s a swing that drives off the back leg and produces elevated line drives:
It’s also not always consistently on plane for very long. And he struggles a lot to catch velocity up and inner third right now. There’s enough raw, physical talent to overcome some contact and pitch recognition deficiencies and get him to the big leagues. His tools give him multiple paths toward generating value on baseball field. But there’s also a lot of variance to his outcome potential.
Hilliard has a tough swing to evaluate, made tougher still by the extreme environment in which he swings half the time. He’s shown as a hitter able to drag balls with some loft into left field when he’s beaten, and it helps him cover the outside of the plate while focusing on generating timing through a long, fluid weight transfer to catch balls up and anywhere on the inner half. As with Peters, he’s got his length issues, and I’m a little skeptical his contact rate holds against better secondaries and sequencing. I’ll buy Peters getting to his power over Hilliard’s advantage in mid-teen stolen base potential.
Up north, the pair that has stuck together like peanut butter and jelly in my head all year is Braden Bishop and Bryan Reynolds. Bishop has been an interesting player all season long, and then the former third-rounder went and collected four hits in the All-Star game to take home the MVP trophy. His extra-low hands and tight stance leave the bat short into the zone, though a leg kick and some cock to the wrists allows him to generate rhythm and bat speed to lift his line drives a bit. There’s no over-the-fence power, but he’s not exactly a slap hitter, either. He stays in the zone well, and coupled with plus speed and the patience to work walks he offers some legitimate intrigue as a potential fourth outfielder with room for more down the line. His is that of a solid three-category profile if he maxes out his OFP.
For his part, Reynolds might’ve been the most boring prospect I saw in the first half. I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way, mind you. Boring, in the realm of the prospect, is actually a generally quite good thing. He was consistent, even-keeled, and workman-like in his approach at each turn. The physicality suggests a whole slew of more or less average tools (save for the arm, which lacks for much in the way of carry or fantasy relevance), but there isn’t much in the way of wow factor in his game. Nor is there, at present anyway, much in the way of game power or speed utility. And until that changes, he’s not the kind of prospect where you should be going out of your way to gamble on projection, even in fairly deep dynasty formats. I think he’s got a decent shot to eventually play his way into that borderline zone of a speculative add, but that day is not today.
Diaz and Gettys are wandering
Like Caine in Kung Fu, Yusniel Diaz has been walking the earth in the season’s first half. I’m on record as a big fan. It was an open question at the end of last season as to whether he would be back at Rancho again this spring, or whether the organization might decide to get aggressive with a player who’d just spent his entire stateside debut—straight from Cuba—at High-A and shown impressive development at 19. The organization opted for the former, and they have since continued in a very significant way what has been a long-term overhaul of Diaz’s swing. After getting him more consistent with his load and weight transfer as the season progressed last year, the club added a leg kick to start the year:
After an okay-not-great first six weeks, not only was the leg kick gone again by the end of May, the team had screeched the vinyl to silence on all of his setup rhythm:
The new “2k” setup, with a quiet load and stride, along with a lower hand position, has kept him noticeably shorter to the ball in the weeks since, while not compromising bat speed and allowing him to generate plane and loft he wasn’t creating consistently with the looser setup. After a brutal stretch adjusting to the new mechanics in May, he’s come back roaring into the break with a .412/.459/.647 line in 16 June games. For my money he’s still easily a top-10 fantasy prospect in the league, and perhaps the second-best on the offensive side of the ball.
Michael Gettys has been out for a stroll, too, though his has been driven less by having once had it than trying to find it for the first time. He has less raw material to work with in the batter’s box than Diaz, and his swing lacks the same explosive elements. He can be quite stiff with his launch, and between length into the zone, raw pitch recognition, and sometimes-suspect discipline, he swings and misses a lot. But the rest of the tools … plus speed, above-average raw power, and outstanding Glove (55/60) and Arm (70) tools set a high-floor trajectory for him to develop into a probable major leaguer. I’ve yet to be convinced that he’ll hit enough to move beyond an extra-outfielder profile, but if he figures out a thing or two and develops even a fringe-average hit tool, there’s potential for a decent chunk of fantasy value here.
Naylor and Mundell, with a bullet
The last two times I saw Josh Naylor, right before the All-Star break, something was up with him at the dish. Whether he was injured, or just out of focus, or whatever it was that was going on, his at-bats didn’t look right. His swing's kind of great when he's locked in, it's one of those strong hands and shoulders swings like Vladimir Guerrero. He attacks the baseball, goes and gets it in whatever quadrant (or beyond) it's pitched. He swings hard, and with reasonably controlled aggression for such a young hitter.
But he was waiving half-heartedly at stuff before the break, bailing on swings, and lacking all of the defining aggressiveness that makes his swing successful. His body is really teetering on the edge right now, too, and the mobility has slipped noticeably. If first-half-of-the-season Naylor is the real one who ultimately stands up, and he controls his frame, I like him better between these two.
Brian Mundell is a solid hitter in his own right, though, just not a spectacular one. His swing is pretty short for a big guy, and I wonder what kind of hitter he could ultimately develop into if he works with someone to get longer and get more lower-half drive into his swing. He feels like one of those guys where it might all click later on in his career with the right hitting coach. He's big, and strong, and his bat control is pretty good and pretty natural. His right-handedness makes the path for his profile about as narrow as it gets early in his career, but if he can hang around for a bit I can see him having a Daubachian run in his career.
The Angels’ Matt Thaiss probably deserves a mention in any discussion of first basemen in the league, too. Without hitting up legal, I believe Bret wrote a clause into my contract on this. Thaiss is a solid hitter. He makes a lot of contact, and oftentimes it’s hard contact. Too frequently, however, it’s on the ground. His swing plane continues to want for consistent lift, and his hit balls are more often than not of the top-spin, non-carrying variety. The rumor mill keeps teasing with suggestions Anaheim will check his utility behind the plate again at some point, but it hasn’t happened yet, and I still haven’t seen cause to project playable fantasy power at first base.
Hampson and Wawoe are not Brendan Rodgers, but …
I’ve liked Garrett Hampson since college, but his value in real life as a scrappy defender and pitch-battler offers considerably more intrigue than it does for dynasty leaguers. Still, I like the hit tool a lot, and there’s plenty of speed utility once he’s on base. A .290-hitting second baseman who’ll steal you 20-plus bags doesn’t have quite the appeal it did a few years ago now that second baseman is a 15-homer bat, but if you like DJ LeMehieu there’s a shot you’re looking at his heir apparent here if he stays in the organization and gets a power boost from Coors down the line.
High-A catchers are generally not important
And such is broadly the case here. Will Smith’s an okay hitter, and Aramis Garcia flashes a thing or two. But neither of these guys is Francisco Mejia, and that’s really kind of the level of projection you need to be investing in an A-ball catcher even in medium-depth leagues. I play in two leagues with prospect rosters of at least 300, and neither of these guys is owned in either one.
Perhaps the best offensive prospect behind the dish thus far has been San Diego’s Austin Allen, a big, burly slugger with lift in his swing and the ability to muscle balls with authority to the pull side. I’m skeptical of him staying behind the dish, however, as he lacks for great mobility and struggles to control the running game on account of a long release and arm strength that is just average. If you’re the type predisposed to follow catching prospects for whatever reason, he’d be the guy I’d scribble into my notebook.
The Ben Carsley All-Stars
Carsley loves back-end fantasy starters so much, and all he gets for it is the namesake designation for this lousy section header. Joey Lucchesi … Peter Lambert … Eric Lauer … Caleb Ferguson … Jose Almonte … Nick Neidert … Justin Donatella … maybe even a little Caleb Ferguson action. There’s a lot of pitching depth in the California League this year, and you need to be playing in some kind of a deep league to warrant grabbing one of these guys at this stage of things. That said, they’re all potential big-league arms, and as such worthy of reading about from time to time.
McClain and Santana are pretty fun
These guys are similar, in that they’re both athletic right-handers who come across their bodies and coax an awful lot of poor contact from opposing hitters. Reggie McClain is the less interesting of the two for fantasy purposes, but the former 13th-rounder gets grounders and stays around the zone pretty well. I don’t necessarily buy him in a starting role, but he’s a fun, efficient pitcher to watch.
Dennis Santana, on the other hand, has defied the odds a bit in leaving the door open to starting games. A converted shortstop, he still throws hard across his body, albeit in a more toned-down, streamlined way than he did at the season’s outset. His stuff moves, and he’ll touch 97 in shorter-burst, higher-adrenaline situations.
Blueberg runs this town
Colby Blueberg is closing games for Lake Elsinore for a second straight year, and for a second straight year he has dominated in the first half. I still like him as a future situational big-league reliever despite a fastball that sits low 90s. It’s still a workable pitch thanks to his deceptive release, and he’s gotten much more consistent with a slider that he’ll show two shapes and speeds with. He’s a really uniquely tough guy to pick up, and as we’re all aware I’ll forever go to the mat for guys like him as the next Luke Gregerson.
In addition to being the most alliterative relievers in the league, Mason McCullough and Shea Spitzbarth have probably been the most notable for fantasy, as well. I want to reiterate that they’re both relievers, however, and neither should be rostered anywhere right now. But this pair has shown the most dominant strikeout potential in the league, with McCulllough’s stuff in particular looking the part of future high-leverage. Oakland’s Carlos Navas, now in Double-A, is also a fan favorite of my prospect team colleague J.H. Schroeder. Working 93-94 with a heavy, moving fastball and supplementing with a sharp, high-80s slider, Navas held Cal League hitters to a .100 average while striking out 28 in his 18 innings before heading to the Texas League.
Others of Note:
I can’t remember a more fun hitter to watch than Ibandel Isabel. He swings harder than anyone I think I’ve ever seen, every time he swings, in any count, in any situation. His raw bat speed isn’t all that impressive, but his bat’s velocity sure is. His raw is a true 80, and he might be the best Chris Carter Hope the minor leagues have today. … Sergio Alcantara is just as fun to watch in the field, and the strength of his leather at the six may find his name migrating into prospect discussions next offseason. Fantasy players shouldn’t pay too much mind, however, as it is indeed the glove that’s going to pump his helium. … Wes Rogers continues to be among the most impressive sprinters I’ve seen in a baseball uniform. He runs like Usain Bolt, however, with a moderate start-up into a later explosion, and that limits his utility turning infield grounders into hits. … Eric Filia is a player I’ve enjoyed watching since college, and while I’m not sold he ever impacts a fantasy league, he’s taken what has always been impressive bat-to-ball skill to insane heights this season, striking out in just 6.7 percent of his plate appearances, while walking nearly twice as much. For that alone he’s a worthwhile add to the “follow” list for those in dynasty points formats.