The Situation: This was supposed to be the season that the Phillies came out of their rebuild, but instead they have the worst record in baseball. Michael Saunders was supposed to bridge the gap between Philadelphia’s outfield of today and outfield of tomorrow, but was instead so bad that he was released. The overall situation is even more dire, as with the exception of Aaron Altherr, the Phillies’ group of promising young MLB hitters has all spiraled down in performance at once—as has top prospect J.P. Crawford at Triple-A. So with just a group of random Quad-A guys in the outfield corner not featuring Aaron Altherr, why not give the best outfield prospect in the system some run?
Background: Nick Williams has long been amongst the most divisive prospects in the game, a paradox between incredible raw hitting ability and a plate approach that breaks down nearly as much as the New York City Subway. A second-round pick of the Rangers out of Galveston, Texas, Williams has made our last four BP 101s, peaking at 25th before the 2016 season. He was one of the biggest chips that Texas cashed in at the 2015 trade deadline for the biggest prize of Philadelphia’s sell-off, lefty rotation stalwart Cole Hamels. He ranked third on the Phillies top ten entering this season, behind Crawford and fellow Hamels tradee Jorge Alfaro.
Williams looked ticketed for the majors last summer after a strong opening to the season at Triple-A Lehigh Valley. However, starting in June, he was repeatedly benched by Lehigh Valley manager Dave Brundage for offenses that were publicly stated to range from failure to hustle to showing up opponents. Williams, who in the past has carried the sort of vague “makeup concerns” tag that we generally don’t detail, went into an absolute hitting tailspin for the rest of the season as toxic volleys went back in forth in the media. Brundage was fired by the Phillies after the season, and Williams has hit .280/.328/.511 in his return engagement at Triple A, complete with a typically eyebrow-raising 16/90 BB/K ratio.
Scouting: Williams has always projected for a plus or better hit tool, and still does. If you look in the picture dictionary for the definition of a beautiful lefty swing, this is it, complete with all the right aesthetics like a cool little bat waggle and a moderate leg kick. He generates lightning-like bat speed and should hit for average or greater power for a corner outfielder, assuming he makes enough contact.
The great question that evaluators have always been split on with Williams is whether his approach, which outside of late-2016 has generally been effective all the way up through the minors, will hold together at the MLB level. Williams rarely sees a pitch he doesn’t want to swing at. In his low-minors days, there was more of a question of pitch identification, but he’s at times shown the ability to lay off borderline pitches in the high-minors, especially during his stint at Double-A Frisco before the trade in 2015. Minor-league pitchers haven’t really made him pay for it all, so whether Williams has that adjustment long-term is still up in the air. If he can’t, all the natural hitting ability in the world won’t carry him to a high-enough OBP to be a regular in left or right.
Williams has well above-average foot speed, but has failed to translate that into being a plus baserunner. Similarly, he takes poor reads in the outfield and probably shouldn’t play center regularly in the majors, but will also make some stunningly beautiful plays. His arm is probably just good enough to carry right, but he profiles best in left, where his natural physical ability and highlight reel catches could make him a Gold Glove candidate.
Immediate Future: Given that the Phillies have nothing left to play for—and not much more than that left at all to play next to Altherr and Odubel Herrera in the outfield—one would hope that Williams just gets the next three months to do his thing and settle into the majors in a corner. Yet the team is already making noise about sending him down in a few days. We wouldn’t want to interrupt the playing time of, uh, Cameron Perkins and Daniel Nava, would we? —Jarrett Seidler
Fantasy Impact: It’s been a long time coming for the prospect who’s long intrigued fantasy owners over all others. It’s not surprising given the amount of raw skill Williams brings to the diamond, and how natural of a hitter he is. The odds are good that short of abhorrent performance over the next month, the potential fantasy star is here to stay in Philadelphia, despite the noise. But, that said, there’s also a fair chance that his performance will drift into the abhorrent range.
In the long run, Williams could be a .280-plus hitter with 25-homer power and the requisite speed to get to double digit steals to boot. That would set him up as a potential OF2, whose skills will play up in a favorable home park. Yet, you can’t mention Williams on or off the internet without the requisite screams of:
That k:bb though…
— Meathead (@dzemens) June 30, 2017
It doesn’t take a statistical genius to know that Williams likes to swing, and it will result in low walk totals. As fantasy owners, we can deal with that (unless you’re in an OBP league). There’s no right or wrong way to build a hitting prospect or a fantasy star. Williams has a 4.5 percent walk rate for his minor league career, and a 0.16 BB/K rate. Neither of these things are prohibitive. Adam Jones has a career 4.5 percent walk rate and he was a borderline first-round pick in his prime (along with still being productive today). Rougned Odor has a career 0.16 BB/K rate and although his low BABIP this year has tempered enthusiasm, it hasn’t stopped him from being highly valued in standard leagues. Focusing on Williams’ weaknesses, which admittedly can be somewhat easy to do, is not the best approach for dynasty leaguers who can take on risk at a higher rate than major league teams can.
As for this season, Williams should be owned in all keeper and dynasty formats already. If he’s not, step away and remedy that right now. Given 300 plate appearances the rest of the season, he has the potential to hit .270 with 10-12 homers and around five steals or so with counting stats that skew much heavier towards RBI. In redraft leagues, targeting him becomes a very league-dependent exercise. If you’re in a standard league that uses batting average, Williams should be owned in 12-team formats and deeper given that he’s also just as likely to come out of the gates wrecking the ball as opposed to the reverse. There aren’t a ton more prospects coming this year, and by this point, most of the known commodities (Yoan Moncada, Amed Rosario, etc) are already owned. This means while you probably don’t want to use the top waiver priority or the FAAB hammer on him, bidding aggressively is a good idea. In OBP leagues, speculation is fine in leagues shallower than 16-teams, but he doesn’t become a player who needs to be owned, and bids should be more restrained. In NL-only formats, it will likely take a bid of $25-30 to get him (adjusted to $15-20 in an OBP format). —Bret Sayre