2021 Peripheral Prospect Shortlist: Hitters

In a former life, I had the time and energy to keep up with Peripheral Prospects on a semiweekly basis. That dream hibernated in 2020 when the pandemic killed the minor league season and died for good this year when I simply failed to uphold my end of the bargain.

But I love Peripheral Prospects and the inexact science/exact art of digging up breakout fringe and non-prospects with potential to make waves at the big-league level despite lacking the requisite hype. These breakouts make for feel-good stories, but for fantasy baseball purposes they’re market inefficiencies that can change the trajectories of dynasty (or even redraft) teams.

So, I want to spill at least a little bit of digital ink in honor of my favorite Peripheral Prospect hitters (and pitchers, coming in a separate post). A year-end catch-all post loses the dynamics of the ebb and flow of player performance; I benefit from these slash lines being etched in stone. But that hindsight should make the selections here a bit tighter than might have normally been picking five fresh names every other week for six months.

Anyway, here’s my list of top-8 Peripheral Prospect hitters from 2021 (because 10 was too many—this is rarefied air, y’all). The only rules: (1) They played in the high minors (Double-A or Triple-A) but not the MLB level, and (2) they cannot be featured on any prominent top-100 list. I’m going to rank them loosely from favorite to least-favorite. Let’s go!

Steven Kwan, CLE OF

2021 stats (AA-AAA): 12 HR, 6 SB, 9.1% K, 10.6% BB, .328/.407/.527 (154 wRC+) in 341 PA

Once the table-setter for Oregon State, Cleveland signed Kwan in the 5th round of the 2018 draft after his sophomore year. He has done nothing but hit since then, which is cliché but resolutely true. It’s unclear what makes him a non-prospect. I do realize Cleveland’s farm runs pretty deep, especially up the middle (where Kwan does not play!), but hitters of Kwan’s caliber don’t grow on trees.

Of 275 hitters with at least 800 plate appearances since the start of 2019, Kwan boasts the following accolades:

  • He is one of just two hitters with more walks (10.1%) than strikeouts (9.3%), the other being Isaac Paredes
  • He has the highest ratio of walks to strikeouts (1.09 BB/K)
  • He has the lowest swinging strike rate (3.2%) by more than one-and-a-half percentage points

That’s not nothing. That’s far from nothing. Cleveland loves stockpiling hitters like Kwan. You know who always led his level in swinging strike rate throughout the minors? José Ramírez. (If you thumb through old copies of Peripheral Prospects, you’ll find other similarly endowed Cleveland hitters, like Tyler Freeman and Ernie Clement, and come to realize this is very much an organizational thing.)

More importantly, Kwan leveled up in 2021, just about doubling his isolated power (ISO) by hitting home runs six times more often than he did in his first full professional cup of tea at High-A in 2019. His newfound power, plus speed, and plus-plus contact skills combined to make one of the minor leagues’ best performances last year.

I can keep heaping praise upon Kwan, but there’s no need. He simply should be on your radar. And like the José Ramírezes and Jeff McNeils and Jake Cronenworths and Josh Rojases of yesteryear, I like Kwan as my pick to click in 2022. Cleveland’s farm is loaded, but the current MLB roster is in bad shape, its outfield especially so. It would be astonishing if Kwan did not receive a very long look in the outfield alongside Myles Straw and lord knows who else.

It’s Kwan szn in 2022.

Vinnie Pasquantino, KCR 1B

2021 stats (A+-AA): 24 HR, 6 SB, 12.5% K, 12.5% BB, .300/.394/.563 (154 wRC+) in 513 PA

You don’t see someone of Pasquantino’s size (6’4″, 245 lbs) hitting for power while flashing plus bat-to-ball skills. He walked exactly as many times as he struck out while hitting .300 and flirting with a 1.000 OPS. Pasquantino has been in absolute control since his debut in 2019 and appears to only be improving. Triple-A should pose a legitimate test of his viability as a hitter, but if he smashes the minors’ highest level the way he smashed all the others, he could appear in Kansas City in short order.

Unlike Kwan, who at least graced the very, very, very bottom of Cleveland’s top-50ish prospects, there’s not a single mention of Pasquantino anywhere on FanGraphs (outside of this brief mention in Sunday Notes by David Laurila) until now. He is even more under-the-radar than Kwan is, but he’s probably not a 2022 consideration—although it’s easy to imagine him knocking down the door early in 2022 and forcing the Royals’ hand.

There are lingering fears in my mind of a Dan Vogelbachian type of Quad-A hitter profile here, but Vogelbach is decidedly square in stature (allegedly clocking in at 6’0″, 270 lbs), whereas Pasquantino’s mass is more well-distributed, so to speak. There’s a lot to like here—more to like than Vogelbach, I would argue—and it’s only a matter of time before Pasquantino forces prospectors to include him on their lists (although it’s worth wondering why he isn’t already, at least among lists updated mid-year).

Michael Beltre, NYY OF

2021 stats (AA): 16 HR, 37 SB, 24.3% K, 11.0% BB, .256/.344/.470 (121 wRC+) in 453 PA

Beltre spent more than six years wasting away in the low minors, finally earning a promotion to Double-A in the summer of 2019—and, sadly, stinking up the place. In almost 500 minor-league games, he hit only 17 home runs. Prior to the 2020 season, our Eric Longenhagen said:

He’s physical and fast and plays really hard, but his swing just doesn’t work.

The Yankees must have known how to fix his swing—in fact, you see his fly ball rate (FB%) tick up roughly nine percentage points!—because they acquired him from the Reds and he promptly doubled his career home run total in barely 100 more games. They turned him loose on the basepaths, too, where he stole a whopping 37 bases.

Once a “college-aged outfielder with a carrying tool,” per Longenhagen, Beltre suddenly appears to have multiple. Ultimately, the power is nothing to write home about, but he at least appears able to hold his own and clearly has turned a corner from his days with Cincinnati where his potential was squandered. The speed is what’s spectacular here; it was always there but really showed up in spades in 2021.

Honestly—and maybe it’s only me whose soggy brain remembers inane details from this long ago—Beltre’s 2021 campaign gives me Michael A. Taylor vibes: some power, tons of speed, and likely to hit for a low average. Taylor has done well enough for himself in his long-ish career, but he was young enough at the time of his prospectdom that he was afforded some leash.

Beltre finds himself in an organization where he likely has little of said leash. But if the Yankees could take a chance on someone like Mike Tauchman (who, in the long run, landed upon a Quad-A trajectory but absolutely mashed the high minors for multiple years), they will certainly consider a lefty bat like Beltre’s, especially when you consider they went out of their way to acquire him.

Clay Dungan, KCR 2B/SS

2021 stats (AA): 9 HR, 28 SB, 14.6% K, 8.0% BB, .288/.357/.405 (107 wRC+) in 499 PA

Clay “Dungan-ness Crabs” Dungan looks a lot like most other prospects (and non-prospects) who have graced the Royals’ minor league system: fast and contact-oriented. In a vacuum, a hitter facing Double-A pitching for the first time at age 25 does not inspire confidence. But Dungan debuted at Rookie ball out of college and lost 2020 to the pandemic, throwing an enormous wrench into the gears of his development.

Fortunately for Dungan, he didn’t miss a beat, picking up right where he left off: hitting for average but not power, stealing a few bases, and demonstrating excellent discipline. After attempting only 10 steals in 293 plate appearances (one per 29.3 PA) in 2019—while getting on base at a .427 clip, no less—he attempted 39 steals in 499 PA (one per 12.8 PA) with an OBP 70 points lower.

That’s a fairly exciting development for someone whose parts kind of exceed their sum. Dungan had shown good tools but the overall package comes up a little light. That he runs, as all good Royals farmhands do, changes the calculus completely. Don’t look now (actually, look now), but Dungan’s stats thus far reeks of Whit Merrifield’s as a minor leaguer. There are certainly worse comps to be had than Whit Merrifield.

Brendan Donovan, STL 2B

2021 stats (A+-AA-AAA): 12 HR, 19 SB, 16.8% K, 10.9% BB, .304/.399/.455 (134 wRC+) in 366 PA

Ah, someone a little fringier (and another potential Rule-Fiver). Donovan scarcely played in 2018, his draft year, and lost all of 2020 to the pandemic, leaving him in Single-A as a 24-year-old. He catapulted himself up St. Louis’ ladder, raking at every step of the way thanks to a contact-oriented line drive stroke and, for fantasy purposes, a modest mix of power and speed. From a fantasy perspective, you’d bank on the speed and multipositional eligibility to be his carrying tools. The hit tool could play, but he might not clear double-digit home runs.

Donovan played all over as well, mixing in at third, shortstop, left field, and right field, suggesting the Cardinals might feel OK using him in a utility role. (Or maybe they’re just trying to find a spot into which he could eventually settle.) Adam Wainwright took a playful jab at FanGraphs never giving the Cardinals the time of day last year, but if you look at that roster, you understand why. That could create daylight for Donovan on the MLB roster.

Alex Call, CLE OF

2021 stats (AA-AAA): 15 HR, 15 SB, 14.3% K, 12.0% BB, .262/.356/.438 (116 wRC+) in 449 PA

Very famously the other side of the 2019 Yonder Alonso trade, Call once projected as a bench outfielder. Naturally, that was before he halved his strikeout rate and pushed his walk rate into the double digits. He’s a completely different hitter, and while he doesn’t hit for a ton of power, at least he boasts the requisite plate discipline of a gap-power guy.

The approach is still somewhat problematic from a bat path standpoint; Call’s swing plane is too loft-oriented for someone who lacks latent power. Gap power and doubles power are two different things when the former fails to fall for hits. I imagine that’s why he ran a low batting average on balls in play (BABIP) last year. But it’s possible I’m overblowing this blemish—maybe Call’s batted ball outcomes last year are more luck-based than I’m letting on.

Regardless, we’re looking at a guy who, once destined to stall out in the high minors, is now actually a viable bench bat and possibly more. The Guardians’ outfield depth is a misnomer—that is, it’s shallow, preposterously so—so Call could get some looks in 2022. (After Kwan, of course.)

Cooper Hummel, ARI C/OF

2021 stats (AAA): 12 HR, 4 SB, 16.7% K, 17.2% BB, .311/.432/.546 (151 wRC+) in 366 PA

Hummel’s ability to get on base has carried him through the minors, but his slimmed-down strikeout rate (16.7% K) and newfound power (.235 ISO) saw him evolve from organizational depth and eventual utility bench bat to potential everyday piece and, in the Diamondbacks’ eyes, a legitimate trade target as part of the Eduardo Escobar trade.

Hummel’s player page shows that he plays catcher, but Longenhagen notably places air-quotes around that distinction. Hummel spent two-thirds of his on-field time in left, but he did play a not-insignificant 41 innings behind the dish, too. All told, he shuffled in at five positions, reminding me (albeit only nominally) of an Isiah Kiner-Falefa type of player for fantasy purposes. It remains to be seen how different sites classify him if/when he debuts.

At the end of the day, the Diamondbacks were a tire fire at the MLB level. Actually, in fairness to them, their starting lineup isn’t bad—but they have scarcely any depth to speak of. So someone like Hummel could quickly float to the top of the literal depth chart and see playing time sooner than later, especially with a superutility flavor to his ability to mix in everywhere.

(It’s worth noting that, according to RosterResource, it looks like Hummel is Rule 5-eligible.)

Michael Stefanic, LAA 2B/SS

2021 stats (AA-AAA): 17 HR, 6 SB, 13.9% K, 9.4% BB, .336/.408/.493 (132 wRC+) in 554 PA

Am I fishing for reasons to like someone, literally anyone, in the Angels’ organization? Who can say. I do like Stefanic for his bat-to-ball ability, but I admit I’m wary of his shallow launch angle. He’s not particularly big, though, and he appears to possibly be on the speedier side despite stealing infrequently and grading out somewhat poorly in terms of speed score (Spd).

I envision him possibly hitting for average with, like Donovan, a modest mix of power and speed. He mixes in all over the diamond, which might simply mean he could replace Luis Rengifo up the middle. In fact, maybe he can who I thought Rengifo might once be. Rengifo was a little too relevant to be a Peripheral Prospect, but had I done this exercise back in 2017, he would’ve checked a lot of my boxes.

Wouldn’t you know it, he’s also Rule 5-eligible. I admit I’m a bit of a dummy in terms of when teams protect certain players and why (or even how), but the Angels’ farm is an absolute wasteland, especially up the middle, so I think they gotta do what they can to hold on to anyone resembling talented.

Five Honorary Mentions, Some of Whom Graduated and Thus Disqualified Themselves

Hoy Park
Yohel Pozo
Romy Gonzalez
Drew Avans
Diego Castillo (not the pitcher)

Two-time FSWA award winner, including 2018 Baseball Writer of the Year, and 8-time award finalist. Featured in Lindy's magazine (2018, 2019), Rotowire magazine (2021), and Baseball Prospectus (2022, 2023). Biased toward a nicely rolled baseball pant.

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2 years ago

Alex Call is R5 eligible and I doubt the Indians protect him given their roster squeeze. Could see him on a major league roster next season.