Fantasy Fringe Five: A (Re)Introduction

You may recognize this, the Fringe Five, as an exercise Carson Cistulli once established and, weekly, pursued at the main FanGraphs site. I don’t know what you’re thinking, but I may have an idea. We — Brad Johnson and I, we — don’t expect or even want to replace Cistulli, nor do we intend to replicate or imitate what he could achieve with the written word. What a colossal mistake that would be. I would be lying if I said I never tried. I can sing his praises for days. He was my favorite, and he was probably yours, too.

What we do intend to replicate, however, is Cistulli’s ability to identify market inefficiencies. Fringe Five, while quintessentially Cistullian, was an ongoing exercise in doing so, often successfully, unearthing a list of prominent names that includes Mookie Betts and Charlie Blackmon (and, maybe, one day, Max Schrock). I’m not sure Cistulli would have ever divulged his exact process; in introducing Fringe Five, he only went as far as to say, with emphasis added editorially, the following:

In light of same, eligibility for The Fringe Five will require (for the present, at least) the following:

  • Rookie-eligibility (i.e. fewer than 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched), and
  • Absence from a 25-man roster (i.e. not in the major leagues currently), and
  • Absence from any of three noted top-100 prospect lists (Baseball America’s, Bullpen Banter’s, plus Marc Hulet’s own), and
  • The capacity to stir something within the author’s manly bosom.

In reading between the lines, though, I (Alex, the present author) — as someone who has independently reached similar conclusions about, and staked his reputation on breakouts from, Jose Ramirez and Austin Barnes — connect spiritually with what the Fringe Five endeavored to achieve.

My fringe hitter looks something like (1) polished contact skills (and/or plate discipline) and (2) at least one other above-average tool. Ramirez, younger than average at every level, consistently owned one of the best contact rates while stealing at an above-average clip. Barnes, at a premium position (with some defensive flexibility), often walked more than he struck out with double-digit pop and speed. Heck, Betts, also a non-prospect, also walked more than he struck out with premium speed and OK power for a runner. All of them checked each of these boxes. My fringe pitcher might possess an exceedingly strong strikeout-to-walk ratio, sustained, perhaps, on a skill set scouts might perceive to be unsustainable.

I don’t mean to speak ill of prospect lists, but to speak ill of prospect lists: our very human desire to rank things and organize lists creates, artificially, the very market inefficiencies Cistulli exploited (and parlayed into employment with the Toronto Blue Jays). As the industry skews more heavily toward prospect coverage and “Top-X” lists, it has become more profitable than ever to scrounge for value where others don’t see it or refuse to try to find it. It’s why Ramirez, Betts, and Blackmon slipped through the cracks. It’s also why most folks hadn’t heard of Jeff McNeil (who torched Double- and Triple-A ball prior to his call-up) and Joshua James (who obliterated those same levels during that same time period) until last summer. (Yes, they may not have been good before 2018, but once they were, their lack of track record and prospect status cast a black cloud over their future value, significantly more positive than it once was.)

To create some semblance of consistency, Brad and I will abide by Cistulli’s original guidelines for Fringe Five-dom, outlined above. We may compile a leaderboard, and we may open a dialogue on the players about whom we vehemently agree or disagree. We’re not quite sure yet how this will evolve over time. What we will do, with certainty, is do our best to help you find diamonds in the rough. Some will hit. Some won’t. But the ones who don’t hit won’t cost you a thing, and the ones who do could change the complexion of your team, short- and long-term.

We present to you: the Fantasy Fringe Five.

Mike Tauchman, COL OF (highest level: MLB)

Cistulli Fringe Fiver

To the initiated, Tauchman’s inclusion here is no surprise; in fact, anyone who follows me might be exhausted by seeing another Tauchman reference. To the uninitiated, I might refer you to a recent post of mine, aptly and brazenly titled, “This is the Definitive Mike Tauchman Post.” The condensed version: his performance at Triple-A the last two years, indexed to control for league quality over time, is virtually unmatched — not as much in quality as in uniqueness, with an admirable combination of above-average power and contact skills — and compares favorably to Rhys Hoskins.

I heard a delightful one-sentence anecdote the other night, which I will relay to you and probably botch: Cistulli approached a group of FanGraphs writers discussing the Colorado Rockies’ farm — top prospect outfielders and the like — and, in a way I hope you hear as you read it, quipped, “Let me tell you about Mike Tauchman.” Beautiful.

Zack Granite, TEX OF (MLB)

Cistulli Fringe Fiver

When Paul Sporer, Brad, and I discussed reviving the Fringe Five for fantasy, I jokingly asked, “Well, how do you feel about Zack Granite?” Brad immediately gushed about him, and I knew this would all work out just fine.

Granite, designated for assignment by the Twins, an organization loaded with toolsy (but not particularly contact-oriented) outfielders, latched onto the Rangers’ organization. In the minors, he was a perpetual threat to walk as often as he struck out. Since the start of 2016, he has compiled a tidy 2.7% swinging strike rate (SwStr%); in his 107-plate appearance debut last year, he whittled it down to 1.9% (while, yes, walking more than he struck out). Perhaps more importantly, he stole 56 bases as recently as 2016 and has still shown the aptitude to steal double-digit bases when presented the opportunity. Granite lacks the daylight in Arlington to make a splash, but it’s not like the Rangers scooped him up for no reason, either.

(I brazenly told Paul I’d be willing to bet Granite has a better career than Byron Buxton, if you need a measure of stupidity for my enthusiasm.)

Myles Straw, HOU OF (MLB)

First-time Fringe Fiver

Straw’s 2018 season, across Double-A and Triple-A: 598 plate appearances, .291/.381/.353, 17.1% strikeouts, 12.2% walks… and 70 stolen bases. Straw, like Granite, carries a passive approach to the plate but possesses what could be fairly characterized as plus contact skills. His true calling card needs no introduction, but Straw’s polish could elevate him above the typical one-dimensional speedster. The Astros, having squandered the baserunning prime of Tony Kemp, a carbon copy of Straw, and in possession of arguably superior prospects in Kyle Tucker and Derek Fisher, could also squander Straw’s elite baserunning prime. Doesn’t make him any less of a name to remember.

Nick Neidert, MIA SP (AA)

First-time Fringe Fiver

Neidert’s prospect standing has improved since being traded to Miami — he was a 2nd-round pick once, so he’s no slouch — which only makes his identification as a fringe prospect all the more urgent. Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel went on the record about Neidert being one of their last cuts for FanGraphs’ top-130 list, so he’s not entirely unknown. What Neidert lacks in velocity, he makes up for earnestly in command. Longenhagen and McDaniel have compared Neidert to Zack Greinke and Kyle Hendricks — favorable comparisons, one might say. His strikeout-to-walk ratio in excess of five buoyed by a scant 4.7% walk rate (BB%) paints the portrait of a pitcher who could reasonably survive at the Major League level, and soon. The development of his curve could put him over the top.

Matt Swarmer, CHC SP (AAA)

First-time Fringe Fiver

Swarmer snugly fits the mold of “high-minors pitcher with a robust strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB),” recording more than five times as many strikeouts as walks (25.2% K, 4.5% BB, 5.58 K/BB) since the start of the 2017 season (230 innings). In 2018 alone (against higher-quality opponents, to boot), those marks, respectively, improved to 26.2%, 4.1%, and 6.43. While Swarmer’s continued and steady success makes him an interesting pitcher on paper, his dimensions make him a true Fringe Fiver: at 6-foot-5, 175 pounds, Swarmer’s physique can only be described adequately as Sporeresque. Longenhagen compares Swarmer’s delivery to Josh Collmenter’s — a flummoxing mental visual. Deception is far from the surest way to cultivate MLB success, and maybe Swarmer is ultimately destined for the bullpen. Regardless, his consistent baserunner-prevention skills suggest unusual polish.

Currently investigating the relationship between pitcher effectiveness and beard density. Two-time FSWA award winner, including 2018 Baseball Writer of the Year, and 8-time award finalist. Previously featured in Lindy's Sports' Fantasy Baseball magazine (2018, 2019) and Rotowire's Fantasy Baseball magazine (2021). Tout Wars competitor. Biased toward a nicely rolled baseball pant.

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Glad you’re carrying on the tradition. Somewhere in the frozen north, Carson is smiling.