Peripheral Prospects of 2019, but for 2021: A Review

Back in 2019, Brad Johnson and I co-authored a weekly series called “Peripheral Prospects” that was extremely fun to write and (in my opinion) dropped some genuinely good nuggets on unloved fringe- and non-prospects. Because many of the players featured throughout the series did not debut in 2019 or even in 2020, I wanted to publish a post dedicated to keeping an eye on some of those circa-2019 peripheral prospects this past season.

That’s pretty much it. In the coming weeks, I’ll post lists of my favorite peripheral prospect hitters and pitchers for the 2021 season. Until then, let’s review how some of my favorite peripheral prospects from 2019 performed in 2021.

Week 1, 2019: Myles Straw | 26 | HOU | OF

2020 stats (MLB): 0 HR, 6 SB, .207/.244/.256 (38 wRC+) in 86 PA
2021 stats (MLB): 4 HR, 30 SB, .271/.349/.348 (98 wRC+) in 638 PA

Sound byte:

What Straw has that [Mallex] Smith and his predecessors did not is plate discipline. You’ll be lucky to squeeze even one home run out of him, but, in exchange, he will deliver an extremely tidy swinging strike rate (SwStr%) that, in the minors, helped produce walk rates nearly as high as his low-teens strikeout rates. And that high contact rate will cultivate line drives that, with his 70-grade speed, will keep his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) plenty afloat.

In other words, he might be not just a one-trick pony but a two- or even three-trick pony — a pony that provides average, and, amid a still-loaded Houston lineup, plenty of runs to boot.

Straw’s average draft position (ADP) ballooned between the beginning of March when I wrote that post and the end of March when it became clear that Smith was locked into the starting center field role in Houston. No matter where you bought in—if it was when folks expressed skepticism about Houston not pursuing a free agent outfielder to replace Straw, or if it was when folks expressed skepticism about Straw holding down the job after Houston clearly was not going to pursue a replacement—Straw paid dividends on his draft price.

Now he’s in Cleveland, where the lineup is decidedly worse and there’s hardly any worthwhile outfield competition to speak of. He should find his way into the Guardians’ lineup every day as their lead-off man, where he’ll steal another 30 bases. If he hit closer to .250 than .270 next year, I wouldn’t lose an ounce of sleep.

Week 5: Nick Solak | 26 | TEX | 2B

2020 stats (MLB): 2 HR, 7 SB, .268/.326/.344 (87 wRC+) in 233 PA
2021 stats (MLB): 11 HR, 7 SB, .242/.314/.362 (89 wRC+) in 511 PA

Solak hit .293 with seven home runs and two stolen bases in April… and hit a miserable .228 with four home runs and five stolen bases over his next 100 games (399 plate appearances). Did I take an early victory lap on Solak? You bet your sweet buns I did.

Statcast grades out Solak’s sprint speed as at least 70-grade, and his maximum exit velocity (Max EV) ranks in the upper quartile. But any good contact he makes is too infrequent and suboptimally angled. (If you want to feel nauseous, scroll down to “Similar Batters to Nick Solak” on his Baseball Savant page.)

Something about which I hadn’t thought too critically at the time but makes a lot of sense now: Triple-A hitters benefited hugely from the supercharged bouncy balls in 2019. Solak’s power breakout coincides with that year and that year only; since then his bat has, frankly, looked anemic.

As with Josh Naylor below, I won’t hold my breath any longer on a breakout.

Week 5: Erik Swanson | 27 | SEA | SP

2020 stats (MLB): 12.91 ERA (3.75 SIERA), 24.3% K (12.1% SwStr), 5.4% BB in 7.2 IP
2021 stats (MLB): 3.31 ERA (3.93 SIERA), 24.3% K (13.6% SwStr), 6.9% BB in 35.1 IP

So, OK. This is pretty interesting, right? That Swanson wasn’t terrible? Granted, he pitched almost exclusively in relief (his starts were “opener” starts). But his 3.93 SIERA was precisely average among relievers who threw at least 30 innings last year.

The Mariners boast some pitching depth… some. Tyler Anderson and James Paxton will be free agents, leaving Logan Gilbert, Marco Gonzales, Chris Flexen 플렉센, Yusei Kikuchi, and (eventually) Justus Sheffield to comprise the rotation. Many of these guys wobbled last year, and they all can’t stay healthy all season, which means Seattle will need to lean on spot starts or swing guys. Swanson is probably best-equipped to do that, more so than Justin Dunn and (although I hate to admit it) Ljay Newsome.

Swanson could afford to develop a reliable third pitch. We haven’t seen much of his slider, but it has been very lackluster so far. Swanson’s four-seamer steals the show with its 14.1% swinging strike rate (SwStr%). Historically he has thrown it more than 60% of the time, and it gets strikes from both whiffs and looks. The splitter looks really good, too. The slider doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be enough. Right now, it’s not. But there’s something interesting brewing here in ol’ Swanny. I’m making a mental note now to grab him in draft-and-hold leagues (where you must keep the roster you draft all year; for National Fantasy Baseball Championship, they feature 15 teams and rosters run 50 players deep).

Week 5: Denyi Reyes | 24 | BOS | SP (AA)

2020 stats (N/A): no minor league season
2021 stats (AA): 4.21 ERA (3.94 xFIP), 25.5% K (14.0% SwStr), 4.0% BB in 57.2 IP

Reyes picked up right where he left off, but now he’s going to be 25 years old headed to Triple-A. Once upon a time, he looked advanced, but stalled development in 2018 (and lukewarm results in 2019) combined with the 2020 season lost to the pandemic puts Reyes behind when once he was ahead.

The good news is Reyes posted his best strikeout rate since 2018 on the heels of his best swinging strike rate since rookie ball (where they are notoriously and unreliably inflated) half a decade ago. The bad news, in addition to getting held back, is it seems like his superb command is more of a “just-throw-it-right-down-the-middle” type of command. Whereas he feasted on lower-level hitters, Reyes has struggled against upper-level talent, posting a 4.18 ERA in 209 Double-A innings.

It’s cliché to say, but next year really will be make-or-break for Reyes, who should start off in Triple-A and will get a chance to show (1) if he can handle the best the minors have to offer and (2) if he can sustain the bump in whiffs he earned in 2021. I remained excited about him, but I’m tempering it more than I had a couple of years ago.

Week 7: Josh Naylor | 24 | CLE | OF

2020 stats (MLB): 1 HR, 1 SB, .247/.291/.330 (70 wRC+) in 104 PA
2021 stats (MLB): 7 HR, 1 SB, .253/.301/.399 (90 wRC+) in 250 PA

I have availed myself of the possibility that Naylor is simply a Quad-A slugger. The plate discipline is decent, but the power just isn’t there—in fact, it has been below-average despite his above-average power in the minors. His frame suggests and confirms there’s 70 raw there, but to date it’s nowhere to be found. Given the lack of credible options in Cleveland, I’ll have to grab a few shares of Naylor for posterity. He could find himself in mostly full-time reps, and maybe he breaks out. Who knows. But, again, I’m not holding my breath.

Week 7: Eli Morgan | 24 | CLE | SP

2020 stats (N/A): no minor league season
2021 stats (MLB): 5.34 ERA (4.51 SIERA), 21.4% K (10.6% SwStr), 5.8% BB in 89.1 IP

Another in a long line of Cleveland arms with pristine walk rates, Morgan invokes Josh Tomlin‘s name more than he does Shane Bieber’s because of our subject’s low-90s fastball. There simply isn’t the same margin for error that Morgan’s rotation counterparts can afford. His three pitches look decent, though—the slider and change-up were solid, and the four-seamer itself netted a 28.8% CSW (called strikes plus whiffs).

It’s the loud contact that did Morgan in, and it will continue to do so if he, like Reyes, is really just a throw-it-down-the-middle kind of guy. Fortunately, per Statcast’s granular zone data, it appears Morgan doesn’t really live that way—he actually does a solid job of living in the “shadow” region that captures the periphery of the strike zone. But he lives up in the zone, which means fly balls and, ipso facto, home runs.

The Guardians have better depth than the Mariners, but I’m not sold on Cal Quantrill, Zach Plesac, and Aaron Civale being viable fantasy starters (although they’re perfectly cromulent for regular-life baseball). They’re good enough, but they pale in comparison to the Guardian rotations of yesteryear. Morgan is effectively their SP6, so when the injury bug strikes, he should find himself with plenty of opportunities to prove himself. Like many on this list who precede him, I’ll grab late-round shares of Morgan in the deepest formats.

Week 9: Devin Smeltzer | 25 | MIN | SP

2020 stats (MLB): 6.75 ERA (4.38 SIERA), 20.8% K (10.1% SwStr), 6.9% BB in 16.0 IP
2021 stats (MLB): 0.00 ERA (4.35 SIERA), 17.6% K (11.5% SwStr), 5.9% BB in 4.2 IP

Smeltzer pitched only those four innings and change before being shut down with elbow inflammation, so there’s not much to go on here. The ceiling seems extremely modest, and pitch comps I had made for him previously were not what you’d call “electric.” The Twins’ rotation is—as politely as I can describe it—in disarray, with Roster Resource alleging it to be comprised of Bailey Ober, Joe Ryan, Randy Dobnak, Griffin Jax, and Charlie Barnes. (Who the #$%^ is Charlie Barnes?) Kenta Maeda will be recovering from Tommy John surgery.

The Twins were one of baseball’s biggest disappointments this year (thankfully for them, they were overshadowed by the Padres), which could mean one of two things: they spend big to chase what they missed, or they concede defeat and blow it up. The former might see an influx of free agent talent into the rotation, the latter might afford Smeltzer significant time as a starter when he’s healthy.

Again, this is very wait-and-see at this point, and again, I’m not, like, glowing about Smeltzer. He is mildly interesting, though, as any peripheral prospect should be!

Week 12: Ty France | 26 | SEA | 2B

2020 stats (MLB): 4 HR, 0 SB, .305/.368/.468 (133 wRC+) in 155 PA
2021 stats (MLB): 18 HR, 0 SB, .291/.368/.445 (129 wRC+) in 650 PA

France seemed like low-hanging fruit, given how preposterously ostentatious his Triple-A campaign was in 2019. He didn’t hit for anywhere near as much power as he did in that extremely hitter-friendly environment, but (finally) his first season as a full-time starter highlighted some very positive developments.

More critically, France shaved off 1.7 percentage points from his swinging strike rate, resulting in a 6.6-percentage point improvement in his strikeout rate. His contact wasn’t especially loud, but his swing is catered more to line drives anyway, which buoyed his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and endowed him with fringy power. The combination of his 16.3% strikeout rate (K%) and line-drive tendencies enabled France to make healthily above-average contributions in the batter’s box.

I think what got lost in expectations for France was he’d hit for huge power with solid discipline. It’s fair to attribute much of that expectation to the bandboxes he played in in Triple-A. Now that we have a reliable swath of Statcast data for France, we can say more reliably that he really shouldn’t be expected to hit for power—rather, he’s more of a “sweet spot” guy who surprisingly hits for average instead. Who knew!

What remains to be seen is if France’s batting average (.281 career) converges on his expected batting average (.242 xBA career). To his credit, he ranks 28th in launch angle tightness among 148 hitters with at least 700 batted ball events (BBE) since the start of 2019, so there’s a suggestion there of barrel control and an ability to make line drive contact consistently to keep his average afloat.

Using my hitters comps tool, France compares favorably to 2019 Gio Urshela, 2019 Justin Turner, and 2021 Gleyber Torres… for better or for worse. (The comps will change depending on the variables you choose, but Urshela, Turner, and Torres turned up routinely. Jeff McNeil is a reasonable comp from a contact quality standpoint than from a plate discipline standpoint.)

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. Featured in Lindy's magazine (2018, 2019), Rotowire magazine (2021), and Baseball Prospectus (2022). Tout Wars competitor. Biased toward a nicely rolled baseball pant.

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wanderlust franco
1 year ago

my favorite series on the site since the days of the fringe five. thanks for continuing these!