Ah yes, Spring Training. The smell of freshly cut grass. The smell of the geriatric Floridians that go to the games. And the smell of opportunity for numerous players hoping to lock down big league jobs. Hearts will be broken and dreams will be made in the approximately 25 preseason games that each team plays. The following post will explore some young players to keep on eye on this spring for fantasy and general interest purposes.
Dustin Fowler – CF (OAK)
Dustin Fowler went from relative anonymity to fame for all the wrong reasons last season. Manning right field for his first MLB start on June 29th, 2017 against the Chicago White Sox, Fowler sprinted into the corner on a routine fly ball during the bottom of the first and subsequently ruptured his right patellar tendon upon impact with the wall. His MLB debut and season were over in the blink of an eye, before he could even garner an at-bat.
To add insult to injury, Fowler was dealt to Oakland in late July as one of the returning fixtures in the trade that sent hurler Sonny Gray to the Yankees. Although the timing must have stung, Fowler was likely to get dealt at some point due to the Yankees’ log-jam of outfield roster players and prospects. Fortuitously for Fowler, whose natural position is in center field, he entered an organization that trotted out Rajai Davis and his 73 wRC+ into center 100 times last year.
The 23-year old Fowler presents a tantalizing array of skills. He swiped double-digit bags in every minor league stop along the way from 2015 to 2017. His power, which looked non-existent in 2015, took massive steps forward in 2016 and 2017. The one area where he does struggle is plate discipline, with minor league K to BB rates in the area of 4 to 1. However, his overall strikeout rates aren’t very high, and his BABIP skills seem strong enough to justify his high-contact approach.
Lost in Fowler’s injury and trade from 2017 is the season he put together with the Yankees’ AAA affiliate in Scranton. He swatted 13 home runs and stole 13 bases in only 313 plate appearances. He had an obscene 40 extra-base hits – the aforementioned 13 home runs along with 19 doubles and eight triples. All that totaled to an enviable 293 / 329 / 542 batting line.
That 542 slugging percentage was actually the second highest in the AAA International League last season, only bested by Philadelphia’s Rhys Hoskins. Fowler was also easily the youngest player in the top 10 to 15 AAA sluggers last year. So not only does Fowler bring the potential for 20 steals over a full season, there’s real reason to believe he’s capable of 20-25 home runs as well. That combination is immensely valuable in fantasy.
The question is of course health. Patella tendon tears are devastating injuries. They’ve ruined many careers. Fortunately surgical techniques and rehab processes have improved over the years. By all accounts Fowler looks ready and has already taken some live at bats this spring. The Athletics are taking it slow with Fowler, and plan on giving him ample rest days this spring, but he should have a fairly clear path to the starting center field spot in Oakland if he performs well. Expect AJ Pollock-type production if he manages to stick.
Brian Anderson – 3B (MIA)
For some reason Brian Anderson gets lost in the shuffle. Maybe it’s due to his generic name. Perhaps it’s because Anderson is 24, going on 25 and seems to have been around for a while. But for whatever the reason, Miami’s top third base prospect doesn’t generate the buzz that he should in baseball circles.
Derek Jeter’s scorched earth handling of the Marlins’ off-season has left some fantasy managers reticent of rostering anyone on Miami. However, with great destruction comes great opportunity, and Anderson has a chance to make an impact in the heart of the Miami order this season if he makes the team.
First some contextual perspective. Anderson is 6’4″, right-handed hitting third baseman who played college ball for the Arkansas Razorbacks, where he significantly outhit teammate Andrew Benintendi. The Marlins selected Anderson in the third round of the 2014 MLB draft and inserted him into their minor league system immediately. In only 257 plate appearances between low-A and A-level in 2014, Anderson amassed 11 home runs, 49 RBIs and a wRC+ north of 135. Not bad a for a first go-round in the pros.
Anderson struggled in a full season of high-A in 2015 and repeated the level to start the 2016 season as a 22/23-year old, which is probably where his prospect pedigree began to diminish. The knock on Anderson is that, for his large frame, he doesn’t generate much power. He’s consistently posted strong walk and strikeout rates throughout the minors but his SLG and ISO rates have varied from good to below average.
2017 was really Anderson’s coming out year. He slugged 14 home runs with a 129 wRC+ in 361 AA at bats before tearing the cover off the ball to the tune of a 339 / 416 / 602 batting line with AAA New Orleans. Anderson closed out the season with an MLB promotion to Miami, where he looked okay – a 262 average with a 337 on-base, but a distinct lack of extra-base hits.
Miami’s incumbent at third is Martin Prado, an aging talent who is coming off knee surgery. Prado doesn’t look set to return until mid-March, so Anderson will likely take first team reps at third for the first half of spring training. While Miami brass is paying lip service to Prado’s hold on the job, they have no reason to hold Anderson back if he produces well this spring. Keep an eye out on Anderson’s production in the Grapefruit league. With a full season of at bats I think a 75 R / 20 HR / 85 RBI / 280 AVG fantasy line is attainable.
Derek Fisher – LF (HOU)
This website has long been a fan of the toolsy, bald-headed outfielder hailing from Lebanon, PA. Fisher was a first round pick of the Astros back in 2014 out of the University of Virginia. His tall and strong frame excited scouts, and his minor league performance through 2016 justified the praise and draft position. Yet it was difficult for him to crack the top five of any Astros prospect list.
Fisher’s anonymity started to subside in the summer of 2017, when his performance in 384 plate appearances for AAA Fresno started to turn some heads. He hit 21 home runs and stole 16 bases. His 314 / 384 / 583 triple slash was beastly even for the lofty standards of the Pacific Coast League. Houston had a crowded MLB roster but found space for Fisher permanently in late July.
Fisher’s acclimation to the majors had its ups and downs. On the negative side of the ledger, he struck out in one-third of his plate appearances. He also had issues getting lift on the ball, with a microscopic 21.1% flyball rate. But the power-speed combo that was his calling card in the minors did manifest itself to an extent. Fisher smacked five home runs and stole three bases in 166 plate appearances, which is about a 20 / 12 pace over a full season.
Given the Astros’ depth and overall team strength, playing time will be a concern for Fisher. With George Springer set in center field and Josh Reddick taking most of the time in right, Fisher will have to fight Marwin Gonzalez and Jake Marisnick for time in left. Gonzalez is coming off a career season where he slugged 303 / 377 / 530, but it seems like even the Astros know that was fluky by declaring their intentions to keep him in a super utility role. This opens the door for Fisher to gain regular at bats.
The projections systems are very bullish on Fisher in 2018. ZiPS has him at 560 plate appearances with 22 home runs, 17 steals and 70+ in runs and RBIs. Depth Charts projects 308 plate appearances with 12 home runs and 10 steals, which comes close to 20 / 20 by extrapolating for more regular playing time.
Fisher, a groundball hitter that strikes out too much, has obvious holes in approach. However, he seems like a sure bet to nip at the 20 / 20 plateau with enough at bats. And his sterling prospect pedigree and minor league track record points to upside beyond that. Moreover, anyone with regular at bats in the Astros lineup is worthy of increased consideration. Monitor his performance this spring in comparison to Gonzalez and prepare to profit late on draft day.