Spring Fantasy Watch: Who are some of the standouts thus far?

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Denis Poroy (Getty Images)

Spring Training is kind of like Christmas for hardcore fantasy baseball fans, especially for those in deeper leagues or with an eye for late-round talent. It’s in the preceding week and following three that top prospects either stick or get sent down and where position battles are won and lost. One of my favorite past-times (I’m so cool) during this month is to scour the MLB.com spring leaderboards to see if I can unearth some potential diamonds in the rough for fantasy purposes.

I don’t advise blindly stat-watching. My system for tracking hitters operates as follows: look at all the top performers in power categories (slugging percentage, TBs, ISO, etc.) and make a shortlist. Cross off the names who are ~28 years and older, as well as the players who have never shown the ability to hit at any level. Then take a deeper dive into the remaining names. Ideally, you want to find players who are good prospects, or had a good prospect reputation at one point. You’d like to see good minor league performance at some juncture. And, in a perfect world, you’d like to hear about some mechanical change or clean of bill health that could propel their performance forward. Also keep an eye on plate discipline metrics like walk and strikeout rate. If the BB/K ratio increases along with improved power, that’s a great combination.

Below are three players who, more or less, meet that criteria so far this spring. Fair warning: we’re dealing with incredibly small sample sizes, so this post is more about expanding your watch-list than your draft list. But if you want to get a jump on the fantasy competition then you need to start now. Even if some of these players don’t make an immediate impact, or start in AAA, you’ll have them logged in your head and will be the first to pounce if their situation changes for the positive.

Miguel Andujar – NYY

The #14 prospect in baseball according to Fangraphs came into this spring with an outside shot at making the Yankees out of camp due to their recent acquisition of Brandon Drury. Yet, after six spring training games, Andujar leads the spring league in total bases and slugging percentage. He’s clubbed four home runs and two doubles with a single thrown in for good measure.

The newly turned 23-year old had prospect cache but failed to produce at the lower levels of the minors, with middling slugging rates and wRC+’s ranging close to 100. But Andujar broke out in a big way last year, with 16 home runs and a 500+ slugging percentage between AA and AAA. Andujar also had a successful five game call-up to the Yankees where he nabbed four hits in eight at bats and showed very impressive batted ball authority. Andujar managed four 95+ MPH batted balls in seven opportunities.

Another reason I’m bullish on Andujar is the power improvement Yankee prospects have experienced going from AAA to the Bronx. Gary Sanchez had a 187 ISO in 2016 before getting called up and becoming baseball’s best hitting catcher. Judge had a 219 ISO in 2016 before posting 343 at the MLB level last year. While we shouldn’t expect Sanchez and Judge-like progression from every player, it’s an indication that the MLB juiced ball and Yankee Stadium’s friendly confines allow players to achieve a premium on their minor league power figures.

Is it for real? Isolated power is one of the metrics that trends better from spring to the regular season, and six of Andujar’s seven spring hits have gone for extra bases, good for an ISO north of 800. He has struck out four times while walking none, but taking free passes isn’t Andujar’s game.

Fantasy Impact: Managers in leagues that count average should be all over Andujar if he makes the Yankees as his high-contact, high-octane hitting approach will result in a good batting average. I’d wait and see in on-base leagues, because he’d likely be hitting at the bottom of the Yanks’ batting order, which could depress counting stats. In a full season I’d expect an 85 / 25 / 80 / .290 / .325 batting line from Andujar.

Austin Hedges – SDP

San Diego’s donner of the tools of ignorance has had an interesting career arc. He was Baseball America’s 27th best prospect back in 2013, but followed that up with an awful 2014 and injury-riddled 2015. Largely written off, Hedges came into 2016 with something to prove and ended up as one of the PCL’s top power hitters with a 326 / 353 / 597 batting line. Hedges propelled that performance into the Padres’ starting catcher gig last year and largely struggled. While he did hit 18 home runs, Hedges had an unsightly 0.20/1.00 walk to strikeout ratio and a deplorable 262 on-base percentage.

Reports surfaced in mid-February that Hedges worked with San Diego assistant hitting coach Johnny Washington to tweak his swing over the offseason. What’s followed is four home runs in a mere eight at bats. On top of that, Hedges has walked twice and hasn’t struck out. It’s not like Hedges has been feasting off low minors pitching either. His home runs have come off Garrett Richards (good MLB pitcher), Wilmer Font (great AAA pitcher who should be the MLB), Christian Bergman (bad MLB pitcher) and Scott Barlow (decent minor league pitcher), a fairly representative swath of talent.

Being 2018, it seems like every other offensive underperformer is making adjustments to their swing, so maybe we should exercise caution with Hedges’ eight at-bat outburst. But I have reason for optimism. Hedges already gets a lot of lift with over 43% of his MLB batted balls ending up in the air. That’s good. The bad is that only 25% of Hedges flyballs have been pulled. This is actually right around league average, but given the shear amount of flies that Hedges hits, he needs to learn to pull more of them with authority, because that’s where power comes from. To illustrate: 14 of Hedges’ 21 career MLB homers have come on pulled fly balls, while pulled fly balls represent only ~10% of his batted balls.

Is it for real? Another case of a huge isolated power spike, so that’s a positive. Unfortunately it comes in only 10 plate appearances. I like the fact that Hedges hasn’t struck out yet and has walked twice. Hedges also might deserve the benefit of the doubt considering his age and prospect pedigree. At only 25, he’s not that far removed from being a top prospect and his 2016 AAA season was one of the best minor league seasons we’ve seen from a catcher in recent years.

Fantasy Impact: Given how bereft the catcher position is of talent, fantasy owners should be paying attention. If he stays healthy Hedges is guaranteed 500 at bats, and his defensive ability will keep him in the lineup even through hitting cold spells. If Hedges can increase his HR/AB a bit and pull the average into the 250 territory, he becomes a very viable fantasy catcher.

Christian Villanueva – SDP

What’s in the water in Peoria, Arizona? Numerous Padres’ hitters have impressed in spring thus far, including Christian Villanueva, a 26-year old third baseman hailing from Guadalajara, Mexico. He originally came up in the Rangers’ system before being dealt to the Cubs, where he had several decent minor league seasons but ultimately found his path blocked by Kris Bryant and the myriad other strong Chicago prospects.

Villanueva’s prospect star dimmed to a mere flicker after a broken leg scuttled his 2016 season. San Diego picked him up for the 2017 season and were rewarded with a 528 slugging percentage and 129 wRC+ for AAA El Paso. Villanueva followed that up with four home runs in a 12-game late season call-up with the Padres. He’s continued where he left off thus far in spring, with three home runs, one double and and a 600+ ISO in 16 at bats.

San Diego has been adept at finding post-hype prospects and reviving their careers. Villanueva actually profiles similarly, in batting approach, handedness and stature, to Jose Pirela, who made a big impact with a 122 wRC+ in San Diego last year. Pirela, also a natural third baseman, is taking reps at second this spring, which will hopefully reduce Villanueva’s competition for regular season at bats.

Is it for real? Villanueva clearly made adjustments prior to 2017 to hit for more power, and he’s carried that over to AAA and MLB regular season play as well as this spring. Given his elevated minor league strikeout rates as well as his 14% swinging strike rate in 32 MLB plate appearances last season, Villanueva will probably struggle with plate discipline. But the power looks legit, so monitor his progress going forward.

Fantasy Impact: San Diego manager Andy Green stated early in spring that Villanueva looked prime to make the team. But does he get starting at bats? Chase Headley looks like the starting third baseman, but I like Villanueva’s odds at out-producing him going forward. Villanueva also plays first, but the signing of Eric Hosmer renders that option mute. Villanueva is certainly a deep sleeper, and might need an injury to produce regular at bats, but he’s a player worth monitoring and potentially stashing in deep leagues.



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