Aaron Hicks and being patient with the slow-developing prospect

Aaron Hicks of the New York Yankees is having an interesting season offensively. A former top prospect in the Minnesota Twins system, Hicks is ranked 122nd overall in Yahoo! Fantasy Leagues, as he has hit 17 home runs, scored 51 runs, driven in 47 RBI, and has an OPS of .851. The only blemish on Hicks’ resume is his .256 batting average, but when you take into consideration his sound plate discipline (he has a 13.6 percent walk rate and a 0.69 BB/K ratio), fantasy owners can live with the low average as long as they make it up in other areas on their team (similar to the Pirates’ Gregory Polanco, who is now mashing more than ever, but still has a low average).

What makes Hicks’ season so interesting is that he’s gone under the radar with not only fantasy owners (he’s only owned in 59 percent of leagues) but also in his own organization. After the 2015 season ended, the Twins, to make room for top prospect Byron Buxton, traded Hicks straight up for John Ryan Murphy, a catching prospect in the Yankees’ system. Hicks struggled initially in pinstripes in 2016, as he only hit .217 with a .617 OPS in 361 plate appearances and 121 games. Hicks’ underwhelming campaign in 2016 made room for Aaron Judge to come onto the scene in 2017, as Judge, Brett Gardner, and Jacoby Ellsbury all played 100 plus games in the outfield.

However, despite modest expectations going into 2017, Hicks played the best baseball of his career. Despite struggling with an oblique injury, Hicks hit 15 home runs, drove in 52 RBI, scored 54 runs, had 10 stolen bases, hit .266 and posted an OPS of .847. Unfortunately, he only finished 302nd overall in Yahoo! leagues, mostly due to the fact he only played 88 games and had 301 plate appearances overall in 2017.


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Despite the excellent season, it seemed like Hicks was going to struggle to find a role in 2018, once again. Ellsbury, Judge, and Gardner returned, as well as Clint Frazier, who was rated the 39th best prospect in baseball going into 2017 by Baseball America. And to make things tougher for Hicks, the Yankees also signed Giancarlo Stanton to a massive contract, and it was expected that Stanton would regularly patrol left, while Gardner and Judge, would patrol center, and right, respectively. Hicks seemed to be a fourth outfielder, perhaps an occasional DH player going into 2018.

However, Ellsbury got injured in Spring Training and hasn’t played since. Frazier has struggled with injuries as well, and now Judge has been put on the shelf for three weeks due to a wrist injury? As for Hicks? Well, he continues to mash, his season comparable to 2017 (his 123 wRC+ is only 4 points below his 2017 wRC+), but with more games under his belt (he’s going to pass the games played and plate appearances from all of 2017 in just a matter of days). While Judge and Stanton have stolen all the headlines for Yankees outfielders, Hicks may be the most underrated offensive star in pinstripes in 2018.

If there’s a lesson to be learned about Hicks, it’s the understanding of how some prospects take more time to develop. Hicks was a first-round pick of the Twins in 2008 and was rated as the top prospect in the Twins system in 2009 and 2010 by Baseball America. Hicks profiled very much like Buxton: good speed on the base paths along with good athleticism and a strong hit tool. However, things just never worked out in Minnesota, as he had a .225 average, .655 OPS, and 20 home runs in 247 games overall with the Twins over three seasons. Since coming to New York, Hicks has a .243 average, .759 OPS, and 39 home runs in 294 games.  Hicks’ home run stroke is what has developed the most, as Hicks’ HR/FB ratio has been 15.8 percent and 17.6 percent the past two seasons, respectively. The highest percentage Hicks posted in Minnesota was 11.1 percent, which came in 2015 (his last year in Minnesota).

Now, one can credit Hicks’ move to the lefty-friendly Yankee Stadium as a probable reason for his breakout, and you would have a case if you just judged him from last season, as he hit 12 out of his 15 home runs at Yankee Stadium in 2017. But in 2018, Hicks has been just as effective on the road as he has been back in the Bronx, as he has 9 home runs at home this year, and 8 on the road, a much evener distribution. Furthermore, one could argue that he’s been a better hitter on the road than at home, as he has a higher average (.270 to .241) and OPS (.866 to .834) away from Yankee Stadium in 2018. So, while initially, some people could credit Hicks’ development as a hitter to the “House that Ruth Built” (i.e. the short left field porch), 2018 has shown that Hicks is a strong overall hitter and not just a product of a ballpark.


At 29 years old, development came slowly for Hicks, whom many Twins fans felt was a bust in Minnesota, as he never lived up to those top prospect expectations while in the Twins system. Eventually, it came to Twins management having to decide between Buxton and Hicks, and they made the decision to go all-in on Buxton (understandable, though that strategy has had mixed results). That being said, Hicks is a prime example that some prospects develop slowly. Yes, there are the Mike Trouts and Aaron Judges who come out gangbusters when they reach the MLB level, but a lot of prospects sometimes take a few seasons at the MLB level to develop and then find success. Charlie Blackmon, Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, and even to an extent Yankee teammate Didi Gregorius, took a few seasons before they currently found success as Major Leaguers. Consider Hicks another example of such a success story.

And not only is Hicks a success story for the Yankees, but it should also give hope to fans of teams who have prospects that haven’t necessarily hit their “stride” just yet. Some people have already given up on Buxton, Miguel Sano, and Billy Hamilton, to name a few. After all, they were top prospects expected to be perennial All-Stars, and all three listed above have experienced some serious lows this season (Buxton and Sano have seen time in Triple-A). But Sano is only 25, Buxton is 24, and Hamilton is 27. They still have time, and it’s plausible that 2019 may be the season they break out and finally show consistency, much like Hicks.

So, don’t give up on prospects, especially early on in their careers if they are struggling initially at the Major League level. It would be a shame for either a fantasy owner or even a Major League fanbase to miss out on a successful player because they gave up on the prospect too early. Look up north to Minneapolis, as Twins fans are probably kicking themselves in retrospect for parting with Hicks so early, especially considering Murphy is not even in their organization anymore.

 

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Is the Reds’ Billy Hamilton Finally Figuring It Out?

Only seven players in the Majors have over 20 stolen bases thus far as the first half of the Major League Season comes to a close (as of July 14th). Right in the mix is Billy Hamilton of the Cincinnati Reds, who is tied for the fourth-most stolen bases in Major League baseball with 22, along with the Washington Nationals’ Trea Turner and the Seattle Mariners’ Dee Gordon (who led the Majors last season in stolen bases with 60 with the Miami Marlins). Hamilton, who finished with 59 stolen bases, second-most in the Major Leagues, a year ago, trails only Ender Inciarte of the Atlanta Braves (23), as well as the Washington Nationals’ Michael Taylor, and the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Starling Marte, who both have 24.

Despite him being in the mix as the league’s stolen base king in 2018, it has been an inconsistent year for the Reds’ speedy outfielder. Projected to take a step forward as a player this year (Yahoo! projected his overall ranking at 59 going into the season), Hamilton got off to a painful start. In his first 26 games and 100 plate appearances to begin the year in March and April, Hamilton hit only .172, with only four total extra-base hits, and he struck out a whopping 33 times. While there were some promising signs (he walked 13 times and he stole five bases in five attempts), it was safe to say that Hamilton, much like the Reds team as a whole, had failed to live up to expectations to start off 2018.

After a slow beginning to the year as a whole organization, the Reds fired manager Bryan Price after a 3-15 start to the year, and a 279-387 record overall (the Reds never had a winning record under Price since he took over in 2014). Furthermore, Reds GM Nick Krall promoted Jim Riggleman, who formerly managed the Washington Nationals. Under Riggleman, the Reds have turned it around, as they are 39-37 under him as of July 14th, and rate as one of the best offensive teams in baseball, as they rank 7th in the Majors in team WAR, a stark difference from their 42-52 record and 5th place standing currently in the NL Central (though to be frank, the Central may be the best division in the National League).

Hamilton has also turned it around after the managerial change, though it may not look like it at first when you see his .233 average and .636 OPS to go along with only three home runs, 19 RBI, and 51 runs scored. If you judge him over the past month though, there hasn’t been a more dynamic player in the Majors than Hamilton. In the last 30 days, Hamilton not only leads the league in stolen bases (17), but he is also hitting .337 with a .825 OPS to go along with a home run, 5 RBI and 20 runs scored in 83 AB. Furthermore, the 27-year-old outfielder has also made a habit of making spectacular plays like the one below against the Cardinals on July 13th.

So what has been the cause of Hamilton’s turnaround? And can he sustain this offensive onslaught in the second half? Or is he due to regress, and be the low average, low OPS fantasy option that has frustrated fantasy owners over the past few years?

Here are a couple of reasons for optimism:

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Riggleman batting Hamilton 9th

It’s very tempting for managers to look at a guy of Hamilton’s speed and think automatically “leadoff” hitter. So far this year, Hamilton never really took to the role, as he only hit .167 with a .546 OPS and BB/K ratio of 0.29 in 12 games and 41 plate appearances in the leadoff spot this year. Since Price was fired though, Riggleman made the decision to bat him 9th (meaning the pitcher would bat in front of him), a strategy fellow NL Central managers such as the Pirates’ Clint Hurdle and Cubs’ Joe Maddon have employed with their teams. The move has paid off somewhat, as Hamilton is batting .244 with a .651 OPS and a BB/K ratio of 0.42 in 72 games and 274 plate appearances in the bottom of the order. Getting to see a pitcher go through eight hitters beforehand, and being relieved of having to “jump start” the offense from the leadoff spot has seemed to have a positive effect on Hamilton, and Riggleman’s unorthodox strategy has paid off for the Reds’ offense (and Hamilton personally) thus far.

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Hamilton is developing his eye at the plate

Hamilton’s walk rate this year is 10.2 percent, which is 3.2 percent higher than last season and would be the highest walk rate of his career if the season ended today. Some might say “he’s more patient” at the plate, but that probably would be misleading. Hamilton’s swing percentage of 46.8 percent his highest percentage since his call-up in 2013 (where it was 50 percent), and his contact rate (77 percent) is lower while his swinging strike percentage (10.7 percent) is higher as well. That being said, he has swung at fewer pitches out of the strike zone (29.5 compared to 29.9 percent) compared to last year, and he is knowing what counts are his strong suit. He is batting .450 when swinging on the first pitch, and .350 when the count even, showing that he is taking advantage of opportunities when he is aggressive, and laying off when counts are not in his favor (as evidenced by the higher walk rate). It has resulted in an increase in strikeouts (25.7 percent), but it’s obvious that Hamilton has honed is hitting a bit as he has matured as a Major League player.

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He’s hitting the ball harder

The negative of Hamilton’s approach? The strikeouts. The positive? Walks and getting on base. Both we have talked about in the previous section. However, another positive byproduct of Hamilton’s refined approach at the plate is that he’s hitting the ball harder than ever before.

If you check out batted ball information via Fangraphs, his line drive percentage sits at 25.8 percent and his fly ball percentage sits at 34.8 percent, both major increases from the previous two years. Furthermore, his groundball percentage is at 39.4 percent, the lowest of his Major League career thus far. And though his medium hit percentage is down to 50 percent (from 59 percent in previous years), his hard-hit ball percentage is 23.8 percent, a career high and nearly a seven percent increase from last year, thus resulting in an HR/FB ratio of 4.3 percent, another career high.

Hamilton is not going to confuse people with Mike Trout anytime soon. But he is hitting the ball harder at the plate in 2018, and that should be promising enough for fantasy owners who are skeptical of his latest hot streak.

What’s the verdict on Hamilton?

A lot of fantasy owners have been patient on Hamilton, as evidenced by him being owned in 77 percent of Yahoo! leagues. However, it finally looks like Hamilton is starting to make owners’ patience a wise decision. He’s hitting the ball harder, he’s getting on base more, and more importantly, he’s stealing bases at his usual, high-end clip. And he’s been more judicious on the basepaths, as he is getting caught less, as his 84 percent success rate is an improvement from his 81 percent rate a season ago.

ZiPS projects Hamilton to steal 22 more stolen bases for the remainder of the year, but it’s plausible that Hamilton may touch the 50 or more mark by the end of this season as well, as long as he stays healthy. He has improved under Riggleman, and Riggleman’s openness to let him run wild on the basepaths, and bat him in the order in an unconventional way has done wonders for Hamilton in terms of bouncing back after a slow start. It’s hard to imagine Hamilton benefitting fantasy teams beyond stolen bases in a major way for the remainder of the year (and perhaps in the future as well). That being said, Hamilton’s speed and stolen base ability are so good and rare that it may not matter as long as fantasy owners have the right combination of power and high-average hitting elsewhere in their lineup to make up for Hamilton’s deficiencies.

Who is Seuly Matias? (And is he legit?)

There hasn’t been much to cheer or be hopeful about this season for the Royals. They currently are trying to avoid the worst record in baseball, they can’t score runs for the life of them, and their farm system is currently in rebuilding mode (hence the Kelvin Herrera trade). Yes, the Royals are a small market franchise, and winning a World Series title three seasons ago should be enough to satiate the local fanbase for a least another few years. But in this day and age of “what have you done for me lately?” in sports, the Royals need to bring something to the table to help salvage not only this season somewhat, but also in the years to come as they go begin rebuilding their system both at the minor and major league level.

Seuly Matias may be that player that can get Royals fans (and potential fantasy owners) pumped again (or at least a little bit pumped).

Now, by no means is Matias the kind of blue-chip prospect that Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon or even Mike Moustakas was less than a decade ago. However, he is a heralded prospect who without a doubt is the crown jewel of the Royals system currently. According to Baseball Prospectus, he was ranked as the #75th Best Prospect going into 2018, and in Fangraphs’ updated Top 131 prospect list (as of June 11th), Matias ranks 88th overall (he’s the only prospect listed from Kansas City).

Matias has burst onto the national scene as of late for one reason: dingers. Matias, who currently plays for the Lexington Legends (the Royals’ Single-A affiliate), leads not only the South Atlantic League but the minor leagues overall, with 24 home runs through June 26th.  In the video below (courtesy of Royals Review’s weekly post on the minor leagues), the Legends coaching staff is pretty impressed with Matias’ display of not just power, but hitting ability for his age (he’s only 19 years old).

Matias is playing his first full season outside of Rookie ball this year and is a long way away from breaking into the Major Leagues. That being said, while he can’t even buy a drink in a bar yet,  he seems like he possesses the purest power out of anyone in the Royals system from top to bottom. Furthermore, at 6’3, 200 pounds, Matias has the frame and strength to be a solid power-hitting outfielder as he transitions through the Royals system over the next few seasons.

However, though the power may be “Trout-esque”, his other skills are far from that comparison. As you will see in the scouting video below from a series against the Rome Braves (Atlanta’s Sally affiliate), his plate discipline needs a lot of work. He is over-aggressive and he swings at a lot of pitches out of the zone, which either results in a lot of swings and misses or bad contact that results in easy outs. That poor plate approach is evident this year in his low batting average (.238 average) as well as high strikeout rate (37.1 percent) and low BB/K ratio (0.21). To make matters worse, these trends were also common during his tenure in the Rookie Leagues the past couple of seasons, as his strikeout rates hovered around the 30 percent mark at each level, and he has never hit higher than .250 in his short career thus far.

At his age, while these numbers are a bit alarming, they’re not damning. When it comes to evaluating prospects, it’s always important to see if a player has one Major League-level “skill” and Matias has that in his power as well as arm, which also was rated a 70 on a 20-80 scale, according to Fangraphs. To have two highly-rated skills from Matias is promising, and if he can become even a “mediocre” hitter for average that can hit annually in the .240 to .260 range, he could be a valuable producer for the Royals lineup in the future, especially if he can transition that 30-40 home run power to the Major League level. Of course, that’s always easier said than done. Plenty of prospects have displayed Matias’ skill set before in the minors (especially lower levels), only to flame out as they face better pitching up the Minor League ladder. So, it’ll be interesting to see if Matias’ approach will improve as he matures as a player.

For fantasy players looking to get a head start on future keepers, Matias may be a valuable pickup…but probably not for another two-three years, minimum. He’s still only 19 years old, and the Sally is still too low a level for potential fantasy owners to make a solid judgment and projection on his future ability at the Major League level. Furthermore, Matias’ home run power hasn’t exploded until this year so it may be prudent to see if he can produce something similar in either High-A or Double-A first.

Matias has a long ways to go. But for a Royals system that’s dearth of top-end prospects, and for fantasy owners who are looking for a breakout player who could provide them pop for years to come, Matias certainly is an enticing and exciting prospect.

But let’s take his success with a grain of salt. He’s still just a teenager in Single-A, and he has a long way to go before he makes it to the show.

Should I give up on the Blue Jays’ Justin Smoak?

Justin Smoak is the epitome of a late-blooming prospect. After mashing in 2009 in Double-A in the Texas Rangers system, and coming out highly heralded out of the University of South Carolina (he was drafted 11th overall by the Rangers), Smoak was identified as the next “big-bopping” first base prospect by most major publications and scouts. However, despite the acclaim nearly a decade earlier, Smoak wasn’t able to transition his “blue chip” prospect status into Major League production early on in his career.

The main piece for the Seattle Mariners in the Cliff Lee trade in 2010, Smoak floundered spectacularly in the Pacific Northwest. In 1,943 plate appearances and five seasons with the Mariners, Smoak only hit 66 home runs and averaged a slash of .226/.308/.384 with a .692 OPS overall. The disappointing production, as well as the Mariners’ own team frustrations and change in management, led to Smoak being waived in 2014, a far fall from grace for a player many thought of as another Mark Teixeira or Chipper Jones when he was drafted in 2008.

However, after being claimed by the Toronto Blue Jays on waivers, Smoak suddenly found the power north of the border that had been dormant in Seattle. He hit 18 home runs in 328 plate appearances in his first season in Toronto, and in 2017, at age 30, Smoak had a career season and became an All-Star player, hitting 38 home runs, 90 RBI, and posting a slash of .270/.355/.529 with an OPS of .883. Suddenly, it appeared that Smoak had not only found a home in Toronto but also could be in the discussion as a top-tier first-basemen in fantasy leagues everywhere going into 2018.

Unfortunately, this season has been closer to what he’s done in Seattle (or his mediocre 2016 season in Toronto) than the magical 2017 campaign.  He’s only hit 9 home runs so far in 299 plate appearances, and his .236/.361/.423 slash and .784 OPS would look good if he was a prolific base-stealing leadoff man, not a first baseman expected to be a major producer in the top half of the lineup. And lastly, after being ranked 90th in Yahoo!’s preseason rankings, Smoak currently ranks 309th overall in leagues, not a great place to be in mixed-leagues when it comes to the first-base position.

So, is Smoak worth keeping? Well, in order to do that, Smoak’s fantasy owners have to look at alternatives on the market, which is probably the only route to go now, since Smoak won’t fetch much of anything in a trade. Using my league as an example (we are a 12-team mixed), I will take a look at seven 1B-eligible candidates who may be worth replacing Smoak.

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  1. Matt Olson, Athletics (110 ranking; 80% owned)
  2. Derek Dietrich, Marlins (132 ranking; 46% owned)
  3. Ian Desmond, Rockies (167 ranking; 74% owned)
  4. Daniel Descalso, Diamondbacks (195 ranking; 30% owned)
  5. Yonder Alonso, Indians (200 ranking, 33% owned)
  6. Yuli Gurriel, Astros (245 ranking, 42% owned)
  7. Ryon Healy, Mariners (269 ranking, 43% owned)

As you can see, all seven rank better than Smoak, so one may be tempted to grab any of the seven as a replacement and think you’re better off. However, if you look deeper at the numbers, some are more skeptical options in comparison to Smoak.

First off, the last three (Alonso, Gurriel, and Healy), despite better rankings than Smoak currently, are probably not likely to finish the year better than Smoak. Smoak’s OPS (.784 OPS) is better than all three (Alonso .776; Gurriel .760; Healy .768), mostly due to Smoak’s much better plate discipline and approach. Furthermore, while Alonso and Healy have more home runs currently, Alonso is going through a similar off-year slump like Smoak (Alonso had 28 home runs last year), and Healy’s plate approach and lack of walks (.292 OBP) makes him a risky pickup, especially if the power tails off in the second half. As for Gurriel, he hits for high average (.306), but his concerning lack of power (4 home runs) doesn’t make him valuable as a starting first-baseman (especially considering that’s the only position he qualifies for).

Desmond is a risky move who has some flexibility (he can also play outfield). He hits homers (15 this year; thanks to Coors), drives in runs (42 RBI) and can get steals (he has 7 so far this year), but a .213 average and .718 OPS is hard to stomach. A lot of his value as a pickup stems on his projected ability in the second half, as many projections expect him to bounce back average-wise come July (he hit .274 last year). So if you are going to go the Desmond route, you might want to make sure your lineup has a lot of high average hitters to protect your weekly average.

Dietrich and Descalso are interesting pickups if you want utility guys who can play multiple positions. Dietrich qualifies as a 2B, 3B, and OF in addition to 1B, and he is hitting .302 for the year with a .850 OPS and 11 home runs. Dietrich has been especially on a tear in June, as he is hitting .389 with a 1.107 OPS and 6 homers in the past 30 days. Descalso provides the same position versatility as the Marlins’ Dietrich, though he isn’t as productive as the Marlins utility man (Descalso is hitting only .266 with a .865 OPS and 6 home runs). However, most owners will have a better shot at picking up Descalso than Dietrich in most leagues, so he is a nice consolation prize for owners who can’t nab Dietrich, but want his combination of flexibility and production.

The biggest debate I’m sure owners may have will be choosing between Smoak or Olson. Olson in a lot of ways is a younger version of Smoak. He doesn’t hit for high average (he’s only hitting .246 and he hit only .259 last year) and he strikes out a lot (27.1 percent K rate). That being said, he has maintained the power for the most part from last year (17 homers this year; .224 ISO), though it’s not as pronounced as it was during his first extended playing stint at the Major League level last season (24 homers; .392 ISO in 101 fewer appearances).

You can do a whole lot worse than Olson if you are dead set on replacing Smoak. At the very least, Olson has some keeper value, as he is only 24 years old; they both have the same kind of skill set (low average, relatively high walk and strikeout rates); and his power seems legitimate (which it has to be in a pitcher-friendly ballpark like the Oakland Coliseum), which means that he may be able to maintain this first half production in the second half. I think Smoak and Olson will have similar second halves, and that’s why I don’t think Olson for Smoak is a no-brainer. But, I know owners may be less patient or feel the pressure to pick up in leagues after slow starts. Hence, if you’re in a position where you have to make a move on Smoak, Olson has been more proven in 2018, and maybe a bit safer based on his better first half.

Overall, Dietrich, Descalso, and Olson would be preferable pickups to replace Smoak. However, if neither of those three is available, you’re probably better off keeping the Smoak monster, as Alonso, Gurriel, Desmond, and Healy aren’t likely to be much better than Smoak (hell, they may be worse) in the second half of the season.

It’s definitely a tough decision. Smoak is replaceable, sure. But be discerning, and don’t automatically drop him. The plate approach is there. Now he just needs some of those hits (and dingers) to fall.

Who Should I Give a Crap About on this Royals Team?

At 22–49, the Kansas City Royals have the second-worst record in all of baseball (only the Orioles are worse at 20–50; at least they have the excuse that they play in the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox). For Royals fans who followed this team pre-2013, it seems like it’s back to half-empty stadiums, bad jokes, and constant L’s both at Kauffman and away. As someone who recently moved to Kansas City, and got caught up in the “Royals Fever” post 2013, it’s interesting to see the difference between who the true baseball fans are, and the ones who just jumped on the bandwagon because those teams during that three to four-year stretch were competitive (already those fans in the latter category are only talking about how good Patrick Mahomes is looking in training camp).

As someone who enjoys baseball, plays fantasy baseball, and has a soft spot for the Royals as my favorite KC-based sports team (sorry Chiefs, can’t do your semi-racist mascots or chants), I figured it would be good to write a post about which Royals players you should pay attention to on this Royals team if you are an avid player of fantasy baseball or if you still plan on going to Royals games this summer (i.e. get drunk in the parking lot before remembering four innings of baseball and then blacking out and getting a 50 dollar Uber ride home). Some of them will be obvious (especially to the “three-year fans”), and some will be a little under-the-radar, but hopefully this analysis will help Royals as well as fantasy baseball fans get a little excited over what already has been a lost season (and perhaps one of many to come) here in Kansas City.

Merrifield has been the Royals’ best offensive player (and new “hunk” for female Royals fans).

Whit Merrifield, 1B, 2B, OF; 2018 stats: .294 average, .795 OPS, 4 home runs, 23 RBI, 15 SB, 31 runs scored; 88% owned in Yahoo and ranked 126th.

The former minor-league journeyman was on the Crash Davis career track until he broke out after a call up in 2016, posting a .283/.323/.390 slash with two home runs, 29 RBI, and 8 stolen bases in 81 games as a super utility guy. Since 2016, while many of the other Royals batters have fluttered with inconsistency, Merrifield has been a pillar of steady production, as in 2017 he posted a .288/.324/.460 slash with 19 home runs, 80 runs scored, 78 RBI, and 34 stolen bases in double the amount of plate appearances (630 compared to 330 in 2016). And if that isn’t enough, Merrifield has been even better in 2018. Merrifield’s batting average is higher (.294) and he leads the team in stolen bases (15), on-base percentage (.371) and WAR (2.1). One could argue that not only has he usurped the role of most “beloved by female Royals fans 34 and under” (once held by the now departed Eric Hosmer; Alex Gordon still holds the 35 and over crowd), but he has also become the team’s most valuable offensive player during this somewhat dismal season.

Unless you’re in a really shallow league, it’s hard to imagine Merrifield being available, but he’s worth exploring for in trades simply because of his great slash value, and excellent stolen base production. He’s probably not going to duplicate the power numbers he displayed from a year ago (ZiPS projects him for seven more homers over the remainder of the year; good for 11 total), and his age makes him a shaky candidate as a keeper for next season (he’s 29 years old). That being said, Merrifield is not only a fun player to watch, but a productive one who can fill three positions on your roster, making him a perfect utility guy you can squeeze in if a starting player is a late-scratch or gets injured and hasn’t made it to the DL just yet.

Keep mashing Whit. The young ladies of KC as well as fantasy baseball owners are rooting for you.

Despite Mondesi’ struggles at the plate, he has been good on the basepaths over his career.

Adalberto Mondesi, 2B; 2018 stats (Omaha): .250 average, .786 OPS, 5 home runs, 21 RBI, 10 SB, 19 runs scored; 1% owned in Yahoo and ranked 1044.

I was going to write initially on Jorge Soler, who has been one of the Royals most productive hitters this season(he leads the team with a weight runs created plus of 125) and was finally looking like the top prospect he was once hailed to be when he was in the Cubs system. But then Soler broke his damn foot, and even though he’s on the 10-Day DL, it’s plausible that he may be out for an extended period of time, and won’t be back until the end of the year at best.

So instead, I’m writing on one of Royals’ fans most polarizing young prospects: Adalberto Mondesi.

Mondesi came to the Royals system with a lot of expectations. Not only is he the son of Raul Mondesi, a baseball mainstay in the 90’s, but he also signed a $2 million bonus in 2011 as a 16-year-old, riding high on the early days of the “I’m evaluating this player solely on this cool, 2 minute YouTube mixtape I found” movement within fantasy baseball circles (it is also big in college basketball scouting circles as well). However, despite the hype, Mondesi’s tenure so far at the big-league level has been disappointing.

After starting the year in Double-A, and getting knocked for a 50-game suspension due to PEDs (which turned out to be cold medicine, apparently; thank God the school I work at doesn’t drug test for PEDs; I’d be our school’s Barry Bonds), Mondesi got an extended look in 2016. However, the youngster failed to produce results, as he hit .185 and put up an OPS of .512 in a 149 plate appearances, and provided little else beyond stolen base prowess (he stole 9 bases in 10 attempts). In 2017, he earned 60 plate appearances at the big-league level, and continued to do little with it, posting as slash of .170/.214/.245 with the Royals before spending most of the year back in Omaha.

Now, Mondesi gets his third extended chance at the big-league level, and already a lot of Royals fans are calling him a bust. For starters, I would tell Royals fans to cool their jets for a couple of reasons: first, he’s only 22-years old, which is still a baby in Major League years (you really can’t give up on anyone until age 26, which is the cut off between “prospect” and “veteran” in scouting circles). And second, he’s got one plus-skill: stealing bases. This year, he is 10 for 10 on stolen base attempts in Omaha and he stole 21 out of 24 bases a year ago in Omaha. Mondesi desperately provides speed on the basepaths this team needs outside of Merrifield, and it’s plausible to see him as a 25–40 SB per year guy in the near future.

However, what will make Mondesi worth keeping? Whether or not he can solve his massive strikeout issues at the big league level. In 2016, he struck out in 32.2 percent of his plate appearances. Last year, he struck out 36.7 percent of the time. And unfortunately, he doesn’t walk enough to justify such high numbers (his career BB/K ratio is 0.13; 0.50 is considered average). With his speed, Mondesi needs to take a page out of the Lou Brown “Put the Ball on the Damn Ground!” playbook like Willy “Mays” Hayes before him in Cleveland.

The Adalberto Mondesi of the 80’s

Let’s see if Mondesi can do that in his call up this summer. If he can replicate Wesley Snipes’ beloved fictional outfielder, he may be an interesting keeper in deep leagues for next year.

It’s been a lousy June, but Junis has been the Royals’ best starting pitcher this year.

Jakob Junis, SP; 2018 stats: 4.43 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 5 wins, 79 strikeouts; 43 percent owned in Yahoo and ranked 501st.

I am big believer in “team.” And yet, if you really had to point one reason why the Royals are on the cusp of being the worst team in baseball, it has to be due to the crappy pitching. Yes, the Royals pitching is bad, and REALLY BAD. Not only do they have the worst ERA in baseball (5.39), but they also have the worst FIP (Field Independent Pitching; 4.83) and WAR (0.7). (They have the second worst xFIP, expected field independent pitching, trailing only the White Sox, which goes to show how lousy the Central is.) By all metrics, both standard and advanced, this Royals pitching staff has been awful and a far cry from their playoff days, where they rode great pitching and base running to back to back World Series appearances (and an eventual championship).

The Royals starting staff has been a motley crew of mediocrity this year in more ways than one: Danny Duffy has proved that he not only is unable to handle being the team’s ace, but that he can’t even be a good pitcher without the mentoring of James Shields. Additionally, Ian Kennedy and Jason Hammel have been disappointing free agent pickups who have proved to baseball fans and analysts that they are overpaid and perhaps over-the-hill to boot. It’s almost as if this Royals’ rotation has been cursed since Yordano Ventura’s unfortunate passing.

However, the one pitcher on this starting staff worth following may be the 25-year-old Jakob Junis, a №4 starter who leads the team in wins with 5 (yes I know, wins is a shitty stat, but hey, he’s leading) as well as strikeouts (79). With a quick approach, and breaking-ball heavy repertoire (he throws his slider over 40 percent of the time in comparison to his fastball, which he only throws 31.2 percent of the time), Junis has been a decent surprise for a staff that has struggled the past couple of seasons.

Unfortunately, Junis has cooled in June after a strong start, as he is 0–3 in June and posted 10.13 ERA in his last two starts. This mostly is due to his propensity to give up the long-ball, as his HR/9 innings rate is the highest out of any Royals starter this year (1.90 per 9). His repertoire is probably the culprit, as batters have begun to sit on his slider, and his fastball isn’t powerful enough (it averages a little over 91 MPH) to make them pay for such a strategy. Junis has had trouble getting past the 5th and 6th innings once teams have already seen him once or twice at the plate. Either Junis has to get more creative with his pitches to be more effective, or perhaps Yost has to settle on him being a 5 inning guy (6 at best), and rely heavily on the pen the rest of the way.

However, Junis is an interesting pickup because he gets guys to swing out of the zone (he gets batters to swing at pitches outside the strike zone 32.3 percent of the time which is above average), and he has good control (his 3.95 K/BB walk ratio is better than other major starters such as Duffy, Hammel and Kennedy) with the potential for good command (as we saw earlier in the year). Junis isn’t going to set the world on fire, and he’s a streaky pitcher, as we have seen already during the first half of this season. That being said, Junis has the skill set to give fantasy teams solid innings, a good number of K’s, and he won’t kill your WHIP either (because he doesn’t walk too many batters).

Let’s hope he can turn it around, and have a July that’s a lot closer to what he did in April and May. At 25-years-old, he could give Royals a glimmer of hope for starting pitching in the future, and for fantasy team owners, he could be a surprise contributor to a teams starting pitching staff in the second half.


Originally published at medium.com on June 18, 2018.