Digging for Diamonds: Low Minors First Base Ballers
One of the more important positions to fill in your fantasy lineup is, of course, first base. We all know this. It’s an offense-first (and specifically a power-first) position, with 7 of the top 25 hitters in 2013 per ESPN’s player rater holding eligibility. In an era of declining offensive production across the board the ability to compete effectively in the power categories makes for that much more of an advantage in just about all leagues, regardless of format. And it is awfully tough to compete without a staple power hitter holding down the first base spot on your roster. In dynasty leagues, scouring the minor leagues for quality first base prospects is not only an opportunity to secure this most valuable of commodities on the cheap, but it’s also an opportunity to do so by exploiting something of a market inefficiency. See, most prospect evaluators care about things like “defensive potential” and “physical tools,” and they go so far as to include these things in their analysis of a player’s projection. This bizarre obsession leads to a situation where perfectly good yet defensively limited, lumberingly untoolsy first base prospects rarely make their way onto the hallowed grounds of annual Top 100 lists. This, in turn, tends to keep bat-only slugging prospects somewhat inherently under the radar when your league’s minor league draft day comes along and your leaguemates begin pouring over said lists.
The wise dynasty leaguer is undeterred by such discrimination against the unathletic, however. Here now are three first base prospects who are still far enough away from the majors that they have virtually no chance at cracking any of the big prospect lists this offseason, and as such provide outstanding “get in on the ground floor” opportunities for dynasty league owners.
Dan Vogelbach, Chicago Cubs
I should admit as a disclaimer that I have a huge, gaping soft spot for fat baseball players. The idea that a Prince Fielder, or a David Wells, or perhaps most of all a Rich Garces can attain success at the highest level of professional baseball is one of the most inspiring aspects of the sport. Dan Vogelbach has the potential to join the storied ranks of these girth-ed greats. Listed at 6’0”, 250 at the time of his selection out of high school in the 2nd round (68th overall) in 2011, the big man has allegedly trimmed down a bit over the first couple seasons of his professional career. No matter, he’s been generously described as having “falling-down range,”* and a below-average first base appears to be his best-case defensive ceiling. But ohhhh can he hit, and for fantasy baseball purposes that is all that matters. In his short-season debut through Rk and Low-A ball in 2012 he posted a video game-caliber .322/.410/.641 mark, which led to a full-season assignment to start ’13 at Kane County of the Midwest League. While his .284/.364/.450 line may look a bit bland on the surface, it was good for the 9th best OPS in the pitcher-friendly league (116 OPS+, 129 wRC+). He moved up to the A+ Florida State League for a successful 66 PA cup of coffee in the season’s second half, and he should be on pace to renew his efforts there in 2014.
What’s most notable about Vogelbach besides his waistline is a rare combination of raw power (Exhibits A-F) and pure hitting skills. Vogelbach does not profile as an all-of-nothing slugger. He’s demonstrated excellent plate discipline and strong contact skills for a player with so much pop, most recently posting a pretty outstanding 89:73 K:BB ratio this year in 566 PA’s. He now sits at a 139:110 cumulative mark over 876 career trips to the dish, good for a 12.6% walk rate against a perfectly respectable 15.9% K rate. He’s also shown a relatively minimal platoon split to date (.872 vs. LHP, .910 vs. RHP), a further testament to his sound approach at the dish. The power should play given this approach, and though he’s a ways off as a soon-to-be 21 year-old High-A guy he has as much potential as anyone in the minors to reward patient dynasty league owners with elite in-game power potential.
* Thanks be to Mark Anderson at Baseball Prospect Nation for one of my favorite scouting reports on any player’s defensive ability (or lack thereof)
Greg Bird, New York Yankees
For my second disclaimer admission of the day, I’ll cop to being a die-hard Red Sox fan. So I don’t take to writing positively about a Yankee prospect lightly. Bird is legit though, and has earned a trip under the microscope as one of the more intriguing dynasty league options at the position, particularly for those in OBP leagues. Bird was also drafted out of high school in 2011, falling to the Yankees as an over-slot 5th rounder due to signability concerns. He played sparingly in 2012 on account of multiple nagging injuries, logging just 109 PA’s between Rk and Low-A ball. Healthy for all of 2013, Bird mashed his way through the Sally (A) to the tune of .288/.428/.511 with 59 extra base hits over 573 PA’s. That works out to a 165 wRC+ and 137 OPS+. Perhaps most impressively for a player in his first full season of pro ball (or any player under any circumstance, really), Bird drew 107 walks this season. That’s not a typo, he really did post an 18.7% walk rate. Granted, Low-A ball is Low-A ball…but for context, Joey Votto’s 18.6% rate was the best in the Majors this year by almost 3% over second-place Shin-Soo Choo’s 15.7%. So while Bird’s contact and power profiles don’t quite measure up with Vogelbach, he offers the kind of rare patience for a power hitter that could make him a special player down the line. And the prospect of this left-hander calling Yankee Stadium home someday…well, let’s just say he’s worth the investment for a dynasty owner with room to stash him for a while.
Dominic Smith, New York Mets
This one will admittedly require the most amount of projection, as Smith was just tapped by the Mets in the first round (#11 overall) of the first-year player draft this past summer. He was able to play 51 games and log 206 PA’s after signing, and he posted a strong .301/.398/.439 line between the Rk Gulf Coast and Appy leagues. His Gulf Coast stint made up 48 of those 51 games, and his performance at that stop amounted to a 120 OPS+ (135 wRC+). Hailed as one of the top prep bats in his draft class, Smith’s advanced approach was evident in his 12.6% walk rate in that small sample size. He hit only three homeruns, but at 6’0”, 185 pounds as an 18 year-old he’s got plenty of room to fill out as he matures. Just how much power he’s able to add to his game will determine if he profiles as a solid regular or a potential middle-of-the-order monster. He should be ready for full-season ball next season, and if he does indeed show flashes of a progressing power tool his stock will climb rapidly. He’s nothing more than a speculative add in all but the very deepest of leagues at this point, as he’s 3-4 years away at an absolute minimum. But he’s definitely a name to watch in 2014, and he’ll be worth pouncing on quickly if he does show flashes of progress on the power front.