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Prospect Perspective: Nolan Arenado and Nick Castellanos are Still Elite Prospects

When a young player has been in the major leagues for awhile it seems like they are older than they really are. It is uncommon for a player to break into the major leagues at the age of 20 or 21 but it does happen. There are usually a couple players who do it each year. Oftentimes those players struggle quite a bit their first year or two in the majors, Mike Trout being the exception that proves the rule. Guys like Nolan Arenado, Nick Castellanos, Manny Machado, and even Yasiel Puig and Freddie Freeman are much younger than people think they are. It is easy to forget that these guys are still younger than many or most top prospects. Many baseball fans and fantasy team owners fall into the trap of believing that a player who has been in the majors for awhile “is who he is” and fail to consider the context of the player’s situation. The reality is that all of the players on the list below are still kids who are a long way from reaching their peak performance. You can expect significant performance increases from every player on this list over the next several years, even the ones who are already stars.

The definition of a prospect as defined by the baseball scouting industry is a hitter who has not reached 130 ABs or a pitcher who has not yet thrown 50 innings in the major leagues, but that definition is misleading. That may be the cut-off for Rookie of the Year eligibility, but a 22 year old doesn’t cease being a prospect just because he has seen a modicum of major league time. Young players don’t stop honing their skills or improving their craft when they reach that arbitrary threshold.  On the contrary, they continue to mature as players while they are getting their seasoning in the major leagues instead of the minor leagues. Just because a guy has graduated from the top prospect lists doesn’t mean he isn’t still a young, inexperienced player who will get a lot better as time goes by. The definition of a prospect as defined by the dictionary is “a person regarded as likely to succeed,” and that is how we should evaluate all young players, regardless of their major or minor league status.

Age — Player Name  — Major league experience (Red = Still a Prospect)
20.6 – Rougned Odor — 294 ABs
21.7 – Javier Baez — 99 ABs
21.9 – Bryce Harper — 1215 ABs
21.9 – Xander Bogaerts — 479 ABs
22.1 – Manny Machado — 1185 ABs
22.2 – Oscar Taveras — 180 ABs
22.5 – Nick Castellanos — 444 ABs
22.5 – Jorge Soler — 11 ABs
22.7 – Yasiel Puig — 841 ABs
22.7 – Christian Yelich — 699 ABs
22.7 – Kris Bryant — None
22.8 – Arismendy Alcantara — 177 ABs
22.9 – Jon Singleton — 258 ABs
23.0 – Chris Owings — 293 ABs
23.0 – Gregory Polanco — 249 ABs
23.1 – Mike Trout — 1777 ABs
23.4 – Nolan Arenado — 861 ABs
23.7 – Wil Myers — 566 ABs
23.8 – Danny Santana — 300 ABs
23.8 – Marcel Ozuna — 749 ABs
24.0 – Billy Hamilton — 505 ABs
24.1 – Kennys Vargas — 109 ABs
24.2 – Anthony Rendon — 869 ABs
24.3 – Salvador Perez — 1399 ABs
24.3 – Jose Altuve — 1972 ABs
24.4 – Starlin Castro — 2957 ABs
24.8 – Giancarlo Stanton — 2238 ABs — 150 Home Runs
24.8 – Eric Hosmer — 2090 ABs
24.9 – Freddie Freeman — 2198 ABs
24.9 – George Springer — 295 ABs
25.1 – Anthony Rizzo — 1557 ABs
25.1 – Jason Heyward — 2376 ABs

Some observations:

  • Despite having torn up the majors for the last two years, Yasiel Puig is only two months older than Jorge Soler. Both should be considered prospects.
  • There are at least 30 players in the major leagues who are younger than current uber-prospect Kris Bryant, who is older than some of the best players in baseball (Puig, Fernandez, etc).
  • Giancarlo Stanton hit 125 home runs in the majors before elite prospect George Springer hit his first, but Stanton is younger.
  • Bryce Harper is still extremely young despite having played 3 seasons in the big leagues already.
  • Nick Castellanos is a player who stands out to me, not only due to his age but to his experience and statistical performance. I will tell you why below.

The point is not to denigrate the prospects but rather to point out that some established major league players have as much growth left in front of them as the elite prospects we are all so excited about. Some of those established players have already become trusted fantasy studs, but they could still get a lot better because they are still developing. Some of those established players have fared poorly thus far and their owners are fearing they will become busts, but those struggling players could still get a lot better too. Xander Bogaerts may have had an awful season, but how would George Springer, Gregory Polanco or Kris Bryant have performed if they had been starting in the major leagues at the age of 21? They were not even considered to be top ranked prospects when they were Bogaerts’ age at the time of his call-up, much less playing in the majors.

Some fantasy owners of guys like Machado and Castellanos might be a little underwhelmed by the mediocre results they have gotten so far from their once-prized prospects, therefore those players could make nice trade targets for savvy fantasy team owners. It is an opportunity to buy a growth stock before it shoots up in price as the player matures and nears his peak. I am sure their owners still have high hopes for those guys, but probably not as high as they were before the season started. Neither of them has really been an asset in fantasy starting lineups this season despite getting to play every day. It is understandable for their owners to be a little worried that these hitters could end up being the next Colby Rasmus or Delmon Young, both of whom were once elite prospects who flamed out. But let’s compare Castellanos to another young 3rd baseman on this list, Nolan Arenado, to see what can happen after a disappointing rookie year…

Arenado came into the 2013 season as the Rockies #1 prospect last year, turned 22 years old in the season’s first month and very quickly became Colorado’s starting third baseman. He got 514 plate appearances for the Rockies and put up a .267/.301/.405 slash line that was merely decent, and could be considered downright disappointing when you factor in that he had the huge advantage of playing half his games in the hitters’ paradise of Coors Field. He hit only 10 home runs and finished with just 49 Runs and 52 RBI. He ranked a dismal 38th among all fantasy third baseman last year. His 78 wRC+ was well below league average. But he was still only 22 years old and for all intents and purposes should still have been considered a prospect — a work in progress. Fast forward one year to 2014 and he has blown his 2013 production out of the water. His slash line of .301/.342/.507 is good for a well above league average 120 wRC+ and he has already beaten all of his 2013 marks in every counting stat despite having played 36 fewer games so far this year. He ranks 11th among fantasy 3rd baseman this year and is poised to climb even further next year and beyond. I don’t think he is done yet, he has another bump in performance yet to come.

This type of pattern is not uncommon for a player who reaches the big leagues at a young age. Most such players struggle for a year or two or even three before they finally put it all together and achieve stardom. It is not only not uncommon but in fact is perfectly normal. The vast majority of star players, the type of guys drafted in the early rounds of fantasy leagues, did not hit the ground running as star players when they were 22 or 23 years old. Most good hitters didn’t become good hitters until they were 25 or older. Mike Trout and Yasiel Puig are the outliers, the guys that bucked the trend to reach stardom immediately and stay there (although people forget that Trout hit only .220/.281/.390 in 40 major league games in 2011, the year before his mammoth rookie year in 2012).

Freddie Freeman provides another scenario. He reached the majors when he was only 20 in September of 2010, although he turned 21 just a few days after his debut. Freeman was the Braves’ full-time first baseman at the age of 21 in 2011 and put up a very solid rookie season OPS of .795 with 21 homers. He followed that up in 2012 with a nearly identical season for a .796 OPS and 23 dingers. That caused people to pigeonhole Freeman as a good but not stellar hitter. They said he didn’t have the power to be a star. He was going to be the next James Loney. What they forgot was he was still only 22 years old! How many hitters have maxed out their power and perfected their swing when they are 22 years old? Not many. Freeman took a big step forward last year and boosted his OPS by 100 points to .897 in a pitchers’ park. His 149 wRC+ was 10th-best in all of baseball. Not bad for a guy who was younger than a lot of top prospects. Freeman is having another stellar year in 2014 at the age of 24 and has plenty of room to improve as he is still years away from the age when most hitters reach their peak at 27-30 years old.

Nick Castellanos is capable of doing the same sort of thing next year, in fact I like his chances of doing it. Castellanos 2014 stats are eerily similar to Arenado’s 2013 stats in almost every category, but that is not why I am comparing them. Like Arenado and Freeman, Castellanos broke into the majors at a very young age. He held his own at the plate but didn’t fill up the stat sheet. Now he has a good deal of experience under his belt and has reached the same age as Arenado and Freeman when they elevated their game to a new level of excellence. Like them, Castellanos has a fundamentally sound swing and a good approach at the plate. I think he will follow in their tracks and show marked improvement next year and beyond. He is a strong trade target right now. His trade price is not as high as some of the big name prospects like Gregory Polanco, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Jorge Soler but he is every bit the quality prospect those guys are, if not more. Castellanos is a bargain and I would go after him aggresively in all leagues if you can do it now or in the offseason.

Morals of the Story

There are two lessons to be learned here. Moral #1 Be patient with your prospects. Don’t expect them to be worthy of your starting lineup for at least a full year after reaching the major leagues, probably even two years. Most will fail at first, then gradually become successful. We see the phrase “post-hype prospect” used a lot to refer to a player who was once a highly regarded prospect who has flamed out and gotten dropped in most fantasy leagues. Those guys can be good targets too but that is another story. The “plateaued prospect” is a term I just coined to describe players like Arenado and Freeman who seemed to have leveled off at a certain grade of performance for an extended period before taking another large leap forward in their development. Moral #2 If you can identify a player who you think fits that mold, like Castellanos perhaps, then you can target that player in trade talks with the hope of paying the economical “plateau” price and reaping the rewards of his next leap forward for your team.

I focused solely on hitters in the chart and the discussion, but the same phenomenon applies to pitchers, although pitchers don’t mature along the same bell curve as hitters. It seems like Madison Bumgarner has been around for eons but he is actually younger than James Paxton and Jimmy Nelson, both of whom were on Top 100 Prospect lists this year! Bumgarner is only a month older than George Springer.

Who are some other “plateaued prospects” we should target? Let me know in the comments below!

PS — Apparently this is Nick Castellanos Week here at The Dynasty Guru because our Craig Goldstein wrote an insightful column about the Tigers 3rd basemen too: What to do about… Nick Castellanos.

Nick Doran writes all kinds of cool stuff about the game’s ultimate flamethrowers at Blazing Fastball and will answer your baseball questions on Twitter @BlazingFastba11.

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Nick Doran

Nick Doran

11 Comments

  1. alex
    August 30, 2014 at 11:17 am — Reply

    How do you evaluate Porcello in the context of this theory. He reached the major very young and was underwhelming, yet consistent during his early years. his stats are creeping up. do you think there’s another level for him?

    • August 30, 2014 at 4:21 pm — Reply

      Hi Alex. Porcello is an interesting case in this context. He is only slightly older than prospect Alex Meyer for example. I wrote about Porcello a couple weeks ago here: http://thedynastyguru.com/2014/08/09/unexpected-aces-porcello-duffy-keuchel-and-simon-will-their-success-continue/

      I don’t foresee Porcello reaching another level of performance, but if he learns a new pitch or gains some knowledge that improves his mastery of the craft then he could gradually get better. Many pitchers have done that in their mid twenties, including guys like Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Matt Shoemaker and many others. Porcello doesn’t have dominant stuff or elite arm strength, but in the day and age of spray charts, heat maps and shifting you don’t need to have great stuff in order to be a good pitcher. Porcello will continue to be a mid-rotation type of pitcher moving forward I think.

      • alex
        August 31, 2014 at 11:39 pm — Reply

        Thanks, Nick. Great article!

  2. August 30, 2014 at 10:02 pm — Reply

    At what age would you give up on a player performing to his expected potential?

    • August 31, 2014 at 12:37 am — Reply

      Maybe 25 or 26 years old, although there is no specific age that fits all players. Every player is different. Some reach their peaks earlier than others. Expectations should be adjusted frequently. If a player doesn’t meet expectations then it was the expectations that were wrong, not the player’s performance. Generally hitters will tend to slowly improve until they reach approximately age 27, but usually that improvement comes in fits and starts rather than a smooth progression. There are often some backward steps along the way. The main point of the column was that players who reach the majors early and play at a league average rate at that young age will often take some big steps forward after being in the league for a couple years. Sometimes those plateaued players get forgotten about in favor of the next big thing, and sometimes the next big thing is older than the plateaued player that has already had some success in the majors. Target those plateaued players if they can be obtained for less than the next big thing.

  3. Brandon L.
    September 2, 2014 at 10:35 pm — Reply

    Could you rank my prospects please Guru? Casey Kelly
    Cole Tucker
    Jose Berrios
    Chance Sisco
    Gabriel Guerrero
    Reese McGuire
    Patrick Kivlehan
    Francellis Montas
    Devon Travis
    Raimel Tapia

    Thanks a ton!

    • September 3, 2014 at 3:06 pm — Reply

      Hi Brandon. This is my weekly column so I will respond to your question, although I am not the Guru. That distinction belongs to Bret Sayre, the owner of this site.

      My rank would be:
      Berrios
      Tapia
      Guerrero
      Kelly
      McGuire
      Sisco
      Travis
      Montas
      Tucker
      Kivlehan

      The first three are much better prospects than the remainder of the list.

  4. Chris
    September 5, 2014 at 1:00 pm — Reply

    Thanks for the article, Nick! I have a few guys who might fit this category:

    Nick Franklin
    Jesus Montero
    Mike Zunino

    (Is it coincidence that they are all Mariners players?)

    What are you thoughts on each of them? I actually own all three in one of my dynasty leagues and am losing patience; it seems like I have been waiting for Montero and Franklin to blossom into fantasy stars for like 5 years. Zunino’s increased power production this year is obviously a very positive sign, but he is also struggling to stay above the Mendoza Line.

    Another guy who fits this category is Trevor Bauer. Do you seem him taking another big step forward and becoming the ace that everyone was expecting a couple years ago?

    • September 5, 2014 at 10:46 pm — Reply

      Franklin moving to Tampa Bay probably helps him some but I am not high on his chances long term. I like Montero’s chances of having a decent major league career but I think the previous expectations of stardom are highly unlikely at this point. Zunino will be a fantasy-worthy catcher for a long time but not a valuable commodity. Catching prospects in general are a poor investment for fantasy owners. They very rarely pan out to become strong fantasy keepers. Even the catchers who do pan out only play 130 games and thus are far less impactful on your team’s fortunes than hitters who play every day. For those reasons I tend to avoid minor league catchers.

      Bauer has a lot of talent and if he ever learns how to pitch he will be a good guy to own. I like his long-term fantasy value much more than Franklin’s, Montero’s or Zunino’s.

  5. […] If you missed last week’s column you can check it out here: Prospect Perspective: Nolan Arenado and Nick Castellanos are Still Elite Prospects. […]

  6. September 13, 2014 at 6:31 am — Reply

    […] If you missed last week’s Young Ace Smackdown: Danny Duffy vs Jake Arrieta be sure to read it. Also check out Prospect Perspective: Nolan Arenado and Nick Castellanos are Still Elite Prospects. […]

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