A Look At The Winter Leagues – NL Central
For the past few weeks, I’ve been profiling players participating in the winter leagues. The regular seasons of the Dominican, Venezuelan, and Mexican Winter Leagues are in the books but they’re still playing in Puerto Rico and Australia and I’m still here grinding out the Central and West divisions. In case you missed the first couple in this series where I looked at players from the NL East and AL East, check those out. While there, you can read a bit about the intention of these columns, which is getting hard to reiterate even though I’m just halfway through. Summary: small sample sizes, couldn’t tell you a thing about any of the teams or parks, don’t draw any conclusions from winter performances alone.
Without further ado, here are some interesting players from the NL Central who spent time in the Caribbean this winter:
Arismendy Alcantara – 2B/OF – Chicago Cubs
Arismendy Alcantara shot up prospect rankings following a monster 2013 campaign in AA that saw him post a 132 wRC+ while playing most of the year at age 21. Alcantara’s 31 steals further piqued the interest of the fantasy community and he was viewed as a top 20 dynasty commodity at 2B entering 2014. Alcantara continued his ascent in 2014 by tearing up AAA in the first half (126 wRC+, 21 steals) before being summoned to the North Side in early July. Once there, he split time between second base and center field and showed good pop (10 HR) and speed (8 SB) despite struggling overall.
I’m willing to write off some of his poor 70 wRC+ at the major league level to his age and somewhat limited number of at-bats in the upper levels of the minors but do want to point out some trends to pay attention to entering 2015. After walking in 10.9% of his plate appearances in the 2013 season, Alcantara walked in only 5.7% of his 300 big league PAs. There was a corresponding jump in his K rate to 31.0%, where he had been around the 20% mark throughout his minor league career. His approach was somewhat curious, swinging more often at pitches outside the zone than league average (32.2% vs 30.1%) but being far more patient on pitches in the zone (56.7% vs 63.1%). He struggled to make contact with pitches anywhere and his 70.7% Contact% was second worst among 2B with 300 plate appearances (11th worst among OF).
There is also some evidence that pitchers altered the way they pitched Alcantara after he opened with an impressive .338 wOBA in his first month in the majors. By the end of the season, Alcantara was being attacked with fewer fastballs and more offspeed stuff and that mix seemed to get him off balance, as his whiff percentage on fastballs nearly doubled from July to September. The result was a .260 wOBA in August and .234 in September. As with any young player, how Alcantara adjusts to pitchers’ adjustments will dictate his future success.
Of great importance to fantasy players is where Alcantara will play defensively in 2015 and beyond. Provided he continues to develop his approach, his power and speed combo could put him in the upper tier of 2B but would make far less fantasy impact as an OF. Alcantara is playing in the Dominican this winter (.324/.395/.544 in 78 PAs, 19.2 K%), primarily in CF with a few appearances at 2B mixed in. Assuming Starlin Castro can stay out of a Dominican jail and Javier Baez can strike out at something less than a historic level, Alcantara is primed to open the season as the Cubs’ everyday CF. Though his versatility will likely result in an occasional appearance in the infield, the smart way for dynasty leaguers to evaluate him beyond 2015 is as an OF only.
Alen Hanson – SS – Pittsburgh Pirates
Like Alcantara, Alen Hanson is an undersized middle infield prospect with an intriguing power/speed combination. After a breakout season in 2012, Hanson began the 2013 at high A Bradenton and, at age 20, was the second best offensive shortstop (121 wRC+) in the Florida State League, trailing only Javier Baez. He scuffled following a promotion to AA and continued to struggle in the Arizona Fall League. His poor performance at those two stops overshadowed the strong performance in A+ and as a result, his prospect stock slipped heading in to 2014. Hansen spent all of 2014 in AA and put together a .280/.326/.442 line that included 11 HR and 25 SB. As a reference point, Hanson’s 111 wRC+ narrowly edged Francisco Lindor’s 109. To be fair, Lindor is a full year younger than Hanson but I think the comparison is interesting for fantasy purposes. Lindor’s defense makes him the far better real life prospect but these are comparable offensive players today and their fantasy price tags diverge too much.
No writeup of Hanson is complete without the obligatory mention of his eventual shift off SS to 2B, so here you go. Hanson has played sparingly in the Dominican this winter but when he has played the field, it’s been exclusively at the keystone. The Pirates have Neil Walker under team control through 2016 and only Jordy Mercer at SS, so it may be their intention to play Hanson at short in the near term despite scouts’ concerns. From a fantasy perspective, it doesn’t particularly matter which middle infield position he plays upon arriving in the bigs, so long as he brings his power and speed with him. I think Hanson could be a unique buying opportunity for dynasty league players, as that 2012 breakout was long enough ago and the reaction to his bad 2013 AA stint disproportionate enough that his owner may have unfairly soured on him.
Orlando Arcia – SS – Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers farm system is one of the weakest in baseball but in 19 year old Orlando Arcia, they have their future at shortstop taken care of. Arcia’s plus glove is almost certain to carry him to the big leagues but his hit tool also showed excellent development in 2014. Arcia opened as the youngest player in the Florida State League and exceeded expectations by slashing .286/.346/.392, with a solid approach that yielded a 7.7% BB% and 11.9% K%. Despite average speed, Arcia has good instincts on the basepaths and swiped 31 bases last year.
The thing missing from his profile has been any sort of projectable power. Arcia has only 14 HR on his resume in almost 1300 professional plate appearances. In one of the most interesting results of the winter, Arcia currently has 7 HR in Venezuela. That’s the same number as his slugging brother, Oswaldo Arcia and good enough to tie him for 8th most in the league. The winter HR total is just as likely to mean nothing than something, but Arcia wouldn’t be the first 20 year old to add strength to a thin frame and convert some gap pop to over the fence power. I’ll be watching Arcia closely as 2015 opens to see if there is anything to the winter numbers. He’s never going to be a 15-20 HR guy but if you can reasonably project even low double digits, Arcia could become an interesting dynasty asset.
Junior Arias – OF – Cincinnati Reds
In deep dynasty leagues, almost every roster has a lottery ticket with long odds. I like my lottery ticket to be described “a toolshed that would win the skills decathalon over every other player in the system,” as Kiley McDaniel recently wrote about Arias. Arias lost most of 2014 to a broken ankle, so we have to look back at his 15 homer/60 steal 2013 to see evidence of the loud tools. That Arias was able to steal 60 bases despite an OBP of .303 probably tells you that he has legitimate top end speed but also highlights his disastrous approach at the plate. In 230 PAs in high-A, Arias posted a walk rate of 2.2% (2.2%!) and a strikeout rate of 26.1%. Clearly that won’t get him anywhere. Arias was off to a good start in 2014 before the injury, with 8 steals in as many games and a 5:3 K:BB but you certainly can’t deduce anything from an 8 game sample. Arias played a few more games in A+ in August and has played in the Dominican league this winter, though infrequently enough that his results aren’t even worth citing.
Arias will be 23 when the 2015 season opens. I suspect he’ll be back in A+ Bakersfield, where he’ll be old for the level. If he has fully recovered from the injury, demonstrates some sustained refinements in his approach, and continues to flash the big time tools, he should be in line for a promotion to AA around mid-season. The more advanced pitching will likely be problematic for him, but you never know when it will click for a player with this kind of raw ability and if it doesn’t work out, you flip him for the next lottery ticket.