The Next Next Big Things: Hitter Edition
Now that the clock has struck September, many of us are faced with the unfortunate reality that this just isn’t our year. Luckily in dynasty leagues, that old adage will always remain true: “There’s always next year” (technically in any league, and life too for that matter, most of the time. Fine, nevermind). While our competitors are still wasting time on boring stuff like, um, competing for this season’s championship, we can get a head start uncovering some gems to get us back into contention. Here are a few names that have shown some intriguing skills in 2016 while remaining somewhat under the radar on a national level. So let’s pour one out for the 2016 season (but only one) and get back in the game.
Luis Urias, 2B Padres
The Urias buzz has been slowly building, and for good reason. The dude can hit. Signed as a free agent out of Mexico in 2013, he established himself immediately as a batting average asset, hitting .310 in the Arizona League as a 17-year-old. Urias’s excellent batting average can in part be traced to his knack for putting the ball in play at alarmingly high rates. Even at age-17, he walked more than he struck out (18:13 in 179 plate appearances). In fact, Urias has continued this trend in every stop in his career, save one. In 1004 career minor league plate appearances, Urias has walked 8.4 percent of the time, compared to a meager 7.0 percent strikeout rate (or roughly 2395 percent lower than Mark Reynolds). The following season Urias showed no signs of slowing down, as he was promoted through the ranks, hitting .299 in 268 plate appearances spending between Low A Tri-City and Single A Fort Wayne.
While Urias has enjoyed immense success thus far with his batting average, it hasn’t been supplemented with much power. In his first two seasons as a pro, he slugged only .334, a truly Ben Revere-ian number. Having a great batting average is, well, great. However, without some semblance of pop, Ben Revere-ian speed is also a necessary part of the equation. Unfortunately, Urias is hardly a speed demon. Actually, let me take that back. Urias has decent speed, maybe even above average speed. The problem, though, is that he’s really, really bad at stealing bases. For his career, Urias has stolen 26 bases in 58 attempts, good (read: bad) for an abysmal 45 percent clip. At some point, he will likely get (and probably should) the red light on the basepaths, which could really cut into his value.
While Urias definitely shows promise as a prospect, something has to change in order for him to break through, Kool-Aid man style. Either he starts to add a little power to his game, or he learns how to steal bases at a rate that resembles the league average. So far in 2016, Urias has stolen seven bases in 20 attempts, so let’s just cross that one right off. The good news, however, is that he has started to show a little pop with the bat. In 531 plate appearances for High A Lake Elsinore, he’s slashing .330/.397/.440, again, with more walks than strikeouts. He also spent a random weekend at Triple A El Paso and hit .444/.667/.778 with a homer and five walks in 15 plate appearances. Sure, it’s the smallest of samples and it doesn’t mean anything, but still. Urias has also split time at 2B, 3B, and SS during the season, adding to his intrigue and potential to be a super-utility guy for the Padres down the road. Urias appears to have world-class contact skills, and if the addition of at least doubles power is real, he’s definitely one to keep an eye on.
Ramon Laureano, OF Astros
After being selected in the 16th round by the Astros in 2014, Laureano started his pro career not with a bang, but with the whimper-iest of whimpers. In 61 plate appearances, he hit .189, while slugging .245. It was, uh, not great. Luckily for Laureano, the Astros let him continue playing baseball. They were rewarded.
In 2015, Laureano spent his age-20 season at Single A Quad Cities, and shockingly, improved on his 2014 numbers. His triple slash of .265/.323/.415 was fine, if forgettable. He also struck out 26.4 percent of the time without adding much in the walks department (Walks Department president: Votto, Joey; Walks Department lord emperor: Bonds, Barry), sporting a rate of 6.7 percent. He did add 18 stolen bases in 21 attempts, which would prove to be a silver lining moving forward. If I had to wager a guess, the plate discipline was a major issue with the Astros, and something they hoped Laureano would improve on moving forward.
Well, he improved the walk and strikeout rate, not to mention pretty much everything else. Laureano started 2016 in High A and dominated, slashing .317/.426/.519 with 10 homers and 33 stolen bases (44 attempts) in 357 trips to the plate. He managed to shave a couple of percentage points off of his strikeout rate while also doubling his walk rate (24.1 percent and 14 percent, respectively). Laureano’s huge start to the season earned him a promotion to Double A Corpus Christi in mid-July. He didn’t miss a beat. Upon his promotion, Laureano continued his tear, hitting .323./.432/.548 with five dingers and 10 stolen bases (13 attempts) in 148 plate appearances. He also cut his strikeout rate again by two percent while maintaining a walk rate around 14 percent. If Laureano can maintain his adjustments at the plate (or greedily, improve on them), he could be a very interesting power and speed piece for the Astros in a couple of years.
Luis Arraez, 2B Twins
Ok, maybe I just have a thing for high contact middle infielders named Luis. Signed as a 16-year-old free agent in 2013, Arraez has taken a similar path to Urias, albeit thus far with a shorter track record. In his first two seasons as a professional, Arraez spent time in the Twins’ short season rookie leagues and, like Urias, displayed strong contact skills. In 368 plate appearances spread between the Dominican Summer and Gulf Coast leagues, Arraez slashed .323/.397/.394, with 35 walks and 19 strikeouts. Now, I know what you’re thinking, and no, it’s never good to have an OBP that eclipses your SLG. I would agree. However, for an 18-year-old, there are definitely worse outcomes.
In 2016, Arraez got his first taste of full season ball at Single A Cedar Rapids. Guess what? He has hit for a little more power. In 514 plate appearances, Arraez is slashing .347/.386/.444 as a 19-year-old, adding a 146 wRC+. While some of these minor league numbers can be inflated, the progression is worth noting and keeping an eye on. Arraez doesn’t have Urias’s walk rate (he currently sits at 6 percent), but he does share a knack for limiting the whiffs, striking out only 9.9 percent of the time. Also like Urias, if Arraez can pair the uptick in power with his ability to put the ball in play, he could be a solid asset moving forward, and one that could be scooped up at a bargain basement price.
Miguelangel Sierra, SS Astros
Finally, it’s about time the Astros managed to find an interesting prospect at shortstop. The team shelled out $1 million for the then 16-year-old Venezuelan during the summer of 2014, and Sierra has been nothing if not intriguing ever since. He started strong for the Astros’ Dominican Summer League team, slashing .302/.406/.479 in 169 plate appearances. He followed that performance with a less than stellar stint in the Gulf Coast League, hitting .160 and slugging .213, while striking out nearly 40 percent of the time. Sure, it was a small sample size (for both levels) for the 17-year-old, but it put the best and worst of Sierra on display.
He followed up a perplexing 2015 with an even stranger 2016. Sierra started the season with Greeneville in the Appalachian League and proceeded to hit .289/.386/.620. That’s not a typo, he slugged .620, with 11 homers in 144 plate appearances. He still struck out a little too much at 27.8 percent, but the accompanying power for a kid his age was breathtaking. Sierra has since been promoted to Low A Tri-City, and I think the proper descriptive phrasing for his stint would be “tire fire”. Since the promotion, Sierra has slashed .140/.216/.183, with strikeouts in exactly one-third of his plate appearances. Obviously he’s still young, but numbers this bad are troubling. Even so, the power showed earlier this season, especially from the shortstop position, will make him a very intriguing name to keep an eye on in 2017. It might be a good idea to invest now, just in case. He is only 18 yeard old, after all.
Follow Mark Barry on Twitter @hoodieandtie