TDG’S TRIPLE PLAY: TEXAS RANGERS!
The Triple Play is back for a third season! This regular feature is broken down by staff writers Bob Osgood and Paul Monte and a rotating panel of third writers. If you’re new to the Triple Play, this series breaks down an arm, a bat, and a prospect within each organization for your reading pleasure! Follow Bob (@BobOsgood15), Paul (@3cardmonte13) and Greg Gibbons (@midsports10) on twitter and read their analysis here at the site!
Pitcher: Corey Kluber, Age: 34, Position: SP
Analysis by: Greg Gibbons
You can find me in da Klub
Being a native of Cleveland and a life-long Indians fan, covering Corey Kluber brings back an enormous amount of nostalgia. Sandwiched in between Kluber’s two Cy Young awards during the 2014 and 2017 seasons was a trip to the 2016 World Series where the Tribe came within one inning of winning their first title since 1948, in large part to Kluber’s postseason success. From 2014 through 2018, Kluber was a Cy Young, All-Star, perennial MVP candidate, and a fantasy ace. During this stretch he averaged 32 starts, 218 innings pitched, and over 240 strikeouts per season and was one of the most coveted starting pitchers in the game. Fast forward now two seasons and everything has changed. The 34-year-old missed substantially all the 2019 season after suffering a broken right arm from being hit by a line drive, then injured his abdomen during a rehab assignment and never returned to the big-league rotation. This past offseason, Kluber was traded to the Texas Rangers in a (seemingly) salary-dump by Cleveland, and after debuting with the Rangers in July managed only one inning before leaving and subsequently being shut-down with a shoulder injury. The Cy Young days are certainly in the rearview mirror, but a return to form is not out of the question, so long as he can get healthy.
Five-star Kluber driver
The uncertainty around Kluber’s health is the biggest issue evaluating him moving into the 2021 season. From a fantasy perspective, we can only speculate as to his effectiveness and whether we will see a change in his approach when he returns to the mound. During his peak seasons, Kluber featured a five-pitch arsenal, which included a mid-90’s four-seamer, a two-seamer with tons of run, cutter, curve, and changeup. He threw all five pitches with control and confidence and I have no problem calling all of his offerings elite. Health aside, I always viewed Kluber as a pitcher who could age gracefully and lean heavily on his command as he started to lose some velocity on his fastball. Unfortunately, he fast-tracked the aging curve and we are left to only wonder and gamble on the Kluber we will see when he returns, which is likely 2021 spring training at the soonest. On one hand, we have a former SP1 who ran into a series of unfortunate injuries that otherwise could have been a fantasy SP2/3 for the past two seasons. On the other hand, we have an oft-injured starting pitcher with declining velocity who hasn’t logged meaningful innings in nearly two years. Kluber has a team-option for the 2021 season and it remains to be seen if that option will be exercised by the Rangers. If, for some reason, his contract is not picked up, that could be a signal to fantasy managers that he is dealing with a more significant or lingering issue. However, outside of something unforeseen and if Kluber’s contact is picked up, once healthy he should slide back into their starting rotation and your offseason starting pitcher rankings.
Providing a recommendation to fantasy managers as to how to handle Kluber is difficult. The uncertainties surrounding his health and return to the rotation are substantial, so I recommend first starting with an evaluation of your team and contention window. Right now, there is an opportunity for contending managers to acquire Kluber’s services at a significant value when compared to his past production and while it may be a long-shot, a late-career resurgence could be in the cards here. As I previously mentioned, health aside, Kluber’s profile is one that could continue producing for the next few years even with a downtick in velocity. If Kluber is currently on your team, depending on size and depth of your rosters, it may be wise to hold and see how he looks in the spring, but you risk even more bad news, in which case you may run into trouble finding a trade partner. Personally, the shoulder injury scares me, but contenders are always looking for more starting pitcher depth, so I’d happily add him to my team via trade, I just won’t be sending much in return.
Hitter: Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Age: 25, Position: 3B, SS, C
Analysis by: Bob Osgood
IKF FTW in ’20
There has been an Isiah Kiner-Falefa thing going on in fantasy circles in 2020, and I’m here to put a stop to it going forward. Despite the 80-grade name that leaves one hungry for a Middle Eastern snack, the top-notch nickname “The Hawaiian Hustle,” and the “IKF” abbreviation that may soon rival LOL, the fantasy profile leaves me saying “IDGAF.”
The hype started back in Spring Training Vol. 1 when Kiner-Falefa hit .378 in March. Once he stole two bases in a game against the Diamondbacks in week one of the regular season, the roster percentage skyrocketed. The catcher eligibility was very nice this year, and so were the eight steals and .290 average from the catcher position. He also had the versatility to play around the infield which kept him in the lineup every day, appearing in 51 of 53 games entering play on 9/21, a rare situation for catcher-eligible players in fantasy. In two-catcher leagues, his ownership was completely justifiable for this year and I’m in favor of your decision. However, if you want to take the TL;DR approach and skip down to the prospect: Isiah Kiner-Falefa played zero games at catcher this year and will only be eligible at 3B and SS in 2021.
He’s no Ralph Kiner
Multi-position eligibility is great. However, Kiner-Falefa is the 23rd ranked third baseman, and the 23rd ranked shortstop on the Razzball player rater this season but stands out as the 11th ranked catcher. There is an enormous difference there. Currently being rostered in 78% of CBS leagues and 71% of Fantrax leagues, he would likely be left for deep-leagues if eligible at SS/3B only. Despite a .290 BA, with a career 6.5% BB-rate (5.5% in ’20), Kiner-Falefa carries little value in OBP leagues (only .335 in this season’s campaign). With an ISO of .075 in 2020, a wRC+ of 85, and a measly seven runs batted in, it’s hard to see much in the profile for this perceived breakout, to some. Most troubling are the Statcast numbers. There is a lot of Blue at the top.
Kiner-Falefa did make some improvements with the bat in his 25-year-old season. He increased his GB% from 50% to 61%, leading to a lot of infield hits. That Infield Hit% went from 2.6% a year ago, to an Ichiro-esque 11.5% in 2020. Kiner-Falefa dropped his K% from 22.1% to 14.5%, and his xBA of .271 is more than serviceable. He has stolen eight bases in 51 games, but with five attempts that were caught stealing as well. Although he can certainly contribute in the category with his 82nd percentile sprint speed, he has tracked more as a 5-to-10 steal threat (save for a 17-steal effort at Double-A in 2017).
As a versatile defender who can catch in a pinch, and as a contact hitter with some speed, there will be a place for Kiner-Falefa in Major League Baseball for years to come. I would put him into the David Fletcher bucket going into 2021, a $1-to-$2 player in auction drafts who is perfect to have on the bench to plug in at MI or CI on leagues that deploy a 23-man roster. But unless he regains catcher eligibility in the future, his value may never be higher in dynasty leagues than it is right now. I would look to trade in the offseason.
Prospect: Sam Huff, Age: 22, Position: C, Level: MLB
Analysis by: Scott Volltrauer
Hello, Sam Huff! I spent eight years behind the dish, so I’m partial to catchers. I planned to set you up with a hope-filled look ahead to The Nights under the lights with Huff behind the dish. But, recently the Rangers added Sam Huff to their 40-man.
Once Upon A Younger Year When All Our Shadows Disappeared
That title sound familiar? Yup, it’s the opening to Avicii’s EDM classic The Night (and no, “EDM” and “classic” are not oxymorons). In the 2016 June Amateur Draft Round: 7, Pick: 23, Sam Huff was hiding in the shadows. Though hiding when listed as 6’ 4″ and 230 might be a challenge.
Though he started in the shadows, Sam’s stepped up and out of them.
As 2019 began Huff sat behind several capable Rangers catching prospects including David Garcia, Randy Florentino, Yohel Pozo, Jose Rodriguez, and Matt Whatley. But, by the end of 2019, Huff was their #1 catching prospect, and he leaped up the Rangers’ prospect list into their Top 10.
Made memories we knew would never fade
After last season’s promotion, Huff adapted to High-A pitching. Huff’s development was rewarded with a 2019 Futures Game selection. He didn’t disappoint. Huff tied the game, hitting a two-run home run in the bottom of the seventh inning. They named Huff the game’s Most Valuable Player.
My father, he told me, “Son, don’t let it slip away”
Last year Sam Huff thrived. Among catching prospects, he produced the second-highest OPS (.845) and led mid-minor leagues in isolated power. Though both might be subject to regression since he had the second-highest BAPIP. An unsustainable .352.
Huff’s got the talent. His right-handed swings produces exit velocities that remind me of former Rangers’ prospect Joey Gallo. Unfortunately, like Gallo, his powerful swings also produce a lot of strikeouts. He tied for the fourth-lowest walk per strikeout rate (0.21 BB/K). He will have to reduce his 30% strikeout rate and increase his low walk rate (6.4%) if he envisions becoming an MLB regular.
Those concerns aside, Sam Huff’s hard work paid off. Last May and September TDG listed Huff outside the top-200 prospects, but among the honorable mentions. Then in January TDG’s KEATON O. DEROCHER listed Huff among the catchers he projected as poised to rise. By Spring Training 2020, he’d risen onto some top-100 prospect lists.
So live a life you will remember
Huff is almost as tall as Joe Mauer, the tallest regular catcher in baseball history. Might the Rangers move him off the plate because of size, yes. But he’s shown agility and defensive ability behind the dish.
Let’s compare Sam Huff to some other 220 pound-plus catching prospects during their 21st or 22nd age-year in Single-A. Jorge Alfaro began in the Rangers system before being traded to the Phillies. He now plays for the Marlins. And Kyle Schwarber was drafted by and plays for the Cubs.
Based on these numbers, I think it’s fair to project Sam Huff might land somewhere between Alfaro and Schwarber’s production. Alfaro listed as 6’2 and 225 continues to play catcher. Though his raw power elevated his prospect status he’s known now more for his defense than his bat. We knew that Schwarber did not project as a great defender behind the plate, and he now plays outfield for the Cubs and is known for his bat (2019, .870 OPS).
Learned our lessons through the tears
If Huff improves his walk rate and cuts down on his strikeouts—while continuing his defense and framing improvements—he’ll end the decade-long wait for a consistent quality starting catcher. Since the glory days of Hall of Famer catcher Ivan Rodriguez, the Rangers have been looking for their next great catcher. Most recently, Gerald Laird, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Matt Treanor, Yorvit Torrealba, Mike Napoli, A.J. Pierzynski, and Jeff Mathis all did a capable job. Robinson Chirinos (2014-2018) had the longest run.
CONCLUSION: Carve your name into those shining stars
Huff’s future is bright. The wait has been long, but Huff can carve his name among the stars.
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