StrategyFebruary 10, 2009

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The Next Generation #2

By Philip Maguran

Welcome to another publication of The Next Generation, a regular feature at the Cafe spotlighting two players each edition; a young major leaguer or advanced minor leaguer who finds himself in a position to be a contributor on a major league team in the near future and a minor leaguer who is farther away from the show, but is nevertheless a player who dynasty and keeper league managers will want to keep an eye on.

I try to take a look at a player’s minor league pedigree, comment on various performance indicators which may impact the prospects ability to help a fantasy baseball team, highlight the player’s potential path to the majors and ETA, and give an overall indication of my opinion on this prospects rosterability for various different league formats. If you have players you would like me to take a look at, please feel free to drop me a PM.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at a couple of names you will want to be familiar with.

On The Cusp

Elvis Andrus (SS, TEX)

In January, the Texas Rangers made public their intention to move long-time starting shortstop Michael Young to third base to clear a path to the majors for Elvis Andrus, a 21-year-old defensive wizard who spent all of last season as the starting shortstop for the Frisco Roughriders of the Texas League (Double-A). Andrus has long been considered one of the top pure shortstop prospects in the minor leagues, ever since signing with Atlanta as a 17-year-old out of Venezuela in 2005. As mentioned in an earlier edition of The Next Generation, Andrus was shipped to the Rangers at the trading deadline in 2007 as a part of the package that netted the Braves Mark Teixeira.

As a result of signing at such an early age, Andrus has always been one of the younger players at his level in each of his minor league stops. While competing against more physically and emotionally mature American high school and college players has stunted the development path of many Latin American prospects throughout the years, Andrus showed an ability to adjust quickly to his surroundings. Far from seeming overwhelmed, Andrus has flourished in his brief career, showing marked improvement from each season (and level) to the next.

To this point in his career, Andrus has shown himself to be an excellent defensive shortstop, with sure hands, spectacular range, and a powerful arm. At the plate, Andrus is more about projectability at this stage of his career, as opposed to results. Not that the results have been poor, but when a player is consistently two or three years younger than his everyday competition, and has not fully developed physically, there is bound to be a gap between what can be expected in the future and what is currently on display.

Andrus controls the plate well for a player of his age, and has not shown a propensity for the large strikeout totals that often come with inexperience and youth. As a result, he has been able to maintain a respectable batting average throughout his minor league career, hitting .265 Single-A in 2006, .257 across two different levels of Single-A ball in 2007, and .295 in Double-A last season. Although his approach at the plate has not resulted in significant strikeout totals, neither has it resulted in impressive walk totals. Throughout the past three seasons, Andrus’ BB / K ratio has ranged from .40 in 2006 to .50 in 2007, totals which would place him near the bottom of the population of everyday major league shortstops.

Andrus has also shown limited-to-nonexistent power in his career to date. He has yet to top five home runs in any season, and has yet to post a slugging percentage above .400 at any level. His doubles totals, which in many cases can indicate latent, yet-to-develop power, have also been modest. Andrus is a threat on the base paths, however, after posting a career high 54 stolen bases (in 70 attempts) last season.

The Rangers appear intent on opening the season with Andrus as their everyday shortstop. At press time, the only competition on the roster is in the form of Joaquin Arias, a mid-level SS/2B prospect who handled himself well in 110 at bats with the Rangers last season. Arias is not nearly as highly-regarded as Andrus, and the Rangers will give him (Andrus) every shot to earn the job in the spring. It is not out of the realm of possibility that the Rangers would consider shifting Michael Young back to shortstop if Andrus appears to be completely overmatched against major league pitching. A healthy Hank Blalock and an emerging Chris Davis make this possible, although the primary reason for the move, mainly Young’s lack of range and overall lack of defensive ability as SS, remain. If Andrus shows any offensive ability at all, it is likely that the Rangers will determine that the defensive gain outweighs the limited offensive output, and stick with the youngster.

Skill Set
Throwing aside his defensive skills and intangibles (by all accounts he is a clubhouse leader and dedicated worker), which certainly make him a valuable commodity in the world of real baseball, Andrus’ offensive skill set at this stage of his career is severely limited. He has the ability to put his bat on the ball with a high level of consistency, and has the ability to hit for a respectable average, but has no power to speak of. His redeeming fantasy quality at this point is his ability to steal bases, which could be limited by his ability to get on base.

Long-term, as he gets more comfortable with big league pitching and fills out his 6′ frame, limited power may develop. He is not likely to eclipse 10-15 home runs anytime soon, however, and profiles as a solid number 2-type hitter with good bat control and the ability to spray the ball across the field. Omar Vizquel or Edgar Renteria upside is about the limit offensively.

My Opinion
Andrus is not likely to win anyone a fantasy leagues this season. His defense is his calling card, and while that can endear him to real-life baseball managers, it is next to useless for most fantasy players. Playing in the potent Rangers line-up and in the launching pad that is the Ballpark at Arlington usually tends to help most hitters, but I just do not see Andrus being the type of hitter who can take advantage of his environment (at least not in 2009). He will be 21 during the majority of the season, playing for a sub-par team at the second-toughest defensive position in baseball. It is hard to imagine a scenario in which Andrus flourishes.

Statistically speaking, I think the best case scenario for Andrus this season would be a line around .275 / 7 / 55 / 30, with substantial downside risk in the batting average category. The steals can be useful, but their impact is likely to be negated by the low counting stats and batting average drag. In a standard twelve-team league, even the low-end starting shortstops (Yunel Escobar, Miguel Tejada, Ryan Theriot) figure to offer substantial advantages over Andrus this season. I can see rostering Andrus in a deep roto league as a cheap source of steals, perhaps in the mold of Carlos Gomez or Michael Bourn last season, but the overall results are likely to be disappointing.

While I am also not a huge fan of Andrus in long-term leagues, I do think he should be owned in most dynasty leagues. At this point, the only categories he profiles as above-average in are batting average and stolen bases, and until he shows signs of developing at least some moderate power I would personally stay away. There are many talented young shortstops both in the majors and in the minors that I would prefer to own, including guys like Jed Lowrie, Tim and Gordon Beckham, and Wilmer Flores. Several years down the road, he could be a solid regular, hitting near .300 and stealing 40 or so bases a season, but it is a ways away. I prefer to hold guys in my minor league system who have more offensive upside than Andrus, and I think there are plenty of those out there.

Know This Name

Carlos Santana (C, CLE)

I started my last ‘Know This Name’ section by discussing the fleecing the Rangers pulled on the Braves in the Mark Teixeira deal in 2007. While the Indians’ acquisition of Carlos Santana and Jonathan Meloan from the Dodgers for Casey Blake at the deadline last season is not nearly as egregious (at least Blake helped the Dodgers make the playoffs!), it is a good bet that down the road Carlos Santana is going to make the LA brass wish they had shown a bit more restraint.

Heading into last season, Santana was a prospect known more for his talents behind the plate than his prowess in the batter’s box. 2007 was a rough year at the plate for Santana, as he batted only .223 with 7 home runs over close to 300 at bats in Single-A. He still managed to walk nearly as many times as he struck out however, a performance that was in line with his historical results. In 2008, Santana looked like a completely different player, as he absolutely destroyed minor league pitching to the tune of a .326 average, .431 on-base percentage, and .568 slugging percentage (.999 OPS). His aggregate stat line for the season (split between Single- and Double-A) included 21 home runs, 117 RBI, 10 stolen bases, and an incredible 89 walks versus 85 strikeouts.

The plate discipline is what really sets Santana apart as a prospect, as it is already at an elite level. The entire list of major leaguers (with enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title) with a BB / K ratio greater than 1.0 last season consisted of seven players:

Albert Pujols – 1.93
Joe Mauer – 1.68
Chipper Jones – 1.48
Ryan Theriot – 1.26
Russell Martin – 1.08
Jimmy Rollins – 1.05
Mark Teixeira – 1.04

The player whom Carlos Santana most closely resembles? How about Victor Martinez, his teammate with the Indians? Both are switch-hitting catchers with plus power and elite batting eyes. If anything, Santana is more highly-regarded behind the plate than his major league counterpart, and scouts feel he will have no problem handling the position in the majors.

Santana will turn 23 in the early portion of the season, and there is no pressure for him to be rushed to the majors this season. The Indians plan to use Victor Martinez and Kelly Shoppach behind the plate this year, with Martinez also getting a lot of time at first base. Long-term, perhaps as early as 2010, Santana is likely to be the starting catcher for the Indians, with Martinez starting at first base and Shoppach in a backup role or with another team. Numbers wise, there is every reason to expect production similar to what Martinez produced in healthy season – a .300 batting average with 20 – 25 home runs and solid counting stats. Outside of Matt Wieters, there is no finer offensive prospect at the catcher position.

Philip Maguran is an avid Tigers fan originally from (outside) Detroit. He went to school at the University of Michigan, and is currently living in Grand Rapids, Michigan working at a large public accounting firm. He has been playing all sorts of fantasy sports since the mid-1990s and baseball is far and away his favorite! His advice - if you haven't joined a dynasty league yet, you haven't truly experienced the best of fantasy baseball. You can catch up with Phillip in the Cafe's forums where he posts under the name of Big Cat Court.
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