Hitting prospects: Don't pass over Johnson, Flores in fantasy drafts
Believe it or not, there are some prospects and other young players who swing the bat and are not named Kris Bryant or Joc Pederson. It’s shocking, but true. Some of those guys can even help your fantasy teams this season. Let’s take a look at four such players.
Micah Johnson, 2B, Chicago White Sox
The White Sox conducted an impressive roster overhaul this offseason, upgrading the rotation (Jeff Samardzija), bullpen (David Robertson), outfield (Melky Cabrera) and at first base/DH (with Adam LaRoche taking over in the field, moving Jose Abreu to DH). They brought in some new-old blood at second base, as well, luring Gordon Beckham back to the South Side of Chicago. They were always going to be better off with him as a utility infielder, but that required someone to win the job this spring. That’s where Micah Johnson enters the picture.
The 24-year-old Johnson has had a huge spring, hitting .405/.463/.568 with three extra-base hits and three steals in 41 plate appearances. Johnson headed into spring training as the favorite to begin the year as the White Sox’ starting second baseman, but there’s likely no longer any doubt about that, though Robin Ventura is still taking his time, saying he won’t name a winner between Johnson and Carlos Sanchez until the very end of camp. Fantasy owners who can’t wait that long should feel comfortable betting on the former.
Johnson split 2014 between Double-A Birmingham and Triple-A Charlotte, hitting .294/.351/.403 with 22 steals in 35 chances. He was much better at the lower level, posting just a .684 OPS at Charlotte in 302 plate appearances. One encouraging note, however, is that he cut his strikeout rate at Charlotte to 13.9 percent. We should expect that to jump in the majors, but he has fanned just seven times in his 41 trips to the plate this spring. From a fantasy perspective, Johnson’s most attractive trait is his speed. If he can post on OBP in even just the .315 range, he can steal 20-plus bases. Add to that the fact that he’ll likely hit ninth in the order, not too far in front of the Cabrera-Jose Abreu-LaRoche-Avisail Garcia core, and he also brings run-scoring upside to the table. Johnson’s going to come super cheap, but at a shallow position like second base, he can easily turn a profit. In leagues that have a middle infield spot in the starting lineup, he should be universally drafted.
Michael Taylor, OF, Washington Nationals
There’s no way to spin Denard Span’s oblique injury into a positive for the Nationals. Span was simply excellent last year, hitting .302 with a .355 OBP, setting the table for the middle of the order all while playing above-average defense in center field. The Nationals are in a tough situation with Opening Day a little over a week away, but at the same time, they may have the perfect stopgap solution.
Michael Taylor emerged as a legitimate prospect last year, hitting .313/.396/.539 with 22 homers and 34 steals at Double-A Harrisburg. He spent 29 games combined at Triple-A Syracuse and with the Nationals, but it was his dominance at Harrisburg, as well as his performance this spring, that put him in position to take over for Span. After taking Justin Verlander deep twice earlier this week, Taylor is hitting .325 with a 1.041 OPS and three homers in 41 plate appearances. In addition to his power, the speed is legitimate, as the 24-year-old swiped 51 bags at High-A Potomac in 2013.
But don’t take it from me. Let’s go to Nationals GM Mike Rizzo for his take on the Taylor-Span situation.
"Michael is a high-ceiling, sky-is-the-limit-type of player and you don't have in your system many guys that can hit for power, steal some bases, play great defense," Rizzo said in an interview on MLB Network Radio on Monday. "Michael is a young offensive player in the league. He'll be exposed at times with pitchers that really know how to carve up young hitters, but he's a guy that has explosive talent and a guy that until Denard is ready, it's Michael Taylor time."
Understand that Taylor is likely just a short-term solution for the Nationals, meaning his fantasy relevance for 2015 could evaporate once Span returns. Still, he doesn’t cost a thing at draft tables, and can be valuable for the first month of the season. If Span’s rehab process drags, or if another Washington outfielder suffers an injury, Taylor could stick on fantasy rosters for a greater portion of the season.
Wilmer Flores, SS, New York Mets
You can count on one hand the number of shortstops with legitimate 20-homer upside this year, and you better save one of those spots for Wilmer Flores. The 23-year-old shortstop hit 13 homers in just 274 plate appearances with the Mets last season, after belting 13 more with Triple-A Las Vegas in even fewer trips to the plate. In 40 plate appearances this spring, Flores has left the yard twice and is slashing .342/.350/.605.
It remains to be seen if Flores’ glove can play at shortstop for an entire season, and that’s of primary importance at the most crucial defensive spot on the field. One play is anecdotal, but you don’t luck into something like this.
Still, there’s little doubt that his bat will play, and that is of prime significance for fantasy owners. The Mets harbor legitimate playoff hopes this year on the strength of their starting rotation. If anything holds the team back, it will likely be the offense. The Mets cannot afford to have a bat like Flores’ languishing on the bench. He’s going to get a chance to play this year, and he could easily turn that into 20 homers, 70 RBI and 60 runs scored. Given his average draft position, that would result in him turning a huge profit.
Dalton Pompey, OF, Toronto Blue Jays
The Toronto offense could be very good this season, with the ceiling to be the best in the league. When you have Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Josh Donaldson in the middle of your lineup, along with Jose Reyes leading things off, you’re going to score some runs. Fitting into that mix this year is a defensive whiz in center field who just may bring more to the offense than is expected of him in 2015.
Dalton Pompey is going to play every day thanks to his elite defensive skills. That’s a crucial trait for every team’s center fielder, but given the players around him in left in right, especially while Michael Saunders is on the shelf, Pompey will sort of be on an island out there. He proved last year, however, that he’s more than his glove.
Pompey played at four levels in 2014, including a cup of coffee in the majors. In 500 plate appearances split across High-A Dunedin, Double-A New Hampshire and Triple-A Buffalo, Pompey hit .317/.392/.469 with nine homers, 22 doubles, nine triples and 43 steals in 50 attempts. He spent just 12 games at Buffalo, but went 19-for-53 (.358) and stole six bags without once being caught.
This spring, Pompey is hitting .310/.341/.429 with three steals in as many attempts and four extra-base hits. Even when Saunders returns from his knee injury, Pompey will be the team’s starting center fielder, with Saunders manning left. Chances are he’s going to struggle at the plate. Even with the success he had in the minors last year, he just doesn’t profile as a high-average or OBP hitter, and the power is marginal, at best. As we saw with Billy Hamilton and Dee Gordon last year, though, it doesn’t take a world-beating OBP to steal 40-plus bags if you’ve got the wheels to do it. Pompey will likely hit ninth for the Blue Jays, and that means he’ll be one of the beneficiaries of that strong heart of the order. He has big-time stolen-base and run-scoring potential, and is essentially a free pick at his ADP.
Devon Travis, 2B, Toronto Blue Jays
But wait, we’re not done with the Blue Jays. The team needed a double-play partner for Reyes, and struck when they saw the opportunity this offseason. The Blue Jays sent outfielder Anthony Gose to Detroit for Travis, the organization’s top prospect despite the fact that he had not risen above the Double-A level.
Admittedly, top prospect is a bit of a misnomer here, and says more about the Tigers farm system than it does about Travis himself. He’s not a top prospect in the way Kris Bryant or Joc Pederson is. At the same time, he had a great season at Double-A Erie in 2014, hitting .298/.358/.460 with 10 homers, 20 doubles, seven triples and 16 steals. The 24-year-old won the starting job this spring, and carries a .364/.404/.500 slash line through 47 plate appearances.
With a starting gig in his back pocket and 500-plus plate appearances likely in front of him, a 15-15 season is within Travis’ reach. Like Pompey, batting average and OBP likely won’t be a strength, but he can make up for that in the counting stats. If he gives his owners floors of 10 homers, 12 steals, 60 runs and 50 RBI, he’ll lap his ADP two or three times over.