KEEPERS: Late 2016 pop-ups and surgers—AL

As the off-season approaches, sifting through August and September pop-up names, strong finishers and overlooked minor league surgers is a must-do particularly for rebuilders and owners not focused on an end-of-season race. Regardless of whether you're looking to take advantage of your final 2016 waiver runs or just getting a jump on an active off-season, there are always end-of-roster adjustments to consider.

By now, everyone is familiar with the big 2H performances of names like Gary Sanchez and Ryon Healy—and there are few if any leagues in which they remain unrostered. Our objective here is to note some potentially under-the-radar MLBers who finished strong over the 2H, some perhaps in just part-time play. We'll look at names whose late-season performances suggest their roles could expand going forward, as well as a few minor leaguers who aren't household names but have opportunity as soon as 2017.  

Does this really work? Well, last year at this time in this space, we projected/speculated upon Alex Colome's ascent to the closer role well before his first MLB save, and noted Jackie Bradley's growth into a legitimate offensive force. Obviously not all of this year's names will take immediate advantage of their 2017 windows—see Abraham Almonte—and surging prospects can always take a step backward, as did Chad Pinder. But all of this year's entries project value at this point in time, be it as trade chips or in their future performances. And in keeping with our Keeper/Dynasty focus, all are 20-something-year-olds with shots at big-league relevance for at least a few years to come.  


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Nick Franklin's (U, TAM) out-of-the-blue uptick from his status as post-hype prospect fits our preferred profile. Beginning his MLB career in 2013, Franklin was a consensus Top 100 prospect—a middle-infielder with above average power and speed who profiled as a solid regular with perhaps some All-Star appearances. That obviously didn't happen, as Franklin struggled mightily to make contact early on despite flashes of athleticism. Now an infield/outfield utility player in TAM, Franklin has suddenly bumped his ct% into the mid-70s, his BA up to .280, and still shows good secondary skills at age 25. The average could fluctuate and Franklin's historical struggles vs. LHPs may limit him to a 400-AB strong-side platoon role over a full season. But his .295/.363/.508 BA to-date vR (122 AB), double-digit HR/SB upside and positional versatility is both intriguing and valuable.

Kenny Vargas (1B/DH, MIN) isn't quite in the same genre as Franklin. He's been a late bloomer with zero defensive versatility who needs either a scenery change or clearing of the 1B/DH glut in MIN before his path is clear. But a new MIN front office could be more likely to make one or the other happen this offseason. And along with a problematic sub-70% contact issues that accentuates his risk, Vargas has recorded an impressive 8 HR, 202/157 PX/xPX and a 15% bb% through 127 AB as a part-timer. Like Franklin, Vargas is a switch-hitter—but he'll need to improve his numbers vR to lock down regular playing time. Still, HR-needy fantasy owners could do a lot worse in terms of end-of-year roster additions. 

Jorge Polanco (2B/SS, MIN) is another MIN year-end riser who may be in search of a position. Despite his regular shortstop AB since the trade deadline, the defensive results have been mixed to sub-par, leaving us to wonder whether Polanco will stay there until SS-of-the-future Nick Gordon is ready. That said, he's versatile, plays a credible second-base, and at age 22, Polanco's bat (.283/.280 BA/xBA through 219 AB) looks more than ready. Mid-80s contact, plus speed and upticking pop project a nice offensive package from either a 2B or utility type, regardless of what plays out over the short-term. Obviously Polanco is blocked at his primary position by Brian Dozier, though MIN's rebuilder status and the incumbent's remaining contract ($15m over 2017-18) make for reasonable trade speculation. Now that Polanco is out of minor league options, the Twins front office has its work cut out.

In a year that will be long remembered for its rotation injuries, late-season under-the-radar SP surgers are difficult to find. But Chase Whitley's (RHP, TAM) return from Tommy John surgery is worth noting. Whitley's limited MLB line to date—7 IP, a run allowed, 6/2 K/BB in three relief appearances—doesn't jump off the stat line. But his 2H numbers as a starter just 15 months off of TJS—36 IP, nine earned runs, 32/9 K/BB between High-A and Double-A—suggest that Whitley is rounding into form. And despite a 5.23 ERA over 76 IP (mostly as an SP) in his 2014 rookie year, Whitley's outstanding change-up and a 3.3 Cmd, 62% FpK and 11% SwK all point to his upside. With MLB-ready SP help in short supply, Whitley is a good bet for a rotation shot somewhere.

Similarly, due to physical woes (shoulder inflammation), Alex Meyer (RHP, LAA) isn't offering us much in the way of MLB numbers, and even the September metrics with his new club aren't at all impressive on the surface. But taking the smallest of samples, Meyer's last two outings—his longest at the MLB level—have shown marked improvement, the first being 5 IP of shutout ball (7/3 K/BB) vs. TOR. Five days later, Meyer contained HOU through 5 IP (a run, 3 hits, 4/1 K/BB) prior to being extended into the sixth inning. In both contests, Meyer displayed swing-and-miss / groundball generating mid-90s stuff—and much-improved control over his previous 14 MLB IP in which he'd walked 14 batters. Meyer has plenty to prove here and durability-wise, but few pitchers on your fantasy free agent list have his stuff and upside. And he certainly has opportunity with the rotation-challenged Angels.

Following a promising 2015 MLB debut (2.89 ERA, 8.1 Dom, 51% GB% over 62 IP) in 11 starts, Luis Severino's (RHP, NYY) 8.22 ERA after seven starts eventually led to a May demotion back to Triple-A, where he again thrived again. He was ineffective again in two August starts precipitating another demotion, but has been solid in long-relief since his September return, allowing just two runs in 15 IP. Through all of his struggles, Severino's stuff and BPIs have changed little, the biggest differences being in H% and S%. He's not without issues; Severino needs to fine-tune his control and figure out a way to limit HR damage. But he's 22 years old with mid-90s velocity and on a team that still views him as an SP—see his September 26 spot start—and with plenty of back-of-the-rotation questions going forward. Either way, Severino has the stuff to be an asset in 2017.

As we learned last year at this time with Colome, it's never too early to speculate on future closer replacements. And one such situation may be in the early stages in DET where Francisco Rodriguez remains effective, but with a rising ERA, 6.5 Dom and 58 BPV in the 2H. 2015 disappointment Bruce Rondon's (RHP, DET) trajectory has moved in a decidedly opposite direction, as the 25-year-old has allowed just three earned runs since the end of July, posting a 23/6 K/BB and allowing no HR over 18 IP during this period. Once considered DET's closer-of-the-future prior to his Tommy John surgery and his 2015 behavioral issues, Rondon is still throwing high-90s gas and again looks poised for ninth inning consideration. DET is likely to pick up Rodriguez's team-friendly $6M option for 2017, but he'll be 36 when 2018 begins. Rondon and prospect Joe Jimenez should make it easy for the Tigers to depart with Rodriguez sometime between now and then.

Owners in strikeout leagues who should be happy with Mychal Given's (RHP, BAL) first full MLB season, particularly his finish. Givens has again shown mid-90s power stuff as a mid-innings bullpen workhorse, tossing 71 IP to date, posting an 11.5 Dom and earning 8 wins, courtesy of a challenged rotation and terrific offense. He's saved his best work for the 2H, during which Given has maintained his dominance while dropping his Ctl from 5.0 to 3.6—all while posting a 2.86 ERA. And 2H bumps in FpK (16%) and FpK (62%) suggest that Givens will continue to be a good bullpen investment going forward. An outstanding BAL bullpen currently blocks Givens from a late-inning role, but you're not likely to suffer during the wait.

Willson Contreras' big plate skills improvement at Double-A last season set the stage for his CHC promotion this past June, where he's been productive  with surprising pop. This is obviously a best-case scenario for prospect Chance Sisco (C, BAL), but some similarities are evident. Sisco's solid plate skills (.320 BA, 59/83 BB/K over 420 BA) have held up in his 2016 jump to Double-A, a season that picked up steam following the All-Star break (.340 BA in 159 AB). Still just 21 and almost three years younger than Contreras, Sisco hints at latent power—anedotally punctuated by his opposite field PETCO Park HR during the Futures Game. He still work to do behind the plate, but Sisco's improvement has both impressed and quieted doubters. With Matt Wieters a projected free-agent-to-be this off-season, don't be surprised to see Sisco by mid-season 2017.


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