PT TOMORROW: AL West—High minors help?

Los Angeles Angels

Some MLB-ready infield depth is beginning to surface in the high minors as the more intriguing names begin to accumulate experience. Only a week after returning to Salt Lake City following a 27 AB MLB debut, Luis Rengifo (2B, LAA) was back in Anaheim earlier this week as a short-term replacement for Kole Calhoun on paternity leave. Rengifo had been processing his Triple-A return quite nicely—7-for-17, 3 BB, a HR and SB—prior to this. And despite a 5-for-29 MLB line through Tuesday, Rengifo's small-sample 79% ct%, 12% bb% and 132 HctX don't suggest that he's overmatched. Barring injuries, his future isn't now, particularly given LAA's recent 2B/SS production. But the early returns along with Rengifo's age (22), plate skills and speed suggest an MLB career may not be far away.

Likewise, Taylor Ward (3B, LAA) continues to improve his contact ever so slightly, and is now sporting a 20/20 K/BB and at Salt Lake City, all while continuing to grow his power (8 HR through 89 AB) and .303 BA. Only his second year at 3B, ex-catcher Ward's defense remains a work-in-progress. Ward seems likely to get more 2019 MLB AB, given the frequency of Zack Cozart injuries. But Cozart's final contact year, the emergence of Tommy La Stella as an offensive 3B/2B option and his own learning curve may keep Ward from getting extended AB until 2020.

Even the 1B options are deeper, if the recent callup of Jared Walsh (1B/LHP, LAA) is any indication. Following an off-season swing adjustment, Walsh roared through three minor league levels ending in Triple-A last year, blasting a cumulative 29 HR to go along with 61 BB and an .895 OPS. And now after catching our attention in the Cactus League, Walsh owns a 1.002 OPS (10 HR and 19 BB through 139 AB) that suggests nothing flukish about his 2018 surge. With Justin Bour (1B, LAA) now at Triple-A to get regular AB and attempt to right his ship (.163 BA, 4 HR through 98 AB), Walsh has an opportunity to get occasional starts at 1B vR and test his left-handed power-and-patience at the highest level. Skill set bonus: Walsh is an athletic defender and two-way player with a 2.63 ERA and a 15/6 K/BB over 15 career minor league IP—one who may now may see a chance to pitch in MLB mop-up before he (likely) returns to Salt Lake City. Keeper league owners looking at 2020 should take note.

 

Seattle Mariners

The rotation has been anchored by the performances of Marco Gonzales (LHP, SEA) and Yusei Kikuchi (LHP, SEA), both sporting sub-4 ERAs to date despite 4+ xERAs and sub-par Doms fronting one of MLB's worst defensive clubs. Mike Leake (RHP, SEA) continues to do what Mike Leake does: Eat innings with limited walks and whiffs, generate GBs and post a 4+ ERA that could get uglier late in the season. Not a ton of upside from here, but the news at the back of the rotation is even sketchier.

Working in his final contract year, Felix Hernandez (RHP, SEA)  6.52 ERA through 39 IP is now on the IL likely until at least July, with his rotation spot in doubt even then. In Hernandez's old rotation spot, strike-thrower Wade LeBlanc (LHP, SEA) is projected to return from the IL Saturday May 18 to start vs. MIN. LeBlanc continues to work with mid-80's velocity, sub-par Dom and without a GB pitch, giving him even less margin for error than Leake. He joins rookie Erik Swanson (RHP, SEA), who has struggled over six games (five starts) that have seen him post a fine 1.6 Ctl—but a 6.35/4.94 ERA/xERA speaks to a sub-par 6.7 Dom and inability to avoid the HR ball.

Beyond this group, Justus Sheffield (LHP, SEA) stands out among what is otherwise a list of 30-something journeymen eating innings at AAA-Tacoma, including Tommy Milone, Ryan Garton and Christian Bergman. But the 23-year-old Sheffield has struggled with both consistency and control (25 BB in 31 IP) while posting a 4.31 ERA in the early going, suggesting that he'd be challenged by a promotion any time soon. A step down in Double-A, Justin Dunn (RHP, SEA) owns a 3.51 ERA and impressive 45/9 K/BB through 33 IP, though a successful leap to SEA from there might require some faith. Simply put at this point in time, there's potential opportunity in SEA but no obviously deserving candidates. To be continued.

 

Houston Astros

Jose Altuve's move to the IL over the weekend had Yordan Alvarez (LF/DH, HOU) owners palpitating for a few minutes, in the expectation that this would be the MLB opening for their guy. But the club used this particular 25-man roster spot to give their pitching staff some extra cushion as Collin McHugh headed for the bullpen, using it instead to call up Corbin Martin instead. Because in the real game, Astros hitters have been on a tear, and led all other MLB clubs in scoring, BA, OBP, Slg, HR, etc. entering Wednesday. Relatively speaking, the club's biggest "issue" is pitching, and they really don't care about our fantasy teams.

This doesn't mean that Alvarez can't or isn't attempting to force the issue. Hitting a ridiculous .403 BA with 15 HR and a 22/30 BB/K through 129 AB, he couldn't do much more—but that's where he is. His parent club doesn't currently need his production, and if earlier management comments are to be believed, would rather not be forced into making room for Alvarez on the 40-man roster until mid-season. Ideally, HOU management would like to see how Alvarez rebounds from a rough patch in Triple-A, while Kyle Tucker (OF, HOU) continues a surge (1.284 OPS through 47 AB in May) that would eventually earn a return ticket to HOU for another try at MLB pitching—as part of an injury replacement or whenever the club needs him most.

Whether Alvarez can continue to push the issue or falls back as Tucker prevails, Tyler White (DH, HOU)—.230 BA, 0 HR, 3 RBI, 58% ct%—still seems most at risk to lose his roster spot, barring an OF/1B injury to another player. Whether Alvarez can continue his onslaught and barge his way into MLB AB or Tucker surpasses him again in the pecking order remains to be seen. But we'll stay on this. 

 

Oakland Athletics

The offensive malaise to which we've previously referred is taking root, as the club has lost six of its most recent 10 games through Tuesday while scoring a total of just 32 runs. And it's not just a problem with an outfield in which the best BA is Stephen Piscotty's .251 mark, and Ramon Laureano's 5 HR are setting the pace. A club whose offense finished fourth in MLB scoring and fueled last year's post-season drive has been pedestrian in 2019, with plenty of blame to go around. The off-season acquisition of Jurickson Profar (2B, OAK) hasn't worked out as anticipated, as the starting 2B has struggled all season and now sits with a .181 BA after 144 AB. Profar's underlying metrics—19% h%, .255 xBA, 85% ct%, 120 HctX—suggest that he's due for a turnaround at some point, which may be why OAK has yet to give him a breather.  

OAK's MLB-ready depth at AAA-Las Vegas has also been uneven. Franklin Barreto (2B/SS, OAK) was flashing big-time power at the end of 2018, both in Triple-A and in limited MLB play—and looked poised to seize MLB time in the event of an injury or slump to one of the regulars. But Barreto now remains mired in his own awful start (.202 BA two HR, 42 Ks through his first 115 AB) while playing in one of the PCL's best hitting venues. Were Profar to get an injury timeout, Barreto seems surpassed for now by Jorge Mateo (SS/2B, OAK), currently slashing a torrid .325/.363/.574 line (with an 11/3 SB/CS and 5 HR) through 169 AB despite questionable plate control (9/37 BB/K). Another middle infield option now might even be 30-year-old journeyman Corban Joseph, owner of just 24 MLB AB—and now a 1.069 OPS that has clearly benefited from PCL play. Regardless of the A's next move, something clearly must change if this offense is to get off the ground any time soon.

 

Texas Rangers 

Jose Leclerc's (RHP, TEX) woes are a mixed bag for his owners. He still owns live mid-90s velocity, premium 12.6 Dom and a SwK that is at least trending back into positive territory. But control was his biggest issue prior to a 2018 2H that saw him Leclerc post a stunning 0.64 ERA and 44/8 K/BB over his final 28 IP and seize the TEX closer role. And now both walks and inconsistency are a problem again, as seen in seen in the 13 BB (and 6.32 ERA) allowed through Leclerc's first 16 IP. Obviously his rebuilding club would love for Leclerc to reclaim the ninth inning with a vengeance in an effort to gauge what he might fetch on the trade market. But now for the first time, Leclerc may have legitimate competition.

Seemingly healthy at least for now following a year of miscellaneous injuries (forearm, hamstring, groin) that landed him on the IL on three different occasions, Chris Martin (RHP, TEX) still excels at throwing strikes, but is also now missing a few more bats (10.0 Dom, 11% SwK) in the early going. Martin owns just one save as the (reportedly) interim closer option, and like Leclerc, he's been nicked up a little by the HR ball. But a 2.93/3.25 ERA/xERA through his first 15 IP along with unwavering mid-90's velocity suggest that he not be taken too lightly here.

In the minors, Emanuel Clase (RHP, TEX) dominated (2 runs, 12 saves in 28 IP) in 2018 short season play as a late-inning weapon. Both his high-90s stuff and seven more dominant innings at A+ this season recently fast-tracked him to AA-Frisco—where he's suddenly been scored upon in half of his eight appearances, has coughed up nine runs in 8 IP and is finally being challenged. Don't expect Clase to grow to the moon from here; at least for now, Leclerc and Martin are the only names deserving of 2019 attention.


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