Prospects are all about projection. The best part of studying a prospect is that everybody’s opinion is different, and we have no idea who is going to be right until we can see their performance at the Major League level. Looking at MLB.com’s preseason top-100 prospects there have been several players recently ranked in the top ten that have been disappointments.
- 2018: Victor Robles, Nick Senzel, Forrest Whitley
- 2017: Alex Reyes
- 2016: Orlando Arcia
Projecting is extremely difficult. All prospects carry some inherent risk, but it is easy to identify which prospects are riskier than others. Some players have a safer floor and higher ceiling while other players might not present the most upside but have a lower chance of busting. In this article, I look at one prospect from each position that has a high ceiling but carries more risk than the average Minor Leaguer.
How to Evaluate Prospect Upside
As dynasty players, chasing upside is something that we live for. We want to hit on the prospect that breaks out and performs at MVP levels. However, too often when we are chasing this upside, we fail to properly analyze a prospect’s floor. We focus on all that could go right instead of giving enough attention to the likelihood that things go south. There is nothing wrong with chasing upside but filling a deep league dynasty roster with prospects that are all boom or bust will not give you the best path to success.
I recently wrote a couple of articles for Fantrax looking at Major League players in redraft leagues that provide upside versus those that provide a stable fantasy floor. For those, I used the example of percentiles. For this article, I thought it would be useful to illustrate my point.
When looking at a prospect with high upside and high risk we tend to focus on the 90th-percentile outcome. This is illustrated by Graph 1 below. We focus on the far-right outcome of 160 wRC+ while ignoring the far-left outcome of a 60 wRC+. Both outcomes are equally likely, but we say that the upside outweighs the risk. The flip side of a high-upside, high-risk player is to target somebody that is a little bit safer. This is shown in Graph 2, where the far-right value is only 130 wRC+, but the left side is 90 wRC+. A safe player has a lower probability of busting but does not have the same upside as some other prospects. The higher the upside, the higher the variance.
If you are a dynasty player who likes to shoot for the stars and hit big on prospects, this article is just for you. Acquire the guys from the article below (All outside the top-50 on most prospect lists) if you want to fill your Minor League roster with upside.
Prospects With High Upside to Target
Henry Davis: Catcher, Pittsburgh Pirates
Henry Davis might not be the most popular pick for this spot, but he firmly fits the criteria for a high-upside, high-risk player. The 2021 first-overall pick has been inconsistent throughout the early stages of his professional career. In 2022, Davis got off to a red-hot start batting .341 with five home runs and five stolen bases through 22 games at High-A. A fractured wrist caused him to miss significant time and he was never the same after, batting just .216 the rest of the way.
After this, many in the industry have been quick to fade Davis. The shine seems to have worn off on this highly touted prospect and I am not sure why. This is a prospect with 70-grade raw power. Despite battling a wrist injury for much of the season (which is known to drain power—see Alex Kirilloff), he was still on a 24/600 home run pace. Davis already knows how to tap into his power by posting pull percentages well over 50%. Since 2017, there have only been nine catchers to hit more than 25 home runs in a season. Davis has the power potential to accomplish this feat, instantly giving him a high ceiling.
Davis has been working to silence the doubts about his hit tool. His strikeout rate continues to decrease and he is looking more comfortable at the plate. He went to the AFL this year to get more reps and walked almost as often as he struck out (10:11). With improved plate discipline and solid contact skills, Davis’ ceiling profiles as a .270 hitter with 25 home runs and an above-average walk rate. He will still be 23 years old for the entirety of the 2023 season and has a chance to move quickly through Pittsburgh’s system.
The power never fully comes back after these wrist injuries. Wrist injuries tend to linger for multiple seasons having a specific impact on a player’s power output. Davis saw his HR/FB% drop from over 22% before his wrist injury to under 11% after. Following this up in the AFL, Davis hit just one home run in 69 plate appearances. If the power does not come back, Davis does not have a strong enough hit tool to provide a stable fantasy floor. At this point, Davis needs a big season to emerge from the shadow cast by Endy Rodriguez’s rise to stardom.
Niko Kavadas: First Base, Boston Red Sox
First base was the most difficult position to pick for this article. There are so many prospects that have massive power, but I decided to go with one that has drawn comparisons to Albert Pujols. All Niko Kavadas did in his first full season of professional baseball was hit 26 home runs with a .280 batting average and 170 wRC+. He was one of the best hitters in MiLB, making it all the way from Low-A to Double-A. His swing is smooth and designed to launch the pull as Kavadas does an excellent job of tapping into his pull-side power.
The most impressive part of Kavadas’ game is his plate discipline. In 2022, he walked 19.8% of the time thanks to an excellent understanding of the strike zone. He is patient, knowing exactly what pitch he is looking to deposit into the seats while being willing to take his walks. He makes contact at an above-average rate which helps his hit tool play up.
The upside in Kavadas is something like prime Carlos Santana. He might never hit for the best averages, but he is going to walk and has enough power to hit 30 home runs in a full season. If you are chasing upside, Kavadas is a great under-the-radar prospect who has a very high ceiling.
The plate discipline that was mentioned above is also one of Kavadas’ weaknesses. He can be too patient at the plate, leading to high strikeout rates and limiting the damage he can do with his bat. He is already 24 years old and the likelihood of him changing his approach is low.
The other more significant concern is his platoon splits. So far throughout his Minor League career, Kavadas has struggled to hit lefties. While in Low-A, Kavadas hit just .235 off lefties with zero home runs. Meanwhile, he hit 14 home runs off righties. There is significant platoon risk to Kavadas and a platooning first baseman has almost no fantasy value.
Werner Blakely: Second Base, Los Angeles Angels
Werner Blakely is my deep shot and a true 90th-percentile outcome prospect. This pick comes with plenty of projection as Blakely has never hit more than five home runs in a season. Visually, the former fourth-round pick passes the eye test and carries plenty of projectability. His swing is smooth and consistent while his 6’3” frame lends itself to plenty of raw power. The speed is graded on FanGraphs at a 45, but he stole 24 bases in 55 games last season and 15 in 44 games back in 2021. Blakely’s baseball instincts help him steal more bases than his speed suggests. He has 20-steal potential despite his mediocre future speed grades.
Similarly to Kavadas, Blakely has excellent plate discipline. He understands the strike zone and rarely chases pitches out of it. In 2022, he walked over 19% of the time and his value is even higher in OBP leagues. His understanding of the zone allows him to find pitches that he can do damage with. This skill combined with his big frame provides confidence that the power is coming. The home run totals don’t pop off the screen yet, but he has 20+ home run potential.
Right now, Blakely can play all over the infield. I put him at second base to fit him into this article, but he likely moves to third base long-term. This move adds more pressure to reach its ceiling, but 20-steal potential out of a third baseman is exciting to project and raises the ceiling on his profile. In deep leagues, take a shot on Blakely to see if he can put it all together in 2023.
As I mentioned earlier, Blakely’s profile carries a lot of projection. One of the most likely outcomes is that he begins developing more power and filling out his frame while losing speed. The speed in Blakely’s profile is critical to his fantasy ceiling. The raw power is not exciting enough to outweigh the loss of speed and dropping from 20 steals to 10 steals completely changes his profile. The flip side of that is Blakely fails to improve his power totals and ends up with a similar slash-line to Josh Rojas.
Blakely is also too patient at the plate. His high walk rate is paired with a high strikeout rate which will inevitably keep his batting average down. The .295 average he posted last season is fueled by a ridiculous .450 BABIP. This rate is completely unsustainable and a drop of even .100 points down to .350 would move his batting average below the Mendoza Line. The hit tool is suspect, making the need for both power and speed even more critical. There is a strong chance Blakely develops into a utility bench bat rather than a difference-making third baseman.
Kahlil Watson: Shortstop, Miami Marlins
During the Marlins’ Top-15 prospect article, I detailed Kahlil Watson as a player that should be garnering more attention heading into 2023. Watson was almost the first overall pick just over a year ago and now is going completely unnoticed in fantasy leagues. The upside is obvious just by watching Watson swing the bat. He has incredible bat speed which allows him to get around on pitches and tap into massive pull-side power.
There's another one from @Marlins No. 1 Kahlil Watson.@MLB’s No. 25 prospect has homered in two straight for the @GoHammerheads. So far as a pro: 17 hits in 42 AB, 9 for extra bases.pic.twitter.com/ywIchD4LLd
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) April 10, 2022
I touched on this in the article above, but progression is not always linear with prospects. Too often we tend to write a prospect off when they struggle in their first real taste of professional baseball. During the second half of 2022, Watson slashed .260/.371/.481. His plate discipline improved with his walk rate above 14% and we saw the strikeouts come down. His 139 wRC+ was impressive but not as impressive as the .221 ISO. Over the course of the full season, only 21 Minor League hitters ages 21 or younger posted an ISO of at least .221 with a strikeout rate under 27%. Some of the players on that list include:
- Corbin Carroll, Diego Cartaya, Jackson Chourio, Kyle Manzardo, Gunnar Henderson, James Wood, and Ezequiel Tovar
Those names are some of the hottest prospects in baseball. Granted, Watson only posted this level of play during the second half, but he is not gaining any recognition for it. He has plus power, plus speed, and the hit tool is improving. There is enough in his profile to project 25 home runs and 20 stolen bases. The upside is there and now is the perfect time to buy Kahlil Watson in dynasty leagues. His value might never be lower, and he could quickly fly back up rankings in 2023.
Look no further than the first half of Kahlil Watson’s 2022 season. 40+ percent strikeout rate with a low average and mediocre power. There is plenty of whiff and immaturity in Watson’s profile that could be detrimental to his development. His swinging strike rate was over 18% and pitchers can easily exploit him with their secondary pitches.
After a blow-up with an umpire, the Marlins placed Watson on the restricted list for multiple weeks before the second half. Listening to Baseball America’s podcast on the Marlins, the organization has serious concerns over Watson’s character and maturity. Good players develop through humility and the ability to learn from those around them. Watson will need to demonstrate a willingness to do so if we want his second-half improvements to mean anything.
Orelvis Martinez: Third Base, Toronto Blue Jays
In terms of raw power, Martinez has the most of any prospect on this list. His swing features a big leg kick while his hands explode through the zone to produce hard contact. The swing is designed to launch the baseball as his fly ball rates and pull percentages are both extremely high. Martinez has hit at least 28 home runs in back-to-back seasons despite being one of the youngest players at each Minor League level. His production as such a young player in Double-A need not be understated. The only other player under the age of 21 to hit 30 home runs in the Minor Leagues last year was Jhonkensy Noel and 19 of his came at High-A.
The batting averages have not been great the past two seasons, but each came with a .197 and .217 BABIP. While his tendency to hit fly balls will always cause him to run lower BABIPs, he should still see positive regression in this area. A slight swing adjustment to hit more line drives could turn Martinez from a .220 hitter into a .260 hitter and that is all he needs. The power is enough to carry his profile and provide massive upside for anybody looking to take a chance. He will only be 21 for the entire 2023 season and the raw power is something that cannot be taught. Eugenio Suárez and Matt Chapman are solid Major League comps for Martinez’s profile.
While there is no concern over Martinez’s power output, there are concerns over the batting average. In 2022, he struggled to reach the Mendoza line and posted a strikeout rate north of 28%. Instead of improving his swinging strike percentage from 2021, his rate got worse. Pitchers exploit Martinez’s aggression with pitches out of the zone. Matters are made worse by an unwillingness to take outside pitches the other way. He punishes mistakes but struggles against quality pitches.
While current Blue Jays third baseman Matt Chapman runs low batting averages, his fielding and power are enough to make up for it. Martinez projects as a below-average fielder with a struggling hit tool. If he does not make progress in one of these areas, there is a chance he never makes it as a full-time Major League player.
Miguel Bleis: Outfield, Boston Red Sox
This offseason, the Miguel Bleis hype train has officially left the station. He is one of the biggest breakout picks for 2023 thanks to his tantalizing fantasy ceiling. He performed well at the complex league, posting a .301/.353/.542 slash with 18 stolen bases. This success paired with his ultra-projectable profile is rocketing Bleis up prospect lists. The raw power is impressive and despite only being 18, he has a mature understanding of how to elevate the ball and tap into pull-side power. Swing adjustments can be one of the hardest things for a young hitter to undergo, but Bleis’ swing is already primed for Major League success. This lends itself to confidence in the long-term outlook. There is 25-30 home run potential here.
Miguel Bleis is one Red Sox prospect that has a very bright future.
— Jamie Gatlin (@JamieGatlin17) January 13, 2023
In addition to his plus power, Bleis also has plus speed. While the speed could slow down a bit as he continues to fill out his frame, he still has 20+ stolen base potential. His 18 stolen bases from the complex league came in just 40 games. For those wondering, that is a 67-steal pace over 150 games. The speed and power combination from the outfield position gives Bleis top-five prospect potential. He has all the raw tools for success and jumping on the hype train now might be wise before it is too late.
Bleis is still only 18 years old and has not played above the complex league. The jump from complex play to Low-A is one of the most challenging jumps for international prospects and there are already red flags. In 2022, Bleis posted a strikeout rate of 26.9% with a swinging strike rate of 33.8%. Pitchers are easily able to exploit an over-aggressive Bleis and this situation could become more problematic at higher levels.
The raw tools are exciting, and his profile is one to easily get drawn into, but there is a significant risk that he is never able to harness his aggression. Bleis was still able to hit over .300 thanks to a .394 BABIP. As the BABIP comes down, the strikeout issue will become more noticeable. This could create problems for Bleis as he begins to face tougher competition.
Images courtesy of Pixabay | Adapted by Aaron Polcare (@bearydoesgfx on Twitter)
Great list and insights. This is deep and very helpful for both fantasy and real baseball