It's prospect time!
June has become a popular month for teams to promote future stars for their first tastes of the big leagues. In the past five seasons alone, we've seen Wil Myers, Trevor Bauer, Dustin Ackley, Stephen Strasburg and Andrew McCutchen all make their major league debuts during the calendar's sixth month; all of them ranked among Keith Law's top 25 prospects during said debut seasons. In fact, if we're to use Keith Law's Top 100 prospects as our research pool, more prospects made their major league debuts during the month of June than in any other month of the year.
So, why is June so popular for blue-chip prospect promotions? A simple -- yet educated -- guess: "Super Two" arbitration concerns. For those unfamiliar, players with at least three years, but fewer than six, of major league service time are eligible for arbitration. "Super Two" players, those in the top 22 percent in service time among players with between two and three years' service time, would also be eligible for arbitration as well. As that represents a calculation rather than a set date, teams have to estimate whether their players might fall within that range in advance. And if you look at executives' projected "safe" date from that status, in a discussion of the New York Mets' expected timetable for a Zack Wheeler promotion last summer, you'll see that June is a popular choice. There's enough evidence to suggest all teams share that opinion, and that is why someone such as Polanco, despite his .349/.411/.552 Triple-A slash line, remains in the minors today.
But here's what's interesting about this annual prospect waiting game: These guys, more often than not, are worth both the wait and the hype.
Let's use our aforementioned research pool as evidence. Again, these are Keith Law's Top 100 prospects who made their big league debuts within the ranked season, a group of 16 hitters and 12 pitchers.
The 16 hitters' debut-year rates: .263/.337/.418.
MLB average rates from 2009-13: .256/.323/.404.
The hitters' average games played: 73.4.
Average MLB team games from June 15 through season's end: 97.4.
The 12 pitchers' debut-year stats: 4.01 ERA, 1.36 WHIP.
MLB average pitching stats 2009-13: 4.02 ERA, 1.33 WHIP.
The pitchers' average appearances: 12.8.
It's the pitchers' statistics that might raise your eyebrow, but bear in mind that the group exhibited performances at either extreme -- some were excellent (Tommy Hanson, for one), others awful (Trevor Bauer) -- which isn't an uncommon pattern for pitchers as a whole. That the collective group of pitchers -- not to mention the hitters -- posted numbers within range of the league average illustrates these rookies' pickup-worthiness merely based upon their potential payoff. In short, this is the group most likely to give you bang for your buck among middle-range-of-the-year acquisitions. Examining the pool of 28 by other measures ...
Best June debuts by final Player Rater standing: Tommy Hanson (2009), Andrew McCutchen (2009), Jose Tabata (2010), Gerrit Cole (2013), Wil Myers (2013), Gordon Beckham (2009), Stephen Strasburg (2010), Pedro Alvarez (2010), Julio Borbon (2009), Zack Wheeler (2013), Dustin Ackley (2011), Yasmani Grandal (2012).
Highest batting average: Jose Tabata .299, Wil Myers .293, Andrew McCutchen .286.
Most home runs: Pedro Alvarez 16, Gordon Beckham 14, Wil Myers 13.
Most stolen bases: Andrew McCutchen 22, Julio Borbon 19, Jose Tabata 19.
Lowest ERA: Randall Delgado 2.83, Tommy Hanson 2.89, Stephen Strasburg 2.91.
Lowest WHIP: Stephen Strasburg 1.07, Gerrit Cole 1.17, Tommy Hanson 1.18.
Most strikeouts: Tommy Hanson 116, Gerrit Cole 100, Stephen Strasburg 92.
That's 12 players out of 28 who were clear "wins," compared to just seven who were out-and-out busts, which represents good odds in a largely unpredictable game. And it's for that very reason that there's an easy answer to that age-old question: Should I use my No. 1 waiver spot to pick up so-and-so-June-debut-dandy?
Well, yes, of course you should.
So, with rookies fresh on our minds, let's take a look at a few members of this June's debut -- and prospective debut -- class, discussing the potential payoff:
Oscar Taveras: You've heard the Vladimir Guerrero comparisons and they're apt; Taveras has some of the best plate (not to mention outside-the-plate) coverage among prospects, his career minor league strikeout rate 13.1 percent and his contact rate 85.4 percent. He was a .321/.377/.519 lifetime minor league hitter, so batting average expectations are presumably his highest in fantasy leagues, with some wondering whether he might be a legitimate .300-plus hitter right away. If anyone is to do it, Taveras can, though it's important not to let your power expectations from him get out of hand. After all, he averaged just one homer per 31.3 at-bats in the minors, which, if directly calculated against the St. Louis Cardinals' 107 games for which he could be active, and an assumption of four at-bats per game, would result in only 13.7 home runs. Taveras might not even reach 10 homers; it's probably smarter to project him a .285 hitter with 10 homers and two to three steals, and while those aren't eye-popping, it's his low downside that makes him an attractive pickup even in 10-team standard mixed leagues. He's the player you lock into one of your final outfield spots with the thought that he shouldn't hurt you, in the hopes he adjusts right away.
Jon Singleton: He'll make his major league debut Tuesday after signing a guaranteed $10 million, and $30 million over-eight-year deal Monday; any "Super Two" concerns were instantly discarded by that agreement. Singleton's contract grants him one advantage no other rookie can have: It gives him no contractual concern if he struggles initially and the Houston Astros need consider demoting him; the Astros now have every reason to keep him in the lineup while he adjusts to the majors, a la George Springer weeks before him. Singleton is kind of the anti-Taveras: He's power-oriented at the expense of batting average, with substantially higher career minor league walk (15.0 percent) and strikeout rates (22.3 percent) than Taveras had (his walk rate was 7.7 percent). That's probably going to result in Singleton struggling to adapt initially, and there's the risk that he'll endure the kind of debut that Rizzo did in 2011, which is why on Tuesday's podcast, I said that he's the kind of prospect for whom you'll need to make your own judgment and stick to it (meaning it requires your patience through any initial struggles, as he's not an add-and-cut-next-week). In a 10-team league, I'd pass on him unless I had an obviously clear roster space for him.
That said, Singleton certainly could be the equivalent of Pedro Alvarez in 2010, as their minor league statistics at the time weren't that dissimilar. Frankly, Alvarez might be a good comparison, because he indeed endured an adjustment period in the majors -- as a sophomore in 2011 -- and it's likely Singleton will face one at some point.
Gregory Polanco: Fantasy owners have been anxiously awaiting his arrival for weeks, and why shouldn't they? Polanco has dominated Triple-A ball all season, including .400/.457/.632 triple-slash rates in April, .308/.374/.487 in May, .303/.387/.379 against left-handers (he's a left-handed hitter), .342/.392/.542 in road games, and seasonal paces (accounting for the 144-game International League schedule) of 15 home runs, 35 stolen bases, 116 RBIs and 106 runs scored. Polanco couldn't be a more obvious "Super Two delay" candidate, though word that he was moved into the leadoff spot for Indianapolis this past Saturday hints that his arrival is imminent. "As he's shown us more and more signs that he may be putting himself in a position to take that next step, we wanted to make sure we didn't ask him to do something at the major league level that he hasn't done in a long time," Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Neal Huntington told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Saturday.
Though he's the one of these first three who isn't yet in the majors, he's the one I'd want first if I could assume an equal number of games played the remainder of 2014. Why? Simple: Polanco has the speed that neither Taveras nor Singleton does, which gives him a soft fantasy "cushion" should he struggle initially with the bat. But Polanco has similarly good strike-zone judgment -- 9.5 percent walk and 15.6 percent strikeout rates during his minor league career -- so there's every reason to believe he can make a comparably strong impact to Springer; Polanco is merely more of a speedster and less of a power hitter than Springer, except that 15-20 additional steals tends to drive Player Rater ranking more than, say, 10-15 homers.
Andrew Heaney: He's another seemingly obvious "Super Two delay" guy, and that he was recently promoted to Triple-A New Orleans suggests that the Miami Marlins aren't far off from considering him the next time they have a big league rotation opening. Heaney is a command guy: He has 23.4 percent strikeout and 5.7 percent walk rates during his minor league career with little variance from those as he has advanced through the system, and he has actually been a more effective pitcher against right-handed than left-handed batters. He'll graduate to the majors into one of the best pitchers' environments in the game, and in a presumably low-pressure situation (the Marlins are 9-13 in their past 22 games, which is more representative of their talent), and he could be up to the task of being a top-40 fantasy starter immediately.