When you’re perusing the latest prospect lists for the next fantasy star, the next Mike Trout or Manny Machado, it’s important to keep in mind the variables that go into such rankings. Defensive ability plays a major role in player evaluation — it’s not all about the hit tool and the power potential. And when it comes to guys who play premium positions on the diamond (catcher, center field, shortstop), a plus defensive projection can vault a prospect far, far up the board. This sort of inflation based on defense oftentimes skews perspective when considering prospects for fantasy purposes. When we constantly see a certain light-hitting shortstop pop up in the top 20 overall prospects at Baseball America or MLB.com, it can be easy to look past the scouting report and simply click “add player” once he surfaces in the bigs. To help avoid such unnecessary blunders, I’ve detailed a few of the more highly-touted defense-first prospects below.
Lindor is a master in the field, a real-life Henry Skrimshander. The arm is plus, the hands are plus-plus, and the instincts and feel are otherworldly. I watched him play Midwest League ball last summer, and it didn’t take long to realize the remarkable nature of his defensive game, and exactly how that sort of attribute can elevate a prospect’s status to elite levels. Lindor will be a top 10 prospect on many lists this offseason, and rightfully so. But his fantasy impact doesn’t figure to be as great as the names that will surround him on those lists. Not that he’s an incompetent hitter — the 19-year-old his hitting .308/.379/.414 with 18 SB through 69 games at High-A Carolina — but it’s probably unwise to expect much from him at the plate. And don’t get me wrong here, Lindor will eventually be a useful fantasy option at a shallow position, hitting for decent average, stealing bags in the double digits, and running into a homer once or twice a month. I wouldn’t expect that sort of production soon after arrival, however. One last thought: Lindor, at just 19 years old, has the potential to remove himself from this schmohawky group if he continues to hit and get on base at Double-A. He should arrive there later this year.
For fantasy purposes, I’ll take the defense-first shortstop over the defense-first outfielder every time. I’ll make do with Brendan Ryan at SS if it means I have an outfield full of big time producers. Jackie Bradley Jr. is not a big time producer. Sure, he’ll make some damn marvelous plays in center, but he doesn’t hit homers and he doesn’t steal bags and he’s no guarantee to help out in AVG. He’s a top 50 prospect, but he”s not a guy you stash, and he’s not a guy you want to make room for once the Red Sox recall him. Outside of AL-Only, I wouldn’t touch Bradley until he’s proven himself as a steady option at the big league level.
As more and more data on the subject is analyzed, it’s becoming increasingly clear that catcher defense is an underestimated component of the game. I think we all sort of suspected this was the case, but now that we have really smart people quantifying the value of such nuances as pitch framing, we don’t really need to suspect any longer. By some measures — and, yes, these metrics are probably in need of further refining — catcher defense is a the most significant win/loss factor in the game. That brand of data is forcing talent evaluators to look at defense-first catching prospects — guys like Austin Hedges — as elite-level prospects. Hedges is a brilliant defender with arm and instincts and wonderful receiving ability. That skill set will put him in the top 30 on most prospect lists this offseason. His arrival in San Diego (2015-ish) will come with loads of hype, but for fantasy purposes, it’s important to differentiate catching prospects like Hedges from ones like Travis d’Arnaud and Gary Sanchez. Hedges swings an okay stick, and has the upside to max out around a .275 AVG and 15 homers, which could certainly be useful, but that’s years down the road. He’ll be a decent NL-Only option upon arrival, but it’s unlikely that he’ll be relevant in mixed leagues for quite a while. Still, Padres fans should be thrilled.