Baseball is in good hands. Look no further than Grey’s top 10 for 2021 fantasy baseball, where you can witness the likes of Ronald Acuna Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr., Juan Soto and Mookie Betts ranked ahead of the greatest player of our time, Randy Arozarena. Just kidding, I really do mean Mike Trout. Venture further into the top 20 for 2021 fantasy baseball and you’ll find Christian Yelich (No. 11), Bo Bichette (No. 12), Nolan Arenado (No. 16) and Luis Robert (No. 20). Side note: what a steal Yelich is going to be in 2021, amiright? But the point I’m trying to get to (and I really am trying), is that right now in baseball we have a beautiful mixture of established veterans performing at high levels (dare I say their prime?) at the forefront of the game and a deep group of emerging young players quickly breaking through into the top 20 talents in all of baseball. The sport, as a whole, is in tremendous hands and the picture only improves when one looks to the plethora of talent trickling down the prospect pipeline. Wander Franco, Jarred Kelenic, Adley Rutschman, Julio Rodriguez and Royce Lewis are all pounding on the door, just to mention a few names, and I haven’t even broached the subjecting of pitching talent in baseball today. Long story short: it’s a good time to be a baseball fan, but still a bad time to be short, or tell long stories.
Of the five prospects named above, all could potentially debut in the Majors in 2021. I’m excited about them all. But as I began writing this piece, I realized that despite their varying long-term outlooks, there’s one positional prospect I’m more excited about owning in re-draft leagues this year than any of them — and their name might surprise you.
That player is Andrew Vaughn. Back in November, Grey gave you his Andrew Vaughn 2021 fantasy outlook for the White Sox first base prospect, writing: “He’s a .300 hitter with power, and every lovey-dovey first baseman-DH hybrid. I watched opposite-field bombs, pulled missiles, jacked jacks. There was nothing not impressive, and I’m sure it will translate to the major leagues, at some point, but he’s at least two months away, and I’m not entirely sure this abhorrent year that was 2020 pushes his timetable back another month or two.” The Itch also likes Vaughn, as most pundits do, ranking him as the No. 1 White Sox prospect for 2021 fantasy baseball. However, I may be even more bullish on the former No. 3 overall pick in the 2019 MLB Draft, and I think there is a scenario in which we see Vaughn at the MLB level by May. Dare I be so bold?
At face value, this might seem like a long shot. But remember, at face value Hunter Renfroe is Mike Trout, Freddie Freeman looks like a librarian and Nick Ahmed could pass as your local neighborhood pharmacist. Life isn’t all about looks. Vaughn has just 55 Minor League games under his belt to date, which could indicate that 2021 will solely be a developmental year for him. That said, he was drafted in 2019 as an advanced hitting prospect after three years of premier play at Cal. Three-year college hitters with an advanced feel for hitting historically move relatively quickly through the farm. On top of that, his batter profile tells the story of a player who may be more apt to excel immediately at the MLB level with a significantly reduced learning curve (compared to the average player). To summarize what many already know, Vaughn was a monster in college, owning a .374/.495/.688 slash line with 50 home runs and 35 doubles in 596 career at bats/160 games. As a sophomore in 2018, he slashed .402/.531/.819 and won the Golden Spikes Award. Over the course of his career, he drew substantially more walks (123) than his number of strikeouts (75), which translated to a 16.5 BB% and 10.1 K%. Purty. Along with that, Vaughn received a 65 hit tool grade and a 60 in the raw power department. When a right-handed hitting first baseman who stands at 6-foot-even gets drafted third overall, it says something — the same way it said something when Spencer Torkelson was drafted first last June. It says “Jonathon Mayo should stick to analyzing mayo.” Or something like that. Either that, or it means the player can flat-out hit: with power, to all fields, with an advanced eye at the plate and ability to drive pitches selectively. Vaughn does all these things, so you be the judge of which phrase is more accurate.
After reading Grey’s November article on Vaughn, I decided to freshen up on the 22-year-old and do some digging. For starters, let the age alone soak in. 22. Come April 3, Vaughn will be 23. That is how birthdays work, unless 2020 changed that, too. Yes, he’s young, but I don’t think Chicago wants their prized prospect to get his first taste of big league action at age 24. See: Howard, Ryan. That is, unless Vaughn has his sights focused on a lucrative Subway contract as opposed to a Hall of Fame career. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but with the way teams value aging players and prioritize controlling the prime years, it makes a lot of sense for the White Sox to get a good look at Vaugh in his age 23 season.
Getting back to those first 55 games in the Minors (all in 2019), Vaughn batted .278/.384/.449 with six home runs and 17 doubles across 205 at bats. The power wasn’t other-worldly, but it’s going to translate at the MLB level eventually, especially after another year devoted to weight training and offseason workouts with an MLB organization. What we’re really looking at is Vaughn’s approach, strike zone awareness and ability to recognize and track pitches as he progresses his way up the ladder. In those 55 games, Vaughn posted a 12.2 BB% and 15.5 K%, which are pretty respectable marks for a young player getting their first taste of professional pitching, let alone an elite power prospect like Vaughn. And that power has rhythm in it.
"Gone as in Vaughn"#WhiteSox 1B prospect Andrew Vaughn absolutely unloading for his first career #SpringTraining homer. Here's where the @WhiteSox's 2019 No. 3 overall pick out of @CalBaseball ranks on the team's Top 30 list that just came out today: https://t.co/7PQSoegcfd pic.twitter.com/u7Q974qInL
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) February 28, 2020
That’s Exhibit A. I absolutely love Vaughn’s timing mechanism and load, and how he subsequently explodes and extends through the ball. But, I don’t want to fall in love too quickly and end up poisoning myself in a tomb, so let’s be skeptical for a moment.
Cooked in with Vaughn’s 2019 stats is his brief, three-game cameo in rookie ball where he hit .600/.625/.933. It’s only a three-game sample size, but Vaughn did go 9-for-15, and quite frankly, I don’t put any stock into how well an elite prospect fares against rookie level pitching. So, I threw those 15 at bats out, and here’s what you get: .253/.367/.411, 13.1 BB%, 15.2 K%. Basically, Vaughn’s 2019 slash line is definitely bolstered by those 15 rookie level at bats, but as evidenced by Vaughn’s three strikeouts in 16 plate appearances, his BB% and K% actually improve when you look at his performance against strictly Single-A and High-A pitching. What’s more impressive is that Vaughn actually struck out less at the High-A level (13.5%) than he did at the Single-A level (17.5%), which bodes well when looking ahead to his future MLB tendencies.
Vaughn profiles as a hitter who we can expect to draw walks above a 12% clip and perhaps even push upwards of 15% as he matures throughout his MLB career. If he can hold his strikeouts below 20% or even right around 20%, the profile is there for this to be a potentially elite hitter from the get go, even before his ratios begin to normalize and he gains more experience tracking pitches at the MLB level. Which, to be fair, he’s already doing with relative ease against names like Gio Gonzalez…
this is so funny — it seemed like they were bringing Alex Colomé into this White Sox intrasquad game so the TV broadcast goes to break. then Gio González waves Colomé off because he wants to face Andrew Vaughn. then Vaughn homers ? pic.twitter.com/YcT9x6FKUR
— Céspedes Family BBQ (@CespedesBBQ) July 17, 2020
And Devin Williams…
— Jack (@ChicagoWSox1) January 7, 2021
One: Vaughn’s ability to drive that down-and-away breaking ball out of the park against Gonzalez is not only an impressive piece of hitting, but a mature one. Second: the way in which Vaughn stays inside the pitch to line a hard-hit single to center field against Williams, the eventual 2020 NL Reliever of the Year, represents a feat many seasoned veterans failed to accomplish last season. He’s good. He might be closer than many ‘perts’ think. If he’s on fire at Double-A in May, and the White Sox are playing good baseball, why wait?
In conclusion, I’m not telling you to go out and draft Vaughn at the back-end of drafts in re-draft leagues. However, I do think there is a stronger possibility that Vaughn plays two-thirds (or close to it) of 2021 at the MLB level and if he does, he will need to be owned in 100% of all leagues. Even if the power lags behind, which it won’t with whatever kind of baseball Rob Manfred puts out there this year, his approach and ability to hit to all fields in a strong lineup will allow him to contribute positively to four categories in 5×5 mixed AVG leagues. In points leagues, he should have even greater value based on the power upside he possesses with the lack of strikeouts.
Personally, I try not to get too caught up in the sheer beauty of a prospect’s swing in college and the lower minors, but this is nearly impossible with Vaughn. Everything about his load, stride, hands, bat path and extension through the ball scream future 30/100 bat. I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up, because Andrew is just too damn beautiful. For 2021, Razzball Steamer Projections have Vaughn for a .215/.278/.360 batting line with 6.8 home runs, 23.1 RBI and 24.1 runs. I’m taking the over on every component of that stat line. If judging based off the long-term, complete outlook, I’d likely consider other names (Kelenic, Franco) ahead of Vaughn, but for 2021 alone, I’m taking the over here. The situation in Chicago projects “win now” from the bottom to the top of Tony La Russa’s beer pyramid — and I’m buying on Vaughn to be one of the primary beneficiaries in 2021.