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Buying and Selling the Young Friars


As a sport, baseball’s greatest cultural advantage might be its roots as a game which begins with the thaw of winter and the arrival of spring. There is nothing more generally inspiring for all fans than the promise of Spring Training and the potential growth of young players. That’s especially true when those prospects play for a team, like the Padres, which has been a perennial doormat for so many seasons. A few years ago, we saw a similar pattern with the Astros when they jumped from finishing 70-92 in 2014 to 86-76 in 2015.

After losing 96 games last year, the Padres went out and signed Manny Machado to hasten that transition: a rich nitrogen and iron mix to juice the sod, as it were.

Add Chris Paddack, Fernando Tatis Jr., Franmil Reyes, and a host of young, talented players, and the Padres have one of the most exciting teams in all of baseball and perhaps a set of the most overlooked players in fantasy. To some extent, owners can be excused for not thinking of the Padres as a team with the offense to support strong totals in wins, runs, or RBI: that was true just last year. This season, however, is a chance for new and sensational growth.

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Fernando Tatis Jr. (20, SS)

79% Owned

Outside of Peter Alonso, there’s no hotter prospect in the majors right now. That will change when Vlad Guerrero Jr. arrives, but for now, we’ll have to satisfy ourselves with the substantial talents of Alonso and Tatis. The Padres surprised nearly everyone when they announced that Tatis would break camp with the major league squad, but they did so for good reason. Manny Machado’s signing this winter, Chris Paddack’s readiness, and the ascent of the other names on this list have slammed open the Padres’ contention window. It would have been an embarrassment if the team saved a year of control but missed playoffs by a game or two in the middle of Machado’s prime.

Organizational need might have been the reason the Padres called up Tatis, but his 2018 performance showed he was ready. By the end of last season, Tatis had already leaped to top-ten prospect lists everywhere. Before 2017, there was some concern about his power, but after a .239 ISO at single-A in 2017 and .221 at AA in 2018, Tatis has emerged as a legitimate five-tool prospect. So far this season, the shortstop has delivered a strong 9.7 Brls/PA with a respectable 88.9 MPH average exit velocity. The expected statistics are less rosy with a modest .322 xwOBA and a concerning .209 xBA.

All of those are small sample sizes outside the stabilization range, but Tatis’ currently owns a 30.6 K%, and at 72 PAs, he is approaching the stabilization point for strikeouts. If it stays above 30%, it will be difficult for him to maximize his run and RBI potential. Right now, Tatis looks like a candidate for 20 HR, 90 runs, 90 RBI, 15 SB, and a .260 BA. However, if his BABIP holds up and he can marginally reduce his strikeouts, there’s little reason to believe the Padres won’t move him out of the sixth spot and up to the top of the batting order to give him additional protection. The Friars have used Manny Margot, Luis Urias and Wil Myers at leadoff recently, but none of them has demonstrated the on-base skills to solidify that job. That leaves Tatis, as the organization’s top prospect, positioned to move up in the batting order and capitalize on his substantive talent.

 

Francisco Mejia (23, C)

44% Owned

Mejia is San Diego’s catcher of the future, or their future DH. For further information, tweet @RobManfred. Mejia had one of the best hit tools in the minors. The Padres look committed to starting him behind home plate, which will give almost as consistent at-bats as all but a handful of catchers in the league. Mejia’s minor-league career (.293 BA with a .799 OPS) provides plenty of reason for optimism, but he hasn’t demonstrated the type of dominance to suggest he’ll be an above-average hitter right away. In 40 MLB games so far, Mejia has hit just .170; however, his .211 BABIP indicates bad luck and the need for a bit more patience.

Currently, catcher is such a wasteland that even if he is only a league-average hitter, Mejia could be an asset for many fantasy squads. Mejia’s 2019 so far has been unusable, and he’s a bit of a post-hype player, so he should remain available in many leagues, but if you need a catcher, keep an eye on his progress this season: it's possible he finishes the year as a top-five fantasy backstop.

 

Franmil Reyes (23, OF)

41% Owned

Fresh off a rookie season in which he knocked 16 home runs in 87 games and got on base at a .340 clip, Reyes looks like a serious breakout candidate who is being overlooked in many leagues. The outfielder ranked 12th in xwOBA (.477) last season and had an especially strong second half with a .394 wOBA, 15th best among hitters with 150 PAs during that period. Reyes has continued making good contact and capitalizing on his already estimable plate discipline. He’s improved his SwSt% from 14.0% in 2018 to 11.9% this season. That combination has improved his strikeout rate from 28.1% to 17.5%, the latter of which is much closer to his minor league average of 20.9%.

Reyes is a threat to hit 35 home runs and score 100 runs if his playing situation stays consistent. Despite his cold start, Reyes has been hitting out of the second and fourth slots in the last week. He’s rewarded the Padres with his best offensive week of the season. Even with four home runs in his last ten games, this may be the last opportunity to buy Reyes for anything less than an all-star caliber player.

 

Hunter Renfroe (27, OF)

38% Owned

Renfroe is San Diego’s other bash brother. He lacks Reyes’ sheer bulk and some of his raw power, but Renfroe makes up for it in track record. Across four seasons, Renfroe has accrued 60 home runs with a .258 ISO in 265 games: good for a 36.6 HR/162-game average. There are some drawbacks to Renfroe’s skillset. He’s not likely to hit over .250, and he has traditionally struggled against right-handers against whom he owns a .653 OPS. However, Renfroe avoids being a strict platoon player by generating useful power against righties (39 HR in 686 PAs).

Like most of the players on this list, there are signs of growth already. Renfroe’s walk-rate has improved to 8%, and his strikeout rate has dropped from 24.7% to 21.6%. He's been given the opportunity to establish himself to start this season: he’s started in 16 of the Padres’ 19 games and provided a 126 wRC+. Steamer predicts a .222 ISO, but the projection system sees Renfroe as a platoon player likely to start only 82 more games. If he were to generate that same level of power and start 135 games (his current pace), he would be a 28-HR player.

 

Luis Urias (21, 2B)

5% Owned

Urias sports a stronger hit tool than Tatis, but he lacks Tatis’ 60-grade speed and power. None of the projections systems are particularly high on Urias: Steamer sees him as a .242 hitter with seven home runs and four steals, and Urias isn't going to provide much pop this season. His career-high exit velocity is just 107 MPH, 394th among players with at least 30 batted ball events last season. His batted ball profile looks similar to Marcus Semien’s, but with fewer barrels per plate appearance (1.9), which means that he’s getting to his power even less often than Semien.

Despite that limitation, Urias has consistently hit near .300 in the minors, and the organization envisions him as a potential leadoff man. When the team recently recalled Urias from AAA, they immediately auditioned him as their leadoff hitter, but he went 0 for 5 with two strikeouts on the night. They subsequently dropped him to eighth in the batting order, and he’s made good contact since then.

That dynamic is likely to define Urias’ season value. If he can keep hitting in the majors AND the Padres move him back to the leadoff spot or maybe ninth, he’ll see solid run totals, and he might get the opportunity to steal around ten bags. If he languishes in the bottom third of the batting order, he’s a non-factor in 2019.

 

Chris Paddack (23, SP)

81% Owned

Paddack could become 2019’s Walker Buehler, though there are plenty of other strong candidates as well. Paddack is blessed with a fastball that sits at 95, a filthy changeup that mimics the fastball but comes in ten MPH slower, and a legitimate slider. Much has already been written about Paddack’s talent and ability, so it’s probably worth focusing a bit more on his actual prospects for this season.

Steamer currently projects Paddack for 139 innings of 3.38 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, and a 10.10 K/9, and there’s little reason to disagree with those numbers, which are excellent. I’ve already written that the Padres see themselves as serious playoff contenders this year, and it’s unlikely they can do that while limiting their ace to just 140 IP. Unfortunately, Paddack didn’t pitch at all in 2017, and he threw only 90 innings in 2018. The Padres could push Paddack to 150 innings during the regular season, but that seems unlikely. That’s why Walker Buehler, or maybe Stephen Strasburg or Joba Chamberlain come to mind. We have a talented young pitcher whose club has legitimate concerns about his longevity through the course of the season. However, that club also has designs on competing in the playoffs.

Paddack’s value in roto leagues is probably better than his value in head-to-head leagues where he could very well be shut down or relegated to a relief role once head-to-head playoffs begin. He's an SP2 until he gets shut down, but who knows when that will be or how the Padres will do it.

 

Joey Lucchesi (25, SP)

73% Owned

A waiver-wire and streaming star last season, Lucchesi looks to pick up where he left off. Lucchesi’s strikeout rate (23.1%) is down this season, but his swinging-strike (11.3%) and chase rates (34.7%) have improved. There are similar discrepancies between his ERA (5.06), FIP (3.34), xFIP (3.51), and SIERA (4.02). It’s reasonable to hope that Lucchesi can take a step forward this season, but there isn't concrete evidence to indicate that. The primary reason for optimism is Lucchesi’s healthy K-BB%, which is closer to top-30 performers like Zack Greinke and J.A. Happ than his 2018 ERA peers of Junior Guerra and Jose Quintana.

There are some notable differences from last year when a hip strain limited Lucchesi to 136.2 innings. The Padres would likely have held him to around 170 or 180 innings, but he shouldn't be restricted in any way this year. That leaves Lucchesi as a potential buy-low if his current owners are unimpressed by his first four starts. He’s not a Cy-Young candidate, but he could well emerge as an SP3.

 

Matt Strahm (27, SP/RP)

38% Owned

For the last two seasons, Strahm has been an analyst darling, and for good cause. As a reliever, Strahm featured an above-average pitch mix, and he showed he was ready to jump from the bullpen to the rotation. In 2018, his 2.05 ERA, .98 WHIP, and 28.2 K% gave the Padres, analysts and fantasy owners reason to believe that the lefthander just needed volume to be a top-30 pitcher. However, Strahm struggled to start the season in 2019, and he didn't look good in his second outing though he allowed only one earned run. Despite that rocky start to the season, Strahm's last two games have shown more of the skill his owners were hoping to see. His fourth start featured an improved chase rate, more ground balls, and his best swinging-strike rate of the season. The chase rate and swinging strikes may have been a product of facing the Reds, but the ground balls were not. After that game against the Reds, he now holds a 1.16 WHIP and 3.05 ERA.

That's plenty of reason for optimism, but Strahm isn't necessarily out of the woods yet. One of the major concerns is that he's lost 2.4 MPH off his fastball velocity and is showing similar issues with his other pitches. The secondary offerings have been sharper in his last two starts, but he's been unable to generate strikeouts (15.3 K%) the way he did when he was a reliever. Moreover, he still owns a 3.94 FIP and 5.04 SIERA. Strahm's initial trouble might simply be a matter of finding the balance between a reliever’s maximum-effort role and a starter’s longevity. Those FIP and SIERA numbers might be lagging indicators rather than leading ones if Strahm can adjust and regain some of his velocity, as starters often do over the course of the season.

Following his first two starts, Strahm’s ownership level plummeted, but like Mejia and Renfroe, he’s a player worth watching and this may be your last window to buy him. His fourth start was his best so far. His velocity was still down, he gave up zero walks for the second straight outing and allowed only two hits and one earned run. If he figures out how to leverage the skills he showed as a reliever in his role as a starter, he could emerge as a legitimate SP3. If he keeps struggling as a starter, he’s either unrosterable or destined for the bullpen.

 

Nick Margevicius (22, SP)

29% Owned

Margevicus is the youngest of the Padres new starters, but other than Paddack, he might offer better value than any pitcher on this list. It was a surprise to many when the Padres tapped Margevicius as a starter for this season. The lefty had never pitched above single-A, but he did see success there and in Spring Training.

The rookie relies primarily on his fastball and slider, which come in at 89 MPH and 80 MPH respectively. He has a curve and changeup as well but uses them only a few times per game. His strategy is largely to induce poor contact and limit damage. Margevicius’ 3.75 FIP and 3.51 SIERA both suggest that his 3.60 ERA is sustainable, but the .245 BABIP means that we should see some regression in his 0.90 WHIP. The 9.8 swinging-strike rate also means that Margevicius’ 24.1 K% is probably too high right now.

Margevicius is owned in just 29% of leagues, and he’s managed similar strikeout rates in the past, so he could be a moderate source of strikeouts to go with a healthy WHIP and ERA. If you need a starter there are plenty of worse options available.

 

Eric Lauer (23, SP)

21% Owned

Lauer debuted last season and threw 112 major-league innings for a fantasy-useless 4.34 ERA and 1.54 WHIP. The left-hander relies mostly on a four-seamer, cutter, and curve, but he does have a changeup and slider.

None of those offerings stands out, and it’s difficult to see Lauer emerging as a major fantasy asset this season, but he could be useful in deep formats and streaming situations. Look for Lauer to provide league-average ratio stats and little else, at least for 2019.

 

Conclusion

Regardless of league format, one of these young players is likely relevant to your situation. The Padres don’t always get the attention of other teams, and analysts are still struggling with how to pronounce some of the rookies’ names, let alone make sense of their value. The best course of action is to keep an eye on the Padres season and strike if the opportunity presents itself.

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