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Champ or Chump: Brendan Rodgers and Austin Riley


The top prospects have been getting called up quickly of late, giving us plenty of options who warrant a closer look. Let's go with 22-year-old kids who took a big step forward at Triple-A this season, are infielders technically playing out of position at the big league level, and were drafted in 2015. Those criteria specific enough for you?

Of course, the players were selected before the author realized that both Brendan Rodgers and Austin Riley fit all of the criteria above. Both have significant prospect pedigrees and make for tremendous keeper and dynasty league assets, but only one looks primed to help redraft owners in 2019.

Keep in mind, our Champ / Chump conclusions are based on whether we think a player will outperform their expectations. For example, a pitcher we view as "Tier 2" can be a Champ if they're seen as a Tier 3 pitcher, or they could be a Chump if they're perceived as a Tier 1 pitcher. All ownership rates are from Yahoo! leagues unless otherwise noted. Let's take a closer look at Rodgers and Riley, shall we?

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Brendan Rodgers (2B/SS, COL)

33% Owned

Rodgers's first two games at the big league level haven't gone as well as hoped, but he did get to check "first big league RBI" and "first big league hit" off of his to-do list. Sadly, he's been benched in favor of perennial All-Star warm body Ryan McMahon the past two games, suggesting that the Rockies aren't committed to playing their top prospect despite starting his service clock. He also hit seventh for his first two MLB games, providing more evidence that his role on the team may not immediately produce fantasy value.

We can't predict what a backwards organization like the Rockies might do moving forward, so let's concentrate on Rodgers himself. He first cracked the High Minors in 2017, slashing a respectable .260/.323/.413 with six big flies in 164 PAs at Double-A. He both lifted the ball (44.8 FB%) and hit it with decent authority (12.8% HR/FB), though his 4.9 BB% left a lot to be desired. His .306 BABIP and 22 K% were both around average, suggesting that Rodgers largely deserved his final line.

Rodgers repeated the level in 2018 and fared much better, slashing .275/.342/.493 with 17 HR and 12 SB over 402 PAs. His plate discipline improved markedly (7.5 BB%, 18.9 K%), and a HR/FB spike to 16% more than made up for a slight decrease in FB% (38.3). Notably, Rodgers had never cracked double-digit steals in a season before this campaign and hasn't swiped a single base since. Scouts don't love his legs either, so fantasy owners shouldn't look at Rodgers as a speed guy going forward.

The performance earned Rodgers a shot at Triple-A Albuquerque, but it didn't go well: .232/.264/.290 with no long balls in 72 PAs. His 22.2 K% was fine, but his 1.4 BB% suggests that the pitchers could do whatever they wanted with him. His FB% also shrank to 27.5 percent, a problem even if a good portion of the missing flies turned into line drives (29.4 LD% at Triple-A vs. 19.5% at Double-A).

Rodgers came back with a vengeance this season: .356/.421/.644 with nine HR in just 152 PAs. While that line looks fantasy-friendly, there are several red flags here. First, Albuquerque is one of the more hitter-friendly venues in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. The new ball at Triple-A is making it even more hitter-friendly than usual this year, so Rodger's 27.3% HR/FB should be taken with a huge grain of salt. That could be a problem, as his 30 FB% doesn't suggest that he's any better at lofting the ball than he was last season.

He was also running a .382 BABIP on the farm before his big league call-up. Regression seems likely, especially since his Baseball Savant scouting report says that he gets "pull-happy at times." Pulling ground balls leads to plenty of hard contact and elevated BABIPs in a MiLB where shifts don't exist, but those same well-struck balls accomplish little if anything at the big league level.

The prospect experts at FanGraphs also feel that Rodgers has some growing to do before he's ready to make a big league impact. His hit tool is currently rated as a 40 on the 20-80 scale, which represents a below average mark. They feel it will get to an above average 55 in the future, but that doesn't help redraft owners at all. Similarly, they scored Rodgers current game power as a 45, with 55 their forecast for the future. Again, a good long-term play with little immediate impact.

Rodgers improved his plate discipline at Triple-A this season (9.2 BB%, 16.4 K%), so it seems likely that he is making real progress despite his environment. The 10th-ranked prospect according to MLB.com also has talent to burn, and Baseball Savant's scouting grades are considerably kinder than their FanGraphs counterparts (60 Hit, 55 Power). Still, there are enough red flags here (especially his organization) that he's probably more of a watch list guy than one to pay through the nose for.

Verdict: Chump (based primarily on playing time concerns, especially if he doesn't start hot)

 

Austin Riley (3B/OF, ATL)

69% Owned

Riley's big league career is off to a sensational start: .385/.407/.769 with three homers in just 27 PAs. We're not making a big deal out of 27 PAs one way or the other, so let's head back to the farm.

Like Rodgers, Riley reached Double-A for the first time in 2017. He slashed .315/.389/.511 with eight homers in 203 PAs, albeit with a .393 BABIP backing him up. His 24.6 K% was a bit high, though he also worked his share of walks with a 9.9% rate. His FB% wasn't special (37.2%), but his 16.7% HR/FB suggests the kind of power he's capable of.

Riley returned to Double-A in 2018, slashing .333/.394/.677 with six homers in 109 PAs. His .415 BABIP was absurd and he again struck out too much (25.7 K%, 7.3 BB%), but his 40.6 FB% and 21.4% HR/FB both suggest big league power. The performance earned Riley a shot at Triple-A Gwinnett, where he slashed .282/.346/.464 with 12 homers in 324 PAs. A .374 BABIP masked a K% spike to 29.3, but at least he continued to walk (8 BB%). His 37.5 FB% and 16.7% HR/FB were disappointing considering his Double-A performance, but they were far from bad.

Riley's BABIP finally dropped to .286 in 2019 for Gwinnett, but dramatically improved plate discipline (11.1 BB%, 19.1 K%) still allowed him to hit .299/.377/.681 with 15 HR over 162 PAs before his big league debut. He turned a lot of his line drives (27.1% at Triple-A last year, 18% this) into fly balls (37.5% to 48.6%), doing a lot of damage with his 27.8% HR/FB as a result.

FanGraphs remains unconvinced by his hit tool (40 present, 45 future), but his 70 grade raw power suggests a ton of upside if he figures it out. Baseball Savant has a more balanced scouting report (50 hit, 60 power), and they note that Riley has a good eye but has a lot of swing-and-miss in the zone. That sounds like strikeouts could be a problem to this author, but the power is real.

Overall, Riley projects as a less extreme version of Joey Gallo: lots of flies, raw power to burn, and probably a bad batting average. That's a very valuable fantasy profile even if it doesn't fit every roster. The Braves are generally hitting him sixth, but he could force his way into a better lineup spot by season's end. It's worth rolling the dice on MLB.com's 34th-ranked prospect.

Verdict: Champ (based on likelihood that he remains in the majors and slugs 25+ HR)

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