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Champ or Chump: Tyler O'Neill and Juan Soto

It seems like we're far enough into the season for the minor leagues to stop pumping out shiny new toys for fantasy owners to play with, yet the hits keep on coming. Nineteen-year old Juan Soto is the latest blue chip prospect to make an MLB debut, and the hype surrounding him is roughly equivalent to some sort of divine entity. His raw talent is incredible, but it might be impossible to meet the expectations the fantasy community has for him.

Tyler O'Neill of the St. Louis Cardinals is slightly older (age 22), and he has certainly made the most of his first 26 MLB plate appearances. He could be a threat on the bases as well, though his running game hasn't been spotted in the majors yet.

If your team is in need of upside, you have no shortage of options. Let's take a more nuanced look at the players mentioned above.

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The Fantasy Jury is Out

Tyler O'Neill (OF, STL) - 39% Owned

O'Neill has a .348/.385/.783 triple slash line through his first 26 MLB PAs, paying immediate dividends to owners who picked him up early. His 30.8% K% and 3.8% BB% suggest that regression could be ugly, but his minor league history supports the idea of O'Neill as a useful fantasy player.

O'Neill first cracked the High Minors in 2016 with Seattle's then Double-A affiliate, the Jackson Generals. He more than held his own as a 20-year old, slashing .293/.374/.508 with 24 HR and 12 steals (against two CS) in 575 PAs. His BABIP (.364) and K% (26.1%) were both high, but he proved that he knew how to lift the ball (45.9% FB%) while earning his fair share of walks (10.8%). His home park probably helped inflate his BABIP (1.017 ballpark factor for hits from 2014-2016) while muting some of his power (0.856).

It was a solid performance that earned him a shot at Triple-A Tacoma. He gained power at the cost of batting average, slashing .244/.328/.479 with 19 HR and nine steals (two CS) over 396 PAs. His BABIP normalized (.295) while he continued to walk (11.1% BB%) and strikeout (27.3% K%) at high rates. His FB% fell slightly (42.4%), but his power output improved thanks to a HR/FB spike (14.9% at Double-A, 19% at Tacoma). Tacoma suppresses BABIP (0.859 park factor) while inflating HR totals (1.027), explaining some of the difference in his results.

The Cardinals acquired O'Neill in exchange for pitcher Marco Gonzalez partway through the 2017 season, giving the former 161 PAs at Triple-A Memphis. He continued the trends begun at Tacoma, slashing .253/.304/.548 with an impressive 12 HR and five steals for the Cardinals organization. His FB% (45.6%) and HR/FB (25.5%) spiked dramatically, while his BABIP (.266) and BB% (6.2%) fell sharply. Memphis is a pitcher's park in terms of HR (0.950 park factor) and BABIP (0.829), making his power output more impressive.

The sample was small enough to ignore, but O'Neill did it again to start 2018. He slashed .319/.333/.708 with 13 long balls and a steal in 120 PAs, raising his FB% to a ridiculous 52.3% while maintaining his HR/FB gains (28.9%). He got his BABIP (.307) above .300 for the first time since Double-A in 2016 while cutting his K% (23.3%) and BB% (2.5%). If nothing else, he earned his shot at the Show.

He always brought at least average plate discipline to the table before this season, so there is hope that he can walk more often moving forward. His minor league SB success rates and Statcast Sprint Speed (28 ft./sec) suggest that he has a running game, and consistently high FB% and HR/FB marks on the farm suggest real power potential as well. He might be a batting average drag if he keeps striking out, but 30 HR and 15 SB  are worth a .250 average.

Verdict: Champ

Juan Soto (OF, WAS) - 65% Owned

Soto is the proud owner of nine MLB PAs, slashing .500/.667/.1.000 in the small sample. At age 19, "small sample" is a term that accurately describes every stop he's ever had. As a result, he's a total wild card for 2018 production.

Soto's numbers have been impressive on the farm, but he posted BABIPs and HR/FB ratios that aren't even close to sustainable at every stop. His .323/.400/.581 line at Double-A this season (35 PAs) was rooted in a .364 BABIP and 20% HR/FB. His .340 BABIP at High-A (73 PAs) was lower than his Double-A number, but a ludicrous 38.9% HR/FB allowed Soto to slash .371/.466/.790 with seven bombs anyway. He began the year at A-ball, where he slashed .373/.486/.814 with five homers over 74 PAs on the back of a .405 BABIP and 31.3% HR/FB.

Soto's minor league history before this season was similar. He slashed .360/.427/.523 with three homers at A-ball last season (96 PAs) thanks to a .373 BABIP and 15.8% HR/FB. He actually compiled 183 PAs at rookie league in 2016, slashing .361/.410/.550 with five homers, a BABIP of .403, and 11.1% HR/FB.

Numbers like those are impressive and warrant attention, but they don't guarantee that Soto is ready for immediate stardom. For one thing, the kid has never struggled at any level. Slumps are inevitable in MLB, and Soto has no experience with failure. How he handles it is currently a complete unknown.

The defense Soto saw at A-ball simply does not compare to what he'll experience in Washington, to say nothing of the competent pitching and expertly manicured fields free of BABIP-inflating debris. This is why analysis of Low Minors seasons is generally avoided wherever possible.

Baseball is often described as a game of adjustments, but Soto has never stayed at one level long enough for opposing pitchers to see him multiple times. This means that he has no experience making counter-adjustments, forcing him to learn against the best adjusters in the world.

Soto is still raw, and many of his peripheral stats suggest that he hasn't learned how to maximize his physical gifts yet. Outside of his 41.7% FB% at Double-A this year, here are his FB% marks for all of the partial seasons cited above: 34%, 34.8%, 24.4%, and 32.4%. Nobody runs HR/FB rates in excess of 30% in the major leagues, so Soto needs to lift the ball to produce the power numbers expected of him. Can he do it without compromising another aspect of his game?

Likewise, Soto is 9-for-14 in SB attempts on the farm. That's a success rate of 64%, not high enough to justify running for a contender at the MLB level. Owners may be expecting some speed from the wunderkind, but he doesn't yet know how to pick his spots.

Finally, we need to consider the very real possibility that the Nationals send him back to the minor leagues. The team is currently facing the prospect of losing Bryce Harper to free agency at age 26 because they called him up as a teenager. The slightest slump once the team gets healthy will provide all of the smokescreen the team needs to play service time games.

In short, Juan Soto is either Mike Trout or a bust in 2018. He's great in keeper formats for his long-term potential, but that does not mean he'll reach it this year. If you can trade him for a current star or even a solid guy you can set and forget in redraft leagues, don't hesitate to do it.

Verdict: Chump (in 2018)


More 2018 Player Outlooks

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