SPECULATOR: Avoiding this year's Jesus Aguilar

In most years, we might title this column something like "Searching for the next _______", looking for a set of indicators that could lead to the next breakout performance in 2020.

But on the heels of Ron Shandler's findings in his intro of the 2020 Baseball Forecaster, we'll take the complete opposite approach. Out of the 280 pages of fanalytic goodness in this year's tome, the chart that stood out most to me most showed us just how bad we are at picking players. Our success rates, grouped by every five rounds, from Page 3 are shown below:

To summarize: In the first five rounds of drafts over the last two years, nearly half of our picks have been full-on "busts" (player returned a 4+ round loss vs. his draft round), while another 25% were a mere "loss" (a 1-3 round loss). As Ron succinctly states:

One more time—every player we drafted had, at best, only a one-in-three chance of being a good pick.

Enter Jesus Aguilar (1B, MIA), a Top 100 pick in 2019 whose .236 BA, 12 HR disaster certainly qualified for two right-most columns in the table above. Hindsight being 2020, we can identify a few characteristics of Aguilar that might have been red flags:

  • Lack of track record—Aguilar earned $22 in 2018 according to Playerlink, but his previous career-high before that? Just $4.
  • Contact issues—Aguilar "improved" from 2018's 66% ct% with a 71% mark in his breakout season. A run of slight bad luck (26% first-half h%) was all it took to remove Aguilar from the starting lineup given the frequent swing-and-miss.

So this week, we'll search for red flags that make the case for several potential landmines littered throughout the early rounds. We wouldn't bet on any of these players taking as sharp a dive as Aguilar did, but in true Speculator fashion, we'll focus on why a "bust" is within their ~20% range of outcomes.

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National League

Pete Alonso (1B, NYM) is in some rare company, as just four other hitters have hit 50+ HR over the last 10 years. That group's HR totals the following season, though? 43, 38, 27, 26. Regression isn't the only powerful force going against him either; Alonso flashed a poor contact rate (69% ct% in 2019) and saw dips in raw power (a mere mortal 135 xPX) and BA skills (.251 xBA) in the second half. With an offseason for opposing pitchers to find holes in Alonso's game, the risk of "Polar Bear Pete" going ice cold is a little too high for a third-round pick.

Josh Bell (1B, PIT) in 2020 is a classic case of trusting a skill-supported, small-sample breakout against a longer track record of mediocre production ($11, $7 in 5x5 earnings from 2017-18). The Forecaster tagged Bell with an "UP: 40/120/.300" season and yours truly detailed the cause behind his first-half breakout in 2019, but all that optimism fails to consider the bust potential with Bell if he either: 1) reverts to pre-2019 form, or 2) looks like he did in the second half of 2019. Injury may have been to blame for Bell's late swoon, but those outcomes are certainly within the 20% range noted in our disclaimer at the bottom of this page.

Tommy Edman (2B/3B, STL) came from complete obscurity—he garnered just a "7C" prospect rating when called up last June—to deliver a .304 BA with 11 HR and 15 SB in just over a half-season of at-bats. Edman, who had never hit more than seven HR in a minor-league season entering 2019, has great speed and a contact-oriented approach, but was mostly viewed as a utility bat this time last year. How confident are you in dropping a Top 150 pick on Edman based on a one-year surge?

Replace "X" with your best guess in this sequence: 4, -2, 12, 32, "X". Those are Ketel Marte's (2B, ARI) 5x5 earnings in each of the last four seasons. Sure, the $-2 in 2017 came in just 223 AB, but the point stands that Marte is coming off a career year and is being drafted in the fourth round—exactly the time not to buy. Even during Marte's breakout 2019 season, the raw power was just above league average (107 xPX), he rarely ran, he posted a career-high h%, and his season was cut short with back issues. Regression is somewhat baked into Marte's price, but if he looks like his pre-2019 self at all, the downside is significant.

While we're hesitant to tag someone with the prospect pedigree of Victor Robles (OF, WAS)—the 22-year-old ranked #4 on our 2019 HQ100—there are warning signs everywhere. Robles' contact eroded in 2019 and he hasn't shown a lick of power in the majors. His 81.0 mph average exit velocity in 2019 ranked 249th out of 250 qualifying hitters; ahead of only Billy Hamilton. The wheels are elite, sure, but that's all you're paying for here, as Robles' deficiencies in the other four categories put him dangerously close to "one-trick pony" status as a Top 100 pick. Robles' long-term outlook is still mega-bright, but the 2020 floor is lower than you might think.

 

American League

Cavan Biggio (2B, TOR) made quite the splash as a rookie last year (16 HR/14 SB in just 430 plate appearances), and his early draft price (139 ADP) commands more of the same. As noted in the Forecaster, Biggio's power/speed skills look legit, but they're standing on a foundation of atrocious contact that makes Biggio a supreme BA risk. Biggio needed an unsustainable line-drive rate (28%) to prop up a .234 BA last year, and while his plate patience should keep him on base and in the lineup, any run of bad h% luck makes for a dangerously low floor.

On one hand, Jorge Soler (DH, KC) is a former can't-miss prospect who started showing signs of a post-hype breakout as early as May 2018, and his 2019 breakout (.265 BA, 48 HR) came with plenty of skill support. On the other hand? Skills can regress just like surface stats. Soler posted 2019 career-highs in HR/F (28%; career 20%), xBA (.270; career .250), and at-bats (589; previous high: 366). Pair those with an Aguilar-esque contact rate (70% in 2019), minimal speed, and a lengthy list of IL stints, and Soler likely has trouble returning his slot value.

The allure of a 22-year-old prospect coming off a .328 BA, 32 HR, 36 SB season in the minors is tempting, particularly when he's all but assured of a starting gig on Opening Day. Luis Robert (OF, CHW) is this year's Vladimir Guerrero Jr—the highest-drafted hitter without an MLB plate appearance—and his price is skyrocketing. But beneath Robert's monster 2019 season were some shaky plate skills (5% bb%, 72% ct%), while our own Chris Blessing noted Robert has issues recognizing spin in our CHW Org Report. The HR/SB upside is real, but if Robert has trouble hitting MLB breaking balls, he'll have one of the lower floors of any hitter going in the Top 80 of drafts.

Marcus Semien (SS, OAK) failed to put up a $15 season in any of his first five years in the big leagues… and then bam, a $25 breakout in 2019. Semien's .285 BA, 33 HR, 10 SB outburst came with a promising uptick in contact rate (84%; career 78%), though much of this came from a 650+ AB total that rarely gets repeated. With league-average raw power and a mostly red light on the basepaths, Semien's Top 90 draft price says you're probably buying him at his peak. The track record is long enough that he won't crash, but reverting to his 2015-18 self is just as likely as approaching a 2019 repeat.

A 23-year-old with elite prospect pedigree coming off a .278, 38 HR season—what's not to like about Gleyber Torres (2B, NYY)? We'll concede that the odds of an Aguilar-esque crash are slim to nil, but Torres finished as our 48th-best hitter in 5x5 leagues last year—he'll need to improve considerably just to break even at his current draft cost (29 ADP). The underlying skills doubt that happens, as Torres' 2019 power skills (116 xPX, 31 xHR) question even a repeat. Without an elite BA or SB total, Torres is almost sure to return less value than his current draft spot.

 

The Speculator is not designed to make definitive assertions about the future; rather, it is designed solely to open reader's eyes to possibilities they may not have previously entertained, and in doing so, provide a different perspective on the future. Many of the possibilities will be of the "out on a limb" variety. All are founded on SOME element of fact. But none should be considered any more than 20% percentage plays.


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.