We're just past the quarter pole in the Minor Leagues, and that's about the point where fantasy owners are starting to determine whether early-season triumphs or struggles of some of the game's top prosprects are the real deal or just another case for the Chris Shelton Sustainability Index. With that in mind, we try to answer one simple question in this week's Fantasy Focus -- should fantasy players be concerned about "X" prospect's early-season struggles? -- and come up with a suitable case study for each possible answer.
Javier Baez, shortstop, Iowa Cubs: This was the natural lead-in to this piece. After putting up a .282/.341/.578 slash line with 37 homers between two levels last season, the Cubs' top prospect has struggled immensely in his move to Triple-A. The 21-year-old owns just a .162/.244/.291 line with four homers in 31 games for the I-Cubs. He's also striking out at a 35.9 percent clip, which would be the worst "K" rate of his Minor League career.
But should fantasy owners be at all concerned? Maybe only slightly, but generally no. He's one of only six 21-year-olds playing in the Pacific Coast League, so growing pains against advanced competition should have been expected, even if many thought he would sail right through to Wrigley after a few months. He also owns a ridiculously low .224 BABIP that can't be explained by slow speed alone and signifies some bad luck that may also be hurting his average and OBP.
All these struggles do is bring folks back down to Earth on just how good Baez can be right now. (Full disclosure: I fell in that trap by picking him to win the NL Rookie of the Year.) The overall profile remains strong, and his future remains as a productive, if not fantastic, Major Leaguer with a ton of power, something not often seen from shortstops.
For the record, you could say many of the same things about 21-year-old top Phillies prospect Maikel Franco, who has a .239/.318/.361 line with three homers in 40 games for Triple-A Lehigh Valley. You could also add that Franco, unlike Baez, is turning it around by going 13-for-38 with a homer, seven RBIs and seven walks in his last 10 games.
Matt Davidson, third baseman, Charlotte Knights: The White Sox thought they may have found their third baseman of the future when they acquired Davidson from the D-backs in exchange for right-handed reliever Addison Reed. They got a slugger who hit 15 homers in each of his four full seasons in the Minors, had impressed at the Triple-A level (.280/.350/.481) and held his own during a 31-game stint in the Majors (.237/.333/.434).
But rather than starting the year with the big club, Chicago sent him instead to Triple-A Charlotte, and it's there that the holes in his offensive game have been blown open so far. Entering the season with a career 24.2 percent strikeout rate in the Minors, Davidson has fanned in 39.6 percent of his plate appearances with the Knights this season. He owns just a .198/.257/.351 line with four homers and 13 RBIs in 36 games as a result. Contact issues have always daunted the right-handed slugger, and now it's disconcerting enough to hurt his fantasy stock.
Edwin Escobar, left-handed pitcher, Fresno Grizzlies: Escobar enjoyed a breakout 2013 campaign, when he put up a 2.80 ERA, 2.39 FIP, 146 strikeouts and just 30 walks in 128 2/3 innings between Class A Advanced San Jose and Double-A Richmond. As such, he rose from the middle of the Giants' top-20 prospects pack to No. 2 in the system and No. 83 overall in MLB.com's latest rankings. Utilizing a fastball, slider and changeup that each received above-average grades, the 22-year-old southpaw still received his best marks for his control.
Though the control numbers (3.2 BB/9) are still promising this season, the rest of the numbers have taken a hit. In nine starts at the hitter-happy PCL, Escobar owns a 5.60 ERA, 4.65 FIP and 8.2 K/9 in 45 innings. That being said, his BABIP is pretty high at .365, signifying that his defense hasn't given him too many breaks yet.
After two strong seasons, this could be a quickly rising star coming back down to earth -- he is projected as more of a mid-to-back-of-the-rotation starter than an ace -- or it could just be early struggles for a pitcher moving to the top level of the Minors for the first time. Only time will tell, and fantasy owners should temper their expectations in the meantime.