Position Battle: Oakland’s Keystone Kids

Sheldon Neuse - Photo credit Jayne Hansen on Flickr, Whattheheckbobby.blogspot.com

Spring Training position battles are often the best opportunity that a prospect will get to land a regular role with the MLB club. For fantasy owners these battles can mean the difference between cashing in on a long term investment or going bust with a player who’s lost his shine. The battle for the keystone in A’s camp this spring is sure to be watched closely by dynasty owners all across the fantasy landscape. Three widely owned prospects with intriguing fantasy profiles are vying for the chance to share the Oakland infield with superstars Matt Chapman, Marcus Semien and Matt Olson. Let’s take a look at them individually and then I’ll make some predictions about how this battle ends.

Franklin Barreto: 30% Owned (Fantrax)

Ok, Franklin Barreto technically isn’t a prospect anymore. But let’s be real, three cups of coffee all with less than 80 at bats hasn’t been enough to write him off or pencil him in. For fantasy owners, Barreto is still very much a prospect.

Originally signed by Toronto way back in 2012 and traded to the A’s in 2014 as part of the Josh Donaldson trade, Barreto was widely regarded as one of the A’s top prospects coming into the 2016 season. After a solid 2016 season in AA he has spent the last three seasons primarily in AAA and short stints with the MLB club. Last season he flashed a tantalizing slash line of .295/.374/.552 with 19 home runs and 15 steals in 373 at-bats, though it is worth mentioning that a number of players saw their numbers bump with the move to Vegas. Still, when he got the call up to Oakland at the end of June, it felt like this would be his breakout moment. Instead, while spending all of July and part of September with the big club, he put up an ugly slash of .123/.138/.263 with 2 home runs and 1 stolen base in 57 at-bats. As disappointing as that is, it doesn’t represent every day, consistent playing time.

No doubt fantasy owners are becoming impatient with a player who seems to be stuck in AAA. With all of his option years gone, no clear second base option ahead of him and still too much potential to clear waivers; this is Barreto’s best opportunity to be a big league regular. He still has the ceiling of an impact bat at a premium position and he’s the clear favorite to win the spot, but with this much competition, it’s far from a sure thing. If he misses this opportunity look for fantasy owners to move on from Barreto in a big way.

 

Jorge Mateo: 52% Owned (Fantrax)

Not surprisingly, despite not having reached the majors coming into a season where he will turn 25, Mateo is the most owned of the three prospects in this profile. The reason? Speed, baby. It’s all about that run tool. It’s impossible to ignore a player that has 80 grade speed and has shown the ability to translate that speed into gaudy stolen base totals. One look at the career stats and that 82 from 2015 jumps right off the page.

Mateo was also signed in 2012, in his case by the Yankees, and made his way to Oakland in the Sonny Gray trade. In addition to the speed, he has interesting raw power, though that hasn’t translated to in-game home run production until last season in hitter friendly Las Vegas. Without any MLB data it’s impossible to know what Mateo will look like against MLB pitching, but if he can hit enough to inject his running game into the A’s offense, he could have significant fantasy value right away. He has a strong arm and profiles better as a shortstop or a center fielder, which makes him an intriguing option as a super utility player. Of course, his fantasy owners would much prefer a consistent role for their prized prospect, but if he plays 3 to 4 times a week at 3 or more positions he could carve out a valuable role on the bench in deeper formats.

Of the three, Mateo has the highest ceiling (think Jose Reyes) and the lowest floor (think Billy Hamilton) of the three. He is also out of option years, so like Barreto, he either has to make the team or be exposed to waivers. The expansion of rosters from 25 to 26 could be the difference in him making the team, but he also seems like the most likely player to be traded. Perhaps the best fit would be a team that is rebuilding and can afford to let Mateo work through the inevitable struggles at the MLB level. Winning this crowded battle for second base on a contender without the benefit of any previous MLB experience seems unlikely, so perhaps a trade is the best outcome for fantasy owners.

 

Sheldon Neuse: 34% Owned (Fantrax)

If option years were no issue in this battle, Sheldon Neuse would be the hands down favorite for me. Drafted in the 2nd round of the 2016 draft by the Nationals and acquired by the A’s in 2017, this former Oklahoma Sooner has produced at each level in the minors.

I tend to favor college bats as fantasy prospects, and Neuse is a perfect example of a college player that has taken well to the professional game. Last season at AAA Neuse posted solid numbers across the board including 27 HR, 102 RBI, an OPS of .939 with a .317 batting average. He also made a solid, if unspectacular, debut at the big league level with a triple slash of .250/.295/.304 over 56 at bats. Neuse is a third baseman by trade and he’s not particularly fast, but he has played second base and proven that he can hold down the position defensively. The fact that he has all three minor league options left makes it a near certainty that he’ll be the odd man out in this battle, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see that decision come against the evidence. A big camp from Neuse could make it difficult for a club with division title aspirations to send him back to Vegas.

 

Others in the Mix:

Tony Kemp offers a left handed option and the flexibility to play the outfield when needed. Ryan Goins offers defense and little else. Vimael Machin is a 26 year old rule 5 pick from the Phillies that would be a long shot to win the job given the competition.

 

State of Play:

After 8 Spring Training games Tony Kemp and Vimael Machin were the two players making the most noise. Barreto and Machin were tied for the most at-bats and Mateo was the only one with a stolen a base, two actually. All three of the prospects profiled are posting OPS under .700.┬áIt’s too early to read too much into the results, but the next couple of weeks will be critical in determining who is heading to Oakland for opening day. If one of these high ceiling guys doesn’t step up and Kemp keeps raking we could easily be looking at a platoon situation.

 

Predictions:

Because I love making predictions, I’ll take a shot at how this plays out. I think Barreto makes the team as the primary 2nd baseman on the strength of a solid but unspectacular spring and the lack of options. He is being given every opportunity and there is incentive for the A’s to give it a real go before moving on. Mateo also makes the team as the 26th man and starts out in a utility/late game replacement role. Neuse is sent back to Vegas where he takes out his frustration on hapless PCL pitching. By the all-star break it becomes apparent that Barreto is not the solution and Neuse makes it impossible for Oakland to leave him in AAA. Barreto is waived and is claimed by another club. Neuse takes over and has a decent second half hitting in a really solid lineup. Mateo also finds some success in a utility role and is traded at the deadline for a starting pitcher.




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