For the 11/12ths of us who aren't cruising to a fantasy baseball title this summer, August represents a time to take stock and dig deep for talent to help an embattled keeper league squad.
Of course, your friendly neighborhood fantasy league comes in a variety of flavors and nuances and categories used. So we'll examine a few farmhands that have taken a step forward and could be useful in any format.
Pierce Johnson - SP, CHC
Since being popped in the compensation round (43rd overall) in 2012, Johnson's name often gets lost in the shuffle among the tidal wave of talented Cub prospects. The Missouri State product showed he could handle AA last season, going 5-4, 2.55 in 17 starts. He came into 2015 at #126 on the minorleagueball preseason list, but was asked to repeat the level after an early-season lat injury and a worrying walk rate during his time at Tennessee (5.30 BB/9).
It was said injury that led to a late start on Johnson's 2015 campaign, not toeing the rubber until June 11th. He's been nails ever since joining the Smokies' rotation, though - FIP'ing 3.58 and allowing one run or fewer in *ten* of his 13 starts. Pierce has also cut his walk rate nearly in half from a year ago (3.24 BB/9) - he is ready for a promotion.
Along with the standout performance so far this year, there are outside factors that have the arrow pointing up on Johnson. First, after fellow farmhand Carl Edwards Jr. was shifted to the bullpen this April, Pierce appears to be the most MLB-ready young pitcher in the system. The Cubs' 5th starter has been a real weak spot this season, as the team has cycled through disappointing turns from Travis Wood, Tsuyoshi Wada and most recently Dan Haren.
It's fair to wonder if Johnson may see time with the big club as soon as this September. The upshot of his early-season injury is that he's only thrown 75 innings as of the last week of August. With the Cubs' AA and AAA affiliates looking unlikely to be playing in the postseason, Theo and co. may opt to add Pierce to the 40-man roster to both help the staff during a pennant race and ensure their young starter throws a sufficient number of innings.
From a fantasy perspective, Johnson doesn't have the true wipeout stuff of a Giolito or a Glasnow. But the delivery is clean, the heater touches the mid-90s, and the slurve looks like a plus offering. Even if he doesn't get the call to the Show this year, Pierce will be expected to compete for an MLB rotation spot next spring. Pitching behind a Cub offense that looks to be among the league's best, it's not hard to see Johnson piling up wins and solid ratios at a minimal investment.
Bobby Bradley - 1B, CLE
Bobby Bradley" src="https://cdn0.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/3688690/16984585350_4c40bfecf9.0.jpg" />
The cat may be slowly coming out of the bag on Bradley, a 2014 3rd-round pick out of high school that was given 912,500($) reasons to buck an LSU commitment and sign with the Indians. Bradley made a strong first impression in his pro debut, winning the AZL triple crown and placing #132 on the minorleagueball preseason rankings.
The 19-year-old was given an aggressive assignment to the Midwest League to start 2015, and he appears to be surpassing even the loftiest expectations. Behind a scorching .342/.419/.822 August that has him among the hottest hitters in the game, Bradley's 26 HRs leads all MWL players by ten, a huge gap despite being one of very few teenagers in the league.
There are myriad reasons to invest in Bradley's stock wherever you can in keeper leagues. First, power is at a premium in general across the game. Offense is down, pitching (and MPHs) are up, and that seeps into the fantasy world - cheap power is as elusive as ever. Second, though Bradley is likely several years from contributing at the MLB level, he is poised to take a big leap on the end-of-year prospect lists. In what is certainly the most definitive Bobby Bradley video on youtube, you see the plus (~60) raw power accentuated by a laser-quick lefthanded stroke. The latter seems to have opened up an all-fields approach, as highlighted in John Sickels' review of Bradley earlier this month. The superb bat speed allows the talented slugger more time to wait on a pitch and points to advanced pitch recognition, impressive traits for such a young player.
In sum, Bradley is a player you want to beat the rest of your league to on account of his impending rise up the prospect ranks. Even if he is a long ways off from the 'big club', his power potential makes him an attractive piece to own in all fantasy formats. If we're being bold, we have a player who's parlayed a powerful summer into a spot among the top 50 prospects in the game.
Luke Weaver - SP, STL
While 20-year old flamethrower Alex Reyes is considered the crown jewel of the St. Louis system, next years' rankings will likely indicate that Weaver, the Cardinals' 2014 first-rounder, isn't far behind.
The slender 6'2" righthander was roughed up in just under 10 IP in his '14 debut season, as the Cards opted to play it extremely safe after a heavy workload at Florida State. As a result, Luke was left off most outlets' preseason prospect rankings. Flash forward six months, and Weaver has put up hands-down the best pitching performance in the FSL this year. Because St. Louis again exercised caution and didn't let him take the hill in a minor league game until May, Weaver just misses the cutoff to qualify for the league leaders. If he were eligible, his Kershaw-ian 1.67 ERA would be tops by almost three-quarters of a run; his 2.21 FIP would place 2nd in *all* of the minors, excluding Rookie/short-season leagues.
Weaver gets it done with a plus fastball-change combo, and he's shown excellent command of both offerings. Despite a relatively slight build, he's able to run the fastball up to 95 thanks to terrific arm speed, which has also helped the deception of the changeup. The main knock on Weaver is an inconsistent breaking ball, but given the Cards' cautious handling of him already, it's possible he's holding back on the pitch a bit and instead emphasizing location and changing speeds in his first full year of pro ball. Regardless, the development of a usable big-league breaking ball could go a long way in determining whether he becomes a strong #3 starter or merely a back-end type for the big club.
Although Weaver has yet to reach AA, his advanced feel for pitching at age 22 portends a quick rise through the upper levels. While the Cardinals' rotation looks to be well set for the next couple of seasons, their prospects are always strong investments in keeper leagues because of the almost ruthless track record the club has in developing their high picks. Rostering Weaver in a fantasy league may mean you're waiting a year or two for the move to pay dividends on the field, but a likely vault into the end-of-year top 100 prospects - and possibly top 75 - should help his stock to remain strong.