Opening Day has come and gone with surprises (I’m looking at you, Trevor Story), disappointments (Collin McHugh) and controversy (you can’t grab the fielder while sliding, Jose Bautista). What more could Fantasy baseball fans need? Well, more baseball, of course.
This week also brings Opening Day – Mother Nature’s attitude pending – for minor league players across the country. Throughout the season, I’ll be driving to different minor league ballparks and talking to relevant Top Fantasy Baseball prospects who can make a difference for your team over the next two seasons.
For my first trip, I made the trek to rainy Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and PNC Field for Opening Day to catch the Triple-A affiliates for the Yankees and Twins, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders and the Rochester Red Wings, respectively. With Rochester giving the Opening Day nod to Tyler Duffey, I was hoping to chat with Jose Berrios, the Twins’ top prospect according to MLB.com, but he was unavailable prior to the game.
Instead of Berrios, I chatted with Twins prospect Max Kepler, the organization’s second-best prospect, as well as the top hitter in the Yankees organization, Rob Refsnyder, and the top power-hitting prospect in the minors, Aaron Judge.
First up was Judge, the outfielder who slugged his way to 20 home runs last season between Double-A and Triple-A. Judge started 2015 with a .284 average in Trenton, which dipped to .224 in 61 games in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
Michael Waterloo: Welcome to another season, Aaron.
Aaron Judge: I’m excited. Spring Training went well, and we have a good group of guys here. I’m excited to get the season going.
MW: I was taking a look at your spring numbers. I don’t know how much you guys really pay attention to spring numbers, but you finished up 1 for 19 with that one hit being a home run. Is that something you really pay attention to?
AJ: In spring, not really. It’s all really about getting at-bats and getting your timing down. The stats start counting on April 7. You have to build off spring training and the year before and get ready for this year.
MW: Is there anything your coaches in Spring Training spoke to you about that they wanted you to work on while you’re here in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre?
AJ: You know, just keep doing what I’m doing. It’s what got me here. I just have to keep building off that … trying to be a consistent part of this lineup. We have a lot of great guys from our pitching staff to our lineup, we’re stacked. I’m just trying to be a consistent part of this lineup and help the guys out.
MW: When people talk about you, they talk about your big power. Are you working on becoming more of a complete hitter, too?
AJ: “I don’t really try to focus on power. That’s the first thing everyone looks at, but I’m just focused on hitting the ball. That’s the main thing. That’s what I’ve tried to do since I was a little kid. It’s always fun hitting the ball. For me, it’s just trying to be that consistent hitter that I know I can be.”
MW: Whenever you look at the big league lineup, in the offseason, Carlos Beltran talked about that this may be the end for him. Is that something you look at where there could be an opening for you in right field to slide into and keep working at it?
AJ: “Not really. I try to be where my feet are. That’s here in Scranton. I’m just going to do whatever I can do in Scranton. If I was in Double-A, I would do the same thing. I’m just trying to be where I’m at and keep working at it every day.”
MW: But you have to be looking forward to that call, though, right? Whenever they call you into the manager’s office to tell you to pack your bags to go to New York?
AJ: “I’ve been looking forward to it ever since I was five-years-old, you know? But I just try not to focus on it. Once you get caught up in that kind of stuff, it takes away from your game here. For me, it’s about helping the RailRiders win another championship.”
MW: What’s that going to take? What’s the key to success for you guys this year?
AJ: “Man … I just feel like if we go out and play the type of ball I know we can with the great group of guys we have here, who have been up and down a little bit. If we just play our game, I know we can do well.
After chatting with Judge, I made my way over to Refsnyder, who got his call to the Yankees last July. Widely considered the top hitter in the Yankees’ system, Ref had a slash of .302/.348/.512 with two home runs and five RBIs in 47 plate appearances over 16 games with the Yankees during the regular season. The 25-year-old South Korean-born Refsynder was the starting second baseman for the Yankees in their Wild Card game loss to the Astros.
Unlike the 23-year-old Judge, Refsynder was less than talkative.
MW: Welcome back to the field, Rob. Excited to get back out there?
Rob Reysnyder: I’m excited.
MW: So you got the call to New York last year. What was that moment like when you got the call?
RR: It was great. It was a great moment for me and my family.
MW: OK. And you also got to start in the playoffs. That had to be an even bigger moment for you.
RR: Yup. It was probably the biggest.
MW: Is there anything in particular that the coaching staff wanted you to focus on for this year to get back up to New York as soon as you can?
RR: No. They just want me to keep working. They signed (Starlin) Castro, so we will see what happens.
MW: When you saw they signed Castro, how did you take that? Was that kind of a deflating feeling or did you take it as you are going to work harder?
RR: It wasn’t deflating at all. It’s one of the best organizations in the world. I’m just going to keep working.
MW: You’re considered the top hitting prospect in the Yankees’ system, but defense has been the biggest knock on your game. Is that something you’re working on while in Triple-A?
RR: I’m learning a new position.
MW: Oh, nice. I read there were talks of moving you to the outfield. Is that where they see you?
RR: Third base. I was working on it in Spring Training.
MW: How was the transition there? Any big learning curve?
RR: It was good. Learning a new position was good.
Shortest. Interview. Of. My. Life.
Refsynder made Erik Bedard seem like a media darling. We will chalk it up to being focused on his first game of the year.
I then moved to the other side of the tunnel to chat with Max Kepler, the 23-year-old German-born outfielder for the Twins, who comes in right behind Berrios as the top prospect in the system. Kepler was the Southern League MVP last season, as he had a slash of .318/.410/.520 with nine home runs, 71 RBIs, 69 walks and 68 strikeouts.
MW: It’s a little cloudy out there, but baseball is back. Are you ready to get it going?
MK: Yeah, I’m very excited. The weather is not too good today but hopefully, it clears up.
MW: How big of a bounce back was last season for you, Max, after your 2014 season?
MK: It was a big step forward. I’m trying to build off that. I’m not trying to one-up that season or do better this year. I’m trying to go out there and focus on the same game I stepped on the field with last year, make adjustments daily and stay healthy.
MW: I was reading that your Double-A manager Doug Mientkiewicz was pushing you a little bit last year. What was he doing that was pushing you?
MK: Hitting-wise, he was telling me to be more aggressive with my at-bats. Mechanically, I changed a little bit of something. I got a leg kick. I used to be more of the patient-type hitter who wanted to inside-out balls and go to the other field every at-bat. I think I really learned how to pull the ball with authority.”
MW: You talk about the leg kick, and I’ve seen more and more players talking about that. Danny Valencia had a big second half last year, and he attributed it to learning the leg kick from Jose Bautista. Is that something that coaches have been preaching to players more and more that you should try that with your timing?
MK: There are different coaches with different perspectives on hitting, mechanics and all that. I think it works for some players and for some, it will completely ruin everything. It’s preference, I think. It worked for me last year, and I have to learn to keep it not too big so that my vision isn’t affected by it. Keep it simple.
MK: It sounds great. I mean, any spot in the big leagues sounds amazing.
MW: I was speaking to Aaron Judge, and he was telling me that he doesn’t try to get caught up in when he’s going to get the call, but he’s dreamed of it since he was a little kid. You’ve had a cup of coffee in the big leagues last year, but does what he said hold true for you, too?
MK: I try to focus on the step in front of me and stuff I can control day-to-day. I will just take it from there.
MW: While in Spring Training, you posted a .233/.258/.233 slash with two RBIs. Do you have any takeaways from this spring that you want to apply to your season in Rochester this year?
MK: They wanted me to work on my situational hitting. In Spring Training, I was being a little bit too aggressive. I have to turn it down a little and get back to what I was doing last year. I have to take my walks when I have the opportunity. I have to stay aggressive and believe in myself.
MW: Let’s switch gears, here. You have another prospect on your team that may be getting the call to Minnesota soon in Jose Berrios. What’s it like just watching him? Is his stuff as good as advertised?
MK: His stuff is amazing, but what impresses me the most is the consistency that he comes to the field with every day. They call him “The Machine” for a reason. He comes to the field and puts in every ounce of work that he has. He brings it to game time. He hits his spots, on top of it, he has great stuff. He’s the full package.
MW: Does it kind of make you glad you’re on his side and not against him out there?
MK: Yeah, yeah. In a way, but there are great arms on every ball club.
Judge, Refsynder, Kepler and Berrios all project to get called up this season, and each are expected to make a Fantasy impact. Judge has 60-rated power, and it should translate over to the big leagues rather smoothly.
As for Refsynder (career .380 OBP) and Kepler (.362 OBP), both are able to reach base consistently, with Kepler capable of 15 home runs or so.
Berrios projects as a top-of-the-rotation guy, striking out more than a batter per inning (9.87 in Triple-A last year) a K-rate around 20 percent and a Steamer-projected strand rate of 70.6 percent.
Of the three, only Berrios and Judge should be currently owned in 12-team redraft leagues, while Kepler and Refsynder are speculative adds in deeper leagues.