Who among us saw last night’s trade and didn’t get excited to see some grainy footage of college-age men play baseball in Central Florida? If you have red, white, and blood cells pumping in your veins, you saw yesterday’s deal and thought “I already know Mallex Smith, he stole 40 bases and wears a gigantic FLORIDA chain, he’s gonna be great, tell me about this other guy the M’s got.” Well, hypothetical reader I’ve invented to serve this scenario, I have what you need.
In addition to flipping C Mike Zunino and OF Guillermo Heredia, the Mariners exchanged their top left-handed pitching prospect and 2018 4th-round pick Michael Plassmeyer to the Rays for OF Mallex Smith and 2016 2nd-round pick OF Jake Fraley. This year, Smith will be the main source of productivity for the deal, and depending on what else Seattle does, 2019 seems fated to be a down season. That will mean Mariners fans will want to watch the farm system for inklings of a better tomorrow/2020, and Fraley now will be in the thick of that.
Starting 2019 Fraley should be the CF for the AA-Arkansas Travelers, bumping Kyle Lewis to a corner outfield position in all likelihood. That’s a shame for Lewis, who might’ve always made that move, but would’ve been more convincing with collateral ligaments in the preferred positions for human beings. By all accounts, Fraley’s defense in center is more than adequate, and in fact earned him the Best Defensive Outfielder superlative from Baseball America for the Rays stacked system after 2017. His foot speed plays a role in that, and should also be considered a plus, and when healthy he has put up well above-average stolen base numbers and percentages. This year, those baserunning numbers were unsatisfactory, so the M’s will hope to see him rebound at full health. What needs to be there for Fraley to exceed the 4th OF archetype Heredia fell into is to hit, and last year, at least, he did just that!
Despite missing the first two months with an injury (he has missed parts of 2018, 2017, and his Australian Baseball League winter season with injuries, although 2017 was due to a 94-mph fastball intentionally hurled at his knee) Fraley hit the hell out of A+ Florida upon his return. .347/.415/.547 in just 260 PAs is impressive, albeit for a 23-year-old. But there’s plenty to look askance at, namely a .407 BABIP that isn’t entirely out of place in the low minors, but won’t follow Fraley much further up the ladder. What are worth eyeing excitedly are his peripheral. A 10.0% BB%/16.6% K% is subject to pitcher quality at the level, but a .200 ISO suggests Fraley wasn’t just slapping singles and working easy walks - he was stinging the ball. Reports from scouts we spoke with confirmed this sentiment: Fraley’s far from a 30/30 threat, but a swing change between 2017 and 2018 helped the former Louisiana State standout up his exit velocities significantly. More on that intent, and confidence, here:
Despite being located in balmy Port Charlotte, Florida as a member of the High-A Stone Crabs, Fraley’s games in 2018 received next to no video coverage. As a result, we’re left with just one useful series against the Bradenton Marauders, where video has at last made its 100-year journey to Central Florida. From that glimpse of the future, we are given this blip.
But lest I be accused of cherrypicking, let it be known I recorded not one but THREE (3) clips of Fraley merely singling in the same series (he went 5-for-11 with a double and a homer in these three games).
What we have is a swing that looks little like Mitch Haniger’s or Jean Segura’s, who likely jump to mind when Mariners fans consider swing changes. Fraley’s mechanical adjustments, while thus far used only to decimate Australia and Florida, seem centered around meeting the ball in front of the plate, making use of his still-compact swing for an almost-condensed Cody Bellinger-style hack. Fraley’s batted ball profile isn’t extreme, but he has been putting high-quality contact on the ball and receiving extremely good results.
The knock on Fraley coming out of college was his flat swing style limiting his power potential. Clearly, he’s taken explicit steps to rectify that issue, much like Mitch Haniger sought out professional assistance after frustration with his limited power numbers in the minors. Haniger’s stardom is the grandest feather in Jerry Dipoto’s cap. Fraley’s bat blossoming at the MLB level would fit nicely alongside it, and give the Mariners essentially a defensively strong version of Ben Gamel. Before that, we’ll need to see* him do it in Arkansas. Nothing suggests Fraley has Haniger’s power potential, but much like Mitch, Seattle is betting on a relatively late breakout in a smaller sample, that can be tied to a tracked adjustment, bearing fruit long-term. That’s the bet they made with several draft picks, Marco Gonzales, and of course Haniger as well. For the Mariners’ attempt at a soft reset to deliver, gambles on the over like the M’s are making on Fraley have to hit.
*we will see it in Tulsa, since the Travelers do not broadcast video but the Drillers do.