This is the second installment of our Player Battles series, with the first one involving the two best NL rookies in baseball. This week we turn our eye toward the minor leagues, a trend we expect to continue, because we know splitting hairs between elite prospects is one of the toughest things to do. Using fantasy impact and live looks to fuel our reasoning, it’s time to choose between Royce Lewis and Fernando Tatis Jr.
Below my blurb you’re going to get some excellent first-hand tales from several of the guys who’ve had a chance to see Lewis and Tatis Jr. To supplement, I’d like to take a fantasy spin on this. As you know, a prospect’s profile is augmented by his defense, which often times helps overshadow a meager offense. In fantasy, we seldom care about the glove, especially when it’s between two prolific talents.
None of the two have meager offenses, however. Lewis is shaping up to be a very safe asset who at his worst is like a 15/15 candidate that is an asset in both average and on-base percentage. He can stick at shortstop which gives him a coveted fantasy position that’s become increasingly crowded with great players. In his best seasons, he might mirror Corey Seager’s 2017 (24 HR, with a .295/.375/.479 line) except with steals in the 20s. But for reasons you’ll read below, his ability to tap into power might be in question.
Tatis Jr., on the other hand, has no questions about his power. Slapped with 70 raw power grades, he is still learning to unlock that power in games thanks to swing and miss that’s dogged him as soon as he reached Double-A. I’m a bit more wary of players that reach the majors without ever honing their strikeouts. However the league strikeout rate has climbed every year since 2005 making guys more tolerable in that aspect. And hell, while they’re both 19, Tatis Jr. just spent his whole year in Double-A! There are bones to throw because of that. But because he has so much power potential and can be a perennial 30 HR bat and chip in steals in the early portion of his career, I lean his way. Had he been a heavy-footed guy, I’d lean Lewis. But there could be some 35/20 seasons in his best years, and in a dwindling third base position, he’s shaping up to be part of the next wave of hot corner superstars.
It wouldn’t be a player battle if it was easy and I can’t imagine a much tougher scenario. Tatis Jr. was one of the more impressive players that I saw in the Futures Game. He profiles as a middle-of-the-order power hitter and his present strength and size are impressive. He is extremely agile for a big man at 6’3 and more than 200 pounds. His actions at shortstop are smooth and his arm is plus. His power is evident right away but the struggles with breaking pitches and his strikeout rate are a concern. Will his hit tool, future 50, cut into his game power? Ultimately, I see a kid that becomes a .260-.280/.340/.500+ hitter at peak with 40 HR power. There is some risk that he’ll get too big for shortstop and move over to third base. He did play third in the Futures Game and looked really good. With the added size, even if he remains at short, I think the stolen base totals will dwindle. He will steal 20+ bags early on before settling into the middle of the Padres order.
Lewis, who had questions about his defense coming into 2018, shows plus range and quick first step. He is a lot twitchier than Tatis Jr. and his bat speed and control are elite. Lewis is a premium athlete and will stick at shortstop throughout his peak. Lewis has a better a hit tool, 60 future, and emerging power. He could produce .300/.400/.500 with multiple 20-20 seasons. Lewis has an exceptional feel for the barrel and ability to produce consistent hard contact. His one weak tool is his arm, but his quick release and mature internal game clock allow his average arm to play at shortstop. For me, I want the guy that has double-plus bat speed and barrel control, that can stick at short long term. I’m taking Lewis.
This is a hard question to answer having only seen Lewis. Let’s start with him. The glove is silky smooth, and he’s a quick-twitch athlete defensively. I see no reason he will need to move off short. At the plate his swing was a bit raw, specifically with inconsistent swing plane. However, the bat speed was among the best I saw all year, and his hands are elite. He also performed well statistically, one could say in spite of this rawness. Physically, Lewis looks like a guy who can add a bit of weight while maintaining plus speed. Base running value and commensurate stolen base totals should carry into his late 20s. A GB:FB rate of 2 in the FSL is of mild concern, but considering his age for the level, I am ready to chalk this up to an adjustment period. Risk I see? The swing mechanics never refine to a point he taps into his power potential. BUT, he could be a .280-.290 hitting, 20-20 shortstop for upwards of six to eight seasons.
Both players were 19-year-old shortstops in 2018, but these guys have dramatically different profiles. The industry consensus seems to be Tatis Jr. will move off short at some point. Looking at his body type, I believe substantial weight is coming and Tatis Jr. sticking at shortstop would yield Machado-esque defensive returns. Tatis Jr. also dominated AA as a 19-year-old, not facing a single pitcher younger than him all year. He has shown a propensity for making mid-season adjustments each of the last two years as well. Should we even care if he moves off short? No! He’s going to hit and hit a lot. The nitpick with Tatis Jr. is the swing and miss in his game. He struck out 30% and 28% of the time respectively in 2017 and 2018. It’s worth noting his 33% strikeout rate in April dropped to 26% in May-July, a period in which Tatis Jr. seemingly adjusted to the level slashing .327/.400/.572. I think we are looking at a guy who will hit .275-.285 with 30-35 homers perennially. Because he performed at the higher level at roughly the same age, I believe his performance is more bankable. Give me Tatis Jr.
Elite fantasy shortstop prospects are the caviar of dynasty leagues. I’m not talking your bat-first shoe-in for second base either. I’m talking toolsy, up-the-middle athletes with oodles of upside. These rare unicorns are seen a few times a generation, and rarely at the same time. But in this new age of wonder known as the present, we’ve been blessed with two of them.
This is truly doing the unspeakable as I choose between two of my favorite prospects. But when it comes to fantasy, I’m always going to lean toward the guy with the bigger raw power. Especially when both speed and on base ability are part of the package. As such, this leads me to an easy answer of Tatis Jr. But is it really that easy? Here’s my struggle: I believe Lewis will maintain his speed and athleticism longer than Tatis Jr. His plate discipline is also superior to Tatis Jr.’s, as strikeouts are hardly an issue for Lewis. However, I always come back to power, and even if he transitions to more of a middle of the order power profile, I think Tatis can excel in that role and provide tremendous value. Do the strikeouts worry me some? Yes, but not enough to ignore the 30/30 upside early in his career. Sorry Royce.
In a battle this close I sat back and thought about what would could be a determining factor. One I came back to was how much I valued a prospect with a 70-grade tool among a skillset of all future 55s or better (which I believe Lewis and Tatis Jr. both possess). For one it matters what that tool is. A 70 arm or 70 speed probably isn’t going to tip the scale for me. They’re both nice to have, but in my mind, they translate to the least amount of direct value. A 70 glove, 70 hit or 70 game power would all move the needle. 70 raw power is somewhere in between my two buckets.
Fernando Tatis Jr. has future 70 raw power to me. But again, how valuable is that if it’s not a 1:1 translation to game power? I’ve often considered whether raw power tools should even be given out subjectively at all. Why not just clock average and max exit velocities and rate players based off that number, with subjectivity on game power for context? The key with Tatis Jr.’s 70 raw is that it tells you a lot about his body. He turns 20 on January 2, 2019 and is listed at 6-foot-4, 185 pounds. If he fills out any more, I think you start to see realization of his 70 raw power turning into 65 game power. That’s a level of impact power I don’t foresee Lewis getting to.
Lewis has the better hit tool and will likely stumble into more impact with his glove because of what has been iterated above - he’s more likely to stick at shortstop. But Lewis doesn’t have the same game power ceiling that Tatis Jr. does. With the context that Tatis Jr.’s glove will also be above average and that his hit tool will be 55 at peak as well, the hope that we’re consistently seeing 27- to 30-homer seasons from the Padres phenom pushes him over the edge for me.