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Under the Radar Prospects: Sandro Fabian
A forgotten emblem of the previous administration still dreams of glory
Taking Rogers Hornsby’s advice — staring out my window and waiting for spring — it’s hard to believe that another season may be just around the corner. Here, I’ll show you:
But let’s warm ourselves up this morning with thoughts of more under-the-radar prospects. And today, I want to talk about OF Sandro Fabian. Not that long ago, Fabian was one of the leading lights of the system — a top 10 prospect for the Giants prior to both the 2017 and 2018 seasons.
Nowadays, if people think of him at all, it may be as a symbol of the “bad old days,” — “Fabian? A Top 10 guy?” these imaginary fans might sniff, “that tells you how bad the system was back then!” But let’s start by just remembering that it wasn’t that long ago that scouts could look at Fabian and reasonably project a big league future. There have been twists and turns since then and not a few miles of bad road, but let’s start with that as a first principle and see where it takes us: at one point in time, you could look at Fabian and see a future big leaguer.
Fabian was the Giants’ top signing in the 2014 J2 market, inking a $500,000 bonus on July 2nd, itself. This was before the years when they were in the penalty box over the Lucius Fox signing, so the relatively low number for their top signing was a matter of preference, not an imposition.
It’s easy — altogether too easy — to fall into lazy stereotypes and biases where we lack firm knowledge. With international signings, the tendency is to fall back on the old trope of the “toolsy teenager,” and I’ve seen people describe Fabian that way as he raised up through the system. But that was never Fabian. Not fast, not a possessor of the kind of raw strength that draws scouts to the batting cage, Fabian was the type of player who, were he an American high school player, would be called a heady, instinctive type. He was a player with a great feel for, and understanding of, the game. Though not fleet of foot, he showed tremendous practical range in RF thanks to great jumps, reads, and routes. Though not possessed of great raw power, he showed a knack for big home runs, like the 8th inning homer he hit to win the DSL semi-finals in 2015 and propel the team towards a championship. He was, in other words, not so dissimilar from another significant teenaged Giants prospect of the time, Christian Arroyo — players whose greatest tool was their contact ability. Beyond that, Fabian was, as Baseball America described him in the 2017 Prospect Handbook, “a fringe athlete who succeeds more because of hard work and feel for the game.”
Giants officials also praised Fabian’s coachability — his ability to “learn, adapt, and adjust,” (another quote from the Handbook). He was praised for how hard he worked to learn English while in the Dominican camp. He was, in other words, a player marked by high intangibles. And, let’s not forget, he just plain raked.
After being a propulsive force in the middle of the order for the DSL champions, he moved up to become easily the best player on the Giants’ 2016 AZL team. He made the league’s All Star team and finished in the top four in hitting (.340), slugging (.522), and OPS (.886), while playing the entire season at age 18.
From a scouts’ perspective, there were profiling issues — it wasn’t necessarily a projectable body, he didn’t show the pure power potential that you’d like to see in a corner OF, and, despite his strong, accurate arm and excellent reads, the lack of footspeed raised the possibility of a slide to LF. Still, his overall flair for the game made an impression.
The Giants showed confidence in the youngster by pushing him straight to full-season ball at 19. And that’s where things started sliding a little bit. Through early June he was hitting in the .220s with an abysmal .249 OBP. But he showed his ability to adjust and adapt, rebounding to hit .311 with 8 HRs in the second half. But here is one of those “old regime/new regime” discrepancies. That .311 batting average came complete with a .331 OBP and a woeful ratio of 88 Ks to 10 BB over the season. That was just a 2% walk rate, which would almost certainly, under the new regime, lead to a repeat assignment and a “try again” message. Instead, the 2018 Giants pushed the 20-year-old onwards and upwards to San Jose.
And there, things slid completely off the rails. In 2018, Fabian struck out 107 times in 450 PA — the one time his K rate rose above the 16-17% range. And the guy who “just plain raked?” He disappeared completely. Fabian hit just .200/.260/.325 in the Cal League — a complete and utter faceplant of a season.
The first time you really see failure in a prospect is the most dangerous evaluation period. It’s easy to dismiss and go on to the next bright young shiny object. For Fabian, it was easy to assume that, like many players with good contact skills, he was a victim of a lousy approach and had reached the level where swinging at everything that moved was no longer sustainable. He’d reached that level earlier than others which was a death knell. There was no power, no approach, even the ability to make contact was slipping away.
Worse yet, the next spring he didn’t take part in the minor league spring games and wasn’t assigned to any roster out of camp. He slipped out of mind, fell off the radar. He was done as a prospect.
Ah, but here’s where things get twisty. Because there were reasons! Reasons that might — or might not — explain much of the failure. Fabian had been diagnosed with a thyroid condition that had sapped him of much of his strength. In the winter of 2019, he underwent a surgical procedure to correct the issue — a surgery that had as much to do with his ability to lead a normal life as it did to perform at the level of a professional athlete. That surgery caused him to miss the first half of the 2019 year.
He wouldn’t return to the San Jose lineup until the 4th of July, and by then our attentions had been fully captured by all the new and wonderful advances in the system. Heliot Ramos was showing a quantum leap in his development. Joey Bart was beginning to shake off the ill-effects of a broken hand and was starting to rake again. Alex Canario had hit 7 HRs in 10 days in the AZL. And Marco Luciano was cranking up the hype machine to unimagined levels. What need was there to notice a 21-year-old making a repeat assignment in A ball off a horrendous previous attempt? The system was awash in superbly talented OF. Did anyone really need to pay attention to old Fabian?
Let’s bring back my favorite chestnut: development isn’t linear. In the second half of 2019, Fabian did what had always impressed the Giants officials — he adjusted, he adapted, he improved. For the new Giants’ officials, he, too, displayed a far improved approach at the plate, walking a robust (for him) 7.5% of the time. The strikeouts came back down to his typical 17% range. Most importantly, the raking returned! He hit a solid .287 with 5 HRs in half a year, and once again began catching the eyes of a few scouts in the final month. Indeed, he rather amazingly got consideration for Baseball America’s Cal League Top 20:
Back on track and trending up, it looked like Fabian might put himself back on the mental map of Giants’ fans. And then….of course, 2020. No season, no news, no games, no ability to demonstrate improvement. And when, finally, the Giants were able to put an instructional league roster together, Fabian wasn’t on it. I’ve never heard an official reason for why he missed instrux — was it more health complications? Visa complications? Or the dreaded “coach’s decision?” We don’t really know. I’ve heard that travel restrictions and visa complications are the likely culprit, but regardless of the reason, it adds as just another missed opportunity. A lost chance to receive coaching from the new development regime and impress the new bosses. No Instagram bombs or Giants twitter feed highlights this fall for Sandro.
So, with the 2021 season (possibly/hopefully) approaching, what are we to make of Fabian now — this player who is in so many ways a holdover from the old Giants? The health issues might explain away much of the development failures….but then again, they might not. Those failures might well have been the result of his limitations as a player. Even if the thyroid condition can explain away much of the 2018 stall, having unrelated health conditions isn’t exactly a plus for a professional athlete. And, whatever underlying causes, missed reps and bad reps are never a great thing — and those two categories encapsulate a large amount of Fabian’s last three years. The questions of whether the power profiles and whether the approach will drag him down still linger. It’s been a long time since he was a promising young man.
But let me start with a basic principle — watching prospects is fundamentally an exercise in keeping one’s mind open to possibilities. Not just good possibilities — all possibilities. Let me posit something provocative: is there a world in which Sandro Fabian ends up having a better major league career than Heliot Ramos? I would say that there is — and maybe it wouldn’t be the weirdest world any of us have ever encountered (and really, after having lived through 2020 we all probably need to recalibrate our Weird-o-meters anyway). Something like Ramos finding his 30 or 40th percentile outcome intersecting with Fabian finding his 60 or 70th percentile outcome would probably do it.
This isn’t to wish any ill will on Ramos, whose upcoming season could well land him in a much-anticipated big league debut at some point. But it is to remember that Fabian, who won’t turn 23 until March, should be ticketed for a critical AA assignment this year. And to remember that his greatest skills — hard work, ability to learn and adapt — are actually a perfect fit for the new Giants. This organization is not just a dogmatic proselytizer of the virtues of a strong BB/K ratio. They are dedicated to self-improvement, to getting the best outcome out of all of their players. And they are believers in making decisions based on observable data. They are there to teach and Fabian has always been there to learn.
Could this Odd Couple really be a match made in heaven? It’s a possibility. He has the contact skills they crave and can learn to apply their hitting philosophy and use it to improve, to maximize his abilities. Really, if you had to point at anybody currently in the system as a potential candidate to pull “a Yastrzemski” in the future, Fabian would be an excellent guess. Like Yaz, none of Fabian’s tools jump at you and the statistical line doesn’t pop, but the overall feel for the game gives him a “whole is better than the sum of the parts” vibe. And, like Yaz, he’s dedicated to working towards his best-case outcome, of using whatever tools and information may further that pursuit. Maybe, juuuust maybe, that outcome is still there in front of him if he runs faster, jumps higher.
Start from first principles — three years ago, you could look at Fabian and imagine a path to a big league career. That path may be overgrown now and hard to make out, but it’s still there. Look again, and open your mind to possibilities ….