MLB Baseball Column: Prospects
Arizona Fall League Prospects
A year after Mike Trout and Bryce Harper both played in the Arizona Fall League All-Star game, two things are immediately obvious about the league. 1) It's a great way to see all the best prospects in one place; and 2) There's going to be an inevitable let-down the year after those two stars ran all through the desert. This year's batch won't produce a historic season like Mike Trout's, most likely, but it will be full of major league debuts if history has any say. 18 of 2011's AFL All-Stars got playing time in the majors last season.
In order to be most helpful to you, the fantasy baseball star, it makes most sense to group the players by their proximity to usefulness. We'll have your "Ready to Go" youngsters, your "Needs More Seasoning" guys, and then your "Could Fill A Hole" group. You'll probably find one of these young men on a fantasy roster of yours next year, and knowing the AFL, it probably won't be a pitcher. Let's get the jump on our competition.
Ready to Go
Billy Hamilton is the first name on everyone's lips. And as quickly as his name is uttered, he's on second base. In the All-Star game, Hamilton coaxed a walk and promptly stole second. He stole third on a throw back to the pitcher in a crazy bizarro delayed steal. Later he bunted, and Prospects Guru Keith Law clocked him at 3.49 to first base -- the fastest he'd ever seen. He even added a good defensive play in center field, a position he's only manned for a month-plus. He ended the game with one hit, two walks, two stolen bases and thousands of turned heads. He ended the season with a .233/.313/.349 line, which doesn't look exciting, but that number shouldn't be compared to Fall Leagues of the past. This year's AFL batting line has been a more muted .267/.345/.393. Also, he only managed about 50 plate appearances and still stole six bases and walked five times against eight strikeouts. He probably won't have much power, so translating that plate discipline to the major leagues would be the gas that would make his speed game burn. With Drew Stubbs looking like he's out of favor with the Reds' managing staff -- due to the platoon issues and bad strikeout rates -- Hamilton is tantalizingly close to a major league job and 70+ stolen base upside. It's worth pointing out he doesn't have those things yet, though, and that he might have the downside of a Emilio Bonifacio if things break wrongly.
Kyle Gibson started the All-Star game for the West. He gave up two runs in his two innings, but there was plenty of good news hidden in those two innings. For one, he's healthy. The AFL was a chance for him to build up some innings after his Tommy John surgery, and he showed better velocity than he had before the surgery -- in spurts. Even in the All-Star game, he hit 94 and 95, but he sat closer to 90 and 91. He's pitched 15 innings, with 20 strikeouts against three walks, and his slider has had great bite. He struck out two in his two innings over the weekend. If Gibson has, indeed, developed more strikeout stuff in his return from injury, he could be an interesting prospect again. He's always had great control, and his major league team needs young pitching. The 25-year-old already has over 100 Triple-A innings, so he's close.
The Mariners famously traded for a catcher last season, but the answer at that position will come from within their own farm system, most likely: Mike Zunino is ripping up their minor leagues. The 21-year-old made it all the way to Double-A in his first pro season, and there's already talk of him making the major league roster out of spring training. His AFL tune-up then hasn't been stellar -- .259/.317.483 -- but seven extra-base hits (two homers) in fewer than 65 plate appearances isn't so bad. He came into the All-Star game for the Phillies' new catching prospect Tommy Joseph and went hitless, but he's a much better prospect than the swing-and-miss Joseph.
Jonathan Singleton, former Philly, had a hit and a walk in the All-Star game. There really isn't anything to dislike about his game. He strikes out a little much, but he has the power and patience to make it work at first base. He's also an Astro, and that team is desperate for major league talent. His .257/.389/.486 AFL line (with nine extra base hits) in just about 90 plate appearances is a decent approximation of what he might do in the major leagues, actually. There is, of course, the swing and miss in his game, so the batting average is risky. And his splits are worrisome -- .686 OPS versus lefties and .935 against righties in the littles. But cheap power is cheap power and he still has time to iron out those splits.
Nick Franklin is ready to go. The Mariners' middle infielder has 600 plate appearances in the high minors, and in his most recent go of it (.240/.306/.412 in Triple-A) he showed the same patience and decent power that suggested that he's seen enough of the minor leagues. He's already playing second base instead of shortstop, though, and he played second in the All-Star game. That means he's waiting for the front office to make a decision about Dustin Ackley's future (and both players' future positions) before he's going to get regular MLB PAs. His .333/.439/.563 AFL probably accelerated that time table a little more. Franklin also did well on one regressed AFL leaderboard worth mentioning.
Needs More Seasoning
Rymer Liriano was Hamilton's co-star on the losing West squad, with two doubles and a walk. He even scored from second on a foul-out, which showed great baseball awareness. But the Padres' top prospect only has 206 plate appearances in the high minors and hasn't completely answered questions about his game. He couldn't sustain a plus walk rate to go with his below-average strikeout rates, and his power oscillated above and below average from stop to stop in the minors. His .322/.385/.508 AFL line was obviously a site for sore eyes, but he still struck out over 20% of the time, and his walk rate plummeted. One of his doubles in the All-Star game was to right-center, and going the other way was something that his coaches have wanted for him. There's still potential for a .280 20/20 guy in there, so keep an eye on this 21-year-old kid.
Nick Castellanos played at designated hitter for the East team, but he's the third baseman of the Tigers' future... once they figure out what to do with their bevvy of designated hitters. The twenty-year old has already played at Double-A for a half season, though, and his team rushes prospects, so he could be up sooner rather than later. He's made contact, showed patience, and a little speed, but his power has waxed and waned. His two hits in the All-Star game were singles, his AFL line to date is .239/.316/.338, and he has one home run and four doubles in almost 80 plate appearances -- the power question has not been answered.
Chase Anderson was the second pitcher for the West and he blew batters away with four strikeouts in two scoreless innings, and he does have over 100 Double-A innings, but he's behind too many of those great Diamondback pitching prospects. His changeup has inspired flowery prose, he struck out 19 in under 14 innings in the AFL, his minor league numbers show strikeouts and great control, but there's still Trevor Bauer, Tyler Skaggs and Archie Bradley in front of him. Perhaps a trade will make him more than a name to remember in 2013.
Hunter Morris had 571 plate appearances for Milwaukee's Double-A franchise, and put up an impressive .303/.357/.563 line there, but it's his appearance in the AFL that underlines his performance in those PAs. It means the Brewers have noticed, and that they have plans for him. Of course, Corey Hart is manning first now, and is under contract until the end of 2013, but he's not the healthiest of players, and Morris may force Hart back into the outfield. He hit .288/.312/.366 in the AFL and collected a single in the All-Star game. Remember him when Hart grabs a hammy next season.
Could Fill a Hole
Jarred Cosart started opposite Kyle Gibson in the All-Star game. The Astro prospect has already tasted Triple-A and could be close to the bigs, but there's too much doubt surrounding his game to put him into one of the top two categories. He has a control problem -- over four walks per nine combined last year, six in eleven innings in the AFL, and two in his two innings over the weekend. The reasons he's still interesting is that he hits 96+ mph with his fastball (and it has movement), and his curveball is legit. Worst-case scenario, he ends up in high-leverage innings in an Astro bullpen that needs arms badly. Best-case scenario, he irons out his control issues in Triple-A next season and comes up in September for a hybrid long-starter/bullpen look. Even then, he'll be an SP-eligible reliever at worst, and those can help. It's a shame because he's already made progress in his mechanics but still can't find the zone.
Read more about useful AFL prospects on the next page.
Gary Brown slapped a single the other way in the All-Star game, and if his Giants don't sign Angel Pagan, the speedster could end up with a major league job next season. He improved his contact rate in Double-A and has just enough power to put up a good batting average to go with his steals. He's hit .313/.370/.375 in the AFL, but his 12 strikeouts (22.6% strikeout rate) were a problem. There are still plenty of questions about Brown, but if he comes up to the bigs, he should at least be a candidate for steals-streaming.
Heath Hembree closed out the game for the East with two outs, one on a strikeout. He's long been touted as the closer of the future in San Francisco, and he struck out 11 in seven AFL innings (against two walks), but the Giants aren't going to turn to a rookie at that position at the beginning of the season. So just keep track of Hembree as Brian Wilson tries to return to his wacky and wild ways. He'll still have to beat out Sergio Romo if Wilson can't get it together, too.
Chris Owings started at short for the East team. He got a hit and scored a run. He has showed some power in his .262/.262/.446 AFL work so far. The starting players at his position in the majors are John McDonald and Cliff Pennington. Owings even put in 300 plate appearances in Double-A last season. Those are answers to the question, what has Owings done that makes him interesting. There are still a million questions that remain: He doesn't walk at all, he strikes out too much, hasn't shown consistent power, and some question his glove. So, yeah. You could really repeat this paragraph with all the shortstops that appeared in the game. Jonathan Schoop took over for Owings and has some promise, but probably at second base. Hak-Ju Lee plated Billy Hamilton with a single, and the Rays shortstop would play better defense than Ben Zobrist at that position, but his modest power has disappeared. Lee needs to make more contact to make it work at the major league level. His 24.2% strikeout rate in the AFL does not suggest he's beating down the door in Tampa.
He didn't play in the all-star game, but Robbie Erlin had a good AFL. He struck out 15 and walked five in an out short of 15 innings using his curveball and excellent control. He's repeated Double-A and his major league team could use some starting pitching talent. In years past, he'd be an automatic name to remember, perhaps even draft if spring training goes well for him, but with the fences coming in and the Padres boasting six decent, signed starting pitchers (if you count the mercurial Andrew Cashner as a starter), Erlin has a tougher road to hoe these days.
Kevin Rhoderick had trouble hitting the broad side of the barn in Double-A for the Cubbies last year -- his 7.34 walks per nine made it seem impossible that he'd help the major league bullpen. He must have figured something out in Arizona. He had 14 strikeouts in 9 1/3 innings, sure, but it was the two walks that he's allowed that were more exciting. The Cubs bullpen is atrocious and they're looking to trade Carlos Marmol. Rhoderick could easily come in and close sometime in 2013.
Indians starter T.J. House deserves a mention. The lefty has had inconsistent strikeout numbers and may only have one plus pitch, but he hides the ball well and the AFL couldn't figure him out. 18 strikeouts in 17 innings, against six walks, when combined with an iffy major league staff, makes House a possible doctor for your ailing deep-league roster.
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