If you’ve never been to the Arizona Fall League (AFL), it’s an event to clearly put on your bucket list. Actually, forget the bucket list and make it an annual ritual.
The AFL is comprised of some of the best minor league players in the game that play in an all-star type of format in five of the best Spring Training facilities in the country. In every game, there are at least a half a dozen players that will be in the big leagues within the next two years. Since the general public has yet to discover the AFL, you get a chance to see these players in a setting that has similar attendance to that of a high school game (about 500 people). You can sit behind home plate with the scouts, take pictures in the first row behind third or stand and enjoy one of the few hot dogs that the lone concession stand prepares (hint, get there early or you might leave hungry).
In my trip this year, I saw six games across three days while taking in five out of the six teams batting practices. Some of the BP’s were cut short as the drive between venues is not long but can be slow in the afternoon traffic of the Phoenix metropolitan area.
I focused on pitchers and let the positional player’s playing time take care of themselves. The only regret was not being able to see Cuban émigré Rusney Castillo, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. He just didn’t play during the games in which I attended. I did get a chance to see him during BP and the bat speed and physicality is clearly evident. He’s not a tall man, but he’s chiseled.
Below is my write-up of some of the more intriguing talent I saw during the week. I haven’t written an exhaustive capsule on each player but just a few comments that will complement our Top 10 write-ups.
Mallex Smith (OF, SD)
80-grade speedster from San Diego has a contact-oriented swing that he showed in batting practice but failed to show in-game as he went 0-2 with two strikeouts. He did walk on four pitches against Mark Appel to lead of the game. I was looking for some magic on the basepaths, but unfortunately, it did not happen and that left me clearly disappointed.
Jesse Winker continues to show why he is a professional hitter and nearly big league ready. He had great at-bats against Mark Appel despite striking out twice. He showed plus raw power to all fields in batting practice but I believe that he’ll be limited to above-average power at the highest level with 20 per season possible.
Hunter Renfroe (OF, SD)
Hunter Renfroe showed his massive raw power in batting practice by hitting numerous bombs out to left and center. However, he only managed one hit in the six at-bats in which I saw him play. He did lay off pitches he was not able to handle, which was an improvement from when I saw him in April. He’ll have plus power that will likely play down in San Diego but I believe he’s still good for 20 bombs annually but it could come with plenty of swing and miss.
Byron Buxton (OF, Min)
The raw tools that have made Byron Buxton a top three prospect in the game are still there. However, he looks rusty from a long season filled with injuries. His batting practice was very professional, showing nice pop to all fields while not selling out to hitting the ball over the fence. The swing and bat speed both point to future above average power; although it’s not yet there. While he didn’t get a hit in the game I saw, he did pull an Appel 94 MPH fastball on the nose, but right at the third baseman. I also got him at 3.94 down to first, showing that the speed is still intact.
Not for nothing, but this is my sixth game seeing Buxton and he’s yet to get a hit. I’m not losing faith and still think he’s going to be star, but it would be good to see him get a hit.
Peter O’Brien (1B/C, Ari)
The Diamondbacks traded Martin Prado to the Yankees and received slugging first baseman/catcher Peter O’Brien. He hit 34 bombs on the year and has serious raw power, but it will come with serious swing and miss. While there has been much discussion about O’Brien’s lack of ability behind the plate, he looked ok back there, dare I saw, passable. He showed great leadership in the game, talking and directing traffic very well. The pop times were average on his two attempts to throw out would-be base stealers – 1.93 and 2.03.
Rio Ruiz (3B, Hou)
I wasn’t impressed with Rio Ruiz when I saw him in April, but he looked very good in the Fall League. He stung the ball to all fields and showed plenty of pop in batting practice. I still don’t love the body but believe he’s going to be a solid-regular major leaguer at third.
Roman Quinn (OF, PHI)
I continue to be a huge fan of Roman Quinn. His game changing speed is impressive and his ability to barrel the ball should allow him to hit mid-single digit home runs. The Phillies have moved him to center field to make way for J.P. Crawford and if the game I saw was any indication, it has clearly been an adventure. His routes were not good but his athleticism and speed allowed him to recover. I still think there is something there but realize that he could also profile as a fourth outfielder.
Brandon Nimmo (OF, NYM)
Tall and athletic, Brandon Nimmo looks the way ball players are supposed to look. His batting practice was very professional – driving balls all over the field but few over the fence. During games, he was very passive at the plate, taking four walks in 10 plate appearance. He did make very good contact in his two base hits. I would love to see Nimmo get more aggressive at the plate, but for now, he’s just passive. That will work for now but could cause problems once he finally makes it to the major leagues.
Greg Bird (1B, NYY)
Greg Bird hit two mammoth home runs to dead center field in an afternoon game in Surprise. He has huge raw power with a swing that is more compact and direct to the ball than you would expect. Where and if he plays in New York is still unknown, but he could be a solid –regular first baseman with 25 home runs possible.
The Pirates moved Josh Bell to first base and he did not look out of place. While he has the arm and athleticism to play in the outfield, I’m not sure where he plays given the young talent currently in Pittsburgh (I’m including Gregory Polanco in that comment).
At the plate, he stung two ball, including pulling a 93 MPH fastball from Toronto right-hander Roberto Osuna. Bell also showed very good pop in batting practice. I believe there’s 25 home run power in the bat with a .260 batting average and .330 OBP. That should play much better than what the Pirates have been running out at first base over the past couple of years.
Daniel Carbonell (SF, OK)
This was my first chance to see Cuban émigré Dainel Cabronell and it was just ok for me. He did hit a home run but the swing is highly leveraged and I don’t think he has the bat speed or raw strength to hit for more than average power. Plus, he’s an aggressive hitter and could struggle to get on-base consistently.
Dalton Pompey (Tor, OF)
Dalton Pompey can really play baseball. His defensive abilities were the best of my trip. He runs like a deer in center field with the athleticism and speed to make the spectacular play. Offensively, the game is also very good. He has a great approach and enough bat speed to project 10 to 12 home runs. Finally the speed is plus with a 4.08 clocked down to first from the right side and an easy stolen base. In my Top 10 Toronto write-up, I comp’d Pompey to Shane Victorino. I still stand by that as an offensive comparison, but he’s a grade above that on the defensive end.
Boog Powell (Oak, OF)
I sat next to a scout who told anybody willing to listen that Boog Powell was Sam Fuld. The scout has been around for years and knows his stuff and I see where he’s coming from, but I think Powell might have a little more pop than Fuld. I saw him hit two home runs, where he showed nice bat speed. The plate patience and approach are also very, very good. He’s a nice little player.
Every time I see Russell, I see a star. He has professional at-bats with great bat speed and plays excellent defense. I know the Cubs have too many infielders, but Russell has got to be one of them. Although he is getting time at second base, that’s just to give others a chance to play short. For me, he’ll be playing shortstop at some point next season for the Cubs.
Matt Olson (Oak, 1B)
Matt Olson is a big guy with presence on the field. While he does have raw power as his 37 home runs during the season shows, I do worry that he’ll have trouble catching up to good velocity as his bat speed is not great. Defensively, he looked strong with very good athleticism around the bag.
Kaleb Cowart (LAA, 3B)
Where has Kaleb Cowart gone? Candidly, he looked lost at the plate in the two games in which I saw him. He was late on velocity and struck out three times in nine at-bats. In one at-bat, he didn’t even lift the bat off his shoulder. He did have a nice defensive play in the field, but offensively, he has a lot of work to do.
Cal Towey (LAA, OF)
It was my first look at Los Angeles outfielder Cal Towey and I liked what I saw. First, he looks like a ball player with good bat speed and foot speed. The approach at the plate was also very good with three hits in eight at-bats. His swing can get long so there is likely to be swing and miss, but he looks like a major leaguer to me.
Dwight Smith (Tor, OF)
Dwight Smith has been flying under-the-radar in prospect circles, so I was anxious to see him play this fall. While he has a very good approach at the plate, his swing is very odd. He has an extremely high leg kick that requires him to stand on one foot for at least a second before swinging. It’s almost like he’s posing. While he has good bat speed and I can understand how he can get away with the high leg kick, I’m not sure it’s going to work long-term. He has average speed as I got him at 4.26 to first.
Francisco Lindor (Cle, SS)
Francisco Lindor looked bored to me – almost like he was going through the motions. He lacked hustle to first base on many balls and seemed to be play passively in the field. The talent is clearly there, particularly in the field, but maybe Lindor is signaling to the Indians that- “come on, I’m ready”.
Justin O’Conner (TB, C)
Justin O’Conner can really play baseball. His chops behind the plate have been well chronicled and I got a chance to see it first-hand. The arm strength is crazy good with two pop times under 1.80 and 2-2 in caught stealing. Offensively, he has a way to go. He’s very aggressive at the plate and swung at the first pitch in two out of three plate appearance. He showed good pop in batting practice and in-game bat speed.
Raul Mondesi (KC, DH)
Raul Mondesi was a late substitute for Bubba Starling and looked over matched at the plate. He did DH that day, so unfortunately, I did not get a chance to see him in the field. The only thing of note was I clocked him at 4.15 down to first on trying to leg out an infield hit.
Kyle Wren (ATL, OF)
In my Atlanta Braves write-up, I suggest that Kyle Wren could be an interesting fit for center field if the Braves decide to cut ties with B.J. Upton. In seeing him in just one game in the AFL, I think that could be a possibility. His carrying tool is plus running speed that he shows both on the basepaths and roaming center field. He has 30-grade power with no loft at all in his swing. However, as an on-base guy, playing a plus center field, he could be a nice fit.
Brandon Drury (Ari, 3B)
Brandon Drury becomes the last hope for the Diamondbacks in the Justin Upton trade return and while he doesn’t have all-star upside, he could be a solid big leaguer. He has nice bat speed and good pop that he showed in both batting practice and in-game. He has no foot speed (4.44 to first) and could eventually become a clogger on the base paths. While the Diamondbacks will give Jake Lamb every opportunity to succeed, Drury could be a nice backup plan if Lamb struggles.
Trevor Story (Col, SS)
Trevor Story bounced back after a horrible 2013 season in the California League, but he still has a lot of work to do offensively. In the game I saw, he continued to struggle with recognizing spin and wound up striking out twice in four at-bats. Defensively, he was fine but if the Rockies feel he could be their shortstop of the future once they eventually trade Troy Tulowitzki, I just don’t see it.
Tim Anderson (CHW, DH)
Tim Anderson is going to be a very exciting major league player. He made hard contact during the game I scouted with a nice approach at the plate. He also stole a base and played with great enthusiasm. Unfortunately, he played DH and I didn’t get a chance to see him play in the field. He should return to Double-A to start the 2015 season and could see Chicago sometime later in the year or at the latest, 2016.
Tyrone Taylor has been flying under-the-radar in prospect circles and I’m not sure why. He’s an exciting player with a dynamic power/speed profile playing an above-average center field. He’ll hit the upper minors in 2015 and could start to push the envelope for playing time in Milwaukee in 2016.
Michael De Leon (Tex, OF)
Michael De Leon was overmatched offensively in the AFL but at 17-years-old, you expect that. That said, he looked great in the field, with excellent lateral movement and a cannon for an arm. His foot speed though was poor with times of 4.35 to 4.45 to first.
Deven Marrero (Bos, DH)
Deven Marrero was another player that looked overmatched. He was passive at the plate and when he did make contact, it was weak contact. If this were the first time I had seen Marrero, I would cross it off as a small sample size, but I’ve had the same feeling every time I’ve seen him play. He’s ok, but he’s not going to be a star.
Dan Vogelbach (CHC, 1B)
If you’ve never see Dan Vogelbach, he physically resembles St. Louis Cardinals first baseman, Matt Adams. He’s just a big, wide man. As with Adams, he can really hit and hit with power. I still maintain he’s a designated hitter long-term and therefore, he’ll eventually find his way to the American League.
Aaron Judge (NYY, OF)
I didn’t get a chance to see Aaron Judge play in the AFL but I was reminded again how massive of a man he is. He looks more like a power forward on a basketball team than a baseball player. However, the raw power is real and the swing is better than you would expect. While my Yankees Top 10 has yet to be published, you’ll see Judge at the top of the list.
Mark Appel (Hou, RHP)
Stat line – 4.0 IP, 1H, 0 ER, 6K/2BB
If you are even a casual minor league fan, you’ve heard of Mark Appel. Selected number one overall in the 2013 first year player draft, Appel had a tumultuous season – at least by looking at the box score. However, the arsenal that got him a $6.35 million dollar signing bonus has always stayed intact.
He was very good in four innings in a night game against the Surprise Saguaros. He started off the game pumped up and walked Mallex Smith on four fastballs that missed the strike zone (96, 96, 94, 96). He stepped off the gas pedal, sitting 93-94 for the remainder of the inning and struck out the side, including two pretty good bats in Jesse Winker and Hunter Renfroe.
Appel started to mix in his slider in the second, an 85-86 MPH offering with a nice two-plane break with the ability to miss bats. It’s a solid 60 pitch on the 20 to 80 scouting scale but lacks the true bite of a legitimate plus pitch. His change-up was also very good, grading out as a solid 50 to 55.
It was a good start, even impressive, but it left me wanting more. The fastball is a little flat and the slider while good, is not great. While I think the ceiling is still a solid number two starter, don’t be surprised if he never hits that ceiling and instead settles in as a top 40 pitcher. For the record, that’s a very good pitcher.
Joely Rodriguez (Pit, LHP)
Stat line – 3.0 IP, 1H, 3K/1BB
I had never seen Joely Rodriguez pitch before this week and left duly impressed. He has a sweeping lefty delivery, ala Madison Bumgarner and is consequently, very tough on lefties. His fastball sat 90-93 MPH with a workable 84-86 MPH slider. While it’s far from a top-of-rotation arm, he could be an interesting talent either as a swing man or a lefty specialist out of the pen.
Stat line – 3.0 IP, 1H, 3K/1BB
In watching C.J. Edwards pitch, the first thing you notice is his slight build. The back of the baseball card says he weighs 150 pounds…it might be 150, but not a pound over. He’s just thin with slender shoulders; the kind of shoulders that don’t suggest he’ll eventually add 30 to 50 pounds of muscle. It’s the body of a shortstop; not of a pitcher.
He does have good stuff with a fastball that sat 92-93 MPH in his three innings with a good, but inconsistent 78-80 MPH curve. He was able to throw both pitches for strikes, showing some advanced pitchability by being able to add and subtract a mile or two off each pitch.
While he might have starter stuff, I just can’t imagine him being able to hold up as a starter. I know that won’t make Cubs fans happy, but once you see him, you’ll likely see the same thing I do.
Vincent Velasquez (Hou, RHP)
Stat line – 3.0 IP, 6H, 5ER, 2K/0BB, 2HR
Vincent Velasquez pitched better than his 3.0 inning, five earned run stat line showed. He had very good stuff with his fastball sitting 93-95 MPH with several 96’s hitting the gun. His 84-85 MPH slider showed excellent two-plane movement to complement his fastball quite nicely. His command though was not good. Both home runs he gave up were on fastballs that missed his target badly and given the extreme hitting environments of the AFL, were hit a long way.
I’m still a big believer in Velasquez as I love the mechanics, particularly the great momentum and resulting extension he gets on his pitches. He should start the 2015 season in Double-A with a chance to see Houston by mid-season 2016.
Francellis Montas (CHW, RHP)
Stat line – 3.0 IP, 4H, 3K/2BB
The opposing pitcher against Vincent Velasquez was Chicago White Sox right-hander, Francellis Montas. First, Montas is a big boy – large and wide but with the ability to pitch at extreme velocity. In fact, he opened the night with a 98 MPH fastball that had every scout in the stands checking with each other to see what the other had. I had 98, others had 99, even others had 97. Whatever the exact reading was, the first inning was one of those WOW baseball moments – 98-99 MPH with two triple-digit readings.
He threw primarily fastballs in the first while mixing in a 90-91 slider that lacked a lot of bite. In the second, he added a change-up that was also fringy. But the total package did work as he was able to throw strikes.
The second time through the lineup was not as pleasant as the opponents timed his fastball better and were able to handle his fringy secondary pitches. While he did not give up any runs, they were coming.
Starter or reliever? I’m sure the White Sox want him to start but unless he improves his secondary pitches, it’s going to be tough to live on just an upper nineties fastball. However, if he can develop his slider, he could be an interesting late inning reliever down the road.
Stat line – 4.0 IP, 2H, 2ER, 1K/2BB, 1HR
Nick Howard was a reliever in college but as with Michael Lorenzo before him, the Reds are converting him to a starter. He looked great in the four innings that he pitched in the AFL. The fastball was electric with both plus velocity and wiggle. The fastball sat 93-95 with plenty of 96’s. He complemented the fastball with a very nice curveball that ranged anywhere from 77 to 82 MPH. In fact the slower version was the more impressive and had batters flailing. The change-up still needs work but I’m guessing he didn’t throw many in college.
The command was also not great, particularly as he entered the fourth inning. He was missing up in the zone and batters were zeroing in. Ultimately he might be a reliever, but it was an impressive outing that should give him more rope to develop as a starter.
Tyrell Jenkins (STL, RHP)
Stat line – 4.1 IP, 4H, 0ER, 5K/1BB
On my last evening in Phoenix, I headed to the beautiful new Cubs Park in Mesa Arizona to see Tyrell Jenkins. He missed a lot of time across the past two years due to shoulder problems but looked great in his 4.1 innings.
The fastball was electric with a 93-95 sitting velocity and plenty of late life. He pitched down in the zone, getting mostly ground balls on the evening. His slider is his money pitch that he was able to paint the corners quite well. It had hard biting action that should be a real swing and miss pitch once the rust is completely off. His change-up was also very good and it also got it’s share of swings and misses during the evening.
He uses an extreme high leg kick on his delivery and with his stocking wore high-up, it’s the delivery more from the 70’s than modern time. It clearly works as he gets great extension on his pitches and that allows his fastball to play up. In the stretch, he moved to a slide step where I posted times of 1.15 to 1.19 – very impressive. It controlled the running game, particularly as he stuff started to diminish as the game wore on.
If Jenkins can stay healthy, he could be solid number two starter.