Once a year, as the major leaguers are winding down the playoffs, some of the best prospects in baseball head to Arizona. Their goals, destinations, and even jerseys are different while they are down there, but it does give talent evaluators, hardcore baseball fans, and roto junkies a reason to get one last fix of baseball.
Some of the prospects head to Arizona to build up innings and plate appearances. Albert Almora of the Cubs was hurt for much of the year, and relished the chance to show people that he thinks he's ready and healthy. Pitchers like Kyle Crick and Alex Meyer had injuries during the season, and in an effort to keep them progressing towards a major league workload, their teams sent them to the desert.
Some of the prospects head to Arizona to get a sneak preview of what's about to come. Mookie Betts only got as far as High-A this year -- in an exciting year -- and was surprised by how well the AFL pitchers were able to command their breaking stuff. He told me he was happy to get an idea of what Double-A would be like before he got there.
Some of the prospects head to Arizona to prove to their organizations that they still have value. With 40-man roster decisions looming, many of the young men in the AFL are fighting for one of those spots. Or auditioning for another team that thinks they might be able to help in the big leagues. Max Kepler is a German signee that hasn't played above A-ball, and though he started off well, his .235/.298/.333 slash line is probably not enough to get him on a roster of the 25- or 40-man variety.
Some of the prospects you'll see in Arizona are playing out of position. Marcus Semien is playing shortstop, for example, and the White Sox have a capable shortstop. But that might be due to how the AFL runs things. Teams draft positions -- the Cubs ask for an outfielder slot, for example -- and then have to fill them at the end of the minor league season. If someone gets hurt, they may have to play a prospect out of position to get him into the AFL. But the league has to do this so that they can actually field six teams with players at every position.
Since the prospects in the AFL come from such disparate contexts, it's probably a good idea to split our analysis of the league into two parts. Today's part will cover the players that are close to the bigs. These guys can help in redrafts next year, and might be undervalued in keeper leagues where your fellow managers are lunging after the high-upside players. They are much more likely to play in 2014 than next week's list of prospects that are further away. One of today's players may even end up closing in the coming year. Let's try to list them in order of interest paired with likelihood of a callup in 2014.
I wrote a more detailed writeup of the Twins' top pitching prospect earlier this week, but the best news is that Meyer has 70 innings of Double-A experience under his belt before he even headed to Arizona. Down in Phoenix, he's cut his walk rate and shown even more gas -- averaging over 98 miles an hour in the AFL, tops in the league heading into the All-Star game. At that game, I was impressed by his tight curve and the drop on his changeup. He has three legit speeds and stuff that breaks in every direction, and even one intriguing grip: the no-seam fastball. That pitch moves like a two-seamer and should give him plenty of ground balls. Other than the shoulder, which felled him earlier in the year, there was virtually no obvious warning sign with Meyer, and even if he doesn't break camp with the Twins, he'll be up in 2014 eventually. And he'll be good.
The Braves famously left veteran Dan Uggla off the postseason roster and have been linked to any available second baseman in trade talks. With $26 million left on his contract, it's kind of hard to believe they won't bring him to Spring Training if they can't trade him. But it's also easy to see that they'll probably have a better backup plan than Elliot Johnson this time around. Enter LaStella. By walking a ton, not striking out, and showing good power in Arizona, he's climbed to the top of statistical leader boards. And, since he played Double-A last year, and walked a ton and didn't strike out much -- and showed some pop -- these things are relevant. Expect him to challenge for the major league starting job from day one, especially with this showing. And he could be a five-category producer at second, even if the power isn't major league average right out of the gate.
You could put Bryant on the upside list -- he's never seen Double-A pitching -- but his bat looks ready. He's wiry, strong, and has a good sense of the plate. It would be nice to see him making more contact in Arizona, though. His 29.7% strikeout rate makes his High-A 27.4% rate a little more worrisome. Add inconsistent play on defense, and you have a reason to keep Bryant in the minor leagues next year. But most agree that the bat would play in the corner outfield, and soon, so maybe Bryant only needs a half-season in Double-A before you see him in Wrigley.
The diminutive reliever may be three inches short of six foot, but he can still bring it. He was hitting 95 during the All-Star game. He's a three-pitch pitcher, and all three of his pitches got whiffs in the game, so it wasn't obvious to me that he needed to be a reliever for the Blue Jays. There is some effort to his delivery, and he is a smaller guy, and he came out of the pen in the AFL, but Jays assistant General Manager Tony LaCava told MLB.com that the team still seems him as a starter. And he has the tools to contribute. And his team needs depth in the starting rotation. With 111 2/3 dominant innings in Double-A in the books, he could be ready quickly.
Like Henry Urrutia below, Semien has already tasted the big leagues. He's playing shortstop in the AFL, but if anything, that might just be to stretch his arm out for third base. At the plate, he's showing his trademark patience, but the strikeouts that plagued him for the first time in the big leagues are still following him around. If he strikes out more than league average, the batting average and on-base percentage will suffer. On the other hand, he has the ability to show better-than-league average power and speed on the infield, and that third base job is wide open for him. Keep him on your radar, particularly if he cuts down the strikeouts in the spring.
Going on 27 in February, Urrutia is probably the oldest player in the AFL. So his .354/.415/.542 line should be discounted heavily. He's showing patience and contact, but if the lanky six-foot-five Cuban can bring some of that AFL power into the mix, he might be able to be a sneaky play next year. The Orioles have outfield and DH open right now, so watch this space. Even if it's mostly for batting average.
Perhaps because of all the injuries during the season, the pitching staffs in the AFL have been better this year. Drew Hutchison is coming off of Tommy John surgery, so he came down to show he was healthy. In Arizona, he's struck out 14 in 15 2/3 innings with only two walks, so the control looks like it's in good shape. The Jays will need him, but without some advancement in his stuff, he's probably a deep leaguer at best.
It's hard to disregard how bad Maurer was this year. But there are mitigating factors. For one, he was only 22 when they handed him a big-league job in the rotation. He showed a good swinging strike rate, built on the back of a 93 mph fastball and a strong slider. He even had a nice walk rate. He just couldn't keep the ball in the park, particularly against lefties (1.84 HR/9). Lefties are a major problem, since his changeup is not very good, and most of his pitches are better against righties. Well, one stat out of Arizona might be more important than his nice strikeout rate in the desert -- Trackman says he has the highest curveball spin down there. The curve -- particularly tight curves with lots of spin -- can be effective against opposite-handed pitchers. There's a bit of a crowd in the Mariners rotation suddenly, but Maurer shouldn't fall off your radar because of a bad rookie season.
This White Sox outfielder has all the tools in the world, but until this stop, had struggled mightily with the strikeout. 60 plate appearances in the desert with an above-average strikeout rate doesn't mean he's fixed those problems, but it does offer us a glimpse into his potential. If he can strike out even 25% of the time, he could hit for a poor batting average but offer power and speed. He won't hit .348/.475/.609 in the bigs like he is right now, but .240/.320/.400 with double-digit home runs and steals? It's possible, and in today's offensive environment, that's worth keeping an eye on.
The Orioles don't have a second baseman under contract next year. Well, okay, there's Ryan Flaherty. He just doesn't have much patience, strikes out too much, hits too many pop flies, and seems miscast as a second baseman. Former shortstop Schoop looks much more the part. He's just been having a really bad time in Arizona (.149/.245/.277). Don't lose him on your radar, though. He could make more contact and have more patience than Flaherty, and a good Spring might change everything about how he's perceived.
Read about more prospects on the next page.