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October 10, 2006

Future Shock

AFL Preview Finale

by Kevin Goldstein

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In the first part of our Arizona Fall League preview, I explained Bill James' methodology of comparing teams in the first Baseball Abstract I purchased in 1985. James compared the players on each position to each other, then assigned wins and losses based on where each player ranked. When comparing seven teams, the best catcher would give his team six wins, the worst would give his team six losses, the third best would give his team four wins and two losses, etc. It's anything but the most accurate way to compare talent, but it was entertaining and compelling. I then covered the catchers, first, second, and third basemen on the six teams of the AFL. In part two, we looked at shortstops and outfielders, and in part three, we took a look at the front four slots of the rotations. Today, we wrap up the pitching staffs and take an overview of the balance of the rosters.

Before I get going here, a little bit of housekeeping is in order. The Dodgers announced late last week that Scott Elbert would not be participating in the Arizona Fall League the year. So what effect does that have in the standings? How about zero? The best staff in AFL history simply moves Houston's Troy Patton into the "Top Left-Handed Starter" slot, which keeps them in first place, and Minnesota's Kevin Slowey becomes the "Fourth Starter," and they still easily finished first there. For what it's worth, the Dodgers replaced Elbert with Jonathan Meloan, one of the best sleepers around. With a fastball that touches 97 mph and a plus-plus curve, Meloan had more than three times as many strikeouts (91) as hits allowed (27) in 52 innings across three levels. A righthander, Meloan is ridiculous against lefties, limiting them to a 6-for-70 mark with 43 strikeouts, including a 0-for-14 mark with 12 Ks at Double-A.

Standings After Twelve Positions:

Solar Sox Take Over First On 19-1 Run Led By Historic Rotation

TEAM         W   L   PCT   GB
Solar Sox   40  20  .667   --
Javelinas   35  25  .583    5
Desert Dogs 34  26  .567    6
Rafters     26  34  .433   14
Saguaros    23  37  .383   17
Scorpions   22  38  .367   18

Extra Starters

1. Solar Sox: Matt Albers (Astros) has overcome some personal demons to become a pitching prospect solid enough to compete for a rotation slot next spring. In an interesting turn of events, the Mets are sending 2006 second-round pick Kevin Mulvey, despite just 15.1 innings of pro experience. Danny Muegge (Dodgers) and Errol Simonitsch (Twins) are both marginal righthanders who had nearly twice as many hits allowed as strikeouts at Double-A.

2. Saguaros: The team is filled with starters, so many of these guy will be coming out of the pen. The sleeper on this list might be Phillies righty Zach Segovia, who has endured an injury-plagued career, but still managed to reach Double-A this year, and held his own statistically with some much more highly regarded prospects. He's not a stud, but he's got a career ahead of him. Padres righthander Jared Wells had a 2.64 ERA at Double-A, but a 7.27 mark after a promotion to Portland. Based on his scouting reports, the truth lies somewhere in between. Eric Haberer and Stu Pomeranz represent some big money spent by the Cardinals on some subsequently unproductive arms.

3. Desert Dogs: Virgil Vasquez (Tigers) is one of those righthanders where there's little to say good about him (fringe-average stuff), and little to say bad about him (good control and pitchability). Phil Dumatrait (Reds) is a former Red Sox first-round pick who, unlike many, never came all the way back from Tommy John surgery.

4. Scorpions: All sorts of guys who had trouble moving up. Wes Whisler (White Sox) had his ERA go up by nearly a run and a half at Double-A, while teammate Adam Russell's ballooned by more than two full runs. Matt Palmer (Giants) had a 1.30 ERA at Double-A, but a 4.05 mark at Triple-A. The good news is that Daniel Davidson (Angels) bucked the trend, as his ERA at Triple-A was only 0.15 runs higher than his Double-A ERA. The bad news is that his Double-A ERA was 5.64. You do the math.

5. Javelinas: Jake Dittler was once a highly regarded prospect in the Indians system, but after two uninspiring years at Double-A, and then just 54 strikeouts in 130.1 innings at Triple-A this year, he's pitching for any job at this point. The Braves have many good pitching prospects--unfortunately, Sean White is not one of them.

6. Rafters: Cory Morris (Orioles) and Neil Musser (Royals) are both in their mid-20s, and have never really figured out that whole "throw strikes/retire batters" thing.

Best Reliever:

1. Solar Sox: I already waxed the car of Jonathan Meloan (Dodgers) earlier.

2. Javelinas: Do not give up on Joey Devine (Atlanta). He had some health problems early in the season and some confidence problems once he returned, but he was back to totally dominant at the end of the year, allowing two hits in 11 Double-A innings while striking out 20.

3. Scorpions: At 25, Billy Sadler (Giants) is a little old for prospect status, and at six-feet even, he's a little undersized. But by finding much more consistency with his hard curveball this year, Sadler has two plus pitches (his fastball touches the mid-90s), and he struck out 79 in 55.2 innings while giving up just 28 hits. Based on his brief big league stint at the end of the year, he'll go into spring training with a legitimate shot at a bullpen job.

4. Desert Dogs: I guess I'm just tired of being told how good Dustin McGowan (Blue Jays) is. He did get jerked around by the Blue Jays this year, and he was dealing with newly diagnosed case of diabetes, but at the same time, he's not exactly a kid anymore, he's 18 months removed from Tommy John surgery, and he hasn't put up dominant numbers for four years.

5. Saguaros: Joe Bisenius (Phillies) is a bit of a late bloomer, but he's a big, classic power reliever with a big, equally classic fastball/slider combination that was good for 33 strikeouts in 23.1 innings after a promotion to Double-A.

6. Rafters: Ryan Keefer was the Orioles' version of Bisenius entering the season, but he came down with elbow problems that kept him out until mid-July. Other than some not-surprising control problems, he looked pretty good when he returned, so hopefully it's just a lost year, not a lost chance at a career.

Rest of Bullepen:

1. Javelinas: The deepest bullpen in the league has lefties like Cleveland's Tony Sipp, who could be in the big leagues by mid-2007, and righties like Atlanta's Will Startup, who reached Triple-A in his first full season. Righthander Kyle Jackson was one of the biggest surprises in the Red Sox system this year, and could be a factor if he can cut his walks down.

2. Saguaros: Not a lot of star power, but some solid arms with big league potential. Dennis Dove (Cardinals) is a raw arm-strength guy, and Leo Rosales (Padres) has good control and a changeup that can make hitters look downright silly. Everything about T.J. Beam makes one think he could get major league hitters out--other than the fact that this past summer he couldn't get major league hitters out.

3. Rafters: The Rockies will try to get a pair of righthanders who had disappointing regular seasons back on track in Arizona. Jim Miller lost a tick on his fastball and some break in his slider, which made him particularly hittable after a dominating 2005 season. Ryan Speier appeared in 22 games at the big league level last year, is just happy to be back on the mound again after labrum surgery. Jesse Ingram (Rangers) had 117 strikeouts in 78.1 innings this year thanks to a vicious slider he rarely throws for strikes, but more advanced hitters have shown an ability to lay off the pitch.

4. Solar Sox: Brian Akin (Dodgers) put up some strong numbers this year, but will have troubles setting up his plus breaking ball at higher levels, as he lacks velocity. Carmen Pignatiello (Cubs) is the same thing, only left-handed, but at times that one difference is all the difference.

5. Scorpions: It's not an especially strong group on a prospect level, but there are plenty of minor league relievers who have good numbers, but probably not a big future. Guys like Matt Elliott (Padres), Justin Hedrick (Giants), and Dewon Day (White Sox) have good command and/or good breaking balls, but not the power repertoire that keeps you moving through a system quickly. Dennis Sarfate (Brewers) was moved to the bullpen late in the year at Triple-A Nashville, and was impressive there.

6. Desert Dogs: Connor Robertson (Athletics) is an interesting story, as he had a 2.80 ERA and 97 strikeouts in 83.2 Double-A innings. Those were primarily the products of a highly deceptive delivery that hides the ball until just before release. Calvin Medlock (Reds) keeps getting guys out with plus command and a three-pitch arsenal rather than any sort of dominant stuff or a trick pitch.

Final Standings:

Sox Ride Great Pitching To Title

TEAM         W   L   PCT   GB
Solar Sox   52  23  .693   --
Javelinas   45  30  .600    7
Desert Dogs 39  36  .520   13
Saguaros    32  43  .427   20
Rafters     29  46  .387   23
Scorpions   28  47  .373   24

Is this a prediction? No, not really. The problem is the manner is which AFL games are played. We all have an idea in our head about how important pitching is to winning baseball games (and that rough percentage in our head may have already been altered by this year's playoffs). Let's look at the standings again, broken up into position players and pitchers.

Final Standings:

Sox Ride Great Pitching To Title

TEAM         W   L   PCT   GB    HIT    PIT
Solar Sox   52  23  .693   --   21-19  31-4
Javelinas   45  30  .600    7   28-12  17-18
Desert Dogs 39  36  .520   13   24-16  15-20
Saguaros    32  43  .427   20   11-29  21-14
Rafters     29  46  .387   23   18-22  11-24
Scorpions   28  47  .373   24   18-22  10-25

That's quite a pitching staff, but there's just one problem: pitching isn't allowed to dominate in Arizona. Anything more than five innings out of a starter is a rarity, and many pitchers only play part of the season. In contrast, it's a different story for position players, because there's no such thing as too many at-bats, while we all know about too many innings. All it takes is an offhand aside about an elbow hurting for a team to take a star pitcher off the roster and quickly store him in Styrofoam until the snow starts to melt next year.

So in the end, I'll take the Javelinas, because of the strength of their lineup and a bet that the pitching will even out a bit as names change. We'll check back and see if I've been at all accurate in mid-November.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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