November 7, 2006
The Decline of the Fall
Here's a travel tip: if you're going away for five days, and you wear both contacts and glasses, remember to pack the latter. Especially if you're going to watch a lot of bad baseball.
As you read what follows, remember the golden rule around here: I Am Not A Scout.
The Arizona Fall League still bills itself as a prospect showcase, a place to watch the game's top young players in an environment designed to bring out the best in all of them and launch some to stardom. In reality, the AFL has become an afterthought, a place where a fraction of the game's top prospects, and almost no top pitching prospects, come to spend less than a full season playing against a pool that consists largely of overaged, twice-injured players who are attempting to make 40-man rosters, not 25-man ones.
Consider this: At the conference that brought me to Phoenix for the weekend, Baseball HQ's Deric McKamey released his top 20 prospects for 2007 and 2008. Of the 40 players on his two lists, I saw three in action in the five games I attended: the Brewers' Ryan Braun, the Red Sox' Jacoby Ellsbury and the Pirates' Neil Walker. A handful of other players from those lists had already been sent home from the league, and I missed seeing one or two others, but the fact is that the 2006 Arizona Fall League has fewer of the game's top prospects than any AFL in the five years I've been attending. Just last year I watched Alex Gordon, Stephen Drew, Lastings Milledge, Brandon Wood, Adam Loewen and Taylor Tankersley. The best players I saw this year wouldn't crack that top six, and would have trouble making the top 12. It's just a poor year.
Troy Tulowitzki was the best player I saw in three days. He's going to hit for power and a decent average, while playing an average to average-plus shortstop. He's much slower than I expected, and while that raised a few eyebrows, the consensus seems to be that his range isn't impacted by his lack of straight-line speed. I'd rather have him than Clint Barmes, or for that matter, Ricky Romero.
The other "classic" AFL-style prospect I watched was Braun. The Brewers' #1 pick in 2005, Braun has impressed people with his tools and a rapid advance through the Brewers system. He was mentioned in the same breath as Scott Rolen more than once during the weekend. I'm not nearly as enthusiastic about his future, for an assortment of reasons. His peripherals coming through the system are not impressive: 140 strikeouts against 55 walks in 650 at-bats. He has good SB/CS figures (26-for-30 at two levels last year), but he didn't strike me as fast as much as he's smart. His defense is rated all over the place, and I'm inclined to see him as a right fielder thanks to a good arm and athleticism.
Loosely speaking, I think Braun is the second coming of Corey Hart, and I say that as someone who really, really likes Corey Hart. He has a greater pedigree and is more likely to become a regular because of it, but his star potential is limited by the fact that he'll probably move to the outfield and that he'll probably hit .280 with 60 walks, rather than .310 with 90.
Braun was the #2 name on everyone's lips over the weekend. The guy at #1 is Hunter Pence, the Astros' outfield prospect who left the league just before I arrived. Even with his short stay, Pence impressed everyone who saw him, being named the top position player by Jason Grey of fantasybaseball.com in his AFL Scouting Guide. Pence is an older prospect-he was 23 last year in the Texas League-and given the Astros' fluid corner outfield situation, he could push for a job in Houston as early as this spring. Eric Byrnes was a popular comp, but I think a right-handed Rusty Greer works better.
Top pitching prospects Mike Pelfrey and Luke Hochevar pitched in Arizona, but for a combined 12 1/3 innings so far. Philip Humber threw two in one appearance. It's fairly typical for the AFL to be heavy on hitters and light on pitchers, but this year has been light on both, and extremely light on the latter. If the Arizona Fall League is going to continue to be a true showcase, MLB and the 30 teams are going to have to treat it as such. You're not learning much about the actual prospects here by having them pitch to organizational guys or hit off of players who aspire to be organizational guys.
Hopefully this was a one-season fluke, because the AFL is a great idea, and I hope to continue attending it each year.
Now, the depression sets in. 102 days until pitchers and catchers.