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November 7, 2006

Prospectus Today

The Decline of the Fall

by Joe Sheehan

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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.

  • Players who did impress me-remember, IANAS-included the Dodgers' Chin-Lung Hu, who could play shortstop in the majors right now if you didn't mind the 600 OPS. He made a play I'd never seen before, running down a ball in the 5-6 hole and then chasing down a runner who'd made too far a turn at third base. I've seen shortstops throw out that runner, but never one who made the out himself. It loses a lot in translation; suffice to say it was an impressive play. Hu also showed off a gun.

  • The Astros' Troy Patton looked very good in two shutout innings. He has been a starter his whole career, but he looks like he could be a lefty reliever for the 'Stros-who have struggled to find one over the years-as early as this spring. He's not just a specialist; he has four pitches, including a very effective change-up according to Grey. His size-a slight 6-1-and his slider may doom him to a limited role, but he's capable of much more. Ron Villone comes to mind.

    Chip Cannon just sounds like a fictional character from a line of young-adult novels, the star quarterback who always does the right thing, always wins the big game and always drinks his milk. It turns out that Chip Cannon is actually a club-footed first baseman with very real power and not a whole lot else to offer. Cannon did show that power with a homer Saturday, and he also hung in well against a left-hander later in that same game, connecting on a two-run single. I see Paul Sorrento here, the kind of guy who could slip into an opening and have a five-year career as a .260/.330/.500 first baseman. With so many things working against him, however, he's going to need just the right combination of opportunity and performance to make that happen. Just from a marketing standpoint, I hope he gets there.

  • The Jays' Dustin McGowan was probably the most impressive pitcher I saw all weekend. He showed good command of his fastball and a good breaking ball. The Jays have moved him around from starter to reliever over the last few years, which combined with a year lost to Tommy John surgery have left him as much a suspect as prospect. Take this with a grain of salt, but I believe that if they just left Dunedin next March with him as their #3 starter, they'd have the missing bridge from the front of their rotation to the back. He's got that much stuff.

  • The Baseball HQ event that wraps around all the ballgames was a lot of fun, as always. I've made a lot of friends thanks to Ron Shandler inviting me to this five years ago, and as I say every year, you should definitely find a way to attend. The information in the presentations, the fun of sitting at the park with friends old and new, the thrill of seeing something, like Hu's play, that you've never seen before, and watching just a little more baseball before the winter sets in…it's all there in one weekend in Phoenix.

  • I mentioned Jason Grey's AFL Scouting Guide, which is an essential resource for anyone playing in deep fantasy leagues. Also available was the 2007 Bill James Handbook from ACTA Sports. The Handbook, largely the product of Baseball Info Solutions' work with the data, is a terrific offseason reference that includes a number of features, such as baserunning data and managerial reports, that you can't find anywhere else. Buy the Handbook and Baseball Prospectus 2007, and you'll be all set for the upcoming season.

Now, the depression sets in. 102 days until pitchers and catchers.

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

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