November 10, 2008
The Arizona Fall League
Less than 18 hours after the last pitch of the World Series, I was sitting in the sunny, warm stands of Scottsdale Stadium watching baseball. The contrast was striking in just about every way-temperature, intensity, caliber of play, size of crowd, my alertness level-but the Arizona Fall League provides an opportunity to rage against the dying of the light that is the end of the baseball season. If this is denial... no, it's not!
Just eyeballing the rosters and following the coverage coming out of the league, it certainly seemed as if the league was deeper this year, especially on the pitching side. There are more high-value young pitchers on rosters who already have MLB experience, such as Max Scherzer, Philip Hughes, and Clay Buchholz, and the caliber of hitting prospects seems to be up a tick as well. Scherzer was gone when I got there and I didn't see either of the other two, but in general, sending players like that to the AFL can only be a good thing. The caliber of pitching in the league had slipped so far in recent seasons that evaluating the hitting prospects was becoming problematic.
As you read what follows, remember one primary rule: I Am Not A Scout. I've watched a lot of baseball, I've talked to people, I spent time out there listening to First Pitch Arizona prospect hounds like John Sickels, Deric McKamey, and Jason Grey, but I am not a scout. Take all of the below with many grains of salt.
For me, the biggest surprise of the weekend was Eric Young Jr. I hadn't considered him a prospect, instead seeing him as more of a speed guy who didn't have much feel for baseball. He's played in some excellent hitters' environments coming through the Rockies system, so his reasonably impressive stat lines were a bit inflated. Problems making contact and so-so stolen-base rates added to the image of a player more on the Reggie Abercrombie end of the tools scale.
Watching him last week, though, I saw a lot of skills mixed in. From the left side of the plate, he both yanked a homer off the scoreboard at Phoenix Municipal Stadium and beat out a well-placed bunt to the right side. I also saw him work a six-pitch walk. In three games, he showed some power, some plate discipline, and plenty of speed. It's not enough to make him a regular-he's mediocre defensively at second base and incredibly awkward in left field-but watching him, you could see how he'd be a valuable player on a bench right now, able to lead off innings, pinch-run, and be used in double-switches.
You could argue that, like his dad, Young has a chance to be a late bloomer. After all, Eric Young didn't make the majors until he was 25, and was a heck of a player through his peak. Even if the younger Young doesn't have that kind of development in him, he showed me enough to make me think of him as a major leaguer, a solid contributor off the bench, 80 percent of the player that, say, Chone Figgins is, or comparable to Ryan Freel.
As I mentioned in chat last week, the most impressive pitcher I saw was the Braves' Tommy Hanson. He was also the first one I saw, which ruined me a bit for the rest of my time there. Because AFL pitching prospects are usually at the tail end of a nine-month season dating back to February, it's rare for them to look completely sharp. Hanson did; he showed the best fastball I saw all trip, 91-93 with very good movement. He also had what looked like two different breaking balls: a sharp, downward-breaking slider, and something with more of a curveball look to it. His command of the latter two came and went, but it was impressive to see a 22-year-old with that many pitches. Hanson's mechanics weren't great; he didn't use his lower body as much as you'd like to see, and he short-armed the ball. I suspect some of that is November fatigue. I don't see much reason for him to not be in the majors by August.
I also saw Braves prospect Kris Medlen make his first AFL start after spending most of the trip in relief. He's not on par with Hanson, but he did have good command of somewhat above-average stuff. He's also very small, looking a bit like a right-handed Mike Hampton on the mound. It's hard for me to separate Medlen from his stat line, which includes a career 5:1 K/BB, so I may have been too willing to be impressed by him.
Matt Wieters stood out from the crowd in the league, playing Kelly Leak to Surprise's Bad News Bears. This isn't that stretched a metaphor; Surprise is terrible, easily the worst team in the league despite Wieters, Brian Matusz and, for a few games anyway, Justin Smoak. For Wieters, playing for the Rafters might provide good experience for playing for the Orioles over the next couple of seasons. He showed every tool but speed in the two games I saw him, even blocking the plate to turn a run into an out. I can see many arguments for having him open next season at Triple-A, but there's no question that he's not only the best catcher in the Orioles system, but one of the best players as well. I don't know where his career will go-the track record of 6'5" catchers is pretty unpleasant-but in the short term, he's the best prospect in baseball.
I saw Smoak just once, actually for Peoria, which picked him up in a trade. Yeah, trades in the AFL... who knew? Like Wieters, he just looked better than the league, and I flashed back to seeing Mark Teixeira in my first AFL trip in 2002. That seemed too easy-two switch-hitting first basemen in Rangers uniforms-but the comp was more about how they looked at the plate and in the field. No, I don't know where Jason Castro was.
Just running through some other guys: Brad James filled the Troy Patton/Chad Reineke spot as a random Astros pitcher I saw and liked, and seems like he can be a 1.5-pitch guy in the majors. ... The Rangers' Julio Borbon worked deep counts and is very fast; if the patience is real he could be huge for them. ... Logan Morrison has stupid power, can hit any pitch out and did, and he isn't an oaf at first base. He may need to learn to stay back a little, as he pulled a lot of stuff foul. ... Tyler Flowers can rake, and I'm not sure why he doesn't get more attention. OK, he was old for the Carolina League. The Padres would do well to make him a key part of a Jake Peavy deal with the Braves. ... Stephen Marek could join Medlen in the Braves' pen next year; he's a bigger, one-inning guy. ... Chris Valaika looked good enough on a few plays to make me think he can stay at shortstop. ... Many people asked, but I didn't see Carlos Truinfel, and no one out there thinks he's a shortstop. ... Gordon Beckham has torn up the league, but he didn't look good defensively when I saw him, and there seems to be an effort issue. That said, it is November. ... Brett Wallace has great power, and reminds me a little of Lance Berkman with extra weight. He's an awkward third baseman with a stiff throwing motion, but the consensus is that he won't hurt you over there. ... Ross Detwiler just doesn't have enough stuff to be a mid-rotation starter; he's fringy at best. ... J.P. Arencibia clearly needs a course in plate discipline, but the power and defense will play. ... Danny Valencia can field at third, but he can't hit. ... Jeff Manship isn't the prospect I thought he was, another location/strikes Twins pitcher as opposed to a top-tier guy. ... The A's have a bunch of relievers down there-Jeff Gray and Andrew Carignan and Jared Lansford-all of whom could interchangeably contribute to their bullpens over the next few years. Carignan is the best of the bunch. ... Brian Bogusevic's transition is going well, though he's not a center fielder in any way, shape, or form. The Astros can trade Hunter Pence and improve a little bit.
As I say, I am not a scout, though the more I do this, the more I'm coming to appreciate specific skills scouts have that I do not. I would like to be able to break down mechanics in more detail, or at least with more confidence, and I have no doubt that good scouts do this in a way that has enormous value. I tend to diverge when it comes to evaluating the non-performance traits of a player-a person-and in weighting tools and skills in determining how good of a player someone will be, but those are conversations to continue having. Quite frankly, if there's one thing I've learned in the past couple of seasons, it's that my older opinions of scouts were misguided, and that scouting minor leaguers, done properly, has enormous value.