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October 6, 2009

Future Shock

AFL Preview, Part One

by Kevin Goldstein

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Quick Quiz: Who won the Arizona Fall League title last year? I do this for a living, and even I'll admit that I had to look up the answer. The Phoenix Desert Dogs won the title, and in fact, it was their fifth straight. Even so, the Arizona Fall League obviously isn't about teams, it's about individual players. So, with the league getting ready to ramp up its 18th season next week, let's focus on the players one should be following, going position by position around the diamond, and beginning today with the holy grail of prospects-the up-the-middle players.

Catchers

Best of the Best: Buster Posey, Giants (Scorpions)

After spending the last few weeks of the year twiddling his thumbs on the Giants' bench, Posey finally gets to play some more in preparation for next spring, which he should enter as the overwhelming favorite to win the Opening Day job as the starter. He's going to be a star, and he should be good immediately with the ability to hit for average, draw a decent amount of walks, display gap-plus power, and shut down the running game. After hitting .325/.416/.531 in the minors, he has nothing left to prove.

Unheralded: Luis Exposito, Red Sox (Solar Sox)

A draft-and-follow who signed in 2006, Exposito continues a slow and steady move up the prospect charts by hitting at every level, including a .287/.339/.439 line between High- and Double-A. He's a big, strong catcher with solid to average power and a quick bat, but there are still some holes in his game that keep scouts a bit leery when it comes to projecting him as an everyday player in the big leagues. His free-swinging approach creates its share of issues, and while he has the physical tools to be a good defender, he's still rough around the edges and needs to work on his catch-and-throw skills.

Disappointing: Jason Castro, Astros (Saguaros)

There's nothing necessarily wrong with Castro, Houston's first-round pick in last year's draft out of Stanford. The question is what he does especially well. Scouts just can't identify any plus tool other than a smooth, contact-oriented swing that should allow him to consistently hit for average, leaving him as a low secondary skills hitter and an average defender who should be a solid big leaguer, but nothing approaching a star.

Others to Watch:

  • Hank Conger, Angels (Solar Sox): A .295/.369/.424 line at Double-A Arkansas just reinforced the fact than Conger can hit, but questions about his ability to stay behind the plate long-term remain unanswered.
  • Jon Lucroy, Brewers (Javelinas): He seemed to find himself at the plate during second half of season, which is good timing, as the Brewers' future at the position in the big leagues remains cloudy.
  • Lucas May, Dodgers (Javelinas): Still fairly new to the position, May showed a good bat at Double-A Chattanooga to go along with rapidly improving defensive skills, but age (he turns 25 in two weeks) is starting to work against him.
  • Derek Norris, Nationals (Desert Dogs): Norris clearly ran out of gas late in the Sally League season, but is still the second-best catching prospect in this league, and the top positional prospect in the Nats' chain.
  • Wilin Rosario, Rockies (Scorpions): He struggled to repeat short-season dominance in the California League, but don't write him off just yet. He finally got healthy late in the latter part of the season and hit .319/.365/.507 in his final 20 games.
  • Austin Romine, Yankees (Rafters): This highly athletic backstop has well above-average power for the position while remaining a very good pure hitter, but his overly aggressive approach at the plate needs to be tempered. Scouts would like to see him put in as much work behind the plate as his does in the batting cages.

Second Basemen

Best of the Best: Jemile Weeks, Athletics (Desert Dogs)

The only concern at this point is Weeks' inability to stay healthy. He has a leadoff man's approach, surprising power for his size, and speed that's well above-average, but he needs to find more consistency in his game, particularly with his defense, and that's only going to come with repetition, which is only going to come with health. Basically, he's the kind of guy the Arizona Fall League was made for.

Unheralded: Chase D'Arnaud, Pirates (Scorpions)

While last year's fourth-round pick split time between shortstop and second this year, the right side of the infield is where his future lies, as he just lacks the instincts and arm for shortstop at the big league level. The good news is that he's a fantastic offensive player who hit .293/.398/.454 between Pittsburgh's two A-ball affiliates, including 33 doubles, nearly as many walks (60) as strikeouts (72), and 31 stolen bases in 39 attempts.

Disappointing: Brad Emaus, Blue Jays (Desert Dogs)

After looking like a breakout player in the system last year with a .302/.380/.463 line at High-A Dunedin, Emaus hit a wall in the Eastern League, batting just .253/.336/.376. Of more concern was his effort, as his once highly-praised grinding style became lackluster, with numerous scouts reporting wildly varying running times, leaving a question to how often he was giving his all.

Others to Watch:

  • Daniel Descalso, Cardinals (Rafters): Scouts are still trying to figure out which version of Descalso is real deal: The breakout hitter with the 928 OPS in the Texas League, or the non-descript .253/.327/.320 player for Triple-A Memphis over the last two months of the year?
  • C.J. Retherford, White Sox (Javelinas): He was undrafted out of college but is still hitting, including a .297/.340/.473 line in pitcher-friendly Double-A Birmingham. His tools will never impress anyone, but he's a doubles machine (46 in 2009) who just gets the job done.
  • Scott Sizemore, Tigers (Javelinas): Should be every bit as good as Placido Polanco next year for the big league squad at a fraction of the price.

  • Carlos Triunfel, Mariners (Javelinas): He should play all over the infield after playing just 11 games this year due to a broken leg. This is not a season to worry about performance, as he just needs to get his timing back, but 2010 could be crucial for him.

Shortstops

Best of the Best: Danny Espinosa, Nationals (Desert Dogs)

This is interesting, in that I thought I'd list Espinosa in the unheralded category, but instead he just might be the best. This year's group has a lot of good players, but no real stud prospect, which also says a lot about that state of the position overall in the minors. That said, Espinosa's full-season debut at High-A Potomac was an absolute revelation, as he hit .264/.375/.460 with 18 home runs, 29 stolen bases, and 74 walks while proving not only that he's capable of staying at shortstop, but projecting as above average for the position.

Unheralded: Zack Cozart, Reds (Saguaros)

A second-round pick in 2007, Cozart's .262/.360/.398 line at Double-A Chattanooga is well short of eye-opening, but he's got an interesting set of skills. One of the better defensive shortstops in the minors, he makes up for a lack of hitting skills with walks and double-digit home-run power, and could end up with a Dick Schofield kind of career.

Disappointing: Carlos Rivero, Indians (Saguaros)

Rivero has long been one of the highest high-ceiling prospects in the Indians system, but he's yet to produce anything consistently in the minors, including this year's .242/.309/.344 line for Double-A Akron. Making things even worse, his big frame has added a few pounds as his body has matured, and his range is now limited at the position, while his arm has always been erratic. A position switch is likely in his future, so the bat has to pick up in a big way or he could quickly be off the radar.

Others to Watch:

  • Jeff Bianchi, Royals (Rafters): He seems to have finally turned things around with a .308/.358/.435 season, including a fine showing at Double-A Northwest Arkansas; the jury is still out on if he's athletic enough to stay at shortstop.
  • Starlin Castro, Cubs (Solar Sox): The teenager proved he can hit and field at Double-A, but scouts would live to see some secondary skills added to his game.
  • Pedro Ciriaco, Diamondbacks (Scorpions): A shortstop from San Pedro de Macoris, and he plays like the prospects from there of two decades, providing very good defense, a line-drive bat, but neither power nor concept of plate discipline.
  • Brian Friday, Pirates (Scorpions): He's a high-energy grinder with outstanding fundamentals across the board, and he could end up as a valuable utility type.
  • Hector Gomez, Rockies (Scorpions): After playing just one game in 2008 due to a leg injury and Tommy John surgery, Gomez' tools still impress, but he's still quite raw and didn't show much progress this year from 2007.
  • Jose Iglesias, Red Sox (Solar Sox): Signed to a four-year, $8.2 million deal in July, Iglesias makes his unofficial pro debut in the Arizona Fall League, and it should be a major challenge, at least offensively, for the 19-year-old. His defense is absolutely at the top of the charts, as he possesses fine instincts, footwork, and the actions of a potential Gold Glove winner. There are several questions about his bat, particularly in a hack-tastic approach that leads to lots of bad contact against pitches he should lay off.
  • Casey Kelly, Red Sox (Solar Sox): Eligible for two games a week on the taxi squad, it may be that the Red Sox hope that the two-way player struggles here, and that might finally convince him to become a full-time pitcher.
  • Cale Iorg, Tigers (Javelinas): He's going to trying to recover from a nightmarish .222/.274/.336 line at Double-A Erie, still he still has intriguing tools.
  • Ruben Tejada, Mets (Rafters): The rare Latin American known more for his skills than his tools, Tejada hit .289/.351/.381 at Double-A this year as a teenager, and while scouts don't see a lot of projectability, they do see a big leaguer.
  • Lance Zawadski, Padres (Saguaros): He delivered 15 home runs and 17 stolen bases this year, but his defense at short is adequate at best, and he turns 25 next May with just a half-season of experience at the upper levels.

Center Fielders

Best of the Best: Ryan Kalish, Red Sox (Solar Sox)

Plenty of players could have occupied this spot since, as with the shortstops, there are plenty of good players here, but few truly great ones. However, Kalish was so good down the stretch for Double-A Portland, batting .302/.384/.561 while showing enough defensive skills to stay up the middle, that some scouts think he could be knocking on the door of the big leagues late next year.

Unheralded: Trayvon Robinson, Dodgers (Javelinas)

Profiled here last week, Robinson required patience by the Dodgers, but his outstanding tools finally began to surface on the stat sheet with 17 home runs and 47 stolen bases as part of a .300/.373/.493 season. Strikeouts are a big issue for him, and his game is still a bit rough around the edges, so this will be a big test.

Disappointing: Lorenzo Cain, Brewers (Javelinas)

Always one of the toolsiest players around, Cain seemed to be on the verge of a breakout coming into the year, but he was waylaid by a series of injuries that limited him to just 60 games, while batting just .218/.294/.330 overall across three levels. A good showing here could help mitigate what up to now has been a bit of a lost season.

Others to Watch:

  • Matt Angle, Orioles (Desert Dogs): He's an old-school center fielder, in that he's a water bug with plus-plus speed and a keen eye at the plate, but zero power.
  • Peter Bourjos, Angels (Solar Sox): The true speedster did wonders for his prospect status by drawing 49 walks as part of a .281/.354/.423 line at Double-A Arkansas after totaling just 40 free passes in the last two years combined.
  • Corey Brown, Athletics (Desert Dogs): Limited to just 66 games this year due to knee problems, Brown still showed power (nine home runs) and plate discipline, but the injury sapped his speed game while the high strikeout rate remained.
  • Jordan Danks, White Sox (Javelinas): John Danks' younger brother got off to a tremendous start but cooled down significantly (.243/.337/.356) following a promotion to Double-A. Scouts now wonder if he's another Ryan Sweeney type, where it looks like he should be good, but in the end...
  • Grant Desme, Athletics (Desert Dogs): After playing just 14 games in his first two pro seasons, Desme blossomed as the minor league's only 30/30 player with 31 jacks and 40 stolen bases in 45 attempts. He turns 24 next April, has yet to play in the upper levels, and struck out 148 times this year, so there are still plenty of open questions about him.

Coming tomorrow: We see if the players at first, third, left, and right can brighten the corners of the Arizona Fall League.

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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