The AFL is viewed as a prospect-heavy league, a place where the stars of tomorrow take their next steps towards the major leagues. But not all players on the AFL rosters are prospects, and not all prospects feature the same promise, so buyer beware if you choose to toss all participants into the same prospect basket. With a dearth of quality arms placed in an environment that can supersize even average bats, the end result can turn the mediocre into monsters. The league is still young, but several hot starts have prompted inquiries as to whether the monsters are real, or just men wearing the masks of opportunity. Let’s ask the question and then deliver some answers.

Mike O’Neill, OF, Cardinals (Double-A Springfield/Surprise Saguaros)
“What can you tell me about Mike O’Neill? Another big talent in the Cardinals’ system?” Not a big talent, but the hit tool and the approach at the plate are legit. O’Neill has a bad profile, as the 24-year-old is a left fielder without an ounce of power; in ~850 career minor league at-bats, the diminutive lefty has one home run. But the former 31st round selection out of USC has serious bat-to-ball ability, and his mature and discerning approach has produced twice as many walks as strikeouts so far in his three minor league seasons. Without much defensive value and limited pop in the stick, O’Neill isn’t a serious prospect. But with a hit tool and well above-average on-base skills, he’s the type of player that eventually sneaks onto a roster and sticks around longer than expected.

Josh Prince, OF, Brewers (Double-A Huntsville/Phoenix Desert Dogs)
“Josh Prince is hitting over .400 in the AFL. Is the bat legit?”  The sample size is small and the environment is friendly, but Prince has been swinging a good bat so far in the AFL; one scout referred to his offensive approach as a “guy who makes you make the pitch. He doesn’t have the best hit tool, but he battles like every at-bat could decide the game. I’m not sure he realizes he has offensive limitations.” Who doesn’t love a Cajun gamer? With defensive versatility—originally a shortstop, the 24-year-old moved to center in 2012 and has been playing multiple infield spots in the AFL—Prince has the potential to carve out a career as a super utility type.

Donald Lutz, 1B/LF, Reds (Double-A Pensacola/Peoria Javelinas)
“Who the hell is Donald Lutz and why is he the best hitter in the AFL?” Lutz is a big human who can hit a baseball a long way, but his bat is merely feeding on the inferior at the present. First of all, the first base prospect rule applies to Lutz (who also dabbles in some outfield work, but looks like a first baseman playing left field), and for those that are unfamiliar with the rule, let’s go over it again: First base prospects need to profile as middle-of-the-order mashers at the major league level to have much value. In other words, if a player is already limited to first base in the minors, the burden of success rests entirely on the bat, so the bat has to be special. Lutz doesn’t have a special bat, but he does have plus raw power, and he can take advantage of average stuff. The problem is that Lutz possesses a strength-heavy swing, and he struggles against quality velocity and average breaking balls can miss his barrel. He doesn’t have a good defensive profile, and despite the plus raw power in the swing, the lack of consistent contact limits the amount of power that comes alive in game action. It’s hard to see more than a Four-A type as a ceiling, but the power potential makes him worth keeping an eye on.

Chris McGuiness, 1B, Rangers (Double-A Frisco/Surprise Saguaros)
“After a solid 2012 season, it looks like McGuiness is taking another step forward in the AFL. Could he be the Rangers first baseman of the future?” While it’s true that Chris McGuiness, did put together a decent minor league season, and he has been hitting well in the AFL, he simply lacks the offensive profile of a major league regular at his position. He has impressive strength, which he can turn into game power, but the bat speed isn’t impressive and major league quality pitching will chew him up. He has a good approach, meaning he understands the strikezone and will force a pitcher to work. But his hit tool is below-average, and big league arms aren’t going to have any fear in their attack. The 24-year-old has a chance to sip some coffee in his career, mostly thanks to his patience and his pop, but the weaknesses in his game far exceed the strengths and, unfortunately, the lights on the biggest stage are unforgiving when it comes to blemishes.

Kyle Jensen, OF, Marlins (Double-A Jacksonville/Phoenix Desert Dogs)
“Jensen is hitting over .400 in the AFL. I know he’s not a big prospect name, but anybody that can swing the bat like he is currently swinging it is a player to keep an eye on.” Well, it’s easy to keep an eye on Jensen, as the 24-year-old is built like a middle linebacker, standing at least 6-foot-3 and weighing at least 250 pounds. He is incredibly strong, and if a pitcher makes a mistake, he can leverage the ball a country mile. But the swing is long and slow to trigger, and he struggles to catch up to quality velocity without cheating, which opens up other avenues of exploitation with the secondary stuff.  Limited to a corner outfield, Jensen’s future is tied to his ability to hit, and despite legit raw power, the hit tool utility is below-average and the game power will slide down the scale as he climbs the professional ladder.

Andy Wilkins, 1B, White Sox (Double-A Birmingham/Salt River Rafters)
“After a three-hit performance yesterday, Wilkins is now hitting over .400 and slugging close to .700 so far in the Arizona Fall League. I know you love to bash White Sox prospects, but is Wilkins a legit talent?” First of all, I don’t love to bash White Sox prospects. I often enjoy it, but since my divorce, I’m trying to stay away from the word “love,” so let’s not exaggerate my feelings. Wilkins isn’t bad, and I’ve seen him flash enough to buy into the power, but we have to be realistic, and Wilkins’s profile is a problem. As a 24-year-old first baseman who couldn’t hit over .240 in Double-A, you start to question the overall utility of the hit tool,  especially when his position requires in-game power and his poor contact limits that function. You have to profile as a middle-of-the-order masher if you want any prospect love as a first baseman, and Wilkins doesn’t have those projections. He has legit power, and I don’t think his hit tool is as a poor as his Double-A batting average suggests. But even an enhanced version of his 2012 performance doesn’t give him enough prospect punch to stand in the ring in the majors. As with many of these defensively challenged, 24-year-old, raw strength swingers who are currently tearing up the AFL, the ultimate ceiling isn’t sexy, with more fringe futures than fairytale endings. They are taking advantage of a friendly hitting environment and bad pitching, but most of them lack the quality to stand out at the highest level of the game.

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It's early I know, but assuming you do more of these, can you keep us updated on Billy Hamilton's work as a CF out there? Gracias, Professor!
Scout quote on Hamilton in CF: "He clearly looks like a guy that just started playing the position, but its not hard to see the end result here. He is going to be easy plus out there eventually. The arm plays better, the run is phenomenal, and the routes and angles will improve with experience."
Thanks! I like hearing that. I think Drew Stubbs is better suited to 4th OF. Or perhaps a trade to the A's. They need another OF :-)
Sounds optimistic. I'm curious what about his arm makes it play better in the OF. As far as routes/angles go, they will obviously improve, but to what degree and over what time? Maybe Hamilton's speed is so elite, he won't need to have that great of routes.
Possible that the extra distance forces him to use better mechanics. He's got good arm strength but had a tendency to "flip" the ball - like Brandon Phillip does. Setting his feet and throwing more overhand will likely show his arm much better.
jason - are you hearing anything on Jays OF Kevin Pillar?