On the Verge
This group includes players with near MLB-ready skill sets who are in the AFL to put the finishing touches on their profile as they get ready to compete for a big-league job in 2015.
RHP Francellis Montas (White Sox)
He's been a starter for almost his entire career, and if the White Sox are hell-bent on developing him into a major-league starter then he's still a long way off. But if they are willing to shift him to the bullpen his stuff is ready. He sat 97-99 and touched 100 mph several times in his start against Salt River. His 89-92 mph slider has obvious power and the 87-90 mph changeup is a solid change of pace. He lacks the command to be a starter in the short term and there is very little deception to the delivery. The White Sox have pushed their prospects as aggressively as any organization, and if they are willing to move him to the bullpen then Montas' stuff should be ready for the South Side on opening day this year. When he gets hit, he'll get hit hard, but he should be able to blow away a significant number of hitters, too, and has a three-true-outcomes type of profile.
OF Dalton Pompey (Blue Jays)
The switch-hitting center fielder is a plus runner with plus range, and his glove gives him a solid profile foundation. With Colby Rasmus entering free agency there is a clear path to an everyday job for Pompey in center field next season. He has quality bat speed and adds bonus value via the stolen base. He'll mix in the occasional home run, though he's more of a doubles and walks type of hitter. The development rate over the past few years suggests he's more likely to reach his ceiling than most prospects, and he's already had a brief taste of the big leagues.
RHP Jake Reed (Twins)
There is merit to the position that some scouts have taken on Reed, with his three-pitch arsenal and surprising command: They want to see him moved into a starting role. But the fact that he is ready to make a big impact on a major-league bullpen immediately makes that point moot in my mind. Why overthink it? He has yet to play a game above Low-A, but the stuff, deception and control all add up to an impact reliever and there isn't a lot of development left. In the Fall League he worked 94-96 with plus tailing life on his fastball and a deep sweeping slurve; both pitches elicited swings and misses from quality hitters. His delivery is fast paced and he is athletic enough to repeat his release point in spite of moving parts that create deception. It's not a slider that would, in a vacuum, be a quality offering, as the break is sweepy and deep, but it plays well off his tailing fastball and his delivery, and it plays up due to his ability to locate it. He also flashes a solid changeup at times, making a starting role a tempting option, but he looks ready to dominate with two swing-and-miss pitches that he controls well already. Reed is one of the best relief arms I saw in the AFL and just 22 years old.
RHP Sam Tuivailala (Cardinals)
His upper-90s fastball and live arm are already big-league ready. It's his control and the finer points that he's still behind on. He pairs that heat with a hammer 12-6 curveball that has tremendous depth and sharp break at its best. But he slows his arm and delivery down on the curveball and has a tendency to hang it—a dangerous combination. He's still raw but his stuff is so loud that even though he has only realized a fraction of his potential, he's not far off from rebounding from his rough introduction to the big leagues.
LHP Wei-Chung Wang (Brewers)
The Brewers don't have any other left-handed candidates for their rotation, and they lack the payroll flexibility to make an aggressive play to change that. They drew some criticism for how far they went to in keep his rights throughout the 2014 season, as they were forced to keep the Rule 5 pick on the 25-man roster throughout a playoff hunt. Given Wang's feel and starter's profile, and the available alternatives, it looks as though the 22-year-old has a legitimate chance to earn some starts at the major-league level in 2015. He won't enter spring training as one of the top five starting pitchers in the organization. The top three spots are clear, and both Wily Peralta and Mike Fiers are coming off strong 2014 campaigns. But when the first rotation spot comes open during the 2015 season, Wang will likely be one of the top replacement options. He was in the AFL to make up innings after spending much of 2014 on the disabled list (as part of the Brewers’ roster tightrope act). He doesn't offer high-octane stuff; rather, he's a finesse lefty who can live on the corners and induce weak contact and avoid issuing walks. He topped out at 92 mph from a slow-paced delivery that lulls hitters to sleep, and he works slowly. He nibbles on the corners and relies heavily on his splitter. He also spins a quality curveball and located all three pitches effectively while staying out of the fat part of the strike zone. He might have more velocity in the tank, though he can be productive while pitching with an average fastball due to his command. Barring an injury he should be ready to make spot starts for the Brewers at minimum price in 2015.
These players are young and have significant time remaining between now and their MLB debuts. But they each possess significant upside and have the physical tools to develop into significant prospects over the next couple of years.
SS Michael DeLeon (Rangers)
The Rangers appear to have connected already on a player who, just 15 months ago, they signed for $550,000. The 17-year-old has a quick first step and plus athleticism up the middle to create plus range. His arm strength is currently hovering around 50 grade, which would be a bit light to play shortstop everyday in the major leagues right now. But the arm action is loose and projectable and it looks likely to reach a future 60, which will be more than adequate to pair with his actions to become a plus defensive shortstop in the big leagues. The fact that the switch-hitter held his own against near-ready arms who were five to seven years his senior is very impressive. He's a touch more natural swinging from the left side, but also shows bat speed with loose swing actions from the right. The glove is clearly ahead of everything else in the profile at this stage but he has big projection across the board and has a chance to contribute bonus value beyond his impact glove at short.
SS Raul Mondesi (Royals)
The 19-year-old has plus bat speed from the left side and solid present raw power. He also projects for significant strength gains as he matures, and he is highly athletic. That suggests an enormous ceiling for a shortstop. His swing has major aggression and is extremely pull-oriented. While the strength projection and bat speed suggest an enormous power ceiling, the fact that he generates his present power with so much effort and with a dead pull swing suggest it’ll be difficult to maintain all of the power and a viable contact rate. He's a plus runner at present, and if he can maintain that speed even after developing additional strength it adds extra value to the profile. Defensively he has a quick release and clean actions and has a real chance to stay at the position. He's still a long way off, especially at the plate, where his current approach is to swing at everything with bad intentions, but his raw tools are very intriguing.
RHP Tayron Guerrero (Padres)
Relief prospects typically take less time to incubate before becoming major-league ready. But in the case of lanky 6-foot-7 Tayron Guerrero, reaching the upside is likely to be a slow build. He has very long, slender limbs but a loose, fast arm that generates mid-90s velocity with ease. He also owns a plus slider that sat 87-89 mph in his relief outing at Mesa. He gets good extension and downhill leverage from a slow-paced, low-effort delivery. He has present balance issues that cause wildness, but less than one would reasonably expect from a pitcher with his frame. The stuff is electric and it is easy to see him living in the upper 90s and touching triple digits frequently as he gets stronger. Improving his balance would allow the high-octane stuff to play to its potential so he could develop into a high-leverage late-inning power arm.
2B Domingo Leyba (Tigers)
Just 19 years old, Leyba looks physically overmatched at times in the AFL, but he has emerging strength and generates solid average power from the left side. He has limited straight-line speed due to his stride length but his feet and actions are quick and he has solid second base tools. He's barely reached full-season ball but looks to have the makings of a solid second base profile. He will be interesting to follow going forward.
None of these players were drafted in the first two rounds and none ranked in the top 10 prospects of their respective organizations heading into 2014. But each of them brings potential value at the Major League level and stood out as legitimate prospects in the AFL.
2B L.J. Mazzilli (Mets)
While the ultimate value of a second baseman with average to slightly above-average raw power isn't stratospheric, Mazzilli has all the makings of a productive everyday big leaguer. His approach contains controlled aggression with a pull tendency and a line drive plane. He has solid raw power that he shows in batting practice, though his game swings are more geared to doubles in the gaps. He is a fringe-average defender at second base with playable range and just enough arm strength to get by. He's a bat-first second baseman, but the hit tool was a major standout in the loaded AFL and if he offered a significant power ceiling or plus speed he would qualify for the Potential Breakouts category.
CF Roman Quinn (Phillies)
The quintessential Marty Woelever-era Phillies draft pick, Quinn has the makings of a success story from the Phillies’ upside-first approach to the draft. Quinn's game is built around his 80 grade speed, and his recent transition to center field makes a lot of sense to fit the profile. He's a switch-hitter who offers surprising power from both sides of the plate and will occasionally run into a home run while mostly offering gap-to-gap offense and stolen bases. There is some question as to how much he'll produce, but he has a short swing with quick hands, which should allow him to put the ball in play enough to leg out infield singles. The pair of bunt attempts that I saw in the AFL were abysmal; for a player with his profile that will be an important skill to hone. The bat appears to be at least a couple of years from being a big-league asset, though with current center fielder Ben Revere under club control there is no pressure to graduate Quinn to the show. If he never takes a step forward offensively he still offers fourth outfielder value, with the added bonus of an impact-level pinch-runner and defensive closer. Regardless of development he's likely to offer at least something to a major-league club. The fact that he owns more power than most players who fit this profile suggests he has a ceiling of a switch-hitting Michael Bourn.
OF Andrew Aplin (Astros)
While none of the tools stands out at this level, the overall pedal-to-the-metal approach allows them to play up. He offers just enough physical capacity that he's able to will his way into solid production against high-level competition, a bit similar to Kevin Keirmaier of the Rays. Maintaining that level of exertion everyday makes staying healthy over a full season unlikely, so the ideal use is as a fourth outfielder whose ability will allow his manager to give his everyday outfielders an occasional game as a DH. Aplin's skill set is built around working deep counts, taking extra bases, and making diving catches in the outfield, all of which should allow his fringe-average tools to add up to a solid big-league contributor.
2B Sean Coyle (Red Sox)
He's undersized, often injured, and heavily blocked by Dustin Pedroia. But he can really hit. He's limited to second base and is a fringy defender there, meaning the Red Sox don't have much of an opportunity available to him in the short term. Whether the durability issues and small stature are coincidental or not, it's a combination that diminishes his perceived value. Thus he represents a potential trade bargain who can be acquired on the cheap by an organization that has a second base opening. He packs a big punch for his size, he maximizes his available leverage, and he generates plus bat speed with a relatively long swing to create good pull-side home run power and doubles power to the rest of the field. He's not quite big-league polished and sells out to create his power, but he's also not extremely far away.
RHP Kaleb Fleck (Diamondbacks)
He's not the most hyped relief arm in the Diamondbacks’ system, as Jimmy Sherfy is the more familiar name. Enrique Burgos also steals some spotlight from Fleck at the moment. But Fleck's arsenal and delivery are reminiscent of Royals closer Greg Holland. Fleck worked with a 95-97 mph fastball that had explosive life and an 85-87 mph wipeout slider. His delivery features a glove tap timing mechanism to trigger his late explosion toward the left-handed batter's box, working exclusively from the stretch. While he doesn't command either pitch, he stays around the strike zone in spite of falling off severely to the first base side. In the two outings I caught he brutally overpowered hitters with his pure stuff. If he can maintain that level of stuff and continue to throw it for consistent strikes he should be ready to succeed in the big leagues very soon. He'll face stiff competition for a big-league promotion and the Diamondbacks have some low cost arms already in the bullpen, but so long as he stays healthy it would be surprising if he doesn't pitch his way into the big leagues at some point in the near future.
RHP Kyle Zimmer (Royals)
In my first live look he threw a 21-pitch first inning. topping out at 91 mph before a trainer left him off the field with a shoulder injury. The fifth overall pick in the 2013 draft has performed at a high level when healthy but injuries have been a significant issue for the majority of his brief professional career. There was a buzz about his early AFL season performance among scouts in the days leading up to his highly anticipated matchup against Pirates RHP Tyler Glasnow, but the injury casts a shadow over the optimism. The shoulder surgery he underwent has been portrayed as minor, but it can be argued that when it comes to pitching prospects there is no such thing. His AFL rebound had offered a glimmer of hope to the Royals, but now the injury casts doubt on Zimmer's ability to fill some of the void that James Shields’ potential departure will leave.
1B/DH Dan Vogelbach (Cubs)
The good news is that Vogelbach has maintained his weight well and is in better shape than his doubters had expected he would be at this stage of his career. Unfortunately, it hasn't translated to the kind of defensive improvement that makes him a strong candidate to play every day at first base. His ceiling then becomes a left-handed bat off of the bench for the Cubs organization, and trade bait to an American League organization that would have the option of using him as a designated hitter. The raw hitting tools suggest that he still has value as such, but now that he's reaching the higher levels of the minors he's begun to be exposed as a guess hitter. He has power to all fields with a loose swing and plus bat speed, but his noisy pre-load bat waggle left him flat footed and unable to adjust when he didn't see the expected pitch. While it's a fixable issue, any concerns about the hit tool of a prospect who doesn't have a position is a significant concern. The tools are high caliber, but he will be forced to prove himself with the bat at every step due to the one-dimensional profile, and right now he's not doing that.
1B/OF Josh Bell (Pirates)
Bell lands here not because of his offensive ability, but rather the struggles with his transition from the corner outfield to first base. While his raw power hints at a high ceiling, his lack of a defensive home will put extreme pressure on his hit tool, which he has yet to establish as a viable. While I like the offensive profile, it now seems to be the entirety of his potential value as a prospect, and his stock takes a bit of a hit as a result. The large mass gains that he's added since turning pro in 2012 have allowed the raw power to reach plus levels, as was expected during his amateur days. But it has also come at the expense of his athleticism, both on defense and with his swing actions, which have become stiffer and mechanical. This is nitpicking a 22-year-old, as his bat has always been his best asset and remains so, but the stalled defensive development necessitates such nitpicking and likely reduces his ultimate value from that of an impact player to a merely good one propped up by power production.
C Elias Diaz (Pirates)
The raw power at the plate and the arm strength behind it make Diaz an interesting prospect. But he really struggles as a receiver and has slower feet. He posts strong pop times from his knees, and on the merit of his arm strength can post strong pop times while gaining ground as well. In spite of the catch-and-throw ability, he is prone to frequent passed balls and is less adept at blocking wild pitches than a league-average catcher. While his two-dimensional profile is tempting, his biggest shortcoming is in the most important area, and is extremely difficult to improve.
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