Driving around the state of Florida sucks. It’s no wonder so many teams made the migration to the Cactus League over the past decade. The travel is considerably easier in Arizona, where no two complexes are more than an hour away from one another.
Getting north and south in Florida is easy enough. If you’re on the East coast, I-95 is easy to traverse and the Marlins, Cardinals, Mets, and Nationals all have their stadiums located conveniently within five minutes or so of the highway. The same applies to the west, where I-75 connects Fort Myers and Tampa, keeping the nine teams on the left coast connected relatively easy.
But driving from the southeast part of the state (where I reside) to the Tampa/Clearwater/St. Pete clusterbomb is miserable. It requires one of two routes: going halfway up the Florida Turnpike, where the exits are roughly 30 miles apart, to Route 60, which might as well be renamed “Bob’s Road” via a thing called Yeehaw Junction (I’m not making this up), or taking Alligator Alley to the west coast and staying on the easier, albeit indirect, highway. I chose the latter.
Eight hours in the car, 600 miles, one speeding ticket and two spring training complexes later, I had seen four more teams—the Phillies, Blue Jays, Pirates and Yankees—in action, wrapping up a busy yet awesome spring.
Jesse Biddle, LHP, Phillies
When Biddle has his good days, he’s very good. When he has his bad days, it can get ugly. I caught him on a good day and it was impressive. His curveball was sharp. It had a hard, downward bite that worked as a swing-and-miss pitch against hitters from both sides of the plate, to the point that it covered up for his lack of a quality changeup against righties. His fastball jumped, and on this day he threw it for strikes, which is a big step forward. They still weren’t quality strikes, but it’s a step in the right direction. Even when he’s in the strike zone, Biddle’s command is below average, and it’s no secret that his development hinges on his ability to improve in this area. His changeup still lags behind as well, but his curveball is enough of a weapon against righties as well as lefties that he should be able to get by with a show-me changeup, as long as he can throw it for strikes occasionally. What he can’t get away with is poor fastball command. Throwing strikes with the fastball is a big step forward for a player with a career 4.5 BB/9 rate, but he’ll need to throw better strikes to avoid being a two-pitch reliever. Still, the arm is exciting and the curveball looks like it has developed into a potential plus pitch. It all hinges on fastball command, even more so than with most young pitchers.
Maikel Franco, 3B, Phillies
I’m not sold that the Maikel Franco story is going to have a happy ending. The tools are evident, with plus bat speed and an innate ability to find the center of the baseball with the barrel of the bat. But there are an awful lot of flaws to overcome, and he’s already 90 percent bat in terms of where he provides value. In his swing, he flies open naturally, leaving him short in terms of plate coverage. He can get to fastballs on the outer half, but breaking balls or anything with a slight decrease in velocity give him trouble, as his bat has already left that part of the zone by the time the ball arrives. He also doesn’t seem to pick up the spin on right-handed breaking balls. His feel is exceptional but it’s all reactionary. I’m just not sure he’s ever going to hit good right-handed pitching. In the field, he’s adequate at third base for now and the body isn’t bad yet, but you can see it coming. He’s already close to maxed out for the weight he’s going to be able to carry and remain on the hot corner. When he gains that natural mass in his mid-20s, he’s going to lose what range he has and it'll force a move to first base. The power is intriguing and he can stay at third for now, but it’s looking like the best-case scenario is Dayan Viciedo with slightly more defensive value (for now).
Aaron Judge, OF, Yankees
A few at-bats from Judge this spring delivered more of what I saw last summer in the FSL and last fall in the AFL—a mature approach at the plate, great bat speed and about as short of a swing as a player can have at 6-foot-7. What’s impressive is that he seems to get a little better each time I see him. The at-bats have gotten tougher and more advanced, with a better plan each time out. That kind of improvement is always a positive sign and could signal that he’s a guy who could continue to move quickly. He’s going to have trouble with the bottom of the strike zone. Umpires are calling lower and lower strikes and aren’t giving him any slack for having higher knees than anyone else. He can be attacked low in the zone and it will lead to a lot of called strikes. Still, he handles the game’s biggest strike zone about as well as could be expected and is going to do his damage when he pulls the trigger. There’s a real risk of over-hype because of the market and Yankee desperation for young production, but the floor is high, as he could become a solid regular and potential all-star.
Greg Bird, 1B, Yankees
Scouts are split on Greg Bird, even within the BP rankings. I’m firmly in Bird’s camp and see a potential regular first baseman. He’s still finding the balance between patience and passivity, but he’s closer to finding the happy medium than he was last summer in the FSL. While with Tampa, he routinely took hittable fastballs only to swing at pitcher’s pitches later in the count. While still one of the more patient hitters around, in looks in the AFL and this spring he has shown a better idea of which pitches to take and when to unleash. When he does pull the trigger, the power is very real, more real than he gets credit for. There are a number of organizations that measure power based not on how far a player can hit the ball but whether or not he can leave the yard in non-pull directions. The ability to go out the other way and in the middle of the field suggest plus power. Bird’s towering dead-center shot in the AFL Fall Stars game was widely seen and showed off plus power potential, and another shot to the opposite field into a stiff wind last weekend supported it. It might not be the prototypical profile for a slugging first baseman, but he has enough power to be an asset there and his on-base ability will make up for the rest. He’s not a star, but he should be an everyday player.
Bryan Mitchell, RHP, Yankees
The Yankees have Mitchell working as a starter still, but his profile screams reliever, and possibly a darn good one. Even in a multiple inning stint, his fastball sat comfortably at 95-97 mph with some arm-side run. He repeated his delivery and commanded the pitch well. He backed it up with a plus curveball, a hard downer at 81-82 mph that right-handers struggled with mightily. Left-handed hitters didn’t fear him much and were able to square up his two-seamer, but he could be death on righties. There’s no hint of a changeup and a likely platoon split is in the works, but he could be a part of the Yankees bullpen by mid-summer if they are willing to pull the trigger on a change.
Stetson Allie, 1B/OF, Pirates
Allie does everything on a baseball field the exact same way. Much like he was on the mound, at the plate he’s pure power and an all-or-nothing approach. The approach works better at the plate than it did on the mound, but not enough to project him to be a major leaguer at this point. The power is a legitimate plus raw tool, and when he runs into one like he did last weekend, it’s utterly impressive. But the productive blasts are going to be too far and few between as he faces better pitching. He’s heading back to Double-A Altoona and is making a full-time shift to right field so that Josh Bell can play first base every day. The early returns were ugly, with a lost fly ball on a sunny afternoon and limited range, though watching him unleash what should be a plus arm from right field could be fun. Allie is going to keep getting chances, and should because power is scarce and he has it to spare, but there are far too many obstacles for Allie to overcome to count on him for anything at this point.
· Josh Bell (Pirates) has been working full time at first base since the fall league but still looks uncomfortable there. He never looked terribly smooth in the outfield, either, so perhaps it’s just gloves that make him look awkward, but his actions in the infield aren’t natural yet. It’s early, but it’s also unlikely he’s anything but average at first base. No one will care, though, as long as he hits.
· Dwight Smith, Jr. (Blue Jays) was an intriguing player last year in the FSL, but one likely to end up as a fourth outfielder thanks to his “tweener” profile (not enough power for a corner, not enough defense for center). Perhaps in an attempt to remedy that, he has added a rather extreme leg kick in his stance. It might cost him some contact, but if it moves his power up a tick on the scale it could be enough to make him an everyday player. Stay tuned.
· No one has ever described Aaron Nola (Phillies) as anything but skinny, but in my first in-person look at him I initially mistook him for Carlos Tocci before seeing the proper number on his back. That’s a different kind of skinny. This doesn’t mean anything of course —he’s obviously always been thin and it hasn’t slowed him down yet—and it doesn’t mean he can’t log 200 innings a year. But he was definitely more slight than he had looked on TV or on video and it took me by surprise.
· Dylan Cozens (Phillies) is intriguing because of size/power combination, but the body looks like it’s gotten worse from last year and the swing looks stiff and loopy. Better pitching in Florida State League this year could overmatch him. Video here.
· The overall product doesn’t add up to the sum of the parts for Emilio Guerrero (Blue Jays), who continues to look the part but baffles scouts with below-average baseball IQ and poor execution at the plate. The frame, at 6-4 and thin, is ideal, and he handles it well enough to handle shortstop for the time being, but the lack of approach at the plate continues to hold him back.