If you’ve spent too much time mesmerized by the postseason, you might have missed that the Arizona Fall League started this month. The AFL is one of my favorite times of the year, enabling not only the 350 mile trip to a place I consider baseball utopia, but also the chance to evaluate plenty of prospects who I normally would only get to see on video or hear about through scouts. If you are serious about player-development—or if you just want go watch baseball for cheap in warm weather—I seriously recommend making a trip out here.
Here’s a look at some standouts for each club over the first two weeks.
Salt River Rafters
Yoan Lopez, RHP Arizona Diamondbacks
The reports I received on Lopez over the season were less than stellar, so it was a pleasant surprise to see the right-hander look like a legit starting pitching prospect in my first live look. His fastball sat 92-94 over his first five innings of work, topping out at 97 with some arm-side run. The former Cuban national also showed a solid slider that flashed plus with hard tilt, and when he kept his shoulder in and finished he located it for a strike, as well. Lopez also showed a handful of fringe-average changeups, a pitch that will obviously have to improve for him to start, but there’s time for that pitch to develop. In a season where many Arizona prospects didn’t take a step forward—or, worse, took a step or more back—Lopez flashing some signs of brilliance is a step ahead for Dave Stewart and company.
Dominic Smith, 1B, New York Mets
I have long been a fan of Smith, and there was nothing I saw over my three games to suggest he won't be a first-division first baseman. In two looks I saw Smith lace two extra-base hits to the opposite field, and also pull two hard singles into right field. He still showed quality hands around the bag, along with a borderline plus-plus throwing arm. Is there a long way to go before he’s contributing at the big league level? Yep. Would I like to see the raw power show up more in-game? Of course. Is this still one of the best first base prospects in all of baseball? You bet.
Raimel Tapia, OF, Colorado Rockies
Have you ever seen a movie that you absolutely loved, and then you buy it and you like it a little less, and then you come across it on cable and you wonder what exactly it is that made you like it so much? Raimel Tapia is starting to become that movie for me. There’s no denying the bat-speed and athleticism, but the approach is still very much work in progress, and he struggled to make hard contact against anything that wasn’t straight. Several scouts I spoke with still believe Tapia has a chance to become a top-of-the-order hitter, but I just don’t see it. Not yet, anyway.
Alex Reyes, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals
What impressed me most in my first live look at Reyes in Scottsdale wasn’t the plus-plus fastball, nor was it the dozen or so curveballs that showed two-plane break and loads of spin. What impressed me the most was that, despite some command issues—and admittedly, those command issues occur too often—he still remained poised on the mound, made big pitches with runners on base and limited the self-inflicted damage. When you consider that Reyes turned 21 a little less than two months ago, that’s pretty impressive, and helps answer some of the questions I had about his feel for pitching. If not for a certain right-hander who plays in the Nationals system, this might be the best right-handed pitching prospect in all of baseball.
Lewis Brinson, OF, Texas Rangers
All year I heard about how many adjustments Brinson made in 2015, and it was evident when he squared up against Boston’s Aaron Wilkerson in the first at-bat I saw. The swing was shorter, the hands came in quicker and an inside corner fastball that he normally would try to pull 800 feet was instead lined into left-center for a hit. Assuming this is the swing we see on a consistent basis, to go along with the natural power and defensive prowess, Brinson has a chance to be a very good player and contribute to the Texas lineup by this season.
Mauricio Cabrera, RHP, Atlanta Braves
I’ve seen a lot of hard throwers in my time, but I had never actually seen triple-digits on a gun—not including the always-hot stadium guns. That changed on Wednesday, when I saw Cabrera not only hit 100, but 101 and 102 on multiple guns. It’s one thing to hit those numbers, but when you do it with plane and there’s some run to the pitch as well? Yeah, that’s tough to hit. Unfortunately, the slider and what I think was a change were both well below-average, so it’s really just the fastball that’s ready for the show right now.
D.J. Peterson, 1B, Seattle Mariners
Maybe I’m the wrong guy to ask about Peterson, as I’ve been low man on him since he was a sophomore at New Mexico. That being said, I’m not an unreasonable person, so I was certainly hoping to see the player who put up big numbers over the 2014 season. Instead, I saw a hitter who struggled to pick up spin, was late on fastballs and still doesn’t have the loft to hit for power—a minimum requirement for most everyday first baseman. I'm open to reconsidering in these next couple weeks, but right now I see a guy who is closer to the bench than the middle of the order.
Mesa Solar Sox
Sean Manaea, LHP, Oakland Athletics
I saw Manaea twice over the first 14 days, and it was really a tale of two starts. In the first effort, he was dominant, sitting 93-95 with an above-average to plus slider and an average change, and he located everything. In the second outing, he was more 91-93 with an average slider and fringe-average change, and he failed to locate either of his secondary pitches. These are the type of consistency issues that Manaea has battled since he was a junior at Indiana State—along with the health concerns—but overall there was far more good than bad in the nine innings of work.
Willson Contreras, C, Chicago Cubs
This might have been the most pleasant surprise of the first half of the Fall League. I knew Contreras had the catch-and-throw skills, and I had seen the statistics that suggested he could hit, but I wasn’t prepared for just how advanced he is offensively. The extension he gets on his swing is impressive, and he hit the ball hard to every part of the field in my multiple looks. This isn’t Kyle Schwarber with the bat or anything, but add in a 55 glove and 60 arm, and I think it’s obvious why so many believe it’s Contreras who will be the backstop of the future in Chicago.
Glendale Desert Dogs
Jharel Cotton, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers
Cotton’s arm strength is really impressive. Despite his diminutive size he’s still able to touch the mid-90s with some sink. He doesn’t get downhill, though, and neither the curveball nor change flashed above-average in my looks. He also struggled to locate and repeat his delivery. Still, the arm-strength and athleticism are impressive, and this is a name I could see making a big step forward if either the change or breaking ball takes a step forward in 2016.
Austin Meadows, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
Prospect guys all love the upside of a fantastic carrying tool, and I’m as guilty as any, but there’s also something about players who don’t have any major weakness. Austin Meadows is that type of player. The hit and power tool both flashed above-average for me both during BP and game, and he’s improved his routes in the outfield, looking more and more like a natural fit for center field. Maybe he isn’t going to be the star so many thought he was in high school, but he’s going to be a big leaguer, and he’s going to hit near the top of a lineup for a long time.
Adalberto Mejia, LHP, San Francisco Giants
I saw more bad than good from Mejia, but in order for that statement to be true there has to be some good, so that’s good, right? And people say I’m not an optimist.
When Mejia was at his best, he showed an above-average change and slider, and he changed eye levels with all three of his pitches, including a fringe-average curveball. That wasn’t often enough, as the left-hander struggled to get ahead of hitters, and too often the body would open up early and telegraph the off-speed pitches. I’d still say he’s the best left-handed pitching prospect in the Giants' system, but everything I saw in my first live look of 2015 suggested he’s a back-end starter at best, with swingman a more realistic profile.
Adam Brett Walker II, OF, Minnesota Twins
I’m not sure I get asked about a player more often than I do Walker, and I get it: He put up monster power numbers in 2015, and he has a fun name. The reports I received from scouts who saw him this summer suggested those stats weren’t indicative of his talent, and while it was only a handful of at-bats that I saw this week, I’m inclined to those scouts' position. The swing is long, the back-half collapses and he had no chance on anything that wasn’t a fastball. He’s also not a great outfielder, so what we’re looking at here is a lefty crusher off the bench, and that’s if everything works out.
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