The Arizona Fall League kicks off its 16th season next week, and while the league has had its struggles on a financial level, the talent continues to shine through–though like most years there is far more good hitting than quality pitching. In this year’s All-Star game, nearly half the players on the National League squad (16) had AFL experience on their résumé, and that number should continue to grow in the years to come. We’ll start today’s preview with the East division, looking at five story lines to follow on each team.
Part of the Rebuilding Process: Houston catcher J.R. Towles hit .287/.393/.447 between Double- and Triple-A before going 15-for-40 with the big league club down the stretch. After seven years of Brad Ausmus‘ feeble bat, Towles should take over next spring and provide an instant upgrade.
The Best Pure Hitter In The League?: The Brewers surprised some people when they tabbed Matt LaPorta with the seventh overall pick this June, and drew even more raised eyebrows when they announced that he’d be playing in left field after a college career spent at first base. He’s still pretty much a mess in the outfield, but his bat drew raves from scouts during his brief pro debut, during which he hit .318 at Low-A with 10 home runs in 88 at-bats. The AFL will provide a much sterner test for LaPorta, who with a strong performance could prove that he’s ready to start 2008 in Double-A.
Don’t Give Up On Him Yet: Boston’s Craig Hansen was supposed to be a big league closer by now, but struggles with command and a drop-off in stuff from his college days has led to Hansen’s continued floundering at Triple-A, frustrating the organization to no end. Written off by many, something started to click for Hansen at the end of the season, as he finished the year by reeling off 10 straight appearances without allowing an earned run.
Don’t Give Up On Him Yet, Redux: Three years ago, Astros outfielder Mitch Einertson made himself the talk of the short-season leagues by tying the Appy League home run record. Two years of injuries and personal problems followed, taking him all but off of prospect radars. He bounced back this year by winning Carolina League MVP honors with a .305/.365/.482 line. Strangely, he hit just 11 home runs on the year, but the 40 doubles show there’s still juice in his bat.
I’ll Take Big, Stiff First Basemen Who Can Mash For $400: If you like those kind of players, the Red Sox are sending a pair to Mesa, Aaron Bates and Chris Carter. Bates garnered some attention with a .332/.456/.592 line at Lancaster, but he was unable to get his average above the Mendoza line during his month at Double-A away from the best hitting park in the minors. Carter came over in the Wily Mo Pena three-way deal, and it’s not fully clear why he’ll play in Arizona for any purpose other than a showcase. At 25, he is what he is–a guy with plus hitting skills who rates not just below average, but downright poor in every other aspect of the game.
Player Haiku: Sam Fuld (Cubs)
Gritty and gutsy
Laces line drives; draws walks
No tools–go to bench
Team Outlook: This team is going to put some runs on the board for sure, as beyond the players already mentioned, second baseman Jarrett Hoffpauir (Cardinals), shortstop Jed Lowrie (Red Sox), and outfielder Joe Mather (Cardinals) should also contribute in what at times will be a loaded lineup. Unfortunately, the pitching staff is among the weakest in the league, with Sean Gallagher (Cubs) serving as the only upper-level prospect in the rotation, and even he is more the solid-but-unspectacular type.
A Tale of Two Shortstops: Trevor Plouffe (Twins) and Cliff Pennington (Athletics) were both first-round picks. Both are plus defenders, with Plouffe adding gap power, and Pennington showing a knack for drawing walks and stealing bases. Unfortunately, neither of them has hit for much of an average since signing. Scouts have both still walking that fine line between future starter and future utility player, and about half of the crowd at most AFL games is scouts, so it will be interesting to see where the two of them stand following the season.
More Time To Evaluate: Entering the year, outfielder Nolan Reimold (Orioles) had put up some big numbers in his career, but he’d yet to do it above A-ball. This year was an injury-plagued one, but when he was healthy, he had no problems at Double-A Bowie, bashing a .306/.365/.565 line in 50 games. A strong AFL showing could line him up nicely for a 2008 debut.
The Clock Is Ticking: Ryan Sweeney (White Sox) is no longer young for his level, no longer oozing with power potential, and no longer a big-time prospect. His second go-around at Triple-A finished with a .270/.348/.398 line, and the constant discussion of Sweeney playing a big role in the White Sox outfield of the future has faded to nary a whisper.
A Big Baltimore Draft: Beyond the $6 million dollar bonus for Matt Wieters (now in Hawaii), the Orioles spent big money on another draftee represented by Scott Boras, shelling out $1.1 million to right-hander Jake Arrieta, who dropped to the fifth round due to signability questions and a disappointing junior year at Texas Christian. He signed too late to play, and the AFL will represent his pro debut.
Using The AFL As A Rehab League: Elbow surgery (non-TJ) limited righty Hayden Penn (Orioles) to just 40 innings this year, so he’ll look to make up for lost time. Once one of the prizes of the system, and thought to be a member of the rotation by now, some makeup issues and an inability to stay on the mound have given his prospect status a significant hit, and his showing here will set the tone for what is, for him, lining up to be a critical 2008 season.
Player Haiku: Andrew McCutchen (Pirates)
Rushed to Double-A
And performance disappoints
Believe in the tools
Team Outlook: This team has an impressive bullpen and the starting rotation is bolstered by the presence of Anthony Swarzak (Twins) and 2007 Oakland first-round pick James Simmons. The Desert Dogs will need good pitching, because there are few premium bats among the infielders and catchers.
Reunited And It Feels So Good: Devil Rays third baseman Evan Longoria and shortstop Reid Brignac spent most of the season together at Double-A Montgomery before Longoria moved up to Triple-A for his final month. Longoria is lined up to spend the majority of next year in the big leagues, while Brignac’s disappointing line of .260/.323/.433 makes 2009 a more realistic expectation.
Youth Is Served: One of the youngest players in the league is also one of the best, as 19-year-old Travis Snider is coming off a .313/.377/.525 season at Low-A Lansing; he was clearly the best hitter in the Midwest League. The Arizona Fall League will represent his most difficult test by far, and a good showing here could put him on the fast track.
More Bad News For The Mets?: As the organization’s top pick in this year’s draft, reliever Eddie Kunz is an important part of the Mets’ uninspiring minor league system, but control problems found him out of favor at Oregon State during the College World Series, and they continued during his brief stint in the New York-Penn League.
Wait, Even More Bad News For The Mets?: While he’s the second-youngest player on the team, first baseman Mike Carp is looking to rebound from a poor showing in the regular season. Some saw him as one of the better hitters in the system going into the year, but he’s coming off a .251/.337/.387 line at Double-A, with one scout saying “I have no idea what’s going on there–I don’t see any of what I saw from him in the past.”
Quit Jerking Him Around: The Giants have spent the last two years changing left-hander Jonathan Sanchez from a starter to a reliever, and now he’s starting again. Jerking him back and forth has helped get him a good amount of time in the big leagues already, but it’s also hindered his development. The AFL will be used to stretch out Sanchez’s arm in anticipation of a full-time rotation gig next year.
Player Haiku: Max Sherzer (Diamondbacks)
Some struggles at Double-A
Needs more than fastball
Team Outlook: The Scorpions are a well-balanced team, with offense generated by outfielders Aaron Cunningham (Diamondbacks) and Nate Schierholtz (Giants), and a starting rotation that is filled with prospects, as Blue Jays left-handers David Purcey and Ricky Romero will line up behind Sanchez and Scherzer. They’re a definite contender.
Tomorrow: A look at the three Western Division teams.