RHP Jake Arrieta, Phoenix Desert Dogs (Orioles)
The offseason leagues have taken on a new dimension over the last few years, as the amateur draft has turned into an annual shenanigan fest. Arrieta is the perfect example. He entered the year as one of the better college pitchers around, projected as a mid- to late first-round pick, but his junior year at Texas Christian fell well below expectations, which combined with the selection of Scott Boras as a representative, sent his stock plummeting. Selected by Baltimore in the fifth round, Arrieta finally signed at the deadline, earning a $1.1 million bonus. Because he didn’t sign until mid-August, he was unable to make his debut in the regular season, and that’s where the Arizona Fall League comes in. Pitching in short stints every two days, Arrieta has already made three appearances for the Desert Dogs, firing four shutout innings, and striking out two in the scoreless frame he fired last time out. At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, he’s a big power righty, and Arrieta fills that bill by relying primarily on a low-90s fastball and plus slider, although his changeup is also a solid offering. It’s not crazy-good stuff, but all of his pitches grade out a little higher because of his excellent command. If he continues to impress this fall, he could be fast-tracked, reaching Baltimore as a solid third or fourth starter at some point in 2009.
RHP Sean Gallagher, Mesa Solar Sox (Cubs)
Gallagher continued to impress Cubs brass this season, putting up a 3.10 ERA between the organization’s Double- and Triple-A affiliates while limiting opposing hitters to a lowly .233 batting average and just four home runs. While he wasn’t nearly that success in a couple of brief big league stints, allowing 15 runs in 14 2/3 innings, he’s now in Arizona, and working on making a fresh start next year. In his first three innings, Gallagher has allowed just one hit while striking out four, a difficult task in the hitting-friendly environs of the AFL. He’ll likely go to camp next year with a real chance at a big league job, and his long-term role remains a valuable, durable, middle-of-the-rotation starter.
3B Mat Gamel, North Shore Honu (Brewers)
Gamel isn’t in Hawaii to work on his offense–that’s going just fine, thank you, after a .300/.378/.472 season at High-A Brevard County that finished with a late-season power surge. That said, he just keeps on keepin’ on at the plate, slugging his fourth home run of the season on Sunday to life his season averages to .318/.388/.659 for the Honu in 12 games. Instead, the reason Gamel is getting some extra time in this offseason is his defense. Gamel is sort of similar to Ryan Braun with the glove at third base–the desire is there, as is the agility and the arm strength; but for whatever reason things just don’t click for him, as evidenced by his whopping 53 errors in the regular season. Things haven’t gotten much better in the Aloha State–with two errors on Saturday, Gamel already has four for the Honu and a fielding percentage of .900. Neither Braun nor Gamel are the long-term solutions at the position for Milwaukee, but both can hit. Don’t be surprised if both are playing elsewhere on the diamond by the end of next season.
RHP Craig Hansen, Mesa Solar Sox (Red Sox)
One step forward, two steps back. Hansen has been a massive disappointment to the Red Sox, who envisioned him as the team’s future closer when they drafted him in the first round of the 2005 draft. Instead, he’s stagnated at Triple-A, putting up some ugly numbers while struggling with his control and also trying to find the plus-plus slider that made him so effective as an amateur. He ended this year at Pawtucket on a hot streak, not allowing an earned run in his last 10 outings, but that success has not come with him to the desert. On Friday, Hansen entered a 4-4 game in the ninth inning and promptly gave up solo home runs to Craig Tatum and Sean Rodriguez, eventually getting tagged with the loss. It’s fairly clear that the organization doesn’t trust Hansen anymore, as he didn’t spend a day in the majors this year, and at this point it’s going to take a lot more than a 10-game hot streak to change that.
SS Chin-Lung Hu, Peoria Saguaros (Dodgers)
Last week, somebody within the industry asked me, “Why doesn’t Chin-Ling Hu get more love?” My answer: he gets plenty from me, and a quick look at Ten Pack archives proves it. After hitting .325/.364/.507 in the minors this year, he continued to impress in a brief big league look, and he’s gone 7-for-15 in his first four games for Peoria–and I have not yet repeated that he’s arguably the best defensive shortstop in the minors. It’s hard to figure out what 2008 holds for Hu. Rafael Furcal is a pretty nice trade chip, but then again so is Hu. One way or another, it’s apparent that he deserves to be playing in the big leagues next year.
3B Evan Longoria, Scottsdale Scorpions (Rays)
Longoria’s stay in the Arizona Fall League will be a brief one, as he will change uniforms in a bit to suit up for Team USA. He’s only 4-for-18 so far in five games, but he sure is making those hits count, going deep on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to tie Rangers outfielder John Mayberry and Nationals catcher Devin Ivany for the early circuit lead. While plans for Longoria’s near-term assignments are known, it’s his 2008 daily planner that’s yet to be written in ink. There’s little doubt that the 2006 first-round pick is ready for the big league test after hitting .299/.402/.520 between Double- and Triple-A, but the Devil Rays need to figure out a way to make room for him. The obvious choice here is to move Akinori Iwamura to second base and leave B.J. Upton in the outfield, but that leaves the Rays with four starters for three spots in the outfield if by some miracle Rocco Baldelli can stay healthy. One way or another, Longoria will be Tampa’s third baseman, and a damn fine one at that, well into the next decade.
OF Matt LaPorta, Mesa Solar Sox (Brewers)
The Brewers opened some eyes this June when they selected LaPorta with the seventh overall pick this June, and those eyes widened a bit when they announced that he’d begin his pro career in the outfield, a position he’d never played before. His pro debut, which included a .318/.392/.750 line in 23 games for Low-A West Virginia opened some scout’s eyes, including one who called him the best right-handed power hitter he saw in the minors all year. LaPorta is continuing to mash in Arizona, going 5-for-17 with a triple (which must have involved some comical outfield play) and a pair of home runs, and he’s likely advanced enough to begin his first full-season next year in Double-A. Defensively, he’s pretty awful still (think Ron Kittle-level bad), and the maximum expectations anyone has for him out there is to become merely acceptable. Offensively, he’s already nearly ready.
RHP Bob McCrory, Phoenix Desert Dogs (Orioles)
The Orioles system has rarely been seen as an especially good one of late, but they’ve done a fine job of producing power bullpen arms, as evidenced by their young closer, Chris Ray, as well as future hard-throwers like James Hoey and Radhames Liz, both of whom got extended big league looks this year. Next in line is McCrory, a bit of a late bloomer who at 25 is already a Tommy John survivor, and who didn’t see Double-A until this year. Finally healthy, McCrory had a 2.60 ERA in 44 games this year split between High-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie, nearly striking out a man an inning and limiting opposing batters to a .228 batting average with just one home run. That success has carried over into the desert, as McCrory has retired all six batters he’s faced, striking out two. McCrory has very good stuff, relying on two plus pitches out of the bullpen–a 94-96 mph fastball than can touch 98 and features some late sinking action, as well as a hard-breaking slow curve that doubles as a change of pace offering. Like Liz and Hoey, McCrory has problems with his control, and like Hoey and Liz, if he can better harness his stuff, he’s lined up to be part of what could be a scary homegrown relief corps, and sooner rather than later.
OF Travis Snider, Scottsdale Scorpions (Blue Jays)
At 19, Snider is among the youngest players in the Arizona Fall League, facing pitchers often four or more years older than him, as well as two or three levels above the 2006 first-round pick. Coming off a .313/.377/.525 regular season for Low-A Lansing in the toughest league for hitters in the minors, Snider has no reason to be intimidated by the competition, and if anything, opposing pitchers are avoiding Snider’s bat, as the outfielder is currently 4-for-9 with four walks for the Scorpions. Snider is one of the best offensive prospects in baseball, bar none, and he could be on the Jay Bruce plan next year–beginning the year in the Florida State League and moving up as quickly as events warrant.
3B Neil Walker, Venados de Mazaltan (Pirates)
Like Gamel, Walker is getting some extra playing time this fall to work on his defense. Moved from catcher to third base prior to the regular season, the former first-round pick showed some signs of life offensively this year, batting .277/.349/.434 in a season spent primarily at Double-A, but his glovework was understandably rough. Like Gamel, Walker is athletic enough to be a good third baseman, but his poor fundamentals, primarily with his footwork, leave him in poor position to field balls cleanly or make accurate throws. Coming off of a 27-error season, Walker hit his first home run of the Mexican Pacific League season on Sunday, while also committing his first error. The good news is he’s a Pirate, so there’s no such thing as being blocked, and Walker could be suiting up for the team of his youth by mid-2008.