The Arizona Fall League kicks off its 17th season today, and while the league continues to struggle on a purely economic level, teams remain willing to subsidize the league due to its importance in the developmental process. One look at this year’s All-Star game says it all, as 36 of the participants had time in the Arizona Fall League on their resumé. Instead of simply going through all of the rosters, here are ten stories I’ll be following during the six-week campaign:
1. Are we getting ready for wave of catching talent?
Teams are still desperate for catchers. There are still plenty of organizations that don’t have a single player in the system who projects as an everyday backstop. Nonetheless, just as we had a run on highly-regarded third basemen recently, the same might be happening for catchers. Everyone knows that Baltimore’s Matt Wieters (Rafters) is arguably one of the top prospects in the game following a .355/.454/.600 season split between High- and Double-A, but here’s a quick quiz for you: What first-round pick in 2007 is also a catcher, played at the same levels as Wieters, and hit just as many home runs (27)? The answer is Toronto’s J.P. Arencibia (Desert Dogs), who hit a combined .298/.322/.527 between the same two levels. There are some holes in his game-taking only 18 walks, and defense that, while projectable due to his athleticism, is not not quite there yet-but Arencibia somehow flew under the radar this year and deserves mention among the top catching prospects in the game. Beyond those two are a pair of catchers who are lined up to take over big-league jobs sooner rather than later based both on their own talent and the lack of any roadblocks ahead of them on their organization’s depth charts. Milwaukee’s Angel Salome (Javalinas) is coming off of a .360/.415/.559 season at Double-A, and while he remains below-average defensively, he’s certainly better than Jason Kendall right now. On a similar level, Philadelphia’s Lou Marson (Solar Sox) is already better than incumbent Carlos Ruiz. An on-base machine and an above-average defender, Marson hit .314/.433/.416 at Double-A this year, and will compete for the big-league job next spring.
2. Wait, where are those A’s prospects playing?
The Phoenix Desert Dogs roster didn’t make much sense at first glance when seeing where some Oakland prospects were listed. Josh Donaldson? First base. Sean Doolittle? Outfield. Adrian Cardenas? Shortstop. While that might seem a little off at first, it also comes down to some of the intricacies of AFL roster development. Teams are able to assign ‘priority players’ in order to ensure playing time, and other players get moved, but don’t read too much into it. Donaldson will actually be spending his mornings at Oakland’s minor league facility working on his catching, Doolittle will learn to play the outfield without necessarily moving there, and Cardenas will play shortstop, second, and even some third base. Many wondered if he could stay at second, but Oakland surprised everyone by moving him over to the left side of the infield following their acquisition of Cardenas from Philadelphia in the Joe Blanton deal. He’s a bit of a hard one to evaluate defensively; at shortstop, he has the soft hands and strong arm one would normally associate with the position, but his range falls well short (no pun intended) of big-league expectations.
3. Weren’t these guys supposed to be impact pitchers by now?
Clay Buchholz (Scorpions) and Philip Hughes (Javelinas) were both seen as future aces and players who should be established parts, if not star-level performers, in the rotations of the Red Sox and Yankees. For Buchholz, it’s a matter of mechanics that fell apart as he went 2-9 for Boston this year with a 6.75 ERA in 16 games. That said, there is some semblance of hope, as he ended the year with a pair of dominant starts for Double-A Portland, allowing just seven hits in 15 innings while walking one and striking out 18. For Hughes, it’s more of an inability to stay healthy, but as with Buchholz there were some signs of life toward the end of the year, notably a pair of late-season outings for the Yankees, he allowed just nine hits over 12 innings while striking out ten. With solid performances in the desert, both could be lined up for another opportunity to begin the season in the big leagues, and both of them still have tremendous potential.
4. How good is Jeremy Jeffress?
The Brewers first-round pick in 2006, Jeffress (Javelinas) had a 4.31 ERA but nevertheless rates as one of the better pitching prospects in the game. He struck out 115 in 94 innings for a reason, as his fastball sits in the upper 90s and can touch triple-digits at times. He also throws an above-average curveball, and he’s highly athletic. On the negative side, he really has no changeup to speak of, and his control is well below average. It’s a pretty common combination, but also one with the smallest bell curve; this is where pitching stars come from, but also a preponderance of flameouts. We need more info, and the Arizona Fall League will provide it.
5. How does one balance ridiculous tools with ridiculous holes in the same player?
Seattle’s Greg Halman (Javelinas) had a weird year in 2007. Sent to the Midwest League as a 19-year-old, he was ridiculously overmatched, batting just .182/.234/.273 with 77 strikeouts in 187 at-bats. Seattle sent him back to their Arizona complex to harness his swing, and it paid quick dividends as he hit 16 home runs in 238 Northwest League at-bats. This year, Seattle took a risk and jumped him to the High-A California League, and he split time between there and Double-A West Tenn, batting a combined .272/.326/.528 while leading the minors in combined power/speed numbers with 29 home runs and 31 stolen bases. Obviously, Halman has the tools, and beyond the power and speed, he’s a good outfielder with a plus arm. At the same time, there’s still the unbridled approach. In 492 at-bats this year, Halman drew 32 walks and struck out 142 times. It’s hard to find players with those kind of ratios who end up with star-level careers, but at the same time, it’s hard to find 30-30 players in the minors who don’t.
6. Do We Finally Get To See Brian Matusz?
While the upstart Hawaiian League tends to see more of the late-to-the-party signees looking to get their feet wet in professional baseball because of the lower level of play, the fourth overall pick from this year’s draft, Baltimore’s Matusz (Rafters), will be finally making his pro debut-in Arizona. The first pitcher selected this June, Matusz is not a pure power pitcher, but rather a highly-refined product with three plus pitches (fastball, curve, change) who should move very quickly up through the Orioles system.
7. But there will be other 2008 first-rounders, right?
Oh yeah, including three who’ve already had darned good pro debuts. The eighth overall pick by the White Sox, shortstop Gordon Beckham (Saguaros) hit .310/.365/.500 in 14 Low-A games, and scouts think his bat will be more than enough should he have to slide over to second. After signing at the deadline, Texas first baseman Justin Smoak (Rafters) got snuck onto a roster as a taxi player who will play twice a week. He hit .304/.355/.518 in 14 games for Low-A Clinton. Cardinals third baseman Brett Wallace had arguably the best debut of any first-round pick this June, spending the final two weeks of the season in Double-A and finishing at .337/.427/.530 overall in 54 games. His range is a big problem at the hot corner, though he does well on the balls he gets to. Beyond some concerns about their defense, all three players are elite hitters who will show up on this year’s Top 100 Prospects list.
8. What’s next for the Dodgers?
The Dodgers system is down from it’s heyday, but it’s sending a pair of prospects to the Rafters that are coming off of excellent 2008 seasons. Scouts are eager to get more looks at them, as both have drawn mixed reviews. Outfielder Andrew Lambo was the best hitter on a bad team at Low-A Great Lakes, batting .288/.346/.462 as a 19-year-old, and he was outstanding in eight Double-A games (giving him AFL eligibility), going 14-for-36 (.389) with three home runs. At the same time, he’s one of those guys who can hit a little and shows some power, but who lacks that one big tool to really impress scouts. Middle infielder Ivan DeJesus led the Southern League in on-base percentage as part of a .324/.419/.423 showing, but there are questions about his range on the left side, as well as his ability to hit for power.
9. Can two former first-round pitchers find redemption?
At least we understand what went wrong with Cesar Carrillo (Saguaros). The former top prospect in the Padres system has dealt with elbow problems and a Tommy John surgery, and struggled in High-A upon his return, putting up a 5.97 ERA in 15 games while walking more than he struck out (32/33 K/BB in 57
10. Has Astros farmhand Brian Bogusevic gone from failed first-rounder to the top prospect in the system?
One could certainly make the argument. In one of baseball’s worst minor league systems, it’s either him or 2008 first-round pick Jason Castro, who had a merely good pro debut. After finally giving up on pitching during the course of the season, Bogusevic spent the last six weeks of the year at Double-A Corpus Christi in the outfield, and he needed no time to adapt and display the tools he’d flashed at Tulane, batting .371/.447/.556 in 42 games while showing average power and speed (that’s a good thing; that’s a 20-20 player), and holding his own in center field. A good showing in Arizona, and his breakout would be complete.