While the AFL is known more for its hitting as opposed to mound work, the new age of deadline-day deals and the folding of the Hawaii League now have Arizona serving as a unofficial debut spot for several top picks from last June.
Stephen Strasburg, Nationals (Desert Dogs): What may well be the most hyped appearance in league history will take place in a few days when Strasburg takes the mound for his official un-official pro debut. Never has a draft pick received this much attention, nor has a team itself ever put this much pressure on a pick to be some kind of savior. This will be no more than a warmup for next spring, and the over/under for Strasburg to reach the big leagues is the end of May.
Jenrry Mejia, Mets (Rafters): Mejia really is a special arm. His fastball sits at 93-95 mph, but he can bump it up a bit more when he needs it, and by utilizing different grips he can add impressive cutting or sinking action to the pitch. The issue that Mejia will be working on for Surprise is that he’s really dependent on that one pitch for now, as his curveball flashes average at times but is highly inconsistent, while his changeup is little more than a show-me pitch. Still, it’s hard to find 19-year-olds who can hold their own at Double-A, but Mejia’s future role is still undetermined.
Mike Leake, Reds (Saguaros): The eighth overall pick in this year’s draft, Leake signed too late to pitch, so like Strasburg this will be his unofficial pro debut. Making up for an undersized frame with athleticism, command, and a deep repertoire, Leake could begin 2010 as high as Double-A if he pitches well here and next spring.
Andrew Cashner, Cubs (Solar Sox): The best college closer in the 2008 draft, the Cubs very cautiously began a conversion to starting this year for Cashner, who despite making 24 starts between High- and Double-A, still notched just over 100 innings. Trying to rectify his command issues has led to a reduction in velocity, but his slider is still a wipeout pitch at times, and his changeup was surprisingly solid.
Mike Minor, Braves (Saguaros): The Braves received a lot of criticism for the selection of Minor with the seventh overall pick in June, but it’s more a philosophical argument than anything else, as he might be the best bet in the draft after Strasburg to reach the big leagues, but his ceiling might end at fourth starter in a big-league rotation. In four late-season starts for Low-A Rome, he allowed one run over 14 innings with a 17/0 K/BB ratio, and don’t be surprised if he dominates here as well.
Other starters of note:
- Brandon Erbe, Orioles (Desert Dogs): He had an excellent albeit injury-plagued bounce-back year at Double-A Bowie, allowing just 44 hits over 73 innings. However, more and more, scouts are seeing him as a future reliever.
- Daniel Gutierrez, Rangers (Rafters): Acquired from Kansas City late in the year, Gutierrez has the stuff to be a sure-fire top pitching prospect, but also a disturbing history of injuries and off-field issues.
- Ian Kennedy, Yankees (Rafters): He looked sharp after missing most of the year following surgery to remove an aneurysm in his right arm, and there’s no reason he still can’t develop into a solid back-end innings eater.
- Lance Lynn, Cardinals (Rafters): One of the more difficult prospect to get a feel for, Lynn looks like a monster at 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, but his stuff and command are merely average. Yet, he somehow gets the job done, including a 2.85 ERA in his full-season debut that began in the Florida State League and ended in Triple-A.
Aaron Miller, Dodgers (Javelinas): A supplemental first-round pick in June, Miller was outstanding in a full-season league, limiting Midwest League hitters to a .208 batting average with 38 strikeouts in 30
1/3innings thanks to a plus fastball/slider combination.
- Andrew Miller, Marlins (Solar Sox): This is something of a surprise assignment, as the player some saw as the best pitcher in the 2006 draft tries to get his career back on track. Many insiders believe the issues revolve more around a lack of confidence than anything else.
- Daniel Moskos, Pirates (Scorpions): Still a massive disappointment since becoming the fourth overall pick in the 2007 draft, Moskos at least showed some signs of life at Double-A Altoona, morphing into a ground-ball machine; he still needs to figure out how to miss more bats.
- Andy Oliver, Tigers (Javelinas): Expected to be a sure-fire first-round pick this June, Oliver struggled at times with Oklahoma State, and may have been distracted by a lawsuit with the NCAA over his use of an agent. He got first-round money anyway (nearly $1.5 million), as it’s hard to find power lefties, and Oliver can get it up to 96 mph at times.
- Donald Veal, Pirates (Scorpions): After surviving the year as a rarely used Rule 5 pick, Veal will be converted back to starting, as 6-foot-4 lefties who can throw 94 mph don’t exactly grow on trees.
Five Relivers Worth Watching
The Arizona Fall League is loaded with relievers, and it’s very easy to find bullpen arms on nearly every team in the minors with an ERA in the twos and more than a strikeout per inning. So how do you tell the difference between who’s good now from who will be in the future? Here are five firemen who have scouting reports to match their numbers.
- Phillippe Aumont, Mariners (Javelinas): Between his height (6-foot-7) and the movement on the pitch, Aumont’s sinker is among the best in the minors. His slider gives him a second plus pitch, while his intense demeanor serves him well in a late-innings role.
- Craig Kimbrel, Braves (Saguaros): A short, stocky righty with monster stuff, Kimbrel suffered with command and control issues all year, walking 45 in 60 innings, but the Braves still think he can be their closer of the future, as he’s downright untouchable at times, as evidenced by a career strikeout rate of 15 per nine innings.
Mark Rogers, Brewers (Javelinas): One of the best stories in baseball this year, Rogers has had more arm problems than anyone can count at this point, but he quietly stayed healthy all year, while pitching under one of the lightest workloads in the game. Pitching as a starter for High-A, Rogers took the mound every five days, with some extra days off here and there, amassing 23 games and just 64
2/3innings. However, when he did pitch, he was excellent, putting up a 1.67 ERA, allowing just 46 hits and getting his fastball up to 97 mph. There might be something here yet.
- Tanner Scheppers, Rangers (Rafters): Scheppers arguably had the best arm strength of anyone in this year’s draft, but he also had medical reports that where troubling enough that some scouting directors were told not to even consider picking him. His $1.25 million bonus is a pretty expensive lottery ticket, but the payout could be fabulous.
- Drew Storen, Nationals (Desert Dogs): While he was a budget-minded selection in June as the tenth overall pick because the team also had to sign Strasburg, Storen was nothing short of outstanding in his brief pro debut, with a 1.95 ERA across three levels while striking out 49 over 37 innings and giving up just 21 hits and eight walks. In the majors before Strasburg? Don’t bet against it.