At this time of year, my inbox is flooded with questions about hot starts in Arizona and whether or not it’s ‘real.’ Real is a relative term, of course. The first thing anyone should recognize is that we still have just eleven games in the books, so pretty much nothing is real. The second is that the league favors offense to a ridiculous extent; after those 11 games, the circuit is batting .299/.381/.480 as a whole. So let’s face it, none of this is real, as the AFL record book is littered with the names of guys like Scott Pose, Tagg Bozied, and Ken Harvey. It’s one of those reasons I’m glad to have scouts there-they’ll tell you what’s real.
Matt Angle, OF, Orioles (AFL: Phoenix)
As long as one understands what Angle cannot do, it makes one more appreciative of what he’s capable of. A seventh-round pick in 2007, Angle is a true old-school leadoff hitter who works the count well, sprays line drives all over the place, runs well, and plays a solid center field. What he doesn’t do is hit for power or blow anyone away with his tools. He is 13-for-25 in his last five games, and batting .406/.486/.500 overall with 11 runs and six stolen bases. Angle has a reputation as a future fourth outfielder, but don’t be surprised if he ends up as a second-division starter.
Aroldis Chapman, LHP, No Team
The big story this week Chapman’s arrival in the United States, as he’s ready to begin the process of joining Major League Baseball. He arrived with both his agent and a huge price tag, one that has already had many teams saying they’re out of the running. On a scouting level, he’s nearly unprecedented as a 21-year-old southpaw with size, projection, and a fastball that already rests comfortably in the upper 90s, but beyond that, there are nagging concerns, as the mental adjustment for Cubans is often unpredictable, and scouts have had little opportunity to see him pitch live against top-notch competition. While he’s already met with several teams, the Yankees are the overwhelming favorite to land him, as they have the cash, and Chapman seems to want to play on the biggest stage possible. Perhaps the rich will get richer, because nobody can afford to risk more than the Yankees.
Jordan Danks, CF, White Sox (AFL: Peoria Javelinas)
Danks was one of the talks of the Carolina League during the first month of the year when he hit .322/.409/.525 for High-A Winston-Salem, but the second half of the season dimmed his star a bit, as his numbers dropped to .243/.337/.356 at Double-A Birmingham. He remains an impressive physical specimen, but if you take into account his entire playing career, including his high school and college play, more often than not he’s been a bit of a disappointment. A .424/.513/.697 showing in Arizona is helping spruce his prospect rep back up a bit, but he’s still 23 and just getting his first taste of success against upper-level competition. Even scouts who really like him don’t project him as a star.
Gorkys Hernandez, CF, Pirates (VEN: Anzoategui)
Hernandez has fallen off of a lot of radars of late, and that might be because of a poor showing following his mid-season trade to the Pirates, when he hit just .262/.312/.340 in 86 games for Double-A Altoona. While he’s not an elite-level prospect, he’s still a damn good one, and he’s still in possession of the kind of tools that could break through at any time. One of the best defensive center fielders in the minors, Hernandez’s bat has suddenly come alone for the Caribes, as he’s batting .343/.465/.400 in nine games. While it’s a tiny sample size, he’s seemingly showing a much more patient approach, taking seven walks.
Hernan Iribarren, 2B/OF, Brewers (VEN: Lara)
While there might not be a lot of people still on the bus, there are still people out there who really like this guy. A career .314/.371/.418 hitter in the minors, Iribarren doesn’t have power, doesn’t walk much, and he plays an OK (at best) second base while still learning the outfield, but he does have a knack for putting a bat on a ball, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t get a shot from someone as a utility player.
Yusei Kikuchi, LHP, No team yet, but it ain’t going to be a big-league one
In one of those “much ado about nothing” stories, Kikuchi flirted with bringing his mid-90s heat to America, which led to heavy courting from the usual big-money suspects, as well as the Texas Rangers, who have gotten as aggressive as anyone internationally. In the end, however, the 18-year-old decided to stay home, where he’ll likely be the first pick in this week’s NPB draft. Unlike the majors, the waiting period for free agency in Japan is a nine-year haul, so we won’t be hearing his name again over here for a decade.
Scott Mathieson, RHP, Phillies (AFL: Scottsdale)
Mathieson’s recovery from a laundry list of arm issues has continued in his remarkable run in Arizona, as he’s now fired five shutout innings for the Scorpions while giving up just two hits. Missing all of 2008 after throwing just eight innings in 2007, Mathieson was moved to the bullpen upon his return in late June. He was sent from the complex league to Double-A, and he put up a 0.84 ERA in 22 games. He’s still getting stronger, sitting at 93-95 mph in Arizona while touching 97, and at this rate, he could be in the big-league bullpen by the end of the 2010.
Jeff Samardzija, RHP, Cubs (MEX: Mexicali)
It’s almost remarkable that the Cubs still think Samardzija can be an effective starter in the big leagues. He’s made no secret that he wants to return to the rotation, but two late-season starts in the majors were disasters, and now he’s merely holding his own in Mexico, allowing 10 runs and 28 baserunners in 18 innings for the Aguilas. Turning 25 in January, with each passing year, it seems that Samardzija will never graduate from thrower to pitcher, and for most, his ceiling ends at middle reliever.
Mark Wagner, C, Red Sox (DOM: Cibao)
Like Danks, Wagner’s 2009 regular season was confusing, as he hit .310/.410/.477 at Double-A, and then just .214/.268/.351 following a promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket. At the very least, he’s a future backup in the big leagues, as he could almost get there on his defense alone, but he does add patience and gap power, both of which have been on display in the Dominican, as he’s batting .368/.458/.684 in his first seven games for the Gigantes. He could be backing up Victor Martinez at some point next season.