With Arizona Fall League play set to get underway on Tuesday, I thought it would be a good opportunity to highlight the most compelling stories to look for in this year’s play. With the demise of the Hawaiian Winter League, the AZFL has more top tier talent than in any season in recent memory—especially top quality arms, including five first round selections from this past June’s draft. Additionally, the 2010 AZFL will mark the professional debuts of the top two picks from that class. While we will get to see Dustin Ackley for the first time since he went on a one-man post-season crusade last spring, the collective eyes of the baseball world will be placing under a microscope, every pitch thrown by uber-prospect Stephen Strasburg. Without further ado, here are the top twenty stories we will be watching over the next few weeks…
20 ) Jose Iglesias, SS, BOS (Mesa Solar Sox): Off of his listed age (19), Iglesias is the youngest player in the league. The Red Sox signed him to a bonus that was higher than many had expected, and it will be interesting to get an idea as to how close to Major League ready he is. He is purported to be an excellent defender, but we will be watching his bat.
19) Jennry Mejia, RHP, NYM (Surprise Rafters): Few pitchers in the Minor Leagues helped their stock more this year than did the 20yo, Mejia. After destroying Florida State (FSL) League hitters, he did encounter some control issues after his promotion to Binghamton. A strong AZFL showing will cement his spot in the prospect Top 100 lists, and could make him a top 50 choice.
18) Hank Conger, C, LAA (Mesa Solar Sox): Conger did much this summer to show that he was healthy, and that he still has a chance at sticking as a big league backstop. But whether the 20yo is going to displace Jeff Mathis from the roster, or shift Mike Napoli into a DH role will depend on the improvement in his defensive game over the next year. In Mesa, Conger could get a chance to see about 50% of the catching duties of a staff led by Andrew Miller, Andrew Cashner and Tommy Mendoza, it will be important to see how he handles the staff, as well as how well he moves behind the plate.
17) Derek Norris, C, WSN (Phoenix Desert Dogs): Norris tired considerably toward the end of his first year in full season ball, so it is somewhat surprising to see the Nationals giving him additional work in the AZFL. The 20yo, will also be one of the younger players in the league and it won’t be surprising to see him somewhat over his head. But the intriguing part, is that playing in Phoenix could get him some valuable work with Strasburg and Storen, who could be his future battery mates in Washington--as soon as 2011.
16) Daryl Jones, OF, STL (Surprise Rafters): Jones looked poised to have a big 2009 season before he was derailed in May by a quad injury. He rushed back, and never looked the same all year. Jones should be healthy now and a strong AZFL showing will put him back on track.
15) Andrew Cashner, RHP, CHN (Mesa Solar Sox): Cashner may be the most enigmatic player from the 2008 draft, as he was abysmal in his 2008 debut, but looked like a solid prospect for most of this past summer. The real question with Cashner is whether or not he will be a major league starter or merely a middle reliever, as his 4.8 innings per start, ranked last in the Southern (SOL) League for starters who started in more than 80% of their 2009 appearances.
14) Matt Harrison, LHP, TEX (Surprise Rafters): After looking like a solid back of the rotation starter in 2008, Harrison’s 2009 season was derailed by thoracic outlet syndrome surgery. We expect Harrison to have an above average Major League career, and we will be expecting him to be one of the better pitchers in Arizona this fall. With that, he should be in line for a rotation spot in Texas in 2010.
13) Andrew Miller, LHP, FLA (Mesa Solar Sox): Speaking of enigmatic players, at times, Miller looks like a future Major League ace, and at other times, he struggles to find the plate so badly that he looks like a major bust. Remember the Tigers selected Miller ahead of both Kershaw and Lincecum in 2006, and at Diamond Futures, we still believe strongly in Miller and will be looking for him to regain both his confidence and control in Mesa, setting up a breakout 2010 in Florida.
12) Yonder Alonso, 1B, CIN (Peoria Saguaros): The Reds will be facing significant organizational decisions in 2010, as Joey Votto, Todd Frazier, Juan Francisco, and Yonder Alonso all look to be competing for what appears to be two spots( 1B and LF), by the end of the 2010 season. Unless Votto is dealt to maintain control over cheaper players, it could be three players competing for one spot. Alonso looks to be the front runner at this point, but he will have to show the ability to hit left-handers, and that will be our focus during the AZFL.
11) Josh Fields, RP, SEA (Peoria Javelins): Fields was arguably the best relief pitcher prospect available in the 2008 draft, but an extended contract negotiation kept him off the field for nearly 9 months, and when he returned this spring, he battled nagging injuries for most of the year and looked anything but the pitcher that the Mariners thought they were getting when they signed him to a $1,750,000 bonus. We have strong reservations about Fields, but the Mariners made him the 20th overall selection based on his ability to be nearly Major League ready. For us, Fields will need to have a huge AZFL to re-establish him as a big-time prospect.
10) Dayan Viciedo, 3B/1B, CHA (Peoria Javelins): The one thing that seems to be consistent about Cuban defectors, is that they seem to need a period of adjustment when joining the American game. For Alexi Ramirez it was about two months for Kendry Morales it was about three years. Remember that when you analyze the 20yo’s .270/.302/.372 for the first three months of the season, vs. his .313/.350.464 after the all-star break. With a solid AZFL showing, especially with pitch recognition and in the power department, and a good Spring, Viciedo could be in line for a big league job by mid-season 2010.
9) Drew Storen, RP, WSN (Phoenix Desert Dogs): Honestly we thought the Nationals reached when they selected Storen at #10 overall last June, given that his change was mediocre at best, his fastball seemed difficult to control in the mid-90s, and his only other pitch being a power slider. So all that Storen did, was limit opposing hitters to a .162 Average against, while fanning 49, in his fantastic 37 inning professional debut. While Storen only issued 8 walks, 6 of those came in his 12 Eastern (ESL) League innings, so what we will be looking for in Arizona is proof that he can still control his fastball when it is thrown in the mid-90s. If he can, he should become the Nationals’ closer sometime in 2010.
8) Mike Minor, LHP, ATL (Peoria Saguaros): Despite being the best collegiate left-hander in the 2009 draft, we were extremely surprised when Atlanta grabbed Minor with the #8 overall selection. Nonetheless, Minor was nearly unhittable in 4 South Atlantic (SAL) starts after signing, posting a 17:0 K:BBratio in 14 innings. The test in Arizona will be to demonstrate continued dominance against more advanced hitters. If he passes, look for Minor to open 2010 in AA and be on the fast track to the Majors.
7) Jason Heyward, OF, ATL (Peoria Saguaros): There were many who expected to see the 20yo Heyward in Atlanta in September, but the Braves showed the appropriate discretion by not calling him up. Heyward is undoubtedly one of the top 3 prospects in baseball, and arguable #1. He has plenty of time to reach his vast potential, and we don’t expect this AZFL challenge to do anything more than to further lay the foundation for what is likely a May call-up to Atlanta.
6) Buster Posey, C, SFG (Scottsdale Scorpions): The most interesting thing to watch regarding Posey may not be his AZFL performance, as much as whether or not the Giants resign Benji Molina. The AZFL shouldn’t provide him any significant challenge, but should give him a chance to put into action anything he learned in his brief big league stint as bullpen caddy. While we can’t predict what the Giants will do, we’d start 2010 with Posey as our everyday catcher.
5) Dominic Brown, OF, PHI, (Scottsdale Scorpions): Brown is one of those players where you risk your reputation as a talent evaluator, because we at Diamond futures don’t think as highly of him as most seem to. It’s not that we don’t think he is a legitimate prospect, as he is certain to be in our Top 100, and likely to be even in the Top 50, but we don’t see the superstardom for him as others do. While others have called him the next Daryl Strawberry, we see Brown as an eventual .280AVG/.800 OPS hitter with 20 home runs and 25 SBs. That is a solid big league career. We will be looking to see if the 22yo will be able to best his .801 OPS performance from the ESL.
4) Mike Leake, RHP, CIN (Peoria Saguaros): Leake probably gets the least respect for his talent than of any collegiate pitchers taken in the 2009 draft. He was unquestionably the best performer not named Strasburg in the 2009 collegiate season and will be making his professional debut in Arizona. The key to watching Leake is to see if he is able to continue to over achieve his physical attributes with a solid array of pitches, excellent control, and a fierce mental makeup.
3) Dustin Ackley, OF/1B, SEA (Scottsdale Scorpions): We liked Ackley coming into the 2009 collegiate season, but we fell in love with him after he put on an unbelievable post season show, beginning with the ACC tournament. Ackley uses a smooth stroke and incredible plate discipline to take just what the opposing pitchers give him. He will make his professional debut in Arizona, and the key things to watch will be how much time he gets in the OF and how much power he demonstrates. People like to throw out comps, and for Ackley we see a better Nick Markakis, that is somewhere between a Darin Erstad and a J.D. Drew. His upside may even be higher. While we don’t expect to see him in Seattle before September, he should be an opening day starter in 2011.
2) Tanner Scheppers, RHP, TEX (Surprise Rafters): While the Rangers are sending a lot of their top pitching talent to the Venezuelan Winter League, with Gutierrez, Harrison, and Scheppers, the Ranger fans will find plenty to watch in the AZFL. Regular readers will remember that on the eve of the 2009 draft, we felt Scheppers was a top 10 talent and could be the second pitcher taken. While there is no question that he will always have an injury question surrounding him, we can’t help but feel that, if healthy, he is a front of the rotation talent. We will be focused on how much rust he has since he has not throwing regularly since the spring of 2008, and are there any signs at all of lingering shoulder issues.
1) Stephen Strasburg, RHP, WSN (Phoenix Desert Dogs): Everyone is aware of his numbers in college, and the fact that he signed the largest draft bonus ever. He has been described as a “once in a generation” talent, and now carries the weight of an entire franchise without ever throwing a professional pitch. The 21yo will make his professional debut in Arizona, probably with more fanfare than any player to ever grace an AZFL lineup. Don’t expect the Nationals to be overly taxing on him in the AZFL, but this should be an excellent first step before 2010 Spring Training, and what is likely to be a spot in the opening day rotation.