Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Ten Lessons Learned in Arizona

With the conclusion of the Arizona Fall League this past weekend, we thought we’d offer up our takeaways from the 2009 season. We’ll dispense with the usual disclaimers about small sample sizes and reading too much into Winter League performance and go straight to the things that became apparent…at least to us.

10) Andrew Cashner still has a chance to be a Major League Starting Pitcher. When the Cubs made him a first round selection in 2008, the conventional wisdom was that he was eventually going to end up at the tail end of their bullpen. When he had horrendous control issues in his 2008, the question became whether or not he would ever get to the Majors at all. Now after a 2009 season where he started every game, posted a 2.60 ERA and limited opposing hitters to a .207 Average Against, Cashner showed ‘easy’ mid-90s velocity and a potential plus slider in Arizona. While he still has bouts of control issues, it now appears that he is only improvement on his developing Change away from becoming a potential front of the rotation star.

9) The rust is off of Aaron Crow. After going a span of over fifteen months with only minimal game action, the questions surrounding Crowe was how long would it take to return to pre-2008 draft form. In Arizona he was comfortably pitching in the low-90s with an average Slider and developing Change, with command better than expected. At 23yo, we expect Crow to move rapidly and he could see Kansas City before season’s end, where we eventually expect him to become a mid-rotation starter.

8) Josh Bell still has work to do. While we have urged caution against reading too much into his second half work in the ESL, there were those predicting a starting 3B job for him in Baltimore before the middle of the 2010 season. After his 91 AB performance, where he posted an impressive .910 OPS, we still have these questions: A) Can he stick at 3B? B) Wouldn’t he be a better prospect if he gave up switch-hitting? C) Is he ever going to be anything more than a fastball/mistake pitch hitter? His glove at 3B has a ceiling of adequate. His OPS from the left side of the plate was nearly double that of the right-side during the 2009 season. While that wasn’t the case in Arizona, it is a trend that has been present for three seasons now and there are noticeable differences in his swing planes. Perhaps most alarming, is his continued flailing at good off-speed stuff. While Bell remains one of the better prospects in the game, he remains far from a finished product.

7) Andrew Miller still has upside. There is no doubt that Miller has not produced at the level that made him the #6 overall pick in 2006. His disappointing performances reached a crescendo this past season, as he found himself back in AAA. While there are times he looks like a future front of the rotation stud, there are times that he looks absolutely lost with his command/control. The Marlins sent him to Arizona to work on his newly reconstructed delivery, that was supposed to provide him with a higher release point, less of a cross-body finish and result in more consistent control. The results were mixed, as, depending on which of the five outings you witnessed, you saw a mid-90s fireballer, with an improved Change, that made hitters look silly or a mid-90s fireballer that can’t get a breaking ball over the plate. Still just 24yo, we expect Miller to find more consistency as he becomes accustomed to the new approach and wouldn’t be surprised to see a breakout 2010.

6) The Braves reached with the Mike Minor selection. When the Braves took Minor at the #7 slot in June’s draft, there were those that thought it was at least a half-round too soon. When Minor destroyed SAL hitters in 4 outings this summer (0.64 ERA and a 17:0 K:BB ratio), the Braves were feeling quite comfortable with their decision. We cautioned at the time against reading too much into a polished college pitcher dominating Lo-A hitters over 14 innings, and Minor demonstrated why in Arizona. Ignoring his Rising Stars catastrophe, AZFL hitters batted .343 Against him. He is a polished lefty who should move quickly through the Atlanta system, but he sits barely above 90mph, and none of his secondary offerings appear to be plus pitches. In our 2009 College performance evaluations, he ranked 27th among draft eligible pitchers. This just isn’t a recipe for high-upside results.

5) Dustin Ackley is going to hit…but for how much power. The possessor of one of the Minor Leagues’ sweetest swings, Ackley made his professional debut in Arizona and looked the part, posting a .321/.411/.423, including a 2 for 5 performance in the championship game—not a bad debut for the 21yo. But the immediate concern that jumps out from the performance is the fact that his 25 hits included only 6 XBH, and only 1 HR. We are big believers in Ackley—especially if he is in CF or at 2B(?), but how impressive does that stick look in LF or 1B?

4) Jose Iglesias is closer to the Major Leagues than we thought. When the Red Sox signed him to a contract for more than $8 million we were scratching our heads. There was little doubt that he could field the SS position at the Major League level, but whether he would be ready to hit there anytime soon was a huge question. While we don’t expect him to ever produce much power, the 19yo should have one of the best gloves in the Minors in 2010 and has a little speed to go with it. We could see him eventually posting .265/.320/.400 type numbers, which should be just enough to produce at the bottom of a Big League lineup…likely as soon as 2011.

3) Starlin Castro is an elite prospect. The Cubs’ Shortstop prospect finished with the 6th best Performance scores in each of the FSL and SOL this past season…rankings that usually go to prospects that fall into the second half of the Top 100. But after the 19yo finished 2nd in the League in Hits and 6th in Average, while flashing plus defensive ability—all as the youngest position player in the League, Castro has stamped himself as perhaps the best SS prospect in the Minors. While still extremely young, it would not surprise us to see him in Chicago by the end of the 2010 season.

2) While we still don’t know about his health, we know Tanner Scheppers can pitch. The Rangers pulled off, arguably, the biggest heist in the 2009 draft, when injury concerns allowed Scheppers to fall all the way to #44. Scheppers made his professional debut in Arizona, and while it was only 11 innings and the traditional stats weren’t pretty, the ‘stuff’ Scheppers displayed makes us believe that only Strasburg and Leake are better pitching prospects that were on display in Arizona. There are still big ‘Ifs’ surrounding his shoulder, but IF healthy…he’s going to be a good one.

1) Stephen Strasburg is as good as advertised. It would be nearly impossible for any player to live up to the hype that follows Strasburg. The Nationals chose Arizona for Strasburg’s pro debut and he didn’t disappoint. Due to the limited sample sizes we don’t publish Performance Evaluations for the AZFL, but that doesn’t mean we don’t calculate them. Not only was Strasburg’s rating the best of any player in Arizona this year, but it has only been eclipsed by Tommy Hanson (2008) over the last 4 seasons. There are those that would know better than I, that have called him the best pitching prospect to ever appear in the AZFL. He registered, on multiple occasions, a triple digit fastball, that sat most of the time in the 95-98 range. His curve is flat-out nasty, and most everyone was blown away by the quality of his change—as he didn’t use it much in college. While Strasburg still needs to work on holding runners on (he didn’t get a lot of experience with this at San Diego St), and he still needs to tighten up his control, he is unequivocally the best pitching prospect in the Minor Leagues.

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