2013 Arizona Fall League Preview

 The Arizona Fall League, an offseason circuit aimed at aiding in the development of young players on the brink of a full-time major-league roster spot, gets under way Tuesday. Each of the six rosters includes a number of high-ceiling talents. Let’s take a look at the highlights, team-by-team.

Keep in mind that all of the players in the AFL are worth a look or they wouldn’t be there. Full rosters can be found here.

The following, in no way, is a ranking of prospects, neither within their own roster, against other AFL prospects or prospects not participating in the AFL.

 Peoria Javelinas — HOU, SDP, SEA, KCR, PHI
Top Prospect: Austin Hedges, C — San Diego Padres
Hedges, 21, is a gifted defender with good feet, a plus-plus arm and the chops to deal with the position regularly. He’s got a ways to go with the bat, but possesses above-average raw power, good hand-eye coordination and a much-improved swing from his prep days.

Hedges battled through some injuries this season, missing nearly four weeks with a bone bruise in his left hand. The former second-round pick in 2011 is probably on pace to hit the majors late in 2014, and has the potential to be an all-star caliber backstop, led by his defense.

Top Pitching Prospect: Danny Hultzen, LHP — Seattle Mariners
UPDATE: Hultzen had shoulder surgery last week. Left-handed reliever Kyle Hunter has been named his roster replacement.

Keep an eye on …
Dominic Leone, RHP — Seattle Mariners
Leone offers a four-seamer fastball that sits 92-95 mph and is up to 98, a hard cutter in the 88-92 mph range and an improving slider that, at times, was his out pitch in 2013. He’s only 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, but so is Craig Kimbrel.

Chris Taylor, SS — Seattle Mariners | Nolan Fontana, SS — Houston Astros
Both Taylor and Fontana started the year in the California League and each showed an advanced approach. Fontana, a left-handed hitter, drew 102 walks to lead all of minor league baseball, but did whiff 100 times and lacks the power to make him a potential future star. Still, he’s a fine glove, an above-averae runner and should be able to reach the gaps enough to be a defensive-minded version of Jed Lowrie.

Taylor spent exactly half of his season in the Double-A Southern League where he hit .293/.391/.383 after a .335/.426/.524 triple-slash in the Cal League. Like Fontana, Taylor lacks the power to put him in the elite prospect class, the Virginia product is a premium defensive shortstop whose swing has come a long way in less than two years.

The intrigue on both players here for me is about how they handle high-end pitching. Taylor saw better arms than did Fontana and fared just fine, but in the AFL he’ll see a lot more big-league quality pitchers, including a lot of velocity.

Jorge Bonifacio, RF — Kansas City Royals
Bonifacio, who just turned 20 in June, is a strong kid with a power right-handed swing featuring plus bat speed. He’s yet to turn that raw power into home runs — hit hit just four of them in 2013 — but he’s been challenged in Advanced-A and Double-A and hit nearly .300 with a .396 on-base mark at those two stops in 2013. He throws well and is a decent athlete, though he’s a 45-50 runner.

Bonifacio has a future average or better hit tool and with power to come. He doesn’t stride much and has power to his back side, particularly to right-center field. As he matures in his swing and approach, we should see more natural loft, which is when the long balls will start to show.

Delino DeShields, CF — Houston Astros
DeShields is taking his game to the outfield, and partially due to top-end foot speed he should make a smooth transition. If he can stick in center field — he should, long term — he profiles as a top-of-the-order weapon with big value as a middle-of-the-field defender.

He swiped 51 bags this season after 101 a year ago — he played in just 111 games this season — and his line-drive stroke produced 25 doubles and 14 triples. More contact would be nice, and DeShields will get to work on that versus some good pitching this fall.

 Glendale Desert Dogs — LAD, MIA, CIN, MIN, CWS
Top Prospect: Byron Buxton, CF — Minnesota Twins
Buxton has tools to spare and at 19 years of age is among the youngest players in the AFL this season. An 80 runner with an 80 arm that reached the mid-90s from the mound in high school, Buxton also hit for average and showed some pop in his first full shot at pro ball.

He’s among the very elite prospects in the game, but the AFL could prove to be a great challenge, particularly the experienced pitching.

Top Pitching Prospect: Alex Meyer, RHP — Minnesota Twins
Meyer, 23, features mid-90s heat and an out-pitch, power slider. He’s experienced some bouts with control problems, but maintains top-of-the-rotation potential as he develops his changeup.

when he pitches downhill from his 6-foot-9, 225-pound frame, he’s a very uncomfortable at-bat for hitters.

Keep an eye on …
Corey Seager, 3B — Los Angeles Dodgers
Seager, who is actually younger than Buxton by five months, owns a sweet left-handed swing with future power and the ability to make consistent contact. He, too, will be challenged by the experienced pitching.

He’s listed as a third baseman on the Dogs’ roster, but did play shortstop all year for Great Lakes of the Midwest League. At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds with good, yet not premium athleticism, the hot corner is likely his future and it appears he may start that transition now.

Colin Moran, 3B — Miami Marlins
Moran, who is listed at shortstop, is a future corner infielder with 20-homer pop and a plus hit tool. I heard quite a bit of talk last winter about Moran possibly needing to move to first base in the big leagues, so I’d be at least mildly surprised if he plays short in the AFL, even though he answered some defensive questions during his junior season leading up to the draft.

Michael Lorenzen, RHP
Lorenzen, a two-way player at Cal State Fullerton, wants to hit, but the Reds love his arm and are making the right player development choice. He fanned 19 batters in 21 frames at four stop this summer, but issued 13 bases on balls. I’d like to see him start — he pitched in relief this summer — and get multiple innings of work in each outing so he can work on his release point.

Kevin Vance, RHP — Chicago White Sox
Vance struck out 84 battersin 69 innings this season and allowed just four long balls. If he can find the strike zone more often — 36 walks — the strong, sturdy UCONN product has a future as a seventh or eighth inning reliever.

He’s regained a lot of the velocity he lost in 2011, sitting 91-94 and topping out at 96, setting up a 55 curveball. He has a useful changeup that he may need to throw more versus lefties.

 Scottsdale Scorpions — ATL, SFG, NYM, PIT, NYY
Top Prospect: Alen Hanson, SS — Pittsburgh Pirates
The 20-year-old Hanson progressed to Double-A Altoona this season after putting up solid, yet far from big-time, numbers in the Florida State League. That circuit typically favors pitching, however.

Hanson, a competent switch hitter, held his own in the Eastern League for the final five weeks, though it’s clear he’s not likely to become the next J.J. Hardy — a solid defensive shortstop who hits for power — but he also runs well and is still on track to be the Bucs everyday shortstop in a few years.

Top Pitching Prospect: Jameson Taillon, RHP — Pittsburgh Pirates
Taillon — properly pronounced Tay-own … that came straight from Jameson to yours truly — is a beast and he’s forced his way through the minors with better pitchability than expected after the 21-year-old become the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 Draft — one spot ahead of Manny Machado.

He stays tall well, throwing all of his stuff with plane. He also remains closed and repeats a sound delivery well. He generally sits 94-97 mph with the fastball, but if he needs more h can reach back for 99-100, though we’re not seeing that much in pro ball.

Taillon has shown above-average control, but will need to command the fastball well in the majors — it can get fairly true at times — but the plane saves him from being squared up regularly. His curveball is a plus pitch that may be bested in the minors only by Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander Archie Bradley.

Keep an eye on …
Juan Jaime, RHP — Atlanta Braves
Jaime is a reliever-only arm but he fanned 70 in 42 innings with a huge fastball that has reached triple digits.

He missed 2010 and 2011 after having Tommy John surgery, but is back to sitting in the 94-98 mph and his slider has become useful, though it still needs work.

Kyle Crick, RHP — San Francisco Giants
Crick missed half the 2013 season with an oblique injury, but he’s the top arm in the Giants’ system and he’ll miss bats with his fastball. He has three off-speed pitches; average slider, a slightly better curveball and a changeup that remains a work-in-progress and something he may throw a lot more in Arizona.

Crick uses his height for leverage, and when he stays on top his ball is heavy with good plane, which helps explain the one home run allowed in 68 2/3 innings in the Cal North this year, and two homers surrendered in 37 career appearances as a pro. He’s a year away from the show, but his time in the AFL can speed that up and make up for his time lost on the DL.

Aldaberto Mejia, LHP — San Francisco Giants
Mejia, 20, made 17 starts in 2013, features a 91-94 mph fastball and two presently average secondary offerings in a slider and changeup. He throws strikes and is as consistent as can be expected of a young pitcher, though he’s not aggressive in on right-handed batters and he’ll show his slider early from the stretch.

 Mesa Solar Sox — LAA, WAS, DET, CHC, OAK
Top Prospect: Addison Russell, SS — Oakland Athletics
All Russell has done in two years out of high school is get all the way to Triple-A Sacramento, though he’s not likely to be a mainstay in the majors until late 2014 or early 2015, and probably starts next season in Double-A.

He’s above-average to plus across the board, including range, hands, arm and feet, suggesting he’ll stay at shortstop for awhile. Russell’s calling card is his bat, and there’s a lot to like. He’s patient, has power that could reach the mid-20s and uses the middle of the field well, staying back on breaking balls and punishing fastballs. He was overmatched in three Triple-A games, but we’ll get an extended look at him versus polished pitching in Arizona.

Top Pitching Prospect: Matt Purke, LHP — Washington Nationals
Purke doesn’t bring the appeal of the other top pitching prospects in the league, but the Solar Sox lack better options. Purke has had injury problems, but when healthy can be awfully tough, despite a dip in velocity since his prep days.

He’s 89-92 mph with deception and a slider with good tilt and bite. Neither pitch, nor his command, is consistent and he may end up in a relief role — with the rest of the pitchers on the Sox’s roster.

Keep an eye on …
Kris Bryant, 3B — Chicago Cubs
Bryant has big power from alley to alley and made some key adjustments this summer with his approach; he’s been more aggressive on fastball early in counts to avoid an overdose of offspeed stuff. He will chase a bit, but can get to hard stuff in on him/

He’s capable at third base, but for me he’s a right fielder, and possibly a very good one. He’s listed as a third baseman in the AFL, so I presume any change will take place in 2014 or beyond.

Albert Almora, CF — Chicago Cubs
The 19-year-old Almora may be the best-equipped of the youngsters to deal with the mature pitching in the fall league thanks to good strike zone judgment, a short swing and overall discipline. He can also handle the bat well, and doesn’t over-swing.

The left-handed batter is already good with the glove in center field and has handled Class-A left-handers well, but he’ll get to put that to the test versus some wicked southpaw sliders start Tuesday.

Jorge Soler, RF — Chicago Cubs
The Sola Sox should just become the Mesa Cubs. Soler, 21, is still a bit raw, but in his 55-game 2013 he showed some polish at the plate, hitting .281/.343/.467 with just 38 punch outs in just under 250 plate appearances.

He should hit Double-A to start 2014 and a better job at holding his ground versus breaking balls could be the difference between Soler hitting the big leagues next September or merely working his way to Triple-A. Watch for Soler to match up against Alex Meyer or Dominic Leone, who each can be devastating to right-handed batters with their sliders and hard stuff.

Brian Goodwin, CF — Washington Nationals
Goodwin isn’t an elite talent and lacks the standout tool, but can cover center field and does a lot of things that should help the Nats in the near future.

There’s average power to go with the speed, as evidenced by his quadruple-double — double figures in doubles, triples, home runs and stolen bases — and he will make the pitcher throw him strikes. More consistent contact might make Goodwin an everyday player as early as 2014.

 Salt River Rafters — TOR, COL, TBR, ARI, STL
Top Prospect: Aaron Sanchez, RHP — Toronto Blue Jays
Sanchez employs an easy-effort delivery, producing plus velocity into the mid-90s and beyond, setting up an overhand curveball that he can throw for called strikes as well as get swings and misses out of the zone.

Sanchez’s changeup made some progress in 2013, but it’s by far his third-best pitch and still needs work to be useful in the big leagues. He’s had continual bouts with control problems that hold him back from elite status, but a No. 2 ceiling, perhaps better, remains for the 21-year-old.

Keep an eye on …
Andrew Chafin, LHP — Arizona Diamondbacks
Chafin showed flashed of No. 3 starter ability at Class-AA Mobile this past summer, but the bite on his breaking ball was down a grade at times. He’ll sit in the 90-92 mph range (up to 95) and will need to improve his command of the pitch to get ahead and set up his changeup.

Chafin could be a lights-out lefty reliever — a role some are calling for him now due to a higher-effort delivery — but there’s still time for him to develop into a mid-rotation arm, perhaps in the mold of Wade Miley.

Stephen Piscotty, LF — St. Louis Cardinals
Piscotty is not elite by any stretch, but he gets a mention here because he’s the kind of cerebral, sound and polished prospect that the Cards tend to make good major leaguers out of on a regular basis. Jon Jay, David Freese and Matt Carpenter all fit this profile.

Piscotty has 55-grade power driven by a solid hit tool. He has a terrific understanding of the strike zone and has shown strong pitch recognition and discipline. He struck out just 46 times in more than 450 PAs in 2013, drawing 37 walks and totaling 40 extra-base hits in 112 games.

 Surprise Saguaros — MIL, CLE, BAL, TEX, BOS
Top Prospect: Jorge Alfaro, C — Texas Rangers
Alfaro edges out Boston’s Garin Cecchini here, based on power potential and positional value. Alfaro, 21, is a bit raw at the plate and is going to take three years to get to Arlington, he throws well, has all the physical tools to become a solid defender.

Top Pitching Prospect: Eduardo Rodriguez, LHP — Baltimore Orioles
Rodriguez brings more upside to the table than any other arm on the roster, but he’s still a bit crude and that upside is a bit limited, likely to mid-rotation status.

He’s conditioned himself better over the past year and a half, which has aided his efforts to get deeper into games. He pitched admirably as a 20-year-old in the Eastern League this season, despite some command problems in July and August.

Rodriguez sits 90-92 with the fastball, but has nicked 95 in the past and usually touches 93 or 94 in most starts. The delivery is free and easy and the fastball life is solid and to his arm side. He uses a low-80s slider and a changeup to keeps hitters off the fastball with the breaking ball the better of the two pitches at present.

He’ll have to command his fastball the way he did in stints in 2013 to maintain his higher-end profile, but he’s a nice piece for the O’s and one to watch in the fall league.

Keep an eye on …
Tony Wolters, C — Cleveland Indians
Wolters began catching this spring and played just a small handful of games at an infield position, suggesting the transition to catcher is going well enough. There’s not a lot of pop in the bat, but he makes contact and can get on base some.

He’ll get a chance to catch good velocity and better off-speed stuff in the AFL, which is good experience and a great challenge for Wolters.

Garin Cecchini, 3B — Boston Red Sox
Cecchini has sailed through the minors, batting .322 combined at four levels over two and a half summers. He’s walked more than he’s struck out, posting a .443 OBP, and there’s enough gap power to play regularly, despite the lack of home-run power.

If Cecchini can get to above-average or better levels defensively — he’s more than capable — and hit .300 with high on-base percentages, the lack of power won’t hurt as much, though a move to left field or second base may be in the offing.

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Jason A. Churchill

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