A day after the Giants beat the Royals in Game 7 of the World Series, while most of the baseball world was mourning the end of the 2014 season, I was lucky enough to travel to Phoenix to watch some of the game's top prospects showcase their skills in the Arizona Fall League.
The Fall League, now in its 22nd year, is referred to as a "graduate school" for the game's best young talents, but it's also a way for players to make up development time lost due to injury or other reasons, and for scouts from around the league to get a look at players they weren't able to see live during the regular season.
Some of the bigger names in the AFL, specifically Byron Buxton (finger), Addison Russell (personal), Kyle Zimmer (shoulder) and Rusney Castillo (thumb), all left the league in the week leading up to my arrival, but that didn't deter from what was a tremendous learning experience.
I was able to see, with my own eyes, many of the top prospects that I had only been able to read about previously. It was a great way the gauge the raw tools of these athletes.
Let this serve as a sort of appendix to Derek VanRiper's excellent 'Wheelhouse' article, which you can read for FREE here. There will be some overlap, but I'll hit some prospects that he didn't go into great detail with or simply didn't touch on, ones that made an impression on me for one reason or another.
Nick Howard, P, CIN - Howard, the 19th overall pick in this year's first-year player draft, started the Fall Stars game for the West opposite Archie Bradley. While Bradley looked sharp, Howard was hit hard to the tune of four earned runs on four hits, including a mammoth blast from Yankees prospect Greg Bird, and two walks over 1.2 innings, and his line could have looked much worse if the Mets' Matt Reynolds hadn't bailed him out with two men in scoring position. Howard did reportedly touch 96 miles per hour with his fastball, but hitters were able to center it up and his off-speed offerings – namely his changeup – weren't fooling anybody. After being drafted, Howard went on to post respectable numbers in 11 appearances (five starts) with the Low-A Dayton Dragons (3.74 ERA, 1.16 WHIP), but he benefited from a .247 BABIP and I simply don't see him being capable of starting in the major leagues given his limited repertoire, nor do I think he has the stuff to be the eventual successor to Aroldis Chapman. His selection is already looking like a miss for a Reds team that can ill afford to be whiffing on first-rounders.
Rio Ruiz, 3B, HOU - My first night in Arizona (Oct. 30), I got to see Ruiz and the Salt River Rafters host the Surprise Saguaros at Salt River Fields. The 20-year-old Ruiz plated two runs on a pair of sacrifice flies, and he also had a hit in the Fall Stars game, but the ball didn't quite jump off his bat like I was expecting. He has been graded out as having above-average (55) power by MLB.com, but perhaps I should have tempered my expectations. Ruiz had 37 doubles and 11 homers in 131 games (602 PA) with High-A Lancaster during the minor league season, resulting in a rather modest .143 ISO, and eight of his 11 homers came in the extremely hitter-friendly confines of his home park. He did have a better slugging percentage on the road (.439), however, and should develop more than just gap power in time, but I don't see it becoming a truly plus tool. Ruiz has a keen eye at the plate for his age, as evidenced by his 82:91 BB:K with Lancaster, but has slipped in the Fall League of late, going 1-for-his-last-22 with five strikeouts and one walk in his last last six regular-season Fall League games. While I'm not putting much stock at all into his recent struggles, I don't see Ruiz as a must-own in keeper leagues with five or fewer minor league spots.
Kyle Waldrop, OF, CIN - The extent of my exposure to Waldrop was essentially one at-bat and a couple innings at first base in the Fall Stars game, but I also got to see him takes some hacks in batting practice beforehand. Standing 6-foot-2, 216 pounds, his easy power was evident, but I wish I could have seen more of the 22-year-old, as he's having a very strong Fall League season to this point (.307/.333/.480). His 2014 campaign was split evenly between High-A Bakersfield (65 games) and Double-A Pensacola (66 games) and he finished with a combined 55 extra-base hits (14 homers) in 541 plate appearances, good enough for a .203 ISO, and also chipped in 14 steals. He has consistently posted high BABIPs at each stop in the minors, and while he doesn't walk a ton (39 walks in 2014), he doesn't strike out at an alarming rate either (17.5% with Pensacola). It's interesting he has been playing first base primarily in the fall, as he made just two appearances at the position during the minor league season, instead playing mostly in the corner outfield spots. It's possible the Reds are trying to showcase him for a trade, and if a deal is made and Waldrop's path is made clearer, he could become a lot more interesting.
Aaron Judge, OF, NYY - Of all the talented players I saw in the AFL, Judge is the one I'm swooning over most. You could say he's the Wendy Peffercorn to my Michael "Squints" Palledorous. I had just settled in for my first AFL game when Judge launched a two-run shot off Felipe Rivero, one that looked like a deep flyout but just kept carrying and carrying in the thin Arizona air. He fell behind in the count and struck out in his second trip, but then smacked another two-run shot, this time a laser off Zach Cates, in the fourth inning. He's an imposing presence in the batter's box (6-7, 230), and has a cannon for an arm that should allow him to stick in right field moving forward. The 22-year-old gunned down the speedy Dalton Pompey at the plate in the same game.
Although he struck out 131 times in his first professional season, Judge keeps a relatively short swing and draws more than his fair share of walks. Sure, maybe I'm buying in too much based on what I saw, and a September callup is likely a best-case scenario for 2015, but his upside is undeniable.
Elias Diaz, C, PIT - You won't (currently) find Diaz on a lot of prospect lists, but I liked what I saw from the 23-year-old. He displayed a strong approach, drawing a walk and scoring in four trips in my initial viewing of him, and he also had a hit and a walk in the Fall Stars game. Diaz was charged with a passed ball in the Fall Stars game, but from where I was sitting, it looked like it could have been called a wild pitch. Scottsdale swiped four bags against Diaz in the Oct. 30 game, but teammate Tyler Glasnow should shoulder the majority of the blame, as he allowed the runners to get great jumps with poor attempts at holding them. Still, it's possible Diaz is a bit overrated, defensively – he's not a great athlete – but he has the arm to stick behind the plate long-term, and there will likely be a need in Pittsburgh relatively soon given Russell Martin's expected departure this winter. Of utmost importance for fantasy players is his bat, and Diaz took a significant step forward in that regard at Double-A Altoona in 2014, posting a .328/.378/.445 batting line and 30:51 K:BB in 367 plate appearances, earning a promotion to Triple-A Indianapolis before the end of the season.
Aaron Kurcz, P, BOS - Who? That's what I said when I first saw Kurcz pitch for Surprise, but I was very impressed with his stuff. An 11th-round pick by the Cubs in 2010, he was the player to be named later in the deal that brought Theo Epstein to Chicago. Kurcz missed the entire 2013 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, but returned to post a 2.14 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 11.6 K/9 in 34 appearances with Double-A Portland last season. The 23-year-old stands just 6-feet, 175 pounds, but can dial his fastball up around the mid-90s, has a clean, balanced delivery and seemed to have a decent feel for his off-speed stuff. He struck out three over two perfect frames against Salt River when I saw him. Now, going after relief prospects is not something I advocate in fantasy leagues, but he's someone save hunters may want to keep a loose eye on, especially if he ends up getting a chance to close for Triple-A Pawtucket at some point this season.
Nick Williams, OF, TEX - There's no question Williams is a phenomenal athlete, and his bat speed is borderline elite, but I have some reservations after watching him in the AFL. He swung wildly at off-speed pitches out of the strike zone in both games I saw, striking out against the Rockies' Jayson Aquino on Thursday and then flailing at an Archie Bradley offering in an ugly at-bat during the first inning of the Fall Stars game. He also struck out swinging against Tyson Perez in the ninth inning. The ball got away from the catcher momentarily after his first strikeout and Williams made virtually no attempt to get to first base, which highlights another concern some scouts have; inconsistent effort. I didn't see enough to make a conclusion either way with regard to that, but his trouble controlling the strike zone was a significant red flag for me. He's also had some major issues against lefty pitching in the Fall League, with a .440 OPS against them thus far, but Williams is still just 21 and the raw tools alone should be enough for him to carve out at least a decent major league career.
Francellis Montas, P, CWS - I had heard that Montas recently made adjustments to clean up his delivery, and he looked more balanced in the Fall Stars game, despite the fact that he still has a little bit of a pause or hesitation at the top of his motion. The right-hander was able to crank it up to 99 mph in his outing, though he typically operates in the mid-90s during starts. Montas was also able to repeat his motion consistently, so any concerns I had about the hitch quickly melted away, but that's not to say I don't still have some concerns with Montas. While his slider also looked OK, his arsenal is rather thin – his changeup was better this year but is still a work in progress – and he can still be a little bit wild at times, as he was in the Fall Stars game. That said, the strides he made with his command this season lend hope to him sticking in the rotation long-term.
Players I didn't get to see but need to be monitored: Raisel Iglesias was only expected to pitch in two AFL games before heading to Puerto Rico for the winter, but he's now made seven appearances with the Surprise Saguaros. The right-hander, whom the Reds signed to a seven-year, $27 million contract in June, has allowed just one hit with seven strikeouts in his seven AFL innings. He doesn't have the overpowering velocity of Aroldis Chapman, but he can dial it up to the mid-90s and kind of looks like a right-handed version of the Cincinnati closer with his delivery. His curveball is devastating.
The Blue Jays' Roberto Osuna struggled mightily early on but has pulled it together in his last three Fall League appearances, with three earned runs allowed and no walks over his last eight innings. He's coming off Tommy John surgery and may end up spending most of the year at High-A Dunedin, but he's still just 19 and could eventually be a middle-of-the-rotation guy.
17-year-old Michael De Leon of the Rangers is the youngest player ever to play in the Arizona Fall League. He's rebounded after a slow start, hitting safely in four of his last five games, and he's made some dazzling plays at short. The power isn't there yet, but he should develop some as he fills out.
Finally, I also attended BaseballHQ's First Pitch Arizona for the first time and just wanted to thank everyone involved, from those who organized the great event to all of the speakers and attendees for sharing their knowledge.