Checking In on the Arizona Fall League
As you probably know, MLB runs a domestic “winter” league for minor league prospects and potential Rule 5 guys in October/November of each year. The league consists of six teams, with each team comprised of 5-6 MLB teams’ prospects. The league generally draws some of the bigger names in the prospect world, particularly position players, and it’s been wildly successful as a developmental project; *42* members of this year’s MLB All-Star teams once played in the AFL. Trout, Harper, Arrieta, Donaldson, Bryant all had stints in the AFL, and Corey Seager, Francisco Lindor, Addison Russell played there last year. While the level of competition is a bit hit and miss (you could face an elite pitching prospects or a selection of minor-league relievers playing for a 40-man spot somewhere), it’s a good proving ground, especially for guys who’ve mostly faced low-minors competition.
The M’s sent DJ Peterson to Peoria for the second straight year, and they’ve got James Paxton heading back to the AFL after suiting up for Peoria back in 2012. In addition, SS Tyler Smith, OFs Tyler O’Neill and Dario Pizzano and LH relievers Paul Fry, Ryan Horstman and David Rollins are all making their AFL debuts. There’s not a ton you can learn from 20-30 games worth of stats, but thanks to the pitch fx systems in Peoria and Surprise, fans can get actual data on some of these guys, though we’ll talk about the quality of it in a minute. And MLB Network’s showing a bit more of the league, including the “Fall Stars” game a week or so back (they’re actually televising a few games as I write this), which both makes sense for the league and is a sign of the growth in general fan interest in prospects overall.
So, have we learned anything new? Not much, but here are some observations:
1: Back when the M’s group was announced, the guy I was most interested in seeing was Paul Fry. The unheralded lefty out of a Michigan community college racked up 113 Ks in just 80 IP over two levels in 2015, finishing strong in AA, and continuing a string of posting lower RA9 and ERAs at every level of the minors. As a 17th rounder, and someone who posted pretty poor numbers in rookie ball after the draft, there’s not a whole lot of scouting information about him. Was he suddenly throwing much harder and blowing people away? Or was he a junkballer, fooling bad hitters with a change-up or a funky delivery?
Fry throws from a low arm angle and sits about 88-89mph with his fastball. His best pitch is a slider with lots of horizontal break. The picture I get is sort of a crafty-lefty version of Carson Smith, which is to say, every situational lefty ever. There’s limited value there, but hey, Jesse Orosco and a host of others rode this skillset to long careers. I’ll admit, I’d prefer the high-octane route to producing a K rate like Fry’s, but at the very least, his regular-season splits were encouraging. He didn’t *pitch* like a LOOGY, at least in the minors.
Given that velocity, it seems we settled the question of fire- vs. junkballer. Worse, through his first 8 appearances, he looked like a *bad* junkballer, yielding 17 hits in just 7 IP, giving up 8 runs and posting a 4:4 K:BB ratio. Where was the guy who struck out 113 and gave up just 22 unintentional walks this year? Today, we caught a glimpse of him. In 2 scoreless innings, Fry gave up 1 hit, no walks, and struck out *5*, freezing Glendale hitters with his fastball and getting a few to swing over sliders. No, he wasn’t suddenly throwing 94, but at least he was missing bats the way he did during the season. If I wrote this post yesterday, this would’ve been a lot more pessimistic. No, one really good game doesn’t radically alter his outlook, but I was starting to worry – a bit – that his 2015 had been something of a fluke. That’s different than saying his 2015 is his true talent level, and he’ll lay waste to the PCL next, but he’s a lefty capable of missing bats.
2: Sooooo, DJ Peterson. Last year at this time, scouts and others easily looked past his .190/.290/.288 batting line and saw a clear plus hitter. In the regular season, Peterson hit .223/.290/.346 for AA Jackson (and worse than that in a brief call up to AAA Tacoma). Thus far in Arizona, Peterson is hitting .220/.343/.407 with 3 HRs; it’s a clear improvement on both last year’s AFL line and his regular season stats, and yet, this is now a pretty long stretch of mediocre hitting from the 1B ranked as the best pure hitter in the 2013 draft.
No one’s overreacting to anything, at least not yet, but I think many M’s fans wanted to see that his 2015 was the product of a hidden injury, feeling tired or literally any mitigating circumstance you can think of. He’ll still show some signs, as in his 2 HR game back in October, but it’s hard to escape the idea that his present hit tool and possible ceiling aren’t quite as high as we once thought. One plus from this repeat of the AFL is that he can work with a new hitting coach, and he’ll get to work with new Rainiers hitting coach Scott Brosius in the spring – he seems like of 2015.
3: Tyler O’Neill was probably the most interesting position player assigned to Peoria. The Canadian posted a great 2015, building on a decent showing in the Midwest League in 2014 by hitting 32 HRs in Bakersfield AND leading Canada to the gold in the Pan-Am games. He’s the classic Zduriencik hitter – a righty with plus power that’s held back a bit by contact issues. He’s yet to post a K rate under 30% at any stop, though at least it’s not rising as he ascends through the minors. Moreover, he was much, much better in the 2nd half, moving from an all-or-nothing HRs-and-whiffs slugger to an actual hitter, posting an OPS about .250 higher in the second half than the first.
Still, that’s the Cal League. O’Neill had something to prove against more advanced pitching in the AFL, and to date, he’s done so. He only managed 30 plate appearances before jetting off to another international tournament (the Premier 12), and he’s finished with 11 Ks and hasn’t walked yet, but O’Neill still made loud contact much more often than he did in June of this year, let alone 2014. His batting line is gaudy, and he’s keeping it up with Canada – he hit a HR last night against team Italy. The sample’s really, really small, but O’Neill did all you could ask to reassure M’s fans that he’s turned some kind of corner.
4: Ryan Horstman has had a very strange season. For the second straight year, the rare freshman-eligible draft pick out of St. Johns pitched only a handful of innings – 13 2/3 over 3 levels. That brings his *career* total to 22+ since 2013. He’s had trouble staying on the field, I mean. Still, while he was ON the field, things looked OK. Horstman didn’t give up a run this year, scattering 4 hits and 7 free passes thanks in large part to 20 strikeouts. He looks to be a real fly-ball pitcher, which can help with BABIP issues, but often leads to HRs. Obviously, Horstman’s avoided the long ball thus far. The Chris Young plan may work well in the Midwest League in April, but often fares poorly in Arizona*.
Whatever Horstman’s secret is, he brought it with him to Peoria. In 8 1/3 IP, Horstman’s given up 5 hits and 5 walks and struck out just 4, but he’s yet to give up a run. That’s a scoreless streak of about 30 IP over 8 months or so, and includes rookie ball and lo-A. This, by itself, doesn’t make Horstman a “prospect” in the traditional sense, but it does show he’s capable of doing things that can make him tough to hit. While he throws a bit harder than Fry, he’s not a fireballer either, averaging about 91mph with Paxton-like movement: lots of vertical rise. The command hasn’t been there, he sits in the low 90s, he’s missing fewer bats and he’s practically allergic to ground balls – all that isn’t encouraging, but if you squint you understand what would make the M’s assign a guy with 8 IP above the complex leagues to the Arizona Fall League.
5: There are bigger prospects in the league, from St. Louis’ top hurler Alex Reyes (sent home after being suspended for a positive marijuana test) to Philadelphia SS JP Crawford (sent home with an injury), but one of the things I was looking forward to was seeing how a guy with quite possibly the *second* fastest fastball on earth fared. Indeed, looking at pitch fx, I’m even more confident that we’ve identified the guy who sits behind Aroldis Chapman in the velo rankings. Only, it’s not the guy I thought it would be. San Francisco’s Ray Black has battled injuries for years, and thus was in the Cal League at the relatively advanced age of 24 this year. He came back to pitch only 25 IP, but struck out an insane 51 on the year.
If you look at the AFL velocity leaderboard, you’ll see Black’s name at the top. So who’s this other guy? Meet Braves RP Mauricio Cabrera. Cabrera caught my eye after a Baseball America scouting note reported he’d been hitting 102 multiple times in October. Since then, I’ve been checking his appearances, and the guy practically lives at 101. This isn’t just Pitch FX – as the BA article shows, scouts (and the TV gun on MLB Network) have had him throw multiple pitches at 103. Push the pitch fx reading from 50′ to 55′ (as Brooks Baseball does), give him an MLB call-up to get the adrenaline pumping, and you’ve got the best chance I can think of to at least challenge Chapman’s record 105mph pitch.
Now, it’s worth noting that all of this velocity hasn’t made Cabrera…you know, *good*. Somewhat like other minor league vets with the ability to throw hard but not well (where are you now, Phillippe Valiquette), Cabrera’s command is bad, and he’s getting hit harder than anyone throwing 102 should be. It’s odd – it’s not like he doesn’t throw a change-up. He does, and it’s the reason he’s NOT at the top of the AFL velo leaderboard: Pitch FX assumes all of those 89-92mph pitches are fastballs, when they’re actually cambios. He’s got a slider, too, and thus should be fine against RHB/LHBs alike – you can see why he was a starter before 2015. He’s now been in the US affiliated-minors for four seasons and has just 17 innings above A ball AND has yet to post a decent year statistically, but you can understand why he’ll continue to get chances. Hell, if he’s left unprotected, I’d be fine seeing the M’s Rule 5 him.
* Like the rest of baseball, offense has really fallen in the AFL in recent years. From what I can see, the league offense drop lagged the big leagues by a couple of years. Whereas *teams* often posted OPS’s over .900 from 2000-2011, they fell markedly in 2012, and now look more like a “regular” minor league. Whether that’s due to weather, or teams deciding to send better pitching prospects isn’t clear, but it’s stayed lower in each year since 2012.