WTNYAugust 20, 2004
AFL Report
By Bryan Smith

Just yesterday, Baseball America and Major League Baseball announced the preliminary rosters for the 2004 Arizona Fall League. There are still a lot of spots to be filled, but as of now, its enough to be analyzed.

To let everyone know whats coming in the future, Ill say my organizational rankings will begin on Monday, with the AL West. My theories will be expanded more next week, but rather than rank farm systems, I find it better to rank 25 and unders. These rankings will take up my Monday and Friday installments for the next six weeks. That leaves Wednesdays open, where I will further dabble in the history of the Major League draft.

For those not familiar with the AFL, its a six team lead made up of six prospects from five different teams. These players have experience that ranges from the Midwest League to the Majors, and often is home for some of the games brightest stars. The league is normally dominated by hitters, though this years crop has more pitching prospects than last year featured. Today, Ill be looking at who is on what team, and finish off the article with a ranking of the top prospects to see in the 2004 AFL.

Team 1: Grand Canyon Rafers
Teams: Twins, Yankees, Tigers, Braves, Giants

Without the Twins, this team would struggle, as Minneosta has sent over J.D. Durbin, Scott Baker, Jason Bartlett and Jason Kubel. They seem to be employing an interesting philosophy here, sending four players that all could factor into the 2005 plans. Im sure that the actions of Durbin/Baker, Bartlett and Kubel will give Terry Ryan an idea of what to do with the back end of his rotation, Christian Guzman and Jacque Jones, respectively. If they follow the trend, their final pitching spot will be given to Jesse Crain, though a more fringe prospect like Boof or Francisco Liriano makes more sense to me.

Kubel will be starting in a prospect-laden outfield, where he is surprisingly not the top prospect. That label goes to Jeff Francoeur, the former Atlanta first round pick that is easily a top 20 overall prospect. Despite missing about four weeks with an injury suffered from being hit by a pitch, Jeff is in the midst of a breakout season in a very difficult park for hitters. Like Andy Marte did this year, just wait for Francoeur to turn on the jets next season. Alongside Kubel and Francoeur will be Curtis Granderson, a sabermetric fav from the Tiger franchise that has just started his flight up prospect lists. Now hitting .313/.415/.538 in a huge hitters paradise, Granderson is an all-around solid player that should hit the Majors mid-way through next season.

While Ive often touted the Braves great pitching depth, it appears their best pitchers will not be sent to the AFL, as Macay McBride is the best to get the call so far. My guess is the final slot will be filled by Chuck James or Anthony Lerew, both solid but overlooked players. The second best Braves prospect going is Brian McCann, a 20-year-old catcher with a solid if unspectacular year in the FSL. The infield will primarily feature Bartlett and Yankee Bronson Sardinha, though it would be a nice experiment by the Bombers to try the contact-not-power first Sardinha at second base. The right side will likely have Ryan Raburn, the Tigers projected 2006 2B, and a platoon of non-prospects Scott Thorman and Mitch Jones. But the Giants, who havent given any names, will likely stick Lance Niekro in at first everyday.

This team reminds me of past AFL years, with a few great position prospects, and little in the pitching department. Minnesotas ML-ready players should help the team, which could see great improvement if the Giants send Matt Cain or Merkin Valdez there. Not likely, but David Aardesma and Brad Hennessey are two likely additions.

Team 2: Mesa Solar Sox
Teams: White Sox, Cardinals, Cubs, Rockies, Devil Rays

Experience doesnt come flush with the Solar Sox, who are sending two players with no experience above low-A. Luckily for Mesa, those two players are Delmon Young and Brian Dopirak, two of the games up-and-coming players. Dopirak is likely being sent to work on his plate discipline, while Youngs performance will help dictate whether the California League or Southern League is a better destination for him next year. The other two offensive weapons, Jeff Baker and Brian Anderson, have very little experience in AA. Baker got the call over Ian Stewart, who will probably be one of the AFLs best 2005 prospects.

Joey Gathright is the most experienced of the group, the up-and-down Tampa centerfielder destined for the leadoff role. The rest of the offense will be filled out by Jayson Nix and John Nelson up the middle, with Cubs 21-year-old AA catcher Geovany Soto eating most of the at-bats at catcher. Whether Young and Dopirak can handle much more advanced pitching will dictate just how well this offense performs in Arizona.

The pitching is largely undecided, as neither the Rockies or Devil Rays have announced their three choices each. I doubt Scott Kazmir gets the call, and he shouldnt, although the team should send Chris Seddon there. Colorado, obviously very protective with Jeff Francis, will likely keep their prized southpaw on the sideline. Recent acquisition Chris Narveson is almost a lock to go, as should be relief ace Ryan Speier. This is all merely speculation, just adding to the wealth thats already there.

Mesas best pitcher is a toss-up between the old prospect Adam Wainwright, and the new one in Brandon McCarthy. Despite oodles of potential, Wainwright has hit a snag in the PCL, with a 5.37 ERA in 12 starts. His peripherals show hes much better than that, and I expect Wainright to have a Dewon Brazelton-like year in 2004. To you unexperienced AFL fans, Brazelton was the leagues most heralded pitcher last year before a nice breakout this season. McCarthys fantastic play in high-A, a 103/21 K/BB ratio in 88 innings, has led the right-hander to a promotion and top prospect status.

Both of those pitchers stand a tall 6-7, and will be joined in the rotation by fellow tall southpaw, Cubs hurler Sean Marshall. The front office was a little aggressive moving Marshall to AA a little early, though no one doubts the kids potential. He has fringe stuff though, and should be lit up here. I prefer Jae-Kuk Ryu, the other Cub hurler most known for his bad experience with a bird last season. Not nearly the headcase some consider him, Ryu will show hes one of the Cubs best talents here.

Edit: My computer is acting up, and this is all I'm able to get out so far. I'll try to comment about the other teams as soon as I can. Thanks in advance for your patience.

Comments

The Braves tend not to send their top flight pitching prospects to the AFL, but rather guys they want to see step it up a notch after a mediocre year. Last year it was Brett Evert, Alec Zumwalt, and Kevin Barry. This year it looks like McBride and Zach Miner from Greenville will be the only pitchers going. Both have shown positive signs this season, and could benefit from a solid AFL campaign.

It's not likely that Lerew or James will be headed to the AFL. Teams can only send one player below Double-A and that is McCann (Francouer was promoted to Double-A before the injury but never played. He was on the Greenville DL before Aug 1st, considered to be rehabbing in Myrtle Beach, and was just sent back to Greenville as of today. That's how he doesn't count as a Single-A player, fyi). Lerew also just went on the DL today. McCann played on the same Carolina league team as Francoeur, and is currently second only to Jeff in BP's projected RAR for the league (http://www.baseballprospectus.com/statistics/A_Carolinafuth.html).

Scott Thorman, as you mention, Tony Pena Jr., and Aaron Herr will also be making the trip. The Braves brass loves Pena's glove, but he needs some work at the plate. They actually protected him from the Rule 5 last season, much to my surprise. Thorman crushed in High-A, but it has been a slow go in Double-A. He will be on the taxi squad for the Rafters, who only play on Wednesday's and Saturday's. Herr has had a surprisingly solid season, but I think the upside is limited. He wouldn't make my top 25 Braves prospects right now. Thorman and Pena would.