Arizona Fall League (Offensive) Preview
Few things bring out the best of minor league hitters like desert heat. While the Florida State League has long been known as a pitcher's paradise, southwestern destinations like the Texas League and (parts of) the California League greatly favor offensive players. Furthermore, during Spring Training -- oftentimes a mixed bag of Major and minor leaguers -- the Cactus League is almost always more high-powered than its Grapefruit counterpart.
For these reasons, we have come to expect the best of minor league hitters to show itself during winter ball. More specifically, the Arizona Fall League is slowly becoming an extension of the regular season for many of the game's best hitting prospects. While organizations are becoming more wary of their best arms, limiting their innings, many times the prospects are beating on pitchers that do not match their caliber. This is why offense is the most important aspect of the AFL, and why in 2004, the Scottsdale Scorpions ended up in the championship game.
While the pitching staff was an unsuccessful product of starters like Dustin Moseley, Jeff Housman, and Michael Burns (who?), the Scorpions were armed with the league's best offense. Two of the league's most productive home run hitters -- Conor Jackson and Jason Repko -- were in the middle of the lineup, joined by others like Rickie Weeks, Dustin Pedroia and Russ Martin. While the club was also helped by minor league vets like Jesse Gutierrez, Corey Myers and Marland Williams, the prospects made up the backbone of the roster.
Last week, Major League Baseball released the preliminary list of the players that will be attending the AFL. As usual, the league promises to be offensive-friendly, with some of the best prospects jockeying for positions both in the lineup, and in some cases, on the field. I have since ranked the top six offensive teams in the AFL, and provided a rough look at what players the team will field on a usual basis (solid prospects and MLB players in bold).
1. Peoria Javelinas
C - Jeff Clement
The best way to describe the Javelinas' fantastic offensive depth is to look at their catching position. The team features three of the top eight catching prospects in the minors, when including Clement. Kottaras falls just below Clement on the depth chart, particularly do to Jeff's higher ceiling, in addition to the fact that his 2005 season was shorter. Expect Iannetta to face a good number of southpaws, as the club would be best suited to platoon the position. No matter how they slice it, however, the club will get production from the backstop that most teams in this league will envy.
In addition to the catching position, the middle of this lineup will be filled with three of the best young players in the minors: Fielder, Stewart and Markakis. All three have significant power, and should all vie for the AFL home run title. Expect few players on this roster to take playing time away from this trio, which should be the best 3-4-5 in the AFL.
Another loaded position on the team is at shortstop, where the team will split two players currently starting full-time in the Majors, while moving a top prospect to the outfield. J.J. Hardy will cap off his disappointing rookie campaign with a trip to the AFL, where we can only expect he continues to right his ship. Hardy proved himself consistently in the minors, and we can only expect a return to dominant numbers in November. Hardy, while being very good defensively, will not even be the Gold Glove winner on his own team, as Yuniesky Betancourt should be the best in the league. However, the AFL will be a time for Betancourt to further refine his offensive skills, as the rush treatment the Mariners gave him left little time for that.
Moving to centerfield for Hardy on this team and Betancourt in real life is Adam Jones, who has already begun to make the transition in the Texas League. Given Jones plus speed and plus-plus arm, the move should be no problem, and we can actually expect him to be a real asset there in short time. While he must prove his 2005 to not be a fluke, Val Majewski must try not to make this year a wasted one. While Jason Kubel will sit winter ball out, Majewski will rehab in the AFL, before the Orioles determine his correct placement for 2006.
All this has been said without mentioning Josh Barfield and Corey Hart, both who should perform above the league averages at their respective positions. The other bench players not already mentioned aren't great, although Jeff Salazar will surely find a way into about 75 at-bats. Top to bottom this team is stacked like few else, with their only holes coming about four-deep on the bench.
2. Phoenix Desert Dogs
C - Jarrod Saltalamacchia
Not nearly as deep as the Javelinas, the defending champion Desert Dogs have an argument for being just as top heavy. Their catcher, first baseman, shortstop, third baseman, centerfielder, and designated hitter all rank among the top four at their position in the minors. This is a fantastic feat, and should lead for an offense that gets big offensive production.
It's hard to forecast who will be the best hitter on this team, but despite the presence of Drew and LaRoche, I might lay my money on Saltalamacchia or Bankston. Both are players coming from poor offensive surroundings, and should be expected to blossom in their new surroundings. Still, Drew is the safest choice, especially now that it appears he may have a chance at starting next year in the Majors for a significant cash incentive. Will there be a more motivated player in the league than the vying-for-seven-figure Drew?
Maybe not, but expect Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, making up the offensive corners, to try and prove naysayers that their breakout seasons were for real. Both players came from nowhere this season, but now find themselves on the radar like never before. Both the Dodgers and A's are using the AFL as help to decide whether either player should factor into the future plans of the Desert Dogs.
The holes on this team are fairly obvious: second base and bench. Elliot Johnson should get the most starts by default, although both Tony Abreu and Jonathan Schuerholz will unspectacularly spare him. All were solid -- if flawed -- players in A-ball, but have been their weaknesses exposed since being moved to higher levels. The only two players on the bench worth talking about are Kurt Suzuki and James Loney, who will both give the current starters much needed time off.
3. Surprise Scorpions
C - Gabe Johnson
While the Desert Dogs are back to defend their title, the Scorpions will be looking for another season atop the AFL offensive rankings. They will be helped, without a doubt, by two of my top ten prospects, Brandon Wood and Billy Butler. Both players made a mockery of the California League this season, but remain relatively untested (save Butler's sample size promotion) at higher levels. They could either continue to prove why we think so highly of them, or perform just modestly, which would of course be a product of a more difficult environment.
Even with the doubt surrounding the team's two best prospects, the Scorpions should figure to finish in the top half of the league's run scoring. The club's second tier prospects (Huber, Kendrick, Morales) are all performing well in AA, and should have little trouble with the transition to winter ball. Huber could have a season similar to Chris Shelton's 2004, and Kendrick and Morales will simply look to continue their fantastic hot streaks. While Morales is listed at DH, expect him to steal quite a few starts from both Huber and Hanson on the corners.
The problem with this team is depth, as Travis Hanson is just one of three suspect starters on the team. I completely guessed who will be the predominant starter at catcher, but considering the three names, don't be surprised if the club gets less production from the backstop than any other organization. The Cardinal starter besides Hanson is Cody Haerther, who should regress a little bit after a 2005 season in which he performed over his head.
This is also a hard team to pin a starting lineup for, because in addition to the problem at backstop, I could also envision Josh Anderson and Wade Robinson stealing quite a few at-bats. Still, despite the uncertainty at a few positions, the Scorpions mix of high-ceiling blue chippers and sure-bet second tier prospects should make for quite a few trips around the bases.
4. Peoria Saguaros
C - Neil Walker
Please note that while I listed the Saguaros as the AFL's fourth-best offensive team, this is a club with the ceiling to rise to the top. None of the players are sure bets like Prince Fielder, Ian Stewart, Justin Huber or Daric Barton, but there is quite a bit of breakout potential on this team.
Two of the players that I'm talking about, obviously, are Neil Walker and Adam Lind. I have spoken about both players before, as I expect the two to blossom in the power department going forward. Walker must use the AFL to both walk more and improve his defense however, as those two flaws will limit his ceiling moving forward. Lind will likely be the subject of more than one of my pieces this winter, as I fully expect him to begin his breakout in October. Look for the power he showed in July -- if July only -- to begin to resurface in the desert.
Besides those two, the club does have a few sure bets for success. In 2004, Brian Dopirak followed his Midwest League home run title with seven AFL homers, good for second in the league. This year, expect another minor league lumberjack, Brad Eldred, to contend for the home run title. Sure, he might not bring much else to the table, but boy, Eldred can hit the ball a long way. Brandon Moss, Ryan Sweeney, and Ryan Zimmerman are quite the opposite: players with plus contact skills that lack great power skills. Moss is on the border of corner outfielder/AAAA player in my mind, and the AFL will go a long way in deciding which side of the fence he's on. Sweeney just hit his first home run of the season this week, and will need the winter to finally justify scouts claims from 2004. Finally, if Zimmerman is to stay at third, he must begin to show more substantial home run power than he has in the past.
The club's other starters (Harris, Valido and Murphy) are all solid, but figure to give substantial playing time to both Ryan Roberts and Rajai Davis. However, I do believe Murphy could have a breakout AFL, and begin to show what I've suspected for awhile, that his upside is greater than that of Moss. Guillermo Quiroz is the club's most interesting bench player, one who is very similar to the player he is backing up. Quiroz must use the AFL to re-enter the Blue Jays organizational plans, for if he doesn't, the club will likely need to pursue a catcher during the winter.
5. Mesa Solar Sox
C - Justin Knoedler
I was tempted to put the Solar Sox last, but the club got a boost from having quite a bit of Major League service time on the roster. Knoedler, Giarratano, Murton and Granderson are all role players that have been in the Majors, and in the case of Murton and Granderson, have been successful. However, the two players still have things to prove, as Murton must show some semblance of power, and Granderson must show some semblance of defense.
Both Eric Patterson and Dan Ortmeier will have prospects breathing down their necks, in the cases of Kevin Frandsen and Brad Snyder, respectively. However, expect Patterson to show the Futures Game made a mistake, while Ortmeier shows that even at his age, players can still be top prospects. Still, neither of these players figure to have jaw-dropping performances, leaving the club a little short on offense.
If it does come, expect most of it to come from the 1B/DH position. It will be there that the club decides how best to rotate Michael Aubrey, Joey Votto and Brandon Sing. Votto will be on the Wednesday/Saturday taxi squad, likely leaving the injury-recovering Aubrey with the majority of at-bats. Unfortunately this leaves the club with yet another position in which they will receive less-than-average production in the slugging department. Do not expect that from Sing, who like Brad Eldred before him, figures to be among the more prominent sluggers in the league.
6. Grand Canyon Rafters
C - Mike Jacobs
Well, at least the manager will have fun playing around with the defense, huh? On this team, I think Mike Jacobs should play everyday at catcher, trying to convince the Mets not to spend there during the winter. Eric Duncan should move across the diamond to first, as he likely will not be supplanting A-Rod anytime soon. Drew Meyer should continue in his quest for a career in utility, playing a little at second, short, and in center. This will also allow Lastings Milledge to begin to get a feel for right field, as he will likely replace Mike Cameron long before he will Carlos Beltran.
Duncan and Milledge are the two best prospects this club has to offer, and either could see their weaknesses exploited by AFL pitchers. The second tier isn't bad with Jacobs (another MVP candidate), Moses, and Span, but again, only Jacobs on that list has handled the AA transition well. In fact, Jacobs has moved up to the Majors well, and if his streak continues, should lead this league in home runs.
Besides those mentioned there is little on this team, despite the fading hopes that Bronson Sardinha or Meyer might finally breakout. It won't happen, and in all likelihood, the Rafters will finish last in the AFL standings.
Back tomorrow with a look at the league's crop of pitching, in addition to some predictions about top performances and a prospect ranking of the best talent on display.