Rare Pitching Prospects of the AFL
Yesterday, I mentioned the Arizona Fall League to be one of the most hitter-friendly leagues in professional baseball. This is due to not only the environment in which the league is set, but also the competition that is brought forth every year. Teams usually send some of their top A+ or AA hitting talents to the AFL for further work, while not doing the same with pitching prospects.
However, the outcry for a change in the status quo is developing. Last year Sandy Alderson and AFL president Steve Cobb began to demand that changes be made. The league's offense reached all-time highs last year, with more than half of the games resulting in combined run outputs of thirteen or more. While those involved with the AFL know it's difficult to ask organizations to risk injury, Cobb noted that only twice last year did a pitcher throw seven innings.
Whether the pendulum is beginning to swing remains to be seen, though I will venture that this pitching crop seems to be a little better than those of year's past. Last year Huston Street was the buzz in Arizona, and the rest of the top ten in ERA were all names that will likely never make a splash at the Major League level. Expect that to change this year, depending upon what pitch counts their teams set for some of these very solid prospects.
Presented in a bit of a different format than yesterday, here's a look at the top 15 pitching prospects of the AFL, along with a thought on what I believe they must accomplish this winter.
1. Chad Billingsley - RHP/SP - Los Angeles Dodgers
Pretty much a different pitcher since I underrated him in my midseason prospect list. Billingsley supporters are quick to point out that what appeared to be early season struggles were in fact numbers masked by a few bad starts against Delmon Young's team, and what was then a high BABIP. However, the BABIP ship has been righted, as his current number is right around .280. This is due to an August in which Billingsley has excelled, while also having a BABIP under .150. In those 33 innings, he's allowed just 14 hits, while 'only' striking out 31 batters. However, while some of this success is surely do to luck, it's also important to note his control problems are starting to go away, with just eight free passes issued in the month of August. I'm worried that the AFL will add to a workload that is nearing uncomfortable levels, and should push him to 180 innings over seven months. While many of the minors best pitching prospects are graduating to the minors, Billingsley has an argument for being the best left under the surface. He'll look to continue that argument this winter, where he will need his newfound control to not find himself in trouble.
2. Adam Miller - RHP/SP - Cleveland Indians
The subject of a recent article at Baseball America, and likely the subject of concern for the Cleveland Indians. Before injury I had Miller ranked above Matt Cain, but now he's in danger of slipping, and slipping very quickly. He gets lee-way, of course, for rehabilitation time, but the AFL will be the start of evaluating his progress with no more ifs, ands and buts. Instead, Miller must see his velocity raise back to past levels, and his strikeout numbers must again prove to be a product of his fantastic stuff. When looking at Miller's numbers in the AFL, it will be much wiser to look at his K/9 and velocity readings rather than everything else. Those are what will tell us if pre-injury 'Mr. 101' ever has a chance of resurfacing.
3. Jered Weaver - RHP/SP - Los Angeles Angels
I'm a bit wary of this decision, not because of Jered's inning count, but rather the environment. Weaver is among the minors most prominent flyball pitchers, and unless the winter will be spent adding a cutter, he could serve quite a few home runs in Arizona. However, this is a player that needs to be challenged, and also needs to give Los Angeles an idea of what his timetable should look like. Weaver's pitchability is matched by few in the minors, and that plus his great control could make up for the flyball tendencies. While we all know that Jered can strike hitters out, the AFL will be a good test to see how he deals with adversity, and if he can limit damage despite being HR-prone.
4. Edwin Jackson - RHP/SP - Los Angeles Dodgers
Like Billingsley, I'm not sure I agree with the decision to send Jackson to the AFL. Has any player in this system faced more adversity than Jackson this year, who went from thinking he's have a rotation spot, to being a month away, to not getting any AAA hitters out, to being demoted to AA, to getting a chance in LA. Jackson has started to right the ship in Jacksonville, however, the environment is far more friendly for pitchers there than in Arizona. Edwin must continue to grow and keep using the advice and mechanical changes he has received in Jacksonville. He is something of a conundrum in the Los Angeles system, but a good AFL might be enough to convince the Dodgers to plan on him for yet another offseason.
5. Greg Miller - LHP - Los Angeles Dodgers
Well, this decision makes sense. While Billingsley and Jackson will both be carrying high workloads going into the AFL, it will be Miller who is in need of innings. He has not pitched very much since returning from injury, getting a Curt Schilling-like glimpse of the life of a reliever. Miller once had the stuff to succeed in either role, and the AFL will go a long way in determining which role that should be. Expect the Dodgers to inform Miller's manager that while Billingsley and Jackson need to be handled delicately, Miller should be thrown into the fire. At a certain point, it's time for the Dodgers to take off their gloves, and see what this kid is made of.
6. Glen Perkins - LHP/SP - Minnesota Twins
His path this year has been emulated by many in his draft class, as he dominated Florida State League hitters before reaching considerable challenges in the Eastern League. Perkins was neither worth leaving in high-A nor ready for AA, which is probably right where the AFL talent-level lies. Perkins stuff is average, but like Weaver, he has very solid pitchability. The Twins are stacked in the pitching department, meaning that hometown-boy Perkins will be given all the time he needs to develop. Expect Perkins to have an AFL similar to Sean Marshall's in 2004 (8:1 K/BB ratio), and begin next season back in Double-A. Glen has a future in the Twin Cities, no doubt, but unlike many of his college companions, expect that to happen sooner rather than later.
7. Angel Guzman - RHP/SP - Chicago Cubs
No minor league pitcher is harder to get a grasp on than Angel Guzman. We thought this would be the season for Guzman to finally make waves in Chicago, but much like many of the other Cub starters, he let the organization down. 2005 has been a lost year for Guzman's development, and the AFL is essential to his new and improved timetable. Will we see the Guzman of old when he gets to the AFL, walking few batters, while still showing fantastic stuff? Or have injuries led to a slow deterioration of the prospect that was supposed to stand aside the Priors, Zambranos, and Woods of the north side?
8. Jason Hirsh - RHP/SP - Houston Astros
In a system that has seen quite a few breakouts this season, Hirsh might be the biggest surprise. At midseason I was thinking Hirsh would be a good Rule 5 pick in December, but has now all-but-guaranteed himself a spot on the Astros 40-man roster. The only thing that could stop that, I think, would be an arm injury before the end of the regular season or a disastrous showing at the AFL. Expect neither from Hirsh, who is one of the older prospects on this list, even if his success is a relatively new happening. Hirsh is the real deal, and should end up a back-of-the-rotation starter with the Astros by the end of next season. His AFL performance should further that opinion.
9. Sean Tracey - RHP/SP - Chicago White Sox
It seems like Sean Tracey has a ceiling higher than most of the names that surround him on this list, but he can't consistently show that in the minors. I have pointed out before that Tracey is the unusually rare K+GB pitcher, although he has had some troubles consistently (there's that word, again) generating groundballs. My guess is that his problems are due to the occasional inability to keep his fastball down in the zone. However, when he does, Tracey becomes dominant, and when combining that with his inning-eater skills, is a very good prospect. The AFL will be key for Tracey to start showing the, um, consistency that has plagued him in the past.
10. Adam Loewen - LHP - Baltimore Orioles
Again, these are the types of pitchers that I love. Loewen has God-given talent that is off the walls, to the point that his balls have movement that parallels the best stuff in the minors. However, when he releases the pitch, seldom does Loewen know where it will end up. His career is moving at the pace of a snail, and his control problems hardly have improved this season. If he puts it all together -- like he has in a few various starts this year -- then Loewen could become one of the top handful of pitching prospects in baseball. However, that isn't likely, and we will probably see the control problems stick until the Orioles decide it's time to try his arm in a relief role. It will be there, I predict, where he will succeed (see: Ambiorix Burgos).
11. Wade Townsend - RHP/SP - Tampa Bay Devil Rays
When the AFL begins in October, few pitchers in the league will enter with an 18-month workload less than that of Wade Townsend. Since ending his career at Rice in 2004, Townsend's professional innings have been limited to his short-season performances this year. The two-time top ten pick needs to start justifying his placement on draft boards, or at the very least, proving people wrong that thought the Devil Rays were reaching. Townsend will begin a full workload in 2005, so he must use the AFL to start re-improving the endurance/stamina that he has likely lost over time.
12. Clint Nageotte - RHP - Seattle Mariners
Like Greg Miller before him, Nageotte's AFL will probably say much about what his future role with the Mariners will be. If I had to guess, Nageotte's solid fastball-slider combination will see him setting-up Rafael Soriano when it's al said and done. However, the Mariners probably won't quit on the idea of Nageotte as a starter so soon, much like they won't with newly acquired Jesse Foppert. While the latter probably has the moxie to stick in the rotation, Nageotte has always struggled at the Major League level, and might be best suited for one-inning roles when he can throw the slider about 50-70% of the time. Or, maybe the Mariners are thinking that Nageotte will end up similar to Shawn Chacon, bouncing back and forth on roles depending upon the season. As always, time will tell.
13. Travis Bowyer - RHP/RP - Minnesota Twins
Most of the names on this list I will/have suggested a future move to the bullpen. Travis Bowyer is one that is already there, and has been now for a couple years. He's also about 15-20 good AFL innings from Minnesota opening up a relief spot for him in 2006, much in the way they handled Jesse Crain before him. However, I don't think we can expect Bowyer to have a winter like Huston Street's 2004, in which he was the most talked about player in the league. Bowyer just isn't that good of a reliever, as I mentioned after seeing him and the fastball-only repertoire at the Futures Game. But he's dominated AAA this year, so by all means should Bowyer make mincemeat of these less-advanced AFL hitters.
14. Scott Mathieson - RHP - Philadelphia Phillies
With Gavin Floyd in a year-long slump and Cole Hamels hurt (again), Scott Mathieson's right arm has become the focus of the Philadelphia system. After representing the organization in the Futures Game, Mathieson has continued to pitch with just-OK results. In a sense, Mathieson reminds me of a fellow AFLer that I previously doubted: Bill Murphy. Both have live arms, but lack any semblance of pitchability. Not only must his consistency of control improve, but to become an elite prospect, Mathieson must start to have games with big results. He has a chance to have a career at the back of a rotation, but given his track record of performance, middle relief is much more likely.
15. Taylor Tankersley - LHP - Florida Marlins
Seen as a bit of a risky pick in 2004, Tankersley has not had a great year this season, seeing struggles with Sally League hitters. It also can't help that he's watching a fellow draft pick, Jason Vargas, pitch well at the Major League level. Tankersley has showed a bit of dominance a few times this year, and like many players, just needs to add a bit of consistency to his good outings. I'm not sold on him as being a good prospect however, so his AFL will need to prove something to the prospect evaluators. If he does have a Major League career, you can bet that it will be as a sort of swingman, as it was occasionally in college.