Monday, November 24, 2008

The Arizona Fall League (“AFL”), the more senior of Major League Baseball’s two developmental offseason leagues, concluded its season on Saturday. As promised, we’ve provided a rundown of the top 15 prospects from the six-team circuit. Just as we did in our evaluation of the Hawaii Winter League’s (“HWL”) top 10 prospects, we placed the most weight on the players’ performance this fall; however, we also took into consideration the candidates’ tools and how they projected at the big league level. To be considered for this list a player must still qualify as a rookie (less than 130 total big league at bats or under 50 total innings pitched). As such, Yankees pitcher Phil Hughes, despite an excellent showing this fall, has not qualified.

Just a note of caution, the AFL, unlike its younger cousin, is an extreme hitters’ league (composite batting average and OPS of .293 and .834, respectively). As a result, only three pitchers made the following list.

1) Tommy Hanson (RHP), 22, Atlanta Braves – Hanson pitched so well in Arizona that he made himself unavailable in trade talks and might have cost the Braves a crack at Jake Peavy. The lanky right-hander was virtually unhittable, striking out 49 in 28.2 innings while posting an otherworldly WHIP of 0.59. He has excellent command of a mid-90’s fastball, a devastating overhand curve and developing changeup. Don’t be surprised if he’s in Atlanta’s rotation on Opening Day.

2) Matt Wieters (C ), 22, Baltimore Orioles – Wieters achieved such a high position on this list largely on the strength of an outstanding regular season. The Georgia Tech alum hit .355 with a 1.055 OPS while splitting time between High A and Double A. Though Wieters proved to be a mere mortal in the AFL, posting an OPS of “only” .845, he still showcased the wonderful defensive tools, including a howitzer arm, which earned him much praise during the course of the regular season. A switch-hitter with power from both sides of the plate, Wieters could develop into the best hitting catcher since Mike Piazza in his prime.

3) Justin Smoak (1B), 21, Texas Rangers – Strangely enough, Smoak hails from the same hometown as Wieters (Goose Creek, SC) and is also a switch-hitter. He’s also a future superstar. With patience, power and the ability to hit with power from both sides of the plate, Smoak has already elicited plenty of Mark Teixeira comparisons in just several months as a professional. His smooth defensive play is also eerily reminiscent of the All Star first sacker. In just 51 fall at bats (he started the AFL season on the taxi squad), Smoak swatted seven extra base hits and earned ten walks.

4) Brian Matusz (LHP), 21, Baltimore Orioles – Don’t let Matusz’ 4.73 ERA this fall fool you. Instead, pay more attention to his secondary numbers – like his 4.5/1 K/BB ratio and 1.26 WHIP. Matusz’ 93 mph heater notwithstanding, his two best pitches are a knee-buckling curve ball and straight changeup. After years of futility, the thought of a Wieters - Matusz battery should give Orioles fans plenty to smile about.

5) Tyler Flowers (C ), 22, Atlanta Braves – It should tell you something about the Braves system that after Flowers’ unbelievable fall (12 home runs and a 1.433 OPS in just 75 at bats) that he’s no better than Atlanta’s third-best prospect after Hanson and outfielder Jason Heyward. Though Arizona’s thin air is at least partially responsible for Flowers’ outrageous numbers, the fact remains he’s an outstanding prospect. At 6’4” and 245 pounds, Flowers is an intimidating presence both at the plate and behind it. His offense is ahead of his defense at this point, but he has enough raw skills to mature into a sound overall receiver with an arm that could stop any running game.

6) Logan Morrison (1B), 21, Florida Marlins – Morrison is very similar to the Reds’ Yonder Alonso, who was our highest ranked prospect in the HWL. He has a sweet, left-handed swing that should generate at least 20-home run power as he matures. He’s adept at hitting to all fields and isn’t afraid to take a walk.

7) Andrew Lambo (OF-1B), 20, Los Angeles Dodgers – Though Lambo’s numbers weren’t as gaudy as most of the other hitters featured here, it’s important to remember that 2008 was only his first full professional season. Lambo fell to the 3rd round of the 2007 draft due to questions about his maturity. So far as a pro he’s dismissed those concerns while displaying a maturity beyond his years. He has a pretty left-handed stroke that can’t be taught and should hit for more power as he fills out his 6’3” frame. A natural first baseman, he’s rapidly becoming an adequate left fielder. Still, it’s his bat that will carry him to the big leagues.

8) Jason Donald (SS-3B), 24, Philadelphia Phillies – After a disappointing college career at Arizona, Donald has done nothing but hit as a professional. He posted a .307/.391/.497 line in Double A this year than exploded in Arizona to the tune of .407/.476/.747. Because Donald lacks the range of a true shortstop, he’ll likely shift over to second or third when he reaches Philadelphia. And with Chase Utley likely to miss the beginning of 2009 after hip surgery, Donald has emerged as the likely fill-in candidate.

9) Brett Wallace (3B-1B), 22, St. Louis Cardinals – Wallace’s girth has been the subject of much criticism from scouts, but no one doubts his ability to hit. He followed a .337/.427/.530 showing between Low A and Double A with a .309/.381/.585 performance in the AFL. If Wallace can handle third base, he could be a fixture in the middle of Tony LaRussa’s lineup for years to come. If not, expect him to be dangled as trade bait.

10) Julio Borbon (OF), 22, Texas Rangers – One of the most unheralded prospects in all of baseball, Borbon is a dead ringer for Johnny Damon at the same age. He has the speed to swipe 40 bases a year, the power to hit at least 10-15 dingers annually and enough of an eye to lead off. He’s also an accomplished center fielder, despite a below average arm.

11) Austin Jackson (OF), 21, New York Yankees – It will be interesting to see how Jackson develops – will his merely average speed “play up” and allow him to mature into a bona fide big league center fielder or will that lack of speed combined with pedestrian power relegate him to fourth outfielder status? Regardless, Jackson is an outstanding athlete (he was a prized Georgia Tech basketball recruit) who has made adjustments at every level and emerged as the Yankees best position prospect since Derek Jeter.

12) Chris Valaika (SS-2B), 23, Cincinnati Reds – Valaika isn’t an exceptional athlete, but has hit everywhere he’s played. This includes the AFL, where he hit .311 in 119 at bats. With the Reds’ shortstop situation as jumbled as it is, Valaika could claim the job with a strong spring training.

13) Lou Marson (C ), 22, Philadelphia Phillies – Though Marson was on the taxi squad this fall, he still showed enough in just 34 at bats to warrant a spot on this list. Marson has a short stroke which produces line drives to all fields, as well as a keen eye which has resulted in high OBPs throughout his career. Defensively, Marson is agile and has soft hands to go along with a cannon arm.

14) J.P. Arencibia (C ), 22 Toronto Blue Jays – Arencibia is the Blue Jays’ catcher of the future (perhaps as soon as 2009) and his performance in Arizona did nothing to refute this. He has excellent power for a catcher, as well as the ability to hit for a high average. He is, however, averse to taking a walk. On defense, Arencibia receives balls well and has a strong arm. The fact that he’s bi-lingual (English and Spanish) also doesn’t hurt.

15) Aaron Poreda (LHP), 22, Chicago White Sox – Like Matusz, don’t pay attention to Poreda’s AFL numbers. Instead, pay attention to his stuff and size. The 6’6” 240 pound giant throws a fastball, which tops out at 98 mph, and an improving slider. Because he doesn’t throw anything soft, Poreda’s future may be as a power reliever in the back of a major league bullpen.

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