Austin Hedges is batting .364/.440/.591 through six games in the AFL.
The Arizona Fall League is notorious for producing major league talent.
Many of the premier hitters from last year's league graduated to The Show in 2013, including Matt Davidson, Jake Marisnick, Chris Owings, Anthony Rendon and Christian Yelich.
Meanwhile, both of the starting pitchers from last year’s AFL Rising Stars Game, Jarred Cosart and Kyle Gibson, saw considerable time in the major leagues this past season.
Here’s a look at six prospects currently playing in the AFL who could make an impact in the major leagues next season.
Drafted by the Washington Nationals in the first round of the 2011 draft out of the University of Kentucky, Alex Meyer didn’t make his professional debut until the following year, when he registered a 2.86 ERA, .211 opponent batting average and 139-45 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 129 innings between both Class-A levels.
During the offseason, however, Meyer was traded to the Minnesota Twins straight up for Denard Span. Though he missed time during the regular season with a sore shoulder, the 23-year-old continued to make strides in his development by posting a 3.21 ERA and 84-29 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 70 innings at Double-A New Britain.
At 6’9”, Meyer has a massive frame with long limbs but demonstrates impressive body control as well as the ability to repeat his mechanics better than most pitchers his size. As expected given his height, the 23-year-old throws everything on a steep downhill plane.
Meyer’s fastball is difficult to barrel up, registering between 93-97 mph deep into starts and even flirting with triple digits in shorter stints.
He also features a legitimate plus slider with sharp, wipeout break and utilizes it against both right- and left-handed hitters. Specifically, against left-handed hitters, he demonstrates a feel for throwing it backdoor for a strike and burying it for a swing-and-miss on the hitter’s back foot.
Meyer doesn’t throw his changeup that often because, well, he doesn’t need to with that fastball-slider combo. However, he does have one that shows signs of being at least average, but it will need refinement.
Tommy La Stella isn’t among the top prospects in this year’s AFL. However, that doesn’t mean he won’t have an opportunity to make an impact in the major leagues by the end of the 2014 season.
Selected by the Atlanta Braves in the eighth round in the 2011 draft out of Coastal Carolina University, La Stella has enjoyed a relatively quick ascent through the minor leagues despite struggling to stay healthy.
The left-handed hitter has raked at every level, posting a .944 OPS at Low-A Rome after signing in 2011, .846 OPS at High-A Lynchburg in 2012 and .936 OPS between High-A and Double-A Mississippi this past season.
La Stella doesn’t offer much in terms of over-the-fence pop with 20 combined home runs in the last three seasons; however, he’s proven to be a consistent source of extra-base hits with 70 doubles and triples during that span. Meanwhile, his plate discipline—which has always been his calling card—has translated favorably as a professional, as he’s amassed more walks (111) than strikeouts (88).
However, injuries have limited the 24-year-old to only 241 games over the last three seasons. In 2012, he missed time at Lynchburg after getting beaned and then landed on the disabled list for six weeks after breaking his leg in a collision at first base while covering on a bunt. This year, he spent most of spring training on the disabled list with a sore right elbow.
When healthy, La Stella has shown a projectable blend of hit tool and plate discipline that has the potential to play at the highest level. Though he lacks the speed typically associated with the middle-infield position and profiles as an average defender, the 24-year-old gets the most of his natural ability and should hit well enough to negate some of those concerns.
While Dan Uggla may be the highest-paid player on the Braves’ active roster, the organization proved it will not settle for his lousy production when he was left off the team’s NLDS roster against the Los Angeles Dodgers. And considering the demand to promote La Stella this past season when Uggla landed on the 15-day disabled list, expect the Braves to give him a long look next spring.
Selected by the Toronto Blue Jays with the No. 22 overall in the 2012 draft out of Duke, Marcus Stroman reached Double-A during his professional debut and was seemingly on the fast track to the major leagues. However, the right-hander received a 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs in the fall and then served it to open the 2013 season.
After working out of the bullpen during his professional debut, the 22-year-old was moved into the Double-A starting rotation following his return from the suspension in mid-May. Making 20 starts on the year, Stroman posted a 3.30 ERA with 129 strikeouts and 27 walks in 111.2 innings.
While it’s only natural to envision the 5’9” right-hander as a lights-out reliever given his lack of a downhill plane and ridiculous arm strength, Stroman made a strong case for his future as a starter this past season at Double-A.
Stroman’s fastball registers in the low to mid-90s, and he demonstrates a present feel for working both sides of the plate. Despite the pitch’s lack of plane, the right-hander does a good job of pounding the lower quadrants of the strike zone to generate ground-ball outs.
In terms of his secondary arsenal, Stroman’s 83-86 mph slider flashes plus-plus at times, thrown off the fastball plane and featuring a sharp bite capable of eluding bats at the highest level. He also demonstrates a present feel for mixing in a low- to mid-80s changeup that has average potential, though it’s less developed than the breaking ball.
Because he’s working out of the bullpen this year in the AFL, Stroman should rank as one of the league’s more dominating arms. Meanwhile, a strong performance will only accelerate an already imminent arrival in the major leagues during the 2014 season.
Selected in the second round of the 2011 draft out of a California high school, Austin Hedges’ prospect stock took off the following year during his full-season debut at Low-A Fort Wayne. Playing in 96 games, the catcher batted .279/.334/.451 with 28 doubles 10 home runs and 14 stolen bases.
The 21-year-old had an impressive follow-up campaign this past season between High-A Lake Elsinore and Double-A San Antonio, though his production tapered off at the more advanced levels. Between both stops, Hedges batted .260/.333/.390 with 25 doubles and a 54-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 86 games.
A right-handed hitter, he has a short, compact swing geared toward line-drive contact across the entire field. In terms of his approach, Hedges is already adept at working counts in his favor and controls the strike zone better than most players his age. He doesn’t strike out that often, but his excellent bat-to-ball ability can hinder his selectivity at times and force weak contact.
Power has never been Hedges’ thing and probably never will be. That being said, he does have consistent gap pop capable of producing a sizeable doubles total annually.
And considering his present strength and feel for the strike zone, there’s a chance that he’ll develop some over-the-fence pop as he matures. However, it’s doubtful that it will amount to anything more than average power. Hedges also shows above-average speed for the position on the basepaths; he’s a smart ballplayer who already demonstrates a knowledge of reading pitchers and picking his spots to steal.
Hedges’ elite, game-changing chops behind the plate will make him one of the best defensive catchers in the major leagues upon his arrival. There’s simply nothing he can’t do back there. And if the bat continues to develop ahead of schedule, then Hedges has the potential to reach his enormous ceiling as one of the game’s premier catchers.
Selected out of high school with the No. 37 overall pick in the 2010 draft, the Los Angeles Angels initially took their time developing Taylor Lindsey, assigning him to the rookie-level Pioneer League for his first full season in 2011. The left-handed-hitting second baseman rewarded the organization by quickly emerging as the league’s top hitter, as he batted .362/.394/.593 with 43 extra-base hits in 63 games.
Bumped up to High-A for his full-season debut in 2012, Lindsey had a solid campaign in the hitter-friendly California League but didn’t take a significant step forward in his development as expected. Overall, he batted .289/.328/.408 with 41 extra-base hits in 134 games.
This past season, however, Lindsey turned in the breakout performance that many expected in 2012. Moved up to Double-A Arkansas, the 21-year-old posted a career-low .274 batting average in 134 games, but he also set career highs in home runs (17) and walks (48).
Lindsey has excellent hand-eye coordination and bat-to-ball skills that allow him to make consistent hard contact. The left-handed hitter sets up with his hands low around the torso only to elevate them as part of his timing mechanism and surprisingly doesn’t struggle to turn around quality velocity.
While he had always shown plenty of gap power with the ability to barrel the ball to all fields, Lindsey showcased improved over-the-fence pop this past season at Double-A and could develop more as he continues to rise toward the major leagues.
Andrew Heaney was slowed by an oblique injury to begin last season and didn’t take the mound for the first time until May 20. However, once he got going, the 22-year-old was quick to make up for the lost time.
Opening the year at High-A Jupiter, Heaney posted a stellar 0.88 ERA and .193 opponent batting average with 66 strikeouts in 61.2 innings in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League. Moved up to Double-A Jacksonville for the final stretch of the season, the left-hander continued to pitch well, registering a 2.94 ERA and 23-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 33.2 innings.
At 6’2”, Heaney’s frame is both wiry and athletic with room to add strength. As for his stuff, the left-hander features a plus fastball that works in the low to mid-90s with late life. His go-to secondary pitch is a slider that has plus potential and should induce some whiffs at the highest level. Heaney made significant progress developing his changeup this past season, and it should be at least a solid-average offering at maturity.
When all is said and done, he should emerge as a solid No. 3 starter, possibly even a No. 2 if everything comes together perfectly. At this point, the only thing really holding Heaney back from the major leagues is lack of experience. That being said, he’s an excellent candidate to parlay a strong showing in the AFL and a hot start back at Double-A Jacksonville next season into an ahead-of-schedule call-up by the Marlins.