Under-the-Radar Arizona Fall League Prospects with Big MLB Upsides
Although the Arizona Fall League features many of baseball’s top prospects, not every participant is regarded as a potential impact player in major leagues.
However, that’s precisely what makes the league so great: The AFL offers virtually unknown prospects a chance to significantly improve their stock against top-notch competition.
A perfect example is St. Louis Cardinals left-hander Kevin Siegrist, the team’s 41st-round selection in the 2008 draft.
Fresh off a solid 2012 regular season between High-A and Double-A, Siegrist put himself on the Cardinals’ major league radar with an outstanding performance in the Arizona Fall League. Appearing in six games (five starts), the southpaw registered a 2.37 ERA with 27 strikeouts in 19 innings.
These days, Siegrist serves as the top left-handed arm out of the bullpen for the recently crowned National League champions, though his World Series debut on Wednesday night could have gone better.
Anyway, here’s a look at 10 under-the-radar AFL prospects with major league upside.
Derek Law, RHP, San Francisco Giants
Selected in the ninth round of the 2011 draft out of Miami Dade (Fla.) JC, Law earned an assignment to Low-A Augusta for his full-season debut the following year. Though he posted a 2.91 ERA with 67 strikeouts in 55.2 innings, it wasn’t until this past season that the right-hander’s career took off.
This past season, the 23-year-old dominated across three levels, posting a 2.31 ERA with 14 saves and the best combination of strikeout (13.84 K/9) and walk (1.63 BB/9) rates among all minor league relievers. Law was especially impressive at High-A San Jose over the second half of the season, registering a 2.10 ERA with 11 saves and 45 strikeouts in 25.2 frames.
A 6’3”, 218-pound right-hander, Law creates enormous deception with an upper-body turn at the height of his delivery and exaggerated arm stab on the backside. Though unorthodox in every sense, it allows him to stay on top of the baseball from an over-the-top release point and work off a steep downhill plane.
In terms of stuff, Law’s fastball typically works in the 92-96 mph range and will play up due to his aforementioned deception. Given his release point, the right-hander’s curveball is a big, slow breaker that offers extreme velocity contrast to the fastball. Law will also mix in a good slider so as to keep opposing hitters off balance.
With a strong showing this fall, Law could make a case to open the 2014 season at Double-A Richmond. If that’s ultimately the case, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the major leagues later in the year.
Nick Wittgren, RHP, Miami Marlins
The Marlins selected Wittgren in the ninth round of the 2012 draft following two excellent seasons as Purdue’s closer. It didn’t take long for the right-hander to make an impact after signing, as he recorded 11 saves in 17 games in the short-season New York-Penn League, as well as a 1.46 ERA and 34/4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Assigned to High-A Jupiter to open the season, the 22-year-old recorded 25 saves, a 0.83 ERA and a 59-10 strikeout-to-walk rate in 54.1 innings (48 games). As a result of his overwhelming success, the right-hander was promoted to Double-A Jacksonville in late August.
Given his effectiveness in the ninth inning, one would assume that Wittgren boasts overpowering stuff. However, that’s not the case; the 6’3”, 210-pound right-hander’s fastball sits comfortably in the low 90s.
That being said, he does miss a considerable number of bats with the pitch; the deception in his delivery causes the pitch to jump on opposing hitters. Wittgren supplements his heater with a power breaking ball that registers in the 76-81 mph range, and he’s demonstrated an improved feel for the pitch since signing.
Wittgren should keep moving through Miami’s system at an accelerated pace next season and could even get a look in the major leagues later in the year if the team decides to deal Steve Cishek.
Jake Barrett, RHP, Arizona Diamondbacks
A third-round draft pick in 2012 out of Arizona State University, Barrett was assigned to Low-A South Bend last summer for his professional debut. Coming off a long, grueling college season, the right-hander struggled in the Midwest League, registering a 5.84 ERA with six saves and 25 strikeouts in 24.2 innings.
This year, however, Barrett emerged as the lights-out closer that the organization expected and jumped on the fast track to the major leagues. The 22-year-old opened his first full professional season with a 1.98 ERA, 15 saves and a 37-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 27.1 innings for High-A Visalia.
Unsurprisingly, he was moved up to Double-A Mobile in late June where he served as one of the top relievers in the minors during the second half. In 24.2 innings in the Southern League, Barrett put up video-game numbers with a 0.36 ERA, 14 saves and a stellar 22-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio spanning 24 appearances.
With a plus fastball-slider combination ideal that results in excessive whiffs and weak contact, expect Barrett to emerge as the Diamondbacks’ closer at some point during the 2014 season.
Adalberto Mejia, LHP, San Francisco Giants
Signed by the Giants on February 1, 2011, out of the Dominican Republic, Mejia opened eyes later that year with an outstanding showing in the Dominican Summer League. As a result, the Giants confidently promoted the left-hander to Low-A Augusta for his full-season debut in 2012.
Bouncing between the bullpen and starting rotation so as to limit his workload, the left-hander posted an impressive 3.97 ERA and 79/21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 106.2 innings.
Moved up to High-A San Jose for the 2013 season, the 20-year-old turned in the breakout campaign that many expected. Despite dealing with a minor injury during the first half, Mejia ultimately registered a 3.31 ERA and 89-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 87 innings in the hitter-friendly California League.
The 6’3” left-hander has grown into his lanky frame over the last year and learned to utilize his height and extension toward the plate in order to work on a consistent downhill plane. Mejia demonstrates a present feel for working down in the zone with entire arsenal, highlighted by a fastball that sits in the low 90s with life and scrapes 93-94.
Meanwhile, the southpaw’s secondary arsenal has steadily improved against advanced competition. Though his changeup currently is slightly more advanced than his slider, both have the potential to be at least average at maturity.
Taylor Lindsey, 2B, Los Angeles Angels
Selected out of high school with the No. 37 overall pick in the 2010 draft, Taylor Lindsey was assigned by the Los Angeles Angels 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 hit 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.
Michael Ohlman, C, Baltimore Orioles
Selected in the 11th round of the 2009 draft out of a Florida high school, the catcher struggled mightily in his first full professional season the following year, batting .208/.302/.293 with 17 extra-base hits and 96 strikeouts in 84 games between rookie-level Bluefield and Low-A Delmarva.
Things didn’t get any better for Ohlman in 2011, as he repeated the Low-A level and batted only .224/.320/.307 with 21 extra-base hits and 96 strikeouts in 105 games.
In 2012, Ohlman began the season on the disabled list with a shoulder injury before receiving a 50-game suspension after testing positive on a performance-enhancing drug.
Upon his return, however, the 6’4”, 205-pound catcher began to put things together. Appearing in 51 games with Delmarva, Ohlman batted .304/.411/.456 with 24 extra-base hits and nearly as many walks (35) as strikeouts (37).
The 22-year-old finally turned in a breakout performance this past season at High-A, batting .313/.410/.524 with 29 doubles, 13 home runs and 93/56 strikeout-to-walk ratio while playing in 100 games for only the second time in his career.
Although Ohlman moves well for his size behind the plate and has remained at the position longer than many evaluators initially projected, his defense—his receiving, specifically—is still below average and in need of considerable refinement.
However, the Orioles didn’t draft Ohlman for his defense—they were interested in his right-hander power potential. It required a few extra years, but after posting a .934 OPS this past season in his first taste of High-A, it appears as though Ohlman’s power has arrived.
Stephen Piscotty, OF, St. Louis Cardinals
Selected out of Stanford with the No. 36 overall pick in the 2012 draft, Stephen Piscotty impressed during his professional debut in 2012 by posting an .823 OPS with 23 extra-base hits and a 25-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 55 games for Low-A Quad Cities.
Given his age and college background, the organization promoted the 22-year-old to High-A Palm Beach for his first full professional season. Though he was expected to hold his own in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, Piscotty actually enjoyed an uptick in his overall production, batting .292/.348/.477 with 25 extra-base hits (nine home runs) in 63 games.
Piscotty didn’t skip a beat following a promotion to Double-A Springfield in late June, as he batted .299/.364/.446 with 15 extra-base hits, seven stolen bases and a 19-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 49 games at the more advanced level.
Though he’s a mature hitter with a consistent approach and a knack for pounding the gaps, there is some doubt as to whether Piscotty will ever offer enough power to make him a serviceable corner outfielder.
While his above-average hit tool will likely get him to the major leagues, possibly as early as late 2014, his development of over-the-fence pop may ultimately determine whether he becomes more than a fourth outfielder at the highest level.
Mookie Betts, 2B, Boston Red Sox
A fifth-round draft pick in 2011, Mookie Betts was a largely unknown prospect heading into the 2013 season after he posted a .658 OPS with nine extra-base hits in 71 games last summer in the short-season New York-Penn League.
But after his impressive full-season debut this year, Betts has emerged as one of the more intriguing prospects in the game. Showcasing arguably the best plate discipline in the low minors, the 20-year-old posted a ridiculous 57-81 strikeout-to-walk ratio this season in 127 games between Low-A Greenville and High-A Salem.
And after failing to jump the yard in his pro debut, Betts showed legitimate pop this season with 15 home runs, 36 doubles and four triples. Add in 38 stolen bases, and we’re talking about one of the better overall seasons across all minor league levels.
There were only two other prospects that outperformed Betts’ .923 OPS and 38 stolen bases this season: Byron Buxton (.944 OPS, 55 SB) and George Springer (1.010 OPS, 45 SB).
Matt Skole, 1B, Washington Nationals
The Nationals selected Skole in the fifth round of the 2011 draft after he hit 47 home runs over three seasons at Georgia Tech. However, the 6’4” left-handed hitter’s power didn’t translate that summer in the New York-Penn League, as he amassed only five home runs in 72 games.
Skole was assigned to Low-A Hagerstown for his full-season debut in 2012 and thrived as a 22-year-old facing mostly younger pitchers. Playing in 101 games, Skole paced the South Atlantic League in home runs (27), on-base percentage (.438), slugging percentage (.574) and walks (94), and he also ranked second in RBI (92). The overwhelming success at the level ultimately earned him a late-season promotion to High-A Potomac and posted an .841 OPS with 10 doubles in 18 games.
Following the season, Skole was named the Nationals’ 2012 Minor League Player of the Year.
Moved up to Double-A Harrisburg for the 2013 season, the 23-year-old appeared in only two games before an injury to his non-throwing elbow required season-ending Tommy John surgery. Although he probably could have returned to the field before the end of the regular season, the organization decided to err on the side of caution knowing he’d participate in the AFL.
Skole has continually surpassed expectations since turning pro and put himself on the major-league radar with his impressive 2012 campaign. Now regarded as one of the better Three True Outcome hitters in the minor leagues, Skole does an excellent job controlling the strike zone, and he isn’t afraid to let the ball travel deep and work the count. And while most of his power came to the pull side in college, the left-handed hitter has since learned to consistently jump the yard to the opposite field.
Although he’s played third base almost exclusively since signing, it’s difficult to envision him remaining there as he moves up the organizational ladder. When I saw Skole play two games at first base last fall, I was impressed with his positioning, range and overall agility.
And with Adam LaRoche under contract through the 2014 season, don’t be surprised if Skole mans first base for the Nats in 2015.
Tommy La Stella, 2B, Atlanta Braves
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 should play at the highest level. He lacks the speed typically associated with the middle-infield position and profiles as an average defender, but he 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.