Aaron Sanchez makes it look effortless.
The Mesa Solar Sox and Surprise Saguaros will play in the Arizona Fall League Championship game on Saturday, beginning at 3 p.m. ET and airing on MLB Network.
For those of you that weren’t planning on watching the game, you may want to reconsider; the two teams’ rosters are absolutely stacked with top-ranked prospects.
Notables from Mesa’s roster: Kris Bryant, C.J. Cron, Taylor Lindsey, Addison Russell, Devon Travis, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Brian Goodwin.
From Surprise: Jorge Alfaro, Mookie Betts, Garin Cecchini, Jonathan Schoop, Tyler Naquin.
After breaking down the top hitters in this year’s AFL yesterday, it’s now time take a look at the league’s best pitching prospects and speculate about how their respective careers may unfold.
2013 AFL Stats: 15.2 IP, 2.87 ERA, .161 BAA, 24/11 K/BB (7 G/5 GS)
Although a strained oblique limited Crick to only 14 starts this past season, the 20-year-old was flat-out nasty when healthy, posting a 1.57 ERA and .201 opponent batting average with 95 strikeouts in 68.2 innings at High-A San Jose.
Boasting a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and frequently scrapes 96-97, along with a trio of secondary offerings that can flash plus but lack consistency, Crick has the makings of a front-of-the-rotation pitcher. That being said, both his control and command will need considerable refinement before reaching the major leagues.
Crick showed signs of rust in the early going of the AFL, struggling to command his fastball and work down in the zone consistently as a starter. However, the right-hander smoothed out his delivery while working out of the bullpen at the end of October.
Since returning to the rotation, Crick has been nearly unhittable in each of his two last starts, allowing one hit over six scoreless innings with two walks and 10 strikeouts.
When I saw him in the Fall Stars Game, Crick showcased his usual heavy fastball sitting at 94-96 mph and hitting 97 on several occasions. He even broke catcher Peter O’Brien’s glove halfway through the inning. The right-hander also showed a sharp, late-breaking slider in the game, though his control of the pitch is less advanced, as well as a few changeups that had nice fading action.
2013 AFL Stats: 23.1 IP, 1.16 ERA, .151 BAA, 21/11 K/BB (6 GS)
Coming off a breakout campaign in 2012 at Low-A Lansing, Sanchez appeared poised to take a huge step forward this past season after moving up to the pitcher-friendly Florida State League.
Unfortunately, the 21-year-old right-hander spent over a month on the disabled list with shoulder soreness and ultimately logged only 86.1 innings at the more advanced level.
And while he proved to be difficult to barrel with a .202 opponents’ batting average, his 75-40 strikeout-to-walk ratio and lack of a consistent third pitch left something to be desired.
That said, Sanchez has looked really good this fall. His stuff inherently plays up in an environment such as the AFL, where he ranks as one of the top arms in the league, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact he’s been flat-out nasty this fall.
At 6’4”, 190 pounds, Sanchez is a ridiculous athlete with a lightning-quick arm and explosive trunk rotation. I’m not sure there’s another pitcher (in the minor leagues) who makes a mid-90s fastball seem so completely effortless. The right-hander’s command of his secondary offerings is still fringy, though he has noticeably thrown both his changeup and curveball with more conviction in strikeout counts this fall.
The Blue Jays have no need to rush Sanchez to the major leagues. Ideally, he’ll spend a majority of the 2014 season at the Double-A level, but don’t be surprised if he begins the year back in the Florida State League.
Sanchez’s ceiling is up there with the likes of fellow prospects Robert Stephenson and Noah Syndergaard, however, they both feature better present command and therefore passed him developmentally this past season. Regardless, Sanchez could emerge as one of the sport’s top pitching prospects if he can put things together next year.
2013 AFL Stats: 12.1 IP, 8 H, 0 ER, 6 BB, 16 K (11 G)
With the regular season now complete, I think it’s safe to declare Derek Law this year’s AFL breakout reliever.
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.
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 an extreme contrast in velocity relative to the fastball. He’ll also mix in a good slider so as to keep opposing hitters off balance.
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.
Given his impressive performance this fall—not to mention what he did during the minor league season—Law will likely begin the 2014 season at Double-A Richmond. And if everything’s he done so far holds up at the more advanced level, it shouldn’t be long before he’s coming out of the Giants bullpen.
2013 AFL Stats: 26 IP, 3.12 ERA, .213 BAA, 28/7 K/BB (7 GS)
Acquired from the Nationals during the offseason in exchange for Denard Span, Meyer, 23, had a solid first two months of the season at Double-A New Britain before landing on the disabled in early June with a sore right shoulder.
After roughly two months on the shelf, the 6’9” right-hander returned to the mound in late August and looked like his usual self with an electric plus-plus fastball-slider combination. Overall, Meyer posted a 3.21 ERA and 84-29 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 70 innings.
Though Meyer has a massive frame with long limbs, he demonstrates better-than-expected body control as well as the ability to repeat his mechanics better than most pitchers his size. And 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 bursts. He also features a filthy plus slider in the 84-87 mph range 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. The 23-year-old doesn’t throw his changeup that often—because he doesn’t need to—but he does have one that should be at least serviceable at maturity.
With his killer fastball-slider combo, Meyer could be a potential force as a late-inning reliever or closer. However, the right-hander has passed all tests thus far as a starter and will likely reach the major leagues in that role next season.
2013 AFL Stats: 14.2 IP, 5.52 ERA, .267 BAA, 16/6 K/BB (5 GS)
Coming off a breakout full-season debut in 2012, Rodriguez has continued to improve this year, despite being one of the younger full-time starters at both the High-A and Double-A levels.
After a strong showing over the first half of the season in the Carolina League, the Orioles promoted the 20-year-old to Double-A Bowie in early July. The left-hander was initially overmatched at the more advanced level, as he registered a 7.02 ERA and 33-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his first 34.2 innings (seven starts).
However, Rodriguez ultimately settled in and went on to post a respectable 4.22 ERA and 59-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 59.2 innings.
The only chance I had to see Rodriguez pitch was in the Fall Stars Game. Although he threw only one inning in the game, the left-hander opened plenty of eyes during his brief time on the mound.
Normally someone who works in the low-90s with his fastball, Rodriguez sat comfortably in the 92-95 mph range and even scraped 97 according to several radar guns behind the plate. Plus, it just looked free and easy because he hides the ball so well on the backside. His slider has improved considerably since the beginning of the 2013 season; it’s now more of a power offering in the mid-80s with tight spin and swing-and-miss bite.
Rodriguez will get another crack at the Double-A level to open the 2013 season and, based on the Orioles' propensity for challenging their pitching prospects, could conceivably reach the major leagues later in the year.
In general, Rodriguez’s prospect stock carries less risk than his age (20) suggests. The southpaw’s stuff and velocity have steadily improved as he’s developed, and his underrated feel for pitching should result in swifter adjustments moving forward.
2013 AFL Stats: 3 SV, 10.1 IP, 8 H, 6 ER, 8 BB, 16 K (10 G)
Signed in the seventh round of the 2011 draft out Yavapai JC in Arizona, Ken Giles' upside as a reliever always has been obvious thanks to a legitimate triple-digit fastball and potentially devastating slider in the upper-80s.
Making his full-season debut in 2012, the 23-year-old recorded eight saves and posted a 3.51 ERA, .209 opponents’ batting average and 111-50 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 82 innings between Low-A Lakewood and High-A Clearwater.
This past season, Giles was expected to continue his quick ascent up the organizational ladder. However, the right-hander landed on the disabled list twice with a strained oblique and then struggled mightily following a return to the pitcher-friendly Florida State League.
Logging only 25.2 innings over 24 appearances at the level, Giles tallied six saves and registered a 6.31 ERA and 34-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
He’s continued to turn heads this fall while showcasing arguably the best velocity in the AFL, working in the 96-99 mph range and scraping 100 mph with his four-seam fastball to go along with his largely inconsistent slider in the upper-80s.
Granted, he has little clue where the ball will end up after it leaves his hand, but Giles should not be struggling in the minor leagues given his elite velocity. With the right-hander’s arm strength, the Phillies will give him every chance to figure things out.
In his nine appearances this fall, Giles has been scored on only once—though, it was an absolute dud on Oct. 19 in which he allowed six earned runs on four hits and three walks without recording an out.
However, if you remove that from his fall totals, Giles has yielded only three hits and has yet to give up an earned run with a solid 13-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Since the forgettable outing, Giles has rattled off six consecutive scoreless appearances in which he’s allowed three hits and struck out 10 batters.