19-year-old Addison Russell has continued to impress in the Arizona Fall League.
If you love prospects, then it doesn’t get any better than the Arizona Fall League.
With six teams comprised of baseball’s top prospects from all 30 organizations, the AFL provides an opportunity to witness the future of the game on one field.
This year’s crop of talent was especially deep, including 21 players that ranked among our end-of-season top 100 prospects.
However, with the fall season set to conclude on Saturday afternoon with the AFL Championship Game, airing at 3 p.m. ET on MLB Network, it’s time reflect on some of this year’s top prospects.
Specifically, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the most impressive—not the best—prospects I laid eyes on earlier this month. So, here’s a look at the 10 most impressive prospects from this year’s Arizona Fall League.
After raking in the Pioneer League last summer during his professional debut, Seager was moved up to Low-A Great Lakes for the 2013 season and batted .309/.389/.529 with 33 extra-base hits (12 home runs) and a 58-34 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 74 games.
Given his overwhelming success in the Midwest League, the Dodgers promoted the 19-year-old shortstop to High-A Rancho Cucamonga for the final month of the season. Somewhat surprisingly given the hitter-friendly environments of the California League, Seager struggled at the more advanced level, batting .160/.246/.320 with 31 strikeouts in 27 games.
After watching him extensively during my week in Arizona, it appears that Seager’s struggles this fall—and presumably dating back to the California League—stem from a combination of him overstriding at the plate and drifting with his hips. As a result, he’ll fight against his body to keep weight on the backside and in turn becomes vulnerable to quality secondary pitches.
There were times when I could tell Seager was actively trying to stay back and pepper the opposite field, however, that ultimately made him susceptible to velocity up in the zone.
With all that said, I’m still a huge fan of the left-handed hitter’s bat-to-ball skills and ability to keep the barrel in the zone for an extended period of time, but there’s definitely some timing issues that will need to be worked out as the pitching improves.
And after a week of strikeouts and countless just-missed balls in play, it was nice to see Seager go bridge for a game-tying grand slam before heading home.
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.
Assigned to High-A Daytona for his first full professional campaign, Soler posted an .810 OPS with 22 extra-base hits (eight home runs) and a 38/21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 55 games before suffering a season-ending leg injury (stress fracture to tibia) when he fouled a ball off his left shin in late June.
At 6’4”, 215 pounds, Soler is a physically strong right-handed hitter with a mature frame that requires little projection. With blinding bat speed and an explosive swing, the ball absolutely jumps off Soler’s bat. Meanwhile, his extension and lift after contact generates exceptional backspin carry and suggests the potential for multiple 20-plus home runs in his prime.
Soler’s approach has been more polished than expected as a professional, as he demonstrated the ability to hit when behind in the count with solid pitch recognition.
However, that wasn’t the case when I saw him in the AFL. During that time, he struggled to pick up spin and appeared to be guessing at the plate, often chasing pitches well out of the strike zone in a favorable count.
Furthermore, his swing can be rushed and choppy at times and will need to be ironed out as he moves up the ladder. Soler is a natural hitter with plus bat speed and a knack for making hard contact.
Despite his muscular build, Soler is an above-average runner who moves well on both sides of the ball. He has the ideal profile of a big league right fielder with average range and plus arm strength.
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.
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.
Byron Buxton is a rarity in that he’s a teenager with a realistic ceiling of a plus-plus hitter at maturity. While his off-the-charts bat speed and direct path to the ball will give him a chance to hit at the highest level, it’s the mature approach and pitch recognition that gives him the chance to be one of the game’s top hitters.
His power was regarded as his weakest tool when the Twins made him the No. 2 overall pick in 2012. However, his advanced approach and impressive bat speed allowed it to develop ahead of schedule this past season, and he showcased plus raw power to all fields that should ultimately translate to 20-plus home runs annually at maturity.
Beyond that, Buxton should always be an extra-base machine and rank among the league leaders in total bases.
Buxton’s speed is another plus-plus tool and a product of his insanely good athleticism. Despite his lack of experience, he’s already viewed as an elite baserunner capable of taking an extra base with relative ease. His speed also caters to his present ability and future potential as base stealer, and amazingly it plays up even more thanks to his high baseball IQ.
With all that’s already been said about Buxton’s speed and overall baseball savvy, his projection as an elite defender in center field shouldn’t come as a surprise. While he has the athleticism and wheels to get almost every ball, Buxton’s jumps and aggressive (but direct) routes are especially impressive for a player his age.
With five potential plus tools to his name, it’s obvious why Buxton is regarded as baseball’s consensus No. 1 prospect. Beyond his eye-popping natural ability, the outfielder possesses secondary skills that are uncommon in a player his age.
Unfortunately, Buxton was put on the shelf towards the end of the fall season with a minor shoulder injury that he suffered early in the AFL, which explains a lot of the swings I saw in person.
In each look, the explosiveness that I came to love this summer was dialed back, and he appeared slightly tentative at times during games—which normally suggests the hitter is fearful of swinging through a pitch and worsening an injury.
As a result of his impressive pro debut in 2012, Addison Russell received an aggressive assignment to High-A Stockton to open the 2013 season. As one of the youngest everyday players at the level, the 19-year-old batted .275/.377/.508 with 85 runs scored, 56 extra-base hits (17 home runs) and 21 stolen bases in 107 games.
At the end of the year, the A’s promoted Russell to Triple-A Sacramento for the team’s stretch run, though he went just 1-for-13 with nine strikeouts in three games.
A physically strong right-handed hitter, Russell demonstrates a knack for barreling the ball, showcasing advanced bat control that yields hard contact to all fields. And though the 19-year-old’s game features some swing-and-miss at the present, that can at least be partially attributed to his status as a teenager playing against advanced competition.
Overall, his combination of plus bat speed and present strength calls for above-average power at maturity, if not more, and his wheels should always lead to a high number of doubles and triples.
Although he looked raw at times this past season as a 19-year-old in High-A, Russell has the makings of an impact shortstop at the major league level with four above-average or better tools that will only improve with experience.
Assuming Russell opens the 2014 season in Double-A, it's very likely that he'll take over as the A's big league shortstop, as a 20-year-old, by the end of the year.
Get ready, folks. He's coming.
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 sizable 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. Don't believe me? Watch this clip. Then watch this one.
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.
Making stops at three levels after signing with the Cubs, Bryant, the No. 2 overall selection in the 2013 draft, was one of the top hitters in the minor leagues over the final month of the season at High-A Daytona, batting .333/.387/.719 with five home runs and 14 RBI in 16 games.
At 6’5”, 215 pounds, Bryant possesses effortless 80-grade power that has translated in a big way at each professional stop. The right-handed hitter does an excellent job of using his height and size to his advantage, hitting down on the ball to create backspin carry to all fields. At maturity, it’s easy to see him turning in numerous 30-plus home run seasons.
But while he’s known for his light-tower power, Bryant is a much better hitter than he is given credit for, with a line-to-line approach and decent pitch recognition. Additionally, when he’s behind in the count, Bryant will noticeably shorten his swing and look to drive the ball back up the middle.
Upon his return from a broken hamate bone during the spring, Almora was one of the Midwest League’s top hitters, batting .329/.376/.466 with 24 extra-base hits and a 30-17 strikeout-to-walk rate in 61 games. However, the outfielder’s impressive season ended prematurely on Aug. 7, when he was placed on the disabled list with a groin injury.
No hitter impressed me more than Almora during my week in Arizona. In my opinion, he has the best pure hit tool in the Arizona Fall League. The 19-year-old’s combination of barrel control and overall feel for staying inside the ball is ridiculously impressive for a player his age. He’s capable of turning around inner-half offerings when he chooses to, but the right-handed hitter’s barrel control gives him a smooth, natural stroke to right-center field.
Almora has the makings of at least a plus hitter at maturity. Though his high-ish leg kick could be a problem once he faces better secondary offerings at higher levels, his weight transfer and bat path should allow for quick adjustments.
As I sorted through several games of Almora at-bats, I realized that he collected only a few hits during the my week-long stay in Arizona. However, had you asked me prior to digging through my game notes and footage, I genuinely would have guessed that he had multiple hits in each game. But alas, I was deceived by the teenager's knack for consistent hard contact. Almora also stood out for how well he appears to track the ball against right-handed pitching.