About two weeks ago, I wrote a piece on the position players I viewed as making an impact in the major leagues, many as soon as the 2011 season.
This report is about the many pitchers I saw in the Arizona Fall League, which I attended for the first time in early November. I highly recommend talking in a week or so in the future out there watching great baseball played by rising stars in perfect weather.
That might be the trifecta.
Most of the time out in the AFL, the pitchers are sent to increase their innings, work on certain pitches or see what they can do against better competition. Some organizations use the AFL to assess whether certain pitchers are worthy of Rule 5 protection by adding them to the 40-man roster.
As a rule, the AFL teams carry about 18-20 pitchers, but only seven are active on any one day. That is the one reason why the Phoenix Desert Dogs and manager Don Mattingly had to stop their game early in late October. Also, the starters rarely go longer than four innings, so relievers dominate the rosters.
There were very few impressive starting pitchers in the AFL this season. I only had an opportunity to see Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Mike Montgomery once (in the Rising Stars) game, getting him on a bad effort. I did not see Danny Duffy or Casey Kelly at all.
1) Manuel Banuelos—You already know how I feel about ManBan. Good fastball touching 95, plus change-up, a pretty good curve, which he can throw to both sides of the plate and outstanding mound demeanor. He can be a top of the rotation guy and is still only 19 years old.
2) Mike Montgomery—As I mentioned earlier, I only saw Montgomery once and that was in the Rising Stars game. He started the game (opposite Banuelos) and was a little nervous, showing very little command of his fastball (which hit 96) or change up (81-82), bouncing a few but not with any swings and misses. He also hung a few curves, which weren't tight. He has a smooth delivery and a good frame, standing a lanky 6'5". Like Banuelos, he isn't afraid to throw back-to-back change-ups or start hitters off with off-speed pitches.
He had some elbow issues this year but his dominating performance in the Pan Am games and his high velocity AFL appearances have lessened any injury worries. Montgomery obviously is much better than he showed in the Rising Stars game, but I would like to see better consistency in his off speed pitches.
I also feel his stride could be lengthened to develop even more velocity but would not affect his overall delivery.
3) Alex Cobb—Rays are taking their usual one level at a time approach with Cobb (like they did with Jeremy Hellickson), and he was out in the AFL to boost his innings. I saw him versus the Phoenix Desert Dogs (PDD), and he did well but against an inferior Desert Dogs lineup, clearly the worst in the AFL. He was behind the count on many occasions but then overpowered the weak lineup.
Cobb was hitting low-to-mid 90s repeatedly with a good change-up, but all over the place with his fastball. His walk rates in his career are OK, but his command needs to be there in order for him to succeed. Will start in Triple A Durham but has no shot at the majors in 2011, based primarily on organizational philosophy.
His fastball was never above 90, but generated lots of swings and misses, mostly on high fastballs. He has that deceiving delivery in which he hides the ball well, then before a hitter realizes, the ball is on top of him.
Collmenter literally tilts his upper body and throws straight over the top. Many of his swinging strikes were on high fastballs out of the zone, but appear to be strikes coming out of his delivery. He had a curve ball with good downward break, and he was able to throw it for consistent strikes. He was also not afraid to throw it behind in the count or as a first pitch offering.
Collmenter utilizes what I call "reverse sequencing" pitching. That is getting ahead with soft stuff and, when the hitter has two strikes and looking for junk, gets a moderate fastball blown by him. This method is better utilized by pitchers who do not throw hard.
While he will not be a top guy in any rotation, Collmenter will get his shot sometime this season in Arizona. After his AFL performance, he was placed upon the team's 40-man roster.
5) Eric Hurley—After missing all of 2009 and 2010 with shoulder (labrum) surgery, this former major leaguer threw his first meaningful pitch in two seasons out in the AFL. He much sharper later in the AFL, showing good arm strength and said he had no fears about going all out.
If the Rangers do not re-sign Cliff Lee, Hurley has an opportunity to make the Rangers staff this season.
1) Brad Brach—I am very partial to this kid because he is a local Jersey Shore product. He has exceptional numbers during his career, including a great 2010 campaign in the heavy hitting High-A California League where he recorded 41 saves to go along with a stellar 2.47 ERA. He continued his dominance in the AFL with a 2.87 ERA and .873 WHIP.
He only allowed a base runner in five of his 11 AFL appearances, and although he did not strike out many, he showed pitches which moved and commanded well. During the Rising Stars game, he allowed a runner to reach third base on a two base error and a wild pitch.
Brach proceeded to get two strikeouts sandwiched around a weak ground ball to short and got out of the inning.
Brach throws a sinking 91-92 MPH fastball with good movement and located the ball well on both edges of the plate, often coming inside to lefties. His slider is a true out pitch and is rarely hit hard. He throws strikes with a career SO/BB ratio of 7.00. But he does throw across his body some which could lead to arm issues down the line.
Although Brach is more of a fly ball pitcher, it has yet to haunt him (career 7 HRs allowed, 6 in the Cal League) and should play well in spacious Petco Park.
I can see him (who will be 25 next season) starting in Double A but getting some time in San Diego late this season if he continues performing.
2) Jeremy Jeffress—Everybody was buzzing about Jeffress hitting 101 on the gun in the Rising Stars game, but he also threw 21 pitches that inning, only 10 for strikes. Although this sounds bad, his command in the AFL was much better than when I saw Jeffress back in July in the Florida State League.
There he showed the power FB (up to 97), but as I wrote back then in my notes, "can't locate to save his life." Reminded me of Daniel Cabrera without the height.
In the AFL however, Jeffress dropped in some hearty breaking balls for strikes, and if he can continue to throw the curve for strikes with upper 90s heat, he may have a shot to stay in the majors. Personally, I never want guys who can't locate pitches, but with an arm like that and an effortless delivery, Jeffress will always be given tons of opportunities.
However, give me a guy with less "stuff" but with command and ability to pitch any day.
3) Chris Carpenter—Showed great velocity and command of his fastball (hit 99-100 MPH) in rising Stars game, but overall walked almost a batter per inning out here. He has a career walk rate of 4.0 per 9 IP.
While working as a starter most of his pro career, Carpenter was relieving in the AFL. His change-up was not good, but his slider was devastating on several occasions and weak on others. However, like Jeffress, if he can not locate his fastball and get ahead in counts, the plus pitches do not matter much.
The Cubs say this guy will stay as a starter but with a hard fastball and two other average pitches, his future role is definitely as a reliever who can be given time in Chicago this season.
4) Craig Heyer—I wrote about Heyer in the AFL here. For an unknown reason, Heyer was left unprotected by the Yankees for the Rule 5 draft, and I anticipate him being selected by another organization. With the way Kevin Towers likes to build solid bullpens, I can't see Heyer passing by Arizona. Heyer's ground ball tendencies will play well in cozy Bank One Ballpark.
5) Ramon Delgado—This is my sleeper guy. Delgado is a complete strike throwing machine. Saw him in my first game out in the AFL, and he was first pitch strike all the time. He can throw any of his three pitches (FB, sinker, slider) for strikes and will throw them in any count.
But mainly Delgado is first pitch fastball at the knees come right at you type of guy. The first time I saw him pitch, he got through the inning in six pitches. Delgado is a quick worker (funny how that happens when you throw strikes) who throws from a low 3/4 slot and gets good ball movement. The movement is tough to "square up" for hitters.
Very similar to Heyer in that he also was left unprotected, but Delgado did get some work this season at Double A, where he posted a 1.10 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 16 IP.
This is a guy who is quietly efficient. He throws strikes with great career walk and strikeout rates while keeping the ball in the park. Who couldn't use a pitcher like that in their bullpen?
I would also grab this guy in the Rule 5 next week. Look for the Texas Rangers (his AFL pitching coach Brad Holman loved him) to grab him if he lasts that long.
There were other pitchers who I saw and liked including starter Daniel Merklinger (Milwaukee)—good curve and change, also saw him in July in the FSL and was placed on the Brewers 40 man roster this month; Josh Zeid (Philadelphia)—nice fastball, slider combo, throws strikes; Josh Fields (Seattle) - throws heat but lacks command; Josh Lueke (Seattle)—good fastball and biting slider. However, teams with teeth (and big rocks) would need to overcome his background.