With Bryce Harper and Danny Hultzen and a dozen other elite prospects lighting up the Arizona Fall League, it's understandable that many of MLB's other affiliated winter leagues go a bit unnoticed this time of year. Unless an established player (like Carlos Zambrano of the Chicago Cubs) is at work in one of those leagues (one in the Dominican Republic, the other in Venezuela), they get little publicity.
Yet, both in Arizona and abroad, there are a ton of talented young players still playing ball as the weather turns in the greater part of the United States. Their development in these short stints is critical to their growth as prospects, and often, as emerging big leaguers. Here is a rundown of the top guy to watch in each organization during the winter ball season.
Gillespie is a fringe big-leaguer, but at 27, he should be coming into his prime as a power-oriented bat-first corner guy. Most teams have more glamorous talent playing winter ball, but the Diamondbacks have a few things working against them in that regard:
- They played into October, so a lot of players had longer seasons than expected, anyway.
- Jarrod Parker, a top Arizona pitching prospect, is on an innings cap for the season after surgery slowed his development last year.
- Arizona did not sign their top pick in 2010 (Barret Loux), and thus picked twice in the first round in June. They selected two pitchers, though, who just don't show up within months of being picked. Archie Bradley is a high school arm, and has no business facing the level of competition posed by the AFL or either Latin winter league. Trevor Bauer had a huge workload between pitching at UCLA and working in the Diamondbacks system after signing.
Gilmartin is the prototypical Braves draft choice. He was an easy, quick sign, a collegiate southpaw with great command. He made five starts for their Single-A affiliate, and rang up a 30:2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 21 innings there. Now he is in the Arizona Fall League, and seems to be on the fast track to the big leagues.
Mahoney is a fringe prospect, but the Orioles are not exactly brimming with talented kids they could send out on this sort of assignment. He can hit, but he's first base only on defense, so his stick has to pack very serious punch in order for Mahoney to have value. He has caught a few eyes in the Arizona Fall League, anyway, as he is mashing right now.
Middlebrooks is exactly the sort of well-rounded, talented kid teams hope they can showcase in the AFL each year. He is headed for third base at Fenway Park, likely by 2013. Middlebrooks has power, is big and athletic and hit four home runs in 13 games in Arizona. All that is the good news. The bad news is that he sprained his ankle and will not play again until spring training.
After injuries and a temper tantrum curtailed and derailed a second consecutive season for the erstwhile ace of the Cubs' staff, Zambrano will pitch some eight times in his native Venezuela this winter. He made his first start this week.
How Zambrano pitches could determine whether he is traded, released or retained heading into 2012. That makes his a critical stat line to watch on a weekly basis. Meanwhile, though, the Cubs have as many interesting players on which to keep tabs in offseason play as they have had in years. Junior Lake, Chris Carpenter and Josh Vitters head that class.
De Aza isn't a true prospect on the level Sox fans wish he were. He had a great rookie year in 2011, putting up 2.8 fWAR in just 54 games. He was 27 years old, though, and his skill set is not one that promises long-term success. Since the White Sox' farm system is the worst in recent memory, though, De Aza is clearly the cream of the crop.
Chapman walked a lot of batters in 2011, which made his stat line a bit ugly and stirred some skeptics. Those doubts are unfounded. Chapman also remained a strikeout machine, and is slowly transitioning toward the Reds' starting rotation. He missed a start with shoulder soreness last week, but should still be on schedule for Puerto Rican winter action once the Arizona League wraps up.
Rookie seasons are taxing for top prospects, who end up playing longer than they ever have before anyway, and who often have a lot put on them from the first time they don a big league uniform. Given that, the Indians wisely chose not to send Jason Kipnis nor Lonnie Chisenhall to any sort of winter ball.
They also traded their top two high-level pitching prospects in July, though, so the best players who will tune up this winter for the Indians will be players on the fringe like Carrera.
A .284 season OBP at Double-A put Rosario's top prospect status in real jeopardy, so the young slugging catcher will play in his native Dominican Republic this winter. The Rockies will focus on refining Rosario's plate approach, and there is still time to do so, as he will not turn 23 until February. He has a lot of tools that need sharpening, but he has them nonetheless.
Having dealt a few talented players around the trade deadline to shore up their starting rotation for the playoff push, Detroit has a fairly empty cupboard in terms of minor league talent. Oliver is one exception.
He struck out 143 in 147 Triple-A innings in 2011, so the potential is certainly there. Having made just 28 starts and scarcely having topped 150 innings (he had two short starts with the parent club), Oliver is one pitcher Detroit felt it could safely and smartly stretch out in winter ball a bit.
Injuries limited Sanabia so much this season that he could pursue even more innings once the AFL winds down. He tallied scarcely 50 innings. The Marlins also have top prospect Matt Dominguez playing winter ball, but as he has ever been, Dominguez seems purely unable to consistently hit the ball hard. Sanabia is a more exciting asset, a young pitcher with upside Dominguez really doesn't have.
Altuve is tiny, has only modest power and speed, doesn't play a terrific second base and does not draw walks. He does, however, hit the ball hard an awful lot. He's more entertaining than he is useful, but even so, Altuve is a near-lock to man second base for the Astros over the next three to five years. Since the solid prospects the Astros acquired this summer are not close enough to big league readiness to play in the big winter leagues, Altuve is the star of the Houston delegation.
Ranked just outside the top 10 prospects in baseball entering 2011, Myers had a fairly difficult year. He has impressed, though, since arriving in Arizona. Part of the explanation might simply be good health. Myers did battle a knee infection that slowed him part of the year, and it may have affected him more than he let on.
It's been a surprisingly uninspiring autumn in Arizona for Trout, but it's encouraging just to see him out there at the Angels' behest.
Many prospects might have gotten slightly complacent in Trout's position, him having reached the big leagues at age 19 and having a sensational overall season. Trout, though, went to Arizona, and it's clear he is working on things with which he is not necessarily comfortable in the name of developing, however painfully. That kind of devotion could make him a superstar.
A bit of hype accompanied Sands' big-league arrival, thanks to a fantastic spring in the minor leagues by the former 25th-round pick. He was the definition of a performance prospect, a guy who could hit enough to stick in MLB for a little while but in whose physical tools scouts did not much believe. He will spend the winter continuing to obliterate inferior competition, but it's an open question whether Sands will ever be more than an average hitter and poor fielder in left field.
Bradley is big, left-handed and nasty. He's a college pick from the middle of the first round in June, and the Brewers feel he will develop quickly into a replacement for either Shaun Marcum or Zack Greinke after 2012. He's made quite an impression in Arizona this fall, which is good, because the Brewers have very few other players who will create any sort of buzz the next few years.
The march to the majors has been frustratingly slow for Hicks. He has all kinds of tools but is still learning the critical baseball skills that will make him a standout player someday.
He played two full seasons at Low-A, and had a .722 OPS at High-A this year. Hicks needs to adjust his approach to the game, shorten his swing and get serious about the prospect of being a top-of-the-order hitter. Those are good things to work on in winter ball, though, and Hicks is still young enough to find the missing ingredient.
Flores played in the 2009 All-Star Futures Game at age 18. He has been on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects List three years running. He's a shortstop, a long, lanky athlete who could excel as a glove-first player at that position.
Flores, though, struggled badly at High-A in 2011. He popped nine home runs in 559 plate appearances, but had a .309 OBP. He's still a legitimate prospect, but the Mets will try to glean more information about unlocking his offensive potential as they send him off to keep working this offseason.
The Yankees rarely send their top pitching prospects out on winter assignments. Noesi actually pitched the majority of the year on the 25-man Yankees roster. Between those two truths, it's a bit surprising to see Noesi pitching in the Dominican right now.
Then again, Noesi is one guy who could become a candidate to fill out the back end of the Yankees' starting rotation in 2013. If he's going to have that shot, he needs to be stretched out, as he threw just 80 innings in 2011. Through four starts, he has impressed there.
Choice is a monster. He's not Mike Stanton, but he's not that much worse. At age 21, he slammed 30 home runs and had a .918 OPS for Oakland's California League affiliate. He's continued to rake with an OPS near 1.100 in Arizona Fall League action. Choice is a year away from helping the A's, but he's a big-time power prospect.
Galvis will never be an above-average batter. He's a defense-first shortstop, a slick fielder whose contributions at the plate are gravy. He posted a .233/.276/.311 line at age 20 in 2010, but was still a prospect as a defensive asset and utility man.
Then, in 2011, he suddenly broke out. He still did not draw many walks and still struck out a fair amount, but Galvis also figured out how to barrel the baseball and shoot singles to the opposite field (from either side of the plate). In 590 plate appearances split between Double- and Triple-A, Galvis compiled a .278/.324/.392 batting line. In the Venezuelan Winter League, his numbers have looked bad again, but it's also clear that the Phillies are trying to adjust Galvis's approach. He has drawn eight walks in 51 plate appearances.
After the Pirates took Cole first overall in June and signed him in August, it would have been easy for the organization to decide not to risk Cole's health by having him showcase himself in the Arizona Fall League. Cole had a lesser workload than Trevor Bauer for the year, and his delivery is more orthodox.
Yet, there he has been, throwing fire and showing off his excellent stuff against some elite hitting prospects this autumn. The Pirates have announced themselves as a rising contender by pushing prospects like Cole the past 18 months. Cole likely will still need some time in the minors to find command of his pitches, but he is an awesome talent.
Rizzo had a huge season in the minors, but a dreadful time of it in a 153-plate appearance audition with the parent club. He is a first baseman, so the bat has to hit its ceiling in order for Rizzo to be the first-division player the Padres envision, but that opportunity remains viable. He's played just a few games for the Padres' Dominican Winter League delegation, but every little bit helps.
Sandoval's status for Venezuelan Winter League play remains up in the air. Some recent reports have him locked into a 10-day commitment there. Others have him and the Giants still on the fence. If he does head there, it will signal optimism on the part of all involved about Sandoval's left shoulder, which has given him trouble since he strained it in September.
On the other hand, he might be much better served not to go. He already played in Taiwan as part of an MLB All-Star delegation, and he could probably put his time to better use rehabbing and working his way into peak condition by spring training.
Hultzen lacks the upside potential of some of his fellow top-10 picks in June's draft, but the Mariners took him second, anyway. Five months later, they look smart for having snapped up a kid who will need virtually no minor-league seasoning. Despite the offense-friendly environs and the preponderance of elite positional prospects in the league, Hultzen has a 1.62 ERA through five starts. He could be in the Seattle rotation by Opening Day 2012.
That vicious swing does exactly what you think it does. Taveras, 19, had 40 extra-base hits in 78 games for the Cardinals' Midwest League affiliate in 2011. He won two Player of the Week and one Player of the Month award, and made the postseason All-Star team. If injuries hadn't kept him out about half the year, he would certainly have regressed a bit from his 1.028 OPS. Still, he has held his own in the AFL at age 19, and he could climb the ladder quickly in 2012.
Arizona can distort stat lines, both because of the ballparks and thin air and because of the imbalance in favor of offensive talent there. Still, Mahtook has looked polished and smooth against more seasoned competition, and he could be another college bat who takes a fast track to the show after going in the first round. The Rays' best prospects right now are predominantly pitchers whose workloads forced them to take the autumn off, so Mahtook stands out as a name to watch.
There are 25 teams who wish Mike Olt were the best talent playing winter ball for them. There are 15 who wish even Engel Beltre, Leury Garcia, Leonys Martin, Neil Ramirez or Tanner Scheppers were their best winter ball participant. This is what the Rangers are about these days.
They're unfathomably deep, very aggressive about acquiring minor league talent and brilliantly committed to sustaining their fantastic success of the past two years through a long-term process. Olt heads the class simply because Martin Perez and Jurickson Profar are not playing this winter. A glove whiz with plus power, Olt could be the next Adrian Beltre.
All Gose did in his age-20 season was to steal 70 bases at Double-A, with 43 extra-base hits to boot. He's a true center fielder with a great arm and a very high ceiling.
He struck out 154 times in 133 games in 2011, so Gose needs to make more consistent contact in order to take advantage of his speed. Even so, he has enough power to consistently hit .250/.350/.420 in the big leagues someday. His ceiling is much higher, too, something like Curtis Granderson circa 2007.
I didn't save the best for last. The fates did. Bryce Harper was sent to the Washington Nationals, who are last in the baseball alphabet, so that the rest of the league could always make a neat staircase, a crescendo to which he could provide climax. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.
While he doesn't have the best stats in the Arizona Fall League, Harper has been its most impressive prospect by a mile. He's been the most impressive prospect in the game all season. Harper has power of which many members of the 500-homer club could only dream, and his ceiling looks eerily like the high sky of autumn in Arizona.