Selecting the 2014 Fall/Winter League All-Star Team
The Arizona Fall League may be over, but the other notable offseason leagues, such as the Dominican, Puerto Rican and Venezuelan Winter Leagues, are in the middle of their respective regular seasons, with the postseason still roughly a few months away.
It also means that players in each of the aforementioned leagues have played roughly the same number of games, providing consistent sample sizes on which to evaluate and compare prospects.
So here is a look at a hypothetical All-Star team, comprised of the top performer at each position from this year's fall and winter leagues.
Catcher: Elias Diaz, Pittsburgh Pirates
2014 Arizona Fall League Stats: 15 G, 50 AB, .260/.383/.380, 2 2B, 2 3B, 6 RBI, 10 BB, 7 K
Elias Diaz turned in a breakout performance at the plate this past season, batting .312/.366/.421 with 21 doubles and a career-high six home runs in 404 plate appearances between Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis. The 24-year-old has always shown solid contact skills, but 2014 was the first year he noticeably started to drive the ball.
Diaz showed me in the Arizona Fall League that he’s a guy to follow closely next season, even more so now that the Pittsburgh Pirates failed to re-sign Russell Martin. His agility and quickness behind the plate makes him a strong blocker, and it really stood in the context of the AFL, when he was forced to catch upward of five different pitchers in a given game.
His catch-and-throw skills, meanwhile, are simply ridiculous. How ridiculous, you ask? Well, I had him at a 1.86-second pop time to second base on a steal attempt...from his knees. Basically, he has game-changing tools behind the plate.
Diaz was added to the Pirates’ 40-man roster this month, as the team wisely protected him from the upcoming Rule 5 draft. Though he’ll be given a long look during spring training, Diaz is more likely to open the season back in Triple-A. However, his defensive prowess and emerging bat make him a candidate for an early-season promotion.
First Base: Greg Bird, New York Yankees
AFL Stats: 26 G, 99 AB, .313/.391/.556, 6 2B, 6 HR, 21 RBI, 13 BB, 23 K
Greg Bird put up solid numbers in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League this season, batting .277/.375/.442 with 30 extra-base hits (seven home runs) and a 70-45 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 75 games at High-A Tampa. However, the 22-year-old left-handed batter showed more power after moving up to Double-A, hitting seven home runs and eight doubles to go along with a .558 slugging percentage in 27 games.
Between both levels, Bird batted .271/.376/.472 with 45 extra-base hits (14 HR) and 43 RBI through 102 games.
This year’s Arizona Fall League was Bird’s coming-out party, as he ran away with the circuit’s MVP award after posting a .313/.391/.556 batting line with six home runs and 21 RBI in 26 games.
The home run he hit in the Fall Stars Game was stunning, possibly the longest dinger I saw this year, and it isn’t hard to see why he currently leads the league with six home runs. Yet, he didn’t showcase as much power in the other games I saw, but the approach was advanced and allowed him to see lots of pitches.
Bird is expected to open the 2015 season back at Double-A Trenton, but he could become an option for the New York Yankees at some point during the season should an injury strike.
Second Base: Jon Berti, Toronto Blue Jays
AFL Stats: 20 G, 65 AB, .292/.418/.431, 3 HR, 6 SB, 12 BB, 16 K
Selected in the 18th round of the 2011 draft out of Bowling Green University, Jon Berti’s carrying tool is and will always be his speed, highlighted by his 153 stolen bases in four minor league seasons.
The 24-year-old second baseman reached the Double-A level for the first time in 2014, after batting .234/.328/.314 with three home runs in 178 games at High-A Dunedin. Berti’s bat took off in the Eastern League, as he posted career highs in batting average (.270), doubles (21), triples (seven) and home runs (seven) while playing in 136 games.
Berti, a 5’10” right-handed hitter, continued to improve his stock in the Arizona Fall League, batting .292/.418/.431 with three home runs, six steals and a 16-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 20 games.
Unfortunately, the Toronto Blue Jays’ offseason acquisition of second base prospect Devon Travis hurts his chances of reaching the major leagues in 2015; they’re similar in terms of age and experience, but Travis has a stronger track record and is, without question, a more projectable prospect. At the same time, teams manage to find roles for guys with Berti’s speed.
Shortstop: Corey Seager, Los Angeles Dodgers
AFL Stats: 23 G, .281/.354/.472, 13 XBH (HR), 14 RBI, 9 BB, 23 K
Corey Seager struggled last year in the AFL, batting .181/.253/.306 in 79 plate appearances. His second tour of the league has been a different story, as Seager has hit for both average and power while holding his own at shortstop.
Seager, 20, finished his fall campaign on a 10-game hitting streak (Note: His hitting streak might extend beyond 10 games, but MLB.com’s player page only shows his last 10 games), during which he batted .316 with six extra-base hits and seven RBI.
Beyond that, Seager continued to rake against same-side pitching this fall, posting .455/.478/.955 batting line and seven extra-base hits in 22 at-bats, and he’s committed only one error at shortstop.
There are questions as to whether he will stick at shortstop or need to move to third base long term, but he’s continually surpassed expectations at his natural position and should be able to hold his own for at least the first few years of his big league career.
However, with only a month of Double-A baseball under his belt, Seager will not be an immediate replacement for Hanley Ramirez next season. He also probably wouldn’t debut before mid-to-late 2015, at the earliest, though the remainder of his developmental timeline will also depend on any changes (signings, trades, other promotions) at the position made this season by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Third Base: Maikel Franco, Philadelphia Phillies
Dominican Winter League Stats: 23 G, 93 AB, .247/.326/.473, 3 2B, 6 HR, 23 RBI, 5 BB, 23 K
Maikel Franco, 22, overcame a rough first half (.649 OPS in 87 games) at Triple-A Lehigh Valley and finally turned the corner in July, batting .324/.344/.579 with 30 extra-base hits (11 home runs) and 47 RBI over his final 54 games.
Franco’s second-half surge convinced the Philadelphia Phillies he was ready to be challenged at the highest level, so they called him up Sept. 1 for the final month of the season. However, Franco’s hot bat didn’t carry over to The Show, as he batted just .179 (10-for-56) with 13 strikeouts while appearing in 16 games.
The good news is Franco’s showing more consistent power this winter in the Dominican Republic, as he’s currently tied for second place in the league with six home runs and leads all hitters with 23 RBI.
Third base should be Franco’s position to lose next spring—at worst he begins the season in a platoon with Cody Asche—though it still would be nice to see him finish strong this winter and have it carry over into spring training.
Outfield: Jesse Winker, Cincinnati Reds
AFL Stats: 19 G, 68 AB, .338/.440/.559, 4 2B, 3B, 3 HR, 18 RBI, 14 BB, 17 K
Jesse Winker posted a 1.006 OPS in 53 games at High-A Bakersfield to open the season, but his production fell off after moving up to Double-A Pensacola (.677 OPS in 21 games), likely due to the partially torn tendon in his right wrist that ultimately ended his season in late July (but didn’t require surgery).
Fully healthy for the AFL, the sweet-swinging Winker was once again locked in at the plate, as he wound up leading all qualified hitters with a .338 batting average. Meanwhile, the power to all fields he’s shown this fall (4 2B, 3B, 3 HR) is evidence that the wrist injury is behind him.
Winker is likely to begin the 2015 season back at Double-A, though his estimated time of arrival in the major leagues depends on how the Cincinnati Reds choose to replace free agent Ryan Ludwick this offseason. One thing is certain: Dude can hit.
Starting Pitcher: Mark Appel, RHP, Houston Astros
AFL Stats: 7 GS, 31.0 IP, 2.61 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, 8 BBB, 24 K
Mark Appel’s numbers in the AFL definitely were impressive. However, the 2013 No. 1 overall draft pick was not impressive in his Oct. 31 start, when he allowed six runs (five earned) on five hits and three walks over four-plus innings.
Appel cruised through the first two innings but then started to pick at the zone with his secondary pitches in the third inning, resulting in two runs on two hits and two walks. The same thing happened in the fifth inning when Appel turned over the lineup for a third time, as he put on the first three batters (two singles and a walk) before departing the game. 74 pitches, 43 strikes.
The right-hander bounced back in his next start, however, and looked more like the guy who dominated in previous weeks.
According to Jim Callis of MLB.com:
Appel notched strikeouts with each of his three pitches: Darnell Sweeney (Dodgers) swinging on 97-mph fastballs in the first and third innings, Shawn Zarraga (Brewers) looking at an 85-mph slider and Nick Ramirez (Brewers) out in front on an 84-mph changeup in the fourth. He created eight swings-and-misses, four on fastballs, two on sliders and two on changeups.
Appel worked from 92-97 mph with his fastball, touching 97 five times. His slider averaged 86 mph, though once again it stood out more for its power than its sharpness. Appel had more faith in his changeup than he showed in his previous two outings.
Appel certainly has resuscitated his prospect stock this fall, but he still has plenty to prove before it’s once again safe to consider him an impact-pitching prospect. There’s a good chance he reaches the major leagues during the second half of the 2015 season, but don’t expect the Houston Astros to once again force him up the ladder if the results aren’t there. After all, we’re no longer talking about him jumping from Single- to Double-A.
Relief Pitcher: Steven Okert, LHP, San Francisco Giants
AFL Stats: 10 G, 12.0 IP, 0.75 ERA, 0.50 WHIP, BB, 17 K
A fourth-round pick in 2012 out of Oklahoma, Steven Okert, 23, spent most of the season in the hitter-friendly California League, where he ranked second with 19 saves and posted a 1.53 ERA with 54 strikeouts and 11 walks in 35.1 innings (33 appearances). The left-hander moved up to Double-A Richmond following the All-Star break and enjoyed similar success in the Eastern League, pitching to a 2.73 ERA and 1.06 WHIP with 38 strikeouts in 33 innings (24 appearances).
He finished the year with 24 saves, a 2.11 ERA and a 92-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 68.1 innings between both levels.
Okert works in the low- to mid-90s with his fastball and backs it with a swing-and-miss slider. His fringy changeup and below-average control limit his effectiveness against right-handed batters, but he’s absolutely lethal against left-handed batters (.165/.240/.209 in 103 plate appearances).
Speaking of lethal—that’s a good way to describe Okert’s performance in the AFL, as he would have led the league in both WHIP (0.50) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (17-1) had he logged enough innings to qualify.
Okert will likely begin the 2015 season back in the minor leagues, but it won’t be long until he’s pitching out of the San Francisco Giants bullpen, perhaps even before the All-Star break.