PHOENIX—Perennial Arizona Fall League observers noted a decline in the quality of prospects this year, although that drop wasn’t reflected in the number of interesting hurlers populating the pitching staffs of the six AFL teams. Especially intriguing was the unprecedented number of power arms touching or coming close to 100 mph velocity with their fastballs.
To determine eligibility for the list, we used our usual standard of one plate appearance per team’s games played for hitters and one inning for every three games for pitchers. We also normally don’t include players who have lost rookie eligibility, but made an exception this year by listing Texas Rangers infielder Jurickson Profar as the 11th prospect with an asterisk. Philadelphia shortstop J.P. Crawford was the biggest name with insufficient playing time with just five games until his belt before being shut down with a small tear in his left thumb. Crawford looked worn down even before the injury, although scouts still liked his athleticism and defense at shortstop.
1. Alex Reyes, rhp, Surprise (Cardinals)
Reyes’ early-season starts had observers circling his name on the schedule to make sure to be there every time the Cardinals righthander took the mound. He generally didn’t disappoint in his four AFL outings, flashing his No. 1 starter stuff and touching 100 mph on radar guns while regularly sitting 93-98 with the fastball. Unfortunately, Reyes was shut down just before the Fall Stars game after a positive test for marijuana use. The suspension should just be a minor speed bump on his road to the big leagues, with a possible arrival in St. Louis late in the 2016 season. Reyes posted an ERA of 0.77 in his first three outings before a subpar final game. While he showed flashes of better command during his AFL stint, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. He throws a good power curveball from 78-81 mph and has good feel for his plus changeup. Reyes will need to keep refining the stride on his delivery and watch his conditioning, but projects as a frontline starter if he stays healthy and fit.
2. Gary Sanchez, c, Surprise (Yankees)
Sanchez proved that he’s ready to make the jump to the big leagues with a very good Fall League season in which he led the AFL in home runs (seven) during a .295/.357/.625 campaign and earned MVP honors in the Fall Stars game. Sanchez consistently showed off his plus-plus power, with scouts believing the bat will play despite some pitch recognition issues. Most importantly, he showed better actions behind the plate than expected, and his arm strength remains a plus tool albeit sometimes lacking in accuracy. Sanchez’s performance in the early weeks of the AFL season perhaps made the Yankees more comfortable in dealing backup catcher John Ryan Murphy to Minnesota in early November.
3. Lewis Brinson, of, Surprise (Rangers)
Brinson long has tantalized with his superb tools and athleticism, and the Rangers’ 2012 first-round pick broke out in 2015 with outstanding performances at each of the top three minor league levels. He continued to show off his potential in 11 AFL games, batting .300/.408/.575 with three triples for Surprise, before leaving to play winter ball in Puerto Rico. Brinson’s development undoubtedly made the Rangers comfortable with the idea of dealing big league center fielder Leonys Martin to Seattle this fall. With more growth in his game likely, Brinson is starting to look like the power-speed profile center fielder teams crave.
4. Sean Manaea, lhp, Mesa (Athletics)
Manaea represented the Oakland organization in the AFL just a couple of months after being acquired from Kansas City in the deal for Ben Zobrist. The big southpaw was impressive in six starts, with a 3.86 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and a 33-6 strikeout-to-walk rate in 25 2/3 innings. His 33 punchouts led the league in that category. The gem of Manaea’s arsenal is a hard, deceptive fastball sitting 92-93 mph and up to 95 mph in the AFL. The key to Manaea’s success lies in the consistency of his slider; it flashes plus, and when right it’s a nice complement to the heater. Manaea commands his pitches, projecting as a middle of the rotation starter if it all comes together for him.
5. Willson Contreras, c, Mesa (Cubs)
One of baseball’s biggest breakout stories in 2015 when he led the Southern League in hitting, Contreras continued his rise with a strong AFL season, posting a .283/.361/.547 slash line to go with three impressive home runs. The native of Venezuela improved his focus and approach at the plate during the regular season and it showed in the AFL. Contreras was solid behind the plate, with good receiving skills and a strong, quick arm, flashing sub-2.0 pop times. His fall season ended after four weeks due to a minor hamstring injury, depriving Contreras of a much hoped for appearance in the Fall Stars Game. The Cubs added him to their 40-man roster this month, the first such assignment in his six-year career.
6. Josh Hader, lhp, Surprise (Brewers)
No AFL player boosted his prospect stock more this fall than Hader. Acquired by Milwaukee from Houston in July as part of a four-player package for big league outfielder Carlos Gomez and pitcher Mike Fiers, Hader was earlier viewed as a likely candidate to move to the bullpen largely because of his slender body and low-three-quarters delivery. Hader turned out to be one of the more consistently dominant pitchers this fall, posting a league-best 0.56 ERA with 19 strikeouts in 16 innings. The fastball, delivered with a crossfire motion that adds deception, sat in the mid-90s and touched 98. He has a good feel for a slider that flashes plus and he mixes in a deceptive changeup. Scouts in the AFL were giving Hader at least an even chance to stay in the rotation, with shutdown reliever being a possible fallback option.
7. Dominic Smith, 1b, Salt River (Mets)
While Smith verges on earning the dreaded “bad body” label, he silenced any doubts about his hitting ability in the AFL with a strong .362/.483/.511 batting line. Scouts who observed the bulky lefthanded hitter earlier in his minor league career were pleased to see a more confident hitter capable of pulling the ball better and turning on pitches, and expect that Smith’s long-awaited power is about to emerge. He has a picturesque swing, with the power in his hands and wrists allowing him to make hard contact to all fields, and he showed solid plate discipline with 12 walks in 60 plate appearances. Smith grades as a plus defender at first base, with good hands and enough agility around the bag. He missed a couple of weeks with an oblique injury but made it back to the Salt River lineup for the last few games of the fall season.
8. Clint Frazier, of, Scottsdale/Indians
Despite having just turned 21, Frazier showed off his loud tools (not to mention his bright, red hair) in the AFL this fall, batting .281/.347/.438 with three home runs. His incredibly strong hands and wrists give him plus bat speed and raw power, but a swing with effort and troubles with breaking balls led to high strikeout totals (28 percent in the AFL). Scouts expect that he’ll develop more pull power with experience, with most of his hard-hit balls now going to center or right-center. He should be able to stay in center field but he has the arm and bat to handle either corner outfield positon. According to one scout covering the AFL, “Frazier has all the attributes to be a front-line, all-star player.”
9. Austin Meadows, of, Glendale (Pirates)
His meager AFL numbers (.169/.194/.308 slash line) might not prove it, but Meadows was a favorite prospect of many scouts covering the AFL this year with the 20-year-old Georgia native standing out for his athleticism and solid all-around game. Meadows has a good idea of the strike zone and his short swing is direct to the plate. Scouts are mixed as to whether he can stay in center field, with his outfield future likely determined by whether he loses speed as his body matures, but he now shows good instincts and range. While a below-average arm will keep him out of right field, he projects to have enough bat for left. It’s the intangibles that make Meadows special, with one scout noting, “He does something on the field every day to help his team win.” Meadows left the league early due to a family illness.
10. Christian Arroyo, ss, Scottsdale (Giants)
Arroyo remains a split-camp player, as was the case when he was drafted in the first round in 2013 out of a Florida high school. He received mixed reviews from scouts who would generally like to see more consistency in his game, and there are lingering questions whether he can stay at shortstop. However, there’s no mistaking the “take-charge” attitude he brings to the field. He’s a winning player who makes the big plays, such as a game-ending catch in the AFL championship game. Moreover, Arroyo hits consistently with a feel for his swing and an ability to repeat it. He has enough pop to keep pitchers honest and a good approach to help him avoid long slumps.
*11. Jurickson Profar, dh, Surprise/Rangers
After getting into just 12 games over the past two seasons, Profar came to the Fall League to make up for time lost with a recurring shoulder injury. Limited to DH duties while the shoulder regains strength, the switch-hitting Profar showed a contact-oriented, patient approach at the plate and the ability to work counts. The plus bat from both sides of the plate was part of what made him baseball’s best prospect just a couple of years ago. Scouts had trouble getting a good read on Profar’s speed as he didn’t always run hard to first base and was thrown out on three of four stolen base attempts. Since he didn’t play in the field, there’s still no telling whether his arm strength has returned. Until he starts using his mitt again Profar’s comeback gets an incomplete grade, but at least the early returns on the hit tool are positive.
Other AFL Players Of Note
Adrian Houser, rhp, Surprise/Brewers
Just missing the top 10 was another Surprise Saguaro pitcher obtained by Milwaukee in the Carlos Gomez deal. Houser impressed with a sinking fastball up to 97 mph as part of his quality, three-pitch arsenal. He’s a physical 6-foot-4, 230-pound bruiser suited for burning innings.
Raimel Tapia, of, Salt River/Rockies: Tapia was a last-minute replacement to the Salt River roster after fellow Rockies outfielder David Dahl was scratched just before the start of league play. Tapia impressed with his usual bat-to-ball skills and excellent hand-eye coordination, and scouts pointed out how much they liked his swing and bat speed. Some scouts question his impact as he’s an inefficient basestealer, average defender in center who may be forced to a corner and lacks power, but if he keeps hitting, he’ll be a regular somewhere.
Daniel Robertson, ss/2b, Mesa/Rays: Returning for a second AFL season, this time as a member of the Rays organization, Robertson was making up time lost due to a broken hamate. He was getting acclimated to a new position, spending more time at second base this fall. Robertson’s numbers were down, yet he consistently put the ball in play and drew his fair share of walks.
Adam Engel, of, Glendale/White Sox: This grinder with plus-plus speed led the league in all three slash line categories and earned MVP honors. Scouts love the way he plays the game and he has big tools; now he just needs to hit after batting .251 in the regular season.
Jeimer Candelario, 3b, Mesa/Cubs: The switch-hitting Candelario opened plenty of eyes with a strong AFL performance, ranking second in the league with five home runs. With power from both sides of the plate he’ll work his way into the lineup somewhere, although questions remain about his inconsistent defense at the hot corner.
Ray Black, rhp, Scottsdale (Giants): Scouts and fans alike perked up when Black entered AFL games, flashing the league’s most impressive velocity in a season filled with triple-digit hurlers. His command and durability are below-average, but his lively 100-plus mph fastballs have consistently helped Black put up video game strikeout totals throughout his career.
Carlos Estevez, rhp, Salt River (Rockies): A closer-caliber power arm with a fastball touching high 90s, Estevez was credited by one scout as having the best arm in the league.
Chad Pinder, ss, Mesa (Athletics): The former Virginia Tech infielder showed more power than expected and the ability to handle shortstop after a strong Double-A season.
Jharel Cotton, rhp, Glendale (Dodgers): Cotton impressed with his stuff and power arm from a small frame, with many scouts thinking his future will be in the bullpen. His best pitch is a plus changeup that some observers believe loses effectiveness because he uses it so much.
Kyle Freeland, lhp, Salt River (Rockies): Colorado’s 2014 first-round pick flashed a good slider and a mid-90s fastball from the left side, but many talent evaluators see him ultimately as a bullpen arm due to the effort in his delivery.
Lucas Sims, rhp, Peoria (Braves): Sims impressed with his lively 94-95 mph fastball and flashed a plus curveball that is unhittable when it’s on.
A.J. Reed, 1b, Glendale (Astros): The hulking lefthanded slugger came into the league with impressive credentials after a breakout 2015 season. He showed an excellent approach at the plate but looked tired right from the start. Hampered by a nagging injury, Reed was shut down in the fourth week of the season. Some scouts project him as a future DH due to below-average defense.
Jack Reinheimer, ss/2b, Salt River (Diamondbacks): Acquired by Arizona from the Mariners in 2015, Reinheimer profiles as a high-floor utility infielder, impressing scouts with surehanded defense and plus speed on the bases. Observers noted that Reinheimer seemed to kick it into a higher gear late in the season when others were tiring.