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Arizona Fall League: Top 20 Prospects
By Chris Kline
Traditionally, hitting dominates the Arizona Fall League, and this year was certainly no exception. No pitcher in the AFL earned enough kudos from scouts to rank in the Top 10 prospects list. When compiling this list, future ceiling played a larger part into the rankings than did league performance, considering the short duration (two months) of the league and the low caliber of pitching.
That said, the list should have few surprises, starting with No. 1, since he is likely to be the No. 1 prospect in the minors heading into 2005.
1. Delmon Young, of, Mesa Solar Sox (Devil Rays)
The only teenager playing in the AFL, Young was also its best prospect, continuing to hold his own in his first full (and extended) season as a professional. While South Atlantic League pitchers tried to exploit holes in his swing by busting him in over the inner half of the plate early in the regular season, Young made all the adjustments, showing patience at recognizing pitches and mashing them in the second half.
Though he still has a minor hitch in his swing, especially on the inner half, Young hit at a .293 clip this fall with plus power to all fields. He did show signs of wear, however, striking out 21 times compared to just eight walks. Some scouts also questioned his routes to balls in the outfield, but he certainly has the instincts and a 70 arm on the 20-80 scouting scale to play the position in the big leagues.
2. Rickie Weeks, 2b, Scottsdale Scorpions (Brewers)
The only thing that kept Weeks away from the top spot was his age, with the Brewers second baseman having three extra years on Young. Weeks rebounded from a mediocre regular season (he hit just .259 at Double-A) by hitting .382/.520/.737 in 76 at-bats. Will one additional plate appearance, he would have led the circuit in on-base percentage and slugging. His six homers nearly matched his regular-season total (8) in 400 fewer at-bats. Weeks also improved his plate discipline in the fall, walking nearly as many times (17) as he whiffed (18).
Weeks' greatest asset is his ultra-quick hands that allow him to turn on inside fastballs and handle pitches on the outer half and drive them the other way. He made strides defensively, though seemed to lack focus at times, and most scouts agreed that Weeks still needs to adjust to getting himself in a comfortable daily routine. His footwork, range and agility all make him a solid-average defender with the ability to turn in the occasional brilliant play.
3. Jeff Francoeur, of, Grand Canyon Rafters (Braves)
The ultimate competitor, the former Clemson recruit as a defensive back brings a hardcore football mentality to the diamond. Billed as one of the best pure hitters early in the Fall League season by many coaches around the league, Francoeur was in Arizona to get more at-bats after a broken cheekbone forced him to miss two months of the regular season.
Francoeur uses the whole field; his short, compact stroke allows him to make quick adjustments and turn on inside pitches. Adjustments aside, Francoeur needs to learn how to harness his aggression at the plate--he walked just twice in 99 at-bats. Francoeur has the instincts to play all three outfield positions but played exclusively in right in 2004. He makes good reads, takes good routes and has more than enough arm to field the position. Francoeur best profiles as a No. 2 or No. 3 hitter in the big leagues with 25-30 homers annually.
4. James Loney, 1b, Scottsdale Scorpions (Dodgers)
After a spectacular showing in big league spring training camp, Loney faced adversity during the 2004 season due to another injury. This time, a broken finger became infected, causing him to miss a month. He returned to form late in the regular season and carried that success over to the Fall League, hitting .314 for Scottsdale.
Loney stays inside the ball well and his swing path allows the bat head to stay in the zone for a long time. While Loney has excellent bat control, some scouts question how much power he will hit for in the future, though he generates good natural loft. Even without the big time power numbers, Loney’s profile could resemble those of Gold Glove-caliber first basemen such as John Olerud or Mark Grace. He has tremendous instincts and soft hands for the position, making up for a slight lack of range.
5. Ryan Howard, 1b, Phoenix Desert Dogs (Phillies)
After hitting 48 homers in 2004 (46 as the minor leagues’ home run leader and two more in Philadelphia), Howard got off to a quick start in the Fall League, belting two homers in his first three games. But power is not the only tool Howard possesses. He has become a more complete hitter, shortening his stroke and taking balls the other way and has enough raw power to hit it out of any park, anywhere.
Strikeouts remain a concern, as Howard fanned 40 times in 34 games, but the hulking first baseman did a lot to quiet critics this fall by showing more patience and discipline than he had in his two previous seasons. He also silenced critics of his defense, showing remarkably good range, soft hands and good footwork around the bag. The Phillies' plan this fall was to try Howard in the outfield, as he’s blocked in Philadelphia by Jim Thome, but he played only one game in left field during Phoenix's championship run.
6. Brian Anderson, of, Mesa Solar Sox (White Sox)
Anderson jumped to Double-A in his first full season and performed well before being shut down with a groin injury in late August. The Arizona native returned home to rehab the injury six days a week in September in preparation for the Fall League, but never showed the consistency he did during the regular season. He hit .233-3-13 in 90 at-bats.
Anderson is a spray contact hitter with gap power and above-average speed. He has the ability to play all three outfield positions, and his above-average arm plays up because of its accuracy. Anderson has good plate discipline, but the groin problem tended to open his stance more, leaving him vulnerable on pitches on the corners.
7. Conor Jackson, of, Scottsdale Scorpions (Diamondbacks)
Few hitters this fall came with more polish than Jackson, who has a quick bat, good strike-zone management and plus raw power. His plate discipline was on display this fall, where he drew more walks (22) than strikeouts (19). But the big tool is the power potential. He shows pole-to-pole power, though he tends to get too pull-conscious.
Some scouts questioned Jackson's ability to handle inside fastballs because of his size and swing, but his plate discipline should allow his raw power to translate into game power at higher levels. While teammate Carlos Quentin is far more advanced defensively in the outfield, Jackson made strides in learning the position since the Diamondbacks converted him from a corner infielder in 2003.
8. Russ Martin, c, Scottsdale Scorpions (Dodgers)
Martin was the best defensive catcher in the league, and handled the bat nearly as well, hitting .296 for Scottsdale. The Dodgers were so pleased with his development in 2004, they felt it made the likes of Koyie Hill expendable. Martin has advanced game-calling ability and has shown great leadership skills in handling a pitching staff. He has a plus arm and solid transfer, unloading the ball to second base in as little as 1.83 seconds. He is also an excellent blocker, squaring up and deadening pitches back to the center of the diamond.
But the most impressive development with Martin has been with the bat. He is a contact hitter with great strike-zone discipline, posting a 14-5 walk-strikeout ration in the AFL after a 72-54 mark in the regular season at high Class A Vero Beach. While he batted .250-15-64 in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, the Dodgers are hopeful that Martin will build on his Fall League success when he begins at Double-A Jacksonville in 2005.
9. Shin-Soo Choo, of, Peoria Javelinas (Mariners)
Choo is a five-tool player who began to show plus power this fall after spending his regular season at Double-A San Antonio. He is a line drive hitter with above-average speed and profiles as a No. 2 hitter in the big leagues. Choo has an easy, compact swing from the left side, with above-average plate discipline.
Choo spent the fall working on slightly closing his stance more to better tap into his power potential, but the adjustment didn't stop him from hitting the ball to all fields or batting .301-3-15 in the AFL. Choo is a plus defender with a 70 arm on the 20-80 scouting scale, though he needs to work on improving its accuracy.
10. Jeremy Hermida, of, Phoenix Desert Dogs (Marlins)
For a player touted as having top-notch plate discipline, Hermida struggled with recognizing pitches in the Fall League. He struck out 30 times and drew just seven walks, which led some scouts to question his approach at the plate. Hermida has the tendency to create some slight movement in his right leg as the pitcher goes into his motion that affects his balance and subsequently takes away from his ability to drive the ball, which could hurt him down the road as he faces more quality pitching.
Even with that hitch, Hermida still hit seven homers in 31 games for Phoenix. He has a smooth, compact stroke, one of the best-looking swings from the left side in the minors today. A hamstring injury slowed his development during the regular season, when he missed over a month. But Hermida showed no ill-effects, swiping four bags. His improving power has scouts projecting him to hit 25-plus homers annually in the majors.
11. Josh Barfield, 2b, Peoria Javelinas (Padres)
While Barfield hit .319, scouts said excessive head movement in his stance sometimes leads to poor balance. His defense was better than billed.
12. Huston Street, rhp, Phoenix Desert Dogs (Athletics)
The best of the bunch in terms of arms, Street didn’t dispel concerns about his ability to get lefthanded hitters out consistently.
13. Joey Gathright, of, Mesa Solar Sox (Devil Rays)
Though his AFL season was cut short with a shoulder injury, Gathright still ranks among league's best due to his blazing speed.
14. Brian McCann, c, Grand Canyon Rafters (Braves)
An offense-first catcher, McCann hit just .241-0-5 and showed little plate discipline, striking out 13 times compared to two walks.
15. Omar Quintanilla, ss, Phoenix Desert Dogs (Athletics)
Not a true shortstop in the future, Quintanilla has big league utilityman written all over him with a quick bat and solid defensive fundamentals.
16. Brian Dopirak, 1b, Mesa Solar Sox (Cubs)
After hitting 39 homers in the regular season, Dopirak showed awesome raw power and held his own as one of the few players in the league coming from Class A.
17. J.D. Durbin, rhp, Grand Canyon Rafters (Twins)
While fellow Twins righty Scott Baker pitched better in the AFL, Durbin has bigger stuff, hitting triple digits on scouts’ radar guns.
18. Ian Kinsler, ss, Peoria Saguaros (Rangers)
Kinsler picked up where he left off during the regular season, showing above-average power and average middle infield tools.
19. Jason Botts, of, Peoria Saguaros (Rangers)
Armed with a ton of raw power potential, Botts hit .355 and continued to show patience at the plate (21 walks) while playing adequately in the outfield.
20. Aaron Hill, ss, Peoria Saguaros (Blue Jays)
Hill’s average tools probably are better suited for second base; his short, compact swing produces gap power.
Sleepers . . .
Freddy Sanchez, 2b, Peoria Saguaros (Pirates)
Finally completely healthy after a year in limbo, Sanchez re-established himself as one of the best second base prospects in the minors--even though he turns 27 in December. The question now becomes, can the Pirates make room for him?
Ryan Garko, c/1b, Peoria Javelinas (Indians), and Chris Shelton, c/1b, Grand Canyon Rafters (Tigers)
These similar players are easy to compare. Both have offensive potential, though Garko probably has the better bat. Both are below-average defenders behind the plate, and both will have to hit their way onto the big league roster. Garko hit his way to Triple-A in his first full season, while Shelton was the AFL’s MVP and batting champion (.404) after sitting on Detroit’s bench much of the year as a major league Rule 5 draft pick.