Mesa Boasts Slick-Fielding Left Side

SURPRISE, Ariz.—How a player translates his tools into game situations is important, but batting practice is a great time to get a better feel for prospects.

BP is an opportunity to measure a player’s raw power and get a better feel for his swing—the length, the plane, the bat speed, how a hitter loads and generates torque, and so on. It gives scouts (and journalists) an extra 40-50 swings or so for each player that they won’t see in the game, and while the ability to translate everything from BP into game situations is another question, it’s a helpful way to assess raw tools and mechanics.

Yet while watching Mesa take BP, I found myself unable to take my eyes of the left side of their infield taking ground balls. I know I’m not the only person to say that, either.

The AFL is a great league for hitters with the favorable Arizona air and disproportionate ratio of hitting prospects to hitting prospects. Still, the Mesa pitchers have to feel pretty good when a ground ball is hit to third base or shortstop, where the Solar Sox have three premium defenders: Red Sox shortstop Jose Iglesias, Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro and Marlins third baseman Matt Dominguez.

Iglesias, a 19-year-old from Cuba, is already one of the top defensive shortstops in baseball. Several international scouts gave him plus-plus marks for his hands, which smoothly collect grounders with what seems like magnetic force. When he was a free agent, he drew comparisons to a young Orlando Cabrera.

“He’s got great hands—I mean, unreal hands—and they’re quick,” said Mesa manager Brandon Hyde, who managed Double-A Jacksonville (Marlins) this summer. “They’re quick and they’re soft, and his feet work. His footwork is lightning fast, with a good arm. You put those things together and you’ve got a really good shortstop.”

Castro, also 19, is the more advanced hitter of the two. He has all the tools to be an excellent shortstop packed into a 6-foot-1, 160-pound frame.

“His body projects to be even bigger, and he’s got a great arm,” Hyde said. “He’s really improving defensively. I really like him. He’s got great range, he’s really athletic and he’s going to be a great shortstop.”

During today’s game at Surprise, Castro made two fine defensive plays. In the bottom of the first with no outs and runners on second and third, Yankees first baseman Brandon Laird smoked a ground ball to the left of second base. Castro showed good range to his left, got up with the ball quickly and planted with plenty of time to get the runner at first base on a play for which a shortstop with average range likely would have had to dive to reach the ball.

In the second inning, Castro turned a 4-6-3 double play to end the inning, showing quick footwork, a quick transfer and an outstanding arm on the throw to first.

“He’s got a great arm, a really strong arm and it’s accurate,” Hyde said. “I saw him the last month of the season in the playoffs and he made some great plays, really great range plays, and his arm is special. When he gets bigger and stronger, it’s going to be scary.”

Castro projects as a better hitter than Iglesias, showing a better ability to manipulate the barrel with a fundamentally sound, compact swing. He’s a plus-plus runner who gets the bat head through the zone quickly, though at this point he doesn’t have much power. 

“He gives you a tough at-bat,” Hyde said. “He really battles with two strikes and he’s got a knack to put the barrel to the baseball, even on tough pitches. On offspeed stuff down, he’ll find a way to put the barrel to it, and he runs so well. His power is going to come even more when he gets older, but it’s nice to see a guy with a high contact rate that can run, and his power is going to come as he matures.”

Iglesias is still a lightweight at the plate, with plenty of bat speed but minimal power from his 5-foot-11, 170-pound frame and some issues making contact.

“He’s just going to need at-bats. He’s got a great swing; it’s a lightning fast bat," Hyde said. "He’s shown some power for his size and he looks to go the other way. He’s going to be a good hitter, he just needs to play. Innings and experience will take care of itself.”

If there’s a ball hit to the left side of the infield that Iglesias or Castro don’t get it, odds are pretty good that Dominguez will get there if he’s on the field. Dominguez reached Double-A before turning 20 years old in August, but it’s his glove that’s ahead of his bat. He’s already a below-average runner at best, but he fields his position well and is adept at making the diving play down the line.

“He makes it look easy,” Hyde said. “He makes all the plays, and he makes the though plays look easy. His hands are so smooth. He’s got really good range in his position and his arm is strong—he can throw it from all arm angles. It’s strong and it’s accurate, and his feet work so good. He’s got great footwork. Matt’s just going to continue to get better, but his defense is definitely a plus.”

Dominguez’s hitting is still a work in progress. Good curveballs can eat him up, and some scouts say he can be beaten with good fastballs on the inner half. Yet while he’s hitting .188/.216/.396 in just 12 games in the AFL, Dominguez was solid in the pitcher-friendly high Class A Florida State League, where he hit .262/.333/.420 in 103 games.

“He got off to a slow start but he’s swinging the bat better the last couple of weeks,” Hyde said. “Matt’s just going to need at-bats. This is a great experience for him, seeing some tough pitching, and he’s starting to make adjustments right now. He’s had a really good last few games, and Matt’s going to be a really good hitter, it’s just going to take a little bit.”