2005 Arizona Fall League Top 20 Prospects
By Chris Kline
The AFL has always been known as a premier hitter’s league, and that trend picked up in 2005, as all-time league records fell one after the other. Among the marks shattered were batting average (.296), runs per game (12.14), hits per game (20.83), slugging percentage (.469) and ERA (5.40).
AFL players hit 220 homers in just 96 games (or an average of 2.20 per game, ahead of the major league average of 2.06), and the Peoria Saguaros set a new mark for team pitching futility in the AFL with a 6.90 ERA.
Still, three pitchers made the cut on the Top 20--none of them Saguaros--two more than last year. Athletics righthander Huston Street, BA’s 2005 Rookie of the Year, was the lone pitcher on the 2004 AFL list.
Hitters with potent bats again dominated this year's list, with 2005 minor league home runs king Brandon Wood leading the way. Wood ripped 14 more homers in the Fall League, topping Tagg Bozied’s all-time record of 12 in 2002.
The list reflects players' ceiling and impact potential with some consideration to AFL performance.
1. Brandon Wood, ss, Surprise Scorpions (Angels)
When managers and scouts saw Wood for the first time this fall, most were taken back that someone with his body-type—tall and wiry strong--led the minors in homers and amassed 101 extra-base hits. But once they saw him get in the cage and take his hacks during BP, perceptions quickly changed.
Wood has an outstanding combination of bat speed and leverage that allows him to generate loft power, as balls just fly off his bat. Pitchers had some success against him by working fastballs in on his hands and then setting him up away. Wood tends to chase pitches out of the zone, especially when he’s behind in the count, which led to many of his 31 strikeouts, which were the second-most in the league. His swing can get long. Defensively, Wood is average to above, with good hands, decent range and plus arm strength.
2. Alex Gordon, 1b, Surprise Scorpions (Royals)
This is probably the only time in Gordon’s career that his name will be attached to this position, but Gordon broke into the pro ranks as a first baseman when the Royals named him to replace Justin Huber, who went down with an Achilles injury. Even though he was the best third baseman on the Surprise club, Gordon showed Gold Glove skills at the opposite corner with excellent footwork around the bag, good range, soft hands, and (naturally) the best throwing arm of any first baseman in the league.
Gordon’s quick hands and strong wrists are the foundation of a powerful stroke, and his bat gets through the hitting zone as fast as any minor leaguers’. He showed nothing but pure pull power early in his Fall League stint, but made adjustments by getting his hands higher and further out from his body and showed excellent power to all fields later in the AFL season. There are still some concerns about Gordon's ability to handle quality inside fastballs.
3. Ryan Zimmerman, 3b, Peoria Saguaros (Nationals)
The Nationals gave their first-round pick two weeks off after the regular season ended, as Zimmerman took a well-deserved break—reaching the big leagues straight from Virginia after just two months as a pro. Zimmerman only got in 38 Fall League at-bats, but his impact left a lasting impression.
Easily the best defender in the AFL, Zimmerman was the most polished player in the league, and the Nationals recently traded Vinny Castilla to make room for Zimmerman in the big leagues. He has excellent first-step quickness and soft hands, earning comparisons to Graig Nettles for his overall defensive package. At the plate, Zimmerman has an easy, compact swing that produces primarily gap power presently. He’s an above-average runner. The only question is whether he’ll have enough juice in his bat to stay on the corner. Some scouts believe he could handle shortstop if not.
4. Howie Kendrick, 2b, Surprise (Angels)
Kendrick was widely considered the best hitter in the league. One scout referred to him as “The Generator” for his approach with his hands—he holds them high next to his head, waving the bat in a circle that intensifies as the opposing pitcher goes into his windup. He rarely swings and misses, and his compact stroke coupled with quick hands, wrists and excellent hand-eye coordination allow him to make adjustments to any pitch, anywhere in the zone.
Kendrick’s biggest weakness has been his defense, but in the AFL he showed good range, soft hands, and a plus arm on the right side of the diamond. He needs to be more aggressive on the bases.
5. Stephen Drew, ss, Phoenix (Diamondbacks)
While Zimmerman already debuted in the big leagues, Drew shows the tools to make the jump next season. He has an aggressive approach with good bat speed. He tends to expand his strike zone at times, and his hands at times get out in front of his body.
That said, his overall game has few weaknesses. He’s not the prototypical shortstop but has above-average middle-of-the-diamond skills with a lot of offensive upside. He plays without much outward enthusiasm, leading some scouts to express concern about his competitive drive. Some project him as a solid everyday player, while others see a perennial all-star.
6. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, c, Phoenix (Braves)
Saltalamacchia has the most helium on this list, improving his stock by becoming an adequate defender behind the plate in 2005. While the defense still lags behind his bat, Saltalamacchia continued to emphatically answer questions about his catching ability this fall.
Saltalamacchia has a sweet swing—he’s short to the ball and has good pop from both sides of the plate. He generates more power lefthanded, but worked on getting loaded earlier from the right side by moving his hands slightly lower. The adjustment plays to his strength—recognizing pitches and getting his arms extended through the hitting zone.
Saltalamacchia improved vastly behind the plate in 2005, but his catch-and-throw skills are presently fringe-average with the chance to improve. His receiving and game-calling are solid average.
7. Ian Stewart, 3b, Peoria Javelinas (Rockies)
Stewart got off to a fast start in the Fall League, but had his season cut short after he sprained his wrist sliding into second base in late October. He started just 12 games, but five of his 13 hits were for extra bases.
Stewart possesses big raw power. His quick hands enable him to drive balls to all fields. A sprained wrist limited his Fall League stint to just 39 at-bats.
Stewart has good plate coverage and plate discipline, though he tends to try and hit home runs, causing a slight uppercut in his swing. Stewart is not a great runner, though he’s worked hard to improve his first-step quickness defensively and moves well laterally. His reactions on the corner could be better, as the only balls he struggles with are ones hit right at him.
8. Lastings Milledge, of, Grand Canyon (Mets)
Milledge has the overall package and was one of the most complete players in the AFL, with all five tools playing right now. He batted primarily in the No. 2 hole for the Rafters, and is a legitimate top-of-the-order threat with speed and power.
Milledge made some minor adjustments to effectively drive the ball the other way, getting his front foot down earlier to get more strength from his back side and better incorporate his lower half. He adapts quickly and can make adjustments on the fly. Scouts questioned his instincts, however, particularly in the outfield. Primarily a center fielder throughout his career, Milledge played 34 games in left and had a hard time picking up balls and running precise routes. There is little doubt Milledge is all tooled up; he just needs polish to become more fundamentally sound.
9. Chris Young, of, Peoria Saguaros (White Sox)
Young was one of the most athletic players in the Fall League, and possesses huge raw power with speed and a plus arm. He struggled with recognizing pitches at times, however, leading to bunches of strikeouts.
Plate discipline is the key to Young’s development. He struggles particularly with breaking balls, and tends to drag his hands behind his body with a pronounced drift. That opened him up to offspeed stuff away and quality fastballs over the inner part of the plate. Young is a plus defender in center field, running good routes with excellent instincts and quickness.
10. Scott Mathieson, rhp, Surprise Scorpions (Phillies)
To say Mathieson had a busy season would be an understatement. The righthander went from high Class A Clearwater to pitch for Canada in the World Cup, then reported to instructional league, then to the Fall League and now is with Canada again for the Olympic qualifying tournament. He was also just named to pitch for his native country in the World Baseball Classic during spring training in 2006.
The top-ranked pitching prospect in the AFL, Mathieson has power stuff, starting with a fastball that sits consistently in the 92-94 mph range, topping out at 96. He scrapped his curveball at the end of the regular season in favor of a slider and took off, becoming more comfortable with it. The slider has great late movement at 82-84 mph.
He also shows good feel for a changeup, and used that as his out pitch several times this fall. Like a lot of young power pitchers, Mathieson needs to trust his secondary stuff more and not rely primarily on his fastball to put hitters away.
11. Andy LaRoche, 3b, Phoenix Desert Dogs (Dodgers)
LaRoche went through a power outage at the end of the regular season—he didn’t hit a homer from August 20 until the AFL championship game on November 12—and fatigue is the greatest reason. The ball wasn’t jumping off his bat the way it normally does, and even though LaRoche has a fairly compact swing, he had the tendency to drop his hands and uppercut.
When he’s fresh, LaRoche is one of the best third base prospects in baseball. He has a low center of gravity in his swing, with a lot of his plus raw power coming from excellent use of this lower half in his approach. LaRoche is an average defender at third, moves well to either side and has above-average arm strength.
12. Billy Butler, of, Surprise Scorpions (Royals)
Even though Butler has far from a traditional approach at the plate—with his wide open stance, hands high over his head and toe-tapping timing mechanism—he is one of the top hitters in the minors. A lot of his success is based on hand quickness and hand-eye coordination, and few hitters in the AFL squared up as many balls as Butler did.
There are questions, however. He has no natural position, and one veteran scout called him the worst defender he’d seen in professional baseball. Butler doesn’t run well, and his routes in the outfield are questionable at best. First base is probably his only option at becoming at least serviceable defensively.
13. Nick Markakis, of, Peoria Javelinas (Orioles)
One of the most polished outfielders in the league, Markakis was also one of the most consistent hitters at the plate. Quiet and confident, the 22-year-old oozes leadership skills with makeup that is off the charts.
Where his body used to get ahead of his hand movement early in his career, Markakis has honed his overall approach and utilizes a short, compact swing that is developing power. Markakis incorporates his lower half in his swing well, and is rarely exposed to pitches on the outer half because of his natural ability to make quick adjustments. He struggles with lefthanded pitching at times, but his simplistic approach should help him as he becomes more seasoned against them. While he has good arm strength, most scouts target him as an ideal left fielder, though he has the speed and range to play all three outfield spots.
14. Jeff Clement, c, Peoria Javelinas (Mariners)
Clement is one of three 2005 first-round picks to make the list, and while he was considered to be a below-average defender, he earned kudos from scouts and managers throughout the league for his game-calling ability above all else. He blocks balls well and has good arm strength. He still has a way to go, particularly with his transfer and release, as his throws were erratic at times.
At the plate, Clement has awesome raw power with a short, fundamentally sound stroke from the left side. He stays inside the ball well, generating good backspin and hits a ton of line drives as a result. Clement uses the whole field, letting balls get deep in the zone before spraying them to the opposite field. He’s not as athletic as Saltalamacchia, but more of a blue collar-type defender with great leadership skills and plenty of lefthanded pop for the position.
15. Daric Barton, 1b, Phoenix Desert Dogs (Athletics)
There is little question as to whether Barton will hit in the big leagues. The problem is finding a spot for him—and the jury is still out on him playing every day at first base. He’s not very athletic, doesn’t have good actions around the bag, and his range is average at best.
Barton’s bat is his ticket, with excellent speed through the zone. His quick hands allow him to make adjustments to drive the ball the other way. His plate discipline and pitch recognition are also huge assets, as Barton tied teammate Andre Ethier for the AFL league-lead in walks with 21 in 75 at-bats. Much like Butler, Barton will hit for high average and some power, it’s just a matter of figuring out where he fits in the field.
16. Matt Kemp, of, Phoenix Desert Dogs (Dodgers)
Kemp had one of the best packages in the league in terms of overall tools, and he put them to use, hitting over .400 and adding two homers in the championship game against Surprise. But for as much success Kemp had this fall, he is still very raw.
Kemp has plus raw power, but tends to leak forward with his front leg and will pull off pitches over the inner half. He worked on getting his hands further back to stay through the ball more consistently. Kemp runs surprisingly well for a big man, but his routes to balls in the outfield were questionable at times. He has classic right field tools, with more than enough power and arm strength to stick at the position.
17. Adam Loewen, lhp, Peoria Javelinas (Orioles)
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the Fall League, Loewen more than held his own in the hitter’s haven, leading the AFL with a 1.67 ERA in 27 innings. His strikeout-walk ratio wasn’t great (26-14), but he located better than he ever did with his 92-94 mph fastball, his curveball had great depth and bite and his changeup emerged as a viable weapon.
He worked on maintaining his weight over the rubber to get more consistent with his release point. He needs to keep weight on his back leg to achieve optimum balance, which helps him play to the strength of his 6-foot-6 frame and drive the ball consistently downhill.
18. Kendry Morales, 1b, Surprise Scorpions (Angels)
Morales remains somewhat of an enigma. Since signing for a $3 million bonus as a Cuban defector last winter, Morales had a decent debut season and followed that up by raking his way through the Fall League. But for as much as there is to like about the potential middle-of-the-order run producer, scouts felt he may be living off his reputation as an overpaid international dynamo.
There is no question about Morales’ savvy—he works counts well and pitchers in the AFL tended to go after him cautiously, which plays directly to his strength. He’s a below-average athlete and some scouts had questions about his defensive abilities at first base. While he has plus pitch recognition and plate discipline, there are a lot of moving parts to Morales’ swing—his head, hands and feet are all in motion, which affects the amount of bat speed he’s able to generate. He could be exposed as he faces more quality pitching at the higher levels.
19. Jered Weaver, rhp, Surprise Scorpions (Angels)
Weaver was in the Fall League to get more innings, as his season didn’t begin until June after his long holdout as a 2004 first-round pick. And while the overall results weren’t exactly pretty—he went 1-3, 5.47 in 24 innings—Weaver’s secondary numbers were outstanding, with a 35-5 strikeout-walk ratio.
Weaver has excellent command of four pitches, starting with a two-seam and four-seam fastballs. His two-seamer has great late life, diving down in the zone, and is anywhere from 86-89 mph. His four-seamer is harder, in the 91-95 mph range. He also throws two variations of a slider, and a changeup that showed flashes of being a plus pitch at times with nice, downward tumble. Weaver struggled to stay consistent with his mechanics at times, which was a sign of fatigue in his first full season after nearly a yearlong layoff. He tended to get around on his slider, and it would flatten out as a result. He worked on improving his time to the plate out of the stretch, which should help him control the running game.
20. Adam Jones, of, Peoria Javelinas (Mariners)
Because of Cuban defector Yuniesky Betancourt’s emergence, Jones went to the Fall League to switch positions, moving from shortstop to center field. He took advantage of playing for Peoria manager Gary Pettis, who helped Jones improve his jumps and getting better reads off the bat. Jones was out every day doing early work with Pettis, and although it didn’t help him at the plate, it certainly helped him improve defensively.
One of the best athletes in the league, Jones pressed too much and wound up hitting just .238. That should change in time, as he no longer has to concern himself with playing a premium defensive position. Early returns show Jones made the right move. He gets good jumps, but even when he doesn’t, his speed is enough to make up for it. His arms grades out as a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale, with accuracy. The bat will come around as he becomes more acclimated to the position.
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