10 Players Who Could Regain Or Reinforce Their Stock in the AFL

After its season was canceled in the wake of the pandemic, the Arizona Fall League is nearly upon us once again. The six-week season begins on Oct. 13, with all six traditional teams playing in their home parks. The league serves as a place to put the final touches of polish on some of the sport’s best prospects, but it also allows a way for players to make up time missed with injury during the regular season.

One more function of the AFL is as a sort of proving ground, where prospects can follow up strong seasons by challenging themselves against a variety of the game’s most talented young players. The league’s younger players can also test their skills and sharpen their mettle against pitchers who are older and more experienced.

Here is a list of 10 players who can rebound or prove themselves even further with a strong stint in the AFL.

1. MacKenzie Gore, LHP, Padres

The last two seasons for Gore have not gone anywhere near as planned. In an ideal timeline, the lefthander, once one of the game’s very best pitching prospects, would be in the big leagues. He might have been there last year, too. Instead, inconsistencies with his delivery have led to shaky control and command, and he was sent back from Triple-A to the Padres’ spring training complex in Arizona for a bit of a reset. By season’s end, Gore had moved back to Double-A while showing improved but uneven stuff and results. A strong showing in the Fall League would do wonders for his status.

2. Asa Lacy, LHP, Royals

The top pitching prospect available in the 2020 draft class did not pitch like it in 2021. He walked 41 hitters in 52 innings at High-A Quad Cities, which was especially shocking for a pitcher who in his draft year was tabbed as having potentially above-average command. Scouts who saw Lacy at Quad Cities this year saw a pitcher with wicked stuff—an array of potentially double-plus pitches—which had its effectiveness sapped by an inability to throw it for strikes. In trying to diagnose the root of Lacy’s problems, evaluators noted a lack of fluidity in his movements and a pitcher who sacrificed finesse in the name of power. Lacy’s career is just beginning, but he needs to show he can begin looking like the same guy the Royals saw in his draft year.

3. Jackson Rutledge, RHP, Nationals

Rutledge looked outstanding in big league spring training, and scouts cooed over what they saw from him and teammate Cade Cavalli. While Cavalli rocketed to Triple-A, Rutledge dealt with injuries and ineffectiveness at Low-A. He struggled mightily with control and command (20 walks in 36.1 innings) and shoulder dings that limited him to just 13 outings. When he’s right, Rutledge’s stuff is as good as any pitcher in Washington’s system. He just wasn’t right much in 2021. A strong fall could remind observers why he was so coveted as an amateur.

4. Jeter Downs, SS, Red Sox

Downs had a rough year at Triple-A Worcester, with a little bit of time with the Colombian Olympics qualifying squad mixed in along the way. Downs was reportedly happy with the mental gains he made while dealing with his first extended stretch without success, which translated to a .190 batting average and a .606 OPS over 99 games. A good fall against quality competition could be just the boost Downs needs to get back on track come 2022.

5. JJ Bleday, OF, Marlins

Bleday came into pro ball with a huge pedigree. His power surge at Vanderbilt vaulted him up draft boards, all the way to No. 4 overall, where the Marlins snatched him up. Since then, he’s been decidedly underwhelming. He closed the season on a strong note, going 14-for-45 with a home run in September, but the rest of his season was disappointing. He finished the year with a .695 overall OPS, just slightly better than the mark he produced at High-A in his draft year. Because of the pandemic, Bleday’s career consists of just 148 games. A few dozen good ones in the Fall League could help revamp his prospect stock.

6. Zack Thompson, LHP, Cardinals

Thompson was the Cardinals’ first-round pick in 2019 and made a strong impression in his pro debut at the lowest levels of the minors. St. Louis jumped Thompson to Triple-A in 2021, and things did not go well. He finished the year 2-10, 7.06 with an alarming 57 walks in 93 innings. Moreover, his fastball velocity was down significantly—the pitch averaged just shy of 88 mph all season and peaked at 90. Formerly, his fastball sat in the 92-94 mph range and touched 97. Thompson needs to regain his velocity to get himself back on the map.


7. Leonardo Jimenez, 2B, Blue Jays

Even over a half season’s worth of action, Jimenez’s 2021 campaign was certifiably bonkers. The infielder finished the year with an absurd on-base percentage of .523 and 18 more walks (54) than strikeouts (36). Most of the reason behind Jimenez’s inclusion in the AFL is to make up for lost time, but a strong campaign against much older pitching would go a long way toward helping the Blue Jays realize just what kind of player they have on their hands.

8. CJ Abrams, SS, Padres

Much like Langeliers and Moreno, Abrams doesn’t so much need to prove himself as he needs to reinforce what he did before he got injured. He showed hints of hittability and power to go with his lightning speed, but his leg injury could sap the latter trait. If he comes back a bit slower, his game might be muted somewhat, though nowhere near the level needed to dim his star to a significant degree.

9. Hunter Bishop, OF, Giants

Despite being drafted three years ago, Bishop only has 48 games under his belt. A turf toe injury cost him part of his draft year, then came the pandemic, and he missed most of this season (all but 11 games, just three outside of the Arizona Complex League) with a shoulder injury. When he has been on the field, he hasn’t produced. Rather, he hasn’t hit. Bishop has gotten on base at a respectable clip, but nearly 53% (106 of 202) of his career plate appearances have resulted in either a walk or a strikeout. He badly needs at-bats simply to show he still has the tools the Giants saw when he was drafted. 

10. Patrick Bailey, C, Giants

Bailey’s inaugural test in pro ball didn’t go according to plan. The North Carolina State alum was bumped to High-A Eugene to start his career, then dealt with injuries and lack of performance. Specifically, a lingering issue with his lower back limited Bailey’s time on the field. After rehabbing, he was moved to Low-A San Jose for a bit of a reset. He found success there, slashing .322/.415/.531 as part of San Jose’s run to the Low-A West championship. He needs to gain at-bats, but also could give his prospect stock a major picker-upper with a strong run in the AFL. 

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