NOTE: This is a very long piece.
The Arizona Fall League is quite a place to watch games and to get glimpses of future major leaguers. According to the 2010 AFL media guide, over 1,800 former AFL alumni have reached the major leagues.
Last season saw Buster Posey, Jason Heyward, Stephen Strasburg, Starlin Castro and Mike Stanton play in the AFL, then star in the major leagues.
And the AFL is not just for budding MLB players. Current managers who got their start in the AFL include Dusty Baker, Mike Scioscia, Terry Francona, Jerry Manuel (an AFL Hall of Famer) and Texas Rangers skipper Ron Washington.
This season Don Mattingly is managing the hapless Phoenix Desert Dogs and Ted Simmons (who is on the Veterans Committee ballot for the HOF) is managing the Peoria Saguaros. Meanwhile, the Peoria Javelinas teams included Roger Clemens’ son Koby, and a couple of Cleveland Indians kids I liked.
However, the biggest drawing card was the Scottsdale Scorpions, who’s roster included 2010 No. 1 overall pick Bryce Harper. He was assigned late to the team, was technically on the taxi squad, and only was allowed to play twice a week, Wednesday and Saturday.
While my previous reports have been on New York Yankee prospects, here is a breakdown of several position players from other organizations who impressed during my week of watching 10 games in the AFL, including the Rising Stars Game.
San Francisco Giants Brandon Belt shows his new power stroke
Eric Hosmer – 1B Kansas City Royals
Hosmer is a big (6’4″, 215 lb) first baseman who has shown ability at the plate. Unlike his early days of being an almost total pull-hitter, Hosmer has shown in the AFL a balanced swing and the ability to drive pitches the other way.
In two at-bats, both against Yankees pitchers, Hosmer lined a single to left field off Craig Heyer, then in the Rising Stars game he drilled a deep fly ball to left off of Manuel Banuelos. He let the ball get deep and used nice balance and bat speed to drive both pitches.
He also showed a keen eye at the plate, repeatedly taking close pitches just off the plate, even with two strikes.
But I did notice that Hosmer had a tendency to drop his hands on several occasions.
Hosmer lacks even average speed and quickness, which showed on occasion around the first base bag. I thought his first step was slow and footwork around the bag just okay, while his tracking of foul pop ups were terrible. He made some nice plays at first, including a diving stop, but he did not have the range to get anything hit within a few feet of him.
But it is his bat which will make him a future major league all star. You may see Hosmer in Kansas City by the second half of 2012, but I wouldn’t rush the kid and (unless he dominated Triple A) would let him play the entire season in Omaha.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Brandon Belt – 1B San Francisco Giants
It has been well documented that the Giants made adjustments to Belt’s swing, and he improved dramatically in 2010, his first pro season. He was a decent hitter at the University of Texas but has really belted the ball as a pro.
Over three levels this year, Belt slashed .352 BA/.455 OBP/.620 SLG with an amazing OPS of 1.075. He pounded out 43 doubles, 10 triples, 23 HRs and 112 “meaningless” RBI. He also showed great plate discipline by walking almost as much as he struck out (93 BB vs 97 K’s).
Seeing him for the first time as a pro in AFL games, I saw a polished hitter who can hit for average and power in the major leagues. Belt has a more open stance and has his hands much higher than he did in college. He is more balanced and his bat path to the ball is much more direct with the higher hands.
Belt adjusts great during at-bats, and on several occasions, a pitch which gave him trouble early was attacked much better later in the at-bat.
For example, a tight curve low and in caused him a bad swing, but later in the at-bat Belt hammered a similar pitch with two strikes to right field for a single.
However, the low and in pitch, both from RHP and LHP, consistently caused Belt trouble during the games I saw. That’s very unusual for the left-handed hitting Belt, as lefties normally dominate the low pitch.
Jason Kipnis’ balanced swing
He does have immense power the other way. In Scottsdale Stadium, I saw Belt hit a home run over the left field fence near the foul line, and that fence down the line is 360 feet away. Belt also sent several long drives for triples deep into the left field gap off both fastballs and breaking pitches.
While he had 22 stolen bases this season, most (18) were at High A, where Belt took advantage of the weaker ability of lower-level pitchers in holding on runners. But, he did show very aggressive base running skills, going first to third on a ball hit to left center, and looking to stretch doubles into triples.
His four triples in 79 ABs in the AFL are a testament to his ability to drive the ball and his aggressive base running. I have always felt that triples were really doubles but with faster, more aggressive runners. Belt also has 10 triples during the regular season showing his aggressiveness is not a “small sample size.”
His speed and quickness apply to defense, too. Belt showed good range at first base, with good hands and a strong, accurate throwing arm. The arm is no surprise as Belt used to hit over 90 MPH as a pitcher at Texas.
Belt made two pretty nice plays, first coming down the line all the way into the catcher’s area to catch a foul pop. Next, he snared a hard-hit smash, then made a great throw over the runner to start a 3-6-3 double play.
Brandon Belt has star written all over him.
He is a superb hitter who makes adjustments, a plus fielder with good instincts and a good, aggressive baserunner who has above average speed.
Expect to see Belt during the 2011 season, probably after the All-Star break. If I were the Giants, I would not commit to more than one year for Aubrey Huff. No need for him in 2012.
Dustin Ackley – 2B Seattle Mariners
Ackley showed great plate discipline and a short, quick stroke during the times I saw. Combined with good hip rotation, it provided Ackley with a many hard hit balls and decent power for a guy his size.
Not known as a power threat, however, Ackley works the entire field with his short stroke, shorter than what he displayed in college. He keeps his hands in tight to his body, innately putting the barrel on the ball on pitches both outside and over the inner third.
Ackley also continues to possess a good batting eye, walking at a 15.9% rate in Double A this season (in 344 PA), and although he had a reduced walk rate of 8.6% in Triple A, his AFL rate of 27% is amazing.
He possesses above average running speed, and although he had double digit steals in college, his speed has not yet translated to high stolen base numbers in the pros.
He played first base in college due to his inability to throw in recovering from Tommy John surgery, and was projected to play center field in the pro ranks. But his outfield defense was not especially strong and was moved to second base, where his good batting average, high OBP, lots of doubles and 15-20 home run power translates best.
Ackley has only one year of professional baseball under his belt, but has shown he can hit at the higher levels, and gets on base at high rates.
He reminds me of Chase Utley of the Phillies. Similar build, ability to get on base and adequate defense at second base.
Expect Ackley to be in Seattle by the middle of 2011 as 3B Jose Lopez gets moved over the winter and Figgins moves over to 3B. But since Seattle is not expected to compete, Ackley might have to wait a few months to let his arbitration clock begin later.
Jason Kipnis – IF Cleveland Indians
One of the best things about watching AFL games is the opportunity to see players you have never heard of before, let alone seen live.
One of these kids is the Indians young infield prospect Jason Kipnis, a left handed hitter. While Kipnis played most of the 2010 season at 2B, he also played 3B here in the AFL.
He is not fully adept at either, but I do like his quickness better at third than I like his range at second.
Kipnis was a second-round pick by the Indians out of Arizona State, and also was a high draft pick a year earlier by the San Diego Padres, but did not sign.
Kipnis can flat out hit. He has a very quick, compact swing which allows him to let the ball get deep before he attacks. And attack is the precise work for Kipnis, who looks to drive the ball on both the first pitch as well as an 0-2 offering.
And for a smallish guy (5″ 11″, 175 lbs), he can hit for power, too. Kipnis’ tremendously quick bat, good balance and rotation allow him to drive the ball over the fence. He hit 16 homers at two levels this year, his first pro season, and has hit three more in the AFL.
He is an extra-base machine, banging out 11 doubles and three triples in the AFL. He aslo slugged .502 at Double A Akron with 20 doubles and five triples.
He is not a burner, but has good speed getting around the bases and his aggressive in taking the extra base. Due to being solidly balanced in his swing and follow through, Kipnis gets out of the box quick and motors to first base. On one of his triples I had him timed home to third in 11.07 seconds.
He is very patient, does not chase pitches and handles the breaking ball very well. He keeps his hands back on off speed pitches and did not “buckle” his front side even one time, though I saw him swing and miss at a good curve ball.
I saw Kipnis play three different times and this was a typical good at-bat: He took a first pitch change-up just off the plate for a ball, then attacked at the same pitch on the outside corner, fouling it back.
He then took another outside change up for a called strike. He likely was looking for something in, and when he did not get a pitch in his zone, he took it. That is a sign of a real disciplined hitter, one that is comfortable hitting with two strikes.
On 1-2, Kipnis did get an inside fastball and fouled it off, then the 2-2 pitch was belted into left center for a triple. This is where he ran his 11.07 home to third.
He showed he adjusts well during an at-bat, handling both sides of the plate, and stays in very well versus left handed pitchers, hitting them for a .417 clip in the AFL with five extra-base hits in 17 ABs.
And his quick bat was never more evident than when he turned on a 99 MPH fastball from Chicago Cubs fireballer Chris Carpenter during the Rising Stars game, doubling hard down the right field line.
During his pro season, Kipnis has walked about 10% of his plate appearances, but had a 17.7% rate in his two full seasons at Arizona State. And he was very consistent his two years at Arizona State, generating almost the same amount of games, runs, hits, home runs, RBI, walks and stolen bases. Check out his full college career here.
And his consistency has translated to his pro career as he had nearly similar production at High A and Double A. He was hitting .173 in the AFL through last week, but a recent 14-26 surge, with eight doubles and seven RBI lifted his final slash line to .295 BA/.337 OBP/.628 SLG/.966 OPS.
Kipnis has all the hitting tools that you want in a player: patience, high contact rates, good batting eye, ability to hit for average and with surprising power. He runs well and appears to have a good “feel” and instincts for the game.
Plus his numbers in the High A Carolina League were also not inflated by the heavy hitting normally found in the California League, where many of these AFL hitters have put up great numbers. There is nothing really great about Kipnis’ game, it is just that he does everything pretty darn well.
Kipnis probably will start at Triple A Columbus*, and with the Indians having the likes of Jason Donald, Luis Valbuera and Jayson Nix on the current roster, he has a chance to be promoted to Cleveland if he has a good first half in 2011.
* In fact, as I was writing this extremely long piece, the AFL ended its regular season and stats were updated on the milb.com site. It now lists Kipnis as a member of the Columbus Clippers, so my prognostication was accurate.
I will reserve my Bryce Harper analysis for a separate piece, mainly because I do not foresee him possibly reaching the majors in 2011—no matter how well he does starting in Low A ball at Hagerstown. While I can be greedy as I would get to see Harper play quite a bit, after his impressive AFL, though, if the Nationals had guts, they could start Harper in High A Potomac.
Also, there were other guys who warrant recognition, such as Cord Phelps of the Cleveland Indians, who makes good contact and gets on base, but has little power or speed. He does hold his hands a little low, but doesn’t seem to be affected by fastballs up or in. He will start at Triple A at second base (Kipnis at 3rd?) with a good shot of hitting the bigs after the Indians lose early.
The catchers were led by former top picks (and bigger names) like Austin Romine, Derek Norris and Kyle Skipworth, but I was impressed by Tony Cruz of the St. Louis Cardinals. I feel Cruz is a sleeper, who beside showing a great throwing arm behind the dish (he has thrown out a staggering 53% of the runners this season), also showed good range at third base in one game I saw.
He shows ability to hit for average and power, and in one game Cruz belted two doubles, one to the gap in left and one down the right field line, going very well with the outside curve ball. In another game, Cruz hit a long home run to left just after looking terrible on one pitch. A Jekyll and Hyde hitter who shows average patience.
Cruz has a Molina-type body with a solid lower half, but runs better than any of the three. With versatility demanded by Tony Larussa’s Cardinal teams, don’t be surprised to see Cruz up by the end of the year if he hits well in Triple A in 2011.
I also saw a few speedster infielders in Jordany Valdespin of the New York Mets and Eduardo Escobar from the Chicago White Sox. Valdespin showed great tools, but little in the way of how to play.
He turned on a Jeremy Jeffress 99 MPH fastball like it wasn’t even an issue and showed good range and throwing arm on several plays. But he is inconsistent from play-to-play, showing a lack of concentration. He also swings at nearly everything and has poor hitting mechanics.
Escobar clearly has a future in the majors, mainly as a superior glove-first shortstop. He has good range and a well above average arm. But in the AFL, Escobar has shown some ability to drive the ball into the gaps and has terrific speed on the bases. He went from home to third on a triple down the left field line, and was in well before the throw.
If he becomes more disciplined at the plate and walks more often, the 21-year-old Escobar could become an offensive factor with the White Sox in 2013/2014 when Alexei Ramirez becomes too expensive as a FA.
Many people were enamored with Charlie Culberson, but I saw a guy who wraps his bat too much, doesn’t have a lot of bat-speed, doesn’t make consistent contact and chases pitches. I feel the numbers he put up in the California League were inflated and he will not have much power down the road.
However, I would like to see him during the Eastern League against consistently better competition this year to more accurately grade him.
Next up would be a report on up and coming pitchers.