Toolshed: Arizona Fall League preview

Finding strengths, weakness, prospects to follow for each team

After climbing to Triple-A Salt Lake, Jo Adell is poised to command the spotlight in the Arizona Fall League. (Brent Asay/MiLB.com)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | September 18, 2019 10:00 AM

The baseball season is over. Now, time for more baseball.

The Minor League schedule came to an end with the Triple-A National Championship Game on Tuesday in Memphis, but one day later, the national pastime is back on the schedule for many top prospects. Wednesday marks Opening Day in the Arizona Fall League, as some of the game's best young talents flock to the Southwest for what many call baseball's finishing school. It's a chance to measure their skills against other top Minor Leaguers, make up for time lost due to injuries (or other factors) or show off in front of potential trade partners or Rule 5 Draft pickers. The schedule has been moved up from years past so that players no longer have to shut down from the regular season only to build themselves back up in October.

Without further adieu, this week's Toolshed previews the early-coming AFL season by looking at the strengths, weaknesses and prospects to follow for each of the six Fall League teams.

Glendale Desert Dogs 

Organizations: Brewers, Cardinals, Dodgers, Reds, White Sox

Top-100 prospects: Jonathan India

Strength: Third base -- India being the only Top-100 name here automatically makes the hot corner one of the Desert Dogs' most attention-worthy spots on the diamond. MLB.com's No. 94 overall prospect heads to Arizona after hitting .259/.365/.402 with 11 homers and 11 stolen bases in 121 games split between Double-A and Class A Advanced, which offers him a chance to build on that first full season in the Reds pipeline. Though he is considered defensively above-average at third, India has also seen time at second base and shortstop in his brief pro career, and this Fall League excursion could be used to develop that versatility -- something that helped fellow former third baseman Nick Senzel reach Cincinnati more quickly. On days when India isn't manning third (either on days off or at other positions), Glendale will still boast No. 4 Cardinals prospect Elehuris Montero as an option there. The 21-year-old, right-handed slugger had a bit of a lost year at Double-A Springfield, hampered by a broken hamate bone in his left wrist and rough performance following an aggressive push to the Texas League. He still has above-average potential with his hit and power tools, and the AFL is a good chance to exhibit those capabilities before 2019 is up.

Weakness: Top talent -- India being the only Top-100 name here also makes this category pretty easy. Then again, it wasn't always this way. Fresh off his breakout season at the Minors' top two levels, No. 25 Dylan Carlson was originally named to the Glendale roster, making the 20-year-old, switch-hitting outfielder easily the face of the team. However, the Cardinals have since changed course and swapped Carlson for fellow outfielder Conner Capel, allowing the former to rest instead of keep the pedal to the metal in an already positive season for him. The Dogs also lost No. 2 Brewers prospect Tristen Lutz to a triceps strain. Beyond India and Montero -- the only two ranked among their organization's top five prospects -- No. 7 Reds Tyler Stephenson is the closest Glendale has to another Top-100 name entering Wednesday. 

Prospect to follow: Jose Garcia -- That said, if there is one Desert Dogs player heading into the Fall League on the upswing, it's Garcia. Cincinnati's No. 9 prospect was on fire for Class A Advanced Daytona down the stretch, hitting .378/.426/.571 with three homers, 10 doubles, seven stolen bases and only 10 strikeouts over 25 games in August. The 21-year-old shortstop finished the regular season as the Florida State League leader in doubles (37) and ranked fourth with a .779 OPS. The Cuba native did repeat the level but was still age-appropriate for it, given he turned 21 back in April. The Fall League will present him with the perfect test to see if that end-of-season hot streak was a mirage or something he can build on to cap his second stateside campaign.

Mesa Solar Sox

Organizations: Angels, Athletics, Cubs, Indians, Tigers

Top-100 prospects: Jo Adell, Miguel Amaya, Nolan Jones

Strength: Outfield defense -- As MLB.com's No. 5 overall prospect, Adell heads to the Grand Canyon State as the face of this year's Fall League. Hoping to make up for time lost due to hamstring and ankle injuries suffered in the spring, the 20-year-old remains a true five-tool talent, earning above-average to plus-plus grades in all categories. While he's certainly capable of standing out offensively, we'll focus on the other side here because of the possibility of him linking up with fellow Angels prospect Brandon Marsh and No. 28 Tigers prospect Derek Hill. Hill, with the range to make flashy catches nightly, might be the most gifted defensive outfielder in this year's AFL, and Marsh has long drawn raves for a plus arm and good speed. The Halos will want to see Adell and Marsh at multiple spots as they get them ready to serve alongside Mike Trout in Anaheim, and Hill's glove and arm will play anywhere as well. Any combination of the three -- not to mention Tigers prospect Jose Azocar, who has struggled mightily offensively but has always drawn positive reviews for his defense -- should be mouth-watering for manager Mike Rabelo and his staff.

Weakness: Exciting pitching -- Looking for high-quality arms that could lead a Major League rotation some day? May be best to look elsewhere this Fall League season. The Sox claim only four ranked pitching prospects -- Brady Feigl (A's No. 28), Erich Uelmen (Cubs' No. 24), Anthony Castro (Tigers' No. 20) and Alex Lange (Tigers' No. 30). Of that quartet, Castro's stuff stands out, particularly his plus fastball capable of touching the upper-90s and his above-average slider. He struck out 116 in 102 1/3 innings at Double-A Erie this season, but his control (65 walks in that time) holds him back. Castro could benefit from shorter outings in the Fall League since he seems destined for the bullpen, anyway, but beyond him, keep the focus on the Mesa daily lineup instead.

Prospect to follow: Isaac Paredes -- Having turned 20 in February, Detroit's No. 5 prospect opened the season as the second youngest player in the Eastern League (only fellow Fall Leaguer Luis Garcia was born after him). Almost predictably, he showed the early-season struggles and late-season growth expected for a player of that age. After hitting just .256/.322/.333 in April, Paredes saw his OPS climb in each month with Erie to the point where he produced a .336/.411/.496 line and .906 OPS over 29 games in August. Even in the tougher times, Paredes demonstrated good plate discipline, finishing with 61 strikeouts against 57 walks over 127 games. Playing against tough competition at such a young age should give the infielder, who moved primarily from shortstop to third base in 2019, an AFL advantage. More sustained offensive growth would push his stock even higher ahead of the offseason and encourage a push to Triple-A Toledo in 2020.

Peoria Javelinas

Organizations: Astros, Mariners, Padres, Pirates, Red Sox

Top-100 prospects: Jarred Kelenic, Forrest Whitley, Julio Rodriguez, Oneil Cruz, Luis Campusano

Strength: Mariners outfielders -- No use in dancing around it. Kelenic and Rodriguez were two of the most exciting outfielders in all of the Minors in 2019 and now they'll be paired together on a roster for the first time since April 12 with Class A West Virginia, when Rodriguez suffered a fractured hand on a hit-by-pitch. (Kelenic was promoted before Rodriguez returned.) Both have impressive overall hit tools, with Rodriguez possessing a little bit more power and Kelenic considerably more speed. The dream in Seattle these days is to see these two man the grass in the Emerald City alongside stellar debutant Kyle Lewis for the long term, though others like Jake Fraley and Braden Bishop may have something to say about it. For now, Kelenic and Rodriguez have the chance to power the heart of the Javelinas lineup, and that makes for must-follow action.

Weakness: Command -- The list of intriguing pitchers suiting up for Peoria is not short. Whitley is back as the top pitching prospect in the entire AFL. The Red Sox have sent their top two arms in Bryan Mata and Tanner Houck. The Pirates assigned hard-throwing righty Blake Cederlind to the Javelinas. There's a lot to like. But what does that quartet have in common? Command and control struggles. Whitley famously was both hittable and unable to find the strike zone with regularity in what at times looked like a lost 2019. Mata made control improvements this year but is still only one season removed from walking 58 in 72 innings. Houck moved to the bullpen at Triple-A Pawtucket in hopes of helping a Boston weakness but issued 14 free passes in 25 innings in the International League. Cederlind is coming off a breakout season that saw him climb three levels, but he was inconsistent in finding the zone (as is often expected from a hard-throwing young reliever). The stuff is certainly there from this group, though, and this is a mere nitpick of a talented roster.

Prospect to follow: Jarren Duran -- The 2018 seventh-rounder out of Long Beach State looked like an uncovered gem when he shot out of the gate, hitting .387 with a .998 OPS over 50 games with Class A Advanced Salem to open his first full season. As a result, he was rewarded with a trip to the All-Star Futures Game and has moved up from No. 10 in the Red Sox system to his current ranking at No. 4. However, the left-handed-hitting outfielder hit a bit of a wall at Double-A Portland, where he produced a .250/.309/.325 line and saw his strikeout rate move from 19.5 percent to 23.9. Which version of Duran will head to Arizona? The competition level is usually akin to that of Double-A, so it's possible he could still struggle. A turnaround, however, would show the former Dirtbag has made the adjustments against upper-level pitching. At the very least, Duran is capable of impacting the game with his plus-plus speed, having just come off a 46-steal regular season, but much of his future value depends on just how good the hit tool can be.

Salt River Rafters

Organizations: D-backs, Marlins, Rays, Rockies, Twins

Top-100 prospects: Royce Lewis, Vidal Brujan, Shane Baz, Seth Beer

Strength: Shortstops, shortstops, shortstops -- Rafters manager Keith Johnson (most recently of Triple-A New Orleans) will have the fun problem of trying to figure out who he'll put in the six spot each day. Ninth-ranked Lewis is the best overall prospect on this roster fairly easily, and he has the speed and athleticism to make shortstop work long-term, even if he can be inconsistent at the position. (He could also see time in center after making one start there for Double-A Pensacola.) Tenth-ranked Marlins prospect Jose Devers is the more likely to stick at short, earning raves for his glove and above-average grades on his arm, and No. 7 D-backs prospect Geraldo Perdomo is also a gifted defender, though both lack Lewis's offensive ceiling. Brujan mostly sticks to second base these days, in part because of Wander Franco coming up behind him in the Rays system, but MLB.com's No. 40 overall prospect can also take over at short. In any event, Johnson will want to take advantage of Brujan's plus-plus speed every chance he gets. Whoever's playing shortstop for Salt River, opposing clubs might want to avoid that area of the infield if they can.

Weakness: Power questions -- It may seem strange to say that any team with Beer (fresh off his 26-homer campaign between the Astros and D-backs systems) lacks pop, but outside of him, the Rafters may not have a bopper capable of putting up big AFL numbers. Rays catcher Ronaldo Hernandez has power potential but saw his stock slide after posting a .397 slugging percentage in the Florida State League. Rockies third baseman Colton Welker saw his power increase in 2018 but hit only 10 homers in 98 games this season at Double-A. The answer might be another Colorado prospect in Roberto Ramos, who went deep 30 times this season for Triple-A Albuquerque, but even his performance came when offense was at an all-time high at the Minors' top level. What happens in Arizona? There are questions about this, but perhaps, the answer could be ... 

Prospect to follow: Josh Lowe -- This was covered mostly in another recent Toolshed, but the Rays' 2016 first-rounder is coming off a season in which he set career highs with 18 homers, a .442 slugging percentage and a .783 OPS. After offensive issues slowed him down, Lowe's power has truly come on in his age-21 season -- something the left-handed slugger always figured would happen as he matured physically and his approach improved with experience. Tampa Bay's No. 12 prospect was always going to have assets in his speed (30 steals), glove and arm; now that he's rounding out the prospect package, he could be primed for an extended coming-out party this autumn.

Scottsdale Scorpions

Organizations: Blue Jays, Braves, Giants, Mets, Phillies

Top-100 prospects: Joey Bart, Alec Bohm, Heliot Ramos, Andres Gimenez, Spencer Howard

Strength: The Bart connection -- Bart is undeniably the top catching prospect headed to the Fall League this year, and while the Scorpions are obviously likely to benefit from having his bat in the middle of the lineup, it might be that his presence behind the plate provides the club's pitchers with an even bigger advantage. The 2018 first-rounder has become a plus defender in most aspects and has more game-calling experience than most catchers his age, given that he was allowed to do that as a junior at Georgia Tech. It may not show up as much in the AFL box scores, but don't be surprised if several Scorpion pitchers credit Bart for their strong autumns.

Weakness: Outfield -- There is some definite firepower here. That's mostly in the form of Ramos, who is the only 1999-born player on the Scottsdale roster. The Giants' No. 2 prospect brings above-average power and speed potential to the Scorpions as well as 25 games of Double-A experience. There's also 2016 first overall pick Mickey Moniak, who spent the entire season at Double-A Reading showing off good speed but an average bat, and Braves breakout prospects Trey Harris and Justin Dean. Still, this group lacks the overall punch, zip, whatever you want to call it of other outfield groups in the AFL.

Prospect to follow: Spencer Howard -- The Phillies' No. 2 prospect just moved into MLB.com's Top 100 in Monday night's update at No. 89 and, with his mid-to-upper-90s fastball and bevy of average to above-average off-speed offerings (curveball, slider, changeup), he could move even higher this offseason. After experiencing shoulder issues, he made six starts at Double-A Reading, finishing with a 2.35 ERA, 38 strikeouts and nine walks over 30 2/3 innings. Howard has the stuff to dominate against even the tough bats of the AFL, and a strong campaign could push up his timeline to reach Philly, assuming he stays healthy in 2020.

Surprise Saguaros

Organizations: Nationals, Orioles, Rangers, Royals, Yankees

Top-100 prospects: Daniel Lynch, Luis Garcia

Strength: Kansas City contingent -- The Royals are coming off an incredible Minor League postseason in which four affiliates (Wilmington, Lexington, Idaho Falls, DSL Royals1) won their respective league titles. If that developed any excitement throughout the system, it will carry to the Fall League, with five ranked prospects heading to Arizona -- No. 3 Lynch, No. 8 Kyle Isbel, No. 15 Brewer Hicklen, No. 29 Gabriel Cancel and No. 30 Daniel Tillo. Lynch looks like the biggest piece of the franchise's future after the 22-year-old lefty showed off a deep arsenal and good control when healthy with Wilmington. (He was limited by arm injuries to 96 1/3 innings.) Isbel and Hicklen should each give the Surprise lineup speed, while Cancel builds off his career-best 18 homers at Double-A Northwest Arkansas. Tillo is an extreme groundball pitcher, but that should help him in what's usually considered a hitters' league. Royals fans should be following this year's AFL keenly.

Weakness: Yankees prospects -- Don't get it wrong. There are some notable pinstriped farmhands heading to Arizona. Outfielder Josh Stowers. who was acquired from the Mariners last offseason, is trying to build off a first full season in which he stole 35 bases for Class A Charleston and showed marked improvement in the season's final month. Glenn Otto, a fifth-rounder out of Rice in 2017, will continue to build up innings after throwing only 91 2/3 through his first three seasons. But there are no ranked Yankees prospects going to the AFL this season as of yet. No Clarke Schmidt or Michael King, who were each limited on the mound due to injuries. No Estevan Florial, who played in the Fall League last year and featured in only 74 games in 2019. It's easier to look who isn't representing the Yankees in Arizona than it is to look at who is.

Prospect to follow: Dean Kremer -- Looking for a pitcher capable of dominating this year's Fall League? Kremer could be the guy. The 23-year-old right-hander has ample upper-level experience and has some innings to make up after being limited by an oblique injury to 113 2/3 frames in the regular season. In 15 starts at Double-A Bowie, last year's Minor League strikeout leader put up a 2.98 ERA with 87 K's over 84 2/3 innings. He also may have something to prove after surrendering 19 earned runs in 19 1/3 frames with Triple-A Norfolk to end the season, though he also fanned 21 and walked only four in that span. The Orioles' No. 8 prospect has a plus curveball and above-average fastball (low-90s with movement) that should work against the advanced bats of the AFL, and if he can keep the punchouts coming there, he'll strengthen his positioning in Baltimore's rebuilding effort... just before he's eligible for the Rule 5 Draft.

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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