Toolshed: 2018 AFL roster rankings

Scottsdale features balanced group; Surprise boasts Guerrero

After spending most of 2018 at Double-A and Triple-A, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. moves to the Fall League. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | October 9, 2018 10:00 AM

And now back to your regularly scheduled prospect action.

Less than a month after the Minor League postseason ended with the Triple-A National Championship on Sept. 18, a season begins anew on Tuesday with the Arizona Fall League.

Running from Oct. 9-Nov. 17, this year's edition of the prospect finishing school features some of the game's most promising youngsters from all 30 farm systems spread out over six AFL clubs. Some players are looking to make up for lost time. Some are looking to build on strong 2018 campaigns. Others may be auditioning for 40-man roster spots or Rule 5 Draft selections ahead of their eligibility. Whatever the case, the AFL can be a wild experience, and this week's Toolshed is here to help tame it by ranking and breaking down this year's AFL rosters according to their strengths, weaknesses and potential wild cards.

1. Scottsdale Scorpions

Organizations: Astros, Giants, Mets, Phillies, Reds

Top 100 Prospects: Forrest Whitley, Peter Alonso, Taylor Trammell, Andres Gimenez

Strength: Balance -- With so many players in need of playing time, AFL rosters are constantly in flux to the point that trying to predict a day's lineup is a fool's errand. But because of the depth of the Scorpions roster, it's possible that on any given day the club could boast the game's top pitching prospect (Whitley), the Bauman Home Run Award winner (Alonso), the All-Star Futures Game MVP (Trammell) and a shortstop who's already held his own at Double-A before turning 20 (Gimenez). Those resumes stand out, but the overall collection of talent has a chance to congeal in really fun ways. Players like Trammell and Gimenez provide plenty of speed and top-of-the-lineup intrigue. Alonso and Darick Hall provide thump. Whitley -- who has innings to make up -- should get relatively long looks as a starter. There will be days when none of these players will play for the Scorpions, but when they do, it'll be tough to find a more loaded lineup in Arizona. And Scottsdale's depth of top-notch talent would have been even more impressive had top Phillies prospect Sixto Sanchez not had to bow out.

Weakness: Catching corps -- There had to be a hole somewhere on the roster, and as things stand, it's behind the plate. At No. 25 in the Mets system, Ali Sanchez is the only ranked catcher in the bunch. He's joined by Mark Kolozsvary (Reds) and Matt Winn (Giants). All three are solid defensively, with the 21-year-old Sanchez standing out with a plus arm that threw out 41.9 percent of attempted basestealers at Class A Columbia and Class A Advanced St. Lucie this season. But don't expect any of the trio to bring much with the bat; none of them have a career Minor League OPS above .685.

Wild card: J.B. Bukauskas -- This was meant to be the 2017 15th overall pick's first full season. It was anything but. A back injury suffered in a car accident kept him out from late April to late June and limited him to 59 innings across five different affiliates. But after moving to Class A Advanced Buies Creek on Aug. 2, he posted a 1.32 ERA with 39 strikeouts in 34 innings across his final six regular-season starts, including one at Double-A Corpus Christi. He fanned seven and gave up one earned run on three hits and three walks over six innings in his lone Texas League playoff start. The 6-foot right-hander has a plus-plus fastball and impressive slider but gets dinged for a high-effort delivery that can result in control woes. But if he brings his results from the second half with him to the Fall League, the Scorpions will have another incredibly talented arm to slot next to Whitley.

2. Surprise Saguaros

Organizations: Blue Jays, Cardinals, Pirates, Rangers, Royals

Top 100 Prospects: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Nate Pearson, Julio Pablo Martinez

Strength: Vlad Jr. -- No reason to kid ourselves. If the game's top prospect is on the roster, then he's going to be the main focus. That's especially the case with someone of Guerrero's ilk. Last year, Ronald Acuña Jr. was in a similar spot. He was clearly the Minors' best talent but didn't receive a Major League callup, instead ending his 2017 in the AFL. He went on to become the Fall League MVP. Can Guerrero follow the same path? One thing's for sure: his bat will play. He flirted with hitting .400 for most of the season at Double-A New Hampshire and Triple-A Buffalo, and, coming off his 50 extra-base-hit campaign, the 19-year-old third baseman will provide plenty of pop. It would have been nice to see Guerrero in the Majors instead, because no other circuit is likely to provide the test he needs or deserves, but few will complain about getting more of The Next Big Thing throughout the autumn.

Weakness: Cardinals prospects -- AFL roster philosophy changes from system to system and year to year, so this isn't a huge mark against St. Louis, other than to say it's a down year for Cards prospects heading west by southwest. The highest-ranked player joining Surprise from the St. Louis farm is No. 27 prospect Conner Greene, who shows upper-90s to triple-digit velocity out of the bullpen but walked 31 batters in 39 1/3 innings as a Triple-A reliever. The most intriguing storyline among Cardinals representatives might actually be on the bench; fresh off winning a Triple-A national title with Memphis, Stubby Clapp will manage the Saguaros. The veteran Minor League skipper's name has come up in rumors surrounding Major League openings, including the one in Toronto. Getting to work with Guerrero, Pearson, Cavan Biggio and others could earn the Ontario native a few points toward returning north of the border.

Wild card: C.D. Pelham -- The Rangers' No. 15 prospect has already picked up a few career highlights in 2018. Back in July, he represented Texas at the Futures Game. When rosters expanded in September, he got his first taste of the Major Leagues. Neither experience went great; Pelham didn't retire either of the two World batters he faced in the Futures Game and gave up six earned runs over 7 2/3 innings in his brief big league stay. But at each stop -- and at Class A Advanced Down East and Double-A Frisco before that -- he showed special velocity, hitting the upper-90s with ease and reaching as high as 99 on the gun in the Majors. That type of heat could make the 2015 33rd-round pick an AFL standout, but he'll need to continue to work on finding the strike zone with regularity.

3. Peoria Javelinas

Organizations: Braves, Brewers, Mariners, Padres, Rays

Top 100 Prospects: Keston Hiura, Cristian Pache

Strength: Defense -- Since the beginning of the 2017 season, Pache has been known as perhaps the Minors' best defensive center fielder, and it's a pretty safe bet that more than a few opposing AFL hitters will be left frustrated by the amount of ground he'll cover for Peoria. But the potential for him to pair up with No. 13 Padres prospect Buddy Reed (he of the plus arm and plus-plus speed) in a corner is downright salivation-inducing. Good luck getting a ball to fall on the grass there. On the infield, Mariners first baseman Evan White heads to the Fall League fresh off winning a Minor League Gold Glove on Monday, Rays shortstop Lucius Fox remains a standout at a tough position and Padres third baseman Hudson Potts has more than enough arm for the hot corner. This strength may not show in AFL box scores beyond lower hit and run totals, but you can bet it'll show on the field.

Weakness: Top-tier starting pitching -- Those looking for future No. 1s or 2s in this year's Fall League are best suited going elsewhere. No. 12 Braves prospect Kyle Muller and No. 27 Mariners prospect Anthony Misiewicz are the only ranked starting pitchers among this bunch, and even of those two, Muller -- who posted a 3.03 ERA with 129 strikeouts in 139 2/3 innings across three levels with an above-average fastball and curveball coming from his 6-foot-6 frame -- is decidedly the more impressive name. There are always some pop-up arms on every Fall League roster, especially in relief, but they'll be tougher to find over long stretches with Peoria.

Wild card: Austin Allen -- The 24-year-old backstop has mashed at every full-season stop he's made going up the Padres chain since he was a fourth-round pick out of Florida Tech in 2015. This season was no different, as Allen hit .290/.351/.506 with 22 homers and 31 doubles in 119 games with Double-A San Antonio. No doubt he'll hit in the Fall League, too. The only thing keeping him from a higher profile is his defense. San Diego's No. 25 prospect has room to grow as a framer and thrower -- though he deserves credit for throwing a career-best 36 percent of attempted basestealers in 2018 -- and he'll get that chance here. With San Diego already trying to figure out how it'll handle a catching platoon between Francisco Mejia and Austin Hedges, Allen has a chance to either worm his way into that conversation or show off his game to the other 29 clubs.

4. Glendale Desert Dogs

Organizations: Dodgers, Indians, Orioles, White Sox, Yankees

Top 100 Prospects: Keibert Ruiz, Luis Robert, Estevan Florial

Strength: Outfield speed -- Over in the Sept. 28 Toolshed, we established that Robert put his speed to the best use among Top 100 Prospects this season, and that came while a pair of thumb injuries limited him to 50 games. It'll be fun to see what type of havoc the 21-year-old speedster can wreak as his 2018 sample expands. But beyond him, the Glendale outfield also boasts a 70-grade runner in Florial and two 60-graders in Luis Alexander Basabe and Ryan McKenna. As was the case with Peoria, that'll help defensively on the grass, but the Desert Dogs have a chance to be even more of a menace on the basepaths, given their roster construction.

Weakness: Power -- Lots of speed to burn, not much pop. Only one Glendale slugger hit more than 20 home runs or produced a slugging percentage above .500 during the 2018 regular season, and that was unranked Dodgers first baseman Jared Walker, who batted .255/.365/.545 with 25 home runs between Class A Great Lakes and Class A Advanced Rancho Cucamonga. How the 22-year-old, left-handed-hitting slugger will handle himself against AFL arms is yet to be seen. Robert and Basabe both have above-average power potential, but Robert's thumbs and Florial's hamate injury kept them from truly tapping into that pop in 2018. The Desert Dogs might have to find other ways to manufacture runs.

Wild card: Zack Burdi -- The No. 17 White Sox prospect had a mouth-watering profile -- even as a reliever -- coming out of Louisville in 2016, and Chicago picked him up with the 26th overall pick as a result. He missed a good chunk of 2017 and almost all of 2018 due to Tommy John surgery. The 23-year-old right-hander returned to the Minors for seven rehab appearances in the Rookie-level Arizona League and is healthy enough to pick up some more innings in the same state. When healthy, Burdi can hit triple-digits with ease and can also show a plus slider. That helped him strike out 33.8 percent of the Triple-A batters he faced in 2017, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see that number take a jump in the AFL against less seasoned hitters. Proving his health will be Burdi's top priority in the coming weeks, but if he can also show his stuff is fully back, he'll enter Spring Training trying to win a Major League bullpen spot.

5. Salt River Rafters

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

Top 100 Prospects: Jon Duplantier, Carter Kieboom

Strength: Shortstops -- The 6 spot is always going to be one of the toolsiest on the field, but that's especially the case for the Rafters. Of course Kieboom gets the headlines as MLB.com's No. 37 overall prospect, and he's earned that spotlight after hitting .280/.357/.444 with 16 homers at Class A Advanced Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg in the Nats system. But fellow Rafter and No. 3 D-backs prospect Jazz Chisholm is knocking on the Top 100 himself after breaking out for 25 homers, a .513 slugging percentage and 17 steals for Class A Kane County and Class A Advanced Visalia. Don't sleep on No. 26 Marlins prospect Bryson Brigman, who hit .310 and stole 21 bases this season and will be looking to impress Miami after coming over from Seattle for Cameron Maybin on July 31. There should be a revolving door at short, and all three will keep the position interesting.

Weakness: Collection of talent -- When trying to figure out why Salt River is this far down, look to the five farm systems from which it's drawing its talent. Entering 2018, none of those five organizations landed higher than 13th in MiLB.com's Farm System Rankings, and even after a full season of breakouts and graduations and stocks rising and falling, not much has changed in that department. The D-backs, Marlins, Nationals, Rockies and Twins combine for 10 Top 100 Prospects, but only two of those are headed to the Fall League. Sure, there are some other interesting names -- Brent Rooker, Daniel Johnson, Daulton Varsho, Jordan Yamamoto among them -- but the star power isn't here compared to the AFL rosters above.

Wild card: Monte Harrison -- If this ranking came out a couple weeks back, Harrison would have added to the Rafters' Top 100 contingent. Instead, he's fallen a bit out of favor after leading the Minor Leagues with 215 strikeouts in 136 games with Double-A Jacksonville. The 23-year-old outfielder remains Miami's top prospect, however, because he still has plus speed, a plus-plus arm and some above-average power potential. If that package comes together, he'll have one of the loudest packages of tools in Arizona. But if Harrison continues to struggle to make contact against good arms, expect his stock to flounder further.

6. Mesa Solar Sox

Organizations: Angels, Athletics, Cubs, Red Sox, Tigers

Top 100 Prospects: Michael Chavis

Strength: Power -- Although there's only one Top 100 Prospect here, he plays nicely into Mesa's strength. Chavis was suspended 80 games after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance before the 2018 season began, but after returning in July, he looked very much himself, hitting .298/.381/.538 with nine homers in 46 games across three affiliates. He's joined by fellow Red Sox prospects Bobby Dalbec, who finished fourth in the Minors with 32 homers and second with 70 extra-base hits this season, and Josh Ockimey, who clocked 20 long balls at the top two levels of the Boston system. Another Red Sox hitter in Esteban Quiroz (.547 slugging percentage) and A's prospect Skye Bolt (19 homers) add some more pop, but most of that will come from Chavis, Dalbec and Ockimey.

Weakness: Outfield -- Daz Cameron is the big name here, and there should be plenty of eyes on him after the Tigers center fielder finished the season at Triple-A Toledo at 21 years old. Detroit's No. 8 prospect could especially wow some with his above-average speed and good arm and range on the grass. Elsewhere, though, the cupboard's a bit barren. Bolt brings some interest as a 19-19 player, but the A's No. 30 prospect will turn 25 in January and only has half a season of Double-A ball under his belt. D.J. Wilson's stock continues to drop as the Cubs' No. 16 prospect hit .219 with a .602 OPS at Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach this season. Other AFL outfield groups have significantly higher ceilings.

Wild card: Nico Hoerner -- The 2018 24th overall pick is the only member of this year's Draft class to head to the Arizona Fall League. Hoerner was looking awfully exciting when he went 16-for-49 (.327) with six extra-base hits, six stolen bases and a 4/9 K/BB ratio through his first 14 games of pro ball. Unfortunately, that quick start came to an abrupt end when he suffered a strained left elbow ligament with Class A South Bend in mid-July. The Cubs have sent him to the AFL to make up for the lost time, and if he can pick up where he left off offensively -- after a full 56-game junior spring at Stanford -- then he'll likely put himself on an even faster track to Wrigleyville.

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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