Legends of the Arizona Fall League: Peoria
Happy Arizona Fall League! Yes, while the eyes of the baseball-watching world are affixed on baseball’s biggest stage, the AFL launched its 22nd season yesterday. Among the opening slate of games the “defending champion” Peoria Javelinas got their season rolling. This season the Peoria roster will feature players from the Kansas City, Houston, San Diego, Philadelphia, and Seattle organizations. Let’s take a brief look at some of the more notable names on the roster, along with a more in depth examination of a handful of players to keep an eye on as potential breakout players for upcoming dynasty league drafts.
The Big Names
Danny Hultzen, LHP, SEA. Heading into the fall Hultzen was going to be far and away the most interesting name on the Peoria roster. A top-30 prospect per BA in each of the past two seasons, Hultzen entered 2013 as something of an enigma after a complete command collapse at AAA in the second half of ’12. After a hot start through four April turns in the rotation he developed shoulder issues that would limit him to just two more starts the rest of the season. His AFL performance would’ve been one of the more important in terms of raising or lowering a prospect’s status heading into ’14, but last week it was announced he would undergo shoulder surgery to repair a partial tear of his rotator cuff and a “clean up” of his labrum. Not good. Hultzen is safely drop-able in all but the deepest of dynasty formats at this point. Even if his recovery tracks well this winter, you’re likely to be able to find a better bet for projected value in a new draft pick this offseason.
Brandon Maurer, RHP, SEA. Another Seattle arm, Maurer was a fun sleeper play in 2013 as the “he’s closest to MLB-ready!” card in Seattle’s deep deck of minor league arms. Sure enough, Maurer did get his chance, making 14 starts among 22 total appearances. The 23 year-old posted an ugly 6.30 ERA and 1.57 WHIP, but his numbers were fueled by a fairly extreme 1.6 HR/9 rate and .346 BABIP. Under the hood he posted decent K/9 (7.0) & K/BB (2.59) rates, and given his strong groundball tendencies (44%) and career HR/9 rate of 0.54 in about 370 minor league innings it’s safe to expect some regression to the mean next year. While he no longer qualifies as a prospect due to exceeding the rookie innings cap, Maurer makes for an intriguing watch this fall and has the potential of a solid back-of-the-rotation target in the latter stages of drafts day next spring.
Delino DeShields, Jr., CF, HOU. DeShields is the kind of prospect who is likely to appear much higher on fantasy prospect lists than real-life ones. Houston drafted him as a centerfielder, converted him to a second baseman, and now it appears he’s poised to shift back to centerfield going forward. It’s a shame for his fantasy value, as his true 80 grade speed would hold that much more fantasy value at the keystone. Still, he’s been the best base stealer in the minor leagues this side of Billy Hamilton the last two seasons with 152 bags at an 80% success rate, and that’s reason enough to take a hard look at him. DeShields is a tough player to get a true read on at the stage of his career; he posted a breakout season in the Sally last year (.387 wOBA, 134 wRC+) and followed it up with an equally stellar .389/133 year after a promotion to A+ this year. His 2013 numbers need to be taken with a big ol’ grain of salt, however, as he posted them in one of the most offense-friendly home parks in one of the most offense-friendly leagues in the minors. Next season should be a telling one in determining his true projection, and if he can hold his own at Corpus Christi in the Texas League he could see a real surge in his prospect stock. His AFL performance should be among the more interesting to watch.
Others to Watch
Japhet Amador, 1B, HOU. All 6’4”, 315 pounds (!) of Amador was signed this summer by Houston after posting a .330/.401/.584 line in 500 games over a 7 year career in the Mexican League. The Mexican League is officially a AAA-level league, though it’s fairly notorious for shoddy pitching. Still, Amador’s .465 wOBA and 168 wRC+ last season is worth a raised eyebrow regardless of league, and he’ll play 2014 at that magical age of 27. He doesn’t strike out much for a guy with his size and power, and he may just push Chris Carter for playing time at first base (or push him entirely to the DH role) in Houston next year. He’s one to keep an eye on this fall and through spring training, as he has potential late round appeal as a power bat for your bench if it looks like he has a shot at breaking camp with the big club.
Cheslor Cuthbert, 3B, KCR. Cuthbert had a lot of helium entering 2012 after he showed an advanced approach and strong power potential as an 18 year old in full season ball the year before. He responded with a poor showing in A+ last year, managing just a 73 wRC+. Though he was quite young for the level, reports indicated a regression in his approach and he fell off a lot of radars entering 2013. Sent back to the Carolina League to try again this past season he made solid if quiet progress, rebounding to a .356 wOBA (116 wRC+) and earning a promotion to AA for the second half of the season. He struggled to adjust, but again, he was a 20 year-old in AA. The AFL should present an illuminating challenge for the youngster, and he’s a guy that has potential to zip back up prospect charts quickly in 2014.
Keyvius Sampson, RHP, SDG. Padres pitching prospect alert! A 4th round pick out of high school in 2009, Sampson made steady progress through the A ball ranks and earned a trip to AA as a 21 year-old in 2012. The results were mixed: a 5.00 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, and walk rate over 4 were not great, but he posted a strikeout an inning and gave up less than a hit an inning over 122 1/3 frames. San Diego aggressively sent him to the Pacific Coast League to start ’13, and he was promptly shelled and sent back to AA. He thrived in the return engagement, cutting his walk rate to under 3-per-9 and surrendering just 74 hits in 103 1/3 innings. He struggled again in a late-season promotion back to AAA, and he’s likely to open 2014 right back there. Sampson’s mid-nineties heat and plus change are a good enough combination that he should be able to thrive in a Major League bullpen, but if he’s able to continue refining a breaking ball next season he’s got middle-of-the-rotation potential. Given that the rotation in question calls Petco Park home, he’s a guy to watch in Arizona this fall.
Patrick Kivlehan, 3B, SEA. A final deep sleeper to keep an eye on, Kivlehan is a really interesting story. He went to Rutgers on a football scholarship, playing safety for all four years before walking onto the baseball team in the spring of his senior year. All he did after that was win the Big East triple crown, leading the Mariners to take a shot at him in the 4th round of the 2012 draft. He picked up where he left off at Low-A after signing with a 151 wRC+ over 316 plate appearances, and then followed it up with a combined .303/.366/.464 line with 16 homers and 15 steals across A and A+ this season. Now, his ’13 numbers were boosted by a half season at High Desert, the best offensive environment in the California League this side of Lancaster. So the AFL and his subsequent work next season (presumably in AA) will go a long way in telling us if he’s for real or not. If he does continue to progress, though, he’s got sneaky 20/20 upside down the line, and that kind of potential bears watching.