Scouting the Statline: AFL Progress Report
We’re rapidly approaching the halfway point of the Arizona Fall League schedule, which means most of your everyday players have managed to log 40 or 50 plate appearances at this point. There’s obviously nothing remotely representative about any of these samples, but it’s nonetheless worthwhile to check in on the league and see who’s been doing what so far. The AFL can certainly nudge the up/down/sideways indicator arrows next to a given prospect’s name, and that in turn affects dynasty league value heading into off-season trading time.
First, some league context. The AFL is notoriously known as a great hitting environment, though that hasn’t been entirely the case so far this fall. The three best hitting leagues in the minor leagues this year were the Rookie-level Pioneer League (.773 league-average OPS), the AAA Pacific Coast League (.771), and the High-A California League (.767). For comparison Major League hitters logged an even .700 cumulative OPS by way of a .251/.314/.386 composite line. AFL hitters to date have only been about .10 points of OPS better than that, at a combined .255/.328/.382 across about 3,300 plate appearances, during which they’ve generated exactly five runs a game. The average pitcher has produced a 4.42 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 7.97 strikeouts, and 4.1 walks per nine innings. So while pitchers have been walking a bunch of guys and giving up a ton of baserunners – a not entirely surprising development at the tail end of a long season – the league on the whole has produced runs at a rate that’s a far cry from some of the more extreme offensive environments of 2014.
Given all that, let’s check in on some of the more notable performances in the desert so far, good, bad, and ugly alike.
Eddie Rosario, CF MIN
To say it’s been a tough year for Rosario would be an understatement. The Twins began the process of moving him off the infield dirt to centerfield last winter. That shift that already had his dynasty league owners growing, and then he was subsequently popped for a 50-game PED suspension in January. After making his season debut briefly at High-A at the end of May he went on to produce hugely underwhelming results at AA, with a triple slash of .243/.286/.387 and reports of a misconstrued power approach and stagnant hitting skills. Well, it’s possible that reports of his demise may have been a tad premature. He’s been raking out west to the tune of .429/.426/.452 in his first 42 AB’s, leading the league in batting average (.429) and stolen bases (6) along the way. Up until this year there hadn’t been much question about his bat-to-ball skills, and even his struggles this year seemed to be more the product of poor approach than a deterioration of his raw ability. Still, even if he’s in the process of righting the ship a best case developmental scenario doesn’t look like it’ll hold a ton of appeal outside of deep dynasty formats. Despite the stolen base surge this fall Rosario’s not a great base stealer, with just a 65% career success rate on 106 career attempts in the minors (including only 30 bags on 56 attempts above A ball). And it’s become pretty clear to scouts that he’s not going to be a guy to tap into even 15 homer power at the highest levels without severely compromising his hit tool. So that means we’re left with a guy who might develop into a .290 hitter with 12/12 potential at his peak five years from now. As Howie Kendrick has proven time and time again there’s value in that at second base. In the outfield, however, it’s a much less exciting profile. If I own him I’m using this ray of sunshine to try and boost his value in trade talks this winter.
Greg Bird, 1B NYY
I gave Bird some ink in my Scottsdale preview a couple weeks ago, and as a first base prospect fetishist and OBP league aficionado he’s been on my radar for a while. The knock on Bird has always been that he’s too patient for his own good, to the point where he shorts his own game power by letting too many drivable pitches reach that catcher’s mitt. Well, he’s certainly been responding to his critics so far in the AFL. He’s put up a .333/.382/.627 line over 51 at-bats out of the gate, and currently leads the league in homeruns (4) and total bases (32). Perhaps most interestingly, though, he’s registered a 14:3 strikeout-to-walk ratio thus far, indicating a more aggressive approach at the dish. I’m not willing to go all-in on him just yet, at least until we get more intel on him at AA next spring. He’s struggled mightily in the past with same-handed pitching, and he swings and misses enough to where it’ll have to be a tenuous balance between power and patience if he’s going to develop first division fantasy potential. But if he keeps mashing like this for the rest of the fall schedule your window to acquire him in drafts this winter may just get a bit tighter.
Patrick Kivlehan, 3B/1B SEA
Kivlehan started popping up on radars after a monster campaign at High Desert in 2013. Given that hitter’s paradise of a ballpark the breakout was easy to discount, but after a repeat performance there to start 2014 he continued to mash at AA Jackson over 430 plate appearances. He’s a late-bloomer for a prospect, having played four years of college football before committing full-time to baseball, and the Mariners are transitioning him to first base this fall. There’s a lot of pressure on the bat to produce, but so far so good in the AFL. He’s hit .311/.404/.578 in 45 at-bats, with three homers and a strong 7:6 strikeout-to-walk rate. It’s unclear whether he’ll be able to continue bringing enough of his plus raw power into games to matter now that he’s on a first base track, and Seattle’s record of developing bats is…not good. But all he’s done so far is mash and late-bloomer types like him can be tough sales for scouts. He’ll be a bat to monitor closely through a likely return engagement at AA in the spring.
Tim Anderson, SS CHW
Anderson boasts some of the most drool-inducing raw tools in the minor leagues, but he still needs a ton of in-game reps to continue refining the package. A broken wrist cost him two months this summer, and that places an even higher premium on getting as much game action as possible under his belt this fall. He’s one of the youngest players in the AFL at 21, and given that context he’s done an impressive job in holding his own with a .308/.325/.436 line across 39 at-bats so far. His 13:0 strikeout-to-walk rate, however, flashes a bunch of big, red warning light. His approach remains wildly unrefined, and it’s a very open question as to what position he’ll eventually call home. Anderson’s a difficult dynasty league prospect to value in that he’s very far away from being a finished product, yet he’s been fast-tracked by an aggressive organization and responded by and large positively at every stop so far. The upside here is enormous, and he probably holds the most value as an asset to shop for teams looking to compete this year. On the flipside, long-term rebuild owners should toss a heart around his name on their acquisition lists.
Nick Williams, OF TEX
Williams is a prospect eerily similar in nature and valuation to Anderson. Also just 21, Williams is highly regarded among scouts for his innate bat-to-ball skills, with some evaluators going as high as 70 with his hit tool projection. The problem is that because he’s naturally so good at barreling baseballs he’s never really had to develop much of an approach in the low minors, and that’s evident in his same-as-Anderson 13:0 strikeout-to-walk rate over 49 AFL at-bats. Williams tasted AA waters for the first time down the stretch with uninspiring results, and it’s going to take some time for him to develop anything close to a Major League-caliber approach at the plate. The raw skills are tantalizing, however, which makes him similar to Anderson as a great longer-term asset and solid trade bait for competitive deep league teams this off-season.
Byron Buxton, OF MIN
There’s not much to glean from Buxton’s rough .209/.277/.233 line over 43 at-bats, other than that a) it’s nice to see him back on the field and playing regularly, and b) his struggles here on top of what was basically a lost year may just prop the window to acquire him open a little bit wider. If he doesn’t hold on to his consensus top prospect standing this off-season he’ll certainly retain top three status, and yet a season’s worth of frustration for his current owner in your league maaay just be enough to make him available for the right price. Worth kicking the tires, anyway.
Mark Appel, RHP HOU
I saw Appel throw three games in the California League earlier this season and he looked like a lost puppy. The stuff flashed plus, but his command was poor, his pitches lacked finish, and his mound presence was terrible. A second-half promotion to AA seemed to reinvigorate him, however, and he’s carried that rebound into his first three AFL starts. He’s logged 12 innings now with a 12:3 strikeout-to-walk ratio, no runs, and only four hits allowed. More importantly scouts have noted much better command and execution of his pitches, and he appears to have restored much of his lost prospect shine. That’s good news for his owners, who should be looking to dump him while the dumping’s good. Appel doesn’t quite fit the mold of the back-end prospect Craig recently wrote about, but he’s also not likely to develop into a number one starter, and certainly not in the next year or two. Except in the worst of worst-case rebuilding scenarios that’s the window owners in dynasty leagues should be concerned about, and thus a guy like Appel – replete with draft-position cache and on the upswing – has more value than he deserves on name recognition.
Archie Bradley, RHP ARI
Speaking of prospects who’ve lost a bit of luster, Bradley has quietly morphed into a troubling enigma in his own right. After lackluster campaigns in AA and AAA on the back end of spring elbow issues that cost him a couple months on the shelf Bradley headed to the desert to log more innings. So far, however, Arizona’s greeted him quite rudely. In three starts he’s lasted just seven innings while yielding 13 runs (eight earned) on 12 hits to go along with an even 6:6 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The stuff that had him ranked as a consensus top-10 prospect before the season is still there in spades, but the lost development time has at best stagnated and at worst regressed his already-shaky command. As the old adage goes, it doesn’t matter what you throw if you can’t throw it for strikes, and Bradley’s increasingly looking less the part of the automatic future ace he used to look like. It’s too early to cut the cord if you own him, but he’ll be somebody to pay close attention to come spring time to see if he’s done anything to iron out mechanics or otherwise address some of the root causes of his inconsistencies.
Robbie Ray, LHP DET
After serving as the centerpiece of the much-maligned Doug Fister trade last winter Ray hit the Motown minor league ranks with something to prove, but instead put together a pretty tepid season at AAA ahead of a poor Major League debut down the stretch. Scouts have long questioned whether Ray would have enough depth in his arsenal to miss bats and remain in the rotation, but he’s doing his best so far in the AFL to quiet those concerns. In three starts he’s now logged nine innings with 12 strikeouts and just a single run conceded on five hits and four walks. He’ll likely head to camp in the spring with at least a shot at the fifth rotation spot in Detroit, and if he can carry over his strikeout groove he’ll be a sneaky name to watch and potentially target in AL-only formats.
Kyle Zimmer, RHP KCR
Well, everything can’t break right for the Royals at once. After a promising start to his AFL campaign Zimmer exited his third start with a recurrence of the shoulder soreness that held him to just five innings all season, and now we’re right back where we started. Unless we’re talking about a TDGX-deep league I’d be just about done bothering with Zimmer at this point in dynasty formats. For as good as he may become minor league pitchers that lose a full season-plus to a shoulder injury generally make for a very poor use of one of your minor league roster slots. Maybe he emerges in the spring with a clean bill of health, dominates AA, and forces his way up to KC by the end of next summer. Maybe? Maybe you’ll hit that inside straight, too.
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