November 6, 2014
Notes from the Field
AFL Notes, Part 1
Blue Chippers (Position Players)
These players are well known for their loud tools. This section is mean to serve as an update on these prospects and their current location along the developmental timeline.
OF Byron Buxton (Twins)
The 2014 season wasn't Byron Buxton's year. He spent time on the disabled list with multiple wrist injuries and a concussion sustained in an outfield collision in his first game at Double-A. He went to the AFL looking to make up for lost time. While his AFL season was also cut short after he dislocated the middle finger on his left hand, he first proved that his elite tools were intact. More importantly, his potential impact to the Twins remains practically unchanged, other than a year delay in his timeline. The Twins enter the offseason with a murky outfield picture, but Buxton’s lost developmental year inhibits his ability to take advantage of the opportunity—though a premium athlete like Buxton could hold his own while taking his lumps and learning hard lessons at the major-league level. He was already expected to open 2015 in the minors, at least for financial reasons, but his loss of development time may necessitate spending the entire 2015 season there. The tools he showcased in the AFL were as advertised: plus-plus bat speed with a loose swing with a quick-twitch trigger; an 80 runner in center with a plus arm and plus accuracy. One of the highlights of the AFL was his stolen base off of Rays C Justin O'Connor, who popped a 1.84 attempting but couldn’t throw Buxton out. The takeaway from his brief AFL stint is that in spite of the injuries the tools remain intact—it's just a question of how well they'll play at the highest level of competition.
SS Addison Russell (Cubs)
Russell was in the AFL to make up for the hamstring injury that cost him the first half of 2014, and while he DH'd both games I saw him play, there was no evidence that the torn hamstring suffered in April will alter his profile long term. He swung the bat like a hitter on the verge of the big leagues and his tools are elite. Assuming his plus defensive tools at shortstop are still there—and they appeared to be in workouts—the Cubs acquired one of the most valuable prospects in the game when they landed him in June. Where they will have an opening for him to play in the big leagues is a highly enviable first world problem, and he owns the tools to defend any infield position with reps. The Cubs can delay his service clock to avoid super two arbitration eligibility by sending him to the minors for the first six or so weeks of the season. That’s not entirely necessary given their large market revenue streams, but the necessary reps to learn the finer points of whichever infield position they decide to move him to (if they decide to move him) would coincide with the benefit, while also allowing time for the other parts of the infield logjam to sort out. Alternatively, if the Cubs decide to make a run at contention in 2015, Russell could be ready to play a role from day one. Ultimately, the return they are able to fetch on the free agent and/or trade markets this offseason will influence Russell's route. But it appears to be a question of when, not if, Russell will be an impact big leaguer.
SS Francisco Lindor (Indians)
Lindor has very little left to learn in the minor leagues. It is unclear whether the Indians will start his service clock immediately or give Jose Ramirez more time at shortstop, but regardless of his ETA Lindor is a likely Gold Glove winner at the game's most premium position. There isn't a significant gap between his present ability and that long-term potential. The game comes slowly to him and he's exceptionally smooth and coordinated in his actions. Offensively he doesn't own the same kind of lofty ceiling, but he shows solid-average tools from both sides of the plate and will benefit from a constant platoon advantage as a switch-hitter. He also showed impressive cognition at the plate, as highlighted by his 2-for-2 showing against the 2013 no. 1 overall pick, Mark Appel. Despite falling behind 0-2, Lindor was sitting on Appel’s backdoor slider, and drove it hard up the middle for a single. In their second meeting Appel tried to fool Lindor with a 2-0 changeup, but Lindor was ready for it and ripped a double to right. He has fringy hidden power when taking advantage of mistakes, though he's more of a doubles hitter. Lindor’s approach could allow his tools to play up to above-average offensive levels in his prime. This will pair well with above-average speed for a solid offensive package to complement his elite game-changing defense. Cleveland has an infield surplus that it will have to clear up to create room for Lindor, but his game is clearly ready for the big leagues whenever the Indians are able to clear a spot for him.
SS Tim Anderson (White Sox)
The hype of the prospect world is heavily centered around the game's current top-ranked prospect, Byron Buxton. Anderson is cut from the same cloth, gifted with a fast twitch trigger that allows him to accelerate his hands with jaw-dropping quickness and generate plus bat speed with relative ease. The swing is fast and loose, though the live-bodied 21-year-old lacks the muscle mass that is typically associated with power hitters. Much like Buxton, Anderson’s highly concentrated muscle density, particularly in the forearms, works with the barrel speed to generate above-average present power. He's a premium athlete defensively and on the basepaths. That athleticism, combined with the fact that he's not a completely natural shortstop at this stage, does lead to the temptation to move him to center field to speed his climb to the majors. But his first-step quickness and arm strength on quick releases allow him to compensate for some of his current puppy phase sloppiness at short and as he continues to gain experience. Anyway, the plate approach is still a ways from becoming major-league ready. If the bat was already major-league ready a move to the outfield for a 2015 debut would make sense, but given his location on the development curve the best action seems to be giving him another year to hone his craft at short and mature as a hitter. If he can develop even marginal on-base skills and improve his defense, Anderson has a realistic chance to become an impact asset for the White Sox. Alexei Ramirez is under contract for 2015 with a club option for 2016, Anderson's development will play a large role in their decision on that option.
OF Hunter Renfroe (Padres)
The prototypical right field prospect, Renfroe not only looks the part but owns the requisite tools, with plus-plus raw power and arm strength. The hit tool isn't ready for primetime just yet and he's an average present runner who is likely to lose a step as he ages, but his assets are of impact variety. He was aggressively promoted to Double-A early in his first full pro season this year, and he had to trade some of his power production to maintain his contact rate, suggesting he would be well served to return to Double-A for the start of 2015. But he had flashes of dominance against high-level pitching in the AFL, a positive sign that he isn't far off from being able to produce at a high level in the upper minors. After a brief Cal League look this spring and an AFL look, I think the swing-and-miss issues are a bit overblown; yes, it is a part of his game due to the aggression in his swing, but he shows the ability to make adjustments and has put together quality at-bats against talented opposing pitchers. Renfroe is a potential monster whose power will play anywhere, including Petco Park.
Blue Chippers (Pitchers)
RHP Mark Appel (Astros)
His inclusion in the Blue Chip category is debatable, given his wildly uneven performance in 2014. After his abysmal showing in the California League, the Astros mercifully promoted him to the Texas League where he posted very solid numbers. Given that he was the first overall pick in 2013, that he found success at Double-A this year, and that he has had a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League, he warrants elevation back into Blue Chip status. He turned in a dominant AFL outing in which he tossed five shutout innings, allowing just two hits (both to Francisco Lindor) and didn't issue a walk while striking out four. He sat 94-96 and touched 97 in the fifth inning with a fast whippy arm action that comes through the arm stroke loose and clean. He still isn't consistent in his timing, causing his arm to fire late and leaving the ball up to the arm side, but he stays around the zone even when he's late. When he's on time he flashed plus command of both his fastball and slider. His slider flashed sharp bite in the mid-80s, and in the late innings he finally found the release point to locate it to both sides and it became a swing-and-miss pitch for him. He rarely used his changeup in the outing, but it is an above-average pitch at its best as well. There is reason to be disappointed that he hasn't advanced as quickly as expected coming out of the 2013 draft, but reports of his demise have been greatly exaggerated. Until he shows improved consistency with his release point he won't reach his front-of-the-rotation ceiling, but he's a good athlete with loud stuff who still has the potential to do so. Even if he doesn't he has a mid-rotation floor.
RHP Archie Bradley (Diamondbacks)
This is not meant to be a prospect obituary by any stretch of the imagination. The arm, the body and the present stuff all point toward an obvious Blue Chip prospect. This look, as well as those I have had over the past four years—dating back to his amateur days—fully support that; this is an elite talent. But the questions remain about his command and his changeup development, both of which will ultimately determine his ability to thrive in a starting role, or else limit him to a high-leverage relief role. Either way, he's an elite arm, and even if the command never emerges he has a strong chance of maintaining enough control to get by as a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter on the merit of his power arsenal.
RHP Tyler Glasnow (Pirates)
While he's still a ways from being big-league ready, the looseness to his delivery and emerging coordination to his lanky 6-foot-7 frame offer significant upside. The 21-year-old offers more physical projection than most of the prospects in the AFL, and while his present stuff is quite solid, the room for growth pushes his ceiling upward. The present command is hindered by repeatability issues in the delivery, which is somewhat common among pitching prospects with similar body types. He topped out at 95 while sitting 91-93 during his matchup against Kyle Zimmer, and he paired it with a 12-6 hammer curveball. The curveball was deep and sharp in the mid-upper-70s at its best, though the pitch lacked consistency. He flashed a small handful of solid and below changups in the low-mid-80s; it's a pitch that shows promise but wasn't a significant factor in this outing. Glasnow has an inherently risky profile and while he's a longshot to reach his no. 2 starter ceiling, there is more than enough fallback value to expect him to provide at least some big-league value no matter how the next couple of years shake out developmentally.
RHP C.J. Edwards (Cubs)
From a two-dimensional "this is what C.J. Edwards is right now" frame of reference, I agree with the popular opinion that the profile adds up to a bullpen arm. And the bullpen makes sense as a logical entry point to the big leagues, but there is reason for optimism that Edwards can develop into a productive starter long term. Much has been made of how his profile lines up due to his lack of present command and quality of raw stuff. But the repeatability issues in his delivery are the result of a lack of strength and body control that lead to instability. As he gets stronger this should become less of an issue. While his frame doesn't project for him to ever develop into an overly physical athlete, some strength gains would allow him to develop the body control, and resulting command, to fit into a rotation. He will also have to do a better job of maintaining his delivery pace and arm speed on his changeup, which he has a tendency to tip. A year ago he was hyped in the prospect media, and in the intermittent months there seems to have been an overcorrection with a very pessimistic picture being painted of his long-term value. While I see a fairly unstable commodity, there is a better chance of reaching his ceiling than he's been given credit for in more recent coverage. With his inherent risk comes substantial reward potential.
This group features players who are firmly established on the prospect radar, but are not yet discussed among the game's elite prospects. They have the kind of tools to take the next step over the next year to become next year's elites.
OF Brandon Nimmo (Mets)
His eligibility for this category is debatable. Having been a first round pick in 2011 and having played in the 2013 Futures Game puts him into consideration for the Blue Chip group. The approach was much more advanced than expected from a 21-year-old who grew up in Wyoming. The approach is enhanced by impressive spin and location recognition, which allow him to execute his plan effectively. The swing is smooth and easy with above-average bat speed and loose strength. He shows above-average batting practice power and has a frame that can handle additional strength before cutting into his above-average athleticism. I didn't get to see him play center field but the reports have been optimistic about his long-term future there, and his play in left field did nothing to indicate otherwise. The separation between Nimmo and the Blue Chip prospects group is the lack of an elite carrying tool. As an overall prospect Nimmo is very solid across the board, with a realistic projection of five average or better tools. His performance in the upper levels of the minors should begin to catch up to his physical ability in 2015.
CIF D.J. Peterson (Mariners)
His home run barrage in the hitter-friendly California League in the first half of 2014 was a nice start to the year, but didn't necessarily prove anything significant. A promotion to the Southern League slowed his pace a bit, though he still maintained a solid power stroke in the second half. The underlying tools support the production, as he owns plus bat speed and easy plus power to the pull side. In batting practice he shows pop to all fields, though he rarely goes to center or right field during game at-bats. His aggression causes significant swing-and-miss but he showed the ability to stay back on quality off-speed stuff and has no issues catching up to high-end velocity. He shows enough discipline to keep pitchers honest, and while he's aggressive on pitches near the zone he isn't overly susceptible to chasing unhittable pitches. His above-average hit tool should allow his plus raw power to continue to play as he progresses. He will need to fine tune his approach and use the whole field better at the higher levels, but he has all the physical ability to continue producing significant power and take the next step forward to becoming a premium prospect. His defensive value is minimal, as he's a fringy third base prospect who many have tabbed as a future first baseman. He has the athleticism to handle the corner outfield as well, though he doesn't project as a plus defender at any spot. He lacks a truly elite ceiling, but is a very strong second-tier prospect with a bat-first profile.
MIF Daniel Robertson (Athletics)
When the A's drafted Robertson 34th overall it looked like they were getting a quality hit tool with some power potential and solid infield-defense tools, but without a clear cut position. What the A's saw that the industry didn't was that Robertson was a good enough athlete to stay up the middle long term. Where others saw a future third baseman with arm strength and power that would be fringy for a top 50 prospect, the A's saw a potential shortstop with significant offensive value. Two years into his professional career Robertson is making the A's look smart, as he has hit as expected while working himself into an above-average shortstop at present. He has a nose for the ball, combining good anticipation with a quick first step, allowing his range to play up to big-league shortstop standards. He's not quite major-league ready at short; there’s some fine tuning necessary to his internal clock, and he tends to short-arm his rushed throws, causing the ball to sail. From a tools standpoint, he looks like a safe bet to stay up the middle—pending a major-league opening, of course. There was some leaking open in his swing during my viewing, but he picks the ball up well out of the hand and has little trouble identifying spin and location. However, he accelerates his hands well into a loose swing and has solid power to go with an advanced hit tool. In addition to the tools, the hard-nosed approach—not only in games, but in pre-game infield and BP—really stands out, and in hindsight it's easy to see why he's on track to reach his ceiling. In spite of lacking a single plus-plus tool, it won't be long before he's talked about among the game's top prospects.
C Justin O'Connor (Rays)
The conversion to catcher is going quite well. His arm strength was already an asset as a prep shortstop, but has now developed into a plus-plus tool that allows him to generate big velocity on his throws even when rushing his release. He posted multiple in-game pop times in the mid-1.8 range and caused most baserunners to think better of attempting to steal on him. His receiving and blocking are still works in progress, but were well ahead of what I had expected them to be given his limited experience at the position. He has a realistic chance to become an impact defensive catcher, and he pairs it with plus raw power at the plate. His offensive approach is raw and his swing is violent and filled with holes. But he blasted a foul ball that nearly bounced out of Surprise Stadium in my first look and he puts on a show in batting practice. He profiles as a bottom-of-the-order power source while playing plus defense behind the plate. While that doesn't add up to a household name, it's a valuable asset in an organization that desperately needs its farm system to produce.
OF Nick Williams (Rangers)
From a raw tools standpoint Williams is one of the most exciting prospects in all of baseball. From a present skills standpoint he toes the line between prospect and suspect. The development that he has shown in the skills department since turning pro is somewhat reassuring, however, as he had a long way to go and has begun to make up some of that ground. He has the athleticism of a center field prospect, though his routes and reads are still in progress, and there is a strong chance he winds up spending his career in left field. The on-base skills are the most glaring flaw in Williams' current game. He's a free swinger whose bad-ball hitting ability positively reinforces his bad habits. But he does adjust to off-speed and in my brief two-game look he didn't have an exposed hole in his swing on pitches inside the zone. While he rarely shows anything resembling an approach, he has actually made some progress from his "swing hard at everything" prep ways. Even moderate progress in this department will likely lead to huge gains. Williams has some of the fastest hands in the game and features elite upside. Whether he will tap into it, and to what extent, remains to be seen. But his immense talent will compensate for some of his flaws and if he can develop near average skills to support his loud raw tools. Next year will be a big year for him as he will move to Double-A, where he will be faced with the second sink-or-swim challenge of his career. His pro debut went well and he made the requisite adjustments to succeed in the lower levels of the minors. It will be interesting to see how he responds to the challenges of the upper minors, where raw talent alone will not be enough.
Todd Gold is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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