AFL prospects jump on fast track
Several players impressed scouts with Fall League performance
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- From Opening Day until the championship game, the one thing as constant as developing talent at the Arizona Fall League is the presence of scouts in the stands documenting it all.
And for good reason, the numbers don't lie. The sheer quantity -- and quality -- of players that go from the AFL to the big leagues every year is astounding, and it's enough to ensure that scouts don't want to miss an inning.
From that, comes a variety of opinions. Sometimes there's consensus, sometimes there's disagreement, but MLB.com spoke to scouts who spent considerable time working the Arizona Fall League to come up with some well-informed ideas about the best prospects from the AFL, 2008 edition.
Justin Smoak, Rangers: The No. 11 pick in the 2008 Draft didn't get much playing time as a member of the taxi squad with Surprise, but impressed during batting practice. When he got the chance to move over to the Javelinas and get some regular playing time. That's when he really opened some eyes, hitting .350 with a 1.019 OPS in 13 games. The switch-hitter has some serious power, especially from the left side of the plate. He doesn't have great range, but handles himself well with the glove.
Logan Morrison, Marlins: The Florida State League MVP kept on raking, finishing with a .404 average and 29 RBIs in 25 games. The left-handed hitter is pretty athletic and makes consistently hard contact by keeping his bat in the zone for a long time. He was one of the best pure hitters in the league and showed that he was solid defensively at first and could handle an outfield corner as well.
Chris Nelson, Rockies: It hasn't happened quickly for the 2004 first-round pick, but don't be surprised if his AFL performance turns out to be a big step toward moving his career along. It was enough to get him added to the 40-man roster, after hitting .321 and slugging .595. He also made the move over to second from shortstop, adding to his versatility and perhaps giving him another possibility of finding big-league time.
Drew Sutton, Astros: He played three infield position and both corner outfield positions this fall, showing an ability to handle pretty much anything thrown his way defensively. At the plate, Sutton proved that his 20-20 season in the Texas League wasn't a fluke, slugging .611 with a .426 OBP for Scottsdale. He has drawn comparisons to Geoff Blum, which wouldn't be a bad career at all, but he might have a little more bat than that.
Carlos Triunfel, Mariners: The youngest player in the league (18) answered some questions, though some are still concerned about his ability to hit against more advanced pitching. At his age, he clearly has things to learn, but he's pretty ahead of the curve. He's got the skills to be an everyday shortstop according to some, while others foresee a move to third base. The one thing everyone agrees on is that he has one of the best arms in baseball at any level. He'll have to watch his weight, but if he does that, the sky could be the limit.
Gordon Beckham, White Sox: Another 2008 first-rounder (No. 8 overall), Beckham wasted no time fitting in. He looked like he belonged at this level, hitting close to .400 with a 1.119 OPS. He won't wow you with plus range, but he showed he's capable of playing short, while also showing the ability and willingness to play second. His best tool is his bat, and he's got plenty of it, with a good chance to be a run-producing middle infielder in the near future.
Brett Wallace, Cardinals: The 2008 first-rounder (No. 13 overall) started a little slow offensively this fall, but then showed why everyone thought he was one of the best pure bats in the Draft class. He finished by hitting safely in 11 of his final 12 games for a .417 average, while driving in 17 runs in that span. He may never be a gold glover, but he definitely surprised some scouts with his ability at third. A "good athlete in a bad body," Wallace now has some others believing he'll be good enough to stay at the hot corner.
Jason Donald, Phillies: The 2008 Stenson Sportsmanship Award winner, Donald came off a solid year -- that included going to the Olympics -- and was one of the best performers in the Fall League, hitting .407 with a 1.223 OPS. He also showed the ability to play three infield positions -- second, short and third -- equally well. With injuries to Chase Utley and Pedro Feliz clouding the Phillies' Opening Day infield, Donald's flexibility might come in handy soon.
Matt Wieters, Orioles: Everyone -- from scouts to coaches to even his contemporaries on the field -- ran out of superlatives to describe Wieters. He can hit for average and power from both sides of the plate, has a cannon arm behind the dish and handles pitchers well. There may have even been a few who were watching closely to see if he could turn water into wine. He's a franchise-type player who's just about ready. Some have compared him to Joe Mauer, but with more power and switch-hitting ability.
J.P. Arencibia, Blue Jays: Even though he was slowed by the flu late in the Fall League season, Arencibia impressed both at the plate and behind it. He's solid defensively, though he tends to throw better from his knees than traditionally. He's got plus power, which he'll probably tap into more as he works on his plate discipline. The consensus was that he'll be a big-league everyday catcher in short order.
Julio Borbon, Rangers: On the scouting scale, Borbon gets the highest mark -- 80 -- on his speed. His defense is already solid in center field and can get even better with improved routes. While he showed improvement this fall working on his strike-zone judgment, he'll need to continue to tighten that up if he wants to be a table-setter atop of a lineup. He makes consistent hard contact, spraying line drives all over the field.
Eric Young Jr., Rockies: EY Jr. definitely opened up some eyes in the AFL, most notably his organization's, which added him to the 40-man roster. A legitimate MVP candidate for the league, he won the AFL batting title and stolen-base crown, serving as the perfect catalyst for Phoenix's offense. He also learned how to play the outfield and most felt he'll be OK there in time. He was the most energetic and prepared player in the league and it showed in his performance.
Sean Doolittle, A's: A gold-glove caliber first baseman, we put him here because of the depth at first in the league and the fact that he surprised some with how easily he made the transition to play a good corner outfield. His makeup is off the charts and his power came a lot faster than people expected.
Others of note: Brian Bogusevic (Astros) impressed many with his ability to hit after converting from the mound earlier this year. A two-way player in college, it's come back to him faster than most expected and he's a pretty good outfielder, too. ... The Marlins' John Raynor left early with a hand injury, but showed plus speed, good strike-zone judgment and excellent defense to boot. He could be in the bigs by 2009. ... Scouts were split on the Yankees' Austin Jackson, though some saw a pretty good all-around player, who has the chance to be a big-league regular. ... Casper Wells of the Tigers continued to show a good power stroke and his AFL performance seemed to move him further onto the radar.
Tyler Flowers, Braves: Flowers very easily could have been one of the catchers on this list. Offensively, there's no doubt he belongs, living up to his advanced billing with his performance swinging the bat. The jury is still out with his defense. He's definitely improved; some scouts think he's just fine, others are on the fence, though most felt he'd catch well enough to be an offensive-minded backstop at the higher levels.
Lorenzo Cain, Brewers: Cain very quietly opened a lot of eyes this fall, showing the ability to hit for average with some pop. He's got good speed and defends pretty well. He may not get the same recognition as others on this list, but he's got the chance to be a pretty good big-league outfielder.
Editor's note: Pitchers who were no longer rookies -- Clay Buchholz, Phil Hughes and Max Scherzer -- were not considered for this list
Tommy Hanson, Braves: Outside of maybe Wieters, Hanson is the most obvious choice on the list as the Braves prospect turned in one of the most dominant AFL pitching performances in recent memory. With the ability to throw three pitches for strikes, and the willingness to throw any of them at any point in the count, the big right-hander appears to be just about ready to join a big-league rotation.
Jeremy Jeffress, Brewers: It was a down year for righties in the AFL and while relievers like Bud Norris and Andrew Carignan excelled, we're going with the guy who wowed folks stuff-wise. Trouble is, he only pitched three times before being shut down, and one of them came when he was clearly not at his best. That being said, he showed the plus pure stuff that made him a first-round pick in 2006. He hit triple digits with his fastball and showed a good breaking ball as well. His changeup still needs work, but it looked like he was headed in the right direction.
Brian Matusz, Orioles: Despite making his unofficial pro debut in the AFL, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2008 Draft definitely looked like he belonged. He's got two breaking pitches, a slider and curve, both of which are plus offerings. Add that to slightly above-average fastball velocity, as well as command of all his offerings, and you're looking at a front-of-the-rotation southpaw who should get there quickly.
Aaron Poreda, White Sox: While scouts were also impressed with the pure stuff of the Marlins' Sean West, Poreda gets the nod here. The White Sox first-rounder from the 2007 Draft showed plus command of a high-velocity fastball. Where he's improved the most, scouts say, is with his slider. He was working on a changeup and it has a chance to be a usable offering. Poreda goes right after hitters and attacks the zone. If he remains a starter, he could be ready for the bigs in late 2009 or early 2010. If the White Sox decide, however, to put him into the pen, his fastball-slider combination from the left side might be enough to get him there right away.
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.