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High-Time In The Desert

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A 2018 Arizona Fall League Primer.

AZ Fall League: Phoenix v Scottsdale Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Fall is in the air, which means two things in baseball. The first and most obvious is that playoff baseball has arrived, a spectacle that the Cardinals unfortunately missed out on yet again this year. This post isn’t about investigating that particular fiasco, although there is an obscene amount of rich content down that particular rabbit hole. No, this post is about the capstone to prospecting season, the Arizona Fall League.

The Arizona Fall League, or AFL, is a sort of finishing school for prospects. It is a collection of the games best prospects, representatives sent by their respective organizations to duke it out under the hot desert sun. It isn’t just an all-star league, though, as many teams use the platform to get a better look at a particular player, or to get a particular player extra reps. It’s complicated, but fun.

This year the Cardinals are sending eight players, four pitchers and four hitters, to make up part of the Surprise Saguaros. The Saguaros will be made up of players from the Royals, Pirates, Cardinals, Rangers and Blue Jays this year (NOTE: this author must mention that manning third base for Surprise will be Vladimir Guerrero Jr., he of superhuman strength and godlike bloodlines).

The season starts tomorrow, with Suprise taking on the Salt River Rafters. As a quick crash course, I’m prepared to splatter out some loosely tethered thoughts on each prospect heading to the desert, in hopes of providing a rough sketch of where this contingent fits in the overall narrative of the farm system.

The Super Sleepers

Andy Young - 2B

Young has developed something of a cult following in the last several months. The former 37th rounder has done nothing but mash since April, tearing through Palm Beach before laying waste to the Texas State League in his first taste of AA pitching. And he did it all in two different ways: flashing improved plate discipline at High-A, inching his walk rate closer to double digits, then swinging freer and hitting for more power at Double-A. The overall line ended up at .289/.379/.479 across 504 plate appearances. His walk and strikeout rates ran at 7.6% and 16.9%, respectively, all adding up to a 144 wRC+. Mix in steady defense at the keystone, and you have an incredibly interesting middle infielder.

The monster season put Young on the radar here at VEB, but the reverberations haven’t reached the general prospectdom populace yet. A strong showing for the Saguaros could take this cult hit mainstream. If he repeats his Springfield heroics he’d be the best hitter in the league not named after a Hall of Famer. And yet, it doesn’t matter all that much if he hits or not. Keep in mind that Young was a late-round senior sign, a cold weather kid with modest tools who needed to go through Neosho Community College to even get to Indiana State. If he puts up an average line in Arizona, so what? He’ll just be the next candidate for validating the “Cardinals Devil Magic” hypothesis, making other fanbases cry foul even though the markers were in front of them the entire time.

Bottomline is that Young made the tangible move from “guy beating up on younger competition” to “legitimate second base prospect” this season. Anything in Arizona is just gravy.

Evan Kruczynski - LHP

Two or three years ago, Kruczynski probably would have been lost in the depth of the Cardinals pitching pipeline. Flash forward to 2018, a year that saw top arms graduate and others be traded away, and there’s suddenly room to breathe - a small power vacuum daring players to insert themselves into the conversation. Kruczynski saw the opportunity and ran with it.

I think I noticed Kruczynski before I ever really noticed Kruczynski, if that makes any sense. His profile/potential was one of those stray thoughts, the ones that float around in the back of your mind, an ever-present yet barely audible background noise. I felt there was something there, intuitively, but I couldn’t place exactly what. You see, I started my time here on the site doing Tuesday and Thursday Farm Reports. Lots of teams, lots of games, lots of names. Over time you get a real feel for the ebbs and flows of each players season. Some players experience blazing hot streaks and frigid cold streaks, lighting up box scores consistently then falling off a cliff for weeks at a time. Others hum along at a steady clip, warranting a mention but not making all the big headlines. Impossible to ignore, but hard to notice. Kruczynski was that guy. As he pushed from Palm Beach to Springfield, a clearer picture of a his game came into focus.

His fastball sits low-90’s, mostly on the lower end of that range, but he commands the offering well. The secondaries are just average, but he pounds the zone relentlessly. It all plays up thanks to a little funk in his delivery. He hides the ball well with a slow-to-fast tempo, creating enough deception that hitters never seem entirely comfortable. The package played, eventually cooking up this line:

(A+/AA) - 115.2 IP, 8.33 K/9, 2.41 BB/9, 3.50 ERA, 3.31 FIP

A solid base of innings, a 3.45 K/BB, a quality ERA, and an FIP that suggests he even got a little unlucky. The arsenal is good, although not great, but it’s the way the entire package fits together that makes Kruczynski interesting. It’s a back-end starter profile, maybe like Austin Gomber with a worse curveball, and the Arizona Fall League is his chance to show he can compete against the games best prospects.

The Guys Auditioning

Tommy Edman - 2B/SS

Edman, for lack of better words, is auditioning for Greg Garcia’s job. Not immediately, mind you, as Edman still has some time before he needs to be added to the 40 man. But perhaps a season or two down the road, when the team needs a contact oriented utility infielder on the bench.

He didn’t blow the doors off the game in 2018 but he posted a campaign worth noting. Across AA and AAA, the Stanford product slashed .301/.354/.402 for a 108 wRC+. The glovework looked good all over the diamond, though the arm was stretched at short and third, and he swiped 30 bags on 35 attempts. Should his bat play in the desert, Edman will look like an attractive switch-hitting utility man with added base running value.

Lane Thomas - OF

If Edman is auditioning for utility infielder, Thomas is trying to work his way into a future 4th/5th OF role. He also needs to be added to the 40 man this offseason, or be a Padre subject to the Rule V Draft. If you aren’t familiar with Thomas, here’s the quick version: he was drafted by Toronto out of high school in 2014 and traded to the Cardinals in 2017 for international bonus pool money, straight-up. Thomas flashed an intriguing raw power/speed combo since his prep days, but the strikeouts were always too high to justify his game power output.

Turn the calendar to 2018 and the raw tools have started to come together. This year his power spiked, with 27 balls clearing the fence and an ISO north of .220. He did all this damage while cutting down his strikeout rate, from his traditional high-20’s to 23.3%. He didn’t draw a whole lot of walks, but he showed he’s capable of playing all three outfield positions. The big league outfield is abnormally deep right now, but 4th/5th OF spots are typically pretty malleable. Don’t call me crazy for thinking there’s a world where a red-hot Lane Thomas breaks camp.

The Guys With Something To Prove

Conner Greene - RHP

Greene needs to prove his high-octane stuff can get big-league ready players out, to put it simply. The former Blue Jay hasn’t done much to move the needle since coming over in the Randal Grichuk deal. He’s always been a guy whose numbers don’t match the eye test, a guy with a pitchers frame and raw arm talent that produces ugly box scores. 2018 was more of the same, walking nearly as many batters as he struck out on route to a 4.09 ERA. The components were even worse, with an FIP of 4.88.

He still possesses the same stuff - an upper 90’s fastball, a power-curve that flashes 55, and a useable changeup. Unfortunately, his command still refuses to take a step forward. The organization started him in the AA rotation to middling success. His strikeout rate crept up but the walks remained, leading to a 4.44 ERA. Greene was then promoted to the Memphis bullpen in early August, a move that always felt inevitable given his track record with command. For a guy that always seemed to be heading for the bullpen, the premier could not have gone any worse. He appeared in 29 games, with his walk rate ballooning to 7.09 and eclipsing a falling strikeout rate. A little batted ball luck and LOB% magic capped his ERA at 3.66, but the peripherals - 5.75 FIP and 6.19 xFIP - spelled doom.

Greene’s arm talent has given him more prospect runway than most, but the clock is ticking on whether he’ll ever get off the ground or not. His stock needs a shot in the arm.

Connor Jones - RHP

Oh, the Conn(o/e)rs. While the question for Conner G. was “how do I put my stuff together”, the question for Connor J. is “where did all my stuff go?”. The Cardinals drafted Jones out of the University of Virginia in the second round of the 2016 Draft. It was a Weaver-esque sort of pick, a bet on a college righty who showed better stuff as a sophomore returning to form.

At his best he showed three plus offerings - sinker/slider/change. His otherworldly sinker is still there, and we’ll get to that in a moment. But his secondary offerings have both regressed to fringe-status, without enough command to make them play up. Jones pitched across two levels this year, getting a cup of coffee at Memphis to end the season. In 22 games (17 starts) for Springfield, his strikeout rate held steady, his walk rate inched up slightly, but he still generated a ridiculous 62.9% groundball rate. The sinker kept his head above water just enough.

The good news is that the sinker is still there. It’s a 90-92 (top 94) absolute bowling ball job, nearly impossible to lift. It’s a wicked carrying tool, but pretty soon it’ll be time to decide if Connor Jones is more Jason Marquis or Seth Maness.

Will Latcham - RHP

Latcham’s stint will be more about earning his organizational status rather than protecting it. He’s an unknown name to most, a relief only righty taken in the 17th round of the 2017 Draft. He also might be a solid middle-relief piece sometime down the road.

He’s a power pitcher, working with a mid-90’s fastball and an above-average hard breaker. In his debut season after leaving Coastal Carolina, he struck out 32.5% of the batters he faced while walking only 8.7%. This year his strikeouts dropped slightly while the walks ticked up, but overall the results were strong at Palm Beach. He got roughed up a bit in Springfield, but not in a large enough sample to be worrisome.

A strong showing in Arizona could push him up the bullpen depth chart.

Jeremy Martinez - C

Maybe it’s fitting to end a long, drawn-out post, when everyone is tired and the words sort of blur together, on a player like Jeremy Martinez. The Kelly/Knizner debate sucks up so much oxygen in the catcher conversation that players like Martinez gets skimmed over, much like what you’re about to do to this section. Not that this won’t be a good conclusion - it will be, I promise - but that so much energy was spent at the top.

Martinez is a special sort of post-hype prospect. Most post-hype guys are toolsy prepsters that flashed glimpses of brilliance but couldn’t deliver consistency. Over time fatigue developed, and the public perception changed. Martinez, however, was an overslot college catcher that generated buzz through performance rather than tools. He had a preternatural batter’s eye and great hands, walking twice as often as he struck out in his debut. Not much power to speak of, but his defense looked good behind the dish. It looked like we finally had a catching prospect.

Then came Palm Beach. Martinez got the bat knocked out his hands to the tune of a 45 wRC+. The eye and feel for contact were still there, but better pitchers dared him to do damage on contact. 2018 saw him pushed to Springfield with a brief stint in Memphis. The power started to come back, and overall he hit .237/.312/.358 for a 84 wRC+. A rebound, however marginal.

Martinez needs to keep himself in the conversation before one of the Herrera/Ortega/Rodriguez/Jackson/Soto contingent forces their way into the #3 slot behind Kelly and Knizner.

And that, friends, is all I’ve got for you today. Hopefully there’s enough info in these pixels to be dangerous. For the rest of the AFL, I’ll be posting weekly write-ups every Sunday. I’m loooking forward to expanding the breadth of my prospect coverage this offseason, and I hope you enjoy the ride.

For more prospect coverage, follow @TheAndrewStJohn on Twitter.