It’s that time of year again, when MLB teams make their selections from their minor league systems to send to the Arizona Fall League. The AFL can serve a lot of different purposes for the players being sent, depending upon what their season has looked like, where they are in their development, and what they still need to work on or learn.
Most of the time, the AFL is seen as sort of prospect finishing school, the short postseason league where teams send their brightest stars to compete against the best of the other organisations. The level of competition is, generally speaking, the highest that any of the prospects sent will see until they get to the majors, considering how the AFL is often viewed as a bit of an all-star league. However, a penultimate challenge for the best of the best is not the only purpose for which the AFL can be used. Players who missed considerable time during the regular season and need to make up time are often sent. Organisations occasionally send prospects who are almost certainly not quite ready, but who need a measuring stick against which their clubs can measure them. And finally, teams sometimes just send players they want to see more of, for whatever reason.
With all those varied reasons in mind, let’s take a look at the Cardinals’ player pool heading out to Arizona this autumn, and see which category or categories each player falls into.
Conner Greene, RHP — I’ll be honest, right off the bat we have one of the more curious selections among the whole Cards’ contingent in Conner Greene. Greene, you may remember, was the secondary piece the Cardinals received in the offseason trade which sent Randal Grichuk to the Toronto Blue Jays. Dominic Leone was the primary piece in the deal after proving himself an elite setup reliever in 2017. Conner Greene was the immensely talented lottery ticket added to the deal to even the sides up.
The reason it’s odd to see Greene in this group is because, to be frank, Conner Greene has been horrible this season. He began the year at Springfield, started in ten of eleven outings, was bad, then moved up to Memphis and transitioned exclusively to relief. That seems the best long-term home for Greene to me, but even so he’s been terrible. He struck out just 15.2% of the hitters he faced in Memphis, vs an appalling 18.2% walk rate. He still throws as hard as ever, has actually been working more on a four-seam fastball than a two-seam this season, and is extremely hard to really hit, but the non-contact portion of his profile is just absurdly bad.
Greene isn’t trying to make up for lost time in the AFL or anything; rather, it seems to me the organisation wants to give him another chance to show them some reason to keep him on the 40 man roster this offseason. The Cards are facing a very difficult crunch for space, and a player with Greene’s performance really doesn’t belong when tough choices are having to be made. This is a chance for him to try and turn things around enough to convince them he needs to stay.
Andrew Morales, RHP — Another relief conversion, Morales was originally drafted as a starter back in 2014, but over the past two seasons has moved into full-time bullpen work, and has shown some fairly impressive strikeout punch in the process. The overall package isn’t all the exciting, but he missed bats to the tune of a 27.3% strikeout rate at Memphis this year. Morales will need to be added to the 40 man roster this offseason, or else exposed to the Rule V draft, and almost surely picked up by some other organisation looking for a live arm out of the ‘pen. Morales’s solid-average fastball and plus slurve combo would be attractive enough some team would try to stash him in low-leverage relief the whole season.
Essentially, Morales and Conner Greene are sort of competing for one spot, I tend to think. Greene is the incumbent, already holding the 40 man spot, but Morales has been better despite far less pyrotechnic stuff.
Connor Jones, RHP — Another very strange selection, at least to my eye. I didn’t like the Connor Jones draft pick when the Cardinals made it, and he’s been basically nothing but bad since joining the pro ranks. He’s moved up the ladder as a starter, with bad numbers at pretty much every stop, including a 4.52 FIP this season in just under 100 Double A innings. He was bumped to Triple A after the Cardinals promoted basically the entire Memphis pitching staff, thus denuding the team, and he’s been even worse in limited action there. His K rate in the PCL has actually been higher, creeping up over 19%, but his walk rate is also sitting at nearly 17%, so we’re not talking about any real step forward.
I’ll be honest: I have no idea why the organisation is sending Connor Jones to the Arizona Fall League. Then again, I don’t know why he’s been promoted multiple times despite never rally earning it, nor why he was taken in the draft in the first place. Someone in the Cardinal organisation sees something in Connor Jones that I just don’t. Best case scenario for him right now, I think, is to be the next Seth Maness/Matt Bowman in the bullpen.
Evan Kruczynski, LHP — Now here we have an actual intriguing prospect, rather than a player who needs a 40 man decision made quickly or, um, whatever Connor Jones is.
Evan Kruczynski has been one of the better pitching stories in the organisation this year, a season in which the Cardinals actually haven’t seen a ton of their pitching prospects really make a ton of noise. Kruczunski was drafted just last year out of East Carolina, and has produced fairly solid results for the Cardinals ever since. He’s really taken off since reaching Double A, posting a K-BB% of 17.3 and allowing zero home runs in 35 innings en route to a 1.82 ERA and 2.45 FIP. He’s been lucky to not allow any homers yet, but he’s got an extreme control profile (4.7% walk rate), to go along with a decent enough strikeout rate to get by.
Kruczynski is cut from the same cloth as Austin Gomber, mostly, as a big-bodied lefty with solid but not overwhelming stuff. Where Gomber works a little more out of the zone, though, forcing hitters to either wait him out or chase and dig their own metaphorical graves, Kruczynski stays almost entirely inside the strike zone. His remarkable aggression in throwing strikes will be tested in Arizona, and that’s probably as good a reason as any to send him; following a breakout season, it can always be helpful to send a guy up against top competition, just to see how real he really is, and maybe to give him an idea of where he still needs to improve.
Lane Thomas, OF — Thomas has been one of the more surprising breakouts in the Cards’ system this year, having languished in anonymity for a few years in the Toronto system, then coming over to the Cards late last season in a straight swap for international spending room. Always an interesting athlete, Thomas prior to this season was always a little underpowered for the shaky plate discipline he showed. This year, though, he became a little more selective, walking nearly 10% of the time at Springfield, and more intriguingly showed a real bump in power. He’s not a burner, but does play center field and could be an intriguing power/speed guy, probably in a bench role at the big league level.
Thomas is in the same boat as Andrew Morales, in that he’ll need to be added to the 40 man roster this offseason or be exposed to the Rule V draft, and almost certainly taken by some other team. He and Justin Williams, the outfield prospect the Cards received in exchange for Tommy Pham, both represent interesting options for the Redbirds as fourth outfield types as early as 2019, with Thomas getting the opportunity to try and force the issue with a big AFL turn.
Tommy Edman, INF — Edman is an interesting case for the AFL, as he isn’t facing down an imminent Rule V decision, nor has he been so overwhelmingly good as to look like a necessary add. What he has been is basically a league-average hitter while playing solid-average defense up the middle of the infield. No power to speak of, but he has good plate discipline, good contact skills, and above average speed.
Basically, Tommy Edman is auditioning to potentially make Greg Garcia expendable in the near future.
Jeremy Martinez, C — Catchers are always important in the AFL, and teams try to make sure the rosters are stocked enough with backstops to cover for needed rest and any potential nagging injuries players might have by the end of a long minor league season.
If he played any other position, Martinez might seem like a bit of a curious choice, given his season numbers, but being a catcher changes the expectation and opportunities both for players. One of my favourite draft picks the Cardinals made in 2016, Martinez has continued to show tremendous patience at the plate, as well as a penchant for avoiding strikeouts, but the quality of contact in pro ball simply hasn’t been there for the former USC standout. Again this season, Martinez posted excellent strikeout and walk numbers, but hit for very little power and posted an extremely low BABIP. That low BABIP could partially be luck based, but Martinez is also a right-handed hitter and below average runner, two qualities that often lead to lower success on batted balls.
It looks very likely to me Martinez will end up having a major league career somewhere, but the weak contact he’s made as a pro caps his ceiling pretty low. If the Cards end up making a trade this offseason involving one of their top two catching prospects, Martinez could find himself with a 40 man roster spot next season and a potential long-term future as a cheap backup with the Redbirds.
Andy Young, 2B — And, finally, we have probably the most intriguing player the Cardinals are sending to the AFL this season. Andy Young is most like Evan Kruczynski as far as the reasons he’s going; Young has been a huge breakout story this year, and sending him to Arizona is largely about seeing how much of that breakout he can carry forward against better competition. However, where Kruczynski has been very solid, improving little by little since coming into pro ball, Young took a huge leap forward this season, putting himself forward as a very, very different sort of player than he appeared to be as recently as last season.
In 2017, Young beat up on Low A pitching, then held his own in Palm Beach. He played up the middle, which was good, and showed a little pop in the bat, which was also good. His plate discipline, though, left a lot to be desired, leaving him with lower batting averages for that level of the minors and a questionable future. This year, however, Young has markedly improved his contact rate, going from strikeout rates in the 22-23% range down to 16-17% in 2018. He did so without really losing any power en route to a 137 wRC+ in a return to Palm Beach, and then a stunning start to his Double A career, posting a 163 wRC+ in his first ~150 plate appearances in Springfield. He hasn’t shown much patience so far at that level, but it’s hard to complain about a guy not walking when he’s hitting the ball as well as Young has so far in the Texas League.
It’s kind to tough to really parse out what the most likely road to the big leagues is for Young at this point; the Cardinals have gotten him a little playing time at third, but he’s really best suited to stay at second base over handling utility duties, I think, and Kolten Wong has put his stamp on that position with his tremendous defense this season. It’s possible Young could force his way into the long-term conversation at the keystone, though, if he continues to put up the kind of numbers he has in 2018.
Overall, this is kind of an odd group headed to the AFL this year. There aren’t really any top prospects here; even Andy Young, who’s put up the big numbers this season, is an older prospect who could easily be seen as a ‘tweener bat down the road without a great fit on a major league roster. A couple guys are facing ticking clocks in terms of Rule V eligibility, and the Cardinals desperately need to sort through some pieces and figure out the way forward as they continue trying to rationalise and smooth the roster to push out of this transitional phase they’ve seemingly been stuck in for a few years.
Really, though, it’s not necessarily a bad thing the Cardinals are sending a group of slightly misfit toys to the desert. Some years you’re sending a top prospect for some last hopeful bit of polishing; other years you’re sending several flawed prospects to try and figure out which are the keepers and which are the trade assets. It’s equally important for both of those things to happen, really, if your organisation is going to maintain health and momentum. This may not seem like a particularly inspiring group of players, but how some of these names perform over the next few years could easily make a big difference in the Cards’ medium-term future. Just maybe in a slightly less conspicuous way than some other years.