It was another great weather week in Arizona with temperatures in the 90s during the day and cool but comfortable in the evenings. There is usually at least one night game every day, Monday-Saturday. If you are coming to Arizona for the AFL it's easy to take in a doubleheader. Watch a day game, have a nice dinner and go to the night game. It's heaven for baseball fans.
This week I witnessed the debut of Pirates first-round draft pick (No. 1 overall this past June) Gerrit Cole. Cole hit 100 mph on the radar gun and also threw breaking pitches and a changeup. His two-seam fastball sinks and serves the purpose of having hitters pound the ball into the ground. Although he was touched for three hits and three runs, Cole's debut was impressive. He left little doubt that he's capable of being a top shelf pitcher for the Pirates.
Physically, Cole has the build and body of a football tight end. He has huge, wide shoulders. My hand got lost when we shook hands the day before his first start. His hands are big enough for a family of four to move in.
Cole was at a restaurant when he learned from the Pirates that he would be their first-round draft choice. They called him 45 minutes before the selection was made public. When we talked, Cole appeared to be very low key and reserved. He told me he is working on keeping the ball down and throwing quality strikes. He wants to learn how to make the proper adjustments to hitters as they get to know him.
In his first AFL start, Cole pitched 2.1 innings. He walked one and struck out two. It was a good outing for the beginning of his professional career. I think the next time out the nerves may be quieter. I do think he is too slow to the plate with a runner on first, so teams will try to steal against him. He needs to step off the rubber, take more time in the stretch or in some way control his approach.
I watched Cubs outfielder Josh Vitters during several of his at-bats this past week. Vitters was selected 3rd overall in the first round of the 2007 draft by the Cubs. This past season he hit .283/14/81 at AA Tennessee in the Southern League. Overall, it was a good season.
Drafted and projected to play third base for the Cubs, Vitters has been serving as a designated hitter and outfielder for the Mesa team in the AFL. In the media guide, he is listed as an outfielder. Originally, Vitters was to have been the replacement for Aramis Ramirez when Ramirez's contract expires. (a mutual option for 2012 exists for Ramirez between himself and the Cubs.)
Vitters' approach at the plate and even in the field is somewhat puzzling.
He relies on his upper body and hands/wrists in his hitting mechanics. He gets very little lower body in his swing, using no real stride, but a slight leg lift in his load. In batting practice, I have seen a number of big flies leave the park. In games, I have seen him fall short of hitting home runs with high flies to the warning track.
I just don't see much energy coming from any part of Vitters' game. He seems to be going through the motions and not playing with any sense of vitality or energy. I'm concerned by that attitude, but I've seen it in the AFL before with players like Buster Posey and Jose Iglesias.
-I saw something I have never seen in all my years watching baseball. Toronto shortstop prospect Adeiny Hechavarria had three triples in one nine-inning game. He also singled in the four-hit effort. It was exciting to watch him fly around the bases. He's an outstanding defensive shortstop that is now finding a swing at the plate. Awesome display.
-Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford looks very comfortable both at the plate and in the field. He should be the starting shortstop for the Giants this coming season.
-Giants outfielder Gary Brown makes it from home to first in 3.92 seconds. That's moving.
White Sox outfielder Brandon Short looked extremely good in the games I saw this week. Short hit .262/13/60 for Double-A Birmingham in the Southern League. He plays center field and he plays it well. He's one tough out at the plate, getting quick hands through the ball to spoil pitches. He knows the strike zone and he has the ability to get on base, but he strikes out too often.
Short is working on his base running. He isn't that fast, but he's quick enough to steal double-digit bases over a season.
Short has played corner outfield positions, but he is best suited as a center fielder, although his arm isn't really very strong. He's young and his power hasn't been developed totally. He does, however, have enough juice in his bat to take his pitch over the fence.
Whenever I've watched Brandon Short, he has been able to use his quick hands to take the pitch right up the middle with a line drive or a bloop that lands in front of the center fielder. Good hitters take pitches up the middle. He's been impressive so far.
Cubs right hander Andrew Casher had won the fifth starter's role last spring training. Unfortunately, he missed most of the season with a right rotator cuff injury and didn't return to the Cubs until late in the season.
When he did return, Cashner started once and threw out of the bullpen three other times, pitching a total of 7.2 innings. He gave up three hits and two runs, walking two and striking out six. Overall his ERA was a very good 2.35.
This fall, Cashner returns to the AFL (he appeared in 2009) to try to strengthen his arm and work on his delivery.
Cashner, a former first-round pick in 2008 is a 6-foot-6, 200-plus pound graduate of Texas Christian University. Cashner can bring the heat, throwing at a velocity up to 100 mph.
I have watched him hit those triple digits this fall, but those pitches were really rather straight. Interestingly, there was more movement on pitches less than 99 mph. His role with the Cubs may depend upon the strength of his shoulder and arm, the depth of the Cubs' staff and the opinions of the new Cubs' front office. For now, pitching out of the bullpen is offering Cashner the opportunity to improve his arm strength and mechanics.
There are several questions that will surround Andrew Cashner until he answers them one way or another. Can he further develop his slider to be an effective complimentary pitch to his blazing fastball? Can he continue to get enough movement on the fastball to change batters' eye levels? Will his shoulder hold up over time and a full workload?
If he can further develop a secondary pitch, Cashner has a chance to be a really good pitching option for the Cubs. For now, he has to throw some innings to gain arm and shoulder strength. I like his arm, I like his physical presence on the mound and I like his chances to be a factor for his club. We should learn his role during spring training. That will provide the answer to his ultimate fantasy value.
Aaron Hicks is a former first-round, 2008 selection of the Twins. Hicks was the 14th overall selection in the country. That was a fairly weak draft year. Tim Beckham went #1 overall. Eric Hosmer (3rd) Buster Posey (5th) Justin Smoak (11th) and Brett Lawrie (16th) were some of the more interesting picks that year. Gerrit Cole (see above) was drafted 28th by the Yankees but he did not sign.
I mention the names above because Hicks has not played at a classification higher that High-A. I mention the names above because there really weren't any spectacular players that would have been better draft choices for the Twins. Still, by any measure it is viewed to date, Hicks has been a flop. This past season he hit .242/5/38 over 443 at-bats. And again, that's at Ft. Myers in the Florida State League. He did manage to steal 17 bases, but he was thrown out nine times. He did walk 78 times, which is great, but he struck out 110 times.
Hicks does not look comfortable at the plate, at all. He's a switch-hitter, but he isn't having much success from either side of the plate.
The word is Hicks is an extremely good golfer. I asked him about that and he said he really likes to play golf. He's very modest about his ability. He's a good athlete, he's a great guy, and he's got a wonderful personality. I had a really nice conversation with him. He's charming, poised, and relaxed, but he hasn't hit in the minor leagues. He isn't hitting now in the AFL. He does have good speed, excellent baseball instincts and he plays a good center field. His arm is extremely strong and accurate. He has raw power that he hasn't converted consistently as yet, he has to hit to advance. He has to have more urgency and energy in his offensive game. Unless the Twins are satisfied to have a defensive center fielder with little offense, I don't see Hicks having much of a future with the Twins or on your fantasy team. It doesn't help his cause that Ben Revere and Denard Span are both ahead of him on the depth chart.
I will continue to watch Hicks and I hope he turns it around as the fall moves along.
AFL PLAYERS OF WEEK 2 as chosen by the AFL staff:
Jaff Decker - OF San Diego Padres
Nate Adcock - RHP Kansas City Royals
Player Profile - Danny Hultzen - LHP Seattle Mariners
Hultzen was the second overall selection in the 2011 June player draft. He was at the University of Virginia in the locker room with his teammates when Hultzen got the call from Seattle. He wanted to celebrate with the guys that helped make his high draft position possible.
When I met with Hultzen, I found a very warm and friendly guy with a huge smile on his face. He signed autographs for fans, engaged in conversation with them and showed that he enjoyed being in Arizona for the Fall League.
He hasn't been overpowering in his starts in the AFL. Rather, he has been steady with good control and command of an arsenal that includes a 93 mph fastball, a slider that he can throw at any count and a changeup that he'll continue to develop. So far, he has found his experience in Arizona and in the AFL “amazing.” He's just very happy to be here.
Hultzen should be a workhorse for Seattle at some point in the future… He has sound mechanics, an excellent demeanor on the mound and a work ethic that bodes well for success. While I don't see him as a dominating top of the rotation left-handed “ace” in the mold of a Cliff Lee or CC Sebathia, I do see him as a very good pitcher with the ability to win games. He should slot nicely behind Felix the Cat and Michael Pineda moving forward.
When I mentioned pitching in the spacious Safeco Field in Seattle, Hultzen's eyes lit up. The field is perfect for his repertoire. I don't think he'll lead the league in strikeouts so having a big park to take some of the pressure off for of making the “perfect” pitch will help.
Hultzen isn't ready to begin the season as part of the Mariners' staff. He has work to do on pitching to higher caliber hitters and adjustments to make in professional baseball. If things go really, really well he could see time at the end of 2012 as a September callup. I don't think it's incorrect to draft Hultzen as a mid-rotation starter in at least a three-year keeper league.
Player Profile - Matt Adams - 1B St. Louis Cardinals
Adams isn't a household name, but he's one you may want to remember. Why? Because he has power to spare.
Adams is a huge human being with the same general body type of Prince Fielder. I have great concern about Adams' width. But man, can he put a charge into a ball.
I have seen lots of Adams so far this fall. I've seen him crush pitches over the fence and to the right-center field gap. I've seen him hit some long, long batting practice homers. I've also seen him unable to bend down to pick up a ground ball when playing first base. That's a problem.
To me, even though he's only 23, Adams profiles as a designated hitter. He is not as agile as Fielder. When John Kruk played he was hefty, to say the least. Adams may be heftier, and he will be battling weight his entire career.
I remember Landon Powell when Powell first came to the Arizona Fall League. He was huge, huge, huge. Bigger than Adams. Bigger than Prince. But Powell lost a ton of weight and looks fit. He saved his career. I hope Adams can do the same.
Adams told me his is working on his pitch recognition this fall. He loves being in Arizona and sees the AFL as a “great opportunity.” He wants to improve his approach against changeups. He's a really solid guy with a nice way about him.
During his time in the AFL, Adams told me he has seen pitchers with better command and an ability to throw breaking pitches at any count than those pitchers he saw in the minor leagues.
Here are Adams' numbers this past season at Double-A Springfield: 463 at-bats/.300/32/101
I don't know where Adams is headed in the Cards' organization. I do know he can hit. If you see him progressing, circle his name on your draft prep sheet.
Player Profile - Neil Ramirez - RHP Texas Rangers
It has been a real joy to watch Ramirez pitch. He is working on his command and he's been successful so far in his efforts.
Ramirez worked at three levels this past season. He pitched at Myrtle Beach (High-A) Frisco (Double-A) and Round Rock (Triple-A). Over a four- year period, the 2007 first-round (compensation pick at No. 44) draft pick has a composite minor league line of 19-19/3.90 ERA/ 78 games started. He has walked 151 and struck out 369. The best part is that hitters have hit only .240 off him in his career. But each category improved this past season. For example, Triple-A hitters hit only .229, Double-A only 194.
Ramirez is smooth on the mound. Even though he has missed considerable time fighting shoulder stiffness and related shoulder misery, Ramirez looks mechanically sound. His success will depend totally on his ability to stay healthy. His stuff is good, he doesn't always repeat a solid delivery but he has been finishing his pitches on the mound in Arizona. I have been impressed with what I have seen.
Ramirez has the ability to hit the mid-90s regularly. He also throws a curve and a changeup. Both of his secondary pitches are sound and developed. In short, I think he's ready for prime time, if his health holds up. Ramirez gets movement on all his pitches-key to keeping hitters off balance.
Ramirez signed for $1 million dollars. That's a nice hunk of change for a draft pick. Now he has to provide a major return for the investment.
I think he'll do it and I think you'll see him in the Rangers' rotation in a relatively short time assuming his shoulder remains healthy.
BERNIE'S PLAYER OF THE WEEK: TYLER SALADINO - INF WHITE SOX
When I learned how to play baseball, I learned that good hitters take the ball up the middle.
That's exactly what I have seen Saladino do repeatedly this past week. He barrels the ball directly to center field with authority. He doesn't try to smack the ball out of the park. Rather, he wants to get on base with solid singles. He doesn't mind if he hits the gaps.
Saladino has played first, third and shortstop in the games I've seen. He has played defense well. He is just a solid ballplayer with an ability to get on base.
He's someone I'll continue to watch.
Here are guys I'm watching this week:
Jedd Gyorko - 3B San Diego Padres
Jaff Decker - OF San Diego Padres
Michael Choice - OF Oakland A's
Kevin Mattison - OF Florida Marlins
Follow me on twitter @BerniePleskoff. I will be tweeting from every AFL fall league game I attend.