I've never been to Arizona or Florida during spring training.
Some day, an assignment or vacation will likely help me check that off of my lengthy baseball bucket list, but I have a hard time believing that Arizona in March can be better than Arizona in early November for the Arizona Fall League. That trip has become a fixture in my calendar, as it provides an opportunity to see elite young prospects while representing RotoWire as a speaker at First Pitch Arizona.
First Pitch has overlapped with the Rising Stars Game in each of the four years I have attended, making it easy to see many of those talented players in one fell swoop.
For those unfamiliar with the league, five organizations combine to build each roster of young players to compete in a six-team schedule from early October through mid-November. It's generally considered a finishing school for prospects on the cusp of big league promotions the following season. The quality of the pitching is often a notch or two below the hitting, while the hitter-friendly nature of the Cactus League parks bolsters offensive numbers.
In addition to seeing this year's Rising Stars Game, I caught a game in Surprise, two in Scottsdale and half of one at Phoenix Municipal Stadium during the trip. Needless to say, it was a very productive five days away from the desk.
To begin, here are some thoughts on some of the players that stood (both good and bad) during my trip:
Billy Hamilton, OF, CIN - Hamilton's 80-speed was on full display in the Rising Stars Game on Saturday night. In his first at-bat, Hamilton walked against Jarred Cosart and proceeded to steal two bases - the second in a way I've never seen in a meaningful game before:
During the bottom of the fourth inning, Hamilton turned on the jets and made an over-the-shoulder catch to rob eventual Game MVP Brian Goodwin of extra bases:
His third at-bat was a bunt single down the first-base line that forced an erroneous throw from Jonathan Singleton. Hamilton ended up on third base and scored again.
Between High-A Bakersfield and Double-A Pensacola this season, Hamilton went 155-for-192 (80.7% success rate) as a basestealer while posting a combined .311/.410/.420 line at the two levels. There were some who questioned the Reds' decision to keep him in the minors when rosters expanded in September, as his dominant tool could have been useful in pinch-running situations. Right or wrong, the Reds opted to delay his big league debut, likely until the second half of 2013 as Hamilton spent just 50 games at Double-A in 2012 and may need additional time to polish up his defensive work with the move from shortstop to center field.
Once he's deemed ready for the big leagues, Hamilton should be a two or three-category contributor, as a player capable of delivering as many as two-thirds of the stolen bases you might need over the course of the season. Hamilton's best contact rate over the last two seasons came during his time at Bakersfield (79 percent), so there's reason to be concerned about his inability to provide an elite batting average. Fortunately, he's demonstrating the crucial skill of getting on base and his walk rates (13 and 17 percent this season) should help his chances of providing a steady presence atop the Cincinnati batting order where he'll terrorize opposing batteries for a long time.
Rymer Liriano, OF, SD - When you watch Liriano play, he simply looks like a prospect capable of shooting up Top 100 lists very quickly (he's currently 85th on Jason Collette's list). The tools are all there, as Liriano makes very good contact and should eventually develop power to accompany his above-average speed. In a deep San Diego farm system, he's the player that stands out as a potential superstar. Eventually, Liriano will play right field for the Padres, but he's unlikely to get his first taste of the big leagues before 2014. A return to Double-A San Antonio appears likely after Liriano hit .251/.335/.377 with three homers, 20 RBI and a 10-for-11 mark on the basepaths over 53 games there last season.
Anthony Rendon, 3B, WAS - An ankle injury in April limited Rendon to just 43 games as a rookie, so his inclusion in the Fall League was almost certainly an organizational decision to give him at-bats to make up for lost time. Any plan to move him to another position appears to be on hold for now, as he's played third base exclusively in Arizona. The most important thing I saw from Rendon came in the Friday night game against Scottsdale. After a driving a pitch to the outfield wall, he ran well while ending up with what should have been a stand-up triple. Given the nature of his injuries and his previous reputation as nothing special with his legs, seeing that part of his game stood out to me. Perhaps the potential loss of Adam LaRoche in free agency leads the Nats to move Ryan Zimmerman across the diamond once Rendon is deemed ready.
Chase Anderson, SP, ARI - In write-ups and conversations about the D-Backs' wealth of pitching prospects, Anderson is seldom mentioned in a group that includes Trevor Bauer, Tyler Skaggs, Pat Corbin, David Holmberg and Archie Bradley (among others). I would argue that Anderson had the most surprising impressive performance Saturday night with four strikeouts and a pair of hits allowed over two scoreless innings.
From the most recent update I wrote for Anderson on the site:
As he continues to build up his workload following a Double-A season that was cut to 104 innings because of injury, Anderson has a 19:5 K:BB and just one home run allowed over four starts (13.2) in the AFL. Although he'll turn 25 in November, Anderson pitched in college at the University of Oklahoma and has been slowed by injuries throughout his professional career, so there may still be a big league future for him after a 97:25 K:BB over 104 innings with Double-A Mobile in 2012. Anderson does not throw hard, but he boasts a four-pitch arsenal that he controls well, and it's possible that he'll get a look as a back-end option for the D-Backs at some point down the road.
If I were a general manager in conversations with Kevin Towers about a player on the left side of my infield, Anderson would be among the players I would target coming back the other way as his ability to mix his pitches - including an impressive changeup - should lead him to find success every fifth day in the big leagues.
Slade Heathcott, OF, NYY - Shoulder injuries have plagued Heathcott throughout his professional career, but he started to put the pieces together at High-A Tampa this season, where he hit .307/.378/.470 with a 17-for-21 mark as a basestealer over 60 games. A first-round pick in 2009, Heathcott has been unable to crack 300 at-bats during a professional season, but his first exposure to Double-A should come as a 22-year-old in 2013 and there's reason to believe he can recoup some of the value he's lost over the last three years if the health issues are in the past and he's able to improve his contact rate (69 percent at High-A).
Hak-Ju Lee, SS, TAM - Unfortunately, I only saw him play once during the trip, but Lee looked overmatched during the Rising Stars Game, striking out against Cosart and Anderson. By all indications, he's going to be a good defensive shortstop, but the 22-year-old may not be as close to taking over the Rays' vacancy at the big league level as I had previously hoped, especially when you consider their careful development of players in the upper minor leagues. During his time at Double-A, Lee went 37-for-46 on the basepaths, but he'll need to maintain his walk rate as he advances and prove that the bat simply won't be knocked out of his hands in order to hit atop the order. Just one of his 18 hits in Arizona have gone for extra bases (.303 SLG) and that's on the heels of a .360 SLG mark at Montgomery in 2012. Lee has gone from a player I was aggressively pursuing in keeper and simulation leagues, to one I'm taking a wait-and-see approach with for at least the next year.
Gary Brown, OF, SF - A second-year AFL participant, Brown is hitting .339 with a .385 on-base percentage through 16 games. After seeing him on a handful of occasions, I'm still on the fence about his long-term future as a starter rather than a fourth outfielder. My concerns are two-fold. First, there's minimal pop here (.385 SLG as a 23-year-old at Double-A this season). Second, Brown's hands are very close to his body, which could ultimately make it difficult for him to protect the outside part of the plate. He does manage to slap a pitch on the outer-third into right field in the clip below, but will that ability hold up against more polished pitchers as he continues to advance?
James Paxton, SP, SEA - According to Bernie, I saw Paxton on a good day in Surprise last week when he struck out a pair while giving up two hits in two scoreless innings. The AFL has been an extension of his injured-shortened regular season, as he's shown strikeout-per-inning stuff with wavering control over five starts in Arizona. My greatest short-term concern with Paxton is that he's only thrown 119 innings between Jackson and the Fall League this season, which likely puts him on a limited workload in each of the next two seasons before a potential run at 200 frames in 2015. A 165-170 inning pitcher can be valuable, but considering that he'll get less than that in 2013 and is almost certainly in line to begin at Jackson or Triple-A Tacoma to start the season, Paxton owners will be pressed to profit from his time in the big leagues in many formats. In many ways, Paxton reminds me of Mike Minor, who started the Rising Stars Game back in 2009 and has progressed through a rough transition period in the big leagues (a light bulb appeared to turn on in the second half of 2012 for him after parts of three seasons with Atlanta).
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