Earlier in the week, Major League Baseball announced the minor league participants in this years Arizona Fall League. For the Cardinals, those Prospects, alphabetically, are:
Utility infielder and prospect #15 on the Dirty Thirty-Five, Tommy Edman
Right-handed relief pitcher and former Dirty Thirty-Five member, Conner Greene
Right-handed starter and former member of the Dirty Thirty-Five, Connor Jones
Left-Handed starter and prospect #22 on the Dirty Thirty-Five, Evan Kruczynski
Catcher Jeremy Martinez
Right-handed relief pitcher Andrew Morales
Outfielder and prospect #12 on the Dirty Thirty-Five, Lane Thomas
Second baseman and prospects #19 on the Dirty Thirty-Five, Andy Young
But before we get too deep into the analysis of each player, let's talk about what the Arizona Fall League is.
Not to be confused for one of the conferences from an inferior sport, The Arizona Fall League has long been considered "finishing school" for top prospects. While it can be this for some prospects, it's also a bit of a misnomer.
You see, for years, teams have been sending some of their biggest and brightest prospect to the league. It's also the league that organizations send older players as they try to decide if they are worth adding to the 40-man roster in preparation and protection for the Rule Five Draft. This means that while some prospects are the highest-of-caliber, it is also watered down with players that have spent multiple years in the minors fighting their way up the ladder. Usually these players are pitchers, and that waters down some of the impact that you would otherwise want to see in a "finishing school."
Still, of all of the Fall/Winter Leagues affiliated with MLB, the Arizona Fall League has the highest caliber of talent. Over the last two years in particular, teams are starting to send fewer of the older players in need of a 40-man decision and more of their elite and younger talent. As a matter of fact, this years group of prospects from top to bottom looks more like All-Star teams of prospects than it ever has. This is because of the changing landscape of major league baseball, but that's a post for another day.
Each team is comprised of prospects from five different MLB organizations. This year, the Cardinals prospects are playing on the Surprise Saguaros along with representatives from the Kansas City Royals, Toronto Blue Jays, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Texas Rangers. For the most part, teams get to decide who represents them in the AFL, but it comes after a draft, of sorts, where teams actually "draft" what position they want to send to the AFL. From there, each team fills out the roster. That last part is convoluted and weird and complicated just like most MLB rules. Have fun tracking down the small-details of it on your own.
This year, the season will run from October 9th to November 17th. Each of the six teams in the league will play 30 games and every Sunday is an off day.
Now, the players
**All of these little player tidbits are going to be focused more on what they need to do or what to look for with each player. If you want a write up or an indepth analysis of each player then you can click on the link that will send you to their Dirty Thirty-Five if they are on the Dirty Thirty-Five**
The first prospect is utility infielder Tommy Edman. Edman was drafted in the 6th round of the 2016 draft out of Stanford. Edman has become the most polished swith hitter in the organization. He plays well all over the infield with short stop being the position that I believe he's best suited for. He's built from the mold of Greg Garcia, Daniel Descalso, etc. but with better defense around the diamond and a similar contact tool but one that isn't compromised by splits against like-handed pitchers. To me, this means that he has, potentially, more staying power. There are other, more recent gifs of Edman, but I love this one so much:
What I'll be keeping an eye out for with Tommy Edman is where he is going to be playing most-often.
I'm not going to invest much into his stats because I'm not worried about him in that department in this league. Yes, I'll be keeping an eye on his strikeout rate and his power production. However, Edman is the type of prospect that will be refining instead of producing so the numbers will be misleading.
The first couple of weeks in the AFL are kind of a jumbled mess of playing time. Utility players are usually thrown all over the place. What usually happens by the end of the AFL is, that the cream rises to the top of the playing time crop. I'm most anxious to see how this all plays out for Mr. Edman. He'll be getting playing time more often at one position than the other and I think that will be a good indication of where he ultimately profiles best in the majors. Again, my money is on short stop, but I'm super-dumb.
The next prospect is RHP Conner Greene, Greene was acquired with Dominic Leone as part of the deal that sent Randal Grichuk to the Toronto Blue Jays. Greene entered the organization as a starter but he's since been converted to a bullpen role. This happened right about the mid-point of the season upon a promotion to AAA. You'll notice that the ball explodes out of his hand, especially when he throws it low in the zone:
What I'll be keeping an eye out for with Conner Greene is, quite simply, his command. You see, Greene has displayed horrendous command of nearly all of his pitches. He throws a high velocity, strike-um-out fastball with crazy spin and a curve ball that has the ability to be devastating. That is, if he could command any of it. He also throws a change up which is less impressive to me than the curve and the fastball, but, you know, command again.
I honestly do not care at all about how many people he strikes out in the AFL. Not at all. Not one bit. I just want and need him to walk as few batters as possible.
Greene is currently on the 40-man roster and I believe that a bad performance in the AFL just might cost him his spot.
Up next is RHP Connor Jones. What Jones brings to the table is heavy downward action on all of his pitches. He throws a sinker that sits in the low 90's but tumbles hard and down. His change up is similar. His curve ball has a chance to be a very good out pitch, too, but he just doesn't throw it effectively enough. Jones' career has been somewhat crippled by his University of Virginia collegiate experience. You see, Jones had the chance to be a first round pick based solely on raw stuff, but The University of Virginia teaches their pitchers to throw a certain way and that way almost always zaps the professional potential from that pitcher. DO NOT SEND YOUR KIDS TO THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA SO LONG AS THE CURRENT COACHING STAFF IS THERE. Anyway, his breaking ball is better than the results it's produced:
What I'll be keeping an eye out for with Connor Jones is the inverse of what I'll be looking for with the other Conner on the list: I want to see him pile up strike outs. When you watch Jones pitch in-game you'll find yourself a little baffled that he isn't striking out more hitters. This is because his mechanics get clunky (because they had to be over-hauled thanks to crappy work of the U of V) and he doesn't repeat them. It's also because his pitches don't tunnel particularly well.
The fastball and the change work decently together, but in a "good for ground balls" kinda way.
If Jones starts racking up the K's then we will be in business.
LHP Evan Kruczynski is the next prospect up for discussion and, boy, is he something worth talking about. Drafted in the 9th round of the 2017 draft, Kruczynski, and his fastball/curve/change combo, is as under the radar of a prospect as the Cardinals have in their organization. The East Carolina alum is better than given credit for and he has the potential to be a mid-to-back of the rotation arm for more than a couple of season. You won't need to look any further than this gif to see how good the fastball/change combo can be, even against righties:
What I'll be keeping an eye out for with Kruczynski is.... hmm..... You see, just two years ago Austin Gomber went to the AFL. At the time, he, too, was an under the radar prospect in the organization and in all of MLB. However, by the time Gomber left the AFL he had finally made a name for himself while being one of the three most effective pitchers in the league. This is what I'm predicting for Kruczynski.
It's a lofty goal with lofty expectations, but he has the stuff and the command to do it. So, maybe it's best to say that what I'll be looking at with Kruczynski is how his turn in the AFL compares to Gomber's turn.
I will say that Mr. Kruczynski is going up against a tougher group of hitters than Gomber did, so there's a little expectation adjustment that will go on.
The next two prospects to discuss are the two most curious "prospects" of the bunch. The first of the two is catcher Jeremy Martinez. Martinez is a former 4th round selection in the 2016 draft out of USC. Martinez' 2017 season was spent mostly at Palm Beach where he was absolutely horrendous at the plate even though he hardly struck out. A great organizational depth piece, Martinez has played valuable innings as a back-up to Andrew Knizner for the majority of the year.
What I'll be keeping an eye out for with Martinez is how much he is playing. The AFL roster that the Cardinals are a part of has four rostered catchers. Now, that probably means that some of those catchers will also be getting reps at other positions. Martinez himself was a good first baseman at USC and most believed that he was best suited for that position instead of catcher. My GUESS is, he won't play much as compared to the other Cardinals' reps. However, what I'm most anxious to see is how much time he spends at catcher.
I've heard a ton of mixed reports about his defensive abilities behind the plate and I think that the amount of innings that he gets behind the dish will be a good indication of his potential back there.
Martinez has a good contact tool at the plate but not much else and I just wanted to mention that before moving on.
The second of the curious group of two prospects to make the AFL cut is right-handed relief pitcher Andrew Morales. Morales was taken in the 2nd round-ish of the 2014 draft during an amazing showing in the college world series for UC Irvine. His minor league career as a starter was slowed because of arm fatigue issues and now he's closing out games for the Memphis Redbirds. If you've been following along with me since my Redbird Daily days then you know that I thought that Morales would be one of the Cardinals reps in the Arizona Fall League last season. Look at me, ahead of the world and also completely wrong. That's another Prospects after Dark slogan if there ever was one. You'll notice here that he, too, throws all of his pitches together well:
What I'll be keeping an eye out for with Morales is a quality and sustained K/BB rate. Morales doesn't possess lightning velocity or a plus plus secondary pitch that you'd want out of your potential closer. Last season, the Cardinals sent a similar type player in Arturo Reyes to the AFL. What I want to see from Morales is success from start to finish unlike what we saw from Reyes who struggled from the midpoint of the fall league until the end of the season.
As often happens with older, college-drafted pitcher in the AFL, Morales will probably get off to a very good start. How he finishes (and hopefully with a strikeout or more per inning while walking few) is what I'll be keeping an eye out for. Shout out to keeping an eye on his splits versus lefties, too.
Morales was exposed to the Rule Five Draft last year and he'll be exposed again if he isn't added to the 40-man roster. This is a big moment for him. The thing that I've really like about Morales' 2018 season is that he seemed to get better and sharpen up when put in tough situations. He does have the potential to fill the Mike Mayers or John Brebbia-esque role for the Cardinals in 2019.
The prospect with the most name recognition of the group at this point is outfielder Lane Thomas. Thomas was acquired for International signing pool money last year from the Toronto Blue Jays. Aside from making one of the best catches that you'll ever see in right field (see below), Thomas stock has soared this season as he's incorporated a legitimate amount of power into his game. There are two sides to Thomas, one that's hesitant and one that's aggressive, and there are few prospects in the organization that are as fun or as talented as Thomas is when he's aggressive. The hesitant side is tough to watch. There is reason to think of him as Harrison Bader-lite, Cardinals' fans.
The most important thing to keep an eye on while watching Lane Thomas in the AFL is where he is playing in the outfield and what happens to his K and BB rates. There are some that will look for power this fall with Thomas but I'm not worried about that at all. His swing is meant for surprise pop.
However, part of his success at AA this season came because he could take a walk and that helped him get away with a k rate around 24%. The sample is small, but Thomas hasn't had the same success at AAA because he isn't taking walks like he did at AA.
So, in this league of older pitchers and wild-but-high-end talent, how he takes walks and strike outs is going to be telling. In the outfield, I'm anxious to see how much time he gets in center. I love Thomas as a right fielder and I worry about his ability to go back on line drives (and I think that he'd benefit greatly from playing deeper in the outfield) in center, but if he ends up playing and staying in center then his value will only rise.