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I have been watching Arizona Fall League baseball since its inception. Put bluntly, it is THE premiere developmental league in the game. It is “finishing school” for top baseball prospects. Every organization is represented on the six Arizona Fall League teams. Blended teams of six to eight players from each of five MLB clubs come together to form one AFL team. In six weeks, the team learns to work together and play together as a cohesive unit. Games are played in Arizona spring training parks.
Today I am going to begin to share my scouting observations of several Fall League participants. I will continue these reports for the next several weeks until the league concludes just before Thanksgiving.
You can see my frequent game day comments about Fall League players by following my Twitter commentary @BerniePleskoff. I tweet real-time from game sites several times a week.
THEY MAKE ME SIT UP IN MY CHAIR
The first six guys I’m writing about today have made me sit up in my seat and take notice. They have performed to a level that makes me confident they have major league potential. Some have star potential.
MAX FRIED-LHP-ATLANTA BRAVES
Few pitchers this Fall League season get me as excited as Max Fried. Fried is a very well proportioned 6-foot-4, 200-pound left-handed starting pitcher. He actually looks a bit heavier than 200 pounds, but that’s how he is listed.
Fried has been dominating in Arizona. I have seen all three of his starts and he has been calm, cool and collected in each.
Fried’s arsenal includes a fastball that he throws at 92-94 miles per hour, a changeup at 85-87 miles per hour and 75-miles per hour curveball. He uses any pitch at any point in the count.
Fried’s bread and butter is his fastball. A four-seamer, he gets movement on the pitch and sets up his secondary pitches by getting ahead in counts. He throws strikes without getting too much of the plate. That’s a tall order for a 23- year old young man. But Fried does, indeed, throw strikes. He has shown incredible control so far. He has walked 4 in his 13 innings, but he is always around the plate. I haven’t seen one inning of anything close to wildness.
Here are some eye-popping early numbers. In his 13 innings, Fried has a 0.69 ERA. The opposition has six hits off him. His WHIP is 0.77. One run, and it was earned, has been scored against him.
I saw one outing where Fried lost his rhythm for about three hitters. He wasn’t as solid out of the stretch, but he got out of the trouble he caused. He kept his composure, accepted a visit to the mound from the coaching staff, and finished off the inning with only one run scoring. I really enjoy watching him pace himself and go about his business. I can almost see him think before he throws the ball.
The San Diego Padres selected Fried in the 1st round of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft. He missed almost two full years of pitching development recovering from Tommy John surgery. Now looking fit and healthy, Fried is throwing well.
The Padres traded Fried to Atlanta as part of the 2014 trade for Justin Upton. Now both Fried and Upton are gone. Pitcher Aaron Northcraft went to San Diego in the same trade and he is out of baseball. So that deal didn’t come out too well for the Padres. Especially if Fried becomes the quality pitcher I am projecting. Dustin Peterson, Mallex Smith and Jace Peterson also joined Fried in the deal to Atlanta. Smith is now with the Tampa Bay Rays. The others remain with the Braves.
Fried has already had a taste of pitching in the major leagues. But I look for even more big league exposure for him next season, as the Braves continue to refine their pitching and build for their future under a yet to be named new general manager.
Scouting Grade: 55-A better than average major-league starting pitcher
YUSNIEL DIAZ-OF-LOS ANGELES DODGERS
The rich get richer. And the richer got richer. The Los Angeles Dodgers signed outfielder Yusniel Diaz out of Cuba in 2015. His bonus was $15.5 million. The team paid an additional $15.5 million in penalty money for exceeding their international pool budget. They must have really wanted Diaz. I get it. The man can play. He can hit. He can run. He can play defense. He has a fine arm. He just hasn’t hit home runs yet. That’ll come. His 6-foot-1, 195 pounds frame can still get a bit stronger. And then, watch out.
Diaz doesn’t have to hit home runs to earn his keep. He’s such an athletic player that he will contribute with timely gap doubles and triples and superb plate discipline. He’ll play solid defense anywhere in the outfield. I’ve been seeing him in right field, but he can play anywhere.
Players from Cuba have generally played highly competitive baseball in the Cuban Serie National, the Cuban version of our Major League Baseball. He played in the league in 2014-15 as a 17-year-old. He had 250 plate appearances and hit .348. Here’s the good part. Even at such a very young age, Diaz struck out only 33 times in his 65 games. He’s got very good bat control at the plate. He looks like he’s been playing stateside for years and years.
I have seen excellent agility and balance in every facet of Diaz’ game so far. He is very aware of what has to be done on the baseball field. The ball makes that “special sound” off his bat.
Diaz has missed some development time due to shoulder fatigue but he is now looking sound and healthy and catching up on some lost plate appearances in Arizona.
Diaz is capable of taking the pitch to the opposite field, spraying it up the middle or taking it to his natural side. He just takes the pitch where it is thrown and he doesn’t go to the plate hunting home runs.
The Dodgers didn’t pay him as much as they did to sit around.
He’ll be on their fast track and very well may claim an outfield spot at some point in 2018.
Scouting Grade: 55
KYLE TUCKER-OF-HOUSTON ASTROS
Think Cody Bellinger light. Tucker has a similar build to Bellinger with a uppercut swing that is made for power. He is an excellent athlete with huge upside.
The Astros drafted Tucker in the 1st round out of high school in Tampa, Florida in 2015.
I’m watching him in the Arizona Fall League but I am not seeing much intensity in his game. Maybe he’s tired. Frankly, I’d like to see more energy. More enthusiasm. But he can rake.
When I saw him in the Futures Game, he hit a ton of moon shots, showing the type of loft he can get on the ball. He’s hitting only .209 so far as I write this. That really isn’t indicative of what he can do. He hit a combined .274 this past season at Class A Advanced Buies Creek in the Carolina League
and Double-A Corpus Christi in the Texas League. Tucker hit a combined 25 home runs with 90 RBIs in 523 plate appearances.
I really believe Tucker is on display here this fall as a possible trade chip. There are countless scouts and front office executives sitting in the stands watching every game. Lots of trades have included Fall League players in recent years. Even though Tucker is very highly regarded and ranked among the Astros best players, Tucker could return tremendous value in trade. And as I analyze their roster, he may be done with his development when they have an opening in the outfield. But, how do they get pitching help if they don’t trade a quality player such as Tucker. It may make some sense.
So, if indeed, the Astros are hunting for at least one more starting pitcher and some bullpen help it wouldn’t surprise me if they sent Tucker along in a trade package.
Tucker has been playing both right field and center field here in Arizona. A good fielder, he can play anywhere in the outfield with good speed, good instincts and good overall defensive ability. I like him best in right field due to his strong and accurate arm. But his speed and good athletic ability could anchor center field for years to come.
A top-notch multiple tool player, Kyle Tucker is just another among the outstanding Astros prospects they have been able to stockpile from their days of rebuilding their franchise with high draft picks. Count Kyle Tucker as a winner.
Scouting Grade: 60
The Houston Astros signed Abreu as an international free agent from the Dominican Republic in 2013. He was traded to the Yankees in the deal that brought catcher Brian McCann to Atlanta. The deal may be one that really helps both clubs. The Yankees dividend will be paid in a year or two as Abreu likely enters their rotation.
Abreu has a much better than average fastball that is his bread and butter pitch. The velocity on his fastball varies anywhere from 93-97 miles per hour, which is an increase from where he sat in the past. What I like is that he can add and subtract from the pitch at will.
Abreu throws a full and effective repertoire including a slider, a changeup and a curveball. In my observations, every one of his pitches has the capability of inducing swings and misses. He doesn’t look overpowering, but the ball is on the hitter in a hurry when he throws his fastball.
If I see any flaw in Abreu it is an inconsistency in his release point. He doesn’t generally repeat his good delivery, straying with his release point and with the finish on his pitches. Only 22, I think he will improve both his command and control in due time.
Abreu is the type of pitcher I view with a longer lens. I think his future may not be as immediate as Yankee and Fall League pitching colleague Justus Sheffield, but I think he has a really nice future as a rotation starter. If he doesn’t mow down hitters as a starter, he has the arsenal to work out of the bullpen.
Basically then, Abreu has to sharpen his command and control and refine his delivery-but that’s what his development program with the Yankees is intended to do. For now, he is on my radar as a very, very good young right-handed pitcher with upside as an interesting arsenal and the demeanor to succeed. He has the pitches to seal the deal. But it will take a bit of time.
Scouting Grade: 55
KYLE LEWIS-OF-SEATTLE MARINERS
Lewis was a 1st round pick of the Seattle Mariners in 2016. He is already making huge strides on his way to becoming a big league player. The Mariners actually had him listed higher than where they got him at No. 11.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that Kyle Lewis is the No. 1 Seattle Mariners prospect. The 22-year-old right-handed hitting outfielder can flat out smack the ball around the ole ball yard.
Lewis got a late start in the Fall League but he came out hitting. He was on base four times in his debut, getting three hits and walking once.
Lewis is a five-tool player. Big and strong at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, he has both power and the ability to hit for a good batting average. What I have seen in spring training and at the Fall League is a player that can spray the ball around from foul pole to foul pole by taking what the pitcher is giving.
Lewis is not slow for a man his size. He can motor around the bases well and take an extra base if needed. I think he’ll be able to steal bases with good technique.
Good hand-eye coordination and quick wrists allow Lewis to get through the ball with speed and strength.
Lewis has a .273 minor league batting average in parts of two seasons. He has competed at Class-A Advanced and is now hitting against higher quality pitching in the Arizona Fall League. I have a hunch Lewis is a guy that will be on the fast track in the Mariners organization. He was drafted out of Mercer College in Macon, Georgia where he was an impact middle of the batting order hitter. He hit .395 with 20 homers as a junior and won the valued and prestigious Golden Spikes Award, which goes to the best collegiate baseball player.
A very good athlete but not a fast runner, just after Lewis began his professional career he tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and the medial and lateral meniscus in his right knee in a home plate collision. It cost him development time. The injuries and collision didn’t help his speed.
There is more development ahead for Lewis. However, at some point, we will see him in the Mariners outfield. He has huge upside and he’s on the right track.
Scouting Grade for Lewis: 60
SCOUTING GRADES-HAVING EYES ON THE PLAYERS
Scouts provide a “grade” for each player and pitcher scouted. Written evaluations include lengthy verbal descriptions of a player’s background, his physical attributes and description, his skills, his shortcomings and the scout’s personal opinions.
The verbal review is followed by a “grade”
At the level of the Arizona Fall League, most players are within the better grade ranges. However, most professional players fall into one of these categories listed below (Note: I am simplifying these definitions for this article):
Grade 40- Destined to be a career minor league quality player
Grade 45- A “fringe” utility player or non-regular “staff filler
Grade 50- A regular player or part of the rotation, solid contributor as a #4 or #5 starter or early innings relief pitcher
Grade 55- A better than average player or pitcher, usually at least a #3 starter in the rotation.
Grade 60- An occasional, All-Star quality player or impact #1 or #2 pitcher but not at the superstar level
Grade 65-70- A regular All-Star, a club #1 starter or closer
Grade 70-80- A franchise player with tremendous game-changing impact –superstar-MVP, Cy Young type
Grade 80- Hall of Fame type player at his peak
Some organizations have variations of these grades. Some teams break the grading down even further, but it is more common to see clubs using the grading system as noted above.
Nothing is set in stone. A player can certainly be a #3 starter and be a Grade 50. It all depends upon where he fits in that particular staff-but he remains a Grade 50 regardless of where he fits on his current club. A player is graded on his own skills and not on what team he plays for. He is a 50 on Team X and he’s a 50 on team Y.
Standardized, often team specific evaluation forms are completed and filed with the Scouting Director or the scout’s supervisor.
Many clubs use a weekly conference call with their scouts to evaluate players and confidentially brief the scouting staff of team needs and items and players to look for.
The two most common scouts for the purpose of this article are classified into two main groups. One includes those organizational scouts that evaluate amateur players prior to them signing a contract (high school, organized community baseball, college players). These are players that are signed to a team out of the First-Year Player Draft (in June) or as a free agent pitcher/player that has not been selected in the draft and has not signed a professional contract for services.
Pro scouts are the scouts that follow players once the player has signed a professional contract and the player is being paid for his services. Those scouts follow minor league players, major league players, and those players in independent leagues that are being paid. Pro scouts evaluate players for a) organizational depth at all minor-league levels, and b) major-league roster needs.
Pro scouts evaluate players for potential free agent acquisition or trade. Often times pro scouts evaluate players in advance of a series with an opposing team or to make specific recommendations on how to pitch the opposition or how to defend an opposing player or players. These advance scouts may evaluate players at any time of the season. There are times at the end of a season when an amateur scout is called upon to evaluate professional players and join professional scouts in making recommendations.
Many organizations have their scouts evaluate their own players prior to the start of the season to determine the organization’s depth, individual player capabilities and as a source of comparison between their own organization and the organization of other teams.
Next week: More Fall League players.
Follow me from the Arizona Fall League on Twitter @BerniePleskoff.