Before I begin discussing the Arizona Fall League prospects I am highlighting this week, I would like to express my sincere condolences to the family and friends of Roy Halladay. Halladay was one of the finest right-handed starters I have had the pleasure of watching. He died in a plane crash November 7, 2017 in the Gulf of Mexico. An incredible competitor and a very nice person, Halladay will be remembered as a terrific pitcher and an ever greater human being. Rest in peace, Doc Halladay.
This is my third in an initial four-part series regarding Arizona Fall League players that have really caught my eye. There are certainly more high-quality players in the league than those I am profiling in my series. I will catch up with several additional players as the offseason winds down.
The Arizona Fall League held the annual Fall Stars Game on November 4, 2017. Plenty of the next wave of quality major league players were on display at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Administrators of the league told me they could have filled the rosters with more Yankees and Braves players. Some quality players from those organizations were omitted on the final rosters to be fair to other organizations. Make no mistake, however, the Yankees and Braves representatives to the league are incredibly good players. I could devote an entire column to those players exclusively. Instead, like the Fall League administration, I am spreading the love around.
But I have to start today’s piece with one of the quality Yankees appearing in Arizona.
JUSTUS SHEFFIELD-LHP-NEW YORK YANKEES
There is a great deal to like about Sheffield. A solid left-handed starter with a 5-foot-11, 200-pound frame, Sheffield is not the huge and imposing figure on the mound we see so often in today’s game. Rather, he is a solidly built and strong pitcher that gets the most of his physical attributes.
Sheffield was a 1st round draft pick by the Cleveland Indians in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft. The Tribe selected Sheffield out of Tullahoma High School in Tullahoma, Tennessee as a compensation pick at the end of the 1st round for losing pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez. The Indians made him a qualifying offer in 2013 that Jimenez turned down.
Sheffield was progressing nicely in the Indians organization when the club made a blockbuster deal with the New York Yankees that has helped both franchises move forward. At the non-waiver required trade deadline in July 2016, Cleveland shipped Sheffield, pitchers J.P. Feyereisen and Ben Heller, as well as outfielder Clint Frazier to the Yankees for All-Star pitcher Andrew Miller. Miller helped take Cleveland to the World Series in 2016. Each of the prospects the Yankees received can help them build a tremendous future as a consistent contender. Especially Sheffield.
Sheffield started the Fall Stars Game for the East club. He pitched well. He was throwing his fastball between 93-96 miles per hour. He also throws a curveball, a changeup and a slider. Each of his four pitches is at least average in quality, with his fastball being a grade 60 pitch, which is well above average. His changeup still needs a bit more work to reach consistency.
The greatest issue I have with Sheffield is his command and control. In my observations of him prior to this year, he was rather wild. Now, his command and control are much better, but room for improvement clearly exists.
Every pitch he throws has good movement. He has to be able to contain himself and not try to throw the ball through the backstop. When he doesn’t overthrow, he is a much better pitcher. At times, however, as I saw this past week, Sheffield tries to throw the ball 100 miles an hour. It doesn’t work for him.
In the Fall Stars Game, Sheffield was called several times for exceeding the pitch clock, an experimental component used in the league to help speed up games. To his credit, Sheffield did not get rattled at the umpire’s charging him with a “ball” for exceeding time. He handled each situation calmly and professionally.
With the exception of his occasional attempt at increasing his velocity, Sheffield knows how to pitch. He keeps the ball down in the zone but he goes right after the hitter. He has matured and is getting better with experience. I would expect we would see him at the major-league level at some point at the end of the coming season, perhaps when rosters are expanded in September.
I view Sheffield as a No. 3 or No. 4 starter with the Yankees. He will be an asset as a quality lefty in a home park that plays better for left-handed pitching. I project a quality career for Sheffield as a dependable starter capable of repeating good pitching mechanics with a full and high-quality repertoire.
Scouting grade for Sheffield: 55
VICTOR ROBLES-OF-WASHINGTON NATIONALS
Robles was an international free agent from the Dominican Republic signed by the Nationals in 2013.
Robles has already made his major-league debut, having played 13 games for Washington this past season. He hit .250 for the parent club in 27 plate appearances.
Robles has a number of very good tools, with his blazing speed, excellent defensive ability and his fine hitting skills among them. The only tool Robles currently lacks is an ability to hit for power. However, even that tool is improving. This past season he hit 10 home runs while playing at Class-A Advanced, Double-A and at the major-league level.
In parts of four minor league seasons, Robles has a .304 career batting average in 1474 plate appearances.
In the Fall League, Robles is showing all his tools. He looks very young but he plays with advanced baseball instincts. Very smooth and athletic, Robles makes everything look easy. He shows plate discipline, a solid knowledge of the strike zone and outstanding contact ability. He rarely strikes out, making things happen by hitting the ball hard and using his outstanding speed to carry him around the bases. A solid leadoff type hitter, Robles is a stolen base threat whenever he reaches first base.
Robles has a very strong and accurate throwing arm and he is capable of playing anywhere in the outfield. I project him to be an ideal center fielder with the speed, great defensive instincts and range to be the “quarterback” of the outfield.
Robles is an impact player with the potential to be a true star for years to come. Still only 20 years old, more power could be on the way in addition to refined and mature skills that have already exceeded his age.
I can’t see why Robles won’t be a part of the Nationals 25-man roster and possibly a starting outfielder when the team breaks camp this coming spring. He could become a fixture for years to come with All-Star appearances ahead in his career.
Scouting grade for Robles: 60
RONALD ACUNA-OUTFIELDER-ATLANTA BRAVES
One of the great debates at this year’s Arizona Fall League concerns comparisons between Victor Robles and Ronald Acuna. They are similar in physicality, have great natural tools and both can impact the outcome of a baseball game.
In my observation, one is not better than the other. They are different players with some similar skills and some that differ.
In my observations, Acuna has more raw power. Perhaps Robles has more pure speed, but Acuna is plenty fast as well. At an even 6-feet tall and 180 pounds, Acuna is very solidly built with upper and lower-body strength.
Acuna was an international free agent signing by the Atlanta Braves out of Venezuela in 2014. This past season he played at three Braves classifications, including Class-A Advanced, Double-A and Triple-A. He hit a combined .325 for the year with 612 plate appearances. He hit 21 homers and drove in 82 runs. He also struck out 144 times, which is another difference between Acuna and Robles. Robles is a better pure contact hitter.
Acuna stole 44 bases, but was caught stealing 20 times.
Acuna has the power and strength to win a game with one swing of the bat. His line drive, barrel of the bat approach makes him an impact hitter in each and every at-bat.
This Fall I am noticing Acuna scuffle a bit with off-speed pitches. To me, that’s where his strikeouts generate. He clobbers fastballs and has trouble with off-speed pitches and breaking balls.
Scouts feel Acuna’s best defensive role is right field. I can’t argue with that, but like Robles, he could be the outfield leader in center field with little or no doubt. He takes good routes, is a good defender and has the speed to track down any ball hit in his area code.
Acuna is still only 19 years old. He will turn 20 in December. While he may not be quite ready for Atlanta, he is close. He still has to improve his contact rate and show he can hit quality pitching on a consistent basis. The Fall League is helping that process.
Scouting grade for Acuna: 60
FRANCISCO MEJIA-C-CLEVELAND INDIANS
Even though Mejia is playing some third base and serving as a designated hitter in the Fall League, his best position remains as a catcher.
Considered by most observers to be the Indians best prospect, Mejia was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2012 as an international free agent by the Cleveland Indians.
Mejia has an outstanding hit tool. He is hitting a ton in the Fall League, leading the league in hitting as I write this. At one point, four weeks into the six-week season, he was hitting .400.
Slight of build for a catcher at 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, Mejia is 22 years old and is making a name for himself as an impact hitter. It is fairly well known that the Indians value his bat. The issue remains his defensive position. With his physicality, can he withstand the rigors of the catching position? I’m not convinced. I think he will take a beating in a few more years. That may be why the Indians want to try to increase his value and position flexibility by playing him a bit at third base during the Fall League.
I have seen him play third and I’m not impressed. He needs much more time and work at the position. He is rather stiff and his reactions are not natural. He watches as balls shoot through the hole between short and third. He just doesn’t seem to have the range for that position. At least not at this early stage of the trial.
Mejia has a very strong arm. That’s why he can be a good catcher. His skills work there. He moves well behind the plate and seems natural at that position.
But when it comes down to it, Mejia’s value is in his bat. He has a career .293 batting average in parts of five minor league seasons. This past year he hit .297 at Double-A Akron.
The Indians were set to trade Mejia, outfielder Greg Allen, shortstop Yu-Chen Chang and right-handed pitcher Shawn Armstrong to the Milwaukee Brewers in July 2016. They would have received catcher Jonathan Lucroy in return. Lucroy had the Indians on his no-trade list and he rejected the deal. At this point, I would guess the Indians are pleased the deal never happened.
That isn’t to say Cleveland won’t ever trade Mejia. The team has catchers Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez ahead of Mejia in the organizational pecking order. That’s why they want to extend his defensive opportunities and broaden his versatility to at least one other position. He’s an All-Star quality player with a terrific hit tool and some power. His arm is outstanding. Why mess with success? They should leave him behind the plate and let him thrive. At least for now. At worst, he is an average receiver.
In my observations, Mejia is destined to catch. It isn’t only his best defensive position it may be his only defensive position at this time. But I remind myself the Indians moved Carlos Santana from behind the plate to third base, to first base and to the outfield. Mejia may take the same course.
Scouting grade for Mejia: 60
AUSTIN RILEY-3B-ATLANTA BRAVES
Big, strong and powerful, Austin Riley is making some noise with a loud bat in the Fall League. He hit 20 home runs in back to back 2016 and 2017 seasons in the Braves system and that loud bat showed up in Arizona.
This past year, Riley played at Class-A Advanced Florida and at Double-A Mississippi. He finished with a .275 batting average, 20 homers and 74 RBIs. He struck out 124 times in 542 plate appearances, down 23 from 2016 in one less hitting appearance.
Riley is hitting well over .300 so far this fall and he is showing the pop in his bat. He has four home runs already as I write this, with 14 RBIs. He’s a true leader in the league. Riley made the Fall Stars team but didn’t start in the game. That honor went to Ryan Mountcastle of the Baltimore Orioles organization.
The Braves signed Riley as a 1st round draft choice in 2015 out of DeSoto Central High School in Southaven, Mississippi. Still only 20, Riley could become the starting third baseman of the Braves and keep the job for a long, long time. Right now he is on pace to finish his development in the 2019 season.
Probably not as lithe and agile a third baseman as some others in the league, Riley plays acceptable defense. I would classify has range as average, at best. Overall, I project he will be in the Braves lineup everyday as a power hitter somewhere in the middle of the batting order. The most advanced part of his defense is his strong throwing arm, which is well above average.
One caution regarding Riley is his lack of experience hitting off-speed pitches and breaking balls. Like most young players, his success is much greater against fastballs. Time will tell if he can adjust to quality pitching as he continues his development.
I am bullish on Riley’s power and I feel he will have just enough speed to carry his long gap hits to doubles. However, he won’t be stealing many bases or extending doubles to triples due to his obvious lack of foot speed.
Braves fans can look forward to a true power hitting third baseman with upside as a run producer.
Scouting grade for Riley: 50
LUIS URIAS-SS-2B-3B-SAN DIEGO PADRES
Simply put, Urias is one of the most exciting discoveries for me in this edition of the Arizona Fall League. I had no idea he was such an outstanding defender and I had no idea he could hold his own offensively. Quite simply, Urias is opening lots of eyes this Fall. Including mine.
An international free agent from Mexico signed by the Padres in 2013, Urias is only 20 years old but plays with much more maturity and baseball awareness than might be expected from someone that young.
Urias has hit the quality pitching he is seeing in the Fall League and he has played almost flawless defense in every game I have observed. He makes playing shortstop look simple. He moves with grace and ease. The ball floats into his glove, and he uses his better than average arm strength to finish off the hitter with quality throws to first base.
A hero of the Fall Stars Game, Urias hit a home run to open the scoring. He has some pop in his bat, but he is best at putting the barrel of the bat on the ball and spraying the ball around the entire field.
This past season Urias played at Double-A San Antonio in the Texas League. He hit .296 with 20 doubles, four triples and three home runs. He stole seven bases in 12 attempts. He walked a whopping 68 times, three more times than he struck out.
In parts of four minor league seasons, Urias has a composite batting average of .310.
A line-drive hitter with a great feel for hitting and clean hitting mechanics, Urias has a sweet swing that he controls well. He doesn’t try to power the ball out of the park. He sees lots of pitches, accepts bases on balls and uses his advanced knowledge of the strike zone to his advantage. A tough out, Urias is a disciplined and potentially dangerous hitter.
Listed as both a second baseman and shortstop, he is playing more often now at shortstop. He can make all the plays.
The Padres are loaded with middle-infielders. His middle-infield San Diego teammate Javier Guerra is also playing on the Peoria club in the Fall League with Urias. So far, it seems Urias has surpassed Guerra in development, due in large part to Urias’ fine hitting tool. A third infield candidate, Fernando Tatis Jr. is also among the top Padres prospects. He is not playing in the Fall League.
The Padres are loaded with solid infield prospects. Of all the players among their organizational infield depth, it appears Urias has the highest ceiling. The Padres may well look to improve other positions in the organization with a trade of one of their many infield prospects. However, it is very doubtful they would be tempted to trade Urias. He’s that promising a prospect.
It would not surprise to see Urias playing shortstop or second base (more probably shortstop) for San Diego at some point this coming season.
Scouting grade for Urias: 55
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