AUDITIONING FOR PRIME TIME

Mitch Keller

PART IV OF MY ARIZONA FALL LEAGUE SCOUTING PROFILES

The Arizona Fall League is special. Rarely do baseball people have a chance to watch so many excellent prospects play baseball in the same league and on the same team for a sustained period of time.

Major league clubs send some of their best overall position prospects and prospect pitchers to the Arizona desert for six weeks of skill refinement and development.

The media and league administration culture around the league is simple. The same people staff the various press boxes year in and year out. We know one another, we share our opinions and we learn from each other. There is a bond and a trust that has formed over years in the league.

I watch countless baseball games every year. I go from the Fall League to Spring Training to the Championship Season. I never tire of watching baseball. The Fall League is my favorite baseball related experience. It is unique in its simplicity. It is cherished for its purpose and it is admired for its results. The Fall League has helped produce Hall of Famers, All-Stars, regular roster players and a few busts.

T.J. Zeuch

Photo Credit: Ryan Morris

T.J. ZEUCH-RHP-TORONTO BLUE JAYS

Zeuch is a huge, 6-foot-7, 225 pounds right-handed pitcher with a bright future for the Blue Jays.

Zeuch set a league record with a 0.62 ERA as a senior as a high school pitcher at Mason, Ohio High school.

Now only 22, Zeuch was first drafted by the Kansas City Royals out of high school in the 31st round of the 2013 First-Year Player Draft. Instead of signing with Kansas City, Zeuch chose to pitch for the University of Pittsburgh. He was then taken by the Blue Jays in the 1st round of the 2016 draft.

Zeuch has thrown 99 2/3 minor league innings for Toronto in parts of two seasons. This past year he started three games in the Gulf Coast Rookie League before moving to Class-A Advanced Dunedin in the Florida State League. He pitched well there, going 3-4 in 58 2/3 innings, but finishing with a 3.38 ERA and a 1.36 WHIP.

Zeuch missed time this past season with an injury. He was on and off the disabled list twice. The Arizona Fall League gives him the opportunity to make up some lost innings. He remains a good prospect in the Blue Jays organization.

Zeuch has four main pitches in his repertoire that vary in quality and development at this early stage of his career.

Zeuch throws his fastball between 91 and 94 miles per hour, generally sitting at 92. He also has a solid curveball that is average in quality as well as a solid slider that he can mix in to the arsenal. His fourth pitch, his changeup is less developed than the other pitches.

What I like about Zeuch is his ability to pitch downhill and get some sink on his pitches. As a result, he can induce some ground balls in addition to swings and misses.

In the Fall League, Zeuch has had mixed results. He pitched in the Fall Stars Game and he has seen action in four starts to this late point in the season. He has yielded fewer hits than innings pitched, a good sign. He has struck out far more hitters than he has walked. That’s also a good sign. In short, his season here in the desert has been a good stepping-stone in his career.

The Blue Jays don’t have great pitching depth in the organization. They are getting better and better quality position players, but the pitching doesn’t match the quality of position prospects such as Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, to name two. Zeuch may well be the best of the pitching prospects in the system.

If he stays away from injury and gets his work in and continues to develop on schedule, he should be a viable pitcher in the system at some point in 2019.

Scouting grade for Zeuch: 50

Monte Harrison

Photo Credit: Jerry Espinoza

MONTE HARRISON-OF-MILWAUKEE BREWERS

Monte Harrison is making a tremendous name for himself in the Fall League. Every time I see him hit I am more impressed.

Harrison was selected by Milwaukee in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft out of Lee’s Summit West High School in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. He was a second round pick.

To be clear, the Brewers have some outstanding outfield prospects in their development program. They include Corey Ray, Lewis Brinson, Brett Phillips, Trent Clark, and Harrison among others. While I am not very bullish on Ray, I do see a nice future for Brinson in the near future. Harrison, however, may be further away but he is making a name for himself in Arizona.

Harrison has a .243 batting average in parts of four seasons with the Brewers organization. But he is hitting much better in the Fall League. He has hovered around .300 and has hit with some real pop in his bat. He has hit home runs, driven in runs and stolen bases for his Salt River team.

Harrison, a right-handed hitter can take the ball to the opposite field, as he did with a recent home run. His swing is sweet, his hands are quick and he sees the ball well out of the pitcher’s hand. I like the fact he recognizes pitches quickly and can adjust accordingly.

In 2016 a broken hamate bone cost Harrison some playing time. He is making up for some missed at-bats this fall.

Big and strong at 6-3, 220 pounds, Harrison can be a dangerous hitter. He’s a good center fielder, but he can also play either corner outfield position as well.

Harrison remains a couple years away from playing for the parent club. If he continues to make barrel of the bat contact with the power we have seen so far this fall, he will force himself into the outfield conversation for the Brewers. A good fielder with speed enough to steal bases, he is becoming a complete player with the potential for making an everyday impact.

Scouting grade for Harrison: 50

Nicky Lopez

Photo Credit: Ryan Morris

NICKY LOPEZ-SHORTSTOP-KANSAS CITY ROYALS

I certainly enjoy watching Fall League players, but I am especially interested in watching exciting Royals shortstop prospect Nicky Lopez. He’s the type of player that gets his uniform dirty.

A left-handed hitter, Lopez is on the smallish size at 5-11, 175 pounds.

While I’m not anywhere near certain Lopez can be an everyday shortstop. I do, however, feel he can carve out a place for himself on a major-league roster.

A 5th round pick out of Creighton University in the 2016 First-Year Player Draft, Lopez has played parts of two seasons in Minor League Baseball. He has a career batting average of .279 in his 860 plate appearances. This past year he played at Class-A Advanced Wilmington and Double-A Northwest Arkansas.

He doesn’t have much power, but he can hit the gaps for doubles and has enough speed to get a nice share of triples as well.

Lopez has a nice array of tools that include a good hitting tool, good speed and solid defense. None of those tools is stellar and none will carry his career. However, he is dependable and a gamer.

A good athlete with good range and quick feet, Lopez has enough ability to serve as a defensive replacement, a pinch hitter, and a pinch runner or as a quality fill-in for a regular middle-infielder if needed.

Lopez was included on the Fall Stars team and played in the November game. He went hitless in two at-bats as a defensive replacement during the game.

Still young and lacking experience, Lopez is a player to watch in the Royals organization. The team is on the verge of losing a number of regular position players. It is quite possible the Royals will be rebuilding for a couple more years. They aren’t really deep in middle-infield prospects. Lopez may be the best prospect they have for shortstop or second base. Even though he is probably two seasons away from the parent team, Lopez can certainly strive for a major-league career in an organization that needs his shortstop skills.

Scouting grade for Lopez: 45

Sandy Alcantara

Photo Credit: Jerry Espinoza

SANDY ALCANTARA-RHP-ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

The Cardinals signed Sandy Alcantara as an international free agent from the Dominican Republic in 2013. He’s still only 22, but he already has major-league experience.

Alcantara can throw 100 miles per hour. He usually sits at between 97-98 miles per hour but he can add velocity at will. His fastball is a Grade 70 pitch.

That’s just the beginning of what I like about Alcantara. He also has an outstanding, above-average changeup and an average slider that gives him a fine three-pitch repertoire.

Alcantara, 6-foot-4, 170 pounds, has already pitched eight games in major-league baseball. He has parts of four seasons in the Cardinals minor-league system, compiling a 17-29 record with a 3.95 ERA and 1.34 WHIP in 369 innings.

The issue seems to be command and control of that blazing fastball as well as with his secondary pitches. In his minor league career, he has a walk rate of 3.7 per nine innings. He has a strikeout rate of 8.9 hitters per nine, a bit lower than one might expect with his stuff, but still very good.

In his 8 1/3 innings on the mound for the parent Cardinals, Alcantara has yielded six walks and struck out ten. However, he has yielded two home runs.

Pitching for the Surprise Saguaros in the Fall League, Alcantara has compiled an ERA of 4.20 at this writing. In his five starts, he has walked eight and struck out 14. Control has once again been a concern. He has given up two home runs.

Alcantara pitched two innings in the Fall Stars Game on November 4, 2017 and yielded two hits and no runs while striking out two and not yielding a walk. He easily hit 100 miles per hour in the game.

The Cardinals have an outstanding core of young pitchers ready to step up in their rotation. Former Fall League pitchers Alex Reyes (hopefully returning from Tommy John surgery) and Luke Weaver lit up the Fall League when they appeared in the desert to finish their development. They anchor a staff that very well may include Alcantara at some point. Prospects Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson are two additional right-handed pitchers who are waiting in the wings for their chance to pitch at the big league level as well.

Still young and learning how to face increasingly better hitters, Alcantara has increased his velocity since he was first signed by St. Louis. With his power arm and additional command and control, he can become a dominant starting pitcher. He has the stuff and the capability to fit nicely into the rotation and stay there for years. First, however, he has to refine all his pitches repeat his delivery and gain enough command and control to use any pitch in his arsenal at any point in the count.

Scouting grade for Alcantara: 55

Mitch Keller

Photo Credit: Jerry Espinoza

MITCH KELLER-RHP-PITTSBURGH PIRATES

There is no doubt Mitch Keller is a major-league quality pitcher. He has the repertoire, the mound demeanor, the command and the control to be a winning starting pitcher. He is among the best starters in the Fall League. In fact, he started the Fall Stars Game for the West Division.

Keller was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft out of Xavier High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He is only 21 but he’s making great progress towards becoming a major-league starting pitcher.

Keller throws his fastball in the range of 94-97 and 98 miles per hour. It is an outstanding pitch and grades to be a 65. He can throw strike one with his fastball, get ahead in the count and then mix in his other pitches. Every fastball he throws has excellent movement, most of them sinking and getting the hitter to pound the ball into the ground.

Keller’s best secondary pitch is a very good, well above-average curveball. He also throws a changeup that isn’t quite as advanced, but still induces the swings and misses Keller seeks with the pitch.

What makes Keller so good on the mound is his ability to command and control each of his pitches. He has a career walk rate of 2.5 walks per nine innings in 293 1/3 innings pitched. His strikeout rate is a very, very fine 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings.

Keller has reached Double-A in parts of four seasons as a professional signed out of high school. He’s really on a fast track to the big leagues.

He didn’t have much work in 2015, throwing only 19 2/3 innings as injuries, including a forearm strain took their toll. These Fall League outings, as well as the 116 innings he pitched over three classifications in 2017, will help get him back on track.

One aspect of Keller’s game is disturbing and must be corrected. In every outing I have scouted, including the Fall Stars start, Keller has failed to even look at runners on first base. The net result is a boatload of stolen bases off him. It isn’t that he isn’t quick enough to the plate. He just does not pay attention to runners. In the Fall Stars Game, he yielded three stolen bases in the first inning. That was not the first time I had seen his lackadaisical approach to base runners. He has to give his catcher a chance to throw out the runner. He simply must work on that flaw in his game unless he wants to pitch with a runner on second base every time he yields a single or a walk.

The Pirates are challenged now to fix that problem. They are challenged to bring Keller along more efficiently and with better results than they have received to date with top pitching prospects like Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon who have not reached their potential yet.

Other than the stolen bases he is yielding, Keller is compiling some eye-popping Fall League stats. At this writing, with two games left in the season, Keller has a 3-0 record, a 1.37 ERA and a 0.76 WHIP in his five starts covering 19 2/3 innings. He has given up only ten hits and five walks while striking out 12.

I view Keller as a solid No. 3 starter with good stuff, excellent command and control and a very good idea of how to throw strikes. He should have a solid big league career.

Scouting grade for Keller: 55

Alex Jackson

Photo Credit: Ryan Morris

ALEX JACKSON-C-ATLANTA BRAVES

It might be very difficult to argue that Braves catcher in waiting Alex Jackson isn’t “one who got away”. The Seattle Mariners took Jackson in the 1st round of the First-Year Player Draft in 2014 out of Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego, California. Even though Jackson was a skilled catcher in high school, the Mariners converted him to the outfield when he turned professional. He didn’t hit as expected and the team traded him to the Braves for right-handed pitchers Max Provse and Rob Whalen. In a bit of irony, Provse is pitching for the Mariners in the Arizona Fall League while Jackson is playing for his new Braves team.

Jackson has played only designated hitter and catcher for the Braves. He has not moved back to the outfield, even though he has experience.

Jackson, a right-handed hitter finished this past season at Double-A Mississippi in the Southern League. He hit .255 in his 120 plate appearances. He arrived in Mississippi after playing the first part of the season at Class-A Advanced Florida where he hit .272 in 257 trips to the plate. Jackson combined to hit 21 doubles and 19 home runs, flashing the power the Mariners saw when he was first drafted.

Jackson is playing for Peoria in the Fall League, where he has been a .250 hitter. His work behind the plate and his good, loud bat to ball skills speak well for his future. There are some strikeouts looming in his future as well.

Built like a catcher with a frame of 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, the solidly built Jackson has strong legs and a strong upper body. He gets his entire body into his swing and doesn’t get cheated at the plate. Power is Jackson’s best tool outside of his good mechanics behind the plate. He releases the ball quickly, has good “pop” time (standing from the crouch, moving the ball from glove to hand and throwing the ball) and makes good throws with carry and accuracy. His arm strength is above average.

With an ability to spray the ball around, Jackson can be a dangerous hitter-especially for a catcher.

I project Jackson to win a full-time role behind the plate with Atlanta. He can be trusted to shepherd a pitching staff by calling a good game and being the “quarterback” behind the plate.

After another complete year of minor league seasoning, I can see Jackson making the Braves 25-man roster. Initially he may caddy for the full-time catcher, but eventually, I think the job will be all his. He just has to get comfortable hitting quality pitching and refining all his natural abilities and skills.

Scouting grade for Jackson: 50

Josh Naylor

Photo Credit: Jerry Espinoza

JOSH NAYLOR-FIRST BASEMAN-SAN DIEGO PADRES

There is an adage in baseball that states, “if you can hit, you can play.” Josh Naylor can flat out hit. He doesn’t look like a baseball player. Think a younger version of Pablo Sandoval. Yes, Naylor is round. Yes, Naylor has a very big lower body. And yes, like Sandoval, as a minor league player, Naylor can hit.

The Miami Marlins chose Naylor in the 1st round of the 2015 First-Year Player Draft out of Joan of Arc Catholic High School in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. He played for the World Team in this year’s Futures Game.

Naylor is listed at 6-feet, 225 pounds. I doubt those are the real figures. He looks much bigger. He is “hefty” to be kind.

Much of Naylor’s weight is carried in his trunk, and that’s where he generates tremendous power. A left-handed hitter, the 20- year old Naylor can hit the ball out of any park. Power and a great hitting tool will carry Naylor as far as he gets, which I think will be on a big league club.

One can be in for a real shock when watching Naylor play. As big as he is, he is very quick on his feet, bordering on fast. He has great agility for a wide-bodied first baseman. Actually, he has great agility for any-bodied first baseman. He has good range with quick feet. There will be no need to hide Naylor as an “offense only” first baseman. He can play defense every bit as well as others I have seen on big league rosters.

Naylor spent the past season at Class-A Advanced Lake Elsinore in the California League. That’s where I first saw him play, and he hit very well in the league and in their All-Star Game. He finished at Elsinore hitting .297 and moved on to Double-A San Antonio in the Texas League he hit .250. He hit a combined 25 doubles, two triples and 10 home runs.

Naylor struck out 84 times this past season, which is really good for a player with Naylor’s loud, barrel bat. He used his patience at the plate and good pitch recognition to walk 43 times.

I’m a big fan of Naylor because he uses his skills very well. He has quick hands and good eye-hand coordination. He can take an outside pitch to left field and pull an inside pitch to the corner down the first base line in right.

By the 2019 season, Naylor could show his club that he can be counted on to hit 25 home runs and drive in at least 70 runs as a solid first baseman.

In recent years and in general, we have seen fewer and fewer pure first base prospects on organizational depth charts. That’s the case with Naylor. He may be not only the best first base prospect for San Diego, at this point in time he may be the only first base prospect in their top prospect queue.

Wil Myers is clearly the first baseman for the Padres unless the team makes a trade or makes a move in free agency. However, I don’t see how Naylor can’t win the job in the future with Myers moving back to his more familiar station in the outfield. Anything is possible. It will all depend upon future moves by San Diego before Naylor is ready to contribute after next season.

Scouting grade for Naylor: 50

Next week: My All Arizona Fall League Team

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About The Author

Bernie Pleskoff is a former professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Bernie’s work has been featured on MLB Pipeline, MLB.com and FanRag Sports, among others. You can follow Bernie Pleskoff on Twitter @BerniePleskoff