BERNIE’S BASEBALL WORLD: AS GOOD AS GOLD

Ronald Acuna

MY “ALL ARIZONA FALL LEAGUE” CLUB

Those that are regular readers and followers of my work know that I am fond of saying “That’s why they make chocolate and vanilla ice cream. Everyone has a different opinion”. And that, my friends, is what I like about doing All This or All That teams. Everyone has a different opinion of player evaluation.

In this edition of BERNIE’S BASEBALL WORLD, I offer my opinion of the best players I saw at each position with a bit of an explanation for each. It is my All Arizona Fall League team.

In this year’s edition of the AFL, there were several very deep positions. Third base, middle-infield and catcher come to mind. First base was relatively weak. Relief pitching, as it usually is, was not the strongest position in the league, either.

I have included the player’s Fall League statistics in parenthesis at the end of the player’s name. There were some difficult decisions to make, but I am comfortable with the overall result of my team. Frankly, this year there weren’t as many amazing “can’t miss” prospects as we may have seen in the past, but without a doubt, there were plenty of minor-league quality players just waiting for their chance to prove they belong.

So as the 2017 edition of the Arizona Fall League has come to a close, here are the guys I liked the most at each position:

Alex Jackson

Photo Credit: Ryan Morris

CATCHER:

Starter: ALEX JACKSON-Atlanta Braves (.263/5/16)

Jackson was traded by the Seattle Mariners to the Braves in a trade that brought pitchers Max Povse and  Rob Whalen to the Mariners. Ironically, they ended up on the same Fall League team playing for Peoria. Jackson was an outfielder with Seattle, didn’t hit the way the Mariners anticipated and they traded him to Atlanta. The Braves moved him behind the plate, where he played in high school. The former 1st round pick has a loud power bat and plays well behind the plate with a solid arm, good mechanics and excellent handling of pitchers. I like his future.

Reserve: ANDREW KNIZNER-St. Louis Cardinals (.358/3/12)

A former All-American player at North Carolina State, Knizner was a third baseman at one point. He is now fairly well set up as the Cardinals best catching prospect with a major-league arrival time of 2019. He hit .324 at Double-A Springfield this past season. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound catcher is only 22. He was a 7th round draft pick in 2016 and should be moving quickly.

Josh Naylor

Photo Credit: Ryan Morris

FIRST BASE:

Starter: JOSH NAYLOR-San Diego Padres (.304/3/14)

Naylor is a true hitter with dangerous power from the left side of the plate. Hefty, with a huge lower body, Naylor can take a pitch where it is thrown and inflict damage. He also plays a solid first base and can run better than one may think. I worry about his physicality, as I believe he has to get his weight under control or risk becoming Pablo Sandoval- a player with a shortened career at the top of his game because of his weight.

Reserve: BILLY MCKINNEY-New York Yankees (.279/1/20)

McKinney is almost a man without a position. His best role may be center field. He played all over this fall, but he excels with his speed. He doesn’t have great pop, but he can hit and play well enough to win a job as a versatile big league option. Playing lots of first base in Arizona, I think McKinney showed enough of a bat to interest a club with depth issues. He can help a team with his bat and his speed.

SECOND BASE:

Luis Urias

Photo Credit: Ryan Morris

Starter: LUIS URIAS-San Diego Padres (.315/0/9)

Urias played both at shortstop and second base in the league. He is an outstanding defender with good range, a strong arm and excellent game awareness. Urias has pop in his bat, can hit quality pitching, make consistent contact and drive the ball. I believe he will find a permanent role in the future with the Padres, who are loaded with middle-infield prospects. Somehow, he could rise to the top in that depth chart.

Reserve: DAVID BOTE-Chicago Cubs (.323/4/14)

Bote was a surprise to me. He began hitting the first day this fall and hit until the league concluded. He plays solid defense with range and a quick first step. He was a true surprise in the league and a player I want to see more against even better and more consistent pitching. He could have a future. He is in an organization with lots of quality players ahead of him on the major-league roster. We have to watch to see if his fall was a fluke or the real deal. It looked pretty real to me.

SHORTSTOP:

Nicky Lopez

Photo Credit: Jerry Espinoza

Starter: NICKY LOPEZ- Kansas City Royals (.383/2/10)

Small in stature but playing bigger than life, Lopez opened plenty of eyes this fall. He can hit and he can play very solid defense. With the Royals losing some key players, his future may have been solidified with this good Fall League performance. He gets his uniform dirty and plays hard. If it isn’t with the Royals, he’ll be playing somewhere on a big league roster-even if it may be as a utility player.

Reserve: THAIRO ESTRADA-New York Yankees (.342/1/10)

Estrada is smooth as silk at shortstop. While the Yankees should have Didi Gregorius at the position for years to come, Estrada has shown quick feet, great hands and terrific range and arm strength this fall. If he hits, he plays. Somewhere. He can play either middle-infield position, but I like him at short. It was great to watch the ball disappear in his glove. He made lots of believers out of people who hadn’t seen him play before. Like me.

Sheldon Neuse

Photo Credit: Jerry Espinoza

THIRD BASE:

Starter: SHELDON NEUSE-Oakland Athletics (.314/5/23)

If you put a gun to my head and made me pick between Neuse and the Braves Austin Riley I might choose one one time and the other the next. They are both very solid players on both ends of the ball. But for this exercise, I can only select one. That would be Neuse. All he does is hit. The ball jumps off his bat. He can take a pitch to any part of the field with great hitting awareness and use of the barrel. He’s a solid major-league quality player stuck on a club with a sophomore third baseman in Matt Chapman. But Neuse can play the game and play it well.

Reserve #1- AUSTIN RILEY-Atlanta Braves (.300/6/18)

Following the completion of his development I don’t see any way this young man isn’t the every day third baseman for the Atlanta Braves. He can play both sides of the ball with equal proficiency. He has some real power in his bat and he just looks the part of an athletic, very confident third baseman. Ask me next week, and I might say Riley would be my starter. For today, I think we have a virtual tie at a very deep position. Braves fans will love Riley.

Reserve #2- ERIC FILIA-Seattle Mariners (.408/1/13)

Filia had a tremendous fall. He led the league in hitting and has to have a place on my team. He did all that was asked of him and then some. I have to watch a great deal more of Filia in the coming season, as I’m not totally sure this fall wasn’t an outlier. Maybe it wasn’t. Time will tell, but get to know this name.

OUTFIELDERS:

Ronald Acuna

Photo Credit: Jerry Espinoza

LF-RONALD ACUNA-Atlanta Braves (.325/7/16)

Acuna is named the Most Valuable Player in the league for a reason. He was the best player from the first game to the last. Acuna has a chance to be special. He has tremendous power in a compact body. He is similar in physicality to Victor Robles at 6-feet, 180 pounds. Acuna has more pure power than Robles and isn’t as fast as Robles but he’s plenty fast as well. Acuna can impact a game with his bat, his legs, his arm or his glove. He’s a true star in development and he should become a fixture for the Braves. Acuna led his Peoria team to the AFL Championship with a four-RBI game.

Victor Robles

Photo Credit: Jerry Espinoza

CF-VICTOR ROBLES-Nationals- (.244/3/7)

The batting average wasn’t there, but the athletic ability and the knack of making things happen allowed Robles to impact his team and the league. He is an excellent athlete with a loose body, great natural movement and a skill set that is deep and real. His speed can’t be denied, as he stole seven bases without being caught. He makes things happen from the top of the order. At 6-feet and 185 pounds Robles is still only 20 years old. Look for him to be in the Nationals lineup in 2018.

Yusniel Diaz

Photo Credit: Ryan Morris

RF- YUSNIEL DIAZ-Los Angeles Dodgers (.303/1/10)

I believe what we saw in Arizona has just scratched the surface of what Diaz can become. He is a solid as a rock pure athlete at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds. The right-handed hitter from Cuba should do very well after he makes a complete adjustment stateside. He has power, a big, big arm and the ability to impact the game with his loud bat, his fine defense and his good speed. He is a bit raw in his development, but his fundamentals are sound. I look for a two-year window at most for him to adjust to great pitching and become all I think he can be, which is an occasional All-Star.

Reserve #1- KEVIN KACZMARSKI-New York Mets (.351/1/11)

A bit older for the league at the age of 25, Kaczmarski opened eyes with an excellent hitting tool. He played in 20 games, so his hitting throughout the fall was not a fluke. He was a 9th round pick of the Mets out of the University of Evansville in 2015. I like his chances of becoming a solid player for the Mets as long as his bat continues to develop. He hit .274 with 5 homers and 52 RBIs at Double-A Binghamton this past season. A left-handed hitter, Kaczmarski was a sleeper this fall and he began to make a name for himself in front of scouts.

Reserve #2- BRAXTON LEE-Miami Marlins (.347/0/7)

A 12th round pick in 2014 by the Tampa Bay Rays, Lee now plays for the Marlins after a trade that sent Adeiny Hechavarria from Miami to Tampa Bay. Right-handed pitcher Ethan Clark also went to Miami in the deal. Like Kaczmarski, Lee was an under the radar player in Arizona before he showed he can hit for a very fine average. He didn’t flash any power, but he hit well enough to gain consideration here. But it really wasn’t out of his norm. He played at both Double-A Montgomery (Tampa) and Double-A Jacksonville (Miami) this past season and hit a combined .309. The left-handed center fielder has excellent speed and stole eight bases while being caught twice this fall.

Francisco Mejia

Photo Credit: Ryan Morris

DESIGNATED HITTER:

Starter: FRANCISCO MEJIA-C/3B Cleveland Indians (.365/2/8)

The Indians experimented with Mejia some at third base this fall. Playing there would add to his versatility. An improving catcher, Mejia is an excellent pure hitter. He takes the ball to the entire field and uses the barrel of the bat very well. I saw a bit of “lazy” play at 3B that concerned me. He looked uncomfortable, insecure and as if he didn’t belong. I’d like to see him stick at catcher and be exposed to other positions upon occasion in spring training. Mejia has a bright future as a hitter.  I do think the Indians will need his bat if they lose their free agent players that seem to be commanding huge salaries.

Reserve- MICHAEL CHAVIS-Boston Red Sox

Chavis can play both corner infield positions. He has a very strong upper body and huge legs that help generate home run power. Chavis is a 1st round draft pick out of Sprayberry High School in 2014. Physically, he reminds me of the way Jeff Bagwell looked when Bagwell was a rookie with Houston. Chavis hit a combined 31 home runs at Class-A Advanced Salem and Double-A Portland this past season. There are more of those bombs in that stocky body. The question will remain about the best position for Chavis, because at 5-foot-10, 210 pounds he isn’t the ideal size to play first base. We’ll have to see what the Red Sox have in mind for this solid hitter.

PITCHERS: (IN MY ROTATION ORDER)

Starter #1 MAX FRIED-Atlanta Braves (3-1/0.66/1.24)

Fried is a big, strong lefty with a very solid repertoire, great mound presence and increasingly improving command and control. He throws strike one and mows down hitters with great sink and movement on his pitches. I think he is much better from the windup than the stretch, but there weren’t many men on base for him to work on his mechanics pitching from the stretch this fall. He had a great campaign.

Starter #2- JUSTUS SHEFFIELD – Yankees (2-2/3.10/0.84)

Improving command and control are making Sheffield a very viable mid-rotation major-league starter. A lefty with high velocity on his fastball, Sheffield will be a gem in Yankee Stadium where left-handed pitching is of great value due to the short right-field porch. I think he has a big future as a starter.

Starter #3- MITCH KELLER- Pirates (4-0/1.52/1.01)

High velocity and very high-quality secondary pitches that he can throw for strikes help make Keller a terrific candidate for a mid-rotation starting role. I am concerned about his lack of attention to runners on base which has led to stolen bases in bunches this fall. Make no mistake; Keller can succeed if he stays on this path with good command and a full repertoire.

Starter #4- ALBERT ABREU- Yankees (1-2/2.60/1.27)

I may like Abreu more than many of the scouts I talked with this fall. I think if he sharpens his control and repeats his delivery he will find himself on the mound as a quality #4 starter. He has a chance to be #3, but he has work to do on repeating a good delivery, staying within his capabilities and not trying to overthrow his pitches. He will get even better.

Starter #5- SANDY ALCANTARA- Cardinals (1-2/4.20/1.27)

Alcantara has a power arm with the ability to hit 100 miles per hour with relative ease. He has already pitched in the major leagues and I believe if he can throw more strikes-especially strike one, he will be outstanding. He has a solid repertoire but there are times he tries to throw too hard and loses both movement and control of his pitches. Additional pitching maturity and experience against quality hitters will help.

I am not listing relievers on my All AFL team

DISAPPOINTMENTS:

If I’m going to highlight the best I saw, Trying to keep it polite I have to share my thoughts on some players I felt did not play as expected.

Not everyone lit up the league. There were players from whom I expected more production that I feel were disappointments. They include the following.

KYLE TUCKER-OF-ASTROS (.214/0/9)
ANTHONY SANTANDER-OF-ORIOLES (.208/1/15)
DANIEL JOHNSON-OF-NATIONALS (.217/0/5)
BOBBY BRADLEY-1B- INDIANS (.230/2/6)
COREY RAY-OF-BREWERS- (.231/1/7)
CORNELIUS RANDOLPH-OF-ORIOLES-(.239/0/8)
TAYLOR GUSHUE-C- NATIONALS-(.143/2/3)
KEVIN KRAMER-2B-PIRATES (.200/2/6)
TYLER KRIEGER-2B-INDIANS (.175/0/3)
JAKE GATEWOOD-3B-BREWERS (.095/0/1)
BRANDON LOWE-2B-RAYS (.224/2/5)
MAX PENTECOST-C-BLUE JAYS (.195/1/4)

BUNTS:

I have seen many players come to Arizona in the fall, hit very well and never progress after the season ends in late November. Names that come to mind include Brandon Wood with his 14 home runs in 2005, Chris McGuiness driving in 27 runs in 2012. I recall Kyle Jensen hitting six home runs in 2012. The most valuable player in the league (The Joe Black MVP Award) in 2006 was Chip Cannon. He was a first baseman in the league. And then, poof. He was not to be heard from. So fall success does not guarantee major-league success. In some cases it is but a snapshot in a larger portfolio.

The longest home run I have ever seen hit in the AFL was by Grant Desme, then of the Athletics organization. It was at Phoenix Municipal Stadium in 2009. I believe I remember that Desme’s homer hit a guy riding a bike. Desme had incredible power. He left after the end of the fall to enter the Priesthood.

It is rare that the batting champion in the Fall League does not hit at least .400. It happened again this year. Batting champion Eric Filia hit .408/1/13.

David Bote is really under the radar as a Cubs second baseman. He put on a good defensive performance and hit very well. If we didn’t know Bote before, we do now.

I’m a huge fan of Brewers 3B Lucas Erceg. He hit only .250 here in Arizona this fall. However, I think he will hit with more power and a louder bat than we saw. He wasn’t quite on my disappointment list, but I think he’s better than we saw.

The Giants had two players here who I want to see again and again. Center fielder Steven Duggar is an exciting top of the order type hitter. He has speed and makes good contact. He’s a grinder. He hit .259/3/7 with 9 stolen bases. He was caught stealing only once. I think he has a future as a solid center fielder.

Giants pitcher Tyler Beede was getting innings of work in to make up for a season lost by injury. He was wild at first, but he settled down later in the fall. I think he has a chance to show that he deserves a long spring training look for a Giants team that remains short on pitching.

The Mets Tomas Nido and the Giants Aramis Garcia are both outstanding defensive catchers. Neither hit that well. Nido hit .184 and Garcia, who is a better overall hitter finished at .259.
Both handle the role of catcher extremely well.

For me, the teams with the best prospects in Arizona this fall were the Atlanta Braves, the New York Yankees and the San Diego Padres. The worst you ask? I give that award to the Los Angeles Angels.

Peoria won the Fall League Championship over Mesa by a score of 8-2 on Saturday, November 18. The League’s Most Valuable Player, Ronald Acuna had a great game by driving in 4 runs.

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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