More AFL takeaways: Vlad Jr. ready as ever as he waits to be called up

ByKeith Law ESPN logo
Sunday, October 21, 2018

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- I'm writing this as I head home from my week of scouting the Arizona Fall League, which was particularly loaded with high-end talent this year. I filed my first dispatch from Arizona earlier in the week; here's a longer report on players of note whom I saw in the 10 games I watched while in the desert.

I caught three games from Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who is so clearly the best player here -- one of the best in the history of the Arizona Fall League -- that he seems to be on cruise control. He's so far ahead of the pitchers he's facing that he seems like he's bored and isn't showing his normal, disciplined approach at the plate, instead swinging earlier in the count and often swinging for the fences to try to create some highlight moments for the crowds (who cheer every time he's up, regardless of the ballpark).

Of course, the story the Toronto Blue Jays front office is peddling is that he's here to work on his defense at third base and that that's why they didn't call him up in September or sooner, even though his bat has been ready since May or so. They're technically correct -- his defense at third is poor, and given his sheer size, it's more likely to get worse than better -- but a few weeks in the AFL isn't going to make any difference, and there's no sign right now that he's any better at third than he was in the spring. He has a plus arm, and his hands are fine, but moving that sheer bulk quickly enough for third is difficult, and he's going to end up somewhere else -- maybe right field, most likely first base or DH. The physical comparables for him are relatively few, and the only one who stayed at third, Miguel Cabrera, wasn't this big at 19 and was a well below-average defender at third base once he did get huge.

That said, Vlad is clearly having fun in Arizona, making the best of the situation. I saw him catch a throw from the shortstop to complete a 6-5 double play. Then he immediately threw up his hands to celebrate the good play and darted off the field. He's bouncing around and laughing during batting practice. He's still animated and runs hard when he puts the ball in play. My guess is he just knows he's too good for the league, so he's relaxing and enjoying it, rather than sulking and mailing it in. I do wish I'd gotten to see more of the real Vlad, but I'm not the least bit worried that I didn't.

Fellow Blue Jays prospect Nate Pearson, who missed almost the entire 2018 season after he took a comebacker to his elbow in his first outing, threw well in his first appearance in Arizona, but his second was a disaster. Even in warm-ups, he clearly didn't have his release point, sending his second pitch to the backstop, and it was no better in the game: He recorded only three outs, pitching into the second inning, walking four and giving up eight runs.

Pearson was throwing his fastball at 92-98 mph, sitting at 95-96 and dialing down to try to throw strikes (it didn't work), complemented by three below-average secondary pitches, the best of which was a power slider at 85-89 mph that at least flashed some average at the top end of the range. He's a big kid at 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds, with good extension in his delivery, albeit with a slight cutoff in his landing, but in this outing, he couldn't consistently repeat his arm action, and his release point was all over the place, which resulted in that extreme wildness that cost him. He's healthy, so here's hoping the lack of control was just a function of rust.

Cavan Biggio is also here, but he has looked even worse than he did in the second half of 2018, to the point that he appears to barely be a major league prospect. He has no position at all. He misplayed a routine grounder at first that cost Pearson at least one out and probably two runs and had an awful read on a line drive to him in right field in a different game. He doesn't have the speed or athleticism to obviously profile anywhere. He drew a slew of walks this season, but it's because he's passive, not because he's disciplined; I saw him strike out looking four times this week, always on pitches that were clearly strikes, at least two of them fastballs from right-handers that he should have seen better than he did. I know his superficial line this year has some fans thinking he's a future regular, but I see an up-and-down guy.

The homer Pearson gave up came from the bat of Bobby Dalbec of the Boston Red Sox, who showed that he can murder a fastball but also that he can swing through a lot of breaking stuff even in the zone. He did show that he could hang with some breaking stuff away from him and shoot those pitches to the right side; with his hand strength, he's going to hit some of those hard enough to turn them into base hits.

Boston lefty Darwinzon Hernandez threw in relief and was throwing 93-96 mph heat as well as a plus curveball at 79-80 he threw for strikes, although his changeup was too straight and well below average.

Jasrado ("Jazz") Chisholm is on the taxi squad, which means he gets to play only twice a week, which is rather silly since he's one of the best players in the league and the third-youngest overall. The Arizona Diamondbacks shortstop, born in the Bahamas, is electric on both sides of the ball. He's a 60 runner out of the box but more of a 70 runner underway. He's quick and light on his feet at shortstop, with a plus arm and good hands for the infield. At the plate, he has great hand speed and projects to above-average power as he fills out, though right now he needs to work on pitch-type recognition. He didn't pick up spin that well in the one game I saw, and he punched out nearly a third of the time after a late promotion to high-A this summer.

Chicago White Sox outfielder Luis Robert continues to evade me, although at least this time I received proof of life, seeing him take BP on Monday. He missed the week with a hamstring injury, yet another in a litany of maladies that saw him play only 50 games this year, plus four in Arizona before he got hurt again. He's very well put together physically and has a quiet approach with strong hands, though I'd like to see how he handles velocity inside, given his swing path.

Chicago Cubs lefty Justin Steele is one of the few potential starting pitching prospects in the system, and he showed a little better velocity in his outing Thursday. Steele was throwing a 91-95 mph fastball and a solid-average curveball at 79-81 that he landed for strikes while also flashing a changeup that was too firm. Steele threw 50 innings this year in his rehab and return from 2017 Tommy John surgery, so it's a positive step to see that velocity again.

The Cubs also sent their first-round pick from this year, shortstop Nico Hoerner, an undersized middle infielder from Stanford who looks like a very smart player and shows good instincts on the bases and in the field. But he's very light on tools. He's a below-average runner who didn't make any hard contact when I saw him and doesn't look like he will, given his size.

New York Mets first baseman Peter Alonso made a little Twitter news when he struck out in a game on Friday and broke his bat over his leg, Bo Jackson-style. In that game, he misplayed two routine chances at first base but turned an unassisted double play when he jumped for a hard line drive. He has plus-plus raw power and is a threat to homer any time he puts the ball in the air, but he also made a lot of weak ground-ball contact when I saw him this week. I think the bat will profile at first base, probably a low-average, high-power stat line, but he's below-average defensively at first and might not be able to stay there.

Mets shortstop Andres Gimenez looks great in the field but seems overmatched at the plate. Even when he puts the ball in play, he can't get any oomph to it. He's a below-average runner too and has to make better quality contact to be more than an adequate regular.

Diamondbacks first baseman Pavin Smith's miserable year continues, as he still isn't making hard contact at all, with six singles in 22 plate appearances and no extra-base hits. He's rolling over to the right side on pitches in and away; I saw one swing on which he tried to go to the left side, poking a ground-ball single to left on a right-hander's 96 mph fastball on the outer third. He showed power at the University of Virginia, but he has to rediscover that to profile as a regular, given that he's stuck at first base.

Arizona right-hander Jon Duplantier missed part of the year with biceps tendonitis, so it was good to see him throw so well in Arizona. He was throwing 92-96 mph, working to both sides of the plate, holding that velocity for three innings, showing good feel for both a curveball and slider. His delivery is a little stiff out front with an abrupt landing, but he showed command and control of three pitches. If he's healthy, he's a potential mid-rotation starter.

The St. Louis Cardinals acquired Conner Greene from Toronto in the Randal Grichuk trade, only to see Greene walk 63 batters in 88 innings this year. Greene has hit 99 mph in the past and was at 92-96 on Friday, working from a slightly lower arm slot than he had before, and threw strikes, flashing a plus slider but preferring to throw a slow-rolling curveball. A midseason move to the bullpen didn't help his control -- he walked more guys than he struck out after the shift -- but the outing I saw, his third of the fall, was his best; he walked two and struck out three in 2 innings after walking six without a strikeout in one inning total across his prior two appearances.

Connor Jones, also of the Cardinals, came into the first inning of a game Wednesday in relief of a starter who couldn't get three outs, was throwing 93-96 mph with some sink and showed an average breaking ball at 82-83 that he'd even backfoot to a left-handed batter. Jones was almost as wild as Greene this year, with 65 walks in 110 innings, which doesn't line up with who he was in college or what he has shown in Arizona so far, where he hasn't walked anyone through 17 batters faced and is throwing strikes.

Detroit Tigers outfielder Daniel Woodrow, a 12th-round pick in 2016 out of Creighton, is a 70-grade runner with good feel for the barrel, and he spent the week hitting line drives to all fields but showing zero power. If this is what he is physically, he's a good fourth outfielder; if he can add any kind of strength, he could be a regular in center due to his speed and ability to make contact.

Daz Cameron is here as well from the Tigers but is off to a rough start, 5-for-23 so far with nine strikeouts, with some bad takes with two strikes -- perhaps a sign that he needs a different approach in those counts.

Oakland Athletics outfielder Luis Barrera is an interesting extra outfield prospect with a chance to be a regular, with plus speed, a solid eye at the plate and a little more strength than Woodrow has right now -- not home run power but enough strength to make harder contact. He'll turn 23 next month and should start 2019 in Double-A, with a chance to see the majors in a backup role during the season.

Los Angeles Angels second baseman Jahmai Jones, a recent convert from the outfield, made some hard contact for me this week, though the raw power he showed in high school wasn't evident. The better news is that his defense was rather unremarkable, which is pretty good for a guy who switched to the position only 12 months ago. He showed a tendency to over-rotate at the plate, however, producing some popups and weak grounders, when quieting down his approach should let that power come through more.

Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Lucius Fox, acquired from San Francisco in the Matt Moore trade, has started to fill out physically, though it has been mostly singles from him (with one homer). His swing is good and should produce line-drive power, while in the field he shows good range and instincts and consistently threw plus for me.

Joe McCarthy, an outfielder in Tampa Bay's system, continues to work deep counts and long at-bats, while showing extra-base power from gap to gap and better range than I anticipated in left field. I think he's a solid regular in a corner, thanks to his OBP skills, though he doesn't have the raw power for 20-plus homers (acknowledging that the current MLB baseball might get him there).

The Miami Marlins' contingent of players was light, with Brian Miller, their second-round pick in 2017, their most notable prospect here. He can run but makes mostly soft contact, and I don't think he's a regular without a swing change or a lot more strength. They did have two interesting relievers in Chad Smith, who was throwing 95-98 mph complemented by a sharp mid-80s slider, and Kyle Keller, who was at 94-96 mph while providing a swing-and-miss offering in his curveball. Jordan Yamamoto, acquired in the Christian Yelich trade, has 11 strikeouts so far in six innings, but that's from deception rather than stuff.

Jesus Tinoco, a Colorado Rockies right-hander whom I saw and wrote up in the summer, looked much better in a relief role than he had as a starter for Double-A Hartford, working with 93-96 mph velocity and a tight, cutter-like slider that looked plus to me at 86-88. He was homer-prone as a starter this year, but in shorter bursts that two-pitch combination alone should be very effective.