The Arizona Fall League ended last weekend with the Phoenix Desert Dogs defeating the Scottsdale Scorpions to win the league championship, putting the final cap on the prospect season. Since 1992, major league clubs have used the AFL as a showplace for their best prospects. High-profile graduates include Nomar Garciaparra, Mike Piazza, Todd Helton, Albert Pujols, and Hank Blalock.
Of course, you also have your Brent Billingsleys and Rikkert Faneyetes. But the league is usually a good cross-section of the best prospects in the game, particularly on the hitting side. Many teams have been reluctant to send their best pitching prospects in recent years, for fear of overworking them. But for one-stop prospect shopping, you can't beat the AFL, and there still were some very good arms in the league this year, particularly in the bullpen.
Let's take a look at the 2004 Arizona Fall League, focusing on nine prospects who have a chance to make an impact in The Show sometime in '05. Note that this is not a "Best Prospect" list. The best overall prospect in the league was probably Tampa Bay phenom Delmon Young, but he is unlikely to see major league action next season. What I'm trying to do here is pick out guys who could make noise in The Show in '05, either to start the season or toward the end.
In no particular order:
Huston Street, RHP, Athletics
A supplemental first-round pick this year from the University of Texas, Street blew away the AFL, posting a 0.98 ERA, seven saves, and a 19/2 K/BB ratio in 18 innings, with only 11 hits allowed. Pushing his fastball to 93-94 mph, Street has shown better velocity as a pro than he did as a Longhorn. His slider looks sharper, too, and he's maintained his trademark excellent command and control. A good spring training performance could land Street a job in the Oakland bullpen sooner than people expected when he was drafted last June. He also has the hard-nosed, confident attitude (good "game face" as scouts say) that teams like to see in their relievers psychologically.
Mark Teahen, 3B, Royals
Acquired from Oakland in the three-way Carlos Beltran trade last summer, Teahen went to the AFL looking to boost his power production. He ended up hitting .385 with a .453 OBP and a .541 SLG, although he hit just two homers. He doesn't have the pure home run power you expect from a muscled 6-foot-3, 210 pounder, but Teahen provides solid line-drive hitting with good defense at third base. Some believe he'll need additional Triple-A seasoning, but a good spring training could get him the starting third base job in April especially considering that his Kansas City competition is recent free agent signee Chris Truby.
Jason Bartlett, SS, Twins
With Cristian Guzman taking a four-year contract with the Washington Nationals, Jason Bartlett becomes the leading contender for the shortstop job in Minnesota. He hit .397 in 17 games for the Grand Canyon Rafters, also stealing six bases and posting a .507 SLG. While Bartlett is not as flashy as Guzman defensively, he is very reliable and should be more consistent. He should hit for average and provide a somewhat higher on-base percentage than Guzman. Bartlett will not be a star, but should be a solid contributor. If he does as expected, the Twins won't miss Guzman much.
Jesse Crain, RHP, Twins
The Twins probably sent the best group of prospects to the AFL this year, at least in terms of being close to major league-ready. Jesse Crain is well-positioned to take a critical role in the Minnesota bullpen this year. In Arizona, he posted a 2.08 ERA in 11 games, with a 14/4 K/BB ratio in 13 innings. He combines an above-average fastball with an excellent slider, and usually throws strikes. He'll back up Joe Nathan in middle relief this year, and is a candidate to close games in a year or two.
J.D. Durbin, RHP, Twins
J.D. Durbin is more erratic than Crain, but his stuff may be even better. He posted a 4.56 ERA in six starts for Grand Canyon, but fanned 29 in 26 innings and wowed scouts by hitting 100 mph in a late October start. He usually works 3-4 mph below that, but it was still a notable accomplishment, especially considering he had labrum surgery in May. He also has an excellent breaking ball, but his changeup remains mediocre, and he may end up being a reliever rather than a starter if it doesn't improve. He could contribute now in the bullpen, but if the Twins keep him as a starter, he will probably spend a year in Triple-A, honing the changeup.
David Aardsma, RHP, Giants
Like Crain and Durbin, David Aardsma could contribute early in 2005 in a relief role. In Arizona, the former first-round pick posted a 2.93 ERA for the Grand Canyon Rafters, fanning 17 in 15 innings. His command can waiver (he walked nine), but no one questions his stuff, including a 95-mph fastball and nasty knucklecurve. His control and changeup have not been as good in pro ball as they were for Rice University, but he remains one of the top relief prospects in the game. A good spring training performance would earn him a bullpen role in San Francisco. Like Crain, he projects as a closer down the road.
Brad Baker, RHP, Padres
Compared to high-profile relief prospects like Aardsma and Crain, Baker is rather anonymous. But his bullpen numbers for the Peoria Javelinas speak for themselves: 1.64 ERA, three saves, 14/3 K/BB in 11 innings. A supplemental first-round pick by the Red Sox back in 1999, Baker's reputation as a future starting pitcher faded as he lost velocity. Traded to the Padres in 2002, he's rebuilt his career in the bullpen, bumping his fastball back into the lower 90s, while sharpening his curveball and changeup. Racking up 46 saves over the last two years in the minors, he is a darkhorse candidate for a San Diego bullpen job.
Shin-Soo Choo, OF, Mariners
From South Korea, Choo has made steady progress through Seattle's farm system. He will probably begin 2005 in Triple-A, and be a candidate for a mid-season callup as the Mariners sort through their outfield. In Arizona, Choo hit .301 with a .422 OBP and a .466 SLG. He's not a big power guy, but he has good pop to the gaps and will take a walk. He faces a lot of competition in the Mariners outfield, and will be ready for action before the contracts of Raul Ibanez, Randy Winn and Ichiro Suzuki expire. This could make Choo valuable trade bait if the Mariners contend, or the beneficiary of a trade if they don't contend and manage to deal a veteran.
Rickie Weeks, 2B, Brewers
Here are some gaudy numbers for you: .382 average, .520 OBP, .737 SLG in 22 games for the Scottsdale Scorpions. Add six steals and improved defense at second base, and Rickie Weeks has helped erase doubts raised by his rather mediocre season in Double-A this year. His work ethic and intellect for the game are exceptional, and combine with his undoubted physical tools to make a complete package. Coming from a small college program, Weeks still has a few more things to learn than a lot of guys coming out of big baseball schools, but a strong spring training could push him past Keith Ginter and Junior Spivey, especially if the perennially rebuilding Brewers make a youth push.
John Sickels is the author of The 2005 Baseball Prospect Book, which will ship on Feb. 1, 2005. You can pre-order this book at Johnsickels.com. His other book Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation can be ordered through online book retailors or your local bookstore. John lives in Lawrence, Kan., with his wife Jeri, son Nicholas, and two happy cats.