Arizona Fall League
As you will notice, nearly half of the players highlighted in this post come from the Arizona Fall League (AFL). In essence, the AFL is like the Futures Game that takes place All-Star Weekend, except with more teams and for an entire month. With so much young talent on display, the AFL gets the most coverage of any post-season league. However, since it is only a month long, it is also possible for players to perform drastically above or below their capabilities. For the most part, I focused on the players who performed the absolute best, and even though many performed equally well in the AFL, they are not of equal talent.
RP Mitch Stetter (107, 77/89), Brewers - Stetter's ERA was mysteriously high in the minors, given his impressive numbers. However, he still got a quick look at the end of the season in the majors, and then Milwaukee sent him to the AFL, where he absolutely dominated. A 6'4" left-hander, Stetter definitely deserves to be in Milwaukee's bullpen next year. His numbers suggest he could be the 2008 version of Hideki Okajima (80).
OF Sam Fuld (106, 58/75), Cubs - Fuld was named the AFL MVP, as he should of been with the numbers he put up. With that being said, he played well over his head in the league, and still is not a real interesting prospect. He should start the year in AAA, but will likely get called up at some point in 2008.
RP Dewon Day (99, 66/77), White Sox - Chicago picked Day up in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 Draft a couple years ago, and have unearthed an interesting prospect. Day racks up a ton of strikeouts, but he also racks up a ton of walks. His numbers were much more impressive in the AFL because he cut down on his walks. My guess is that his Fall League performance was a bit of a fluke, but if he continues to show improved command in Spring Training, he may find himself on the opening day roster. Actually, even if his control is erratic he may still wind up on the team. His strikeout numbers are impressive enough to overcome his great weakness.
SP David Purcey (96, 61/78), Blue Jays - Toronto's pitching staff is quite strong, so there is not much of a path for Purcey to crack the majors. However, trading A.J. Burnett (82) may change that. Purcey is no blue-chip prospect, but he should be on the radar at this point.
RP Calvin Medlock (96, 64/81), Rays - Medlock started 2007 in the Cincinnati organization, but was one of the pitchers traded to Tampa Bay for 2B Jorge Cantu (66/77). Medlock is yet to make his Major League debut, but between the Rays atrocious bullpen last season and his success in the fall league, he is in good position to make the Rays opening day roster in 2008.
RP Fernando Hernandez (94, 60/82), White Sox - Fernando is still probably a year away from the majors, but he had a very good year in AA and followed that with a terrific AFL performance. He should be ticketed for AAA for sure in 2008, and may make the majors at some point during the year.
SP Jake Arrieta (93), Orioles - Arrieta was a draft choice this year and only played in the AFL. It will be interesting to see where Baltimore puts him next year, because I am guessing they sent him to the AFL just to give him some pro experience. I doubt they expected a performance quite this good. He did not even allow a run.
OF Brett Gardner (92, 63/81), Yankees - Trade rumors have circled around OF Melky Cabrera (76/86) and OF Hideki Matsui (84), and the team is less than thrilled with OF Johnny Damon's (79) 2007 performance, especially defensively. So, it seems potential outfield spots in the Bronx may be opening up in the next year or two. Gardner has great speed, and has also flashed good hitting ability. He may develop into a solid leadoff hitter, though he is still at least a year away from really pushing for a spot in the majors.
RP Brian Anderson (91, 52/73), Giants - San Francisco already has a pretty good pitching staff, so Anderson does not figure to get much of a look this year. However, his Fall League performance was good enough to merit consideration from other teams in trades which could net the Giants some much-needed younger position talent.
OF Nate Schierholtz (88, 74/87), Giants - The Giants are not completely devoid of young position talent. Nate Schierholtz had a great year in AAA, and he backed that up with a great AFL season. He should be ready to contribute in the major leagues now, though the Giants seem pretty set in the outfield with Randy Winn (80), Rajai Davis (79/85), Dave Roberts (70), and their big free agent signing, Aaron Rowand (84). I would look to trade Winn to a team needing a centerfielder (perhaps the Braves?) and get a couple decent prospects in return (perhaps SS/OF Brent Lillibridge (62/79) and someone else?). Maybe the Braves have no interest in Winn, but Schierholtz should be starting somewhere in the Giants outfield on opening day, and there is no spot for him right now.
OF Travis Snider (85, 46/80), Blue Jays - Really, at 19 years old after a season in A ball, Snider should still be a long way from the majors. However, his AFL performance is tantalizing. He did play in a pitcher-friendly league, and exploding in 2008 after this fall league performance is not out of the question. Snider probably played beyond his actual abilities right now, but he clearly was not outmatched despite being one of the youngest players in this league.
3B Evan Longoria (83, 63/85), Rays - Any hesitancy the Rays may have had handing the hot corner over to Longoria in 2008 seem to be squelched by his fall league performance. Only an injury could stop him from starting for the Rays on opening day at this point.
OF Matt LaPorta (81, 47/78), Brewers - The Brewers top pick in this year's draft (and #1 on my 25TW list) got a little pro experience after signing, and then got more of a look in the fall league. Camparing favorably to guys like Travis Snider and Evan Longoria in a month-long season is not enough to make LaPorta a great prospect himself, but it is a promising start.
3B Matt Tuiasosopo (77, 51/76), Mariners - Tuiasosopo failed miserably in the fall league last year, so while his performance was not spectacular, it was a huge leap forward. His best attribute is his plate discipline, and if he ever shows some power his stock will go up considerably.
Hawai'i Winter League
The Hawai'i Winter League is kind of like the AAA version of the AFL. Teams are only allowed to send a certain number of players to the AFL, and often if they have other younger players who they want to get an extended look at, they ship them to this league. The Hawai'i Winter League has only four teams, and interestingly a high number of Japanese players populate these rosters. Still, a few players from major league teams are worth taking a look at.
SP Blake Wood (90, 46/77), Royals - There were some Japanese pitchers that were better than Wood, but I am guessing they already have commitments to play in Japan. Wood was the best hurler from the states, which probably says more about the talent level of this league than it does about the Wood. He had a nice year in A ball, and a very nice season in Hawaii, but that is the general them with Wood. He is a nice-looking pitcher, but not a great-looking one, and his fantastic performance in Hawai'i does little to change that.
OF Michael Wilson (88, 45/67), Mariners - Wilson had enough of a breakout year in 2006 that the M's felt the need to protect him with a 40-man roster spot. However, if it is possible for a player to un-break-out, Wilson did that in 2007 by seemingly losing all hitting ability. The only thing that salvaged his rating was his tremendous power. Now, in Hawai'i, Wilsons seems to have re-emerged again. His raw power is about as good as it gets, but everything else about his game is checkered with question marks. Because I am not sold on the quality of competition in this league, I am not convinced Wilson has turned it around.
C Matt Wieters (79), Orioles - Wieters was easily the highest profile player in Hawaii, but his performance was not eye-popping. In fact, given that players like Wood and Wilson were significantly better, it is somewhat disappointing that Wieters did not make a stronger showing. However, this was his first taste of pro baseball after sitting around for over three months. Wieters likely had some rust to shake off.
Mexico Winter League
Mexico also has a full summer season, but in the winter some major league players migrate south to join the Mexican stars. Latin America and Japan get plenty of publicity for the baseball talent they produce, but Mexico should not be overlooked. Because this league features many veterans, the competition is much stiffer than in the AFL or Hawai'i. Also, the season is longer, so the performances are a bit more telling of a player's true abilities. Looking at this league, there are several Mexican players that I think are good enough to earn at least bullpen and bench roles in the majors, and I take the time to highlight one pitcher in particular. There were also some players who for sure will be looking to make MLB squads in 2008.
RP Adrian Ramirez (92) - A number of Mexican pitchers have made strong showings in this league, but I chose to highlight Ramirez in particular for a couple reasons. First, he is still young, as he turned 24 in October. Second, he is a left-handed reliever. Listed at 5'6" and 185 pounds, Ramirez is not exactly an imposing figure on the mound, but he obviously does something that makes him hard to hit in an underrated league. Some team should give this guy a look.
SP Dana Eveland (88, 75/88), Athletics - Acquired in the Dan Haren (86/89) mega-deal, Eveland is one of the newest A's, and should have a very good chance to make the A's starting rotation out of spring training. He was injured most of 2007, so my player rater uses his 2006 numbers to determine his rating. If Eveland's Mexico numbers are any indication, it appears he has recovered from his injury well, and should be more than ready to compete in spring training.
1B Jason Botts (84, 71/80), Rangers - Botts has received some fairly long looks in the majors the last couple years, and with 1B Mark Teixeira (87/90) gone figures to have a chance to stay in the majors for all of 2008. He certainly has not hurt his chances with his showing in Mexico this winter.
1B Brian Myrow (82, 78/83), Padres - Myrow has only received nominal looks in the majors the last couple years, in 2006 with Dodgers, and 2007 with the Padres. However, his minor league numbers suggest that he could be a real contributor if given the chance. At 31 years old he is not exactly a prospect at this point, but he is good enough to be on a major league team. Myrow has not shown much power in Mexico, but his .464 on-base percentage is sensational. At worst, he should be a good left-handed pinch-hitter.
Dominican Winter League
The Dominican Republic is a great baseball country, but the winter league is strengthened by the number of players shipped to it by MLB teams for further development. Often, these players are making some major transition, such as from starter to reliever, or from bench player to everyday starter. Also, some players looking for one more chance in the big leagues will perform here, hoping to catch the eye of some MLB team.
RP Julio Manon (92, 73), Athletics - At 34 years old, Manon is a player who is not a prospect, but he also has not logged much time in the majors. He did appear in 23 games for the Expos in 2003, and 22 games for the Orioles in 2006, but his cumulative major league numbers are not that impressive (4.66 ERA, 1.70 WHIP). Manon is not on the A's 40-man roster, so his affiliation with the organization is loose at best. The bottom line is that some team with thin relief pitching (Orioles, Rays, et al.) should give Manon a try.
RP Oneli Perez (91, 62/82), White Sox - Chicago had a couple young relievers light up the AFL, but this young reliever should not be overlooked. He posted great numbers in AA, and figures to be in AAA to start 2008, with a pretty good chance to see some action in the majors before the season over.
OF Vince Sinisi (90, 70/81), Padres - I have read some rumors that the Padres are interested in trading for OF/1B Xavier Nady (76/78) to serve as their top bench player, getting spot starts in the outfield and first base. While I am a fan of Nady, I think Sinisi is an in-house option the team should seriously consider. He had a solid year in AAA that suggests he is a good bench option, and he has backed it up with a huge winter league. Between Sinisi and Brian Myrow (refer to the Mexico League section for more on him), I think the Padres bench is in solid shape as is.
RP Francisco Cruceta (90, 73/85), Rangers - Faithful Rainiers fans may remember Cruceta from 2006, when he led the PCL in strikeouts while pitching for Tacoma, earning a fleeting glance in the majors with the Mariners. The Rangers picked him up off waivers last offseason and he pitched in Oklahoma the entire year, eventually getting switched to the bullpen. He has pitched exclusively out of the bullpen in the Dominican and looked very good. Texas would be wise to give Cruceta a very long look in Spring Training, because he is good enough to contribute to their bullpen.
SS Erick Aybar (74, 62/77), Angels - There is not much about Aybar's offensive game worth getting excited about, which is precisely why I am taking the time to point him out. Aybar, according to Angels manager Mike Scioscia, will get the first chance to replace SS Orlando Cabrera (79). Simply put, he will be a huge offensive downgrade. The Angels would be much wiser to give INF Maicer Izturis (79/83) the starting job, even despite the injury concerns.
Venezuela Winter League
Venezuela's winter league is quite similar to the Dominican Republic's winter league. Even though I do not think there is much of a difference in the talent level between the two leagues, I would send prospects to the Dominican if I were a major league team because of the ongoing political unrest in Venezuela (several years ago the M's pulled Gil Meche out of this league because the political tension was so high). Still, there are players in this league fighting for roster spots that have made strong showings.
RP Francisco Butto (92) - Butto has never appeared in the majors, but was with the Yankees in 2006 and made it as high as AAA. A native Venezualan, he played in the Mexican summer league this past season, where he had a 3.27 ERA with 51 strikeouts in 44 innings pitched. Running his 2006 numbers through my player rater yielded a 56 rating, with a peak of 75. Though I doubt Butto has suddenly transformed into an incredible pitcher, his performance is noteworthy, and considering he is only 27 years old it looks to me like he has developed into a potential middle reliever.
SP Sean White (87, 65/72), Mariners - Most that are paying attention to M's in the winter leagues have focused on Brandon Morrow (75/86) and Ryan Rowland-Smith (73/84) as they have been stretched out to prepare for potential starting rotation spots. However, under the radar, Sean White has also been stretched out, and his WHIP is comfortably under 1.00 for the winter league season. White's already slim chances to make the M's starting staff effectively went to zero with the signing of Carlos Silva (75), but if he does not make the team as a reliever he has shown enough to merit regular starts in AAA.
INF Edgardo Alfonzo (86) - At 34 years old, Edgardo Alfonzo's best days are well behind him. However, in his prime, he was a pretty good player, and it looks like he still has a little something to offer. If the Mariners are serious about bringing someone in to compete with 2B Jose Lopez (68/81) for the starting job, they should give Alfonzo a look. They likely would only need to give him a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training, so there would be no risk at all. I do not think Alfonzo is as good as Lopez, or maybe even the recently acquired Tug Hullett (66/78) at this point, but I think Lopez would perceive Alfonzo as a legitimate threat. A veteran like him could push Lopez to start realizing his potential, and he is the ideal option because he would not require a guaranteed major league contract.
2B Jose Castillo (86, 62/70), Marlins - Castillo was with the Pirates in 2007, and as his rating suggests, did not perform real well (even the Pirates let him go, enough said). He took a step backwards in 2007, but at 26 years old he could still take a couple steps forward. Florida is considering moving Castillo to third base, but they also are toying with the idea of switching 2B Dan Uggla (76/80) to third and keeping Castillo at second, since he is considered the superior defender between the two. Personally, I would stick the better of the two defenders at third base, because it is a more demanding defensive position. That decision is made even easier because Uggla is the incumbent at second. Ultimately, Castillo will not be in the lineup at all if he hits as poorly as he did in 2007. However, looking at his career numbers and strong showing in winter ball, he appears to be poised for a bit of a rebound.
These are only 30 of the hundreds of baseball players performing in these leagues. If history is any guide, huge performances in these leagues lead to better opportunities in spring training, which leads to major league opportunities and success for a couple players each year. The dynamic of watching older guys trying to squeeze one last chance competing against young guys just getting their feet wet as a professional adds a certain character to the winter leagues that even AAA does not have. The collision of prospects at all levels in the AFL is special to that league as well. Every league has at least a couple diamonds in the rough; the only question is if teams find them and give them a chance. They may not be stars, but a quality pinch-hitter or middle reliever is worth something.