I love going to the Arizona Fall League! It coincides with the Baseball HQ First Pitch Forum conference and it’s my favorite trip every year without a doubt. It’s a handful of regular games, the Fall Stars game, and tons of fantasy baseball talk crammed into four days and three sleep-deprived nights. There’s always a group of elite prospects in the league that garner the attention, but perhaps my favorite part is learning about the guys just below that tier. I got my first exposure to guys like Brian Dozier, Mookie Betts, and Cody Bellinger at the AFL.
I didn’t even know of Dozier when I first saw him and while I did know Betts and Bellinger, it was seeing them firsthand that really sold me. I don’t always land on the next big thing when I’m there. I’ve had plenty of misses in my nine years. I was really excited about Grant Desme and Chris Heisey my first year out there. Desme became a priest and Heisey hasn’t really surpassed a 4th OF role. My hitting favorites over the years include Desme, Heisey, Dozier, Betts, Dustin Ackley, Brandon Belt, Nolan Arenado, Mike Olt, Junior Lake, Michael Choice, Rymer Liriano, Brian Goodwin, Albert Almora, Eddie Rosario, Hunter Renfroe, Gary Sanchez, and Harrison Bader. A decent mix of hits and misses.
The AFL is traditionally a hitter’s league so there isn’t always great pitching out there, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t seen some beasts over the years… or at least fallen for some guys who I thought would be beasts. Manny Banuelos, Brad Boxberger, Danny Hultzen, Gerrit Cole (risky, I know), Robbie Erlin, Andre Rienzo, Sammy Solis, Drew Hutchison, Corey Knebel, Chris Carpenter (not the superstar one), Luke Weaver, Lucas Sims, James Paxton (in ’15… don’t remember him in ’12), Ray Black, Chris Stratton, and Michael Kopech are the pitchers I thought and still think could be awesome. So against that backdrop, I present my 2017 standouts.
There isn’t a large sample going into any of this. I usually go to four games max. This year, I went to two regular games and the Fall Stars game. And if you saw me behind the dish at the Fall Stars game, you know I was in my phone for most of the first few innings. I was setting up our DFS-like game called Paul Stars in a Google Doc. We ran 15 deep this year so we each drafted two batters and battled it out for AFL supremacy.
Adam Standish, a good friend and long-time attendee to the conference, bested Rotowire’s Derek Van Riper by one point to take home the title! Anyway, I only mention that to explain my constant phoning during the game and it’s also why I re-watched the Fall Stars which I recorded as I do every year. I’ll probably re-watch it another 3-4 times during the winter to keep myself warm as we await the 2018 season.
Ronald Acuna, OF | Atlanta Braves (.896 OPS at A+, AA, AAA)
Acuna absolutely lived up to the hype. He even seemed a bit fatigued after a long season and it just hasn’t fazed him. I didn’t get to see any of his league-high 7 HRs live, but I saw several strong at-bats and a few hits. I did see his 2-HR game on MLB Network this past Saturday night, too. He got completely overmatched in one at-bat I saw, but it was against another guy in this list. Stay tuned! He probably won’t break camp with the Braves, but he shouldn’t be down too long and he’ll likely get drafted in every league this year as long as there’s a reserve roster.
Austin Riley, 3B | Atlanta Braves (.786 at A+, AA)
The first night I saw Riley was Thursday at the welcome reception for the conference so Jason and I were saying our hellos and socializing a good bit, but Riley’s at-bats kept getting our attention. He cracked two doubles in a 2-for-4 effort and took some great at-bats. He looks like a prototypical power corner bat, but which corner is an open question. He has the arm for third, but perhaps not the athleticism. It’d be tough to waste the arm at first so maybe the outfield could be his eventual landing spot.
Luis Urias, 2B/SS | San Diego Padres (.778 at AA)
Knew zero of Luis Urias before AFL, but I'm loving everything I've seen. Hits kinda like Jose Ramirez from the right side.
— Paul Sporer (@sporer) November 12, 2017
I think there’s more power in his bat than the nine total minor league homers we’ve seen in 1529 PA. Regarding the Ramirez comp, he only had 13 HR in 1539 PA as a minor leaguer so his pop developed later, too. But honestly that was just the first player I thought of after seeing the Urias HR in the Fall Stars game and it had as to do with size as anything else. I also got to hear James Anderson of Rotowire rave about Urias and then saw another 2-hit performance in the MLB Network game from Saturday as well. Big fan, I’m firmly on the bandwagon!
Justus Sheffield, LHP | New York Yankees (3.12 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 13% K-BB)
He did get popped for multiple pitch clock violations (which cost him a ball each time), but continued to pump in quality stuff for his two innings of work during the Fall Stars game. He did mention in an interview that the clock violations got in his head a little, but he wasn’t outwardly reacting to it negatively. He allowed a run on three hits and a walk, but he wasn’t exactly beat around the yard. There was no radar gun, but Jeff Zimmerman had his and showed 95 mph for Sheffield from the left side with a strong breaking ball to back it up.
Tanner Scott, LHP | Baltimore Orioles (2.22 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 14% K-BB – did get 1.7 IP at MLB, too)
I’m trying not to get too obsessed with a reliever, but he really impressed me! His stuff alone was enough to turn heads with a 100 mph fastball and wipeout slider, but he had the results to back it up with two scoreless innings, allowing just a hit and fanning four – including a dominant AB v. Acuna. He started all 24 of his appearances at Double-A, but it was almost entirely 3-inning outings to keep him stretched out for an Andrew Miller role.
Others I like: