SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Teams monitor the workloads of their young pitching prospects with extreme caution. As a result, most of the elite talents in the Arizona Fall League tend to be position players, because clubs worry much less about putting extra at-bats on hitters than they do extra innings on arms.
For a blue-chip pitching prospect to receive an AFL assignment, he usually has to have missed part of the season with an injury serious enough to have cost him some time on the mound, but not so serious to have gotten him completely shut down. Right-handers Kyle Crick, the Giants' top prospect who lost time with a strained oblique, and Aaron Sanchez, the Blue Jays' top prospect who battled a tired shoulder and blisters, fit that description.
When they squared off in the regular-season finale between the Salt River Rafters and Scottsdale Scorpions on Thursday, it was an AFL pitching matchup of rare quality. One scout who didn't have either team as part of his coverage attended just because he wanted to see Crick and Sanchez in action. They didn't disappoint in a game Sanchez and the Rafters won, 3-2.
There are a lot of similarities between Crick and Sanchez. They're both former supplemental first-round Draft picks who now rank as their organization's top prospects. They're both 6-foot-4, though the 220-pound Crick has a stronger build than the 190-pound Sanchez.
They're both 21 and were born just four months apart, though Sanchez graduated high school and entered pro ball a year earlier. They both wow with their raw stuff, but need more polish. Sanchez is more advanced because of his extra year of pro experience and because Crick was better known as a first baseman (and a defensive end) until his senior season in high school.
Crick worked three scoreless innings for Scottsdale, retiring the first six hitters he faced. He ended the first inning with a strikeout of Jake Lamb, the D-backs' No. 11 prospect, on an 89-mph slider that looked more like a cutter. Crick finished the second with whiffs of Kyle Parker, the Rockies' No. 9 prospect, on a 91-mph pitch that again resembled a cutter and James Ramsey, the Cards' No. 10 prospect, on a 96-mph fastball. All three strikeouts were of the swinging variety.
He actually looked most impressive after he got into his lone jam. Crick opened the third inning by walking D-backs prospects Michael Freeman and Nick Ahmed, with his fastball sitting at 95-96 mph in both battles, as it did for the first two innings. Then he turned up the heat.
Crick threw two 97-mph fastballs for strikes to Rockies prospect Dustin Garneau, and the second one had tremendous sink and induced an easy groundout to first base. He fired two more 97-mph fastballs to work a 1-1 count against Blue Jays prospect Kenny Wilson, then unleashed four straight pitches at 98 mph -- his hardest of the day -- for a strikeout. Crick concluded his outing by feeding Blue Jays prospect Andy Burns three straight 97-mph heaters and getting three swings and misses.
All told, Crick threw 30 of his 51 pitches for strikes. The vast majority of them were fastballs and the Rafters never really made any hard contact. His slider has shown potential as a legitimate Major League out pitch, though Thursday it lacked bite and stood out more for its velocity, looking like a cutter. He made sparse use of his changeup, which is still a work in progress.
Sanchez threw five no-hit innings in his last start and had held AFL opponents to a .088 average previously, but the Scorpions touched him for six hits in five innings. He gave up just one run, in part because he had four runners erased on double plays and a fifth got caught stealing. He only had three strikeouts versus two walks, though he did hit the strike zone with 49 of his 79 pitches.
Nevertheless, Sanchez was slightly more impressive than Crick.
While he didn't throw quite as hard, Sanchez still generated well above-average velocity and did it more easily. There's nothing glaring about Crick's delivery, but Sanchez's is smoother and gives him a better chance to make the control and command improvements both pitchers need. He also displayed a true breaking ball and a changeup that should give him a third plus offering.
Sanchez pitched most of the first two innings at 94-97 mph, the next two at 93-95 and the fifth at 91-93. He gave up five of his six hits on fastballs -- though two came on well-placed bunts by Kyle Kubitza and Yankees prospect Mason Williams -- and recorded one whiff, getting Braves prospect Robby Hefflinger on a 95-mph heater up in the strike zone in the fourth.
Sanchez was able to get swings and misses with both his curveball, which got sharper in the later innings, and his changeup. After getting ahead of Pirates prospect Gift Ngeope with 94- and 95-mph fastballs to start the third inning, he caught him looking with an 80-mph curveball with good shape.
Two batters later, Sanchez fell behind Bucs No. 3 prospect Alen Hanson 2-0, evened the count by getting him to swing through two 88-mph changeups and finished him off with an 82-mph curve for swinging strike three. Though Sanchez's changeup is a bit firm at 85-88 mph, it has plenty of sink and run and misses bats.
Crick and Sanchez have the upside of frontline starters, with Sanchez having a better chance to fully realize his potential. Though they missed time during the Minor League season, there aren't any long-term health concerns with either. They just need innings to harness their pitches and are on course to reach the Majors at some point in 2015.
Jim Callis is a senior writer for MLB.com.