AFL prospects vying for 40-man spots

November 16th, 2021

There are many purposes to the Arizona Fall League. Getting as many top prospects in a single six-team league is one. Affording players opportunities to make up for lost at-bats and innings is certainly another. For this particular story, let’s focus on a third.

The AFL is a chance for Rule 5-eligible players to prove to their parent clubs that they are worthy of a 40-man spot. The flip side is that they may also be showing the other 29 organizations that they deserve to be taken in the Rule 5 Draft, if they are not protected.

MLB Network analyst Yonder Alonso even mentioned in Saturday’s Fall Stars Game broadcast that he thought of the AFL as a showcase of his talents for everyone in baseball when he played there as a Reds prospect in 2009, and that was before he was Rule 5-eligible. Those that fit that specific bill have even bigger auditions in October and November.

Ahead of the 40-man roster deadline this Friday, here are five ranked Rule 5-eligible prospects that have made the most of those Arizona Fall League auditions and three who haven't done themselves many favors ahead of the AFL’s final week (all stats are through Nov. 14):

Those thriving

Nelson Velazquez, OF, Cubs (No. 29): No one has made more of their time in the Fall League than the 2017 fifth-rounder out of Puerto Rico. Velazquez enters the final week of play as the easy AFL MVP favorite and the league leader with nine homers, 34 hits, 67 total bases, a .720 slugging percentage and 1.194 OPS over 23 games for Mesa. It should be noted that the 22-year-old outfielder was likely headed to 40-man protection anyways. He finished the regular season strong with a .290/.358/.581 line in 34 games at Double-A Tennessee, and his above-average power and plus arm make him a potential future right fielder at Wrigley Field. But Velazquez has turned any remaining question marks about his status into exclamation points with his showing in the desert.

James Outman, OF, Dodgers (No. 27): The 2018 seventh-rounder started to show some improved offensive production during the regular season at High-A and Double-A and has carried that to the Fall League. He is one of five qualifiers to slug at least .600 (his percentage on the dot) entering Monday, and he’s hit that mark by going 18-for-72 (.300) with 11 extra-base hits in 18 games for Glendale. Outman, who has plus speed, was also named the best defender in the Fall Stars Game and backed that up with an impressive diving catch in center. It feels like the Dodgers have a 40-man crunch every year, but Outman’s upward trajectory and tools should get him a spot and a potential place on the LA grass in some capacity next summer.

Brendan Donovan, INF/OF, Cardinals (No. 17): Finding Donovan a defensive home has been a question ever since he entered pro ball out of South Alabama. The fact that he’s played all four infield spots as well as right field at various times for Glendale this fall is certainly notable. His bat was always going to be what pushed him to the Majors after it helped him climb three levels this season, and he’s continued a strong year with a good Fall League at the plate. Donovan entered Monday with a .350/.471/.625 line, aided by the fact he’s walked nine times and struck out in only four of his 51 plate appearances. Those numbers helped earn Donovan a spot in Saturday’s Fall Stars Game, and it’s likely the Cardinals won’t want to risk losing his bat and defensive versatility to the Rule 5 Draft.

Jose Tena, SS, Cleveland (No. 12): The 20-year-old infielder is fresh off winning a Minor League Gold Glove award last week -- a sign that his glove is certainly 40-man worthy. Tena has shown something with the bat during his time with Scottsdale as well, turning in a .393/.471/.482 line and an even 9/9 K/BB ratio through 15 games. The left-handed hitter has been praised for his bat-to-ball skills, though his approach was such that he rarely walked. Turning in a 13.2 percent walk rate in the AFL -- even when free passes are up leaguewide -- is a promising sign. Tena, who produced a 115 wRC+ for Lake County this summer, has yet to play above High-A, so this is as close as he’s gotten to upper-level experience so far.

Jeter Downs, 2B/SS, Red Sox (No. 5): It’s been a hot-and-cold fall for the Boston middle infielder. Downs grabbed plenty of attention for homering in five straight games from Oct. 15-25. That was huge considering he was coming off a rough season at Triple-A Worcester, where he hit just .190/.272/.333 in 99 games. Downs has since fallen back to earth and entered Monday with one hit in his last 22 at-bats, dating back to Oct. 29. His early production still gives him a .900 OPS for the Fall League campaign. A former Top 100 prospect, Downs was a lock to be added to the 40-man roster this week already, but that powerful stretch for Scottsdale might have eased some concerns in the Red Sox front office about his offensive potential, at least for the time being.

Those struggling

Jeremy Eierman, INF, Athletics (No. 26): The 2018 second-rounder’s regular season was limited to only 60 games at Double-A due to a quad injury, and while he showed some pop with 10 homers and a .448 slugging percentage, he struck out 36.1 percent of the time with Midland. He had a chance to make up for the lost time in Arizona but hasn’t clicked offensively, going 3-for-27 (.111) with no extra-base hits and 11 K’s. He has a saving grace in that he’s considered a solid defender with experience at shortstop, third and second, but the A’s or any Rule 5 club would have to think hard about his recent inability to make consistent contact.

Seth Corry, LHP, Giants (No. 11): On pure stuff, Corry is an easy 40-man roster addition, and for that reason alone, it’s highly likely San Francisco will give him good news come Friday. His fastball and changeup can both be above-average pitches, while his curve earns easy plus grades. But Corry’s time in the AFL was often rough because of an issue that plagued him during the regular season -- his control. The 23-year-old left-hander has walked 12 batters in 9 2/3 innings with Scottsdale. He has fanned 14 in the same span and given up only four hits (.125 average), so hitters have found it difficult to touch him. They certainly learned to be patient against him, and his inability to find the strike zone consistently would only be exacerbated at the top level, if he were to be a Rule 5 pick. Even so, his ceiling remains too high for the Giants to risk it in all likelihood.

Orlando Martinez, OF, Angels (No. 26): Martinez played 102 games at Double-A Rocket City this summer, so some of this could be chalked up to late-year fatigue. Fair enough. But if the Halos had hoped Martinez would force their hand with a strong turn in Arizona, they could be left disappointed by his .221/.243/.353 line over 70 plate appearances. Martinez was a slightly above-average bat at Double-A (.258/.313/.445, 107 wRC+) in his age-21 season, and he’s likely a fourth outfielder at the top level as a player with good defensive instincts but who lacks a plus tool. Still, a strong Fall League would have made his 40-man case all the easier.