Inbox: Prospects to keep an eye on in the AFL

September 29th, 2023

After spending a couple of days talking to this year’s Arizona Fall League players, with the season starting up on Monday, I’m excited to watch some of the game’s best prospects in action. Until that gets going, I’ll get to some of your questions, starting off, of course, an AFL question.

Who is a prospect that people aren’t familiar with that they will be by the time the Arizona Fall League is over? -- @Michael_Rokicki

Any AFL under the radar types we should keep an eye on? -- @Morat68

I’m using these questions to tease a story we’ll have next week, when the MLB Pipeline crew will pick one “sleeper” prospect from each organization in the AFL this year to watch. I don’t want to give away too much, nor have we selected all 30, but here are a couple of names that came to mind, sticking with guys NOT on a Top 30.

Wes Clarke, 1B/C, Brewers: A tenth-round pick out of South Carolina who signed for $75,000 in 2021, Clarke spent the 2023 season in Double-A and hit 26 homers for Biloxi. It’s a power-over-hit profile, but he also draws a ton of walks, a reason why he had an .889 OPS for the year.

Alessandro Ercolani, RHP, Pirates: Go ahead, call me a homer, but I’m picking Ercolani not only because he’s an interesting story, coming from the tiny (and separate from Italy) country of San Marino. He has a fastball that can touch 95-96 and a solid slider to go along with it. He needs to work on his command and his offspeed stuff, but he can miss bats.

Trystan Vrieling, RHP, Yankees: Vrieling will be making his unofficial pro debut this year after missing the season following Tommy John surgery. But he was the Yankees’ third-round pick out of Gonzaga in 2022 and has really good stuff; he was in our Draft Top 100 leading into the Draft.

Can we get a few top relief pitching prospects to keep an eye on? -- @WABB10480

We dug into this in this week’s MLB Pipeline Podcast, which fit in nicely as we spent the top of the episode previewing the MiLB Awards Show (Tune in on MLB Network on Monday, Oct. 2, at 8 p.m. ET!), particularly the Hitting Prospect of the Year finalists.

There isn’t a Reliever of the Year Award, but part of the show does include unveiling our Prospect Team of the Year. There’s a first and second team, and each will have a relief pitcher on it, and we talked about a few relievers who are in contention for those spots. Here are a few candidates, listed alphabetically.

Orion Kerkering, Phillies: Kerkering pitched across four levels in the Minors and is finishing the year in the big leagues. Along the way in the Minors, he struck out 13.2 and walked just 2.0, posted a 1.51 ERA and 0.89 WHIP, held hitters to a .186 average and even racked up 14 saves along the way.

Luke Little, Cubs: The lefty made his big league debut this year after pitching at three levels of the Minors, finishing with a 2.12 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, .179 BAA and 14.8 K/9 rate (while walking 5.9 per nine).

John McMillon, Royals: He pitched across three levels, up to Double-A, posting a combined 2.10 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, .138 BAA, a nearly 16 K/9 rate and 4.4 BB/9.

Anthony Maldanado, Marlins: The right-hander spent nearly all of the 2023 season with Triple-A Jacksonville, finishing the year with a 1.62 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, .143 BAA, 14 K/9 and 3.9 BB/9.

Danny Watson, Yankees: The 6-foot-7 reliever pitched his way from High-A to Double-A, ending up with a combined 1.58 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, .138 BAA, 11.8 K/9 and 3.6 BB/9.

Which Oriole will be the #1 prospect entering 2025? -- @apmckay

Currently, the top seven players on the Orioles’ Top 30 are all in Double-A or higher, as are nine of the top 10, so this is not as easy an answer as it may seem. We’re going to work with the assumption that top prospect will have graduated from the list by the end of the 2024 season and after seeing him reach Triple-A at age 19 in his first full season of pro ball, that seems to be a pretty good guess.

I think the same holds true for , who also reached Triple-A at the ripe old age of 21. has touched the big leagues and  is there now and I have to believe they’ll either be in Baltimore or used somehow as trade bait (Eventually, some deals will have to be made because there won’t be room in the big leagues!).

So that leaves me with one choice in , the teenaged catcher who finished this season with a .953 OPS across three levels in his full-season debut. The only thing that makes this a little tricky is that he made it to Double-A and hit well in a four-game taste there, so it wouldn’t be completely shocking if he made it up to Baltimore in 2024. But given the fact that he barely got to Bowie, won’t turn 20 until next August, and plays the same position as Adley Rutschman, I think there’s a solid chance he’ll still be a prospect at the start of the 2025 season. There are those who already think he’s the second-best prospect in the organization and it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s the second-best catching prospect in the game, battling the Padres’  for supremacy, when the 2025 season begins.

Wyatt Langford or Evan Carter? -- @lonestarball

If I’m a Rangers fan, I’m refusing to answer this question, instead getting excited about having both in the big league outfield in the very near future. But I get it. We currently have Carter at No. 8 and Langford at No. 13 on the Top 100, so there isn’t much separating them. We did that before Langford hit his way to Triple-A and Carter made his tremendous big league debut, though that wouldn’t really move the needle at all, other than to maybe make a claim that both could inch a bit higher to the top of the list.

I think a strong argument could be made for either and my initial gut instinct was to go against our rankings and pick Langford because I do believe he has the chance to be one of the best hitters and runproducers in the big leagues for a very long time; there’s a reason why he was considered a No. 1 overall pick caliber talent. But then when I really started to compare them, I think I’d leave it the way we have it, with Carter having the slight edge. He’s going to be a plus hitter with a ridiculously advanced approach. He likely won’t have as much power as Langford, though he’ll impact the ball plenty, but the advantage comes defensively for me. Carter should play center field for a long time, and play it well, and while Langford is athletic, it is looking like he’s going to be a left fielder. However you line them up, having this as two-thirds of your big league outfield bodes well for the Rangers’ future.