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Pipeline Inbox: Hot starts for Cubs prospects

Mayo answers fans' questions as play in Arizona Fall League gets underway

The Arizona Fall League season began Tuesday, and was there. Six games in three days is a whole lot of baseball, but to see the vast amount of talent on display, it is definitely a worthwhile endeavor.

Because of the journey, this week's Inbox opens with a Fall League flair. Keep an eye out for video interviews and AFL video team reports in the coming weeks.

Are the Cubs' prospects in the AFL better/same/worse than you thought? What would Albert Almora have to do in the Arizona Fall League in order to start next year in Double-A?
-- Brian B., Chicago

It has been just a few games, but there is no way they could be worse than anyone thought. Almora went 4-for-5 with a homer and three RBIs for Mesa on Wednesday. Jorge Soler drove in three runs as well. Kris Bryant went 2-for-3 with a three-run homer. Even taxi-squader Wes Darvill homered. The four Cubs in the game went 8-for-14 with three homers and 11 RBIs. Almora, Soler and Bryant are Nos. 2-4 on the Cubs' Top 20 Prospects list. Soler is a lot bigger than I expected. Bryant is simply an outstanding hitter -- puts on a show in batting practice, then evidently does it in games, too.

Almora is the one who will be the most interesting to watch. The 19-year-old outfielder missed a good portion of his first full season, but when he was playing in the Midwest League, he was very good (.329/.376/.466). I thought he might have been a taxi-squad guy in the AFL because of his age and experience, but he is on the regular roster. Facing the higher level of pitching in the AFL regularly will be a good test for him. That being said, I can't imagine him going anywhere other than to Class A Advanced Daytona to start the 2014 season. He will not turn 20 until April and he got just 249 at-bats under his belt during the regular season, so I can't see the Cubs double-jumping him even if he has a huge autumn. It would be fun to see him do just that, then have a big Spring Training, just to make it a tougher decision for the Cubs front office. But I expect Almora to start next season with Daytona, then hit his way to Tennessee at some point.

Giants fans know about Kyle Crick and Heath Hembree. Who is the best prospect we don't know?
-- Will C., San Jose, Calif.

I saw Crick pitch on Thursday. While his command was off, he was up to 97 mph with his fastball. There is a lot to like there. Anyway, you wanted to know about off-the-radar-type guys.

Truth be told, the Giants' system is not quite as deep as it has been in the past, so finding someone not in their Top 20 to answer the question was a bit difficult. But I got some help from my friends on Twitter, one of whom suggested outfielder Mac Williamson, who is on our unofficial list of Nos. 21-25. Williamson had a solid first full year, going up to the California League and hitting 25 homers while slugging better than .500. Before you talk about the hitter-friendly Cal League, keep in mind that San Jose is actually not a great place for hitters. Williamson, 23, will have to show how his power bat will play at the upper levels, but he is definitely someone to keep an eye on, one who might deserve more consideration for next year's Top 20 list.

Hey, Mayo, what do you think of Hunter Dozier now?
-- Neil C., Willimantic, Conn.

My mother called me Mayo once. Once.

Forgive the "Johnny Dangerously" reference. I couldn't resist. Neil, of course, is referring to my comments following the Royals surprising selection of Dozier with the No. 8 overall pick in this year's Draft. I do not want to go into detail about what I actually said. You can read my recent blog post about it if you choose.

But I will be clear about two things: 1) I said I'd reserve judgment about the selection until after I saw what the Royals did with their other picks, and, 2) I have never had anything against Dozier as a player.

On the first front, the Royals were able to sign No. 34 pick Sean Manaea as a result. If Manaea can get healthy and look like the top-of-the-Draft lefty he appeared to be at one point, and Dozier becomes a big league regular, then the strategy paid off. I always thought Dozier was a first-round talent. I just hadn't, nor had anyone, pegged him as a top-10 selection. The 22-year-old third baseman certainly had a very solid debut with the bat, hitting .307/.397/.495, mostly in the Pioneer League. I would love to see the Royals challenge their No. 7 prospect with an assignment to Wilmington in the Carolina League to start next season.

What's Noah Syndergaard's projection? And how close is he?
-- Dan P., Sparta, N.J.

I'm not a big fan of putting a ceiling on a guy, especially one with an arm like Syndergaard's. The 21-year-old right-hander had an outstanding first season in the Mets system, reaching Double-A and pitching well there. His 10.2 strikeout-per-nine ratio was right in line with his 10.1 career mark. What makes Syndergaard more impressive is the fact he has a career 2.5 walks-per-nine ratio (2.1 in 2013) to go along with it. He has a chance to have three above-average or better pitches and the ability to command all of them. That gives him a chance to be a front-line starter at some point. He made 11 starts for Double-A Binghamton, so I could see a scenario in which he begins next year there but makes his way up to New York before season's end. At the most conservative, seeing the organization's top prospect in the 2015 Mets rotation is extremely feasible.

How does Max Stassi compare with other catching prospects? He had a huge year before getting hit in the head with the Astros.
-- Eduardo M., Houston

Eduardo is becoming a regular at the Pipeline Inbox. Luckily, there is a lot to talk about when it comes to the Astros system. We probably undervalued Stassi this year. He began the season ranked No. 16 among the Astros' Top 20. He even dropped off the Top 20 when Houston added talent via trades. Some players graduated off the list, so he is now back at No. 18.

Stassi's biggest issue since beginning his pro career, in the A's system before being traded last offseason, has been staying healthy. He played in just 31 games in 2011, then followed that up with 84 games in 2012, both at the same level, the California League. Even this year, his season debut was delayed until early May because of an oblique issue. He has played more than 100 games just once in five seasons.

When Stassi is healthy, though, he has shown the ability to hit with a decent amount of power, and he is a solid catch-and-throw guy. He is not currently on the Top 10 catchers list, but he is not far behind that group. And again, perhaps we had him undervalued because of the time he has spent off the field. Jason Castro was an All-Star in 2013, but maybe Stassi can find a role as his backup, or eventually a platoon-mate, in the future.

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for and writes a blog, B3. Follow @JonathanMayoB3 on Twitter.
Read More: Noah Syndergaard, Albert Almora, Hunter Dozier, Max Stassi, Mac Williamson