Inbox: Prospects who will benefit most from AFL

September 21st, 2022

In less than two weeks, the Arizona Fall League begins its 30th season, and if you haven’t been able to tell, we’re a little excited. We’ll be out there covering the league on a daily basis, and as we are leading up to it, we’re talking about it as much as humanly possible.

That includes an entire episode of the MLB Pipeline Podcast dedicated to the AFL, including a great interview with the top-ranked prospect heading to Arizona, the Cardinals’ Jordan Walker. So it should come as no surprise that I decided to go with all Fall League-related questions in this week’s Inbox.

Jim Callis and I regularly encourage baseball fans to come check the AFL out -- if you take us up on the idea, be sure to let us know so we can say hello when we’re out there!

Which prospects will benefit most by participating in the Arizona Fall League? -- @StevieDAles97

It gets a little difficult trying to whittle the candidates for this open-ended question down because, obviously, everyone can benefit from time in the AFL. But I get Stevie D’s point here, and there are some players who can use the time more than others.

Some are included in questions below (Kumar Rocker, Nick Yorke, Zac Veen), so I won’t go into them here. I think the biggest category of players who can benefit are those making up for lost time because of injuries. MLB's No. 20 overall prospect Henry Davis, the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s Draft, made it to Double-A with the Pirates in his first full season but played in just 59 games total this season because of wrist issues (he got hit 20 times this year, the cause of the injury). Getting the chance to get more upper-level at-bats will be great, but more than anything, giving him reps behind the plate, even in bullpen sessions, catching upper-level pitching could really help his receiving.

Cubs No. 2 prospect Brennen Davis is another top prospect looking to make up for lost time. After a huge breakout 2021 season that included winning Futures Game MVP honors, back surgery forced him out of action for more than three months this year. More ABs can help him get his timing back, and he can continue to close some holes in his swing. That could point him to Chicago in 2023.

Orioles outfielder Heston Kjerstad got back on the field in 2022 after the 2020 first-round pick was diagnosed with myocarditis, a viral inflammation of the heart, forcing him to miss all of the 2021 season. He raked in Single-A then understandably took some time to adjust to High-A, though he finished well. The AFL will provide a good pitching test for him and could get him ready for Double-A.

Davis’ organization-mate Nick Gonzales is back in the AFL for a second year, also hoping to right himself after injuries cut short his Double-A season. He swung the bat well over his last two weeks but didn’t hit as expected, so he could also fall under the category of guys trying to erase a rough season. That bucket also includes guys like Giants prospects Luis Matos and Will Bednar.

Then there are guys like Deyvison De Los Santos of the D-backs and the Cardinals’ Tink Hence. Both had breakouts in 2022, but this is a bigger stage and could really help them jump into more elite categories. A strong AFL could do for De Los Santos what it did for Ezequiel Tovar of the Rockies last year. Tovar didn’t hit a ton but showed glimpses offensively, putting him more firmly on the radar in front of a lot of people. And it clearly gave him the confidence to make the leap forward he did this season.

Finally, and there are too many to name, but every organization sends players to the AFL as a final tryout for a 40-man roster spot. You might see some relievers come into games and not know much about them, but many of them will be pitching for their immediate futures, whether it's for a roster spot or showing off their stuff for 29 other teams as a potential Rule 5 pick.

Could a strong AFL performance from Kumar Rocker put him in consideration as a Top 100 prospect? -- @FflLuka

This is the question we answered on the Podcast, but in a nutshell: It couldn’t hurt. There aren’t doubts about whether Rocker has Top 100-caliber stuff. He showed that in college, and he showed it again, albeit in small spurts, in indy ball leading up to the 2022 Draft. The one thing we don’t know about is his health. We know he had shoulder surgery, but he looked pretty strong in short outings with Tri-City this year. Until we see him for a lengthier period of time, we won’t really know how his arm will hold up. And I don’t see that big question being answered in whatever mound time he gets this fall. He’s already in Top 100 consideration based on the stuff, and he can continue to build that strong case in the AFL. But it’ll probably take him going out every five days in 2023 for an extended period for me to feel strongly about adding him.

With a strong AFL showing, can Nick Yorke work himself back into the Top 100? -- @antman_92

Similar question to the one posed about Rocker. The biggest difference is the “back into” part -- Yorke has some track record. A surprising first-round pick in 2020, Yorke made the Red Sox seem very smart with a huge first full season, one that saw him post a .928 OPS across two levels of A ball and land on the Top 100. He was No. 96 at the end of 2021 as we added him late to our Top 100, and at the beginning of 2022 he was at No. 55 and thought to be one of the better pure hitters in the Minors. Turf toe and wrist injuries certainly didn’t help him this season, and he had trouble getting back to the hitter he looked like a year ago, though he did go 8-for-25 over his last six games of the season.

If that’s a sign of things to come, a fully healthy Yorke could come in and swing the bat very well in Arizona. This is a good spot to throw in our usual caveat about small sample sizes and not putting too much weight on a good/bad AFL performance. So a solid Yorke showing might not put him on the Top 100, but it would be a sign that he’s back to being the guy we saw in 2021 and belongs more seriously in the conversation again.

How concerned should we be about Zac Veen? He has really struggled since his promotion to AA. He is only 20, but the sample size keeps growing without much improvement being displayed. -- @MardindaShovel

If I had a dime for every time a prospect struggled upon reaching a new level … I’d have a lot of dimes. I say this to mean that while that sample size was growing, it’s still pretty small.

Yes, Veen’s numbers with Double-A Hartford weren’t pretty (.177/.262/.234), and he really struggled down the stretch. But there are a few things to keep in mind. One is his age, which you pointed out -- Veen was 3.8 years younger than the average hitter in the Eastern League once he got to Hartford. Then there’s the fact that Harford is pitching friendly (even with his struggles, Veen’s OPS was 77 points higher on the road). Veen also had played more baseball than he ever had in his life, with 20 more games and 67 more at-bats than his first full season in 2021.

These aren’t excuses, and Veen will have to learn and grow to get through the full season if he wants to play in the big leagues. But I think that’s going to happen. And, in the end, 34 games at a level isn’t really that much. He’s far from the first player to hit .177 over a span like that (not quite 125 ABs). Veen himself had only a .704 OPS in the first month of what was a very successful first full season. Let’s let him catch his breath, get some hacks in the AFL that will help him be ready to perform as expected back in Double-A (or up in Triple-A) next year.