AFL prospects with 40-man spots on the line
The Arizona Fall League ends with its championship game Saturday in Scottsdale. The deadline to add Rule 5-eligible players to a 40-man roster arrives three days later. It could be a nervy and/or exciting weekend ahead for some of the circuit’s biggest names.
Some players run with the opportunity the Fall League brings to prove their 40-man worthiness. Some struggle with it in a league designed to be a prospect finishing school. With only a handful of regular-season days left in the AFL, we have a decent idea of who falls where.
Here are five notable Rule 5-eligible prospects making the most of their Fall League chances and three who haven’t exactly helped their causes:
Edouard Julien, 2B, Twins (No. 14): The 2019 18th-rounder out of Auburn has won not one, but two Player of the Week honors already and is certainly in contention for AFL MVP -- an award won by fellow Twin Royce Lewis in 2019. Entering this week, Julien leads the Fall League in OBP (.535), slugging (.683), OPS (1.218), walks (20) and runs scored (21) through 19 games with Glendale. His .365 average, five homers and 10 extra-base hits also ranked among the top five in the loop.
Julien already showed a strong approach that led to a .300/.441/.490 line and 19.3 percent walk rate over 508 plate appearances at Double-A Wichita during the regular season, making him a likely add for Minnesota anyway. These past five weeks have moved that modifier from “likely” to “certain.”
Connor Thomas, LHP, Cardinals, (No. 24): The 24-year-old southpaw is the rare Fall Leaguer with ample Triple-A experience, having thrown 135 innings for Memphis this summer. His numbers in that span: 5.47 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, .307 average-against, 17.9 percent K rate.
Thomas has been a completely different pitcher in the AFL, thanks to a tight cutter that plays well off his upper-80s sinker and mid-80s slider. Entering Tuesday, his 31 strikeouts in 22 2/3 innings for Salt River led the AFL. He still produces lots of ground balls, as has been his specialty throughout the Minors, but generating actual whiffs, which have led to a stingier 1.54 ERA and 1.06 WHIP, has been huge for Thomas in his pursuit of a 40-man spot.
Robert Perez Jr., 1B, Mariners (No. 21): Since he signed back in July 2016, the Venezuela native has been Rule 5-eligible before but went unprotected in both 2020 and 2021. He already built a strong case for that to change with a career-high 27 homers between Single-A and High-A this season, beating his previous best by eight.
The right-handed slugger went deep 32 times in one night and won the AFL Home Run Derby on Saturday, and while we don’t want to pour too much importance into a glorified batting practice session, Perez’s consistent muscling of line drives over the left-field fence confirmed that the raw power is certainly in the tank. He’s been otherwise solid with a .246/.356/.443 line with three more dingers in 18 games, making Seattle’s call a lot more difficult this time around.
Grant Lavigne, 1B, Rockies (No. 13): A first baseman with 10 regular-season homers is far from a 40-man or even Rule 5 lock, but Lavigne has been a case in slow and steady player development since Colorado took him 42nd overall out of a New Hampshire high school four years ago. The left-handed slugger has long shown good discipline at the plate and got back to that with a .379 OBP in 125 games between Single-A and Double-A during the summer. He’s been a fairly consistent Fall Leaguer, as evidenced by his league-best 12-game hitting streak, and he entered Tuesday with an impressive .340/.419/.547 line through 15 games with Salt River.
By his own admission, he’s still trying to add loft to his swing -- only one of his eight extra-base hits had left the yard entering the week -- but the rebuilding Rox can’t afford to let a promising hitter potentially walk for free.
Ronny Simon, INF, Rays: Tampa Bay boasts one of the deepest 40-man rosters and Top-30 prospect lists in the game, so Nov. 15 was always going to bring some difficult decisions. Simon -- a 22 HR-34 SB player with aggressive tendencies at the High-A and Double-A plate during the regular season -- was going to factor into a few of them, and he hasn’t made it any easier on Tampa Bay brass in the AFL.
Simon entered Tuesday with a .325/.402/.550 line, nine extra-base hits and three steals in 21 games with Mesa. The switch-hitter shows more pop than his 5-foot-9 frame would suggest, and he’s shown some dynamic tendencies with his bat and speed as a member of the Solar Sox.
The Rays’ 40-man infield chart is already loaded, so they may roll the dice that a Rule 5 club might think Simon’s aggression won’t translate to the Majors straight away. Or it might be too big a risk to take for the club that loves its homegrown talent.
Warming Bernabel, 3B, Rockies (No. 8): Bernabel is Colorado’s highest-ranked Rule 5-eligible prospect, and such a player is usually pretty safe when it comes to 40-man protection. That’s especially true of a hitter who batted above .300 with good contact rates at both Single-A and High-A during the regular season.
However, Bernabel won’t be putting his 5-for-50 (.100) AFL showing on his resume anytime soon. At just 20 years old, the third baseman has looked overmatched and overaggressive with Salt River. Perhaps that shouldn’t be a shock considering he just finished up his first full season (one in which he dealt with a hand injury and concussion), but this performance won’t do him any favors.
Parker Meadows, OF, Tigers (No. 16): There are multiple ways for a player to secure a spot on a 40-man, and Meadows has the speed, defensive range and arm strength to provide multiple avenues of contribution. He entered the Fall League after a breakout offensive season that saw him set career bests with a .270 average, .819 OPS and 20 homers at High-A and Double-A, thanks to improved aggression on pitches he could pull and drive.
However, the 2018 second-rounder hasn’t been able to reproduce that success in the desert, where he had a .196/.282/.321 line in 65 plate appearances entering Tuesday. If you’re the Tigers, you’re more likely to lean on the good news over a larger sample, but after Meadows struggled at the plate for much of the beginning of his career, this AFL run might bring a slight pause just before decision time.
Luis Matos, OF, Giants (No. 3): Unlike the other two in this category, Matos doesn’t have a strong 2022 season to fall back on, after he hit just .211 with a .619 OPS in 91 games at High-A. Unlike the other two, he also has previous Top 100 credentials, having shown a right-handed bat that looked like one of the Minors’ best just 12 months ago.
Anyone hoping for the hitter-friendly Fall League to bring a reverse in results for Matos will be disappointed by his .228/.271/.367 line over 20 games. The 20-year-old outfielder got in trouble by producing too many fly balls with lower exit velocities during the season, underscoring his need to add strength to develop more impact. He isn’t likely to stick on a Major League roster as a Rule 5 pick, lessening the need to protect him, but Top 100 talents (current or past) rarely, if ever, are left exposed.