Here are some observations on a few players getting Arizona Fall League experience.
After a mid-season trade from the New York Yankees to the Arizona Diamondbacks, catcher Peter O’Brien was assigned to Double-A Mobile. He didn’t do much with the Baybears, getting in only four games. This had to have been an anti-climactic end to a run he’d had between the Florida State and Eastern Leagues.
O’Brien was making quite a name for himself while with the Double-A Trenton Thunder, going on a home run tear. He hit .245/.296/.555 with 23 homers in 72 games. The sense in Trenton to that point was that the Yankees valued O’Brien’s bat and defense, and there was talk that if he kept that pace, he might get a call from the big club. Instead, his value was in what the Yankees could get for him (veteran infielder Martin Prado).
At the plate, O’Brien’s solid frame (6-4, 215 lbs) projects power, although what he did in the first half of the season was pretty unexpected. He’s a versatile defender, with time split behind the plate and at third in 2013, and he got some time in the outfield in 2014, in addition to his catching duties. Although his overall strikeout rate is quite high, he showed some ability to make contact when viewed in person. He threw out just 10% of runners, but showed some ability to block the ball well. He’s not the flashy type but has natural leadership qualities that teams value, particularly in a catcher.
By capitalizing on the success he put together in 2014, he could move fast in the Arizona system, and considering his age (24), a Triple-A promotion to open next season wouldn’t be a shock. Just looking at his numbers alone in 2014, giving him the chance to play against more advanced competition in Triple-A makes sense. This is especially true given his performance in the Arizona Fall League thus far: although hitting just .226 in 10 games, he's hit three homers, slugged .581 and has drawn 13 walks for a .467 OBP.
Fellow Yankees prospect Tyler Austin is hitting .261/.363/.323 through eight games. Austin’s progress in the Yankees system has been affected by injuries and time missed in 2013 and this season, after upping his value in 2012 when he hit .322/.400/.559, and level-jumped four times. In 105 games this season for Trenton, he hit .275/.336/.419, collecting 109 hits, 47 RBI, 36 walks and 80 strikeouts in 396 at-bats. The Yankees 2010 13th round pick showed early ability to make contact & hit for some power (17 HR’s in 2012). Expectations for him are only going to get lower if he can’t show more of what we saw in 2012. Getting a shot at solid fall league competition is a good test for Austin. He did finish strong during the regular season (.336/.397/.557 in his last 33 games).
While the Yankees have received tons of criticism for lacking focus on player development, that’s not entirely fair. Many players whose future they hung their hat on didn’t pan out as predicted. Pitching prospect Manny Banuelos underwent Tommy John surgery. Dellin Betances took a long, rough journey through the minors to the majors, from a starting role, to the elite reliever he’s developing into. On the other hand, an improved focus on development is necessary, as Brian Cashman suggested to reporters when he signed a new three-year deal last week. On the tail-end of a playoffs-free Yankees season, that shift in thinking makes sense. With the power-bat potential of recent draft picks Eric Jagielo and Aaron Judge and top pitching prospect Luis Severino in the pipeline, the upper levels are starting to shape up. The huge Yankees investment in Latin American prospects this summer will (or should) also pay long-term dividends.
The New York Mets, could also be onto something with a few of their own recently drafted players. It’s difficult to find players like Brandon Nimmo, and not just for what he’s capable of on the field. At eighteen, he was the consummate professional, unaffected by attention, respectful of the job, and has no tendency for the controversial, as former top Mets prospect Lastings Milledge did.
Nimmo is that rare breed of focused aggression and intensity, mixed with patience and teachability. His story is legend at this point: with no high school baseball program in Wyoming, he played the showcase circuit. Scouts noticed and he was drafted in 1st round in 2011 He came to the Brooklyn Cyclones of the New York Penn League as poised as a ten-year veteran. By the end of the season, however, the inexperience showed. Fatigue affected what was otherwise a highly successful debut.
He entered Spring Training in 2013 ten pounds heavier and talked about the noticeable difference in getting to balls in the outfield. He made the jump to Double-A Binghamton in 2014. He showcased more power, with a smooth swing path (it looked wobbly at times in 2012), and good hip rotation. He simply looked like a more solid version of the guy that played 69 games in Short-A ball in 2012. The selection to the fall league wasn’t a surprise.
Nimmo is the top outfield prospect in the organization, and one of the top outfield prospects in all the minor leagues. In tough fall league competition, he can work on developing more power and improve already very good plate approach. After the struggles with consistency that he exhibited down the stretch in his first professional season , he showed more ability to perform at the level he’s capable of in 2014. He ended the season hitting .278/.394/.426 in 127 games. He’s had a good fall league debut, hitting .393/.476/.571 in his first seven games.
Similarly, Mets second base prospect LJ Mazzilli is developing more power at the plate. His ability for gap-power was on display in 2013 with the Brooklyn Cyclones. And while Mazzilli has the same kind of professionalism and maturity as Nimmo, Mazzilli’s is all pedigree, as the son of former major leaguer Lee. The younger Mazzilli also remained unfazed by the super-hype of his introduction to the New York media at Citi-Bank Field. That kind of laser-focus helped him adjust quickly to pro- ball. He exhibited rock-solid maturity off the field, and a consistent approach at the plate, also proving to be a strong defender with good speed. He hit .301/.361/.440 in 131 games between the Florida State and South Atlantic Leagues this year.
He spoke about his goals this off-season, working on strengthening and agility, with a focus on further improving his speed. Putting those elements together in fall league, and continuing that program through the winter, could lead to him seeing Double-A time in 2015. While not highly ranked in the system by some sources, he can play himself into a more valuable role with the Mets.
Finally, Tampa Bay Rays pitching prospect Jaime Schultz was a standout player on a team that struggled from the start of the season. The Bowling Green Hot Rods woes were mostly offensive, while the starting pitching and bullpen remained steady and solid. The Rays 14th round pick in 2013, is coming off of his first full season of pro-ball, going 4-1 with a 2.40 ERA and a 79/29 K/BB in 60 innings over 14 starts split between the Bowling Green Hot Rods of the Midwest League and the Charlotte Stonecrabs of the Florida State League.
In 2013, pitching for the Short Season Class-A Hudson Valley Renegades in 2013, he showed a live arm, with a consistent delivery, and a sharp curveball with big, late break to compliment his mid-to-high 90’s fastball. The heater also showed a lot of movement. Although his background is as a starter, there’s still strong possibility that he winds up in the bullpen. He's started three games in the fall league and has struggled with his command, with a 11/10 K/BB in 9.1 innings with 11 runs allowed. Giving him extra innings is crucial in seeing how much of a workload he can handle, particularly with his injury history, but converting him to a relief role, if he can polish his secondary offerings, could be the best thing for him and the Rays.