Today is a red-letter day for prospect watchers; that's because today is Opening Day out in the star-studded Arizona Fall League!
As always, the desert circuit will play host to many of baseball's top minor league talents, affording them the opportunity to extend the season and showcase their abilities on a brighter stage. It's a time when the prospecting world -- players and scouts alike -- converge to one centralized location in a smorgasbord of ridiculous mascots (this year we're watching the Scorpions), elite tools, and scouting reports upon scouting reports upon scouting reports.
Now the unfortunate reality for Mets fans is that the current front office pretty clearly views the AFL more as an extension to the season than a showcase -- valuable for the additional reps it allows to players who missed time during the year. For that reason, the club rarely sends it's very best and brightest (a la Byron Buxton, Jaimeson Taillon, and Colin Moran this season).
That doesn't mean, however, that there aren't performances worth keeping an eye on. Take 2011, for instance, where Josh Satin's .390 average as a member of the league's taxi squad -- who play only twice a week -- was certainly a heartening sign of things to come. Or there's Robert Carson's 7.71 ERA that same fall, which certainly foretold his future chances to an extent. Even last season's very strong showing by Adam Kolarek presaged a strong season to come for the big lefty.
In short, the fall league provides a nice high-difficulty environment -- especially for pitchers -- where one can gauge a player's skillsets without necessarily forming rigid opinions.
Here is a brief primer on each of the players among this year's crop (in alphabetical order):
Chasen Bradford, RHP
Aside from Danny Muno signing for $10,000, the 24-year-old Bradford might be the best value pick in the 2011 Mets draft. Selected in the 35th round out of the University of Central Florida, the Henderson, Nevada native has slowly but surely climbed his way through the lower levels of the Mets system and, as evidenced by this selection, he's beginning to make a name for himself as a real relief prospect.
With good command over a a solid low-90s fastball/slider combo, Bradford has had good success in the professional ranks (see, career 2.76 ERA in 108 pro appearances). It's not a devastating repertoire but it's enough to sniff a major league career. He's also seen the stuff tick up in the transition to full-time relief work and seems to be getting better and better with professional coaching, posting his best season in 2013 -- including a 0.71 ERA in his Double-A debut. He's not a sure bullpen piece (a la Jeff Walters), but as Gonzalez Germen has showed us good command over a decent fastball and a strong secondary pitch is enough to be interesting.
Jeurys Familia, RHP
At this point, the question over Familia's long-term role seems answered. While the stars just didn't seem to align for a career in the rotation, his future in a major league bullpen is comparatively secure. The results may have been uneven during his brief major league debut two Septembers ago, but the stuff certainly lived up to expectations. In fact, after a very strong spring season the 24-year-old seemed a safe bet to lock down some late-inning exposure in 2013.
Unfortunately, the season was short-circuited early on with the discovery of a bone spur in his pitching elbow and the subsequent surgery that effectively ended his 2013 campaign. At this point, the former top ten prospect -- currently joining Jenrry Mejia in prospect purgatory -- is looking to catch up on innings this offseason so expect to see his name in boxscores all winter long.
Cam Maron, C
It was not a good season for the Long Island native, who batted just .235 with no home runs and a woefully low .295 slugging percentage. Not known for his defensive prowess, Maron made it work to this point by showcasing extremely good plate discipline and a sustained ability to bat around .300 -- not to mention a slowly burgeoning power game. Unfortunately, the average and power both disappeared in his first exposure to Advanced-A pitching -- though the good eye was still ever-present.
While the fall assignment may have more to do with team need than merit, it does give Maron the chance to consolidate on a tough year and get additional reps against/catching advanced pitching before a probable repeat engagement in St. Lucie. For a catcher without strong defensive skills, it's imperative for his long-term chances that he bounces back in 2014 and continues to fit into the Josh Thole mold.
Hansel Robles, RHP
For one of the most buzzed-about names coming into spring training, 2013 was something of a disappointing year for Robles thanks to uneven performance and numerous nagging injuries. Specifically, the 22-year-old struggled with oblique/back issues throughout the season, which one can assume played a part in his somewhat mediocre production (see, 4.11 FIP) after a breakout season that not only put him firmly on the top prospect radar but also on the club's 40-man roster.
Perhaps more concerning was the fact that reports on the stout righty's velocity were also inconsistent this year, pegging him anywhere between the low-to-mid 90s that he showcased in 2012 down to the high 80s. Additionally, the typically spot-on command that he made his name on in Brooklyn was also less present as the walks were decidedly up. Again, there's a good chance that some, if not all, of these concerns were the result of injuries; but even if that is the case, 2013 certainly slowed his progress -- which is a more pressing concern for Robles than most prospects.
The aforementioned addition to the 40-man -- smart in that it prevented a likely selection in the Rule 5 draft -- also started the clock on his options years. Specifically, 2013 marked the first of three years where the team has the ability to send him up/down without going through waivers. Even in the best case it's hard to envision Robles reaching the show this season, meaning that he would have only one year left to move between the Mets and their Triple-A affiliate freely. The club will be hoping that some additional reps against top competition in Arizona will get Robles back on the fast track he was riding in 2012.
Aderlin Rodriguez, 3B/1B
Pretty tough 2013 for Aderlin, who batted .260/.295/.427 with nine home runs in 61 games for St. Lucie -- exhibiting very little progress after his first go-around in the Florida State League in the second half of 2012. In actuality, the power was still fine; his .167 ISO is down a bit from last season but still works. The bigger problem is the continued downward trajectory of his walk rate, down to an alarming 4.2% after reaching a high of 8.2% in 2012.
Couple the lack of discipline with his waning defensive value -- he played a career-high 28% of his games at first base in 2013 -- and Rodriguez is in the midst of a rapid decline in value. For a player with such a limited skillset, the value proposition is simple: He has to mash. He has to hit for power, which I'm pretty comfortable he can do, but he also has to keep his batting average/on-base percentage in a serviceable enough place to let his power play. That second part is becoming a little hairier.
The good news is that we can explain away some of his lackluster performance to injury -- he experienced a thumb injury that likely hurt him at the plate and ultimately ended his season in August. Additionally, he's still just 21 and he still features the best raw power in the system. It's a decent starter set, but as a long-term first baseman he's going to have to start hitting more and Arizona would be a good place to start.
Cody Satterwhite, RHP
You might be wondering why you don't know this name -- that's because the 26-year-old Satterwhite only joined the organization midway through 2013 when the Mets purchased his contract from the Sioux City Explorers, a team in the independent American Association league. But the better question is how did this 6'4", former second round draft pick get there? Well, after drafting Satterwhite out of the University of Mississippi in 2008, the Tigers had him on the fast track through their system; by 2009, he had spent the entire season in Double-A where he posted a 3.47 ERA in 34 relief appearances and tantalized scouts with a heavy, mid-90s sinking fastball that he could run up to 98 MPH.
Unfortunately, his shoulder pretty much blew up before the 2010 season and he missed most of the next two years after labrum surgery. He pitched a bit in the Gulf Coast League towards the end of 2011, and though the results were there, the stuff was not. After an additional setback cost him the entire 2012 season the Tigers hastily cut ties with the former second-rounder.
By 2013, with stuff diminished and health a huge question mark, the only team willing to take a chance on him was in independent ball. So Satterwhite laced up for the Explorers and, wouldn't you know it, he dominated. The Mets took note of his success and wisely signed him up and sent him to St. Lucie, where he would replicate his success, striking out over a batter an inning with a 2.78 ERA in 16 games. At this point, though the stuff has not fully come back he's an interesting gamble for the organization, and this shot against many top prospects should tell the front office a decent amount about what they have in Satterwhite.
Cory Vaughn, OF
2013 was a frustrating one for the 24-year-old former fourth-rounder. Vaughn finally looked to be making strides at the dish, batting about .285 with six home runs in his first two month-exposure to Double-A pitching. However, he was soon after sidelined with an elbow injury that would end up claiming his next two months. In the end, he posted a solid .267/.346/.424 line while continuing to show off his power/speed mix with ten homers and nine stolen bases in just 71 games.
The problem is that the underlying peripherals point not only to some good luck but some serious attrition going on underneath the surface. Specifically, an 8% walk rate that was down materially from his career rates, an alarmingly high 26.4% strikeout rate that surpassed anything he'd done before, and a .343 BABIP -- which drove the tolerable batting average but, based on career norms, seems unsustainable.
All told, with Vaughn firmly into his mid-20s it's getting harder to see him as an everyday player at the big league level. While the AFL will provide a chance to catch up on lost at bats, it's also something of a barometer to see if he'll be able to begin shoring up the numerous holes in his game before it's too late.