Five biggest surprises from the Arizona Fall League
By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com
Before we get this going, let’s clear one thing up. No, this is not another attempt to squeeze another “Surprise” pun into our Arizona Fall League coverage. There are enough opportunities to do that more naturally each autumn, so there’s no point in forcing it here.
Instead, this is simply a look at which players have gone beyond expectations in what’s considered the prospect finishing school. This comes, of course, with the caveats that the AFL season is short (only 32 games) and not over (a week remains on the schedule).
But even then, we’re deep enough to see who has exceeded predictions for their Fall League production. Also, it should be pointed out that such performances can have effects on the future of a prospect. Rangers first baseman Chris McGuiness wasn’t one of the bigger names in the Fall League last year but eventually led the circuit with 27 RBIs in 25 games en route to being named MVP. He was rewarded when the Indians selected him in the Rule 5 Draft, giving him his first shot at a Major League job. (He was returned to the Rangers in the spring.)
With that in mind, here’s a look at five Fall Leaguers who have caught my eye for all the right reasons.
5. Mitch Haniger, Brewers outfielder, Surprise: Haniger sits at No. 12 in the Brewers’ system, according to MLB.com, after his first two professional seasons. The first was cut to 14 games due to a knee injury, and the second saw the 22-year-old put up decent numbers (.264/.348/.431) in 129 games between Class A Wisconsin and Class A Advanced Brevard County.
Milwaukee sent their 2011 first-rounder (38th overall) to the Fall League to see how he’d handle some more advanced competition, and the right-handed hitting outfielder hasn’t disappointed. In fact, he’s thrived. Haniger hit a grand slam in his first day and was named Player of the Week the opening week after going 9-for-16 with a homer, three doubles and seven RBIs in his first four games. He’s cooled off since but only slightly. Haniger owns a .313/.391/.525 line with three homers, eight doubles and an AFL-best 19 RBIs in 20 games (92 plate appearances) for the Saguaros. You can scream “Sample size!” if you want, but the fact remains that he only posted a monthly OPS higher than .916 once this year (.983 in May) and that came against Class A competition. It’ll be interesting to see if he can carry this impressive fall into the spring, when he’ll likely face the advanced arms of Double-A ball.
4. Tommy Collier, Tigers right-handed starter, Mesa: The 24-year-old made three starts at the beginning of the year in Class A Advanced Lakeland and then was forced to the DL for three months due to an undisclosed injury. At year’s end, his numbers weren’t eye-popping — 4.43 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 3.2 BB/9 — in 67 innings, which included a five-frame start at Double-A Erie at the end of the year. Like many once-injured hurlers, he was sent to the AFL to pick up more innings.
The 6-foot-2 right-hander has done more than that. Collier, who is not ranked among the Tigers’ top 20 prospects, allowed just one run on 11 hits and two walks over 14 innings in four AFL appearances. He struck out 10 in the same span. His 0.64 ERA ranks second in the Fall League and his 0.93 WHIP seventh. Those will be the final numbers of his AFL campaign as he was dropped from the Mesa roster this week.
3. Derek Law, Giants right-handed reliever, Scottsdale: If you made a list of pitchers most likely to have a 0.00 ERA at this point in the AFL season, chances are Derek Law wouldn’t have been very high on it. And yet there he is without an earned run allowed though 10 1/3 innings for the Scorpions. Known for a funky delivery that has limited him to a relief role, Law has scattered seven hits, five walks and 13 strikeouts across nine AFL appearances. Not only is he the only qualifying pitcher with a spotless ERA, but his 1.16 WHIP is nothing to be ashamed of either.
Law enjoyed an impressive season with a 2.31 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 13.8 K/9 in 46 appearances across three levels. But the 23-year-old hasn’t sprung up on prospect lists yet because of his role as a reliever and his place in the lower levels. Such a dominant AFL campaign should get him noticed.
2. Travis Shaw, Red Sox first baseman, Surprise: At the top of the list for both homers and OPS is a rather unsurprising name in Cubs first-rounder and Mesa third baseman Kris Bryant (six, 1.286). But just below him in both categories is Shaw (five, 1.194). The 23-year-old left-handed slugger has flashed some numbers in the past, particularly in 2012 when he led the Carolina League in OBP (.411) and slugging (.545), but ever since jumping to Double-A Portland late last season, they haven’t been there. He slashed .221/.342/.394 with 16 homers and 50 RBIs this year in the Eastern League and dropped out of the Red Sox top 20 prospects list as a result.
After his numbers slipped across the board, it must be encouraging for both Shaw and the Red Sox to see them bounce back in the AFL, especially in terms of power. Now, he’ll need to have that carry back to Portland or Triple-A Pawtucket next year.
1. Jared Mitchell, White Sox outfielder, Glendale: If you look just below Shaw in both homers and OPS, you’ll find Mitchell with four and 1.074. But the reason why Mitchell gets this spot and Shaw doesn’t is pretty simple: Mitchell couldn’t hit a lick during the regular season. He batted .132 with a .447 OPS in 14 games with Triple-A Charlotte and didn’t fare much better with a .174 average and .572 OPS in 76 games in Double-A Birmingham. (An oblique injury also caused him to miss much of May.) He walked plenty (14.1 percent rate, .297 OBP) but also struck out way too much (33 percent) in his time in the Southern League. He only collected 15 extra-base hits (five homers, two triples, eight doubles) all year.
Simply put, Mitchell wasn’t much of a candidate to challenge the top of any leaderboard, outside of perhaps strikeouts. And yet as of Friday, he was up there in homers, OPS, OBP (.449, fifth) and slugging (.625, third), not to mention he had lowered his strikeout rate (18.8 percent) while maintaining his walk rate (15.9). Mitchell isn’t just another former injured player making up for lost time in the AFL. He’s making the most of this chance to rebound a career that was going the wrong direction.