Scouting the Arizona League: Nine sleeper prospects to know
Eric Longenhagen, ESPN Insider
Houston Chronicle beat writer Evan Drellich wrote an interesting piece earlier this month about how the Houston Astros' pro scouting focus has netted them one of the more notable breakout prospects of 2015 in right-handed pitcher Francis Martes. The Dominican pitcher was acquired from the Marlins as an 18 -year-old in the Jarred Cosart deal, and at the time, he was such an afterthought he wasn't even mentioned in Keith Law's writeup of the trade. But Martes has exploded this season behind a mid-90s fastball and a plus breaking ball.
The Astros were able to identify Martes as a player worth targeting long before most other teams -- even the Marlins didn't fully know what they had -- because they prioritize scouting complex-level rookie ball, the lowest level of domestic affiliated baseball. That's where the Astros found Martes, and they, along with the Rays and Braves, continue to hit the lower levels hard in search of diamonds in the rough.
One of the benefits of my Arizona residency is having one of the two complex leagues, the creatively named Arizona League, in my backyard. It means I can see many of the highly touted prep draftees make their pro debuts and, more importantly, see players such as Martes announce their formerly unbeknownst presence to the scouting world. Below is a list of under-the-radar prospects from the "AZL," as it's called, who have either been forgotten about or never discussed. No 2015 draftees (Phil Bickford, Nick Neidert, Jalen Miller), no international big-bonus babies (Gilbert Lara), just the guys you've probably never heard of but whose names should be on your radar.Miguel Diaz, RHP, Milwaukee Brewers
: For the past two seasons, Milwaukee's AZL affiliate has been loaded with some of the league's most polarizing and explosive talents, but Diaz often stood out among even the likes of Jacob Gatewood and Kodi Medieros. Though a tad undersized for a righty at 6-1, Diaz works anywhere from 91-96, depending on the night, and will flash a little better than that. He already has a solid breaking ball, and while the changeup is behind, he clearly has a feel for how to spin it and simply needs to work on maintaining his fastball arm speed to create deception. It's just 30 command -- and a delivery indicative of that sort of command -- but it's gotten better of late. He's got a #3/4 starter's ceiling, but injuries (Diaz suffered an elbow fracture early this spring) and command have and will continue to be a concern.Dylan Cease, RHP, Chicago Cubs
: The Cubs grabbed Cease in the sixth round of the 2014 draft and signed him to an over-slot deal worth $1.5 million, a value befitting a top-40 pick. It was possible because the Cubs saved almost exactly that much when they "reached" for Kyle Schwarber at No. 4 overall and signed him at a discount. Cease, who was flashing a 70-mph fastball before an arm injury ended his senior season, has seen his velocity come all the way back, and he's now sitting in the mid- to upper 90s with less head violence in his delivery than he had pre-draft.
Everything else is a work in progress. His breaking ball shows promise but is inconsistent, he has had some starts in which he's seemingly allergic to the strike zone and there isn't any modicum of changeup feel. He's an arm-strength lottery ticket, but his ceiling is high, and the progress he has made in cleaning up his delivery is a sign that other things will develop as well.Jose Herrera, C, Arizona Diamondbacks
: The stocky, switch-hitting Herrera has solid, projectable tools across the board with some pop, ability to hit and enough arm strength and mobility to stay behind the plate provided he continues to keep his body in check.
There's more power, bat control and comfort to his swing from the right side, and if any of Herrera's tools are going to become above average, the right-handed hit tool and game power are the most likely to get there. While nothing is dynamic, he has a good chance to be an average everyday MLB catcher, and he has a modest floor for someone who's just 18 because the defense is likely to be up to par.Angel German, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers
: There are nights in the AZL when you don't see a pitcher crack 90 mph. And then there are nights when you stumble upon arms such as German that make all the other fruitless nights worth it. The 6-foot-4 Dominican teenager might be the best pure arm I saw all summer. Sitting 94-97 mph with big-time extension and arm acceleration, German also features a hellacious upper-80s slider that tops out at 90 and moves late. It's a vicious secondary pitch, and in my opinion, it had no AZL peer.
The rest of the package is raw, but there's enough looseness and athleticism to project a usable changeup and starter's command. He has the highest ceiling of any name on this list.Gabriel Mejia, CF, Cleveland Indians
: Mejia is a 70 runner -- he had 34 steals in 43 games, which led the league -- with a plus arm and the chance for plus or better defense in center thanks to his speed and somewhat precocious defensive feel.
The swing is contact-oriented and lacks loft, but Mejia has strong hand-eye coordination and wrists that allow for authoritative line-drive and ground-ball contact. It won't be sexy, but I think he'll justify playing every day by slashing, spoiling pitches and getting on base enough to hit at the bottom of a big league lineup. But the glove is the selling point here and could make him an above-average everyday player.Sam Hentges, LHP, Indians
: Hentges is a long-legged 6-foot-6 drink of water from Minnesota who has a projectable body, clean delivery, advanced-repertoire depth and good command. His fastball comes in at just 86-91 mph but plays up because of the ridiculous extension he gets at release.
The curveball and changeup are only 40/45 on the 20-80 scouting scale right now, but there's clearly some feel there, and the body, delivery and cold-weather pedigree allow us to project a great deal on Hentges. I think he'll have three average or better pitches with above-average command, which is good enough to slot in as a No. 4 starter in a good big league rotation.Jonathan Hernandez, RHP, Texas Rangers
: Hernandez was born in Tennessee but ended up on the international free-agent market and signed for $300,000 in 2013. He arrived stateside this year and impressed, sitting 91-93 mph and showing an average slider and fringe-average changeup in his best starts. What's more, Hernandez has advanced pitch utility for an 18-year old, pitching backward and throwing his slider for strikes in various counts.
His delivery is a bit hip-driven for my liking, and I think there's a chance he ends up being a reliever, but at 6-foot-2 and 150 pounds, he has room to fill out and get stronger while learning to incorporate his lower half into his delivery more efficiently. He's a future No. 4 starter.Gerson Garabito, RHP
, Kansas City Royals
: He's small at 6-0, but Garabito has a low-90s fastball and average overhand curveball that projects to above average. The delivery should allow for strike-throwing and a viable changeup, which gives Garabito a chance to overcome his stature and pitch at the back of a rotation, though there's a good chance he becomes a reliever.