Seven Reasons to Follow Baseball in Arizona

The Arizona Fall League celebrates its 15th anniversary this year. The league has developed into an important place for advanced prospects to refine their skills against top players from around the minor leagues. Although the league has historically featured more great hitting than pitching, many top pitching prospects will be contributing innings this year.

Opening Day is tomorrow. Every major league organization has several participants, and you can check out the league rosters and schedules here. Today, I will focus on several noteworthy prospects who will participate in this year’s 40-day season.

Is Trevor Crowe a Second Baseman?

Crowe is one of the Indian’s most intriguing offensive prospects. He has the skills to be an important contributor at the top of Cleveland’s lineup in a few years, but the organization needs to settle on a role for him. They think he can become a second baseman, but Crowe struggled at the plate and on the field during the transition in August. He looked much more comfortable at the plate and in the field when he returned to center field for the Eastern League playoffs.

He will start at second base exclusively in Arizona, and his progress there could have important consequences for his future role with the organization.

Is Luke Hochevar Ready?>

The first overall pick from the 2006 draft only made a handful of starts for the Royals’ minor league teams. He started off strong but was lit up for six runs over two innings in his final start of the Texas League playoffs. Hochevar needs more time in the upper minor leagues, but he could make an appearance with Kansas City as soon as next year. His Arizona Fall League performance may give us some clue about how close he is to leading the Royals’ rotation.

Can Chin Lung Hu Hit?

Chin Lung Hu, a 22-year-old shortstop prospect in the Dodgers organization, is already one of the flashiest infielders in the minor leagues. Hu has also demonstrated good speed and contact skills at the plate, but he has never been very patient or much of a power threat. His .254/.326/.334 line in the Southern League isn’t very impressive, but Hu demonstrated some important improvements at the plate in 2006. Hu walked 49 times this year, a significant accomplishment after only walking 19 times in nearly as many plate appearances last year. He also started stealing bases less often as the 2006 season progressed and seemed to focus on improved power production:

Isolated Power, 2006
April  .025
May    .058
June   .088
July   .077
August .135

Hu drove in the go-ahead run with a solo homer during Jacksonville’s final regular season game during Labor Day weekend. He will face some good pitching in the coming weeks, but the Arizona Fall League is traditionally a hitter-friendly league. Hu could establish himself as a complete prospect with a strong offensive performance this month.

Is Fernando Martinez the next big thing?

The Mets outfield prospect celebrates his 18th birthday tomorrow, so he deserves some credit for simply holding his own against the more advanced competition of the Arizona Fall League.

Martinez did not put up big numbers after an aggressive promotion to the Florida State League this year, but there is little reason for concern. He demonstrated outstanding power production and suffered from an unusually low batting average of balls in play (BABIP) of .200, so he should improve his batting average and on-base average in the future. Martinez’s performance in Arizona may help the Mets decide where to play him in the field and how quickly to promote him to the upper minor leagues.

Is Mike Pelfrey Ready?

Pelfrey is a potential future ace for the Mets rotation, but he has some things to work on right now. After a rapid ascent through the lower minor leagues, Pelfrey made a handful of starts for the Mets in August. His mid-90′s sinking fastball was effective, but he struggled to locate his secondary pitches. After a loss to the Astros, Pelfrey noted:

”They started sitting on my fastball, because they knew I wanted to throw it for a strike. Then, when I tried to throw my breaking ball for strikes, it was up in the zone and they hit that as well.”

Pelfrey will focus on developing his changeup and breaking ball in Arizona. If all goes well, he could earn a permanent spot in the Mets rotation as soon as next year.

Can Mark Reynolds keep hitting?

Reynolds came out of nowhere to hit 31 home runs in 2006. The Diamondbacks’ 16th round pick in 2004 put up big numbers at hitter-friendly Lancaster of the California League, but he continued to impress when he hit .272/.346/.544 in two months following a promotion to the Southern League.

He swings and misses too often to ever repeat the .337 batting average he produced at Lancaster, but his power alone makes him a noteworthy prospect. Reynolds will probably split time at second base, third base, and left field for the Scottsdale Scorpions.

Is Jarrod Saltalamacchia still a top prospect?

I think I already know the answer to this question, but the Braves prospect’s fall league numbers should speak for themselves. Saltalamacchia entered the 2006 season as one of baseball’s most hyped prospects, but the young catcher prospect was hitting .197 at the All-Star Break.

I think he was mostly unlucky. In July, I looked at the numbers and noted we should ”expect a full recovery” later in the season. Salty didn’t disappoint; he hit five home runs and posted an OBP of .475 in a month before leaving Mississippi to play with Team USA in August. He’s well-rested and ready to put up some big numbers and show off his improved receiving skills this October.

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