A saguaro is a tree-like cactus native to Southwestern Arizona and Northwestern Mexico. When you think of what a cactus looks like, there’s a good chance you’re thinking of a saguaro. Surprise’s surname makes for one of the better hats in the AFL, although I’m partial to Mesa’s half-sun. If I had to rank all of the hats, I would proceed as follows:
1 - Mesa Solar Sox - sleek, classic black-and-yellow contrast with a touch of burnt orange.
2 - Surprise Saguaros - 60-grade color scheme, the 3-WAR player who you didn’t realize was a 3-WAR player of the AFL hats.
3 - Salt River Rafters - The blue is what gets me here, but the logo is too simple for it to be in the top two.
4 - Glendale Desert Dogs - I think they could do better on this one, 40-grade effort, Glendale.
5 - Scottsdale Scorpions - Missed the mark again on design. An all-black scorpion that isn’t outlined on a red hat? Come on.
6 - Peoria Javelinas - Why is there a grey pig-like creature on a grey hat?
Hat critique is not what you’re here for. This is not “Uni-watch.com.” You’re here so I can reminisce about the last time I saw Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in person and figure out what the odds would be for Vlady Jr.’s AFL MVP case if bookies finally man up and give us odds on the things we really care about. (For what it’s worth, I would set his AFL MVP odds at -200.)
Let’s dig into the squad (full roster can be found here).
There are very strict qualifications that must be met in order for a notable starting pitcher to be named to an AFL team. Said player must either be 1) a middling arm (sarcasm font) that an organization wants to see against different/better competition or 2) injured at some point during the year with reason to be used in a rehab-like sense against good competition. Of course there are exceptions to the rules above, but more often than not I find myself falling into one of those two buckets looking through each team’s staff. The Saguaros are no different, save a few arms.
The lone starting pitcher on the Saguaros with a substantial amount of intrigue is Nate Pearson. Apart from Big Nate is Conner Greene. The 6-foot-3 righty was a starter for the majority of his career until joining Memphis this season where all 29 of his appearances were in relief. His fastball is his best pitch, with loose arm action that allows for beautiful tunneling and action of his changeup to left-handed hitters. If minor league pitch mix splits existed publicly, I would run to see how much he uses his best offspeed to right-handed hitters. He’s a righty who has a huge edge versus lefty bats—left-handed hitters held a sub-.500 OPS versus Greene in 2018—which begs some confusion for his future role as a right-handed LOOGY-esque arm. If he ever develops breaking ball feel or control, the Cardinals could have a stud reliever on their hands. Until then, there is hope.
Lastly on the pitching side before I bore you to death is a Royals reliever with a pun-worthy name: Scott Blewett. Blewett threw 148 1/3 innings in Double-A this season and seems to be sticking as a starter so far despite the lack of a true third pitch. Unlike Greene, however, Blewett has some breaking-ball projection. His sharp overhand curveball holds a 12-6 shape out of his higher three-quarters arm slot and is his most effective weapon.
With how much college pitching the Royals drafted in 2018, I would be surprised if they tolerate players like Blewett as starters for extended periods of time if the end game isn’t on that path. Maybe developmentally the Royals prefer to extend starters to their wit’s end? Maybe they have ideas of bull-penning in the future around a stud starter or two? I could see Blewett as an opener against a right-handed, top-heavy lineup, but his projection as a true starter requires some squinting even with good command.
Pitcher to watch: Nate Pearson, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays
Pearson fractured a bone in his forearm after being struck by a line drive and lost a year of development. Pearson is a big kid—listed at 6-foot-6, 245 pounds—with bigger stuff. His amateur career consisted of JUCO dominance, which made his draft stock a little bit perplexing as other players with lower levels of upside went off the board before him. I spoke with his pitching coach from the Vancouver Canadians during last offseason about Pearson’s body of work and was met with praise. Comparisons abounded to other arms from the Toronto system (Aaron Sanchez, Noah Syndergaard and Marcus Stroman).
But Pearson is a different breed of pitcher than Sanchez and Stroman. He aligns himself more with Syndergaard based on velocity and pitch mix. Pearson’s changeup is already listed as major league average by Fangraphs, but from what I understand it’s not a pitch he has needed much in the lower levels of the minor leagues. His delivery is surprisingly athletic for his size, with great arm speed and fluidity despite some aggression when he rears back for 99-plus. This will be one of the first extended looks the public gets at Pearson. I expect him to shine and his stock to subsequently increase.
Infield and Catchers
I’m going to try my best not to make this all about Vladimir Guerrero Jr., which I thought would be extremely difficult to do until I saw what a potential infield can be for the Saguaros with their A-squad active.
3B - Guerrero Jr
SS - Bo Bichette / Cole Tucker
2B - Bo Bichette / Cole Tucker
1B - Will Craig
The structure of this infield is built to win offensively and that makes for entertaining baseball. I’m happy to dream on Bichette’s power for as long as possible. I don’t think the Blue Jays have reason to rush Bichette and if the power I expect develops, he’ll make a genius out of those willing to put him inside their top 8-10 prospects in all of baseball and have patience. Bichette’s play at shortstop was better than other Eastern League middle infielders like Brendan Rodgers, but I can’t say I have a read on how often either would play second base. Maybe Stubby Clapp (the Saguaros Manager) rotates Bichette and Pirates middle infielder Cole Tucker? Maybe they’re both exclusively shortstops?
Cole Tucker’s defense is on par with Bichette’s from the look I got earlier this season. He’s a big 22-year-old at 6-foot-3, but his athleticism trumps all. I would put Tucker’s future fielding grade at average with and above-average arm and plus wheels. The worry is whether Tucker never hits enough to be considered an everyday shortstop. His slash lines in the minors haven’t been great, but the saving grace is his pitch recognition and ability to consistently make contact.
The only thing that would make this team better is if Ke’Bryan Hayes was playing third and Vlad Guerrero Jr. went to designated hitter. I bet you didn’t expect a knock on Vlady Jr.’s defense before I praised him! Blasphemy!
Player To Watch: Will Craig, 1B, Pittsburgh Pirates
Simply amazing. On a team with two unbelievable infield talents from the Blue Jays I am asking you to move your gaze to a player nobody ever thought could hit with wood bats. Craig’s jump from six to 20 home runs in a similar amount of games at a higher level means something clicked. He’s 23, remains a poor defender, and can’t run, but should provide enough pop to be at least a platoon-worthy major league first baseman. The reason I want to watch him on this elevated stage is to confirm whether that projection of his skillset is viable or if I’m being too aggressive. It’s selfish, I’ll admit that, but hopefully it allows you to see a few majestic home runs hit by a player that isn’t Guerrero Jr.
I started writing up a blurb on Cavan Biggio in the “infielders” section and realized he is listed as an outfielder. Given the Saguaros depth of infield talent, this makes a lot of sense. It also makes a lot of sense for the Blue Jays to experiment with Biggio in right field, a position where he only started two games with New Hampshire in 2018. He isn’t your prototypical first baseman. He profiles as a second baseman with pop and poor defense (which seems to be standard in the new breed of second baseman). Versatility in today’s game is vital and the outfield is a good spot to hide his power if his defense isn’t good anywhere.
I think Biggio will be able to produce above-average power regardless of where he ends up in the field, but if the Blue Jays care about the long-term picture, then they have to find a spot for him where he won’t be as much of a liability defensively.
Biggio’s swing is compact with a little bit of character. Lowering his hands created a legitimate power jump that will stick at higher levels. I’d put the odds at 15/1 he leads the AFL in dingers and gladly throw a few George Washington’s on it.
Julio Pablo Martinez continues to provide the Saguaros with offensive firepower. He rode a .252 average with a .323 BABIP in the Northwest League. This is a little bit concerning for me, but even early in his career it seems like all of his outcomes possess some swing and miss. His ability to take a walk helps projection a ton. The AFL will be a substantial step forward in competition for Martinez as well. I think he’ll post a strikeout rate north of 30 percent, but have enough discipline to squeeze out walks and remain a peripheral top-100 prospect heading into 2019.
Player To Watch: Khalil Lee, OF, Royals
Martinez could easily be in this slot, but I’ll go with the lone, upside-laden Royals prospects that didn’t finish the season on the Lexington Legends. Lee is another toolsy player for the Saguaros. He possesses a bunch of above-average tools and one true plus tool (his arm). He played 29 games in Double-A this season, with results that won’t blow you away, but at 20 years old, the promotion was probably all the confirmation needed to show the Royals are high on the third-round pick.
His splits versus left-handed pitching aren’t great, especially on the strikeout to walk side of things. This may suggest he still has some issues picking up spin off left-handed pitching, but the knock is fixable with reps and time given his overall ability to make contact.
While his hands are quick and his body is relatively compact, there is some noise in his swing that is likely a contributing to a strikeout rate I want to see lower than 24 percent for the kind of hitter most project him to become. Is there more power to tap into? Absolutely. The aggression by Royals player development is an endorsement, especially given their tendency to hold Nick Pratto, Seuly Matias and MJ Melendez in Lexington for a full season while Lee skipped from Wilmington to Northwest Arkansas.
The Saguaros are loaded with offensive talent and one ace in Nate Pearson. They aren’t too balanced, but I would consider Clapp’s squad the favorite to score the most runs of the six total teams. That means entertaining baseball if nothing else.