2019 Arizona Fall League Preview: Salt River Rafters

The position players on this roster might be the best group of talent, top to bottom, in the entire AFL. The main attractions are consensus top twenty prospect Royce Lewis, first rounder Seth Beer and big money Cuban import Victor Victor Mesa. The pitching staff is similar to most other teams here, but it does have one star. But don’t confuse lacking star power for uninteresting though, as there are several arms that I’ve put on my list to see when I’m down in Arizona in less than a month.

Team Affiliations: Arizona Diamondbacks, Miami Marlins, Tampa Bay Rays, Colorado Rockies, Minnesota Twins

Pitching Staff Summary: One name immediately jumps out at you when looking at the pitching staff, and that’s former Pirates first rounder and now Tampa Bay Rays arm Shane Baz. I had the pleasure of watching Baz this summer in Low-A, and he’s a high impact arm. His fastball bumps upper 90s with a sharp late-breaking slider and a changeup with depth. The fastball is a swing-and-miss pitch, and the slider can miss bats as well, but its best characteristic is the weak contact he can generate from the pitch. He relies on that weak contact because the downside of having swing and miss stuff with shaky overall command is it typically creates high pitch counts, and Baz will have difficulty going deep into games at times. He’s a future number two, or a closer for me. Other notable names that you know are Marlins prospect Nick Neidert, Rockies Ryan Castellani and Rays arm Drew Strotman.

Big Name: Shane Baz, RHP Tampa Bay Rays - I touched on Baz’s arsenal above, and the big key with him is establishing that third pitch. His changeup lacked consistency when I had a chance to get eyes on him, but it was a 70-pitch when it was on. How that pitch develops will play a large part in deciding if his future is near the top of a rotation or closing out games. Either way, this is a fun arm to watch.

One To Watch: Dakota Chalmers, RHP Minnesota Twins - Chalmers has a big fastball that sits 93-96 with an above-average curveball and plus changeup, but struggles to throw strikes. The 6’3” string bean had a 35% and 33% strikeout rate during his two minor league stops in 2019, but that came with walk rates of 14.8% and 17%. Chalmers was the A’s third round pick in 2015 before being swapped straight up for Fernando Rodney. He’s dealt with some adversity to begin his pro career after stepping away from baseball to deal with some personal matters in 2017. There’s immense strikeout potential here, but also a huge blow up risk as well.

Infield and Catchers Summary: This group has star power at the top, but every infielder on the roster has a strong chance at a productive big league career. Royce Lewis and Seth Beer are former first-round picks, Geraldo Perdomo and Colton Welker are top 200 prospects, Roberto Ramos is one of the better offensive first baseman in the minors and Taylor Walls, Jose Devers and Bret Boswell have utility or second-division regular projection.

Behind the plate, Rays prospect Ronaldo Hernandez is a just over a year removed from popping 21 homers in the Midwest League. He had his struggles in the Florida State League in 2019, but he was young for the level and is also a catcher so I’m cutting him some slack. I think the power is real, and could very well sneak back on to top 100 lists with a strong 2020. He will be backed up by Rockies Brian Serven and former Twins second-rounder Ben Rortvedt.

Big Name: Royce Lewis, SS Minnesota Twins - Lewis didn’t have the season we hoped for as he hit a combined .236/.290/.371 in 127 games between High-A and Double-A in 2019. That’s not the type of production you hope to get from a former number one overall pick, but the oblique injury he suffered during the spring might be part of the reason. I’m looking forward to seeing Lewis out in Arizona, as he’s one of the guys on this roster I’ve actually seen before. I saw him in Low-A in 2018, and the skills wow you. The bat speed is elite, it’s comparable to Bo Bichette, who I also saw that year. He’s also an easy plus runner. In my three-game sample I think there is enough to be an average big league shortstop here, but the Twins did start moving him around the diamond as 2019 came to a close, and I expect to see him playing some 2B, 3B and even CF as well as SS out here. I’m interested to see if the 20-year-old can rebound a bit and build on that for a strong 2020.

One To Watch: Seth Beer, 1B Arizona Diamondbacks - I almost said Geraldo Perdomo here, but I’ve seen him so much in person that I went with Seth Beer instead. People are sleeping on Beer. The bat is that good. The trade out of the crowded Astros organization to Arizona paves the way for Beer to be the organization’s long-term replacement for Paul Goldschmidt. All the king of Beers did was hit .289/.388/.516 between High-A and Double-A with 26 homers and a cumulative wRC+ of 155. He only struck out at a 21% clip. Defensive concerns be damned, I’ll take that from my first baseman.

Outfield Summary: Unfortunately Alex Kirilloff was removed from the roster, but even without him the Rafters have one of the more interesting outfields in the league. Victor Victor Mesa carries the most name value, and even after a miserable 2019 in which he only had 10 extra base hits, I’m still very interested in getting a look at him. He is joined by organization mate Jerar Encarnacion who had a power breakout and has hit enough in two pitching heavy leagues (Midwest League and Florida State League) to get people to look past the skillet that he wears instead of a glove in the outfield. Tooled up former first-rounder Josh Lowe put together a strong season with the bat and the glove, as he gets more comfortable with his re-worked swing. Jake McCarthy is here to make up for lost time after injuries limited him to just 214 PA in 2019. Luke Raley has the difficult task of replacing teammate Alex Kirilloff on the squad. The former Dodger that came to Minnesota in the Brian Dozier deal, Raley has plus raw power and a bit more athleticism than you may think.

Big Name: Victor Victor Mesa, OF Miami Marlins - Yeah, there’s no sugarcoating that .235/.274/.263 batting line. A 59 wRC+ is ugggglllyy. There are likely many reasons that the $5.25 million dollar man struggled during his pro debut, but I’m willing to throw the season out, and let him start fresh in the AFL. It was his first season in the states after what traditionally is a rough defection process, and he hasn’t played organized pro ball in over a year. He also comes over here with high expectations, with the strong Cuban bloodlines in a city like Miami and as a young man who was just handed several millions to just play baseball. All that being said, I think he’s a much better hitter than he showed thus far. That high contact rate and bat-to-ball skills with his plus speed point to positive batting average regression going forward. I am skeptical of the power, but there is still more in there than he’s shown thus far. His defense is still Gold Glove caliber though, and he is a threat for a highlight any given night.

One To Watch: Josh Lowe, OF Tampa Bay Rays - Lowe finally broke out and tapped into that plus power and plus speed by hitting 18 bombs and stealing 30 bags with a .341 OBP for Montgomery in Double-A. Lowe has re-worked his swing and now hits the ball in the air more, without adding to his strikeout totals. His previous career high in homers was eight, and in 2018 he only hit six, so him hitting 18 in 2019 could be a sign of more things to come for the former first-round pick. He projects as an average centerfielder, and that plus his growing offensive skills set is a first division regular profile despite the contact issues.