If you’re headed to Arizona for the AFL and can somehow catch only one team, it should be the Javelinas. They have a potential ace in their pitching ranks (just don’t look for more pitching beyond him) and a stud lineup. Let’s take you through who’s sticking out in this roster.
Since this is the first AFL team preview, I’m going to give you a heartbreaking spoiler: you go to the AFL to watch the hitting, not the pitching. There are certainly a few starters who are worth eyeballing, but more often than not it’s a glob of middling arms who need some extra work developmentally, whether for mechanical reasons or because they missed time with injuries.
The Javelinas have one name that’ll catch your attention on the mound and that’s easily Forrest Whitley of the Astros. I’d have bet large sums of money in February that Whitley would be in Houston right now rather than heading to Arizona in a few weeks, but injuries and ineffectiveness took their toll on the big righty. Whitley is returning to the fall league for a second consecutive year. Here’s Jason Pennini’s scouting report if you’re curious from last October. Limited to 57.2 innings, the 21-year-old posted a 7.80 ERA, 1.68 WHIP and gave up 11 HR, or four more than he had given up in his career entering 2019. No one is budging from their overall sentiments regarding Whitley at Prospects Live. We still believe he has top of the rotation upside thanks to his plus mix of a FB/SL/CU/CH. Command is the one area that dogged him this year and that’s where you’ll want to hone in on for his performances.
Under the radar names to watch: The dropoff from Whitley to Peoria’s 19 other pitchers is great but there are still some intriguing names waiting to introduce themselves. Astros righty Jojanse Torres is a 24-year-old who signed a minor league deal in April 2018 and has just 135.2 professional innings under his belt. He can reportedly touch 100 mph and has a 27 K% on the year but needs work on his command. Tanner Houck is a starter-turned-opener/reliever for the Red Sox who sits 92-93 with a two-seam with late run and a sweepy 84-86 slider. Bryan Mata is another Red Sox righty, this one a starter, who popped up this year after posting a 1.75 ERA in High-A and then getting the bump to Double-A as a 20-year-old. He missed a month with a shoulder strain and has struggled in Double-A but his mid-90s 2SM and 4SM should play well here.
Here’s what the infield should look like.
C-Luis Campusano (SD)
1B- J.J. Matijevic (HOU)
2B- CJ Chatham (BOS)
SS- Oneil Cruz (PIT)
3B- Hudson Potts (SD)
The star of the infield is Oneil Cruz, who bumps Chatham off his natural position even though many think Cruz settles into a corner outfield spot. Cruz stands out for his size and his exit velocity. At 6-foot-6 he’d be two inches taller than Carlos Correa who is the tallest shortstop in baseball right now. Defensive home questions aside, Cruz is tantalizing because of how he leverages his height at the plate to extend and put the barrel on the ball. He has a good weight transfer and strong wrists to power up his at bats. With exit velocity data readily available in the AFL, my money is on 20-year-old who missed time with a foot injury for the hardest hit ball of the league. Campusano was easily the Cal League’s best catcher as the 20-year-old propped up his value with a breakout year at the plate (.906 OPS) to go with a plus arm. Potts’ star has faded a bit as he’s struggled to break out of his extreme pull tendencies that Double-A hitters have exposed.
Under the radar names to watch: Owen Miller is a 22-year-old middle infielder who’s had a great year for San Diego who was aggressive with him, slashing .288/.354/.429, all in Double-A. He’s a sum of all his parts type player who’ll settle as a utility type.
Julio Rodriguez. Jarred Kelenic. Jarren Duran. Now that’s a pretty sweet outfield, maybe the best in the AFL. The big name here — and for my money the most exciting in the league — is Rodriguez. He doesn’t turn 19 until late December and thanks to an early season HBP injury, we get a chance to see him here. The future middle-of-the-order bat has been unconscious since a promotion to High-A, with an OPS of 1.249(!) in 16 games. He’s got a chance to become a household name this fall. Kelenic, a newly turned 20-year-old wunderkind himself, finds himself here after two separate IL stints that cost him six weeks. He’s put up a 22 HR/20 SB season with a .292/.366/.537 line and has performed as if he were a seasoned college bat rather than a prep one. Duran’s second half tells a different story than his first and it coincides with a promotion to Double-A and a drastic BABIP reduction. But credit given where it’s due: Duran was on no one’s radar this year and he’s swiped 46 bags and elevated his chances to be a second-division starter.
Under the radar names to watch: Marcus Wilson has always had a good eye at the plate but has struggled with a promotion to Double-A this year. But given his fly ball tendencies and his ability to spray the ball, I like his chances of righting the ship in this new era of baseball.