An Inside Look at Three Fall Stars in Arizona

It feels as though the Arizona Fall League just started and yet we’re already halfway through, with the much-anticipated Fall Stars Game coming up this Saturday at 5 p.m. MST. Thus, it feels like a good time to break down three of the brightest stars I’ve seen: Mariners man child Julio Rodriguez, Astros flamethrower Forrest Whitley, and Giants bopper Heliot Ramos.

Julio Rodriguez — RF, Mariners

Of all the players I’ve seen out here, it’s the youngest one who is the most physically imposing. The Dominican Rodriguez doesn’t turn nineteen until December 29, yet he’s already 6’4”, 225 lbs, with tree trunk thighs and bear paws for hands. He signed for $1.75 million two summers ago and has done nothing but rake since. But before I break down his hitting, I have to stress what a kind, hard-working person he is. “J-Rod” is a boon to any clubhouse: he gives his teammates a lift with his positive energy, and he’s put in the time to already speak fluid English. It’s funny seeing how he’s taken Oneil Cruz—who’s actually two years older—under his wing, talking hitting techniques around the cage and joking to me that “I’m teaching Oneil how to use social media too.” Simply watch a minute of our interview and you can’t help but love Rodriguez.

In the batter’s box, what I love is that he’s not looking to be just another big slugger. As mentioned in our interview, he focuses on plate discipline and barreling up the ball; he’ll smoke line drives to all fields, or lift a simple sac fly to get his RBI, or calmly shoot one through the right side to get on base instead of selling out for power. And of course, Rodriguez is so strong and his swing so pure that he ends up hitting bombs anyways—the pride of Loma de Cabrera hit 12 homers, 26 doubles, and 4 triples in just 84 games (367 PAs) between A-Ball and High-A this year, batting .326 with a .929 OPS.

You just don’t expect someone this big and powerful to look so smooth swinging the stick, and it’s that potential to hit 40 homers in the big leagues while also hitting for average that has me valuing him even more highly than fellow Mariners outfielder Jarred Kelenic. I think J-Rod is the next Nelson Cruz, and while he’s not fast, he should be fine in right field, where his arm is above average. He’s the rare prospect I would deem un-tradable were I his GM. With more and more swings like this one, Julio’s future is about as bright as it gets.

Forrest Whitley — RHP, Astros

This is a particularly interesting time to write about the 6’7” phenom with four plus pitches, because he somehow posted a 7.99 ERA in 60 innings this year. While I expected him to get to the majors and excel, Whitley pitched mostly at Double-A and Triple-A, issuing 44 walks (1.72 WHIP) and surrendering 11 bombs. Watch the 22-year-old starter throw a couple fastballs and it’s hard to believe minor leaguers could possibly do that much damage against him:

The nebulous “shoulder fatigue” cost Whitley nearly two months this summer, and he’s since tweaked his mechanics to have better posture and limit strain on that arm. In fact, he’s said that some of his struggles were just growing pains from getting used to the new delivery, which has since become very natural for him. He uses his legs really well to explode towards home, and will whip that right leg around violently when he pumps his fastball up to 98 and 99 mph. Whitley is athletic for being so tall, and I don’t mind the effort in his delivery because of how coordinated he is: this guy’s a starter.

With a sinking changeup around 90 mph, it would be hard enough to face him as just a two-pitch pitcher. Of course, he also features a sharp high-80s slider and knee-buckling mid-80s curve, baffling hitters for flailing K’s and called strike 3’s. Despite his struggles with walks, Whitley has the feel to make sure he gets his breakers below the zone when ahead in the count…but also to spin one into the zone 2-2 or 3-2. He commands his fastball away to righties, and he mixes up his pitch sequences to keep hitters perpetually guessing.

While everyone appreciates that Whitley’s still a premier pitching prospect, I think people have tempered their expectations a bit. But I’m here to tell you not to. In scouting, it can be tempting to hedge your bets and always give a caveat as to why a player might not be as good as they seem. No caveats here: Whitley is a future ace, someone I actually think could help the Astros right now as a wipeout 2-inning reliever, and someone I see competing for Cy Young awards in the future.

Heliot Ramos — RF, Giants

I’ve seen a lot of Heliot Ramos between five June games at High-A and now Fall League, and he’s impressed with ox-like strength, plate discipline, and an all fields approach. The 19th overall pick in the 2017 draft, he stands about 6’1” and is already over 200 pounds, with meat hooks for hands that make the bat look like a broom handle. With a very wide stance and only a small step towards the pitcher, the right-handed batsmen is direct to the ball for lots of contact—he hit .290 in 102 games this year despite being extremely young for the California League and Double-A Eastern League. He also has loft in his swing that leads to power—with 16 homers and 24 doubles, his 2019 OPS was .850. For a live look at how Ramos approaches an At Bat, watch my in-depth video breakdown.

Like Julio Rodriguez, Ramos is a humble, good-natured guy. I enjoyed chatting with him in San Jose in June, so after watching his BP this weekend, I asked him about adjusting to Double-A pitching after his August callup, life off the field in Puerto Rico, and his favorite Latin American dish!

As shown in my video breakdown, Ramos is a situational hitter who only really unloads to left field if you throw him meat. He loves to go with a pitch away and smoke it off the right field wall, or tomahawk an upstairs pitch to center for a clean single. Just a few hours after our interview, he demonstrated how well his strength plays to the opposite field, hammering this decent breaking ball over the fence in right.

As I wrote in my August scouting report:

“Ultimately, I think Ramos will be a good .350 to .375 OBP guy who gives you 25 to 30 homers in his prime (though that will be suppressed by 81 home games at Oracle Park). I also see his BB-K ratio improving as he faces more top pitching and ages out of being the youngest guy at every level he plays. He posted 35 BBs to 136 K’s last year and is at 36-95 this year…I could see him walking at least half as often as he strikes out in the Bigs. Two MLB comps are Nick Castellanos and a mid-20s Justin Upton, both big right-handed batters with power. Ramos might have the least raw power of the three, but he’ll walk more and hold his own defensively, providing a win or two beyond the 3 wins above replacement you expect from Castellanos and Upton.”

So there you have it. These three prospects will be must-watch players in this Saturday’s Fall Stars Game and for years to come.

Follow Jacob on Twitter @TheReelJZ