KEEPERS: First Pitch Arizona—Prospects, skills and opportunity

Another outstanding First Pitch Arizona (which ran from November 4-6) is in the books, leaving all of us with plenty of food for thought as we look toward the off-season and 2017. Set against the backdrop of Arizona Fall League (AFL) games, many of the First Pitch Arizona (FPAZ) sessions focus on minor league prospects and MLBers with rookie status. Most of these generate plenty of contrasting opinions among FPAZ presenters and attendees alike as to their skills, when they will arrive, and how quickly they might produce.

One of the new sessions wrestled with all of this. Eight industry prospect pickers (including yours truly) participated in a pre-FPAZ 14-round draft in which the only eligible players were major-league rookies: that is, 130 or less MLB AB and 50 or less MLB IP. The eight teams will play out the year as fixed rosters, counting MLB stats only—including total AB and IP. The results that were rolled out on November 6 generated commentary and discussion / disagreement from drafters and audience alike—a perfect storm in advance of the free agent signing and trade flurry that will begin to shed more light on immediate playing time opportunities.

The objective of this piece isn’t to detail this particular exercise, which future BaseballHQ.com pieces will cover in more detail later this winter. But in an effort to give Keeper League (KL) owners in active off-season leagues a jump on adding to and adjust their rosters, here is a sampling of a few of the more interesting names and situations that were discussed.

Everyone loves the upside of Ozzie Albies (SS/2B, ATL), but FPAZ opinions as to when he becomes a productive MLBer were all over the map. Having benefitted from watching his outstanding performance in the Double-A Southern League, BaseballHQ.com's Chris Blessing was high man in on Albies' 2017 upside, drafting him with his third-round pick. Albies posted a fine .321/.391/.467 line with a 21/9 SB/CS in 330 AB, impressing with his ability to barrel up to all fields even without HR power. Despite plate skills that were essentially unchanged, Albies struggled at Triple-A, posting a .248/.307/.351 line in May and June before returning to AA-Mississippi for the remainder of the season.

​Albies' uniform reportedly hangs from his body, and his listed 5'9", 160 lbs have been called into question. His slight build and a 138 game / 552 AB season that was by the far the longest of his short professional career might have had something to do with a .267 BA over his final 131 AB. High-minors experience and an outstanding glove gives Albies a good shot at winning the second base job for rebuilding ATL sometime before the July 31 trade deadline—perhaps as early as Opening Day—and he'll almost certainly be an SB asset when he does. But his Opening Day age (20) and Triple-A struggles also suggest that the Braves may not want to rush Albies. If they do, the immediate risk is a lagging hit tool in the early going.

​Plenty of differing views also surfaced about a Cubs centerfield job that could soon be vacated. Some observers believe that CHC will make a play for free agent Dexter Fowler (OF, CHC), and for good reason. An excellent defender, Fowler was also a fixture at the leadoff spot, where he posted a .276/.393/.447 line that included 13 HR, 13 SB and 79 walks in 456 AB. But despite a reported mutual interest, Fowler turns 31 in March, is coming off a great year, a World Series ring, and is looking for a big pay-day as a relatively big fish in a weak free agent market. No longer facing "win now" urgency, the Cubs could opt to use their significant resources to address the longer term, notably an organization that is relatively week in pitching.

​Rich in corner outfield talent, the Cubs could opt for a CF platoon of disappointing Jason Heyward and rookie Albert Almora (OF, CHC). Obviously neither would likely fill the vacant leadoff spot, where Ben Zobrist's .386 OBP might be an option. But CHC needs to figure out a spot from which Heyward can attempt to jump-start his left-handed bat—and he's capable defensively. It would also mean AB for the right-handed-hitting Almora, an outstanding defender, whose line-drive contact bat has suddenly come back to life after falling from the elite prospect ranks over the past couple seasons. Almora posted a .303 BA (10 SB) over 320 AB in his first Triple-A attempt, followed by .277 in 112 AB off the bench with CHC. The 22-year-old needs to be more selective, but while in CHC Almora began to show some of the moderate pop (3 HR, 13 xBH, .455 SLG) projected by analysts while losing just a smidge off his 86% ct% at Triple-A. 

The retention of Fowler would make Almora a trade chip and immediate candidate for starting work elsewhere—which is why I made him a fourth-round speculation in our FPAZ draft. But even if Fowler departs, not everyone thinks that Almora is the long-term CHC centerfielder. A deep 2017 sleeper may be top offensive prospect and Ian Happ, who split 2016 between A+ and AA playing both second base and the outfield. Happ's .279/.365/.445 line (567 AB) at age 21 suggests he'll spend more time in the high minors; 17 Ks through 52 AFL AB adds credence. But Happ is a fine athlete with good speed, 38 starts in centerfield between 2015 and 2016, and a higher offensive ceiling than Almora. And BaseballHQ.com analyst Brad Kullman believes he'll be the Cubs starting centerfielder at some point next year.

​Injured 2016 prospects didn't fly under the radar, as seen in Eric Karabell's pick of Sam Travis (1B, BOS) in the seventh round. Following a solid spring training performance, Travis was hitting .272 with 6 HR through 173 AB at Pawtucket when his season was ended by a torn ACL. Before this, Travis had posted a career .303 BA with fine plate skills, as shown in a 59/77 BB/K in 489 AB (.307 BA) between A+ and AA a year earlier. He makes impressive hard contact, and has double-digit HR potential though his plate approach produces mostly line drives. The retirement of David Ortiz leaves BOS with an opening at either DH or 1B in a tough year for free agents, and the 23-year-old Travis may have enough athleticism to play left-field in a pinch. He'll be healthy by the beginning of spring training, with a good chance at earning 2017 AB in a fine lineup and home venue.

​Some picks raised eyebrows, as with Lawr Michaels' first round selection of Josh Hader (LHP, MIL), a pitcher taken even before Alex Reyes, Tyler Glasnow and Lucas Giolito, all of whom have MLB experience. Hader will get opportunity with the rebuilding Brewers, and is certainly capable. He induces uncomfortable swings vL  and vR alike with deception and velocity that can touch the high-90s—good for 161 Ks and just six HR allowed in 126 IP. But Hader also posted a 3.9 Ctl that kept him from going deep into games and could be a problem at the MLB level. Hader struggled late at Triple-A (5.22 ERA, 36 BB through 69 IP) in the thin air of Colorado Springs, and he'll eventually encounter a similar challenge in MIL's hitter-friendly Miller Park.

​As it does most years, the current crop of AFLers gave us an eyefull. Carson Kelly (C, STL) was the eighth round pick of Cardinals watcher Brian Walton, who reminded us that 33-year-old Yadier Molina is unlikely to keep averaging 475 AB per season as he has for the past eight years. Kelly's bat has lagged outstanding defense, but it's finally showing signs, as seen in his .289 BA in 329 AB between AA and AAA. Just 22 years old, he could still tap into the raw power that scouts see, and he should get extended backup time in 2017. Kelly has impressed in Arizona with a 17-for-57 (.298 BA) performance that includes a 10/4 BB/K and 3 HR.  

​HOU outfielder Ramon Laureano is another player who opened eyes this season between A+ and AA, batting .319 with 15 HR and 43 SB in 417 AB. Laureano needs to cut down on the strikeouts (119), but his patience also led to an outstanding 70 walks. He's been 13-for-44 with 5 SBs and six xBH in AFL play, where FanGraphs' Eric Longenhagen took notice and drafted him as a final round flyer. The HOU OF has plenty of AB up for grabs, and the 22-year-old Laureano's defense-and-speed combination could win 2017 consideration sooner than some might think.​​


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.