The Rays will send their best group of players to the AFL in years, and they're joined by nice talent from other organizations
Next week, the Arizona Fall League will kick off its 20th season. For prospects fans, this is the biggest off-season event to get their fix of new stats and scouting reports. The Rays contingent in previous seasons has generally been unimpressive, but this year's should catch fans' eyes. Rays minor leaguers will be competing alongside players from the Atlanta, Oakland, Miami and Milwaukee organizations for the Phoenix Desert Dogs. Buoyed by an Oakland system that's usually been strong over the years, Phoenix won five straight championships from 2004-2008 but hasn't won since. Could any Rays make the jump from the AFL to Tropicana Field in 2013?
RHP Lenny Linsky: Linsky was one of the multitude of early round picks in the 2011 draft, and he was expected to rise through the system quickly with his college experience. Unfortunately, the year didn't go as expected. After missing the first two and a half months of the season with an elbow injury, he was assigned to Charlotte and determined that throwing strikes was optional. Baseball America says he has closer potential with a mid 90's bowling ball sinker and effective slider, and the Rays hope that as his elbow heals, he'll be able to throw more strikes. He did a good job keeping the ball on the ground with Charlotte, but 12 strikeouts in 29.1 innings won't cut it for a late inning relief prospect.
LHP Chris Rearick: As a 41st rounder in the 2010 draft, Rearick did not garner much attention, but now he'll have a chance to cap off another impressive season out in Arizona. The lefty reliever dominated Charlotte with 59 strikeouts to 15 walks in 45.1 innings before hitting a bit of a speed bump with Montgomery, but his walk and strikeout rates were still very good. Scouting information for Rearick is difficult if not impossible to come by, so getting Pitch FX information will be interesting. This much is known: he has been tough on lefties. At Charlotte, he struck out one out of every three lefties he faced.
LHP C.J. Riefenhauser: Repeating high-A, Riefenhauser got off to a fantastic start with Charlotte as a do-everything reliever coming out of their bullpen, and he excelled in this role. In 27.1 relief innings, he struck out 33 and walked only three before Charlotte needed him to start. He still struck out just over a batter an inning, but he walked 29 in 69 innings and his WHIP jumped up from 0.96 to 1.51. In a much smaller sample of innings with Montgomery, he displayed the same splits. It really seems like a bullpen role suits him best, especially against lefties which he has much more success against. Like Rearick, Pitch FX data will help make scouting reports of Riefenhauser more clear.
RHP Kirby Yates: The undersized righty will be making his second straight appearance in Arizona. Last year, he was hit hard, albeit in 10.1 innings. He allowed eight earned runs on 11 hits and seven walks, but he did strike out 17 batters. He can get his fastball into the mid 90's with a handful of offspeed offerings. He still needs to improve his command with consecutive seasons with a BB/9 over 5.00. After being drafted in 2009 from Yavapai College in Arizona, this will be his first year of Rule 5 Draft eligibility. It seems unlikely that he'll be protected on the 40 man roster.
IF Tim Beckham: Like Yates, this will be Beckham's second straight year in Arizona, and he hits all the checkmarks for why teams send minor leaguers to the AFL. He needs the reps because of his 50 game suspension and a need to face some upper level competition, and he needs to go on the 40 man roster this offseason. With three other players vying for innings at shortstop on Phoenix including Hak-Ju Lee, I would expect Beckham to see a lot of time at second base and maybe even third that could prepare him for a potential utility role in the future. Still, with the dismal play the Rays have gotten from shortstop lately save Ben Zobrist's stint there this year, Beckham will probably go into spring training with an outside shot to win the job for the Rays at some point in 2013.
SS Hak-Ju Lee: It took a few months of work, but Hak-Ju Lee finally adjusted to AA pitching before an oblique injury ended his season in August. His OPS finished at .696 which was just below the league average, but during his 46 game on-base streak in June and July, he posted an on-base percentage over .380. Combined with his above average defense at shortstop and baserunning proficiency (37 for 46), he still has a very bright future. In the AFL, he'll be able to make up some of the plate appearances missed due to the oblique injury, and it'll be interesting to compare his progress to Beckham's facing the same competition.
3B Richie Shaffer: Like Mikie Mahtook last year, Shaffer will head to Arizona just four months after being drafted in the 1st round by the Rays. After waiting until deadline day to sign an under-slot deal, Shaffer reported to Hudson Valley where he had a very good pro debut. With a .893 OPS and a solid plate approach (22.6 K%, 10.5 BB%), he handled the New York Penn League the way an ACC bat should, and Baseball America named him the 4th best prospect in the short-season league. He's a very capable defender at third base, and while he doesn't have star upside, he's probably a safe bet as far as prospects go to reach the big leagues. As a member of the taxi squad, he'll only get to play two games a week, but the experience should allow him to start 2013 in high-A.
CF Kevin Kiermaier: After being ranked in the organization's top 30 by Baseball America two offseasons ago, Kiermaier has not developed playing full-season ball. Once he returned from injury this year, he did okay and improved his stock a little. He has a difficult profile to figure out. He batted just .260 with Charlotte with a .367 SLG, but a nice plate approach allowed him to post a .361 OBP. He's a good athlete with basestealing potential, but as a player that will have to play a corner outfield position, he's going to have to hit much better. With only 230 plate appearances on the year, the extra time in Arizona will be good for Kiermaier.
Around the Phoenix roster...
The pitching staff is highlighted by Milwaukee's Johnny Hellweg, acquired in the Zack Greinke trade. The organization worked to limit his workload at the end of the season, so it's not clear if he'll start or pitch out of the bullpen for Phoenix. Milwaukee also sends starter Jimmy Nelson to Phoenix. The former second round pick struck out 119 batters in 127.1 innings across high-A and AA and finished with a 2.83 ERA. Three catchers will share time behind the plate, Matt Kennelly of Atlanta, J.T. Realmuto and Max Stassi. Kennelly has the most experience of the trio, but Realmuto and Stassi have more upside. Atlanta's Nick Ahmed and Oakland's Grant Green will probably get some time at shortstop along with Beckham and Lee, but Green should move all around the diamond. While Kiermaier doesn't have much of a bat, Miami sends two outfielders, Christian Yelich and Kyle Jensen, that will make up for it.