Arizona Fall League 2021 – Thoughts from the Stands

Nelson Velazquez, Arizona Fall League 2021. Photo credit Benjamin Rush, forloveofbaseball on Flickr and on Instagram

For the third straight AFL season I was able to come out to Arizona and spend weeks going to baseball games. I’m a huge fan of minor league baseball, worked in it once upon a time, and follow many of the players from draft day to hopefully making the big leagues. Things on this trip couldn’t have been much better than planning each day around catching a game, or two! I arrived at the games early, checked out the lineups, watched the kids chase foul balls, shot some video, tweeted a bit, and in general just soaked up being at the ballpark – one of my absolute favorite places to be.

A friend in one of my too many fantasy baseball leagues asked me why I wasn’t writing about my experiences out here. Without a good answer, particularly given a primary career in media, I went ahead and put some words together. In general, offering observations (below) about some of the players that made an impression on me.

Here we go. This list is more or less alphabetical and the AFL stats referenced are for games through November 15th when I wrote this column. Congratulations to the Mesa Solar Sox for taking the 2021 AFL Championship, anchored by Cubs prospect Caleb Kilian‘s 6 perfect innings which took place on November 20th.

Ji-hwan Bae – Starting off on a bit of a downer I guess. I am just not on this bandwagon. Bae has a lot of supporters though. He’s a slasher type at the plate and does run exceptionally well, out of the box and on the bases. I saw a good deal of him and the results included a lot of infield ground balls. These did become hits at times – because he’s like the Flash going down the line.

Brett Baty – More athletic than I expected, Baty can handle third. Looks to LF/LC for hits, I would like to see a more aggressive approach on the inside pitches though. Wondering if he is a bit vulnerable to hard stuff there. 29 K’s in 79 AB’s against AFL pitching suggests we may not see him in NY until late 2022 at the earliest. Long term I do like the overall skill set.

Brett Baty and JJ Bleday. Photo credit Benjamin Rush, forloveofbaseball on Flickr and on Instagram

JJ Bleday / Kameron Misner – early in the fall league I began to think Misner might have passed Bleday, then JJ caught fire. Both impressed, but Bleday clearly made the bigger impact with an exclamation mark as the Fall Stars MVP!

Triston Casas – Casas didn’t show much emotion on the field. Maybe just a reflection out here but it was noticed by others as well. Casas can hit, just did not impress quite as much as I expected. His two-strike approach is interesting, chokes up and gets into a deeper crouch looking for contact. Made some nice plays at 1st, so no issues there. Curious to see how Boston handles J.D., Dalbec, and Casas.

Triston Casas. Photo credit Benjamin Rush, forloveofbaseball on Flickr and on Instagram

The catchers not named Gabriel Moreno – Patrick Bailey, Logan O’Hoppe, Korey Lee, Austin Wells. I thought the catching class at this year’s AFL was a really strong group. O’Hoppe showcased an all-around game, Lee has an absolute cannon, Wells showed that he is a developing hitter and I think Bailey is likely to be the primary catcher in SF by late ’23.

Brendan Donovan – A less-heralded player that really impressed me during my looks at him in AA. Was really happy to see Donovan in the AFL and not at all surprised that he performed. With less playing time in Arizona than many, he has delivered a .364 BA, .473 OBP, 1.086 OPS while striking out only 4 times in 44 ABs. I believe he is big league ready now, but with so much depth how would the Cardinals use him? He logged games at 1B, 2B, 3B, SS, and the OF this year – so super-utility may be his ticket.

Elijah Dunham – A 40th rd pick in 2019 (#1204 overall) and here he is in the AFL 2 years later…not just on the roster, but standing out against a lot of very good players. Dunham looked good on both sides of the ball, making plays in the OF while hitting .356 with some pop and stealing 10 bases without being caught. Depending on how deep your league is, get Dunham on your radar.

Nathan Eaton – Don’t throw anything at me here, but I really felt Eaton and Curtis Mead had a similar look. Mead is the stronger prospect, clearly. But Eaton can play. He’ll be 25 next year (632 overall pick in 2018) and just reaching AA. He’s also Rule 5 eligible and could be drafted if left unprotected. (Editor note: Kansas City did not add Eaton to the 40-man roster)

Nick Gonzales – Leads the league in BA and OBP with 13 BBs to 14 Ks. Nick just gets hits, an all-around solid player on his way to the Bucs lineup in ’23.

Nick Gonzales. Photo credit Benjamin Rush, forloveofbaseball on Flickr and on Instagram

Pedro Leon – I just didn’t see a guy who impacts the ball. Assuming he was healthy, it’s currently hard for me to envision him as a regular on a playoff-caliber team. That’s a contrary take for some, I know.

Seuly Matias – The power and athleticism are tantalizing, the swing and miss are frightening. Matias hit some balls very hard, he made really impressive throws from RF, he ran well. And he struck out a lot (28 times in 73 ABs). Matias had a similar 37% K rate this year at A+ and AA.

Curtis Mead – I have to admit, I knew Mead was a fast riser this year but he wasn’t really on my radar. Now that I have seen him play, he absolutely is. Total gamer, battles every AB, makes good contact as well. The Rays clearly have a factory just pumping out players like this.

Gabriel Moreno – I became a total fan while watching Moreno play. His ability to put bat to ball is exceptional and he is quite comfortable driving it to the opposite field. Plays with obvious passion, can handle catcher, and from the one game I saw him at 3B – he likely could play some 2B or 3B to get his bat in the lineup more often. I will be very surprised if Moreno isn’t called up to Toronto in ’22.

Lars Nootbaar – He sure seems ready to play for the Cardinals now, but what role? Fun player, big fan support, makes consistent hard contact.

Richie Palacios / Jose Tena – I have no idea what Cleveland plans to do with their plethora of guys like Palacios and Tena (both Rule 5 eligible). Palacios made a stronger impression on me despite Tena’s high BA. Both are athletic and versatile. Tena played 2B, SS, 3B this year while Palacios played 2B and OF. Palacios is closer to Cleveland having ended the year strong at AAA. He’s also 24 to Tena’s 20.

Bryson Stott – Got my attention right away. He owns the box, works the count for his pitch, and consistently made quality contact, often driving the ball to left or left center. 21 walks to 12 K’s while hitting .325 and delivering a .456 OBP – good for 5th in the league. Also clutch, driving in 24 (tied for 2nd) despite only 2 HRs. Phillies may sign a SS, could move Bohm to 1B (if he hits), then Hoskins to DH (it’s happening, right?), and Stott to 3B by June?

Nelson Velazquez – Has anyone raised their stock more during the AFL? Leads the league in HR, SLG, OPS and K’s… the power is legit, so are the strikeouts. Quick hands, can punish mistakes – particularly inside. Can also be pitched to. Velazquez was named the 2021 Arizona Fall League MVP.

Juan Yepez – Sure to be a fan favorite when he hits St. Louis. Crowds in Arizona loved him, Yepez exudes personality, including in-game fist bumps with kids during the Fall Stars – which is so great to see! On the field, he handles first better than you might think and can hit, with the Fall Stars Game being a prime example where he doubled down both lines.

MacKenzie Gore – I only saw Gore once, and it was early in the AFL. Not sure what I was expecting, given all the reports on his development path this year, but he looked ok. Velocity was 94-95 range and he was reasonably effective in that outing. What he will become is a big question for the Padres.

Cole Henry – The 2020 2nd round pick performed very well over limited innings at A+ this year. Henry carried that over to the AFL striking out a league-leading 30 batters in just 19 innings. He also managed to walk 9 while drilling 6 batters in those 19 innings. So, maybe Henry is working on something to elevate his game further?

Bobby Miller – I only had two looks at Miller, one being at the Fall Stars Game. He sat 97-98 in both, touching 99. These were short outings so velo may have been up a bit as a result. Imposing on the mound and probably the best arm I saw in Arizona this year.

That’s it for this rundown. It’s not meant to be all-inclusive, rather just some standout impressions. Speaking of, a common sentiment from people attending the AFL is, what a great experience it is, and they wonder why more fans haven’t caught on to it. It truly is an absolute treat and really a hidden gem. Arizona in the fall has great temperatures and there is so much to do. Personally, I enjoy the AFL even more than Spring Training. I encourage you to put it on your calendar!

Follow Michael on Twitter at @M_Caplan.

Traveling the country watching baseball - sharing thoughts and videos along the way.

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