The Arizona Fall League is a great opportunity for prospects to keep playing into the fall and go up against high-level competition including some of the best prospects in the game. The AFL features players usually at the Double-A and Triple-A levels to go along with talented players from lower down in the minor leagues. As the eligibility rules state, players with over a year of big league service time are ineligible, but the quality of competition is very high it’s always exciting to see so many top prospects in one place. Some of those prospects will make an impact in the big leagues sooner rather than later.
Let’s break down the players that the Reds will send to the Arizona Fall League, all of whom will play for the Peoria Javelinas, starting with the minors’ stolen base king.
Up until now, Billy Hamilton has been a shortstop. That is about to change. Hamilton has always shown plenty of range defensively at short thanks to his blazing speed, but his actions aren’t fluid and his arm strength is below-average. Rather than spend a while trying to piece Hamilton’s defense together, the Reds decided instead to send him out to center field, where his speed will make him a natural fit and his poor arm strength will not be as much of a problem. Converting Hamilton to the outfield will be a project as Hamilton has never played the outfield as a pro, but with time he has the chance to be a plus defender. Considering the way that Hamilton’s offense is developing, the Reds want to expedite the process of getting his defense to be big league ready, and they’re starting that process in the Arizona Fall League.
This season, Hamilton, 21, has put at staggering numbers between the High-A Bakersfield Blaze and the Double-A Pensacola Blue Wahoos, posting a 0.316/.414/.427 line with 21 doubles, 14 triples, 2 homers, 45 RBI, a minor league single-season record 154 stolen bases (while being caught 39 times) and 109 strikeouts versus 83 walks in 128 games and 586 plate appearances. As I discussed just over a week ago, Hamilton has made big strides offensively, specifically with his patience, but he’s still a ways away from being able to handle big league pitchers who will constantly attack him in the zone because of the little power he possesses. The Reds hope that Hamilton will be able to continue getting on base at a good clip moving forward, and if he does, he’ll be off to the races on the basepaths. In addition to his work on converting to center, Hamilton will look to continue improving his offense as he digs in against the pitching of the AFL. He’s the odds-on favorite to win the league’s stolen base crown and by a wide margin.
The Reds will be sending a well-regarded shortstop prospect to the AFL even if Hamilton is moving to the outfield. Gregorius, 22, is in an opposite situation to Hamilton as the best part of his game is probably his shortstop defense. Gregorius features nice range, great reflexes, and an excellent arm leading scouts to project him as a plus defender. The rest of his game still needs a ton of work. In 129 games and 561 plate appearances between Pensacola and the Triple-A Louisville Bats, Gregorius posted a .265/.324/.393 line with 21 doubles, 11 triples, 7 homers, 54 RBI, just 3 of 9 stolen bases, and 80 strikeouts versus 41 walks. The root of Gregorius’ problems is that he has great if not Hamilton-esque speed but no idea how to use it. Gregorius has never taken to reading pitchers, leading to embarrassingly low stolen base totals and success rates. He is a pretty good bunter, but he fails to make use of his speed most of the time as he hits too many balls in the air. Gregorius makes a lot of contact, but too much of it comes in the air, preventing him from utilizing his speed except for when he hits balls into the gaps. That especially isn’t a good strategy because Gregorius has below-average power. His plate discipline is also sub-par, not helping matters at all. Gregorius has to be more patient at the plate and hit the ball on the ground more often so he can beat out plays. Being more patient will also allow him to utilize whatever power he does have when he sees mistakes. Gregorius will look to improve his plate discipline and his basestealing instincts in the AFL as he looks to tie his game together. With significant improvement this fall, Didi could challenge for a spot in Cincinnati as soon as the second half of next season.
1B Donald Lutz
The Arizona Fall League will be a very interesting test for Donald Lutz, 23, who was signed by the Reds out of Germany in 2007 and spent three seasons at Rookie ball before finally finding himself at Low-A in 2011. In 2012, Lutz worked his way up from Bakersfield to Pensacola, posting a .269/.333/.526 line with 25 doubles, 6 triples, 22 homers, 70 RBI, 8 of 13 stolen bases, and 106 strikeouts versus 32 walks in 103 games and 441 plate appearances. Lutz did struggle mightily defensively both at left field and first base, but at 6’3″ and 225 pounds, shows nice bat speed with great raw power. He gets into trouble thanks to a lack of plate discipline and trouble with breaking pitches. His offense definitely needs work, but Lutz is heading to the AFL primarily to work on his defense at first base. Lutz has worked very hard the past few years to get his defense up to par without much to show for it and has a .980 fielding percentage in 162 minor league games at the position. Fielding percentage isn’t everything, but that is absolutely horrific (think an .890 fielding percentage for a shortstop). Hopefully Lutz will make strides defensively in addition to working on his patience at the plate, making him profile better at first base. Lutz is blocked in Cincy by Joey Votto even if he breaks out, but he has the ability to be a solid 1B prospect if he can get his defense and patience up to par.
RHP Drew Hayes
Hayes, who turns 25 in September, didn’t get very good results in 2012 but could be the sleeper prospect to watch for the Reds in the AFL. At, 6’1″ and 190 pounds, he was the Reds’ 11th round pick in 2010. In 2012, Hayes went 2-3 with a 3.52 ERA, a 9.1 K/9, a 5.4 BB/9, and a 0.4 HR/9 in 55 relief appearances and 61.1 IP for Pensacola. According to Minor League Central, his groundball rate was a good 46.5%. Hayes throws a solid sinker in the 92-94 MPH range to go along with a sharp slider that has the ability to force swings-and-misses. He struggles to locate both of his pitches, but he keeps them down in the zone pretty well and if he can learn to control them better he could be an interesting middle relief prospect. Every team loves a middle reliever who can come in to a bases loaded jam, strike out a guy, and force an inning-ending double play, and Hayes has a chance to be that type of pitcher. We’ll have to see whether he can begin to get his command up to par in the AFL, and if he does, he could be in the major leagues before very long.
RHP Curtis Partch
Partch, 25, was the Reds’ 26th round pick way back in 2007 and is finally getting a little recognition as a prospect. Partch, 6’5″, 227, did not have a great season between High-A and Double-A in 2012, going 7-4 but with a 4.44 ERA, 8.5 K/9, 4.1 BB/9 and 0.9 HR/9 in 79 IP. He’s made 46 relief appearances, with 8 saves, and 4 starts on the year. The cool thing about Partch is that he brings it velocity-wise and as a pitcher who was a starter from 2008 to 2011 – tossing 160.2 innings in 2011 – he can also provide length. He throws in the 93-95 MPH range with his fastball, touching 97, to go along with a halfway-decent curveball that has its moments and a fringe-average changeup. His command, control, and secondary pitches are not really good enough, but with some improvement he has a chance to a long reliever in the big leagues and maybe even a 5th starter. Partch has been a high-velocity organizational player for a while and the Reds are giving him an opportunity to prove that he could be more than that in the AFL.
The Reds still have two more players they can send to the AFL, one full-time player (required) and another taxi-squad player (only eligible to play on Wednesdays and Saturdays) if they would like, but from these five we see a true top prospect, a couple guys a tier below who still have a chance to be big league regulars and maybe more, and two interesting relief options. The Reds are putting these players to the test to see how they stack up against some of the top prospects in baseball and they’re excited for the improvements that all five players have the ability to make over the course of the fall. A great Arizona Fall League could drive these players into a great 2013 minor league season and maybe even some big league time. This coming fall, it will be time to see what these guys can do.
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