The Arizona Fall League is generally a mixed bag of fringe prospects and low-ceiling youngsters, but the Phillies have had an unprecedented amount of success with their AFL representatives. Of the last nine player inductees to the AFL hall of fame, two of them have been Phillies; Jimmy Rollins, who played in the AFL in 2000 and won the NL MVP in 2007, and Ryan Howard, who played in the AFL in 2004 and won the NL MVP in 2006. Now, as those players approach the twilight of their careers, the Phillies hope that this year’s crop of Fall League players can produce similar results.
Phillies’ management announced last month that they will send 7 players to the AFL: Right-handers Kyle Simon, Ken Giles, and Mike Nesseth, left-hander Austin Wright, outfielders Kelly Dugan and Aaron Altherr, and catcher Cameron Rupp.
Kyle Simon – Acquired in the deal that sent Jim Thome to the Orioles last June, Simon is fairly competent relief prospect. Taken in the fourth round in 2011, Simon pitched well between the rotation and the bullpen last season, putting up a 3.04 and a 1.2 WHIP over 112 innings in A+ and AA. This year, however, Simon struggled, putting up a 4.45 ERA over 45 relief appearances, while putting up a mediocre 1.5 K:BB ratio (anything below 2.0 is considered to be poor). An imposing 6’6, with a powerful sinker, Simon still has the chance to be set up man in the majors, possibly as soon as next year.
Ken Giles – Another relief prospect, Giles was lit up this past season. As a 22 year old pitching in the FSL (A+), Giles got lit up to a 6.31 ERA over 25.2 innings, while showing no control (6.7 BB/9) and giving up an obscene amount of home runs (1.4 HR/9). His overpowering fastball and developing breaking ball have allowed him to rack up over 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings at every minor league stop, keeping him on the prospect radar. Pitchers who can miss bats at that rate have huge potential out of the bullpen, but if he can’t reign in his control and keep the ball in the ballpark, he won’t even sniff AAA.
Mike Nesseth – The third reliever in the bunch is the oldest and the only one to experience success this past season. Nesseth, 25, put up a 1.64 ERA in 35 AA appearences, before finishing out the year with seven scoreless frames at AAA. The Phillies bullpen was a disaster this season, ranking 27th in the league in both ERA and BAA (batting average against), so Nesseth will certainly be given every opportunity to be an impact relief piece next season.
Austin Wright – Banished from the bullpen after putting up a 6.09 ERA in 16 AA starts, Wright is a similar player to Giles. He can compile hoards of strikeouts out of the pen, striking out 19 over 16 relief appearances this past season, but also walked 11 and gave up a pair of home runs in that span. A lefty, Nesseth will always be useful as a LOOGY (left handed specialist), but he has the potential for more if he can exhibit greater command of his pitches.
Kelly Dugan – A second round pick back in 2009, Dugan has the brightest future of anyone on this list. A high school draft pick, It took the young outfielder a few years to adjust to professional ball, but he broke out last year to the tune of a .300/.387/.470 slash line. At 22, he proved himself too old for A+ ball this past year, hitting .318 ten home runs with a .970 OPS, prompting a promotion to AA. The jump from A+ to AA is often considered to be the biggest leap in the minors, so naturally Dugan needed some time to adjust. He was, nevertheless, still productive, ten more homers and posting a .771 OPS in the same amount of games (56). The only question for him is the plate discipline, as that virtually vanished once he got to AA. Out of 226 plate appearances, Dugan walked only 5 times, for a 2% walk rate (the NL average is 9%). With the Phillies bereft of a high quality right fielder, they may eventually turn to Dugan as the future of that position.
Aaron Alther – Taken in the same draft, seven rounds after Dugan, Alther has a significantly lower floor than Kelly, but an almost comparable ceiling. Fast and athletic, Altherr has stolen 20+ bases each of the last two season while vacillating between center and left field. He has the capacity for plus power, although that has yet to fully manifest itself in a game. Altherr hit only 12 home runs in 466 at bats this past season, although he showed gap power and the ability to take the extra base, collecting 36 doubles and 6 triples. When looking at his power output, it is also important to note that the Florida State League is a notoriously poor hitting environment, and Altherr’s numbers may be higher if he simply played in a different locale. The AFL should be a good exhibition for the high upside player, as he’ll have a shot to prove his worth against similarly talented peers. If he can cut down on his strikeouts (he collected 140 of them this past season), he could be a lethal combination of speed and power for years to come.
Cameron Rupp – Of all the players on this list, Rupp, as evidenced by his presence on the Phillies MLB roster, is the one player on this list who will have the most immediate impact on the big league club. With current starting catcher Carlos Ruiz possibly leaving for free agency at the end of the year, GM Ruben Amaro will be on the lookout for catchers, and he may look internally at Rupp. Taken out of college in 2010, Rupp has ascended quickly through the minors, reaching the highest levels this year, and hitting .258/.318/.437 between AA and AAA. He isn’t likely to ever make an all star team, but he’s a competent receiver behind the dish, and could put a .700 OPS in the majors, making him a likely option for the 2014 Phillies starting lineup.