2017 Arizona Fall League Top 10 Prospects
To qualify for the Arizona Fall League Top 10 Prospects, position players must have made one plate appearance per team game and pitchers must have pitched one-third of an inning per team game played.
While it appeared the prospect talent in the Arizona Fall League in 2017 was not as strong as in past years, the performances of multiple significant pitching prospects, several surprise players and, of course, two gifted Latin American outfielders, made this year’s crop better than expected. The Braves and Yankees organizations each sent an especially strong group of players to Arizona, and that was reflected in evaluators' looks at the league. The Yankees (four) and the Braves (two) are the only teams to have multiple prospects make the Top 10.
The only significant prospect to not qualify was Mariners outfielder Kyle Lewis. The Mariners pulled Lewis from the AFL after just two games because off soreness in his surgically-repaired right knee.
1. Ronald Acuna, OF, Peoria (Braves)
For the second straight year, a 19-year-old prospect from Venezuela ranks as the AFL’s No. 1 prospect. Acuna follows in the footsteps of fellow countryman Gleyber Torres.
What more can be said about Acuna’s 2017 season? He was Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year, reached Triple-A at age 19 and ranked as the Braves' top prospect. He also earned the AFL's MVP award, led the league in home runs and powered his Peoria team to the AFL championship. After a full season in the minor leagues, Acuna didn’t slow down when he reached Arizona, batting .325/.414/.639 with seven home runs.
Each of Acuna’s five tools grades plus or better. His hands work well and he generates loft with a fast, powerful swing. With plenty of speed and arm strength, Acuna can handle any of the three outfield positions. Evaluators covering the AFL did note that among Acuna's few flaws is a tendency to chase breaking balls out of the zone.
2. Victor Robles, OF, Mesa (Nationals)
Robles' arrival in the Fall League was delayed by his inclusion on the Nationals' postseason roster. When the Nats were eliminated in the Division Series, Robles headed to Arizona to continue his season. For most observers Robles isn’t far behind top prospect Acuna, with a few scouts even preferring him.
Robles hit .244/.389/.488 with three home runs in 41 at-bats in the AFL, and his explosiveness and pure athleticism stood out. He showed strong strike-zone discipline, drawing 10 walks while striking out nine times, but could improve his pitch recognition by laying off balls inside. His quick hands and outstanding bat speed cause balls to jump off his bat with carry. He is a plus-plus runner who was successful on all seven of his stolen base attempts, an important development after he was caught stealing in more than a third of his attempts during the regular season.
3. Mitch Keller, RHP, Glendale (Pirates)In a year with multiple outstanding pitching prospects, Keller edged the competition and ranked as the most promising hurler in the league. He went 4-0, 1.52 and pitched to contact more than getting swings-and-misses. Keller's ERA was the lowest among starters in the AFL and his 1.01 WHIP was fourth-lowest. He worked to a 2.25 groundout-to-airout rate and gave hitters uncomfortable at-bats.
Keller's fastball comfortably sat 93-95 mph and reached 97-98 when he wanted. He sequenced his 85-87 mph curveball well off the heater. His changeup showed improvement in the AFL, throwing it 87-90 mph with late fade. His command was shaky at times, but he generally threw strikes and worked hitters well.
4. Justus Sheffield, LHP, Scottsdale (Yankees)
Sheffield and Keller were very close in the eyes of AFL observers, and the order easily could have been flipped.
Sheffield significantly improved his control, with just three walks in 20.1 AFL innings, while sporting premium velocity from the left side. Sheffield's fastball sat 94-96 mph, with his 84-87 mph slider giving him an above-average secondary. His firm 88-90 mph changeup is expected to get to above-average in time.
Evaluators noted Sheffield needs to repeat his delivery better and refine his command in the strike zone. He'll have a chance to break through to New York in 2018.
5. Albert Abreu, RHP, Scottsdale (Yankees)
Acquired from Houston last offseason in the Brian McCann deal, Abreu was one of the surprises of the AFL after he appeared in only 14 regular-season games because of a lat strain. While some scouts considered Abreu to be one of the AFL’s best starting pitching prospects, others were concerned that his effortful, short-armed delivery and command issues could land him in the bullpen.Abreu has the potential for three plus pitches, with explosive arm action and a strong lower half. His fastball, which sat 95-96 mph and touched 97-98, is already a plus offering, as is his curveball when he stays on top of it, which he doesn't yet consistently. His changeup is still inconsistent but flashed plus for some scouts. One of the keys for Abreu is to better maintain his composure, which he made strides at by the end of his time in the league.
6. Francisco Mejia, 3B/C, Glendale (Indians)
After making his big league debut in September, Mejia headed to the AFL to get experience at third base. He still ranks as one of the top catching prospects in baseball, but the infield experience opens another avenue to get his potent bat into the Indians' lineup.Mejia's bat was certainly on display in Arizona, with the switch-hitter batting .365/.397/.476 with two home runs in 63 at-bats while striking out just six times. He’s an extreme contact hitter who uses a compact stroke, and his hands work well in the zone. Mejia didn’t see a lot of game action at third base, instead getting most of his work there during pregame fielding drills, but he’s athletic, has a good arm action and plus arm strength. His confidence in the field improved as the AFL season progressed.
7. Luis Urias, 2B/SS, Peoria (Padres)One of the most common statements made about Urias is that the 20-year-old infielder will someday win a major league batting title. Scouts describe a special bat, with quick wrists and the ability to make hard contact on any pitch with pull-side power. While Urias didn’t homer during the AFL regular season, he had five doubles and two triples in 54 at-bats and showed his power in the televised Fall Stars game with a 416-foot home run to left-center. Perhaps the most impressive stat from Urias’ fall season was his 14 walks to just five strikeouts.
Primarily a second baseman during his minor league career, Urias saw action at shortstop in the AFL, convincing scouts that he can be at least an average defender there with good range to his left and enough arm strength for the position.
8. Estevan Florial, OF, Scottsdale (Yankees)The 19-year-old Florial was one of the youngest players in the Arizona Fall League. His relative inexperience showed in the rawness of his game, but the loudness of his tools was apparent to evaluators. With a twitchy, live, athletic body, Florial is a plus-plus runner and shows a plus arm in the outfield.
Florial has a long swing and needs to develop better plate discipline, but showed progress during the fall and finished with a .286/.383/.414 slash line, albeit with 29 strikeouts in 70 at-bats. He’s got plenty of bat speed and generates loft with his swing, so more power should emerge with added strength and an improved approach.
9. Monte Harrison, OF, Salt River (Brewers)As a member of Salt River's taxi squad, Harrison was limited to playing two games per week. He took advantage of his limited time on the field. Despite playing in just 13 games, Harrison tied for third in the league with five home runs and hit .283/.333/.604. Known more for his supreme athleticism than his baseball skills, Harrison’s feel for hitting is coming along nicely and he’s starting to slow the game down.
Harrison’s plus speed allows him to handle center field, but an above-average arm that flashes plus may target him for right. He’s got strong baserunning instincts, with his speed better underway than out of the box.
10. Max Fried, LHP, Peoria (Braves)Fried demonstrated big stuff and advanced feel for pitching while dominating AFL hitters. He went 3-1, 1.73 and led the league with 32 strikeouts in 26 innings.
Fried showed premium velocity from the left side, sitting in the mid-90s and touching 98 mph, and he elevated his fastball to get plenty of swings and misses. What made his fastball even more effective is he consistently changed the speed of it, throwing off the hitter’s timing, and showed good knowledge of when to use it. He complemented his heater with a plus curveball that he located. He repeats his delivery, although his arm action worries some scouts.
On the rise ….
The Arizona Fall League provides an excellent opportunity for players to enhance their prospect status and their odds of earning a spot on their organization’s 40-man roster. The players listed in this section are not necessarily the next 10 top prospects, but rather a sampling of players who used the AFL season to boost their prospect stock. Players are listed in alphabetical order.
Steven Duggar, OF, Scottsdale (Giants) – Coming off a regular season in which he played only 44 games due to injury, Duggar quietly put together a nice AFL campaign while manning center field for Scottsdale. He is a polished hitter who plays a decent center field and is starting to develop power from the left side of the plate. With plus speed and the ability to stay in the middle of the outfield, Duggar is one to watch as the Giants rebuild their big league team.
Thairo Estrada, SS, Scottsdale (Yankees) – Estrada proved he can be a superb defender at shortstop with quick feet, slick actions and good hands. With enough bat speed and a workable batting stroke, Estrada showed he can hit for impact too by batting .342/.381/.430. After his AFL performance, the Yankees added Estrada to their 40-man roster.
Eric Filia, OF/1B, Peoria (Mariners) – Filia came to Arizona with a primary goal of getting reps at first base, a new position for the 25-year-old UCLA product, but went out and led the league with a .407 batting average. A below-average defender and runner, Filia will have to continue to hit to carve out a big league career as a bench bat. A bereft Mariners farm system provides him a clear path to get there.
Taylor Hearn, LHP, Glendale (Pirates) – Hearn possesses a long, lean athletic body, delivering his pitches with a smooth, clean delivery. His plus fastball comes in at 92-96 mph with plenty of movement and he shows at least an average slider. He struggles with his control at times and some project Hearn as a future bullpen arm, but more optimistic evaluators see a mid-rotation lefthander in the making.
Andrew Knizner, C, Surprise (Cardinals) – Another prospect who came to the AFL at the end of his first full season, Knizner hit well in both low Class A and Double-A and continued raking in Arizona with a .358/.403/.537 slash line. There is smoothness in his swing through the zone and plenty of bat speed to impact the ball. As important, scouts saw at least an average defender behind the plate. He’s blocked in St. Louis by Yadier Molina and Carson Kelly, so Knizner also spent time at first base during the fall. That versatility will help him find a major league job.
Nicky Lopez, SS, Surprise (Royals) – Lopez reached the Fall League in his first full professional season and finishing second in the league with a .383 batting average. He’s a grinder who plays above his tools, and he should be able to stay at shortstop because of his solid actions, above-average range and enough arm for position. The scouting report on Lopez has consistently been that he needs to get stronger, but the lefthanded hitter showed surprising pop during his AFL stint with a .568 slugging percentage.
Andres Munoz, RHP, Peoria (Padres) – It was apparent when Munoz was heading in from the bullpen to take mound for Peoria—radar guns would pop up throughout the scout section and everyone would pay a little more attention. That's not surprising since the youngest player in the league at 18 regularly touched triple-digits, reaching as high as 102 mph with a fastball batters couldn't touch. He also showed an improving slider. The biggest red flag for Munoz causing concerns for scouts is a delivery that puts stress on his shoulder.
Sean Murphy, C, Mesa (Athletics) – With major league teams always looking for advanced defensive skills behind the plate, Murphy showed himself to be one of the best young catchers in the minors. He came to the Fall League at the end of his first full season, handling himself well both behind and at the plate. He walked more than he struck out with Mesa while consistently punishing the ball on contact, although he didn't elevate for home runs. Behind the plate, Murphy showed off his plus-plus arm, excellent receiving and blocking skills.
Austin Riley, 3B, Peoria (Braves) – The scouting community wasn’t completely sold on Riley coming into the AFL season, but the Braves 2015 supplemental first rounder did his best to disprove the naysayers with his performance. He posted a very strong .300/.364/.657 slash line, finishing second in the league to teammate Ronald Acuna with six home runs. Riley showed an ability to make adjustments at the plate and projects as an average defender at third base. He finished just outside the Top 10 among league prospects.
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Art Warren, RHP, Peoria (Mariners) – It’s hard to argue with the results Warren got this fall closing for Peoria. The righthander didn't give up a run in 11.1 innings, plus a scoreless inning to close out the championship game. Warren owns a fastball up to 99 mph with a plus overhand curveball that freezes batters, all out of a clean delivery. He should find a spot in a major league bullpen before long.