Live from the Arizona Fall League at First Pitch Arizona: 11/4/2011

Friday officially started at 8am when Ron Shandler welcomed everyone to the 17th annual First Pitch Arizona conference. His welcome included a rundown of the weekend’s events, an introduction of the speakers that will be appearing over the next few days and a speech that somehow managed to tie together the names Osama Bin Laden, Muammar Gaddafi and Adam Dunn.

You had to be there I guess.

The first speakers of the day were Jason Grey of ESPN and Kimball Crosley, a scout for the Toronto Blue Jays. Being someone who loves the minor leagues, listening to those two talk about some of the top prospects in the AFL was a little slice of heaven. John Sickels of MinorLeagueBall.com and Rob Gordon of BaseballHQ.com then joined Jason Grey for a panel discussion of how to evaluate prospects for fantasy baseball purposes. Now that’s quite a cast.

Without revealing any privileged information, I can say that some of what was presented helped to reaffirm my thoughts on several players and to enlighten me on a couple others. I’ll talk more about them in the coming weeks. For now, it’s on to Friday’s AFL game action.

(Yes, there is Bryce Harper footage later on. Hang in there)

Game one: Salt River Rafters at Mesa Solar Sox

The starting pitcher for the Solar Sox was Tigers prospect Andy Oliver. Coming into the 2011 season, Oliver was highly touted as a lefty that could bring some mid-90s heat. However, command and lack of progression with his offspeed stuff resulted in poor numbers over 147 innings at triple-A.

Oliver’s motion is simple and repeatable, but he has a bit of a short-arm delivery, which can be effective in the right circumstance. However, his arm action might be limiting what he can do with his slider and change. Neither of his offspeed pitches looked particularly good to me. He had some decent break to his slider, but it wasn’t anything that would stifle big league hitters on a nightly basis. His fastball definitively had a little juice and it was highly effective when he worked inside to both righties and lefties, generating weak groundouts. Command seems to be an issue for Oliver. He got rocked for a two-run home run off the bat of Brian Dozier, leaving a first pitch fastball over the heart of the plate.

The jury is still out on Oliver. Between two of the speakers at First Pitch Arizona, one saw him as nothing more than a bullpen arm, another thought he could still latch onto the back end of a rotation.

I mentioned Adam Eaton yesterday. He just continues to impress and I’m not the only one with that opinion. He went 2-5 with a home run and a walk during Friday’s action. Eaton isn’t going to be a star, he may not even be more than a fourth outfielder, but he’s someone who has the attitude and talent to exceed the modest expectations bestowed upon him.

Another player I touched on yesterday, Nolan Arenado, went 4-5 with three doubles. I mentioned a little concern of mine was that he tends to lunge at pitches sometimes. Part of that assessment is just me trying to hold back my own expectations for a player that I really like. The truth is, he has all-star potential in his bat and he can stick at third defensively. Combined, both attributes make him someone that all deep keeper and dynasty league owners should be targeting.

Both Josh Vitters and Aaron Hicks have been disappointing prospects over the last couple of years. Neither has taken that big stride forward and neither looked all that impressive in yesterday’s day game. While I can’t say with any certainty what is going on in the mind of Josh Vitters, I can say that he looked completely lost at the plate in a game where there were 22 runs scored on 25 hits and players were spraying liners all over the yard. While I left a little early to watch the start of the XFL auction draft and missed his one hit, the at bats I did see were pitiful. He made contact, but very weak contact, even when he was ahead in the count 2-0.

Aaron Hicks did drive in three huge runs in the eighth, but in the at-bats I saw he didn’t look good at all. I’ve seen Hicks plenty in the past. I’ve seen him rip a line-drive home run off of Tyler Skaggs and I’ve seen him struggle to do much of anything off of lesser pitchers. What I haven’t seen over the last two seasons is any type of adjustment at the plate.

His hands are still too low hitting from both sides and he still can’t find a balance between being too patient and too aggressive. He also has yet to really fill out physically, which at age 22, is starting to become a small concern.

Game two: Scottsdale Scorpions at Phoenix Desert Dogs

Tyson Gilles was one of the prospects discussed at length in the morning conference that really caught my imagination. He had a huge season in 2009 (.341/.430/.486, 9 HR, 44 SB at high-A), but has not been able to stay healthy for the past two seasons. He just turned 23, so he’ll need to put up some numbers at the upper levels and soon, but he certainly looks the part of a potential star speedster. The first thing Kimball Crosley said about Gillies was, “I love his body.” (Crowd laughs like the children that we are this weekend).

My problem isn’t so much his body as it is his swing. Gilles has a very wide base, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since it’s an athletic stance, but he fails to use much of his lower half whatsoever.

He doesn’t hit with a strong front leg, which causes the rest of his body to collapse, leaving his arms and hands to do all the hard work. Essentially, he’s taking away a lot of power potential (maybe not home run potential per se, but gap power potential). It also leads to a ton of inconsistent bat paths, as his base is constantly moving, unbalanced and inconsistent at the point of contact.

In my opinion, Gilles needs to learn to stay back on the ball and not collapse his front leg. He needs to allow his swing to be a function of his whole body rather than two separate functions, his legs and his arms. The athleticism is certainly there and he has the speed to change games. He also has the arm to play in right if need be, but without the hit tool, he may never be a true impact player.

There’s this kid I saw last night, Bryce Harper, maybe you’ve heard of him. It was my first chance to see the 19-year-old phenom in person and I liked what I saw, even though the results weren’t great. Harper hit into a double play in his first at-bat of the night, but he still struck the ball hard. His bat speed is what impressed me the most.

Though his swing has a few moving parts and a weight shift, his hands are incredibly fast and his bat path is as smooth as could be. I could envision the weight shift becoming a possible problem at times, as it causes a heavy reliance on timing, but when his timing is on, which it seems to be most of the time based on his numbers, everything comes together explosively. He did have a couple at-bats last night in which his timing was off and, quite frankly, he looked a little foolish on those swings.

He’s only 19. He’s only 19. He’s only 19.

I keep telling myself that because, as I stated earlier about my small criticism of Nolan Arenado, I tend to nit-pick when I see a player that really gets me excited. Call it Brandon Wood syndrome, call it what you will, but I will always do it. I don’t think that it’s necessarily a bad thing, however. Sometimes the slightest flaw can be a career altering one. I do not think under any circumstance that this will be the case for Harper, mind you, I’m just saiyin’ is all. Harper is going to be a star and I think that his “bad boy” image is a bit overplayed. The guy hustled all over the field, even when heading back to the dugout after grounding into a double play.

I think he’s just brining a throwback mentality to the field and people in general have forgotten what it means to be a hardnosed baseball player. Harper doesn’t want to be friends with his opponents. He doesn’t want to accept failure. He just wants to come to the ballpark, play hard and leave a winner. I like that in a ballplayer. No, I LOVE that in a ballplayer.