The Project Prospect team has now been in Arizona for 10 days. We've attended 15 games, watched most of the players in the league three or four times and had conversations with players, coaches and scouts. Our brains are supersaturated with prospect knowledge. It's great! Here are some players who've really stood out:
Josh Bell has gained a lot of followers this year because of his bat. And while he has gotten some good marks for his defense, I wanted to see it for myself. The verdict: it's exceptional. Bell demonstrated an impressive arm as well as good footwork and agilily. I've seen him make plays to his right, effectively charge balls, and flash soft hands. I'm a big believer in Bell's bat, glove and understanding of the game -- interview coming soon.
Starlin Castro is silky smooth at the plate and on defense. I've quickly become enamored with his balanced swing and quick wrists. You don't need to be a swing mechanics expert to appreciate it his stroke -- it really is a thing of beauty. And while his swing won't lead to high home run totals, so long as he's playing strong defense at an up-the-middle position and hitting a lot of line drives, he'll continue to move quickly.
While Castro is a good defender, playing him at second to allow his AFL teammate Jose Iglesias start at short is an easy call. Iglesias has some the fastest hands in the land. His defensive instincts are jaw-dropping and he has the range and glove to be one of the best defensive players in baseball. He's a good contact hitter, though like many hitters, he hasn't looked good against outside breaking balls when I've seen him. I witnessed Iglesias launch a double that one-hopped the left field wall earlier this week. But his power ceiling doesn't appear to be very high and he seldom drew walks in Cuba (around 5% of his PA).
Even though Mike Leake still jokes that guys his size aren't really prospects -- interview coming soon -- the 5-foot-10 righty is clearly one of the best pitchers out here. "But his fastball only tops out around 92 MPH so his upside can't be very high," you say. Leake doesn't have outstanding velo. He doesn't need it, though. He's an artist at keeping hitters off-balance. He strings together brilliant pitch sequences with his fastball, changeup, slider, curveball and cutter. I saw him strike out Domonic Brown one at-bat on three swing-throughs. And Leake told me that he didn't even locate those pitches where he wanted to. His fastball and changeup movement are sick. He's an outstanding athlete. And he's very intelligent. In his words, Leake "clowns around with" hitters -- he picks them apart. When you're facing Mike Leake, he's going to be two steps ahead of you before you even realize what happened. Guys with his kind of movement, command, poise and ground-ball arsenal are a rare breed. I think he's going to hit the ground running in his first full season.
Stephen Strasburg is so popular down here that if you want to talk to him, you have to take part in a press conference after one of his starts. I didn't get a chance to interview him, but I did get to see him pitch. The question everyone should be asking right now is: how good is his changeup? He didn't throw it much when I caught his start against Santa Clara, but he's throwing it more out here. And it's outstanding. Three of his six strikeouts from his last outing came off of changeups. The pitch has good movement and it's going to be one of the fastest changeups in the big leagues -- I had it at 91 MPH out of the windup in the first inning of his last start. (That's right, Stephen Strasburg can throw a 90+ MPH changeup.) Also, note that the guy is absolutely getting swarmed by the fans and media out here. Rumor has it one stalker fan even followed him home for an autograph. When he's on the field with his teammates, he's a fun-loving 21-year-old, a great teammate and a patient, friendly guy. Don't let any media member convince you otherwise.
Freddie Freeman has been sidelined due to a hyperextended elbow -- interview with more details coming soon.
Dustin Ackley is primarily playing left field in the AFL because Brewers' center fielder Lorenzo Cain, his teammate, is a priority player. But I wouldn't be surprised if Ackley winds up as a left fielder in the big leagues. He's an above-average runner with good instincts -- just isn't lightning quick. Still, he'd likely be an elite defender in left.
After watching Josh Vitters take infield closely last night, I do not expect him to stick at third base. He has decent hands, OK footwork and a solid arm, but he looks stiff when he fields the ball. Maybe he sticks at the position a bit longer. But he's the Tin Man in need of oil compared to some of the other third basemen out here.
One of those third basemen is Casey Kelly. Kelly is a magnificent athlete -- 6-foot-3, 194-pounders shouldn't be as nible as he is. I honestly wouldn't be surprised if he could turn into a good defensive catcher. He's extremely coordinated. But he doesn't have the range to play shortstop -- compare his glove to Iglesias' and then tell me there's even a 1% chance he's the Red Sox shortstop of the future. He has exceptional bat speed and a lot of raw power, but his lack of pitch recognition leaves him with a very low hitting floor. Brett Sullivan interviewed Kelly prior to last night's game. Kelly said he could only answer questions that didn't have to do with him pitching.