The Arizona Fall League carries the reputation of being the premier off-season league in baseball as many of the top young prospects in the game are sent there to compete. A lot of the most highly touted and highly drafted players--like Seattle's Danny Hultzen--even make their unofficial pro debuts here. As such, the performances and skills that are on display in the league are closely monitored by front office and scouting types as they try to get a jumpstart on expectations for the coming season.
The group of seven players that the Seattle Mariners sent to the AFL--Hultzen, shortstop Nick Franklin, outfielder Chih-Hsien Chiang, catcher Adam Moore, left-handed reliever Brian Moran and right-handers Steven Hensley and Forrest Snow--each got plenty of action in the desert, and only Hensley truly struggled (11.30 ERA, 2.72 WHIP, 16 BB, 15 SO in 14 1/3).
Snow ended up leading the league in ERA (1.10) and finishing 2nd in WHIP (0.80) while pitching 16 1/3 impressive innings which included 16 strikeouts and just three walks. Working primarily with a fastball/change-up combo, Snow showed that he has the command of those pitches to perform at the major league level. His performance for the Javelinas ends a whirlwind stretch of about 17 months that has seen the Washington Husky go from late-inning draftee to knocking on the big league door of his hometown team.
Moran, a lefty that struggled getting lefties out during the regular minor league season, posted a 1.32 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in 13 2/3 innings out of the bullpen, walking just four and piling up 11 strikeouts while holding left-handers to just four singles in 19 plate appearances. The Mariners have been searching for a reliable left-handed arm in their big league bullpen ever since they traded George Sherrill to the Orioles following the 2007 season, and the 23-year-old Moran will certainly come to camp with a shot at that job.
Moore, who missed all but two games of the 2011 season after suffering a medial meniscus tear in his right knee, struggled early in the fall league but picked up steam towards the end of the season and finished with an 8-game hitting streak and a .259/.315/.355 line in 15 games. Although it was admittedly against much younger competition, he was pulling the ball regularly and with some authority which is a very good sign going forward, in my opinion. The Mariners were all set to use Moore as Miguel Olivo's backup in 2011 before his injury, and he figures to see a lot more playing time than the reserves that replaced him in 2012 if he can stay healthy.
Chiang shook off his poor regular season following his trade from the Red Sox organization to have a decent showing, hitting .263/.337/.368 overall and .364/.462/.500 off of left-handers. The left-handed hitting outfielder won Eastern League Player of the Year honors for his performance in Double-A Portland before the trade where he hit .340/.402/.648 with 59 extra base hits in 88 games, but he hit just .208/.255/.262 in 32 games with the M's Double-A affiliate after the trade. Word is that his bat looked quicker again in Arizona after looking slow and tired in Jackson.
Franklin showed everyone just how much ability he has by making the AFL Rising Stars Game his personal offensive showcase as he homered off of 2011 top pick Gerrit Cole and added two doubles and an infield single. After a slow start, Franklin hit .333/.375/.556 in November (not including his Rising Stars performance) and, overall, he showed good patience (11 walks) and power (seven extra base hits in 24 games). Perhaps more importantly, he got more work in after a season where he was riddled with injuries. He also continued to improve hitting from the right side as he posted a .290/.313/.387 slash with one of his two homers from that side. He did commit seven errors at shortstop, but scouts agree that he really looks like he can play the position at the big league level.
Although all of the above players did well, it was really Hultzen that shined the brightest for Seattle. He made six starts (seven if you include the Rising Stars Game) and ended up leading the league in ERA among starters at 1.40. He worked 19 1/3 innings, allowed 16 hits, just one homerun, five walks and struck out 18, including 16 over 10 1/3 in his final three starts. He enjoyed this great success despite relying almost exclusively on just two pitches: fastball and change-up. Hultzen only threw about 10% breaking balls. His consistent motion and delivery really make his change a legit swing-and-miss pitch because of the deception, and his fastballs--both two-seam and four-seam, which he showed fantastic command of--got as hihgh as 95 while working effectively in all quadrants of the zone.
Hultzen, Snow and Moran each strengthened their profiles and all three will get long looks in spring and they should have shots at big league jobs. Franklin doesn't appear to be that far off from taking over at shortstop and Chiang will be looking to build on his AFL to try and repeat the success he had prior to his trade, probably in Tacoma. Hopefully Moore can start in 50-60 games at the big league level and show improved blocking skills. Hensley still has some work to do, obviously, but this doesn't mark the end for him as a bullpen option.
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