Good news comes in many forms. Sometimes you get a raise or a promotion, sometimes you find an old Snickers from last Halloween in the bottom of your sock drawer (how’d it get there?) and sometimes you’re long-lost uncle from the Ivory Coast writes to tell you that you’ve inherited millions of dollars that can all be yours if you’ll please just send him your credit card and social security numbers. What a good guy. Really. So very thoughtful.
Last week, though, we got news that could even make your long-lost uncle blush: Arizona Fall League rosters were released. This is something of a holiday in my life for a couple reasons:
- It’s minor league baseball
- It’s D-backs minor league baseball
- The AFL is the best viewing experience in baseball
- I’ve gone every year for the last four and will be back this fall
This results in me habitually refreshing the roster pages on the day they’re released, particularly the page for the Salt River Rafters, the AFL team that the Diamondbacks’ prospects play for. It’s usually something of a mystery who will end up on the team, usually five or six guys total. A few are usually exciting, some are less so. Regardless, it’s a chance to see some high-level D-backs talent mixed in and playing against many of the top prospects in all of baseball. That can’t be a bad thing, can it? As it turns out, it’s actually pretty excellent.
So let’s take a minute to talk about the players who’ll be heading back to Phoenix for some extra action in the AFL. We’ll identify their pedigree, what happened in 2015 and what we might expect from each prospect in the future. There’s no point in waiting – let’s go.
Yoan Lopez. RHP, 23, AA Mobile
Pedigree: Lopez’s situation is pretty familiar to most. He was signed out of Cuba this winter after defecting, making this his first year in professional baseball stateside. He did not fit into my Top 30 Prospects list last year since he was signed after it was released.
The Year That Was: the 2015 campaign from Lopez was simply a let down. After being told he had a chance to make the Opening Day rotation, Lopez found himself in AA with Aaron Blair and Braden Shipley to start the year after a handful of up and down performances in Spring Training. He made five starts, got hurt, missed two weeks, made one start, missed a month, made two starts, missed a month, made three starts (the last on August 9th) and hasn’t pitched since. He’s apparently never found any rhythm, and who can blame him? The results certainly reflect that as he’s walked too many, not struck out enough and has a 4.55 FIP to show for it. This is not what the Diamondbacks were hoping they spent over $16 million dollars and busted their bonus pool for. There have even been a couple rumblings about makeup concerns, so this situation is clearly trending the wrong the way.
Moving Forward: luckily, there’s plenty of time to salvage the situation even if the upside for Lopez is limited. He has a plus fastball now and two other pitches that can play to average, giving him a chance to be a back-end starter. At this point, that appears to be the best-case scenario for the Diamondbacks. If he were to become a solid #4, that would have to be viewed as a success given how this season has turned out. Another year like this, however, and Lopez may just disappear into the ether. It’s very much a wait-and-see situation and the AFL will help us adjust our expectations.
Oscar Hernandez, C, 21, MLB Diamondbacks
Pedigree: like Lopez above, the path of Hernandez is abbreviated in terms of Diamondbacks experience. He was plucked from the Tampa Bay Rays in the Rule 5 Draft. He was an international sign out of Venezuela by Tampa Bay and made his debut at 16. Despite some strong numbers as a teenager, 2013 and 2014 were more difficult for Hernandez at the plate as he climbed into full season and High-A ball, where he was when he was drafted this winter. He was not part of my rankings due to their completion before the Rule 5 Draft, but was ranked 21st in the Rays’ system by Kiley McDaneil of FanGraphs this winter.
The Year That Was: this should really be “The Year That Wasn’t” when talking about Hernandez. A broken hammate bone in the spring delayed his arrival on the 25-man roster until late summer, which didn’t help his development. That said, it was nearly perfect for the Diamondbacks who were forced to carry him on the 25-man all year, except the injury allowed them to place him on the DL and gain the roster spot back. Hernandez needed to spend 90 days on the active roster, however, to validate his selection in the Rule 5 Draft. Guess what? He got healthy right in time to make that happen. He hasn’t hit at all but looks the part of a good receiver behind the dish when he’s been pressed into action, but with Welington Castillo being okay and Hernandez being not ready, the choice for Chip Hale has been pretty easy.
Moving Forward: Oscar Hernandez is not a big league player right now, plain and simple. AA might even be too big of a challenge for him, although that’s a likely landing spot for him in 2016. I’m honestly not sure if he’ll hit there, but that’s all part of the experiment. Best-case scenario has Hernandez as a below average hitter who’s an asset defensively and does enough to start. The bar offensively isn’t that high if he can continue to be a good framer and defensive catcher, but he still may never reach it as the tools just aren’t very impressive in the box at this point. Hopefully he’ll shake the rust off in the AFL and exceed expectations.
Gabriel Guerrero, OF, 21, AA Mobile
Pedigree: we’ve got a little theme-thing going on here as Guerrero is another guy who wasn’t originally a Diamondback. Instead, he was an international sign by the Seattle Mariners and acquired in the Mark Trumbo trade. Through rookie ball, Guerrero flashed some serious prowess, stumbled a little with the promotion to full season ball, then hit well again in High-A in 2014. He checked in at #4 on Baseball Prospectus’ list of Mariners prospects prior to this season.
The Year That Was: well, you see, it takes a lot for a #4 prospect to get traded, especially along with two other guys for Mark Trumbo and Vidal Nuno. Guerrero simply struggled all through the first half for AA Jackson in the Mariners’ system before joining AA Mobile. After the trade, he picked things up some, including striking out less and hitting for more power. He posted poor BABIPs in both stints, suggesting that there’s some positive regression due, as well. Making that a little less certain, however, is his reputation as a hitter that sits fastball and struggles mightily with secondary pitches. He’s a guy who doesn’t walk and hasn’t hit homers like he did in 2014, but the outfield profile is that of an average corner outfielder with a strong arm.
Moving Forward: repeating AA appears to be in order and the Diamondbacks will do well to help him learn to avoid bad counts and improve his approach at the plate in 2016. They’d like to get a longer look at him and that’s why he’s in the AFL. If it all clicks, he has a chance to be a second division starter in the outfield, but the concerns with the approach make him more likely to be an emergency starter or bench player. There’s still time to change that, but 2016 will be critical because if he stalls in AA for a second year, his stock will absolutely plummet.
Daniel Gibson, LHP, 23, AA Mobile
Pedigree: Gibson was up and down as a starter at the University of Florida early in his college career before he was moved to the bullpen. There was some intrigue as to how the Diamondbacks would use him after he was drafted in the seventh round of the 2013 draft. He’s been a reliever all the way as a pro and has had good results despite moving a little slowly through the system.
The Year That Was: after struggling in a stint at High-A in 2014, his only struggles to date, Gibson was reassigned to Visalia to start the 2015 campaign. He responded by dominating and earning a call up to AA. His strikeouts and walks both went the wrong way once called up, but he somehow managed to maintain a shiny 1.50 ERA despite a 3.38 FIP. As has been the case throughout his career, Gibson maintained excellence against left-handed hitters but was pretty pedestrian against righties. It’ll be interesting to see how he’s used in the AFL – how many right-handed batters will he face.
Moving Forward: it’s hard to have a ceiling worth getting excited about when you profile as a LOOGY, but the Diamondbacks could certainly use a player in that role to help shelter Andrew Chafin a bit. Gibson appears to be a role player out of the bullpen who shouldn’t face righties in delicate situations but can justify his spot on the roster if he can continue to dominate lefties. He’s got a chance to make it but the window’s not going to be open forever. He’ll be 24 next year and needs to see AAA before making the jump.
Daniel Palka, OF, 23, A+ Visalia
Pedigree: a third-rounder in the 2013 draft out of Georgia Tech, Palka was known as a masher and he’s lived up to the hype. He has plenty of raw power as I witnessed up close and personal in Spring Training and even caught a glimpse of during his college career. He’s a big kid who can really punish the baseball. Up until this year, he’d strictly played first base, but with Kevin Cron over there this year for Visalia, he moved to the outfield where he’s worked hard to hold his own. In three professional seasons, he’s hit 60 homers and 80 doubles but is a bit old at 23 in High-A.
The Year That Was: the move to the outfield was unexpected for Palka and underscores the philosophy we’ve seen from the Diamondbacks with a number of players, choosing to sacrifice defense for offense. Reports sound about as you’d expect from a former first baseman running around in the outfield – limited range but a surprisingly strong throwing arm. Palka has reportedly worked very hard and embraced the change, so perhaps it’s something that sticks. At the plate, he’s struck out over 28% of the time, a career high. It would appear that he’s selling out for power and achieving it for now. He will take a walk but the K’s are a little worrisome. His results in 2015 have also been BABIP-aided and there’s plenty of reason to believe that his .281 average won’t hold up in the future.
Moving Forward: the biggest concern is that Palka didn’t advance a level in 2015, instead playing all of the year in Visalia. He’ll be 24 in October and hasn’t seen AA yet. The AFL will provide a strong dose of AA and AAA pitching, so we’ll get a good glimpse of how Palka will fair against more advanced arms. His strikeouts are a red flag, but the power is legit. Can he find a balance of those two in the upper levels of the minors? That’s the million dollar question for Palka, no matter where he lines up as he’ll be a defensive liability as long as he’s in the outfield. At best, he profiles as a power bench bat until we have a better idea of his ability against stronger pitching.
Keith Hessler, LHP, 26, MLB Diamondbacks
Pedigree: “pedigree” might not be the right word here as Hessler was never highly-touted but has worked his way through the minors regardless, even if it’s taken a while. A 28th round pick in 2010 out of Coastal Carolina, Hessler began his career as a starter but was transitioned to the bullpen after getting roughed up in the California League in 2013. Since then, things have taken off to a degree for Hessler as he’s been able to stick around in that capacity.
The Year That Was: it’s been an exciting, and probably excruciating, year for Hessler. He began the year carving up High-A hitters, then went to AA and did the same thing although he was old for both leagues. He then jumped briefly to Reno, then to the majors where he’s had his ass handed to him. On one hand, it seems like Hessler isn’t ready for the majors, but on the other, he’s pitched a lot this year and done so for a lot of different teams. He hasn’t been able to get comfortable with a catcher, a pitching coach or learn the hitters of any particular league. Instead, it’s been a revolving door of challenges and he’s done well to hold his own considering his humble beginnings. The D-backs will take another look in the AFL and decided if he’s worth keeping on the 40-man roster.
Moving Forward: the best case scenario for Hessler is that he sticks as lefty specialist. He’s struggled in the majors this season in that capacity, capped off with a grand slam from Carlos Gonzalez last week. Still, it’s been a big year for him and if he can find some tractions at the big league level, it’ll be against fellow lefties. That, however, remains a long shot, but Hessler’s been a long shot all along.
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