The Arizona Fall League (AFL) wrapped up on November 19th. The Texas Rangers' triumvirate of Matt Harrison, Danny Gutierrez and Tanner Scheppers combined to pitch seven innings and hold the league-leading Phoenix Desert Dogs to three runs on four hits, a walk and nine strikeouts. Marcus Lemon tied the game in the ninth inning with a home run and then Taylor Teagarden ended it with a walk-off three-run homer. And that, my friends, is a nice way to end the 2009 season!
Nine different players from the Rangers organization participated in the AFL this season with generally positive results:
Due to the small sample size and the hitter-friendly conditions, one shouldn't place too much weight on player performances. With that said, I think that there are a few things worth pointing out in regard to the Rangers' 2009 AFL participants.
No. 1 -- Mitch Moreland is a hit(ter)
● In a league brimming with elite hitting prospects, Moreland hit third or fourth in the lineup in almost every game he played. Moreland turned a few heads (see here and here) and showed an ability to get on base (.398 OBP) against some of the more talented pitching prospects in baseball.
● Prior to the AFL, Moreland was among the top five hitters in the Texas League with a batting line of .326/.373/.488.
● Before being promoted to Double-A Frisco, Moreland was one of the top five hitters in the California League with a batting line of .341/.421/.594.
● In 2008, Moreland was the best hitter in the Midwest League with a batting line of .324/.400/.536.
Questions about Moreland's defensive value will persist, but there seems to be little doubt about his ability to hit. He will likely begin 2010 with the Oklahoma RedHawks, hitting alongside Justin Smoak and Max Ramirez -- and it wouldn't be surprising if he out-hit them both.
No. 2 -- The 2010 battle for "Best Curveball in the Rangers' System" will be interesting
In 2008, Baseball America (BA) deemed Martin Perez and Daniel Gutierrez to have the best curveballs in the Rangers' and Royals' systems, respectively. Perez figures to repeat in terms of wielding the Rangers' best curveball in 2009, but his two year reign could end with the return of Michael Main and the additions of Gutierrez and Tanner Scheppers.
No. 3 -- Reports of the death of Marcus Lemon's prospect status were greatly exaggerated
As a 19-/20-year-old in 2008, Marcus Lemon was one of the best-hitting middle infielders in the lower minor leagues, with a .295/.374/.434 line at High-A Bakersfield. A great first month in AA-ball (.324/.356/.456 with a 32 percent line drive rate) had many proclaiming that Lemon had arrived. Unfortunately, Lemon struggled through the remainder of the 2009 season and posted a disappointing line of .263/.327/.335 in Frisco.
As a middle infielder/center fielder in the AFL, Lemon is reminding us that he can lay wood to rawhide. Lemon finished his AFL stint with a 1.016 OPS that ranked among the top 10 hitters in the AFL. It is unclear whether he will start the 2010 season in the Texas League or the Pacific Coast League, but in either case, he will be among the league's youngest players as a 21-year-old. Given his energy and baseball IQ, Lemon appears to be ideally suited to provide the Rangers with a productive utility player perhaps as soon as 2011.
No. 5 -- Brennan Garr and Evan Reed: Rule 5 Draft Candidates
Brennan Garr is eligible for the Rule 5 draft this year; Evan Reed will be eligible following next season. Both pitchers were given an opportunity to elevate their prospect status with assignments to the Arizona Fall League. Unfortunately, it appears that neither pitcher did enough to justify a future spot on the Rangers' 40-man roster.
Garr threw his fastball (91.5 mph) and slider (82.5 mph) with below-average velocity for a reliever and average movement. His change-up displayed outstanding downward movement (eight inches of sink compared to his fastball), but the pitch is unlikely to be enough to compensate for his other average to below-average pitches. Reed's fastball had better velocity than Garr's (93 mph) but it had no better movement. Likewise, Reed's slider appears to be an average pitch at best (84.1 mph with slightly below-average sink).
No. 5 -- Matt Harrison is healthy (I think)
Harrison had surgery in August to alleviate weakness and pain associated with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS). Two months later, Harrison was added to the roster of the Surprise Rafters and pitched in five games. His AFL performance was reminiscent of his time in the big leagues -- decent ERA despite disappointing strikeout totals. Shown below are comparisons of the Pitch f/x data for the gem that Harrison pitched against the Chicago White Sox on May 8th (9.0 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 5 K) and his start in the AFL on November 13th (3.0 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 0 K):
Harrison's fastball velocity this fall has been equal to his best days in the major leagues last season. The velocities of his secondary pitches also appear to have returned to their pre-surgery levels. Interestingly, the movement on his pitches appears to have changed dramatically. Both the MLB and AFL data are drawn from Brooks Baseball, so the disparity in pitch movement is not due to a difference in raw data analysis. There is some game-to-game and site-to-site variation in Pitch f/x data, but not enough to account for the differences shown in the table above. Perhaps Harrison has changed his throwing motion or perhaps it is the dry air.
No. 6 -- Taylor Teagarden should consider using a bat with a wider barrel
With 18 strikeouts in 52 AFL at-bats (35 percent strikeout rate), Teagarden continued to have trouble making consistent contact. In the past three seasons, Teagarden has struck out in 34.5 percent of his professional at-bats:
2007 (A+/AA): 128 strikeouts in 394 at-bats
2008 (AA/AAA/MLB): 101 strikeouts in 293 at-bats
2009 (MLB/AFL): 93 strikeouts in 245 at-bats
Teagarden will begin the 2010 season as a 26-year-old and, unless something dramatic happens, he will likely strike out in at least 30 percent of his at bats. Assuming his batting average on balls in play is league average, Teagarden will have a batting average of roughly .215. If he is to achieve an OPS that is league average for catchers (roughly .750), he will need to have a walk rate of 14 percent and average two bases per hit. Before you get your hopes up, it is worth noting that Teagarden's walk rate in 2009 was 4.7 percent and he averaged 1.7 bases per hit.