The Arizona Fall League might just be my favorite form of professional baseball. I used to regularly attend games when I lived in Arizona years ago, and I encourage any readers who can to take advantage of the opportunity to see the game’s up-and-coming stars in beautiful evening weather.
I saw most of the current crop of Cubs stars develop in the AFL with only a handful of people in the stands. And during one game I attended, Jed Hoyer was chilling on the concourse area leaning over the railing to the stands. You really can’t watch such high-quality baseball in a more casual setting.
Here are the hitters whom I’m excited to see when the AFL kicks off on Tuesday, October 9.
Nico Hoerner, SS
I love shortstops. I love athletic shortstops more. That’s why I love Nico Hoerner, who FanGraphs projects as a 70/80 baserunner with exceptional defensive athleticism.
Hoerner, 21 years old, was the Cubs first-round pick in the 2018 draft and immediately mashed (video of his first HR for South Bend) after starting his pro career. The Cubs shortstop prospect flew through the first three minor league levels en route to a .327 batting average, two bombs, and a walk rate that was double his strikeout rate in 41 plate appearances. But his stellar start was halted by a wrist injury.
How he fares against better pitching in Arizona could give us an idea just how fast he could progress through the system in 2019. Everything he’s shown so far as pro points to an advanced approach, and I’m extremely curious to see how he handles this challenge.
DJ Wilson, OF
DJ Wilson, 22 years old, was drafted in the fourth round by the Cubs in 2015. Like Hoerner, FanGraphs rates Wilson’s speed as a 70/80. Unlike Hoerner, however, Wilson has a little bit of a whiff problem. For a guy who only hit one homer in 272 plate appearances last season with Myrtle Beach, he can’t afford to strike out at a 26.1 percent clip.
It’s safe to say that as long as Wilson continues to strike out, he won’t rank in the top tier of Cubs prospects. But my oh my, that speed and athleticism remain tantalizing.
Jhonny Pereda, C
Pereda is not your classic catching prospect. A first glance of the 22-year-old would make you think he’s a middle infielder. Indeed, he stands tall at 6-foot-1 and weighs in around 170 pounds (or at least that’s what FanGraphs notes).
Pereda has a “soft” feel to his game. His front foot lands softly when he strides into his swing and the way he holds his bat seems rather soft and effortless as well. And how he receives pitches behind the dish just before rocketing a throw to second base seems so natural.
The athletic catcher came into his own with high-A Myrtle Beach, hitting .272 with 8 homers in 496 plate appearances this year. What stood out the most for me, though, was a strikeout rate that was just under 14 percent, suggesting he has an acute ability to make contact. Plus, Pereda has an impressive 10.3 percent walk rate to go along with the high-contact approach.
He has developed under the radar for the most part, but if he continues to put up similar numbers at more advanced minor league stages, he won’t be underrated anymore.
Trent Giambrone, INF/OF
Trent Gambrione will be 25 years old by the time the 2019 season starts, but he’s yet to play above the AA level. Still, the versatile defender displayed many appealing traits with Tennessee in 2018, such as a sub-20 percent strikeout rate, ~10 percent walk rate, and 17 homers in 456 plate appearances.
Giambrone can shift around the entire diamond, going from third base to outfield if needed. Heck, he’s even seen time in the middle infield. His pure baseball skills don’t hit you in the face like Hoerner’s, but he could be knocking on the Cubs’ door in 2019 if he continues to produce.
PJ Higgins, C/INF
PJ Higgins is the second Cubs catcher listed on the AFL roster, yet the 25-year-old isn’t restricted to playing the role of backstop. Higgins can scoot around the infield as a third baseman or first baseman, too. He’s not going to hit pitches very far, but he’s going to hit a lot of pitches. In 2018, Higgins struck out at only a 14.4 percent and 16.9 percent clip in A+ and AA ball, respectively.
Higgins struggled after his promotion from A+ to AA, though, as he saw his .366 wOBA in Myrtle Beach dip to .288 in Tennessee. Since he’s already at an advanced age for a prospect, Higgins has a lot to prove in the AFL and the 2019 season.