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Early standouts in the AFL

10/12/2012

The Arizona Fall League's 20th season began on Tuesday afternoon, and through the first three days I've seen four of the six clubs, two games apiece. Here are some early impressions on prospects who've stood out. Bear in mind I haven't seen Peoria or Surprise yet, and that these are preliminary impressions of players I'll see a few more times over the next week or two.

&bull; Kaleb Cowart (Los Angeles Angels) has been the most impressive prospect overall through these two days, showing great, quick hands at third base along with a plus arm, and good bat speed resulting in some hard contact. A switch-hitter, his left-handed swing does leave him vulnerable to changeups because he loads his hands so deep, pulling them way back even as the rest of his weight is shifting forward, and he has struck out at least twice against right-handers who fed him two-strike changeups.

&bull; Nick Castellanos (Detroit Tigers) has been the best pure hitter so far, showing no difficulty hitting better velocity or adjusting to off-speed stuff, making hard contact to all fields. He's played two games in right field with no obvious trouble so far, and he's a good enough athlete that he should be able to learn the position quickly. I still think the Tigers would be better off leaving him at third and putting Miguel Cabrera at DH, or at first base with Prince Fielder at DH.

&bull; Javier Baez (Chicago Cubs) homered in his first AFL at bat, a bomb that landed about halfway up the giant batter's-eye structure in center field at Salt River Fields; it was as loud a hit off the bat as you're likely to hear. Word travels fast, and Baez is now seeing more off-speed stuff and more pitches away that he can't pull, mostly because his swing is so hard and so fast that he's unable to control it once he starts it.

&bull; Chris Owings (Arizona Diamondbacks) has a problem similar to Baez's, but without the crazy raw power. Owings has great bat speed and very good plate coverage, but has very little patience and doesn't get himself into enough hitter's counts. He's a no-doubt shortstop, and it won't take much OBP to make him a big league regular, but he hasn't made much progress in this department since high school.

&bull; Jarred Cosart (Houston Astros) has been the most impressive pitcher I've seen, sitting 94-97 mph in his outing on Tuesday night with a hard curveball at 79-82 and a changeup with good arm speed in the lower 80s. He still cuts himself off during his delivery, but he isn't firing as hard across his body as he used to. His command was behind his control, as he was mostly around the plate but often missed the target.

&bull; Tyler Chatwood (Colorado Rockies) started against Cosart and showed good velocity (93-96) but had no plane on the pitch, so hitters managed to square it up without much trouble. His curveball remains sharp, but the lack of fastball plane or a decent third pitch really holds him back. He's listed as 6 feet tall on the official roster, but by that measuring stick Randy Johnson would come in at 7-foot-5.

&bull; Slade Heathcott (New York Yankees) showed his somewhat maniacal style of play on Wednesday night, trying to bowl over the catcher on a play at the plate (it didn't work), doing a somersault after making a diving catch in center, and running out a potential game-ending ground ball that led to the tying run scoring. Heathcott has great bat speed and a smooth, easy left-handed swing, although I'd like to see him keep his hands back a little more and get more torque from his hips. His one weakness at the plate so far has been fastballs up and/or in.

&bull; Because I know you'll ask: Dellin Betances (Yankees) threw 89-93 with well below-average command, touching 94 once, with a below-average slider. He had no consistency with his release point.

Two more Yankees: Zach Nuding threw 91-95 with a fringy slider, not as wild as Betances but still showing iffy command. Right-hander Mark Montgomery threw 90-93 with a short, hard slider that he'd even throw down and in to right-handed batters; there's some effort in that delivery, but the ball appears pretty late out of his hand.

&bull; Yasiel Puig (Los Angeles Dodgers) and John Stilson (Toronto Blue Jays) have both been scratched from the AFL. Puig had surgery to treat a staph infection in his elbow.