Cuddyer, Kearns impress at AFL

I was in Arizona last Thursday through Saturday, attending the BaseballHQ Fantasy Symposium and taking in several Arizona Fall League games. I didn't get to go to the World Series, but it was still fun being in a community that was excited about its team. The conference itself was both enjoyable and informative, as usual.

I was fortunate enough to see most of the players that I discussed in my AFL Preview two weeks ago. Let's do a rundown on what I saw.

General observations
The level of hitting in the league is very strong this year, but the pitching is weak. This is a chicken-egg thing of course, and the problem has gotten bad enough that the league instituted a "10 Run Rule" like in Little League: if one team is ahead by 10 or more runs in the seventh inning, the game ends. I saw four games, and the rule was invoked twice.

There have also been complaints about the effort and work ethic of some players. A lot of guys didn't want to be there, and it was easy to tell the players who were still working hard from those who weren't.

Player comments
Marlon Byrd, OF, Philadelphia Phillies
The first thing you notice about Byrd is his size: he is a big guy, but short, sort of in the Kirby Puckett mode. He isn't particularly fast, despite his record of stealing bases, and his bat speed didn't compare to some of the other guys listed below. But he hustles his butt off, and is playing well in the AFL.

Mike Cuddyer, 3B-OF, Minnesota Twins
Serious bat speed and power here. He played outfield and first base in the two games I saw, and assuming the Twins exist next year, I'd pencil him in in right field. He also hustled more than most of the other players on the field.

Austin Kearns, OF, Cincinnati Reds
Excellent bat speed and plate discipline, plus he was playing with a sore thumb. This guys looks like a devastating hitter when healthy. He may not be quite as good as Adam Dunn, but I think he'll make some All-Star teams.

Ty Howington, LHP, Cincinnati Reds
Got crushed in the game I saw, knocked out in the first inning. Timed as high as 95 mph during the season, but didn't get over 91 in the contest I witnessed, with no movement on his curve. He looked tired from the long season.

J.R. House, C, Pittsburgh Pirates
It was just one game, but I wasn't that impressed with him. He is physically imposing, but his swing was awkward and he swung at too many bad pitches.

Tim Raines Jr., OF, Baltimore Orioles
Very fast, though not as fast as his dad in his prime.

Keith Reed, OF, Baltimore Orioles
Good athlete, though his uniform looked too big for his body. Didn't have the impressive bat speed of guys like Kearns or Cuddyer, but looked like a potentially decent line-drive hitter.

Jason Standridge, RHP, Tampa Bay Devil Rays
I didn't see him pitch, but people who did see him said he looked awful, with poor mechanics and no real idea about what he was doing on the mound. His poor performance numbers reflect this.

Nic Jackson, OF, Chicago Cubs
A big-time sleeper. He has a very quick swing, hits the ball hard, and is just as athletic and toolsy as several more-heralded prospects. A good season in Double-A will get him the publicity he deserves. Keep an eye on this one.

Earl Snyder, 1B, New York Mets
Big-time power numbers, but he isn't imposing on the field, which may be one reason why he doesn't get a lot of attention. Crushed a mediocre fastball for a long home run in the contest I saw. Look for him in Triple-A, though he may not be sexy enough to get a chance in Shea.

Mario Valenzuela, OF, Chicago White Sox
Very good bat speed. This is another sleeper prospect. He gets little attention, but has hit well at every level and has been quite impressive in Arizona.

Hank Blalock, 3B, Texas Rangers
All I can say is, wow. He is as good as his numbers. He has a pure swing, increasing power, outstanding strike zone judgment, and an excellent work ethic.

Drew Henson, 3B, New York Yankees
Another guy with top-of-the-line power potential. He is making a concerted effort to work better counts and improve his plate discipline. I think he'll hit, but his defense at third base borders on unacceptable right now, due to limited range and excessive stiffness, perhaps a football side-effect.

Kenny Kelly, OF, Seattle Mariners
Looked much better last week than when I saw him play Double-A ball in August. His swing was smoother, quicker, and more consistent from at-bat to at-bat. Not surprisingly, he's hitting very well.

Eric Cyr, LHP, San Diego Padres
I didn't see him, but he was hammered in a start that some conference attendees saw. They said he was unable to place his fine curve or decent fastball where he wanted in the strike zone, an aberration since his control is usually outstanding. Will be in Double-A this year and has major sleeper potential if his fine K/BB is any indication.

Bill Ortega, OF, St. Louis Cardinals
Every time I see him, he looks bigger and hits the ball with more authority. I still don't think he has enough power to start in the major leagues, but his defense is decent and he would make a reasonably successful fourth outfielder.

Scott Sobkowiak, RHP, Atlanta Braves
Still recovering from arm troubles, and it showed. He was clobbered in one game I saw, unable to throw his curve for strikes, and having his fastball blasted late in the count. He was a good prospect a couple of years ago, but I'm worried about him right now.

Derek Nicholson, 1B-OF, Detroit Tigers
Former Astros prospect, came to Tigers in Rule 5 draft but missed much of '01 season with injuries. Looked great in Arizona, hitting two homers in the game I saw, albeit against weak pitching. Strike zone judgment is good, and he may be a sleeper despite being a bit old at 25.

Ben Diggins, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers
Can hit 96 mph, but his best pitch was 91 when I saw him, and he got lit up. He telegraphed his curveball and slider, and overall looked like a pretty weak prospect. It was just one game, but I want to see better numbers from him in Double-A before I get on the Diggins bandwagon.

Bobby Hill, 2B, Chicago Cubs
Ticketed for Triple-A, unless he gets really hot in spring training. He's playing OK statistically, but several people commented that he'd been playing lazily in Arizona, even in front of some Cubs brass.

John Sickels is the author of the 2001 STATS Minor League Scouting Notebook. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with his wife, son, and two cats. You can send John questions or comments at JASickels@aol.com, or you can visit his homepage at hometown.aol.com/jasickels/page1.html.