The Arizona Fall League began its 2010 season on Tuesday, with three games a day, six days a week, for the next five weeks. The big news so far is that the Nationals' Bryce Harper, the overall No. 1 pick of the 2010 draft, will be here next week, starting on Wednesday, playing twice a week on the "taxi squad" -- and, I would imagine, putting on some shows in BP thanks to his huge raw power and the altitude and thin air out here.
But since he's not on a roster yet, here's my first update on some top prospects who are actually in the state of Arizona and playing:
• In Wednesday's night game, Yankees lefty Manny Banuelos showed a good combination of above-average stuff and command and an easy delivery. He worked at 90-93 mph, locating the pitch to both sides of the plate, with a straight change at 79-81 with very good arm speed. His curveball has an 11/5 break and good depth, and he commanded the pitch about as well as he did the fastball, throwing it for quality strikes and putting it below the zone as needed. He throws from a three-quarters slot and the ball comes out of his hand very easily and deceptively quickly. He's 5-foot-11 but well-built, certainly strong enough to be a starter; the only concern I'd have off this look was that hitters did square up his fastball when he came toward the middle of the zone, as the pitch has some downhill plane but not much lateral movement.
• Red Sox right-hander Casey Kelly threw four innings in one of Wednesday's afternoon games, and like Banuelos impressed with three pitches and above-average command. The pitching convert was 89-94, touching 94 at least a half-dozen times, and commanded it to both sides of the plate. He threw an 84-86 mph changeup with very good arm speed, which seemed to make up for the lack of separation in velocity between it and the fastball. His curveball had good two-plane break but was less consistent than the other two pitches, with Kelly getting around the side of it a few times and losing some depth. He works from a full windup and keeps his body on line pretty well, with very little effort required to generate good arm speed and a clean arm action in back. I know there's been some hand-wringing over Kelly's 5-plus ERA in Double-A this year, but the stuff, delivery and command are fine, and I'm still high on him.
• Mets right-hander Brad Holt was much less impressive as one of the Opening Day starters in Phoenix on Tuesday. Holt threw almost exclusively fastballs, touching 93 but working mostly at 90-91, and the pitch lacks life or sink. He threw a few soft-breaking 86-87 mph sliders but the pitch was well below-average. I couldn't project Holt as more than a middle reliever based just on this look.
• Cubs right-hander Chris Carpenter fell to the third round in the 2008 draft due to medical concerns, and he's been largely a five-inning starter during his two full years in pro ball, finishing seven full innings just twice in 2010. In a relief role on Wednesday, Carpenter threw 93-96 -- including one 96 to the backstop -- with a hard slurve at 84-85 with some depth, as well as a curveball with more vertical break and one changeup at 85. The fastball lacks movement and there's a little effort in the delivery, but at worst he is a power reliever who could work the eighth or ninth inning in the majors.
• Mariners' right-hander Tom Wilhelmsen has a pretty interesting backstory: He was a seventh-round pick by Milwaukee in 2002, but was suspended twice for substance abuse (reportedly marijuana) and ended up out of baseball after 2003. He worked as a bartender in Arizona for several years before getting clean and deciding to mount a comeback in the Golden League in 2009, after which the Brewers activated him from their restricted list, only to release him after a minor injury. The Mariners signed him this spring and seem to have found something, as he was 92-95 with some feel for a two-plane curveball that would grade out as fringe- to below-average right now. He's 6-foot-6 and could make a little more use of his height, and there's some head violence at the end of his delivery, but with that velocity and control that's no worse than average, he should get a chance to prove himself at Double-A.
• The Tigers may have found a steal in 2007 26th-round pick Matt Hoffman, an outfielder/pitcher in high school who is now exclusively on the mound. The left-hander was 93-95 (more 95 than 93) with excellent hip rotation to generate that big arm speed. He threw one slider in his outing, but otherwise only threw fastballs, but a 21-year-old lefty with that arm strength is notable even if he has nothing else yet. One of his high school teammates played in the same game on Wednesday -- Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma, who struggled in the field and especially at the plate.
• As if Giants fans don't have enough to celebrate, at some point in 2011 they should see the debut of Brandon Belt, a steal in the fifth round whose fortunes changed when the team overhauled his stance and swing last fall. Belt is now much more upright, gets good weight transfer and excellent hip rotation. There's some exaggerated movement as he gets his weight back and his hands loaded, but once he starts moving forward he's fine. I'd like to see how he can handle the hard inside pitch, between that extra movement and the length of his arms (he's 6-foot-5), but when he gets his arms extended he should produce above-average or better power.
• One of you asked me whether Arizona outfielder Marc Krauss will be a Top 100 prospect when I post an updated list this coming winter, and I said that I doubt it. The main reason is that he's a well below-average defender -- maybe 4 range and a 3 arm on the 2-8 scale, and I may be too generous on the range figure -- and he doesn't project to be such a tremendous hitter that the total package is star-caliber. He does have a sound, simple swing, with good hip rotation (maybe a touch late to generate plus power) and strike-zone judgment, but it's not plus bat speed or plus power potential, and in a below-average defender in an outfield corner, the standard for offense is very high.
• Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco hit an opposite-field bomb off a left-handed pitcher on Tuesday night, but his catching was disastrous, including two throws to second base that bounced halfway between the mound and the bag and at least a half-dozen missed pitches behind the plate. Catchers often look tired in the Arizona Fall League after five-plus months of playing the game's most demanding position, but I'm concerned to see problems catching fastballs or getting throws to second base on the first day of the schedule.
I'll have another update over the weekend, plus more notes over the next five weeks as I see other top names, including late arrivals when players leave due to injury or innings limits.