Keep an eye on these ’22 AFL sleepers

Detroit Tigers

As excited as we are to see the top prospects in action in this year’s edition of the Arizona Fall League, and there are plenty of elite-level players starting to play when the season opens on Monday, we don’t lose sight of the fact that the AFL can be a coming-out party for many lesser-known prospects.

The 2021 Fall League season, in many ways, was the year of the “sleeper.” So many of the top performers in the league appeared in this story featuring a sleeper prospect for each organization a year ago. The Cubs’ Nelson Velázquez was the AFL MVP and hit the big leagues last year. Rangers right-hander Owen White was voted the top pitching prospect after being Texas’ sleeper pick. Elijah Dunham of the Yankees was the breakout player of the year, the Rays’ Curtis Mead had a very strong showing. Other under-the-radar prospects who stood out were Logan O’Hoppe, who is now a Top 100 guy, Juan Yepez, Jose Tena, who won the batting title, and Caleb Kilian, who has pitched in the big leagues year.

So track this group of 30 names closely. They won’t be sleepers for much longer.

Blue Jays: Hagen Danner, RHP
We dropped Danner out of the Blue Jays’ Top 30 list after he missed much of the season with a lat injury, but the Fall League is a perfect time for him to make up for the lost innings. Danner could be one of the best stories at this year’s AFL. He was selected in the second round as a catcher in 2017, played three seasons behind the dish and transitioned to the mound in 2021, when he sat in the mid-90s, touched 100 and showed an above-average slider. Already on the 40-man, Danner could use his time in Arizona to vault himself into Toronto’s bullpen consideration for 2023.

Orioles: Reed Trimble, OF
Trimble entered pro ball coming out of Southern Miss with an exciting power-speed combination, a big reason why the Orioles took him in the second round of the 2021 Draft. He didn’t get to show off much of either in a 2022 season limited to just 33 total games following surgery to repair a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder last offseason. This AFL season could put him back on the radar.

Rays: Sandy Gaston, RHP (No. 22)
Call Gaston a wild card for Mesa, in almost every sense. The 20-year-old right-hander has long shown elite velocity since signing for $2.61 million in November 2018 with a fastball range of 96-101 mph. It’s that type of heat that will play in the desert. Control will be a major point of emphasis, however. Gaston walked 56 batters in 54 2/3 innings this season at Single-A Charleston while moving to the bullpen full-time. The Rays contend the Cuba native could still start and that pitching in relief offered more opportunities on the mound to iron out his control. The AFL will bring more of those, and if Gaston finds the zone, his velo will be enough to wow any on-lookers.

Red Sox: Thad Ward, RHP (No. 15)
Ward quickly went from a fifth-round pick out of Central Florida in 2018 to one of the Red Sox’s best pitching prospects, then lost the 2020 season to the pandemic shutdown and required Tommy John surgery after two starts in 2021. He returned to the mound this July, reclaimed his sharp slider and 92-96 mph sinker, and posted a 2.28 ERA with 66 strikeouts in 51 1/3 innings across four levels, mostly in Double-A.

Yankees: Tyler Hardman, 3B/1B
Hardman won the Big 12 Conference batting title (.397) at Oklahoma in 2021, prompting the Yankees to draft him in the fifth round. He hit more for power than average in his first full pro season, translating his plus raw pop into a .262/.329/.479 line with 22 homers in 107 games in High-A.

Guardians: Lenny Torres, RHP
A supplemental first-round pick as a New York high schooler in 2018, Torres reached 98 mph with his fastball and flashed a plus slider before having Tommy John surgery in May 2019. He’s still trying to reclaim that stuff and compiled a 6.00 ERA with 36 strikeouts and 28 walks in 33 innings in High-A.

Royals: Samad Taylor, 2B/OF (No. 25)
Say hi to the new guy. Taylor was included along with Max Castillo in the Whit Merrifield Trade Deadline move with the Blue Jays but has yet to suit up in the Royals system due to a pre-deal injury sustained on July 13. When healthy, Taylor shows plus speed that has helped him steal 20-plus bags in four straight Minor League seasons, and he has some intriguing pop too. Taylor got the most of his looks at second base with Triple-A Buffalo but has some left-field experience too. His range makes him a solid defender at either spot, and he’ll be playing for a potential 40-man roster spot ahead of his Rule 5 eligibility in the offseason.

Tigers: Parker Meadows, OF (No. 16)
The 2018 second-rounder has long been a standout athlete with plus speed and above-average glove and arm tools, but entering 2022, he had yet to post a full-season OPS above .625 and had strikeout issues caused in part due to a hitch in his swing. He looked much better in 2022, hitting .275/.354/.466 with 16 homers, 17 steals and an improved 18.4 percent K rate in 113 games at Double-A Erie. His 20 total dingers (including four at High-A) more than doubled his previous career high of eight. Those offensive improvements will be put to the test in Arizona before he is eligible for the Rule 5 Draft this winter.

Twins: Edouard Julien, 2B (No. 14)
The 2022 season was a bit of a coming-out party for Julien, who was named to the Second Team for this year’s MLB Pipeline Prospect Team of the Year after finishing with a .931 OPS. A strong Fall League will cement a spot on the 40-man roster and put Julien in line to contribute in the big leagues in 2023.

White Sox: Terrell Tatum, OF
A potential steal as a 16th-rounder out of North Carolina State in 2021, Tatum has a good eye at the plate, plus speed and a chance to stick in center field if he improves his routes. He hit .267/.405/.415 with 13 extra-base hits and 16 steals in 42 games between Single-A and High-A, though he missed 50 games after getting suspended for testing positive for amphetamine use.

Angels: Kyren Paris, SS/2B (No. 20)
Paris missed a huge chunk of 2021, his first real full pro season following the shutdown, with a broken tibia and it may have taken him a while to shake off the rust while in High-A this season. But in August and September, between Tri-City and a late bump up to Double-A, Paris started showing what he’s capable offensively, with an 1.100 OPS over his final 32 games, something he and the Angels hope carries over to the AFL.

Astros: J.C. Correa, C/2B/3B
The younger brother of former Astros star Carlos Correa, J.C. has proven to be more than just a courtesy nondrafted free agent signing in 2020 out of Lamar. He makes a lot of line-drive contact, as evidenced by his .309/.364/.446 batting line and 8 percent strikeout rate in High-A, and he also has a strong arm and the versatility to have played catcher, all four infield spots and left field in two pro seasons.

A’s: Ryan Cusick, RHP (No. 14)
The A’s got Cusick, the Braves’ first-round pick in 2021, in the Matt Olson deal this past spring, but they didn’t really get to see much of him this season as an oblique injury knocked him out for more than two months. His pure stuff ranks up there with anyone in the league, with a fastball that touches triple digits and a slider that could be plus among his four-pitch mix.

Mariners: Bryan Woo, RHP (No. 15)
Though Woo’s Draft season at Cal Poly in 2021 was cut short when he needed Tommy John surgery, the Mariners saw enough of him to take him in the sixth round of that Draft and rehab him under their supervision. He returned the mound in June and the M’s were very excited by his stuff, with Woo striking out 13.3 per nine over 57 innings.

Rangers: Cody Freeman, C/3B
Though Freeman has yet to break out at the plate, scouts praise his feel for the barrel, hands, versatility (he has caught and played all four infield positions as a pro) and leadership ability. A fourth-round pick from a California high school in 2019 and the younger brother of Guardians infielder Tyler Freeman, he batted .234/.312/.366 with 13 homers in 102 games in High-A.

Braves: Justyn-Henry Malloy, OF/3B (No. 12)
Malloy walked more than he struck out at Georgia Tech in 2021 and he brought that selectivity to the Braves in his first full season this year, finishing in the top 10 among all Minor Leaguers with 97 walks while making it to Double-A. The Braves system might be thin, but could Malloy be the next impact bat to jump to the big leagues, a la Vaughn Grissom?

Marlins: Victor Mesa Jr., OF (No. 15)
The son of legendary Cuban outfielder Victor Mesa, Victor Jr. has outperformed older brother Victor Victor in the Marlins system despite signing for far less ($1 million versus $5.25 million). He has a smooth left-handed swing and a high baseball IQ, and he batted .243/.323/.346 with 34 extra-base hits and 10 steals in 121 games in High-A.

Mets: Grant Hartwig, RHP (No. 22)
From unpicked in a 20-round Draft to the Mets’ Top 30 in one year. It’s been an incredible 12 months for Hartwig, who is set to play for his fifth team of the season after climbing from Single-A to Triple-A this summer. The 24-year-old reliever can be around 93-94 mph with his fastball but stands out most for a low-80s slider with promising two-plane break. Those two pitches (plus a serviceable changeup) helped him post a 1.75 ERA with 83 strikeouts in 56 2/3 innings across four levels during the season, and some more K-heavy appearances out of the Peoria bullpen would help him end the year with an exclamation point.

Nationals: Darren Baker, 2B
Yes, this is Dusty’s son, but the Fall League should provide Baker with another opportunity to make a name for himself as a Nats prospect. Taken in the 10th round last year out of Cal, Baker hit .280/.343/.365 with three homers and 15 steals in 105 games at High-A and Double-A in his first full season. His numbers actually improved at the higher level, in part because he got away from pitcher-friendly Wilmington. Baker is a solid runner and defender at second base but has to prove more adept at making hard contact the higher he climbs.

Phillies: Carlos De La Cruz, OF/1B
A little bit of a late bloomer who signed with the Phillies back in August 2017, the 6-foot-8 De La Cruz broke out this year in bashing 17 homers between High-A and Double-A. He needs to refine his approach to get to that power, but the Phillies like his swing. They also like his ability to defend well in all three outfield spots with solid speed. He’ll also get more time at first base this fall.

Brewers: Abner Uribe, RHP
Uribe and his triple-digit fastball got Craig Counsell’s attention in the spring, and it looked like the 22-year-old right-hander could have had an outside shot at cracking the Milwaukee bullpen at some point in 2022. Then, he suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee in late April and missed the rest of the regular season. Uribe pitched in last year’s Fall League too, so this assignment is nothing new for him. As with many fireballers, control will be the key point of emphasis. Uribe struck out 16 batters in nine AFL innings last year but also walked 17 in the same span.

Cardinals: Ryan Loutos, RHP (No. 26)
Everyone loves a local story. Everyone loves an undrafted free agent making good. Loutos fits the middle of that particular Venn diagram, signing with St. Louis out of Division III Washington University for $20,000 in July 2021. A year later, he already climbed to Triple-A Memphis on the strength of a mid-90s fastball and solid low-80s slider. The 23-year-old right-hander did hit a bit of a wall with the Redbirds (6.33 ERA, 2.07 WHIP in 27 innings), but the Fall League offers a good chance for him to reset after such a quick climb.

Cubs: Matt Mervis, 1B (No. 21)
Mervis had a breakout 2022 season, hitting .309/.379/.605 while advancing from High-A to Triple-A, leading the Minors in extra-base hits (78), total bases (310) and RBI (119) and ranking third with 36 homers. Signed as a nondrafted free agent out of Duke in 2020 after the pandemic shortened the Draft to five rounds, he offers the best combination of power and contact in the Cubs system.

Pirates: Blake Sabol, C/OF
Ever since the Pirates took Sabol out of Southern Cal in the seventh round of the 2019 Draft, all he’s done is hit. His .957 OPS in 66 games across two levels of A ball were interesting in 2021, but he really jumped on the map more this year, hitting 19 homers in Double- and Triple-A. He earned kudos from the organization for his willingness to get back behind the plate in 2021 after not having caught since 2018.

Reds: Christian Roa, RHP (No. 30)
The Reds’ second-round pick in 2020, Roa missed a lot of 2021 because of injuries. He logged over 90 innings this year and pitched his way to Double-A in the process. He has the chance to have a legitimate four-pitch mix and showed he can miss bats (10.1 K/9), though he’ll have to refine his command (5.4 BB/9) to reach his ceiling as back-end starter.

D-backs: Kyle Backhus, LHP
Backhus played five years at Sam Houston State, where he was teammates with Top 100 prospect Colton Cowser before the D-backs signed him as an undrafted free agent in July 2021. He got off to a fast start this season at High-A and Double-A, finishing second among Arizona farmhands (min. 50 IP) with a 34.5 percent K rate in 52 1/3 frames. The 6-foot-4 left-hander sports an 89-92 mph fastball and high-70s sweeping slider and makes both pitches play up because of the deception from his low sidearm slot. He could dominate AFL lefties and put himself more firmly on the Arizona map.

Dodgers: Jorbit Vivas, 2B/3B (No. 16)
One of the better contact hitters in the Minors, Vivas has batted .286 with a 12 percent strikeout rate since signing for $300,000 out of Venezuela in 2017. He also has some sneaky power despite being listed at 5-foot-10 and 171 pounds, and he hit .269/.374/.401 with 10 homers in 128 games in High-A.

Giants: Adrian Sugastey, C (No. 19)
Signed for $525,000 out of Panama in 2019, Sugastey won the Rookie-level Arizona Complex League batting title (.358) in his 2021 pro debut but stands out most for his well above-average arm behind the plate. He hit .240/.329/.333 with five homers in 75 games in Single-A this summer.

Padres: Alek Jacob, RHP (No. 24)
The 2016 16th-rounder is about to bring a lot of funk to the Peoria bullpen. Jacob may only get into the upper-80s with his fastball, but the sink on the pitch is so heavy that it can still be effective. His low-70s changeup might be his best pitch with promising fade and separation off the fastball, but a sweeping slider with the same velo keeps hitters off too. A sidearm angle keeps hitters from squaring him up too, and the whole package fueled Jacob’s rise from High-A to Triple-A in his first full season with this AFL reward remaining.

Rockies: Warming Bernabel, 3B (No. 8)
Maybe it’s a reach to pick an organizational top 10 prospect as a “sleeper,” but the 20-year-old Bernabel has yet to play beyond A ball, so this will be a good test and chance for him to introduce himself on a larger stage. He has hit wherever he’s been, with a .312 average in 2021 as he made it to full-season ball for the first time and .313 this year with Fresno and Spokane.

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