The Arizona Fall League will celebrate its 25th year anniversary when it kicks off its 2016 season on Tuesday. While it’s easy to overlook the prospect league amid the excitement of October baseball in Los Angeles, the Dodgers are giving you three compelling reasons to pay attention this year. The Tulsa trio of Cody Bellinger, Alex Verdugo, and Willie Calhoun give fans a glimpse of the big league club’s offensive future in what is the most top-heavy group of prospects the Dodgers have sent to the AFL in some time.
Cody Bellinger is arguably the frontman of this trio. Entering the 2016 season, the two biggest questions I had on Bellinger were how much he would fill out and whether his game power would transfer from the California League to the Texas League. Bellinger’s most resounding answer came in his second-half power surge for the Drillers.
Perhaps most impressive about Bellinger’s power is that his ball carries to all parts of the yard. Bellinger had six home runs from left field to dead center, and with more physical maturity, this number should increase next season. Bellinger’s swing is built for power, it’s a full-bodied effort with an uppercut plane, and built for fly balls over line drives.
While Bellinger takes a healthy cut and can look easily fooled at times, he cut his strikeout rate over seven percent while changing levels. He will likely never be a consistent .300 hitter, but Bellinger’s offensive game is maturing and he should have plenty of power to hold down first base. That’s assuming he even stays at first, as Bellinger looked more than capable in right field with decent speed, first step quickness and at least an average throwing arm.
Bellinger’s game is built to stand out in the offensive-heavy Arizona Fall League, and he should rank among the top prospects on the circuit. Bellinger has upped his profile on the national level, and is likely to rank atop a few Dodger top prospect lists this off-season. While I don’t believe he’ll reach number one on my list, he’s certainly in the top tier as a left handed power hitter that can handle left handed pitching and a variety of defensive positions.
Alex Verdugo is the best pure hitter of the bunch, given his quick trigger, bat speed and feel for contact. However, while Bellinger’s power surged, Verdugo’s offense faded in the second half. He still put in a solid season for a 20-year-old in Double-A and remains one of Los Angeles’ top prospects.
Verdugo walks a fine line of making the game look easy and playing with a low energy level. Verdugo was one of the tougher players to clock down the line because of how rarely he ran to first at full speed despite putting the ball on the ground quite often. Verdugo’s defense, however did not waver as much and he played a solid center field with good anticipation and quickness to cover the gaps.
Because of his bat speed and overall strength, there’s more power to come in Verdugo’s offensive profile, but that might not be tapped into without a few adjustments to his swing plane. Verdugo would occasionally struggle against left-handers, but was tough to strike out, whiffing just over 12 percent of the time. It’s possible that Verdugo needs a bigger challenge to really tap into his offensive potential, and he should get that in Triple-A next season.
The third man of the trio, willie Calhoun, might be the offensive balance between Bellinger and Verdugo. Like Verdugo, Calhoun makes easy contact and in the first half of the season, showed a quality plate approach against left and right-handers. Though not on par with Bellinger in terms of raw power, Calhoun’s ability to turn on fastballs and tap into his pull power in games might put his present power grade slightly ahead of Cody.
Unfortunately, Calhoun’s offense took a tumble in the second half, as he looked to wear out from the grind of his first full season. Calhoun’s lefty-righty split was the largest of the big three, with just a .575 OPS coming against left-handers.
Calhoun has enough feel for hitting to correct this flaw, but the larger issue for Willie is on the other side of the diamond. Calhoun primarily played second base, he must improve his footwork and quickness to stay at the position long term. Calhoun’s next likely position might end up being left field, where he would likely be fringe average in terms of arm and range.
Like Bellinger, Calhoun’s offense could thrive in the Arizona Fall League, and the assignment gives him a chance to regain momentum after a slow finish. I have little doubt he can produce against right handed pitchers at the big league level, but he will need to put the work into avoid being a bench bat or a platoon designated hitter option for an American League club. Like Bellinger and Verdugo, Calhoun was young for Double-A and the Dodgers can afford to be patient with Willie as he works to correct the deficiencies in his game.
Outside this trio, the Dodgers’ AFL contingent is fairly modest. Tim Locastro rounds out the position player group, with a ceiling as an infield utility player. He has a grinder mentality and has hit for average at every level, though he’s not likely to add more pop. I also found him to be limited physically for center field and his utility will likely come in the infield only.
Chris Anderson is the biggest “name” pitching prospect heading to Glendale, but the luster from his first-round status is largely gone. Anderson struggled in a starting role with Tulsa before facing a demotion to both the bullpen and Rancho Cucamonga. I’ve seen his stuff be good before, so there’s always the chance his upper-90s sinking fastball and sharp slider could return, but both pitches lost velocity and bite this year.
Ralston Cash had another solid season in the Tulsa pen and is making a return to Glendale. He improved his strikeout rate while holding his walk rate steady, though his stuff likely tops him out in middle relief. He’s a unique cutter-slider pitcher that is good enough to find an opportunity with a big league club at some point, but the depth chart in Los Angeles has proven a tougher climb.
I saw Joe Broussard just briefly this season with Tulsa, but he showed solid command of a low- to mid-90s fastball and downer breaking ball. He pitched at three levels this season and held his own at each level. Corey Copping will be looking for more innings after throwing just 27 innings this year. He showed decent promise with 20 strikeouts in just 18⅓ innings in High-A. Copping’s fastball has late riding life and his change-up is deceptive with arm speed and fade.