The Arizona Fall League kicked off Wedensday with several notable Dodger prospects on the Glendale Desert Dogs, most notably on the mound. The fall league means different things for different players, with some using the league to make up for lost time during the year, while others can use it as “prospect finishing school” ahead of a future MLB call up the following summer.
For two top Dodgers arms, Bobby Miller and Landon Knack, both themes could be true, and a continued dominance by both could put them in the rotation picture at some point in 2022.
The headlining prospect of the four arms sent to Glendale is Miller, the Dodgers’ first-round pick of 2020. The right-hander enters the fall near the top of my shortlist for top Dodgers prospect, and could solidify that status with a strong showing in the showcase league. Miller has already made fast progress under the tutelage of the Dodger development team and reached Double-A despite just 47 innings pitched in High-A.
Had the pandemic not wiped out the bulk of the 2020 college season, you could make an argument that the Dodgers might not have had the chance to take Miller at 29th overall. He surged to near the top of the Louisville rotation. Miller has always had a strong arm and durable build, but a long arm action and lower slot pegged his outlook as a sinker-slider arm with reliever risk.
Now, Miller has both shortened his arm action and raised his slot, eliminating most of the stiffness in his upper body mechanics. He pitches with a much more repeatable and athletic delivery that has opened him up to more pitch options. He still has the plus fastball and slider, but the improved slot gives his slider more bite, and he hasn’t lost much of any of the arm-side run off his fastball. Miller can also vary looks and play with the shape of his breaking ball, flashing a tighter cutter and average curveball.
While the Dodgers limited Miller’s innings in 2021, he has the build of a durable innings eater (if teams even use innings eaters these days). He’s the physical prototype of the “Texas fireballer” (though he hails from Illinois) and pitches with an energetic, attacking flare, throwing 64 percent of his pitches for strikes. He limited hard contact while still missing bats, allowing just two home runs this year. Given that he’s only thrown 56 professional innings with his improved delivery, Miller could offer even more upside than the typical AFL arm, with the physicality to perhaps see him pitch more frequently in the upper 90s.
Miller only threw for the Tulsa Drillers three times, so the AFL will function as further experience in the upper minors. Even with a dominant turn with Glendale, he will likely return to Double-A Tulsa to start 2022. Miller just needs to prove consistency in results with a greater workload to be deemed ready for major league action, and an eventual place near the top of the Dodger rotation (behind Walker Buehler) is a conceivable future outcome.
Joining Miller as a top pitching prospect heading to the AFL is Knack, another draft pick from the 2020 college ranks. Knack has been on an almost identical fast track as Miller, and though a year and a half older, Landon’s could be expected. Knack was a senior sign and was assumed to likely be headed to the pen, but his brief performance in 2021 suggests starting isn’t out of the question.
Though Knack has similar arm strength to Miller, the overall arm profile is not quite as exciting. Knack can reach the upper 90s with his fastball and can fill the zone with his pitches (69-percent strike rate), but the fastball doesn’t have the electric run of Miller’s offering. Knack can still miss bats with his combination of velocity and command, especially up in the zone, and the slider is also a quality swing and miss offering.
Knack suffered from several arm injuries in college and already has a maxed out frame, which could lend to the belief he’s a future reliever. He does throw strikes with relative ease and might fit as a swing arm shuttling between the pen and starting, pitching multiple innings in either role but likely kept away from going through the order a third time.
Knack should show well again in Arizona with a limited pitch count allowing him to redline his pitches more frequently. I’m not sure if a strong performance would increase his profile as much as it would solidify it, given his age and polish. You may hope that 2022 would give more clarity to where the Dodgers see Knack eventually fitting with the pitching staff, but given the way the team has employed their controllable arms at the big league level, some fluidity and flexibility should be expected.
Rounding out the Dodger contingent on the Glendale pitching staff are two likely pen arms Jeff Belge and Kyle Hurt. Belge is a big-framed left-hander that hasn’t quite lived up to the lofty prospect status he had coming out of high school, having been plagued by walks while at St. John’s and with the Dodgers. He has missed bats throughout his college and pro career but experienced struggles with strike-throwing that has already relegated him to the bullpen. His slider was a solid second offering in college and he can miss the bats of both left- and right-handers, so he’s not strictly a platoon prospect. The AFL gives Belge the chance to add innings to his 2021 docket and work to get back on track to reaching the upper minors in 2022.
Hurt was also a famous prep and collegiate arm, but from the right side of the mound and the other side of the country at Southern California. He’s only thrown 21 professional innings, so it’s hard to say what advancements he has made with the Dodgers, but his small sample size strikeout rate is awfully promising. The collegiate Hurt had a firm, low to mid 90’s fastball and backed it up with a deceptive change-up that he would struggle to command but had plenty of promise. Hurt will likely be using the fall league to make up for lost time and gain exposure to more mature hitters with upper-level experience.