Exclusive Scouting Report: AFL Rising Stars West

Adam Engel, CF, Chicago White Sox (Age: 23 — 2015 Levels: A+ Winston-Salem, Carolina League)

Engel has been a player I’ve seen at various stages of his career, starting at Louisville. I saw him from his freshman year to his junior season, after which he was a 19th-round pick by the White Sox. Engel fell in the draft in 2013, more a reflection of scouts’ questions about his ability to translate a premium power/speed/athlete package into offensive production than any knock on his raw tools. He’s a very polarizing blend of excellent physically-based ability without the type of polish that seems to accompany some of the better prospects in the AFL, and his 2015 stat line tells the same tale.

This past season, the same physical specimen that stole over 60 bases while walking in over 10% of his plate appearances also scraped out a .704 OPS and 22% strikeout rate, all before reaching AA. Some might point to his athletic ability and raw power as indications improvement can be made, and Engel certainly has the speed and acceleration to stay in CF and keep some pressure off the development of his bat. Others would cite his stiffer swing and over 20% K-rates to be increasingly exposed once he reaches AA and above — while also noting when he begins 2016 (likely at AA Birmingham), he’ll be 23 and still yet to reach AA by the start of his third full professional season as a player selected out of college. While he has plenty of strength in his frame and shows power in BP, he’s never been able to get to high slugging percentages or ISOs (.117 ISO in 2015).

Though the sample is short, Engel was leading off the AFL Rising Stars Game for the West team on the strength of a very strong Fall League, not necessarily pure prospect status. He has improved the fluidity of his load in a square, bent base since his amateur days. He laid off pitches out of the zone better in this look than I’d seen previously, and the numbers likely agree — Engel’s walk rate in 2015 was the best of his pro career, and he’s walked 11 times to just four strikeouts in the AFL. There is still length and stiffness in the swing, with a path that’s more line-drive oriented. Given his speed, that’s probably not a bad thing; while he’s always shown more BP power than his numbers show on the strength of his physicality, I don’t see that many indications he’ll bring out much more game power than he’s showing now in years to come. Defensively and on the bases, Engel’s football-like explosiveness was as “on display” as ever. He ranges back on balls well in CF, and had great acceleration on both sides of the ball. Engel is as fast as basically any player in pro ball, but he’s so well-built his stride looks stronger than most 70+ grade runners on the 20-80 MLB scouting scale. He has an aggressive, hard-nosed demeanor and changes the defensive and baserunning aspects of a game with his legs, giving him the supplementary tools for at least a defensive-minded bench outfielder/pinch-runner profile.

Engel might always be a physical “tools” player lacking enough baseball synthesis for an everyday centerfield role, but his 2016 first crack at AA will be important in determining whether he carries likely 40-man value or is just the type of toolsy organizational prospect that gets stuck in the mid-to-high minors. What I always think about players with this type of dominant, explosive speed is that they aren’t ever as far away as a less dynamic player to make the adjustments needed to increase their value (think of Delino DeShields‘ surprise contributions to the 2015 Rangers, for instance). In Engel’s case, if he can continue to take more pitches and cut down on strikeouts — simply allowing him to put the ball in play more frequently — he could quickly start to be seen as a player with a more viable chance of being an everyday contributor.

In the absolute best case, I can see Engel starting games in centerfield for a second-tier ML club in the mold of Astros and Rockies starter Brandon Barnes. I think it’s more likely Engel will be a speed-and-defense bench player if he’s at the ML level, but his strong AFL certainly is a positive step.

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