With just a week and a half to go in the Arizona Fall League season, the Mesa Solar Sox were on pace to set an AFL record in futility. They then went on a run, winning three of their final six ballgames, improving their record to 9-21, a winning percentage .044 better than the worst record in fall league history.
The Solar Sox were made up of prospects from the Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Angels, Miami Marlins, Oakland Athletics, and Tampa Bay Rays. They had only one player from the MLB.com top 100 prospects list, Daniel Robertson of the Tampa Bay Rays, but they had plenty of big names.
The Mesa club had by far the worst team ERA in the league, 6.02, and gave up 10 more home runs than any other team.
One pitcher who had an up and down season was Pierce Johnson of the Cubs, he was also the pitcher I saw most from the Solar Sox. He really struggled in his first five starts, giving up multiple runs in every outing, including four home runs while posting a K/BB ratio of 1/1. Then, in his final two starts, he went nine combined innings of one run ball with his only run allowed coming off a solo home run from Gabby Guerrero. He struck out ten while walking just two in those final two outings and looked significantly better than earlier in the year despite finishing his fall league season with an ERA of 5.19 and tied for the most home runs allowed with fellow Cubs pitcher, Rob Zastryzny and another Mesa Teammate, Ryan Etsell.
Johnson’s fastball was working between 89-91 when I saw him, with a good curve consistently at 81-82 to go with a change at 84 and a cutter sat 87-88. It is clear his curve is his best secondary offering, but his cutter looked very good, especially in the final outing I saw. He has a low 3/4 arm slot and sits heavy on his back leg, impacting his ability to repeat his delivery consistently and show solid command. When runners are on base, he is not the quickest to the plate, but a good move did keep runners closer to the bag and showed a decent ability to control the running game.
Sean Manaea is probably the biggest name on the Mesa pitching staff had the best ERA of any pitcher to start a game, 3.86. Manaea started the AFL Fall Stars game, where he touched 97 with his fastball, but he typically sits 94-96. I have long been convinced his slider can be a true plus pitch, but it still needs some work. It sits 79-82 with good 10-4 action, but shows more drop when he throws it slower than the harder version. He still needs work on his changeup, although he has been throwing his current version for less than a full calendar year. He told me in the spring that advanced hitters were able to recognize his change because he had a two seam grip on the change but a four seam fastball. He made the adjustment to a four seam change in the spring and it is more difficult for hitter to pick up now.
He has good control, walking just six in 25.2 innings, but the command is still a work in progress as some pitches catch too much of the plate. With his big body and 3/4 arm slot with some whip in it, his fastball plays even faster than the 96 it regularly touches, and is a strikeout pitch. His slider is becoming more and more a swing and miss pitch, and he ended the year with 33 strikeouts.
Brad Schreiber had the best season based purely on numbers, posting and ERA of 1.64 with a WHIP of 1.00 and striking out nine to one walk in 11 innings and also led the league in games finished.
Jeimer Candelario was clearly the team’s MVP on the season, finishing with a team best five home runs (second best in the league), 15 RBIs, and 50 total bases (15 more than any other Solar Sox and second best in the league). The switch-hitting third baseman had just ten home runs in 128 games during the minor league season, but clearly broke out in the AFL. He was able to drive the ball into the gaps from both sides of the plate, and he regularly hit the ball with a strong line drive trajectory, which is likely why he currently projects as a doubles hitter with home run upside. The glove at third was inconsistent, but he made his share of excellent plays and has an arm that can definitely stick at third.
The before-mentioned Daniel Robertson was in his second year with the Solar Sox, in a different uniform this year as he was traded from the A’s to the Rays last off-season, but he struggled this season. He had good pop for a middle infielder, but he did not hit a single home run, and finished with a triple slash line of .228/.315/.266. His only extra base hits were a trio of doubles and he only managed to drive in two runs in 22 games, only Casey Gillaspie played in more games than Robertson. He also played several games at second base rather than short, he projects better at second, but struggled with the glove. He was only saddled with three errors but the glove looked very stiff and he made several plays far closer than they needed to be.
Mark Zagunis of the Cubs, Chad Hinshaw of the Angels, and Jake Bauers of the Rays were three other players that really stood out for the Solar Sox. Zagunis hit just .234 but he drew a league leading 19 walks for an OBP of .455. He had just three extra-base hits, two doubles and a home run, but the ball seemed to really jump off his bat and he seemed to constantly hit line drives right at outfielders. He is not someone that will develop into much of a power hitter, but he has a very good hit tool and his average-to-better speed will likely turn into a good number of doubles. He saw time in both center and right field defensively. He doesn’t have a great first step, nor does he have a great arm, but his baseball instincts will probably allow him to play all three outfield positions at least average.
Hinshaw is a speed first center fielder who showed he can hit the ball pretty well too. His .349 average was best on the Solar Sox and fourth best in the AFL. He did struggle with strikeouts, one per game, and he was not able to translate his speed into stolen bases, going just 1/4. He is not known as much of a power hitter, but he did have four doubles and two home runs in 15 games.
Bauers was the youngest player in the AFL and was one of the players the Rays got in the Wil Myers–Steven Souza trade last off-season. His numbers were pedestrian at best, but he still managed to impress. Coming into the fall league, he had played every game of his pro career at either first base or designated hitter, but he was in Arizona to play in the outfield. In 18 games, he had a triple slash line of .254/.342/.403 with two home runs and even had a triple. The left hander showed very good bat-to-ball ability, working from the left-center gap to the right field line. He gets the bat through the zone quickly with a compact swing that should allow him to hit for a good average in the future, but the power isn’t enough to play first, hence the move to the outfield. There were certainly some routes that showed his inexperience in the outfield, and he had two errors, but he flashed an arm that should certainly be enough to play in right and could be a potential breakout prospect in the 2016 season.