First Pitch: Live AFL Coverage This Week Of the Prospects Not Named Tim Tebow

Almost every single bit of news I’ve seen that has come out of the Arizona Fall League this year has involved Tim Tebow. He goes 0-for-3, and you get an update. He gets a single for his third hit in about 20 at-bats, and you get an update. He gets injured, halting his horrible campaign, and you get an update.

It all makes me so glad the Pirates didn’t sign him, and glad that I don’t have to deal with that. Tebow is a spectacle, and a big story because of his name and his fame. But he’s not a prospect, and nothing he’s shown so far has indicated otherwise. While other non-prospects are getting a token $1,000 bonus to sign, and getting zero media attention, Tebow received $100,000 and constant updates, due to his name.

Tebow is not a prospect. If the Pirates had him, I’d have to cover him just because he’s a story that casual fans want to hear about, and I’d hate it. I’d rather cover prospects, even if they’re not the best prospects in the game, or even if they’re fringe prospects. Even if they’re prospects that no one really cares about, even the hardcore fans of their franchise, I want to cover those guys.

Fortunately, I’ve got my wish.

I’m in Phoenix this week, covering the Arizona Fall League and the players representing the Pirates. You’ll get some live game reports from me this week, along with some featured articles over the next few weeks. The players I’m covering aren’t the most marquee names, and they won’t get the attention that a Tim Tebow article would get. But covering those players is what this site is all about.

The biggest traffic and attention goes to articles on the top prospects, like Tyler Glasnow, Josh Bell, and even someone who has yet to reach the majors, like Austin Meadows. The articles on the top 30-50 prospects get some attention, but not close to the top guys. And the articles on the fringe prospects get no attention, unless we group those features in a Prospect Watch or a Notebook. We still cover everyone, regardless of the traffic, because sometimes those guys turn into Adam Frazier, or Josh Harrison, or someone else who didn’t have the most popular articles while coming through the minors. And when those guys reach the big leagues, we like to have a long history of articles on them, explaining how they got there.

That’s the purpose of this trip. The Pirates don’t have any elite prospects going to the AFL, like a Meadows or even guys like Kevin Newman or Cole Tucker. But they’ve got guys who have a chance to reach the majors, even if that chance is small for some of these guys.

Connor Joe might be the highlight of the group for me. From what I’ve seen out of him the last two years, speaking from a raw tools perspective, he looks like he’s primed for a breakout in the not-too-distant future. I watched him hit the ball hard all year in Bradenton this year, and it only translated to the stats in the second half, with his numbers improving each month throughout the year. Joe is very athletic and has more raw power than the majority of college hitters who the Pirates drafted over the last few years. He’s got a chance to be a starter in the majors, although I don’t think we’ll know his upside until he shows how much of his tools he can apply to the actual game, along with his eventual position on the field.

The position players in general are the highlight. Jin-De Jhang saw his role increased in the organization after the Reese McGuire trade. He’s kind of the opposite of McGuire. While McGuire’s defense is sound, and he shows promise with his offense, it’s the defense that is clearly way ahead of the hitting. Jhang is the opposite, with his offensive skills shining through, and the defense showing promise, but lagging behind the hitting. Most of that is due to his conditioning, and while he shows enough defensive skills now to be a catcher, the concern is that he’ll eventually have to move off the position to a DH role.

Eric Wood made some big strides this year, finally seeing his raw power translate to the game, while also improving his defense at third base to the point where he was named the best defensive third baseman in the Eastern League by Baseball America. I think Joe could have more upside in the future, but Wood is clearly ahead of him right now. Part of that is because Wood has been in the system longer, and is at a higher level, with more time to develop his game. He could be the first of this hitting group to reach the majors with the Pirates, although it would require a lot of injuries, or for him to make it as a super utility player, since the Pirates are set at third base for the next few years.

The pitching side has some interesting options, but none of them really stand out as more than future relievers. Edgar Santana is the top prospect in the group, throwing consistently in the mid-90s with a lot of movement, and pairing his fastball with a slider that flashes plus potential. He’s got a chance to be a late inning reliever, and has soared through the system, going from the DSL in 2014 to Triple-A in 2016. He could have a shot to make the majors next year, which is a pretty impressive rise through the system.

Alex McRae was a starter in Bradenton and Altoona this year, putting up some good results at each level, with a strong finish to the year in Altoona after some initial struggles. He’s a sinkerball guy who doesn’t have a good out pitch, and profiles more as a Jared Hughes type reliever if he makes it to the majors. Tanner Anderson pitched mostly in long relief in West Virginia and Bradenton this year, but had good results and showed good enough stuff that the Pirates decided to move him to the rotation in the AFL, giving him starts over McRae. He’s another sinkerball guy, and might only be a middle reliever if he makes it.

The final player is Montana DuRapau, who I don’t need to give much introduction, since he’s developed a bit of a fan club in the comment section. He had a big year last year, making the jump from West Virginia to Altoona. He stalled a bit this year, and hasn’t seen the same stuff, being inconsistent in the zone rather than keeping the ball down, and not as effective with his secondary stuff. But he’s also shown the potential, and still shows enough flashes of that potential that it’s not difficult to imagine him making it at least as a depth option.

It’s not the highest upsides here. This group might not have a starting pitcher in the majors, and it might not even have a position player that is better than an average starter one day. But it does have seven players who have a real shot at the majors, even if it could be a small role. Having a shot to reach the majors, even in that small role, is often underrated. If a player doesn’t have a chance to be above-average or a star, he’s looked at as a disappointment, or something that teams have in excess, despite the fact that so few prospects even reach the majors. You kind of get some perspective on that when you see so much hype going to a guy who isn’t even a prospect, and then you look at guys like the Pirates are sending, and like every other team is sending.

This week I won’t have the exciting Tebow stories, but the trade-off is that I’ll be covering actual prospects. I’ll take that every single trip.

**AFL Live: Reports on Connor Joe, Jin-De Jhang, and Montana DuRapau. My first live report from the AFL. Not much to report on today, since Surprise was no-hit, but I had some notes on each player, and will have a lot more after I start interviews Wednesday morning.

**Pirates Release 2017 Spring Training Schedule. I wonder if their matchup against the Dominican Republic might lead to them facing Starling Marte and/or Gregory Polanco.

**Winter Leagues: Osuna and Escobar Remain Hot, While Munoz and Espinal Slump. John Dreker has the latest updates from the other winter leagues.

  • And here I was just about to pester Tim for a Connor Joe video…my boy!

  • Having a shot to reach the majors, even in that small role, is often underrated.

    Not by those of us who had that dream growing up as a little boy. 🙂

  • Montana’s the man!

    Is it reasonable to expect him to garner his own prospect watch board?

  • Tim, while its nice Tebow can chase his dream, I appreciate that you are actually covering baseball and not the mainstream fanfare of an ex nfl qb who wasn’t that good now extending his time in the spotlight by switching sports.

    • I dunno….If a team gave ME $100k to play baseball, I’d be putting on my uniform in a hearbeat.

      • Exactly, that’s why I said the chance to chase his dream. 100k to play a game…sign me up…I was just stating how media will stand around and report his every move and you have all these other younger more interesting players they could be spending time on.

  • Eric Wood deserved to be playing in the AFL All Star Game, but somehow was overlooked. His breakout year in AA has continued in the AFL where he is 3rd overall in hitting, and I think he may be tied for the lead in HR with 3. Pitching is at a very high level in the AFL, so his numbers are legitimate.

    Edgar Santana has been a part of the strong pitching in the AFL, and he and Montana DuRapau could be conversation pieces for the Pirate BP in 2017.

    • “Pitching is at a very high level in the AFL…”

      I think you might have this mixed…the AFL is almost always a hitter’s league, it seems.

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