AFL Thoughts: Phoenix, Surprise Pitchers

This is my week at the Arizona Fall League. I went to one game and two batting practices on Tuesday. These are my thoughts on the pitchers I saw. Hitter thoughts to come in 30 minutes.

While Monday’s starting pitching match-up here in Phoenix (Travis Banwart vs. Jake Muyco) featured a pair of arms destined to top out in Triple-A, today’s (Surprise vs. Phoenix) was a pair of pitchers headed to the middle of big league bullpens. For unknown reasons, the visiting Surprise ballclub decided to substitute one Brewer farmhand for another, opting to start lefty Dan Merklinger rather than Michael Fiers. Both are fringe Brewers prospects, so it didn’t make much difference to me, and I would argue that Merklinger has the better shot at cracking the big leagues. The reason, quite simply, is that he is left-handed, and throws a good breaking ball.

The key for Merklinger is to command his 85-88 mph fastball, which he didn’t do fantastically on Tuesday. This is essentially the make-or-break element to his career, and it’s pretty iffy: he walked three or more in six of 21 starts this year, but then finished his year with five walks in 35 August innings.

On the Desert Dogs side, It appears as though the Dodgers are using the AFL to stretch out Jon Link, traded with John Ely for Juan Pierre, who has been relieving for four years. In fact, Link’s six-inning start yesterday was his longest outing since August 8, 2005. After four innings, I said to those around me, “Well, that’s the best you’re going to see Jon Link.” Up to that point, he had allowed just a single hit, subsequently retiring that baserunner via a double play. He was pitching around 90 mph, in the low 80’s with a hard slider, and showing an occasional change-up to a lefty. He was getting good tailing movement on his fastball, reflected by a 7-1 GO/AO ratio up to that point.

I was proven correct in the fifth inning, as the wheels came off a bit for Link. He allowed a first-pitch home run to Hunter Morris on an elevated fastball. After retiring Davis Stoneburner via groundout, Link then gave up three singles and a walk to the next four hitters, giving up two runs in the process. The home run and two of the singles were to left-handed hitters, and in that comment alone, Link’s weakness as a pitcher is exposed. He just can’t buy a swing-and-miss against a lefty, and for that reason, this fall experiment to return Link to the rotation will ultimately fail. Leties hit .299/.402/.483 in Albuquerque this season, and you can see why: his 3/4 release point is easier for them to see, and his fastball moves inside toward them.

Ultimately, all this is building towards a middle relief career for Link, who is proving that he can pitch multiple innings, and the AFL serves as a place for him to work on his approach to lefties. He did locate the change up low-and-away to lefties, but it’s a fringe pitch. He’s a tough match-up to righties with good command of a slightly above-average slider, and just like the opposite version of Merklinger, he will be a competent relief option until he reaches his arbitration-eligible seasons.

The better performances came in relief, and while I won’t talk about each pitcher in detail, I will reflect upon the three with the pedigree and stuff to deserve it: Jeremy Jeffress (Brewers), Jordan Swagerty (Cardinals) and Danny Duffy (Royals). You’ll note that two of these three were covered by Keith Law in an article that went up yesterday, after Keith saw Jeffress and Duffy in their previous outings.

Jeffress is the only one of the three pitchers I had seen before today, thanks to a September call-up that went okay. So, I can be sure that the version of Jeffress I saw on Tuesday is not the best he’s capable of pitching. In his two-inning appearance, Jeffress sat around 94 mph, touching 96 as often as he did 92. Jeffress has that exaggerated over-the-top delivery, and his trademark effortless arm action — few in baseball look easier throwing 95. But when you’re walking multiple batters, with inconsistent mechanics and differing release points, things don’t look as easy.

The other problem for Jeffress is that he had no feel for his curve on Tuesday. He couldn’t get on top of the pitch at all, as we saw a couple curves fail to break much at all. His change-up was featured sparingly, though it looked good on one occasion, but it’s the curve that needs to be his out pitch to sustain late-inning bullpen success. Hitters can hit 95 mph when they know it’s coming, no matter how easy it looks, so Jeffress must show that he can get hitters utilizing two-strike approaches with a curve out of the zone.

Next came Jordan Swagerty, the second-round pick by the Cardinals in the most recent draft, making his pro debut in the AFL, close to where he went to school in Tempe. It’s hard to believe Swagerty caught for the Sun Devils in addition to his closing duties, because he lacks the build of a traditional catcher — he’s lanky, with skinny, long legs. He’s aggressive on the mound, going after hitters and trusting his stuff that isn’t by any means elite. His fastball was 91-92, touching 93 on a couple occasions. While his athleticism would bode well to an eventual move to the rotation, he’s slight of build with plenty of effort in his delivery (especially after seeing Jeffress), so it’s hard to see that multiple innings would serve him well.

Swagerty showed control of his tight 82-83 mph slider, registering his lone strikeout of the inning by getting called strikes two and three with the offering. I would need to see him on subsequent outings to show proof of command of the pitch, too, as he only threw the pitch in the zone. It becomes a much deadlier option if he can spot in the zone as well as out of the zone, burying the pitch with two strikes. The other problem is the pitch doesn’t have the two-plane movement that a great slider needs to succeed in that way. As it stands, I struggle to see the role that makes the most sense for Swagerty. He couldn’t support a move to the rotation, but his stuff is not elite enough to be a late-inning option. I’d like to see more of Swagerty, as I can’t imagine the Cardinals drafted a guy in the second round to become a seventh-inning option down the road.

Our final pitcher of the game, preserving a lead in the bottom of the tenth inning, was Royals southpaw prospect Danny Duffy. Working the closer role, Duffy threw mostly fastballs, working 90-93 mph. I see a little bit of effort in his delivery, but he’s consistent, and showed good arm speed on a change-up, and got on top of his curveball. Law in his article called it a “well below-average vertical curveball at 73-74 mph,” but the lone curve we saw in Phoenix was a 75 mph offering with bite that froze Kyle Skipworth. Obviously Duffy needs to make sure his stuff is more consistent, but there are the outlines of three solid pitches that should mold into a solid big league starter.

Thoughts on the hitters from one game and two batting practices coming soon.

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13 years ago

Bryan, great info here. Regarding Link, the Dodgers agree with you that he’s not destined to be a starter; he’s there not to transition, but just to stretch out. He’ll still be a reliever.