Arizona Fall League Report: Anderson, Steckenrider Shining Bright In Valley Of The Sun

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Brian Anderson and Drew Steckenrider

Marlins baseball may be over for the next five months on the east coast of the United States, but out west in Arizona, it rages on. Here is a look at what has occurred in the Arizona Fall League so far.

Brain Anderson has built on his productive third season as a pro which saw him make the most difficult jump in the minors from A+ to AA and in which he posted an overall .265/.348/.389 line with 11 homers and a 97/58 K/BB and earning 2016 organizational MiLB Player of the Year honors by getting off to a .367/.426/.592 start with the Mesa Solar Sox. With a 1.018 OPS that ranks is tops on his team among full time starters and also ranks fourth among qualifiers in the entire AFL and riding a 13-32 streak, Anderson earned an invitation to play in this week’s Arizona Fall League All-Star game as an AFL Rising Star among the likes of Yankees phenom Gleyber Torres and Baseball America’s #25 overall prospect, the Blue Jays’ Anthony Alford. As evidenced by the fact that 28% of his hits went for extra bases this past MiLB season which included 8 homers as a Jacksonville Sun, third most on that squad in 86 games despite being a fresh call up from Jupiter (and despite a rough initial learning curve to life in the upper minors as he hit just .165 over his first week in black and gold) and the fact that he already has two long balls in 11 games and 36 ABs this fall, Anderson is learning to harness some truly special power. As he is also proving in his second stint in the AFL so far, Anderson is getting his free swing a bit more under control. Working counts and gaining a better knowledge of the strike zone has evidently become a focal point for Anderson. With a huge 2.09 K/BB on his career in full season ball so far, Anderson has actually walked more than he has struck out as a Solar Sox, a notion that once seemed improbable, no matter how small the sample size, for the pure power swinger. Committing to swings less often has been the focus of Anderson’s coaches since 2015 when he struck out 109 times as a Hammerhead.

The work of his coaches paid dividends this past season. Again, even though he made the hardest jump there is to make in the minors, he posted his best full season K/BB total (1.68). This included a 1.63 mark at the highest level he’s ever played at. The 6’3″, 185 and growing 23-year-old is an athletic sight to behold at the plate. His swing is of the uppercut variety and his strength allows him to shorten up well on balls inside. With the K rate in check, I foresee more doubles than homers but if Anderson can continue to make good choices at the plate and maintain the softness in his hands through an opposing pitcher’s delivery and up until a viable point of commission of a swing, he could turn in to a 20+ long ball threat.

Anderson has been put through the ringer defensively as well in an attempt to get him to be more consistent with his throws. He has good instincts and vision of balls off the bat and makes all the plays necessary at the hot corner. He has the arm strength necessary to play third but the arm accuracy isn’t quite there. In 2016 full season ball, he made a career high 27 errors, most coming as a result of a throw. He’s performed pretty well in the AFL so far and has been taking on extra drills and conditioning in order to succeed at third. But, even though he likely holds more value as a third baseman, as he grows into his body, I foresee him becoming a more realistic option at first base where he has begun seeing time this fall as a Solar Sox.

Jarlin GarciaJoining Anderson on the 2016 East Rising Stars Team is Jarlin Garcia. After a solid 97 innings in Jupiter (18 starts, 3.06 ERA, 1.23 WHIP), Garcia, a lefty and a Miami international signee in 2010, made it to Jacksonville to end that season. He returned to Jacksonville to start 2016 but after just 39.2 IP in 9 starts, Garcia hit the DL with a triceps injury in his throwing arm. After missing two full months, he returned to the mound on August 8th initially in the GCL and then back in Jupiter to end the season. In those eight outings, he pitched exclusively out of the bullpen. With the injury, which came after the posting very sub-par 330 IP, 4.09 ERA, 1.26 WHIP career stat line as a starter in leagues that weren’t the extremely pitcher friendly Florida State League including a 76.1 IP, 4.73 ERA, 1.367 WHIP start to his career in the upper minors, it’s looking like the pen is where Garcia belongs. That assertion is backed up by the 3.12 ERA, 6/2 K/BB and .975 WHIP Garcia has posted in 8.2 innings for Mesa this fall. A somewhat lanky 6’3″, 215, Garcia starts off with a slow slide step delivery to the third base side before performing a high leg kick and dropping the his arm to a complete 6:00 position, hiding the ball completely behind his back leg, ala Carter Capps. He completes a near full arm circle as he strides home. Up until this point, his delivery is mechanically sound and hard for hitters to solve but as he releases from his high 3/4 arm slot and pushes off from his plant leg, Garcia’s mechanics take a dive. His delivery loses its fluidity as he snaps through to the plate violently. The smooth liquid motion he has up until that point gives way to a jerky follow through which sometimes results in him falling off the rubber to the third base side. It isn’t much of a problem for him in the beginning of his outings but as his pitch count rises he tries to compensate for the max effort release by overthrowing. This results in him missing his catcher’s glove and overall bad command. Despite still being able to hit the zone, he catches too much of it and hitters take advantage. Thus oppositions start waiting him out, forcing him to throw as many pitches as possible in his first two innings of work then teeing off on him in the third.

Unless he reinvents his delivery, the lefty who turns 24 this year isn’t rotation material. For at least 25 pitches though Garcia has a late breaking 12-6 power curve which has seen ups and downs but is currently a plus pitch. He piggybacks that with an even better and more consistent changeup which he spins and fades nicely. His heater sits in the low to mid 90s with a max velo of 95 and an average of 92. Should he make the full transition to the pen, Garcia could contribute to the Marlins as early as 2017.

Somewhat shockingly not joining Anderson and Garcia on the Rising Stars team is the third of eight Miami participants in the AFL this season, speedster Yefri Perez. After stealing 197 bags in 249 attempts including a record 71 for the Hammerheads in 2015 and another 39 for the Suns in 84 games in 2016, Perez received his first call to the majors as a pair of very apt legs off the bench for the Fish this September. He served in that capacity almost exclusively (he got just 3 ABs in 12 games appeared in) for the on-the-brink Marlins and stole his first four MLB bases. The 5’11, 170 25-year-old has zero power to speak of but if speed equated to homers, he would be a 50+ home run threat. Thus, all Perez needs to do to succeed in any league is get on base. And to do that, all he needs to do is put the ball in play and make an infielder make a somewhat difficult play. Watching Perez in Jupiter in 2015, I even saw him reach base on routine ground balls. That’s the level this guy is at when it comes to his running game. He is by far the fastest guy the Marlins’ organization has ever seen, faster than Luis Castillo, faster than Juan Pierre and a perennial 50 stolen base threat. But only if he can avoid the strikeout. That has been what has held Perez back until this season and has been the focal point of his coaching staffs. Before this season began, he boasted 255 career Ks (including 95 as a Hammerhead in ’15) to just 139 walks or a 1.83 K/BB. Discounting his 28/30 K/BB season in the Dominican in 2009 or the only time he walked more than he K’d in his career, his K/BB figure rises to 2.08. However, the work that has been done with him both in Jacksonville this past season where he walked a career high 39 times to 66 Ks and in the AFL this winter where he is hitting .340/.417/.377 with a BA and OBP that rank fourth in the league just below Anderson and a very respectable 11/7 K/BB as well as seven steals which unsurprisingly ranks second in the league through is first 13 games seems to be paying dividends. Perez’s knowledge of the strike zone has more than doubled since that ugly season K-wise in Jupiter. Although all he knows he has to do is get the bat on the ball to most likely reach base, he’s not going nearly as far out of his way to do so and it seems that he has learned that taking four balls will allow him to reach indefinitely.

With an approach that continues to mature and the willingness and desire to continue to learn as well as already providing some exciting moments in a Miami uniform Perez has shown the organization that he wants to make a big splash in the coming year. With the ability to play all three outfield spots as well as three infield positions (though his speed is most advantageously used in center field), Perez should almost definitely be part of the Marlins in 2017. With the work he did in AA and the work he is currently doing in the Arizona Fall League though Perez could be destined for more. With the potential trade of Adeiny Hechavarria incoming as well as the almost guaranteed trading of Marcell Ozuna, with a good spring campaign, Perez could find himself in the conversation for a starting job. At the very least, he will serve as a switch hitting bat off the bench who will steal bases virtually at will.

As Today’s Knuckleball laid out earlier this week, baseball hasn’t been kind to Drew Steckenrider for most of his career. After a dim start to it as a starter from 2012-2014 which included Tommy John and saw him spending almost two years recovering, it was looking like Steckehnrider would need to pursue a different way to spend his working days. Then this year happened. With a firmly reconstructed throwing elbow and upon finally making a full-time transition to the a late inning relief role, Steckenrider found his inner peace. As a result, opposing batters have found their hell. In 52 frames mostly in AA Jacksonville but also in AAA New Orleans and a few in A+ Jupiter, Steckenrider held down a 2.08 ERA with a ridiculous 71-19 K/BB and a lowly 0.85 WHIP. He converted 14 of 15 save opportunities and held batters to just a .141 BA. So far in the Arizona Fall League, it’s been more of the same for the Marlins’ eighth rounder out of Tennessee. In seven games and nine IP, Steckenrider has yet to allow a run and has walked just one while striking out 11. He’s converted both of his saves successfully, including the latest on November 1st which came as he closed out a combined no hitter. Tall and athletic at 6’5″ 215, Steckenrider is a sight to stare down as an opposing hitter. He backs up that menacing appearance with equally menacing stuff. His running fastball holds good plus velo, sitting in the 96-98 MPH neighborhood and is backed up with filthy slider that runs and dives away from hitters. See the devastation of the pitch starting at the :30 second mark of the above video as he strikes out a pair of Yankees, prospect Miguel Andujar by running it inside and hitting the glove perfectly, buckling his hitter’s knees and then at 1:14 as he gets former MLBer Greg Bird with it by running it outside and generating an off-balance swing. The 84-85 MPH offering is Steckenrider’s best pitch and he will use it at both ends of an AB. Steckenrider’s third pitch is a 75 MPH curve that he likes to bury low in the zone or even in the dirt. Again, the pitch owns late break and generates tons of swings and misses. With great arm speed and command over the slow pitch, it is a fantastic mix in and piggyback to the slider. See it in action again in the Bird AB as he gets a lefty who once hit .871 in the majors to look bad fishing out of the zone on it for a second strike before the aforementioned set-down with the change. With three complete pitches all of which flash plus and a free and easy repeatable windup and delivery, Steckenrider has a fantastic future as a late inning set up man or closer, a future which shouldn’t be too far away for a Marlins team which has some filling out to do in their bullpen after the release of Fernando Rodney, the possible release of Mike Dunn who becomes a free agent this year, and a possible trade of AJ Ramos who holds great value. After a bit of soul searching and a lot of bumps in the road along the way to get where he is today, Steckenrider is a feel-good story and a very easy guy to root for. With a good spring training, the Marlins, who have stayed committed to him throughout, would love nothing more than to give him his major league debut next season.

Austin NolaWith a career .244/.330/.321 slash line over 1975 MiLB ABs, Austin Nola has exhibited pretty limited offensive capabilities. However, what the 26-year-old 6th round pick from 2012 has exhibited is a fantastic throwing arm and versatility in the infield playing five different positions. This fall, the Marlins are adding another position to that resume: catcher. Where at one time the 6’0″, 195 pounder would be far too undersized for the backstop position, the evolution of baseball including the rulebook has made it a reality. For a guy with average to just above average at best offense at the upper levels of the minors, this could be the best thing to happen to Nola and should he succeed, his ticket to the majors. So far, it’s been a mostly behind-the-scenes project for Nola as he has played just one full contest at the position and seen just a few more innings as a replacement in actual game action. Judging by that one full game though, it’s going to take some time for Nola to get the feel for the position. The game he called was an 8-3 loss in which his only potential base stealer was successful and in which he contributed a catcher’s interference error and allowed a passed ball. The silver lining for Nola this fall in limited action (six games) has been the fact that he has gone 6-16 with 2 RBI and four walks and has yet to strike out. While it is a small sample size, the posting of a .375 BA and .938 OPS has to feel good for a guy who has never OPSed above .700. Playing mostly against younger competition though, this likely isn’t a corner-turning moment for Nola’s offensive game. He did show a bit more power this past full minor league season in New Orleans, hitting six homers and did post a career high BA. But those figures equated to just six long balls and a .261 average.

Nola will probably be in spring training with the Fish and his versatility gives him a good shot to either be with the club on Opening Day and if not, definitely later in the year as a defensive replacement but, unless his offense takes another significant and sustained jump or the catching experiment works out (which the Fish may not be willing to wait on), that will likely be his ceiling.

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