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October 27, 2021 at 11:43 AM

Scouting Scratch: Breaking down the Arizona Fall League contingent

The Arizona Fall League is back after a one-year hiatus in 2020, and the Red Sox have an extremely strong contingent playing for the Scottsdale Scorpions this autumn, led by SoxProspects.com’s number one prospect, Triston Casas. The group is comprised of five* hitters and four pitchers, and eight of the nine prospects are ranked in the #SP60, including five in the top 20. Here are some thoughts on each Red Sox prospect heading to Arizona and what I will be looking for from each.

(* - Connor Wong has been with the Major League club on the taxi squad. He will likely now report
 following Boston’s elimination.)

The top prospect in our rankings, Triston Casas was an easy choice to send to the AFL given how much time he missed due to his participation in the Olympics. He was gone from May 24 to June 8 for qualifying and then again from July 16 to August 11 for the Games themselves, and during those roughly six weeks, he got just 38 at-bats for Team USA as the silver medal-winning squad’s starting first baseman. The experience Casas got on a huge stage helps make up for the missed time, but the AFL is an obvious chance to make up for those lost at-bats. For the minor league season, he ended up playing 86 games and got 371 plate appearances with Portland and Worcester, hitting .279/.394/.484 with 14 home runs and a 19.1% strikeout rate and 15.4% walk rate. The AFL should be great experience for Casas, as he will face quality, high-minors pitching, with some big names including 2020 first-round picks Asa Lacy, Bobby Miller, and Slade Cecconi.

Shortstop Jeter Downs (#SP60 no. 5) had a rough season in Worcester, but he heads to Arizona looking to build on a strong end to the season. Entering the last three weeks of the season, Downs was hitting .174/.259/.293 with 33.1% strikeout rate and 9.7% walk rate, but he closed strong by hitting .316/.372/.579 in his final 43 plate appearances. Despite his struggles, Downs did hit 14 home runs, steal 18 bases and played much improved defense at shortstop, where he was more agile than I expected and showed plenty of arm. He will never be a plus shortstop, but I think he could get to at least average and maybe above-average if he maintains his athleticism. The focus in Arizona for Downs will be at the plate. During the regular season, he looked tentative and had a lot of trouble on fastballs. He seemed to lose confidence at the plate as the year went on and was really pressing, swinging through fastballs and expanding the zone on secondary pitches once he was down in the count. His ability to handle velocity up in the zone is definitely a question mark. Something I will be keeping an open ear for is how his approach looks, as that was still on the raw side in Worcester. Downs still has the ability to develop into an everyday player, but he comes with more risk now than he did heading into the season. A strong AFL will go a long way to returning his prospect stock closer to where it was heading into 2021. 

Coming into the 2021 season, Connor Seabold (#SP60 no. 8) was seen as one of the top pitching prospects in the system and potential major league depth should the need arise. The need did arise, but unfortunately, Seabold missed the first two-and-a-half months of the minor league season with right-elbow inflammation and only threw 62 2/3 innings between the minors and one MLB start posting a 3.59 ERA and 1.17 WHIP with 64 strikeouts and 24 walks. In April, prior to his injury, Seabold was sitting 91-95 mph at the Alternate Training Site. His slider looked better than it did last year, but he did not have feel for his changeup, which was his best pitch coming into the year. He also had added a curveball as a fourth pitch. After his injury, Seabold put up good numbers, but his stuff was inconsistent and his velocity did not return. He sat 89-92 mph and topped out at 93, a grade below what he was before. His feel for his changeup was still inconsistent, to the point where scouts saw his slider as having replaced it as his primary secondary. Scouts still have confidence in his feel and command, but the decreased velocity and regressing changeup create a wider range of outcomes. Seabold still has major league potential, but he looks more like a number five starter or swing-man type rather than the potential number four starter he looked like before. In the AFL, I will be closely watching reports on his stuff to see if his velocity and changeup come back. If they do, his projection could return to what it was heading into the season, but if not, it adds another data point and further questions about whether his pre-injury stuff will ever come back and lead to more questions heading into 2022. 

In his first season with the Red Sox, right-hander Josh Winckowski (#SP60 no. 14) had a strong season, throwing 112 innings and recording a 3.94 ERA and 1.23 WHIP with 101 strikeouts and 33 walks. Winckowski is still somewhat of an enigma because of his unique arsenal and uncertain long-term role. Winckowski will come out in the mid-90s and usually settles in at 92-94 mph. His best secondary pitch is a slider that will flash above-average potential, but he also has a changeup that has a wide range of views on it. He throws it 88-91 mph, so it lacks much differential from his fastball. That alone is a turn-off for some, but the pitch still has late movement and can be effective even if it does not look like what you might expect a changeup to look like. It will be interesting to see how Winckowski is used in Arizona and I would not be surprised if it is in shorter bursts, perhaps as a bulk reliever. He has to be added to the 40-man roster this off-season to be protected from selection in the Rule 5 Draft, and given that he has a season’s worth of innings already, it would make sense to get a look at him in shorter stints, which some scouts think would the role he is best suited for long-term. 

The inclusion of Connor Wong (#SP60 no. 16) in the Red Sox contingent was somewhat of a surprise at first given he was serving as the Red Sox taxi squad catcher for their playoff run, but digging into his 2021 season, it makes sense. Between missing three weeks with a hamstring injury in May and bouncing between Triple-A and the majors (active or on the taxi squad) in June, July and early August, he never spent more than three consecutive weeks healthy and in the Worcester lineup. The results in those three-plus months were poor—from May 4 to August 11, he hit .197/.248/.333 in 125 plate appearances between Worcester and Boston. When he finally got an extended period of time in Triple-A, however, he excelled, hitting .337/.351/.589 in 97 plate appearances from August 14 through October 1, hitting 6 of his 8 home runs. Overall, Wong only got 222 plate appearances this year, 165 fewer than, for example, fellow 40-man roster catcher Ronaldo Hern├índez did. Once he reports to Arizona, Wong will look to make up for those lost at-bats and build on the strong defense he showed behind the plate this year. It will be interesting to see if the Red Sox have him working anywhere else, because he did play 12 games at third base and 14 at second base in 2019, but only played one game at second base in an emergency situation this year. 

Shortstop Christian Koss (#SP60 no. 33) was a late addition to the Red Sox AFL contingent, likely due to Wong being with the Major League team. Acquired in exchange for LHP Yoan Aybar in December 2020, Koss is coming off a solid year in Greenville, where he hit .271/.325/.451 with 15 home runs and 10 steals. That line is deceptive, however, as Koss was hitting .230/.301/.327 with one home run in 183 plate appearances on June 30, but from July 1 to the end of the season, he hit .296/.340/.523 with 14 home runs in 282 plate appearances. He also cut his strikeout rate considerably, from 25.7% in May and June to 18.8% afterward. I saw Koss in that second stretch and was very impressed. He may not have the highest ceiling, but he was solid enough at shortstop and should add positional versatility as he moves up the system. He does not have a standout tool, but has a bunch of average tools in his locker. The AFL will be a good test for him, as he will be facing better pitching than he did during the regular season in High-A, but turning 24 this off-season, he will be facing age-appropriate pitching that will give him a good idea of what to expect next year in Portland. Koss has a chance to establish himself as one of the more intriguing long-term utility options in the system with a good showing in Arizona.

Left-hander Brendan Cellucci (#SP60 no. 52) is the only Red Sox pitcher heading to Arizona who has yet to reach the high minors, having spent 2021 in Greenville. The 23-year-old reliever threw 37 1/3 innings this year and struck out 59, but also walked 28 and allowed 36 hits. Overall, he had a 5.30 ERA and 1.71 WHIP, but his stuff was much better than the results indicated. Cellucci has a very funky delivery that is really off-putting for hitters. His fastball sits 93-95 mph and tops out at 97 mph, and he mixes in a curveball in the mid-80s that will flash above-average potential. Cellucci has extremely high groundball and strikeout rates and very favorable trackman data with extremely high spin rates, making him a favorite of analytically inclined systems. Scouts are far more skeptical, as they have major questions about whether he will throw enough strikes for his great stuff to play. He walked 16.2% of High-A hitters, and he has a long way to go to get to even below-average command and control. He struck out 34.1% of hitters he faced this year and showed overpowering stuff when on, so I like challenging him against AFL competition. Cellucci also missed the first couple weeks of the season with an ankle sprain, so he could make up for those lost innings as well. Good feedback from scouts who see Cellucci in Arizona could push his ranking up considerably. 

Catcher Kole Cottam (#SP60 no. 59) is Rule 5-eligible this off-season. His inclusion in the Fall League contingent is likely so the Red Sox and other teams can get another look at him heading into the off-season. 2021 was Cottam’s best season to date, as he hit .278/.371/.500 in 276 plate appearances between Greenville and Portland. While those numbers look impressive overall, Cottam did strike out 35.1% of the time and his walk rate fell off considerably when he moved to Portland dropping from 13.2% in Greenville to 3.5% in Portland. Cottam’s main question marks are his defense and contact ability, as he has somewhat of a tweener profile without enough bat to carry his lack of glove but not enough glove to carry his questionable bat. The Fall League will be a good place for Cottam to get more at-bats against advanced pitching, and if he can show improved defense and contact ability, he could see his stock rise heading into 2022 and potentially put himself in play for either the Red Sox to add him to their 40-man roster or for another team to think about taking him in the Rule 5 Draft. 

Right-hander AJ Politi is another upcoming Rule 5-eligible player who recently transitioned back to the bullpen after starting in the second half of the 2019 season and most of 2021. With significant effort in his delivery and stuff that tended to trail off as he worked deeper into games, the bullpen always seemed like his long-term home, and the Red Sox moved him back to that role in September. As a starter this year, Politi struggled, giving up 75 hits, including 11 home runs, in 70 1/3 innings with a 6.78 ERA. He struck out 81 hitters in that time and walked 38. He excelled in a small sample upon returning to the bullpen, throwing 4 2/3 scoreless innings during which he allowed two hits, struck out eight and walked nobody. The Fall League will give the Red Sox and other teams an extended look at Politi in the bullpen and allow him to continue his reacclimation to that role. It will be interesting to see if Politi’s stuff plays up in short bursts as it did in past looks. Politi is currently unranked after spending time this season in the back third of the #SP60, but he has a shot to push his way back into our rankings if reports from Arizona are strong. 

Photo Credit: Triston Casas, Connor Seabold, Connor Wong and Brendan Cellucci by Kelly O'Connor.

Ian Cundall is Director of Scouting for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @IanCundall.