The Braves have named a bevy of players - eight to be exact - to participate in this year's Arizona Fall League (AFL). Since its inception in 1992, the AFL has been a showcase for teams to help some of their more highly regarded prospects further refine their skills beyond MiLB regular season games. This year, the league will run from October 8 through November 16. The league consists of 6 teams in 2 three-team divisions. Atlanta's prospects will play on the Scottsdale Scorpions of the East Division, along with prospects from the Giants, Mets, Pirates, and Yankees organizations.
Here are the 8 players the Braves will be sending to Scottsdale in the fall.
- Tommy La Stella, 2B, Mississippi Braves. La Stella headlines the Braves' contingent this year as Atlanta's most experienced and most polished hitter. Recently, Talking Chop named La Stella the best hitter in the minor league system; it's not hard to see why when you look at his slash line of .332/.418/.467 this year. La Stella has excellent bat control and a phenomenal eye - he's currently drawn 36 walks against only 30 strikeouts this year. He also possesses good gap power and is slightly above-average on the basepaths as well. If he continues to hit this well, La Stella could force himself into Atlanta's plans next year.
- Kyle Kubitza, 3B, Lynchburg Hillcats. Atlanta's 3rd round pick in 2011, Kubitza will join La Stella (another 2011 draftee) on the Scottsdale infield. While La Stella's batting eye is excellent (and arguably the 2nd best in the system) no one beats Kubitza, who currently leads the Carolina League in walks. Kubitza currently sports a .376 on-base percentage despite a .255 batting average, thanks to a whopping 76 walks. Since being drafted, Kubitza has walked 173 times in 1,216 plate appearances. He also sports good pop, posting a .174 ISO this year.
- Elmer Reyes, SS, Lynchburg Hillcats. Lynchburg's shortstop is currently having the best year of his full-season career. Reyes isn't a player who will wow you with any one aspect of his game, but he's been good with the bat this year, posting a line of .290/.326/.407 in 443 plate appearances with the Hillcats. He doesn't walk much - only 19 on the year - but has some decent pop, especially for a middle infielder. On the year, he's hit 28 doubles, 4 triples, and 4 home runs.
- Robby Hefflinger, OF, Mississippi Braves. "Heff," as he's known by his teammates, has more raw power than anyone else in Atlanta's minor league system. In Lynchburg to start the year, Heff hit 21 homers and 17 doubles in 307 PAs, earning himself a promotion to Mississippi. With the M-Braves, Heff has struggled to adjust to AA pitching (High-A to Double-A is generally considered the hardest jump to make), hitting just 6 homers and 7 doubles in 190 PAs. The Braves would no doubt like to see Hefflinger continue to make adjustments following his AA struggles, and it will be interesting to see if he can do so in the AFL.
- John Cornely, RHP, Lynchburg Hillcats. On its face, selecting Cornely to go to the AFL may seem a bit out of left field, but the Braves likely want to see the power reliever face off against the stiff hitting competition of the league. Cornely, despite never posting excellent ERA/WHIP numbers, has racked up tons of strikeouts. This year, he's whiffed 65 men in 47.2 innings pitched (12.3 K/9, 31.9 K%). The bugaboo for Cornely (like most power relievers) has been control - he's walked 23 men on the year (4.3 BB/9). He's actually improved upon his walk rate from a year ago, when it was 5.8 BB/9. Cornely features a 95 MPH fastball to go along with a hard-biting slider, which is easily his best pitch.
- Shae Simmons, RHP, Mississippi Braves. Simmons has arguably been the biggest surprise of any Braves minor leaguer this year. Drafted out of Southeast Missouri State University in the 22nd round of the 2012 draft, Simmons has dominated at every level of the Braves system so far. After an excellent year with Rome that saw him throw 42.1 innings while posting a 1.49 ERA, 1.43 FIP, 0.969 WHIP, 14.0 K/9 (37.5 K%!!!), and 3.2 BB/9, Simmons was recently promoted to Mississippi. So far, through his first 8.1 innings with the M-Braves, he's looked every bit as good as he did with the Hillcats. He's been Atlanta's best MiLB relief pitcher this year, so it's only natural to want to see how he holds up against the elite hitting talent in the AFL. But with a mid-90s fastball, killer wipeout slider, and improving control, Simmons should be able to stick as a back of the bullpen kind of guy.
- Aaron Northcraft, RHP, Mississippi Braves. The only starting pitcher Atlanta will send to the AFL, Northcraft has had a solid season with Mississippi, despite seeing his peripherals take a hit. In 25 AA starts this year, the righty has posted a solid 3.40 ERA to go along with a 1.26 WHIP. Despite the solid rate stats, Northcraft's strikeouts have come down from his career-best 2012 numbers. So far this year, he's striking out 20.1% of the batters he faces (7.75 K/9) after striking out 24.6% (9.49 K/9) last year. The good news is that his walks have remained almost identical to last year's numbers, holding steady at 8.5%. The decrease in strikeouts, coupled with a rising home run rate, has seen Northcraft's FIP jump from a 2.64 mark in 2012 to a 3.57 mark this year. Northcraft doesn't feature any stellar pitches, but does just fine with his low-90s fastball, looping curveball (his best pitch), and improving changeup. He's an intelligent pitcher on the mound, and utilizes his offspeed and breaking stuff in order to induce a ton of groundballs. Grounders and strikeouts are a great way to get noticed by a front office. Northcraft really broke onto the prospect scene with Lynchburg in 2012, when he threw a no-hitter with the Hillcats.
- Juan Jaime, RHP, Mississippi Braves. Jaime is much less versatile pitcher than any of the other 3 that Atlanta is sending to the AFL. Jaime does one thing well, but he does it *really* well, and that's throw really fast. Talking Chop recently named Jaime the best fastball in the minors; watch him pitch and it's easy to see why. Jaime can touch triple digits seemingly with ease, and his fastball routinely sits in the upper 90s. Jaime missed all of 2010 and 2011 from Tommy John surgery, so he's an interesting case, but there's no reason to think he couldn't be a valuable bullpen piece. Jaime has ridden his blazing fastball to some gaudy strikeout percentages this year, as he's whiffed 37.4% of the men he's faced so far. The downside is that throwing so hard causes him to lose almost all semblance of control, as he's walked 15.8% of the batters he's faced. But control can be improved, and the Braves have an excellent track record of doing so.