While the Minor League regular season is coming to a close, some of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ affiliates are preparing for the playoffs. However, the majority of prospects will see their season end in less than a week.
Some will head to Instructional League, where top players get more specialized attention from the organization’s player development staff. After that, many will take the fall and winter off. A few prospects will head to the Arizona Fall League, the premier showcase of top talent during the offseason.
Over the years the Dodgers have sent many a future big leaguer to the AFL. However, more recently, fewer and fewer top players have headed to the league, with obvious exceptions such as Joc Pederson and Corey Seager.
But this year, the Dodgers are sending their three best hitting prospects: Cody Bellinger, Alex Verdugo and Willie Calhoun.
Bellinger broke out in 2015 with a 30-home run campaign for High-A Rancho Cucamonga. Some evaluators wanted to see him succeed against more advanced competition and prove that his season wasn’t a result of the California League’s hitter-friendly environment.
So, Bellinger headed to Double-A Tulsa as a 20-year-old and has continued to improve. While he isn’t going to hit 30 home runs again, his 23 homers (through Thursday) rank third in the league, and so does Bellinger’s on-base plus slugging percentage.
What’s different this year is the fact that Bellinger has drastically cut down his strikeout percentage; from 27.6 percent last year to 20.2 percent this year. His walk rate has also risen more than three points (9.6 percent to 12.8 percent).
Bellinger has also greatly improved against lefties, posting an .880 OPS in 2016 compared to just .705 last year. These improvements make him one of the top first base prospects in the league, and Bellinger could make his Major League debut late next season.
Verdugo hit a bump in the road in early 2015 but also broke out after altering his setup and ended up batting .311 last season between Low-A Great Lakes and the Quakes. He was assigned to the Drillers to start 2016, a month before he turned 20, and has performed well despite a late season dip in production.
Verdugo’s OPS has dropped by more than 100 points from the first half to the second half, so fatigue could be setting in, which would make playing in an offseason league doubly difficult.
Still, he’s shown the ability to play a solid center field with a potentially plus-hit tool, a plus-arm and at least average raw power.
Calhoun was a surprise fourth-round pick last year who dominated low level pitching during his debut, going from rookie ball to High-A in a matter of two months. He hit .316 and with .909 OPS overall in his debut, and joined Bellinger and Verdugo with the Drillers this season.
Calhoun’s power has surprised nearly everyone. After hitting 11 homers in 73 games last year, he’s hit 27 this season, good for second in the Texas League. While Calhoun has some improvements to make on the defensive side of the ball, his bat will get him to the Majors within the next calendar year.
While only three Dodgers prospects have been announced so far, another handful should join them by the time play starts Oct. 7. Let’s take a look at some more players who could find themselves in the AFL.
Jose De Leon, the organization’s top pitching prospect, missed two months with a sprained ankle and a sore shoulder this spring. After pitching 114.1 innings last season, he’s only gone 86.1 innings this year.
However, it’s unclear what his workload will be for the remainder of the season now that he’s making his Major League debut on Sunday. Getting De Leon closer to last year’s total should set him up to take the next step toward a full Major League workload in 2017.
Walker Buehler, last year’s first-round pick, just recently began pitching again after recovering from Tommy John surgery. The 22-year-old righty has made just two appearances as a professional and could collect more innings against quality competition, though he may simply be shut down after Instructional League.
Yadier Alvarez, another one of the club’s top pitching prospects, has thrown just 59.1 innings this year and could benefit from some more innings. At just 20 years old, the Dodgers will likely suppress Alvarez’s workload, so this is mostly wishful thinking.
Edwin Rios, last year’s sixth-rounder, broke out as one of the club’s top power hitting prospects this season. However, he only played 22 games in his debut in 2015 and he’s played just 104 games in 2016.
Rios will continue fine tuning his defense in hops that he can stay at third base instead of having to move across the diamond to first permanently. He was named the Dodgers Minor League Player of the Year for 2016.
Kyle Farmer, one of the club’s elite catching prospects, missed time this year with a concussion as well as a broken wrist, playing just 74 games.
A converted shortstop, Farmer shows plus-athleticism for a catcher with good arm strength that led to him throwing out one-third of attempted base stealers this year. He’s shown solid contact ability and gets on base at a fair clip.