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With Major League Baseball’s regular season winding down, the Arizona Fall League is about to get under way.
On Friday morning, complete fall league rosters for all 30 teams were announced. This year, the Diamondbacks will have eight representatives: 1B/3B Ivan Melendez, OF/3B A.J. Vukovich, LHP Blake Walston, RHP Christian Montes de Oca, RHP Austin Pope, LHP Jake Rice, C Caleb Roberts and LHP Carlos Meza.
The fall league starts on Oct. 2 and consists of a 30-game schedule played at various spring training facilities in Arizona. The season concludes with a championship game on Nov. 11.
The Diamondbacks’ representatives will play for the Salt River Rafters, joining forces with participants from the Atlanta Braves, Pittsburgh Pirates, Colorado Rockies and Detroit Tigers.
Undoubtedly, following the Diamondbacks’ potential playoff berth will take precedence over fall league games for the time being, but getting out to a fall league game should be on every Valley baseball fan’s bucket list. (I explained why last year.)
This year’s crop of D-backs representatives is perhaps not as star-studded as last year’s — which included top shortstop prospect Jordan Lawlar — but there are still noteworthy players who could contribute in the majors as soon as next season.
Let’s dive in.
Ivan Melendez, 1B/3B
After an up-and-down introduction to pro ball last year, Diamondbacks 2022 second-rounder Ivan Melendez put his lofty raw power on display this year.
In 426 total plate appearances in High-A Hillsboro and Double-A Amarillo, Melendez slashed .272/.345/.578 with 30 homers, 76 RBI, 22 doubles and two triples.
The big question for Melendez moving forward — and something look for in the fall league — is if he will be able to limit swing-and-miss enough as he continues to move up the ladder.
In that regard, there were some red flags in 2023. While Melendez’s surface numbers were fantastic, his strikeout rates in High-A and Double-A this year registered at 33.6 percent and 35.3 percent, respectively. For reference, the league average strikeout rate in the majors this year is 22.7 percent.
Even so, Melendez is the highest-ranked prospect among the D-backs’ fall league participants for a reason. If he can find a way to reduce his swing-and-miss tendencies, he could be an impact power bat in the majors.
Speaking of power, Melendez should already be pencilled in for the fall league home run derby, which will take place on Saturday, Nov. 4, at Sloan Park in Mesa.
A.J. Vukovich, OF/3B
Selected by the Diamondbacks in the fourth round back in 2020, A.J. Vukovich spent his 2023 season in Double-A Amarillo and turned in arguably the most promising year of his professional career.
In 507 plate appearances, he slashed .263/.333/.485 with 24 homers, 96 RBI and 20 stolen bases. His 9.1 percent walk rate was, by far, the highest he has posted in his pro career at any level.
What made Vikovich’s 2023 season most intriguing, however, is the fact that he played primarily center field after spending the majority of his first two seasons at third base.
To date, Vukovich’s bat has not looked like an ideal fit for an everyday role at a corner outfield or infield spot, so the prospect of him playing center is a significant development.
According to Eric Longenhagen from FanGraphs, Vukovich looked decent there early on.
“For a guy who has only been playing a premium position for less than a month,” Longenhagen wrote in June, “some of what he’s doing is very impressive.”
Blake Walston, LHP
It has been a bizarre year for top Diamondbacks pitching prospect Blake Walston.
On one hand, he is 11-6 with a 4.68 ERA in Triple-A Reno, one of the most hitter-friendly playing environments in the sport, at just 22 years old.
On the other, he has nearly as many walks (91) as strikeouts (101) in 144 1/3 innings, and his 5.45 FIP and 6.93 xFIP suggest his mid-four ERA might not be indicative of his current skill level.
With a slim, 6-foot-5 frame, Walston seemed like a strong candidate to add meaningful velocity during his run up through the minors. That has not happened; Walston is averaging just 91 mph with his four-seam fastball this year in Triple-A.
Even so, Walston is still only 22, and he is Rule 5 eligible this December. That means that the Diamondbacks would have to place him on the 40-man roster prior to the Rule 5 draft to ensure that he stays in the organization. His fall league performance could help inform that decision.
Christian Montes De Oca, RHP
Signed to a minor league deal out of the Dominican Republic in December of 2021, right-hander Christian Montes de Oca has turned in a couple of solid years in the minors as a reliever.
In 2023, he logged a 4.28 ERA, 1.26 WHIP and .226 opponent batting average in 61 innings in Double-A Amarillo. He had middling strikeout and walk rates of 21.5 and 10.2 percent, respectively.
Montes de Oca is still two years out from being Rule 5 eligible, so his fall league selection appears to be a challenge of sorts to see how well he can handle more advanced hitters.
According to his prospect report on FanGraphs, Montes de Oca features a fastball, slider and changeup, with his slider grading out the highest of the three.
Austin Pope, RHP
Drafted in the 15th round in 2019, right-hander Austin Pope has spent the majority of 2023 as a reliever in Double-A Amarillo.
In 44 2/3 innings with the Sod Poodles, he posted a 4.23 ERA and 1.30 WHIP in 44 2/3 innings, before being promoted to Triple-A Reno on Aug. 1.
Since then, the 24-year-old has logged 19 1/3 innings with a 2.33 ERA, 1.55 WHIP and .299 opponent batting average. He also has solid strikeout and walk rates of 29.4 percent and 8.2 percent, respectively.
Pope throws a mid-90s fastball and a mid-80s slider, also mixing in the occasional curveball. The slider functions as his primary out-pitch.
Like Walston, Pope is Rule 5 eligible this December, and the D-backs would have to add him to the 40-man roster this offseason to protect him from being selected.
Jake Rice, LHP
Selected in the ninth round in 2021, left-hander Jake Rice spent his 2023 season with Double-A Amarillo and endured some struggles.
In 42 total innings, the 26-year-old posted a 7.50 ERA and 1.69 WHIP. He held opponents to a .231 batting average, but his walk rate of 16.9 percent was the highest of his professional career.
With Rice’s ERA sitting over 11 in June, the D-backs placed him on the development list in late June, and he was significantly better when he came back.
In 22 2/3 innings from July 15 on, Rice had a much-improved 3.97 ERA and 1.54 WHIP. His walk rate was still high at 12.9 percent, but he struck out an impressive 33.7 percent of opposing hitters.
Rice is not Rule 5 eligible till 2024, so the team is not under any pressure to add him to the 40-man roster this offseason.
Caleb Roberts, C
At age 23, Caleb Roberts put together the best year of his pro career in 2023, slashing .278/.382/.523 in 434 plate appearances with Double-A Amarillo.
Selected in the fifth round back in 2021, Roberts is not viewed as a strong defender behind the plate, so his value as a prospect is largely dependent on his bat.
In that regard, Roberts’ 2023 season was a big success. Even so, he still has a lot to prove. His 26.3 percent strikeout rate in Double-A this year — while much lower than that of Melendez — is still fairly high.
In the fall league, Roberts will get a chance to face better pitching and make up for at-bats he lost during a month-long stint on the injured list from April to May.
Carlos Meza, LHP
Signed to a minor league deal in March of 2018, Venezuela native Carlos Meza spent most of his 2023 season in High-A Hillsboro before being promoted to Double-A Amarillo on Aug. 29.
Having spent most of his pro career as a reliever, Meza pitched exclusively out of the bullpen this year.
In 47 1/3 innings with Hillsboro, the 22-year-old logged a 4.94 ERA and 1.58 WHIP with 61 strikeouts and 31 walks. He struggled upon arrival to Amarillo, posting a 15.19 ERA in 5 1/3 innings.
Meza is Rule 5 eligible this year, but it seems unlikely that another team would select him if he were not protected.
Top photo: John E. Moore III/Getty Images
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