Sloan Park (Photo by VisitMesa.com)

With the return of MiLB in 2021 comes the return of the fall and winter leagues this offseason. The pinnacle of these leagues is the Arizona Fall League where clubs traditionally send older prospects for a longer look after the regular season and for more reps and experience in order to fill holes in different areas of need. After five years of playing for the Salt River Rafters, this season, Marlins’ prospects will once again join the Mesa Solar Sox who play their home games at Sloan Park. They will share the dugout with prospects from Orioles, Cubs, Athletics and Blue Jays systems.

Miami’s participants will be:

RHP Justin Evans
RHP Evan Fitterer
LHP Josh Simpson
LHP Jefry Yan
C Will Banfield
INF Troy Johnston
OF JJ Bleday
OF Kameron Misner

Here is a closer look at each of these players and the ‘why’ behind their assignment.

RHP Justin Evans
2021 Stats (A-AA) – 34 G, 45 IP, 6.40 ERA, 1.64 WHIP, 53/24 K/BB

Evans is a Marlins’ 2018 19th round pick out of Columbus State University. As a collegiate player, Evans both pitched and played the infield. He hit .281/.382/.445 in 474 ABs but Miami took stock in his future as a reliever where he had a 3.27 ERA in 22 IP, including 11.2 IP of one run ball (0.77 ERA) in which he posted a 14/2 K/BB in his junior year.

Since his selection, Evans’ pro career has been marred by injury. He did not pitch in the pros in his draft year and did not pitch in 2019. 2021 was the first time he saw an affiliated mound. During his time with Jupiter, he showed some flashes including a heater up to 96 and a curveball with spin above 2600 RPMs.

The Marlins are using the AZFL to allow Evans to make up for lost time and to gauge where to assign this victor of three levels going in to 2022.

RHP Evan Fitterer
2021 Stats (Rk-A) – 18 G, 53 IP, 3.40 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 52/22 K/BB

Fitterer is a 2019 fifth round prep pick out of Aliso Niguel High School in Southern California who broke into pro ball by tossing 22.2 innings worth of 2.38 ERA, 1.41 ERA, 19/12 K/BB ball in the GCL. After the missed 2020 season, Fitterer began the 2021 season on the extended spring training injured list.

After two rehab outings, Fitterer received his call up to A Jupiter on July 24th. Appearing in seven games (six starts) for the Hammerheads, the 21-year-old righty tossed 25.2 IP worth of 4.56 ERA, 1.40 ERA ball. His K/BB stood out (27/6) as did his impressive pitch repertoire. A tosser of four pitches, Fitterer showed a fastball up to 96 (sitting 92-94). with a curveball in the high 70s-low 80s capable of a 3000 RPM spin rate. He also showed a usable slider.

Fitterer, a 6’3”, 192 pound righty, joins the AZFL as the youngest member of the Marlins’ invitees (21) with the intention of making up for lost reps and the hope of building his arsenal and showing he can compete against older competitors.

LHP Josh Simpson
2021 Stats (Rk/A+) – 45.2 IP, 5.91 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 62/19 K/BB

Simpson, the Marlins’ final pick of the 2019 draft, impressed in his first showing in pro ball that season. Assigned to short season Batavia after just a single inning in the GCL, the lefty tossed 23 innings worth of six run ball by way of a 1.08 WHIP and 26/6 K/BB, earning himself a spot in the New York Penn League’s postseason All-Star Game.

This season, Simpson was assigned to A+ Beloit where he started the season strong out of the Snappers’ pen, giving up just two runs in his first 15.1 IP. After allotting 15 earned runs in four less innings in June though, Simpson was placed on the IL with an injury that would cost him nearly two full months. The 6’2”, 190 pound southpaw made it back up to Beloit after a rehab stint in the FCL and the Snappers put him in the rotation for four starts. On September 14, he finished the season strong by totaling single game career highs in innings pitched with five and strikeouts with nine while allowing three runs.

Simpson has a two pitch combo. His mostly straight fastball that sits 93-95 but he can add a bit more to if needed. His overwhelming issue with that pitch has been its command. When placing it on the lower half, it can help contribute to his great 30% K rate and good 54% ground ball rate but it also had its part in his allotment of six homers and 20% line drive rate. Simpson’s best pitch is a mid-80s slider with late tilt that he can use on both sides of the zone and get in on the back foot of opposite side hitters with wipeout dive. He owns a high 70s curveball as well that he uses as a mix in.

Simpson, who just turned 24 last month, heads to Arizona to take on the most advanced hitters he’s ever faced in his pro career with the intent of gauging his talent level against upper minors competition and making up for time lost to injury in 2021. His velo and ability to spin the slider from the left side make him an intriguing arm. The lack of a third pitch and his limited size will likely relegate his big league ceiling to the bullpen but he could make a good living there as a guy who can provide multiple innings if needed.

LHP Jefry Yan
2021 Stats (A/AA) – 31 IP, 2.61 ERA, 1.58 WHIP, 51/25 K/BB

The oldest Marlin invited to Arizona, Yan is a 25-year-old lefty who has had quite the interesting career path. Selected by the Angels as a 17-year-old in 2014, Yan threw in two Dominican Summer League seasons including an impressive 34.2 IP, 1.56 ERA, campaign as an 18 year old in 2015 before getting assigned stateside. According to Francys Romero, Yan suffered an injury in extended spring training that year and was placed on the restricted list when he refused to go back to the DR to rehab. The injury also forced him to miss all of 2017 and he was released a year later. The Marlins took a flier on Yan after watching him throw in semi-pro ball.

Already up to the high 80s when he was signed by LA seven years ago, Yan grew advantageously into his then lanky frame and is now able to hit the mid-upper 90s regularly with his moving four seamer which sits 93-95 and can touch 97. He also throws a low 90s two seamer that he uses for tunnel and to change eye levels. Yan’s secondary is a big sweeping slider in the mid-80s that shows spin rates in the upper 2200 RPM range with wipe out action. Yan spent the summer making hitters look silly with that pitch, both in A ball and in his first taste of the upper minors AA.

Yan is also quite the showman.

A guy who has come a very long way all after missing extended time to start his career, Yan is an intriguing lefty to watch. While he still owns quirky mechanics and an explosive delivery that has levers exploding at hitters, it looks much cleaner when compared to reports when he was signed and he is transformed physically. 

Yan has a high leverage ceiling. And, going on 25, it may not be that far away. He joins the Solar Sox in a similar capacity as Simpson and Evans: more innings to make up for lost time. Keep an eye on how he performs against these top tier prospects. If he shows well and starts his 2022 season similarly to how 2021 ended, he will be a phone call away. A spring training invite also isn’t out of the question.

C Will Banfield
2021 Stats (A+) – .180/.258/.308, 6 HR, 42 RBI, 95 K, 25 BB

Unfortunately, Banfield is becoming another prime example of how extremely volatile prep catchers are. The Marlins’ competitive balance round B pick from 2018 came into the league with his MLB Pipeline report reading this way:

“Banfield’s signature tool is his well-above-average arm strength—though it has been down a tick at times this year—and he gets the most out of it with a quick transfer and fine accuracy on his throws. His receiving and framing skills are solid, and he’s agile behind the plate. He also exhibits the desired leadership skills for his position.

While his defense overshadows his offense and he struggled at times on the showcase circuit last summer when he tried to do too much, Banfield offers some upside with the bat as well. With his strong build, solid bat speed and loft in his right-handed swing, he has at least above-average raw power. He hasn’t shown as much feel for the barrel this spring as he has with the past, so it’s unclear how much he’ll be able to tap into his pop.”

Three years (minus the lost season) into his pro career, that same report can be used to describe Banfield now. This season, while he showed off his defensive prowess receiving well and throwing out 30% of potential base stealers, it came at the expense of — there is no getting around it — porous offensive stats. Among all players at the A+ level with at least 250 ABs, Banfield had the seventh lowest batting average, the fifth lowest OBP and the eighth lowest wRC+ (57). Banfield’s only slight saving grace a the plate was his infrequently shown power potential. 

Though very sporadically, Banfield did show off 55 grade raw strength, managing a .128 ISO, in the 33rd percentile in all of A+ and in the 38th percentile in the A+ Central. In order to tap into that more, Banfield has a lot of simplification to do to in terms of approach and swing path. With just average bat speed, Banfield’s lack of ability to shorten up and get hands to the ball as well as his susceptibility to chase bad pitches makes him, at current, nothing more than a career backup.

There is hope, though: Banfield is still just 21 and offensive prowess is always the last thing to come from any catcher, let alone a prep pick. Banfield also missed the final month of the minor league season with a minor injury.

While by now, we would have liked to see it come out more, Banfield heads to Arizona as the Marlins’ eighth man. He will start the season on the taxi squad but should be able to be added to the roster at any time and continue to garner needed reps and experience. Based on his defensive prowess, there is a floor big league future here as a backup catcher but, day by day, the ceiling is growing lower.

INF Troy Johnston
2021 Stats (A-A+) – .300./.399/.468, 15 HR, 85 RBI, 103 K, 68 BB, 140 wRC+

Earlier this year, during an interview on Swimming Upstream, Johnston self-proclaimed himself a “cage rat” that would spend nearly every available moment of his high school and collegiate days with a bat in his hands. That mindset and hours spent perfecting his craft paid off in full this season.

After breaking in to pro ball with a .277/.373/.399 59 game campaign in Batavia in 2019, this season, Johnston was able to add the only missing link to his bat: power. While maintaining the same great patience he showed at Gonzaga and the same simple mechanics which allotted him a great average and OBP both in college and in his that pro showing, the 6’, 210 lefty hitter was the third best slugging player in the Marlins’ system. While playing a full schedule of 120 games, most in the organization between two levels, he led the system in wRC+. Among 984 qualified MiLB players, he ranked 90th in that same metric.

From a split stance, Johnston approaches from the back of the box and uses his best tools, vision and bat speed, to get his bat on the baseball. The simplistic, shortened approach which he has held his entire career coupled with his magnificent hitter’s eye gave him the build of a plus average and OBP guy. But how did he come by more power without sacrificing either one of those across two levels this year?

Here is what Troy said back in June:

“I always had to work against leaking and sliding forward a little bit. That “a-ha” moment for me was when I realized how much I can kind of preset my back hip and just get into my legs a little bit more. And then just have a nice easy swing where I could just explode off of that back hip a little bit more.”

Adding power to his already advanced and balanced approach and ability to work at bats has us placing Troy is looking an awful lot like Carlos Gonzalez, a .285/.343/.500 career hitter.

Another comparison: former Marlin Cliff Floyd, a .278/.358/.482 career bat while playing both outfield and first base. Like Cliff, Troy started his career as an outfielder before making the shift to first base. Johnston’s invite to the AZFL is for two reasons: allotting him more reps at first while also garnering him looks against upper minors talent for the first time before he likely begins 2022 at the AA level.

With a good showing this fall and during his first stint in the upper minors to start next season, Troy’s big league debut is visible on the horizon, especially upon the likely institution of the DH in the National League.

OF JJ Bleday
2021 Stats (AA) – .212/.323/.373, 12 HR, 22 2B, 54 RBI, 101/64 K/BB

Up until this season, it was pretty good being JJ Bleday. Then 2021 happened. After a .326/.449/.553 collegiate career including 2019 in which he led the Vanderbilt Commodores to the College World Series title, Bleday had a decent .257/.311/.379 38-game showing in A+ Jupiter to begin his career.

After the washed out 2020 campaign, this season in AA Pensacola, Bleday hit his first true and extensive bump in the road, one that lasted for most of the season. While there were a few positives to his 2021 tenure including the posting of a walk rate near 14% tied for 15th highest among all qualified AA hitters, and the fact that he looked capable of playing all three outfield spots, Bleday’s overall offensive production was very inconsistent.

Per his own admission from back in July, Bleday had been working on his mechanics constantly.

“I’ve been trying to overdo it, be someone I’m not. I’m trying to take a step back, relax, and try to put together some good ABs. I’ve been tinkering all year long. Over these past several weeks, I’ve been able to make some adjustments. I’ve got to go back to what’s natural to me as a player.”

Though there were pockets of production in which he looked to be putting it all together, it never stuck. Clearly, per his walk rate, the issue does not lie in pitch recognition. About halfway through the year, Bleday was showing a much different setup at the plate in terms of the distance of his arms from his body, the placement of his hands on the bat and the distance in his stance. He was also using much more weight on his back leg, making the stance pre-loaded.

The mechanically transformed Bleday was better in the second half of the season (.200/.304/.344, 84 wRC+ vs .223/.340/.401, 108 wRC+). This included a .311/.382/.444 month of September. The changes allowed him to avoid getting jammed while also allowing him to step to the ball and get extended on pitches on the outer half. Bleday heads to Arizona to continue to feel out the new utilization of his levers and to get more reps against upper minors pitching before likely heading to his third spring training and then being assigned presumably to AAA in 2022.

OF Kameron Misner
2021 Stats (A+-AA) – .253/.355/.433, 12 HR, 29 2B, 59 RBI, 136/57 K/BB

Out of the same draft as Bleday whom he played against in the SEC, Misner has put himself very close to or possibly even past Bleday in terms of prospect pedigree. 

Misner, 24, started the season in A+ Beloit and, after an overall slow first month and a half of the year, Misner began to find it, going 16 for 55 from June 15th through 30th. A little over a month later, Kam reached base via a single against the Peoria Chiefs. It was the start of what would become a 16 game hit streak and 30 game on base streak. Over that span, he hit .322/.403/.570. The final four games of Kam’s remarkable streak came after his promotion to the AA level. His first taste of the upper minors didn’t seem to phase him. In 14 games with Pensacola, Misner hit .309/.387/.491.

Speaking during our interview with him on Swimming Upstream, Misner described the jump in competition level.

“It’s not that the pitches are nastier or anything like that; it’s the location. The pitchers are able to spot up whatever pitches they want. In high A, there would be guys with good stuff but not always can they throw where they want. It seems like the last couple weeks I’ve up here, these guys have had good stuff and they’ve been able to place it where they want to place it. That’s one of the biggest changes I’ve seen is the overall control of the pitching staffs. They all put it where they want and you just have to capitalize on their mistakes.”

Looking at Misner mechanically, he draws comparisons to a Marlins All-Star mortgaged during the Jeter era rebuild.

On top of the capability for 20+ doubles and 20+ homers, Misner is also a threat on the bases. While he doesn’t have the most blazing speed in the world, he has a strategy.

“When you’re stealing bases, you don’t steal off the catcher, you steal off the pitcher. I got told that in college and I’ve really honed into it. There’s ways of stealing off the pitcher,” Misner said. “If I get to the 13 foot mark number which is usually around the cutoff, if I get there before the pitcher releases the ball, it’s mathematically impossible for any catcher to throw me out.”

Above all, Misner is a scientific player who has a mind made for baseball in every facet. Where Yelich held a .782 OPS at age 23 at the MLB level, Misner held down a .788 OPS in his first full season pro. Kam heads to Arizona for more reps against upper minors pitching.

Discussions will be and are being had amongst who from the outfield minor league outfield depth the Marlins will/should trade in exchange for established talent. Misner would be at the bottom of our list because he could become a 4/5 tool big league talent. And soon.