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Law: Yankees prospect Sheffield impresses early in AFL

Justus Sheffield is one of the Yankees' top prospects. Reinhold Matay/USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals promoted hard-throwing Dominican right-hander Sandy Alcantara to the majors in September to try to boost their bullpen for their playoff push, but he didn't seem ready for the challenge, struggling to throw strikes and giving up hard contact. He has elite stuff, however, showing it when he started the Arizona Fall League opener in Surprise on Tuesday afternoon.

Alcantara worked at 95 to 100 with his fastball, hitting triple digits twice, showing a sharp 79-84 MPH curveball that flashed plus but wasn't consistent as well as an upper-80s slider that touched 90 with shorter break, almost like a bigger cutter. He showed a changeup as well but barely used it. He doesn't command the fastball at all, and gave up more contact than I expected given the velocity, as hitters seem to get a decent look at the ball out of his hand. He went two innings on Tuesday, walking two, allowing four hits, and failing to strike out a batter. There's so much power here that he's going to miss bats -- one of every six pitches he threw in the majors generated a swing and miss -- but for him to start, he's going to have to show a lot more command and probably rely less on the four-seamer.

• Another Cardinals right-hander, Jordan Hicks, followed Alcantara, and also topped out at 100 MPH, working from 94 to triple digits, with a slow but solid curveball at 71-76 and just one changeup (that I saw) at 88. He's very athletic and works around the strike zone, although the slight cutoff in his delivery makes it hard for him to work to his glove side. I think there's big starter upside here, with a lot of work remaining.

• I got just one inning with Cards reliever Josh Lucas, but he showed an above average to plus slider at 86-87 to go with a 92-94 MPH fastball. He got a cup of coffee with the Cardinals in September and I think he's at least a good right-on-right guy with that slider.

• The Yankees also sent several big arms to the AFL, led by lefty Justus Sheffield, who is making up for innings he lost during the season to an oblique injury. Sheffield was absolutely filthy in his AFL debut, sitting 94-96 with a plus slider at 86-87 and above-average changeup at 86-89, better at the 86-87 part of that range. He's always been athletic with a good delivery that's online to the plate, but now his arm looks faster than ever, and he has a real breaking ball in the slider -- he didn't throw a curveball at all. He was on my top 100 last winter on the promise of his athleticism and changeup, but now he's got more fastball and a potential out pitch in the slider.

• Right-hander Albert Abreu came over from Houston in the Brian McCann trade and started on Wednesday for Scottsdale, also working at 94-96 and showing promise with both a low-80s power curveball and an action changeup at 83-86. He's a bit of a short-armer, but stays online to the plate; I don't think he really repeats the arm action, and I could see him turn the changeup over at release, which might tip off hitters. There are the elements of a good starter here if he can get to average-ish command, which may require smoothing out the arm swing.

• The Cubs dealt Dylan Cease to the White Sox this summer in the Jose Quintana deal in part because Adbert Alzolay came on so quickly this season, passing Cease on the organizational pitching depth chart. Alzolay worked in relief on Tuesday, with a fastball at 92-96 and a plus curveball at 81-82. He repeats the delivery well with a full windup and a moderate stride. I'd like to see a third pitch, but he didn't need it in a relief outing.

• Rockies right-hander Yency Almonte has pitched twice already, 93-96 both times with a hard slider at 83-85 that flashes above-average. What I have not seen from him in his relief outings was a third pitch, although he hasn't had any sort of platoon split as a minor-league starter over the last three years, so he must have something to get lefties out. The fastball/slider combo alone would make him a prospect as a reliever, although there's nothing in the delivery that says he can't start.

• Twins lefty Tyler Jay missed most of 2017 due to surgery to repair thoracic outlet syndrome, throwing just two innings before it and 9.2 in rehab outings after it, but he looked electric in his first AFL outing. Jay was 92-94 with a tight curveball at 76-78 that he commanded in the zone, and threw a pair of usable changeups at 87. The ship may have sailed on Jay as a starter, but he looks like he has the delivery and the stuff to do that if the Twins or any other team is willing to revisit it.

• I'm sure you'd all like an update on Ronald Acuna, but I got one at-bat from him; he was hit on the wrist in his second trip to the plate and removed with a "contusion."

• Red Sox right-hander Ty Buttrey, an overslot pick in the fourth round in 2012, hasn't had a lot of success in his pro career to date, moving to relief in 2016 and reaching Triple-A this season with a lot of strikeouts and too many walks (32 unintentional walks in 63.2 innings). He does have elite stuff now that he's working in short stints, with a fastball at 94-98 and power changeup at 82-84 (although he overthrew one at 86) and a potentially average curveball that's at least a decent show-me pitch. He's a grade of control away from being a good setup guy.

• The Padres sent some of the league's youngest players, including the lone 18-year-old here, Mexican right-hander Andres Munoz. Munoz has hit triple digits in the past but was "only" 94-98 on Thursday, throwing plenty of strikes, with a power curveball at 81-83 that flashed plus. He struck out a third of the batters he faced for short-season Tri-City this year, which isn't shocking given that stuff. His arm action is pure reliever, but if the control he showed Thursday was predictive, he could move fast even as a teenager.

• Right-hander Adrian Houser went to Milwaukee in 2015 in the Carlos Gomez/Mike Fiers trade, debuted for the Brewers that fall, and then blew out his elbow early the next year, returning late this summer for a few rehab outings. I'd say he's back, and maybe better than before. Houser was 92-95 on Thursday night with a big, tight curveball mostly at 82-83, and his body is slimmer than it was before the surgery. He didn't use a third pitch, although he did have a mid-80s changeup back in 2015.

• Yankees outfielder Estevan Florial is one of the youngest players in the AFL at age 19, and it has showed so far this week in his at-bats. He can certainly turn on a fastball, squaring up 93, 94, and 95 in different at-bats for singles, and he ran 3.93 (70 speed) on an infield single. He's also swung and missed at almost every off-speed pitch I've seen him get this week, punching out twice on curveballs, and has struck out on fastballs away after seeing off-speed stuff. Recognizing pitch types is going to be the key for him -- he has four tools, but the one that matters most isn't here yet.

• Brewers outfielder Corey Ray has also struggled in the early going, although he's still a good athlete with quick actions and is even playing better defense in centerfield. Ray has had good at-bats without good outcomes, and he's not making any hard contact so far -- even when he got a green light on 3-0 on Thursday night and got a fastball, all he could do was tap it to second base. Ray used to hit with a short stride and toe-tap, but that's gone now, and I think it's at least one reason for the absence of any power in his swing.

• Milwaukee third baseman Lucas Erceg has shown a little more promise, including a 70 arm at third, with hard contact but very short at-bats. I did see him double off a lefty on a curveball moving away from him, and he doubled the other way off a right-hander's 97 MPH fastball, but also punched out twice on breaking balls below the zone, and hasn't shown the selectivity he's going to need just to get pitches he can crush. He may never be a high-walk guy, but he can do so much damage on contact if he's a little more disciplined.

• Orioles infielder Ryan Mountcastle is here and has shown more of the hard contact that got him a quick promotion this summer to double-A at age 20. He's playing third base, and his arm is ... still an enigma. He's made throws that showed no arm strength, but he made a throw in his first game from the foul line to first base without a hop, which was at least average arm strength. If he does that regularly, he can play third base, and his bat should profile there.