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Desert Report: Big names kick off Arizona Fall League

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How great would it be to see wunderkinds Bryce Harper and Mike Trout play in the same outfield? Or to see the first two picks from the 2011 amateur draft, Gerrit Cole and Danny Hultzen, face their first batters as professionals? All it takes is a trip to the Phoenix area, as Harper, Trout, Cole, Hultzen and dozens of other prospects are facing off in a league made just for them.

Ever since 1992, minor leaguers and newly minted major leaguers looking to gain some additional experience have played in the Arizona Fall League. The AFL is home to six teams that are populated with prospects from the upper minors, along with a handful of relatively green major leaguers. Not everyone who plays in the AFL is a top prospect, and not every big-name minor leaguer finds his way to the Grand Canyon State to participate in this annual circuit, which typically holds its schedule from early October until mid-November.

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Tracking the AFL can give Fantasy owners a leg up on developments that may unfold next year, from spring training on forward. Performances in the league aren't always a good indication of what to expect in the near future; for example, AL Rookie of the Year candidate Eric Hosmer hit just .203 in the AFL last year, while rookie disappointment Brandon Belt tore things up with a .372 batting average and a 1.043 OPS. Then again, many rookies-to-be can raise their profiles in the AFL. Dustin Ackley led the league with a .424 average a year ago, though he was on the fast track in any event. However, Chris Parmelee, Adam Loewen, Josh Harrison, Cord Phelps and Andy Parrino all had strong showings last fall, and all may owe their callups this season, at least in part, to their AFL success of a year ago.

The AFL, given its location, tends to favor hitters, so even good pitching prospects often put up ugly numbers there. Danny Duffy and Alex Cobb, for example, were among the pitchers to post ERAs over 6.00 in 2010, which didn't prevent either from playing an important role for their respective big league teams this past season. Then again, pitchers occasionally do shine in Arizona, and in the cases of Josh Collmenter (3.04 ERA in 2010's AFL) and Steve Cishek (18 strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings), it can open the door to unexpected opportunities the following season.

For the next month, we will check in once a week to see how a handful of players are faring in the AFL. We will certainly keep tabs on top prospects like Harper, Trout, Cole and Hultzen, but we will also see which lesser-known names are making a splash. After all, even if Harper or Cole bombs this fall, both will be popular targets in drafts next year, especially in keeper leagues, but we also have a chance to spot the next Collmenter.

Teams have only played seven or eight games so far, but it's not too early to zero in on some players to watch. Below is a list of some key players grouped together by their AFL team. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, but rather a short list of some important names to track along with a few of the early notable performances.

Mesa Solar Sox

Feeder organizations: Cubs, Orioles, Pirates, Twins, White Sox

Andrew Cashner, SP, Cubs: Cashner won the Cubs' fifth starter job last spring, only to wind up losing nearly the whole season to a strained right rotator cuff. Now he has an opportunity to make his case to be back in the rotation next spring. In his first appearance, pitching an inning in relief, Cashner drew attention by hitting 100 mph on the radar gun.

Gerrit Cole, SP, Pirates: This will be Cole's first exposure to professional ball since the Pirates made him the first pick overall in the amateur draft this past June.

Aaron Hicks, OF, Twins: Hicks struggled to hit for power this year in the Florida State League, but he is going to work on hitting from the left side during his AFL stint. The switch-hitter has already shown an ability to get on base and steal bases.

Josh Vitters, 3B, Cubs: Vitters cut back on his strikeouts in his first full year in Double-A, but will he develop the power he needs to be an impact Fantasy player down the line? It wasn't there in hitter-friendly Tennessee, but already he has two homers and two doubles in his first seven AFL games this year.

Peoria Javelinas

Feeder organizations: Brewers, Cardinals, Mariners, Mets, Padres

Anthony Bass, SP, San Diego: Bass got to make a couple of starts for the Padres after spending most of the second half of 2011 in their bullpen. The Detroit-area native has allowed only two runs in his first seven innings, as he tries to position himself for a key role on the Padres' staff in 2012.

Jaff Decker, OF, Padres: Decker put up decent power numbers at pitcher-friendly Double-A San Antonio this year. He's not doing much extra-base damage yet in the desert, but Decker is off to a hot start nonetheless, going 11-for-22 (.500).

Nick Franklin, SS, Mariners:The 20-year-old Franklin got promoted to Double-A in August, and he responded with a .325 batting average, seven extra-base hits and five steals in 21 games. A good AFL performance could help propel Franklin to Seattle sometime in 2012, though he has only two hits in 14 at-bats through his first five games.

Danny Hultzen, SP, Mariners: Hultzen made his first professional start last Friday, allowing a run in two innings with a pair of strikeouts. The southpaw from the University of Virginia could be in the Mariners' rotation as soon as sometime next season.

Phoenix Desert Dogs

Feeder organizations: A's, Blue Jays, Indians, Reds, Yankees

Michael Choice, OF, A's: Choice is making a good early impression, going 8-for-17 (.471) with three home runs in his first four games. The 21-year-old's power is unquestioned, but how much he can improve his contact skills will have a lot to say about his progression over the next couple of years.

Anthony Gose, OF, Blue Jays: Gose is at a crossroads, as the athletic outfielder will need to show that he can hit for power and get on base as he advances to Triple-A. He stole 69 bases for Double-A New Hampshire this year, so if he can make strides at the plate, he could be someone to target in long-term keeper leagues.

Yasmani Grandal, C, Reds: Devin Mesoraco should get the first crack at the Reds' catching job next year, but Grandal isn't far behind. He has appeared in just two AFL games so far.

Tyson Ross, SP, A's: Ross is getting some work in after missing part of the season with shoulder and oblique injuries. He could contend for a spot in the A's rotation next year, after spending a brief time there this season.

Salt River Rafters

Feeder organizations: Astros, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Rockies, Tigers

Nolan Arenado, 3B, Rockies: The Rockies have a potential opening at third base, but Arenado isn't ready yet, having just completed a season at Advanced Class A. Already, he has shown that he can hit for power and contact, making him one of the majors' top third base prospects. So far, he is 8-for-21 (.381) with three doubles in AFL action.

Jason Castro, C, Astros: Castro's stint in the AFL will be his latest step in recovering from knee surgery he underwent in March. His entry into the league was delayed by a ribcage injury, but he made his debut on Tuesday.

Andrew Oliver, SP, Tigers: Oliver may not be far from joining the Tigers' rotation, but the lefty needs to work on his control. Time will tell if he can improve on the nine walks in 16 innings that he posted in his last trip to the AFL, back in 2009.

Tim Wheeler, OF, Rockies: Wheeler had a major breakthrough this year, mashing 33 homers and stealing 21 bases at Double-A Tulsa. A good AFL campaign can only hasten his major league debut, which could come sometime next season. Wheeler is struggling early, getting just seven hits in his first 27 at-bats.

Scottsdale Scorpions

Feeder organizations: Angels, Giants, Nationals, Phillies, Red Sox

Bryce Harper, OF, Nationals: Harper is probably the most highly touted prospect at the AFL this year. So far, he has disappointed onlookers with just one hit in his first 19 at-bats.

Matt Purke, SP, Nationals: Purke, along with Harper and catcher Derek Norris, is part of a talented Nationals' contingent in the AFL. His first appearance in Arizona will mark his professional debut. The Nationals drafted Purke in the third round this June, and he is coming off of a shoulder injury that limited his innings in his final year at TCU.

Jean Segura, 2B, Angels: Segura is a developing speed and power threat, but an injury limited him to just 44 games at Advanced Class A. Though he initially came up as a second baseman, he began a conversion to shortstop this season, and Segura has been playing shortstop in the AFL.

Mike Trout, OF, Angels: Like Segura, Trout is a prolific base stealer who could thrive playing under run-happy Angels manager Mike Scioscia. He has already shown flashes of power in his first exposure to major league pitching, so the 20-year-old could be one of next season's top rookies.

Surprise Saguaros

Feeder organizations: Braves, Marlins, Rays, Rangers, Royals

Nate Adcock, SP, Royals: Dayton Moore, the Royals' general manager, has stated that Adcock's appearance in the AFL is part of a "tryout" to make the team, and possibly the rotation, in 2012. Adcock showed some promise as a Rule 5 pick this past season, posting a 4.62 ERA with a 56 percent ground ball rate, after not having pitched at any level higher than Advanced Class A.

Christian Bethancourt, C, Braves: Bethancourt struggled upon his promotion to Advanced Class A, but he is still considered to be one of the top catching prospects in the minors. He will be the youngest player on the Surprise roster, and if he fares well in the AFL, that bodes well for his long-term value. So far, it's been so good for Bethancourt, as he has gone 6-for-12 (.500) in his first three games.

William Myers, OF, Royals: Myers has shown that he can take a walk, but his power has diminished with each level he has reached in the minors. Now that Myers has converted from catcher to the outfield, Fantasy owners will look for signs of improved offense, especially since his production fell off with his promotion to Double-A this year.

Alex Sanabia, SP, Marlins: Sanabia missed most of the season with a strained forearm, so the AFL will give him a chance to get some innings in. It will also give him an opportunity to showcase himself as a rotation candidate for next year. Sanabia has already made one start, allowing a single run over three innings.

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Player News
Healthy Albert Pujols hitting well for Angels
by Shawn Krest | CBSSports.com
(7:01 pm ET) Albert Pujols entered spring training feeling healthy this season, and it's showing at the plate. 

Pujols is hitting .326 with four home runs, for the Angels this spring, with all the homers coming in the last six games. 

"You could tell the difference when you're in good health, and he is right now," shortstop Erick Aybar said of Pujols, per MLB.com's Alden Gonzalez.

"His lower half looks strong; as strong as I've seen it over the last few years," third baseman David Freese agreed.

"He's certainly in great shape, and he's moving well," manager Mike Scioscia said.


Dodgers pitcher Brandon League out 'extended period of time'
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(6:53 pm ET) Dodgers pitcher Brandon League is still dealing with a shoulder injury and will miss an extended period of time, manager Don Mattingly said according to MLB.com.

League saw two doctors about the shoulder injury Friday and will miss a couple of months, according to Mattingly. League has been dealing with some discomfort in the shoulder after throwing a bullpen session Tuesday. The type of injury he is dealing with is still unknown.


Jacoby Ellsbury taking BP for Yankees
by Shawn Krest | CBSSports.com
(6:47 pm ET) Yankees outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury continues to make progress in returning from the oblique injury that has plagued him since March 15. 

Ellsbury took indoor batting practice on Friday, and manager Joe Girardi reported that everything went well, per MLB.com's Bryan Hoch.

Ellsbury will take batting practice on the field on Saturday. 


Jon Edwards looks to lock up Rangers' long-relief spot
by Shawn Krest | CBSSports.com
(6:19 pm ET) Rangers pitcher Jon Edwards has a chance to land the long-reliever spot in the bullpen, especially with Ross Ohlendorf's groin strain having the chance to keep him from being ready to start the season.

Edwards has a 2.08 ERA in eight appearances, all in relief, this spring.

Edwards will get a start on Saturday, as he tries to show he can pitch multiple innings.

"You’d like to have a long guy that you can hand the ball off to and then not have to go and rescue him," manager Jeff Banister said, per the Dallas Morning News. "There are options; guys who are still in contention for the starting rotation who could be options."


Orioles pitcher Bud Norris not worried about spring struggles
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(5:37 pm ET) Orioles pitcher Bud Norris had another tough outing Friday, giving up three runs in four innings of work. But Norris, who has allowed 12 earned runs over 11 2/3 innings, isn't concerned just yet, reports MLB.com.

"Every outing I've given up a home run," said Norris, who has allowed five homers in four official spring starts. "But you are trying to work on things, trying to get comfortable out there. We had a great year last year and [now we're] just trying to get the ball rolling again. Different beast, obviously in the regular season and postseason."

Manager Buck Showalter noted his command has been off.

"Command has not been very good, as good as he's capable of," Showalter said. "He's an athletic guy, can throw it where he wants to most of the time. He hasn't been very consistent with that yet. He's crisp with most things, just not [with the] consistency of command."


Yankees pitcher Scott Baker to throw Wednesday
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(5:29 pm ET) Yankees pitcher Scott Baker is expected to throw Wednesday after having his scheduled start rained out Thursday, reports the Journal News.

"We wanted (Baker) to go long," manager Joe Girardi said. "I called him in before that (last) inning and I said, 'We're going to wait, because we don’t want you to go just an inning or a half an inning and all of a sudden it starts pouring and they call the game.' So he'll start tomorrow."


Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda tosses five strikeouts in outing Friday
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(5:13 pm ET) Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda threw five scoreless innings Friday against the Phillies with five strikeouts and five hits allowed. 

Pineda, who has a 1.32 ERA so far this spring, did not allow more than a single to any hitter in his appearance.


Drew Storen returns to mound for Nationals
by Shawn Krest | CBSSports.com
(5:09 pm ET) Drew Storen pitched one inning in the Nationals' game on Friday, returning to the mound for the first time since having hand surgery on March 13.

Storen had surgery on his left, non-throwing, hand to remove a hook on the hamate bone. He has been throwing bullpens and making minor league appearances to prepare for the game back, per Jamal Collier of MLB.com.

Storen pitched one inning, allowing one hit and one walk.


Denard Span takes swings for Nationals
by Shawn Krest | CBSSports.com
(5:06 pm ET) Nationals outfielder Denard Span was able to swing a back for the first time since abdominal surgery on March 9. 

Span had a procedure to fix a small tear in his right abdomen. 

Span was able to swing a fungo bat in the batting cage, per MLB.com's Jamal Collier.

"It's good progress," manager Matt Williams said. "It's part of the rehab progression. Of course, yeah, we want him back as quickly as possible, keeping in mind that he's just coming off of surgery. So any time you have to go in there, you have to take time to get well again. But yeah, it's encouraging."


Nationals' Anthony Rendon tests knee with lateral movement
by Shawn Krest | CBSSports.com
(5:04 pm ET) Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon tested his knee by running in the outfield on Friday. Rendon has been out with a sprained left knee since March 9. He can run straight ahead, but in his Friday workout, he tested the knee with lateral movement, per MLB.com's Jamal Collier. 

Rendon still hopes to be ready for Opening Day. 


 
 
 
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