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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.