It’s that time of the year when scouts and fans galore descend upon the desert to the Mecca of the prospect world: the best collection of prospects this side of the Futures Game. It’s almost time for the Arizona Fall League.
For anyone hoping to see the best prospects in the game without moving into an RV and traveling the country, there’s no better place to do it than the AFL.
There are six teams in the AFL, each of which is assigned five major league organizations. Each organization sends between six and eight players, and assigns them to specific positions for their month in the desert. Many teams use the fall league as an opportunity to get extra at-bats or innings for players who missed time with injury, much as the Reds did last fall with Billy Hamilton. They assigned him an outfield role, a chance to learn a new position before the offseason.
The volume of prospects being sent to the desert can be overwhelming, especially for those who don’t spend a lot of time getting deep into the world of up-and-coming players. I’ve spent almost a month previewing every player heading to the AFL, but for those who want to follow the top story lines in the AFL, here are five things to focus on:
5. 2013 first-rounders
A recent trend is clubs giving recent draft picks extra at-bats during their draft year. The desperation to get new prospects more playing time isn’t as drastic as it once was, thanks to a bumped-up signing deadline that has lead to more regular season at-bats during a player’s draft year, but some teams are still using the AFL to get their new guys some extra experience.
The Marlins, who became notorious this season for being in a hurry to get their prospects to the majors, are sending Colin Moran to the AFL after selecting him sixth overall this past June out of the University of North Carolina. He doesn’t come with the power potential of some of the other college hitters drafted this season, but he was considered perhaps the most advanced batter available.
Selected four picks before Moran was fellow college third baseman Kris Bryant, a power hitter out of the University of San Diego selected second overall by the Cubs. Bryant hit nine home runs in 36 games among three different levels this summer, and could put on quite a show in the hitter-friendly environments of the AFL.
4. The Cubs’ motherlode
Bryant is just one of the impressive group of prospects the Cubs elected to send to the desert. Organizations use their limited AFL spots in different ways, but the Cubs elected to assign theirs to their highest-ceiling prospects. In addition to Bryant, the Mesa Solar Sox will be able to trot out a lineup that features high-end outfield prospects Albert Almora and Jorge Soler, giving Cubs fans a glimpse of the potential middle of their future lineup.
The only top player missing is Javier Baez, who appeared in the AFL last season and hit 37 home runs in the minors this season. It’s not easy to be a Cubs fans in most instances, but this isn’t one of them.
3. Position changes
Billy Hamilton’s transition to the outfield received headlines last season, and Delino DeShields Jr. is making a similar transition this season, shifting from second base to the outfield, as scouts have long predicted. Like Hamilton, DeShields’ best tool is his speed, although his isn’t as game-changing. DeShields isn’t the same caliber prospect, but he has been a better hitter in the minors. He should have no problem transitioning to the outfield, and even if he doesn’t want to work at it too hard (there have been questions about his work ethic and makeup), he should still be an adequate center fielder.
Yankees prospect Tyler Austin is making the opposite move. Having played primarily right field in his first four professional seasons, Austin is listed as an infielder on the Scottsdale Scorpions roster for this fall. Just because a player is playing a position in the AFL doesn’t mean he’s necessarily moving there permanently, but it does often signify where he fits into the plans of his organization. Austin will see time at first base, which should give the Yankees more opportunities to get him into the lineup in the future.
2. Top prospects
The best reason in most years to go to the AFL is the chance to see many of the game’s top prospects play against each other. Pitcher/hitter match-ups that feature the likes of Jameson Taillon or Alex Meyer facing guys like Addison Russell or Corey Seager are what the AFL is all about. The excitement generated by the Futures Game gets to last over a month and give us a preview of potential all-star match-ups of the future.
It may be the end of the season with tired arms and slow bats, but it’s still star vs. star, and that’s baseball at its best.
When baseball is really at its best is when Byron Buxton is playing it. The Twins prospect emerged this season as the best prospect in baseball, and he’s single-handedly worth making a trip to Arizona.
Have you ever wondered what it was like to see Mike Trout in the minor leagues? Don’t miss a similar opportunity with Buxton, who will be doing Trout-ian things to the American League within a few years. Meanwhile, Buxton brings as much excitement to a half-filled stadium as anybody since Hamilton was stealing his way to the majors the past two seasons, only with actual hitting ability.
Buxton is the total package and his stint in the AFL should serve as a catapult to the upper levels of the minors next season. He won’t qualify as a prospect, or be able to play in the AFL, for much longer past this season, so this will likely be the only opportunity to see him take on the best of his contemporaries.
There are lots of reasons to get excited about the Arizona Fall League, but none of them are as good as Byron Buxton.