The Arizona Fall League begins Tuesday. Baseball’s finishing school is a place for some of the game’s top prospects, many of whom are almost major league ready.
There’s a lot going on in the desert, with six teams representing all 30 organizations playing ball for a month. There’s a lot of offense and it’s not a great place to be a pitcher, making for some exciting baseball and a nice filler in the fall for those of us who enjoy watching prospects as much as the major leagues.
So among all of the action, here are five things to keep an eye on in the AFL this fall:
In a league full of hitters and raw, hard-throwing pitchers, Tropeano is neither. The former Stony Brook Seawolf is doing to the minor leagues what his alma mater did to college baseball this past season. A fifth-round pick in 2011, Tropeano learned a long time ago how to make up for a lack of velocity with a strong change-up. It worked in the America East, it worked last season in the New York-Penn League, and it worked this season in both the South Atlantic and California Leagues. He’s actually gained some velocity as a professional, but still sits in the low-90′s as a right-hander, so he won’t miss a ton of bats by blowing guys away. His ability to change speeds, however, allowed him to miss bats in the California League, striking out 8.79 batters per nine innings in the hitter’s haven.
If he can handle the California League, he should be able to handle the hitter’s paradise that has become the AFL, but this will be against advanced competition. However, the change-up is the great equalizer in baseball and Tropeano’s is as good as any in the minors. It will allow him to handle righties and lefties alike, and make his velocity play up.
The Astros entered 2012 with tempered expectations about Tropeano, but he has pitched his way into legitimate prospect consideration, and if he can hold his own in the AFL, he could easily begin next season in Double-A.
4. Don’t sleep on the unknowns
We love to focus on the big-name prospects, but everyone in the AFL is there for a reason. Teams only get a limited number of spots to fill, so every prospect heading to Arizona has the attention of their organization. Whether they are working on something in particular, learning a new position, or need to make up at-bats after an injury this year, there’s a reason they are there and it’s because their organization has a plan for them.
A prime example from last season is Darin Ruf. Ruf’s story is well known now after his monster season and success in a brief major call-up, but did you know Ruf was in the AFL last season? I know I wasn’t talking about him.
Ruf wasn’t a legitimate prospect this time last season (and many would argue that he still is not), but the Phillies sent him there for a reason. He didn’t exactly tear it up in the desert last fall (hitting .239/.363/.388 in 80 plate appearances), and of course there’s no way the Phillies could have seen his 2012 season coming, but there was a reason they used one of their limited spots on Ruf.
There’s going to be a player in the league this year who breaks out next season like Ruf. The fun part is trying to figure out who it’s going to be.
Over the past few years, the AFL had become a place for top draft picks from that season to make their professional debut after signing late. With the new draft spending limits and earlier signing deadline, some of that luster has been taken away, but it has been replaced with the bonus of seeing draft picks even earlier.
The highest profile draft pick from last year in this year’s AFL is Mariners catching prospect Michael Zunino, who in past years would have been lucky to get 20 at-bats during the regular minor league season, but instead got 190 plate appearances. The Mariners sent Zunino to the Northwest League, which was about as much challenge to the former Florida Gator as was the SEC, but Zunino also got some playoff experience in Double-A at the end of the season. He didn’t blow up the Southern League playoffs the way he did the NWL, but he handled the jump from college to short-season to Double-A as well as anyone could have hoped.
Zunino could go off in the AFL, but he could also just as easily struggle at the end of a long season for a catcher. If he continues to play well, it will be a testament to his durability as much as his talent, but Zunino could be among the first from this year’s AFL class to make a major league all-star team.
We don’t know much more about Anthony Rendon today than we did when he was drafted sixth overall by the Nationals in 2011. We know he still has a plus-hit tool and we know he still has injury issues. We still don’t know how that hit tool will translate to professional baseball or where on the field he will play.
If Rendon can manage to make it through the entire AFL season, it will be his longest healthy stretch, and his biggest sample size for evaluation purposes as a professional.
Rendon struggled in Double-A after returning from an ankle injury that cost him most of his season, but that jump was a big one given his lack of experience and he still maintained strong plate discipline.
More than anything, however, I’m hoping to see Rendon stay healthy and on the field so we can see what he is.
1. Billy Hamilton in center field
It’s not like Billy Hamilton isn’t exciting enough to watch, but now we have another reason. The Reds announced last week that Hamilton will be manning center field next season, and will be developed as such from here on out. We assume he can play the position, because with even decent route running and jumps he should be able to cover more ground than most, but nothing is a given.
Seeing him in the outfield gives him more opportunities each day to get up to full speed, which is among the most fun things to watch in the minor leagues today. That alone is worth getting excited about. But for long-term thinkers, his ability to handle the move to center field will go a long way in determining when he gets to Cincinnati and how long Drew Stubbs is with the Reds.
That’s a lot riding on fall baseball, but that’s what makes it fun.