But the biggest draw of the league is not necessarily the potential Hall of Famers in action, but the proximity of these players to the major leagues. Unlike standard minor leagues where the players on the field may still be years from the major leagues (if they get there at all), the AFL is chock full of players who could appear at a stadium near you as early as next year. Last year’s league included players like Ike Davis, Jose Tabata, Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen, Starlin Castro, Mike Leake and many more who saw significant time in the majors this season.
This year’s crop of prospects is no different, and with the season beginning today, there’s no time like the present to get you ready for the AFL action.
Mesa Solar Sox
Best known prospects: Josh Vitters and Brett Jackson of the Cubs. Jackson has been touring with the USA Pan-Am qualifying team and should continue his red-hot hitting in the hitter-friendly AFL. Vitters needs to refine his approach at the plate and stop swinging at pitchers’ pitches.
Ones to watch: Andrew Lambo, who has rejuvenated his career since joining the Pirates organization, Kirk Nieuwenhuis of the Mets, who continues to produce despite scouts’ insistence that he’ll be nothing more than a fourth outfielder in the bigs, and Tony Sanchez, the Pirates catching prospect and former first-round pick who spent the second half of the season recovering from a broken face.
Best known prospects: Casey Kelly of the Red Sox and Dustin Ackley of the Mariners. Kelly displayed excellent stuff in his first full year of pitching, but got roughed up in Double-A. Ackley returns for his second stint in the AFL, this time as a second baseman.
Ones to watch: Cuban shortstops Jose Iglesias of the Red Sox and Adeiny Hechavarria of the Blue Jays, who are friends from their days playing on the island and have just finished their first professional seasons after defecting. Also watch Koby Clemens, the Astros’ first base prospect and son of former Cy Young award winner Roger Clemens, who continues to put up power numbers at every level.
Ones to watch: Devin Mesoraco of the Reds finally lived up to his first-round status this season, and could be the team’s future behind the plate as early as next season. Ben Revere of the Twins has been a .300 hitter every year of his professional career. Alex Cobb is trying to keep pace with the rest of the Rays’ arsenal of young arms.
Phoenix Desert Dogs
Best known prospects: Freddie Freeman of the Braves and Grant Green of the A’s. Freeman should be the Braves’ Opening Day first baseman next season, and Green could be the A’s starting shortstop by next summer.
Ones to watch: Kyle Skipworth of the Marlins, who has failed to live up to his first-round pedigree thus far in his pro career but began to show flashes of his power potential this season. Michael Taylor of the A’s, who went from Philly to Toronto to Oakland last offseason and struggled with the bat all year.
Best known prospects:Brandon Belt of the Giants, who had a breakout season that ranked among the best in the minors.
Ones to watch: A.J. Pollack of the Diamondbacks, who was a first round pick in 2009 but missed much of this season with injury. Sammy Solis, a Nationals pitching prospect who was taken in this year’s draft but appeared in just four regular season innings.
Best known prospects: Eric Hosmer and Mike Montgomery of the Royals. Hosmer is among the best all-around hitters in the minors and Montgomery was the best pitcher in the minors during the first half of the regular season. Add Zack Cox of the Cardinals, who was considered one of the top college bats in this year’s draft but had only 15 regular season at-bats after signing.
Ones to watch:Danny Duffy of the Royals, who is making up for lost time after voluntarily sitting out the first part of the season while he contemplated retirement but came back with an impressive season. Chance Ruffin, a Tigers 2010 draft pick who has yet to appear professionally.