The Arizona Fall League kicks off today, and before I get into the bread and butter of this piece, I want to provide a word of warning. Do not get too worked up over statistical performances in this league; you have to trust the scouting information. There are so many red flags when it comes to the numbers. Beyond the small sample sizes provided by a season that consists of approximately 30 games, you have a hugely offensive environment that is only bolstered by the imbalance of talent, as hitting far outweighs the pitching. A quick stroll through the AFL record book finds it littered with the likes of Scott Pose, Ken Harvey, and Tagg Bozied. While Dustin Ackley shined in last year's play, so did Conor Gillaspie and Mike McDade, along with Adam Carr on the pitching side. It's a fantastic opportunity to get another look at selected prospects, but as for statistical analysis, look elsewhere.
Here's a position-by-position breakdown of some of the players I'll be most focused on:
Catching is rarely strong in the AFL since the grind of a full season takes its toll.
The Best: The Reds first-round pick in 2010, catcher Yasmini Grandal (Desert Dogs) reached Double-A in a fine full-season debut, but he's also stuck behind one of the best catching prospects in the game in Devin Mesoraco. Playing in one of the most heavily scouted environments in baseball, he could generate some heavy trade interest in the off-season.
Others: Derek Norris of the Nationals (Scorpions) impressed here last year but then returned to hitting like Mickey Tettleton at Double-A, making up for a disturbing low average with tons of power and walks. Braves farmhand Christian Bethancourt (Saguaros) began to show some offensive potential this year, and some scouts still think there is some power in his game while being universal in their praise for his defense.
Baseball's best offensive position won't be that in Arizona, with an exceedingly weak crop.
The Best: Let's face it folks, Cardinals product Matt Adams (Javelinas) is the real deal after jumping two levels and winning Texas League MVP honors. He can really hit and has a ton of power, but he'll have to keep doing it as every other tool falls flat. Preseason pick for home run title.
Others: Joe Mahoney of the Orioles (Solar Sox) is a polished hitter who doesn't generate the kind of power one would expect from a 6-6/240 beast, and his approach is lacking. Atlanta's Joe Terdoslavich (Saguaros) put up some loud numbers at High-A Lynchburg this year, but he's more of a doubles hitter than a true power threat, lacks plate discipline, and is older than Freddie Freeman.
Never a sexy position in prospect land as players at the position tend to be made, not born.
The Best: Milwaukee's Scooter Gennett (Javelinas) had a strong second half, and while this will be his first exposure to upper-level pitching, it's also his first time to play in an environment that doesn't kill offense. Gennett is a wonderful hitter, but scouts want to see some secondary skills to go with it.
Others: Yankees prospect Corban Joseph (Desert Dogs) is seen as a more physical version of Gennett in many ways, while one of the more intriguing infielders in the league will be Wilfredo Tovar (Javelinas) of the Mets, who has some potential but is just 20 and coming off a so-so showing in Low-A.
The best position in the league, as one could argue that as many as six future everyday players at the hot corner will participate.
The Best: The August 15 signing deadline, while frustrating for teams, has proven to be a boon for the league with plenty of college products getting their first taste of live action as a professional here. Headlining this year's class among hitters is Washington's Anthony Rendon (Scorpions), who fell out of contention for the first overall pick due to an injury-plagued junior year that also created some debate over his power potential. What is not in question is his pure hitting ability, his outstanding on-base skills, and his plus defensive ability.
Others: Forget about potential regulars, we have potential stars at third all over the place. Boston's Will Middlebrooks (Scorpions) was among the best stories in the Red Sox system this year before flopping in the final month of the season at Triple-A. He has hitting ability, power, and outstanding defense but needs to hone his approach. Mike Olt (Saguaros) of the Rangers was having a breakout year at High-A Myrtle Beach before breaking his collarbone in a home plate collision. He's also praised for his ability both offensively and with the glove, but it's hard to define his future in Texas with Adrian Beltre around. Nolan Arenado (Rafters) led the minors in RBI thanks to the California League, and scouts continued to like the bat this year while noting more power and much improved defense. Former Florida first-round pick Matt Dominguez (Saguaros) is the most accomplished defensive player of them all, but seven months after the Marlins hoped he would win the big league job out of spring training, Dominguez has yet to provide a reason to lessen concerns with his offense. One of the few average (or worse) defenders in the mix, San Diego's Jedd Gyorko (Javelinas) led the minor leagues in hits, but like so many players, his power didn't come with him when he left the California League. Then there is always once highly regarded Josh Vitters (Solar Sox), who continues to make incremental progress but not enough to really get scouts back on his side.
The marquee position is deep but not exactly star-studded.
The Best: While he had a lost regular season due to hamstring problems, Jean Segura (Scorpions) of the Angels impressed with his progress defensively and will look to build on that in preparation for a 2012 assignment in Double-A.
Others: Nick Franklin (Javelinas) of the Mariners had a Jekyll and Hyde season where he somehow couldn't put up numbers in the pinball machine that is High-A High Desert but then looked great after moving up to Double-A. Hopefully we'll be able to make more sense of that soon. Ryan Jackson (Javelinas) of the Cardinals and Adeiny Hechavarria (Desert Dogs) of the Blue Jays are both excellent defensive players who helped their prospect status in 2011 by showing some occasional life with the bat. Former Rays No. 1 overall pick Tim Beckham (Saguaros) doesn't look like a future superstar anymore, but he looks like a future big leaguer after a bounce back regular season in which he reached Triple-A. The most intriguing shortstop might be Joe Panik (Scorpions) of the Giants, who was a mild surprise as a first-round pick in June and then played exceedingly well in the Pioneer League, but he will face a real challenge here regardless of how weak the pitching is comparatively.
The Best: While it's not going to happen on a daily basis since playing time in the Arizona Fall League is often based on Little League rules where everyone plays equally, the Scottsdale Scorpions are at least capable of putting an outfield together of three top prospects in Mike Trout of the Angels, Bryce Harper of the Nationals, and Gary Brown—the best third outfielder in the history of the league. The minimum potential there is All-Star for Brown, with Trout and Harper the two best position prospects in the game (you pick the order for now).
Others: Some of the most intriguing names among fly-catchers are players who did not play at the upper levels and will now face the first significant pitching challenges of their careers. The most interesting is Oscar Taveras (Javelinas) of the Cardinals, who pounded the Midwest League this year but needs more at-bats after playing in just 78 games. A strong showing could land him in Double-A next year. Rays first-round pick Mikie Mahtook (Saguaros) will finally get his feet wet after being a surprising deadline holdout, which came after a surprising season with the bat at LSU. From the “something to prove” department, Wil Myers (Saguaros) of the Royals looks to bounce back from one of the most disappointing seasons among prospects, although he did have a season-long injury as a mitigating factor. The player everyone wants to see more of is Aaron Hicks (Solar Sox) of the Twins, who still blows scouts away with the tools while the performances, if anything, have gotten worse.
Pitching is rarely good in the Arizona Fall League, but this year's arm-heavy draft makes things a little bit better.
The Best: No. 1 overall pick Gerritt Cole (Solar Sox) isn't as hyped as Stephen Strasburg (and with good reason), but he does have Strasburg-like stuff at times, though nowhere close to the same level of control.
Others: Cole is one of many 2011 draftees that will make their unofficial debuts in Arizona. No. 2 overall pick Danny Hultzen (Javelinas) of the Marlins was just as highly regarded by some scouts this spring, albeit for different reasons, as he combines above-average stuff with even better command. Lefty Andy Oliver (Rafters) of the Tigers seems to have stagnated a bit at Triple-A, leaving some to wonder if he'd look better in shorter stints, while his system-mate and fellow southpaw Casey Crosby might fit the same profile (but more for concerns about his long-term health). An intriguing sleeper could be reliever Marquis Fleming (Saguaros) of the Rays, who has put up some big strikeout numbers in the minors due to an outstanding changeup, leading to the obvious question of how well that unique profile plays as he moves up the ladder.