Billy Hamilton, CF, Reds (Double-A Pensacola/Peoria Javelinas)
Few players in the 20-year history of the Arizona Fall League have reported with as much buzz as Cincinnati Reds' prospect Billy Hamilton. Coming off a season where he broke a minor league record by stealing 155 bases and having posted an overall .319/.418/.431 line between High-A Bakersfield and Double-A Pensacola, Hamilton would have already been targeted as an exciting player to watch closely, but there is more on his plate than most of the other prospects this Fall.
After playing shortstop in the Reds' system since being drafted in the second round of the 2009 draft, Hamilton is listed as an outfielder on the Peoria Javalinas' roster. With shortstops Zack Cozart and Didi Gregorius already in their stable, Cincinnati is going to attempt to convert Hamilton into a center fielder in the AFL. This type of strategy is what Roland Hemond had in mind when he came up with the idea of the Arizona Fall League, because winter ball teams in Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Puerto Rico cannot afford to risk conversion projects in their highly competitive environment laden with roster limitations. The Reds' Arizona headquarters are a short ride from any of the AFL sites, so their instructors will spend a lot of time with Hamilton and observe every game.
With his exceptional speed (13.8 on an inside-the-park homer this year), slightly above-average arm, and high baseball IQ, Hamilton is a great candidate. Mickey Mantle, Robin Yount, Paul Blair, Chet Lemon, Eric Davis, and Henry Aaron are examples of shortstops who successfully moved to center field, and Reds' VP of Player Development and Scouting Bill Bavasi engineered the switch of Adam Jones from short to center when they were Mariners together. It's not that Hamilton couldn't play short, but this is an opportunity for Cincinnati to utilize his skills better and have him be an impact big league player quicker. My guess is that the Reds feel Hamilton's thin frame will have a more productive shelf life without all the pounding that a middle infielder takes, along with taking advantage of his 80-grade speed—the best I have ever seen—in the middle of the outfield. Speed is the one tool that plays both offensively and defensively. The plan is for Hamilton to play center and left with Peoria.
It is the second major decision involving Hamilton in a little more than two years, as the natural right-handed hitter became a switch-hitter for the 2011 season. That worked well, and Hamilton's game took a huge step forward in 2012 with a 70-point surge in his on-base percentage and a 60-point increase in slugging percentage overall. Despite moving up to High-A and Double-A, his strikeouts declined (by 20) while his walks significantly increased (by 30). His line drive stroke is a good one, and he makes solid contact.
If this experiment is successful, the Reds will have Hamilton, 22, ready to contribute at the Major League level late in 2013 or perhaps in 2014, giving Cincinnati more roster options. It is also the likely reason the Reds dismissed rumors of Hamilton joining their big league club in September, as he was already working with their minor league staff on the conversion in Arizona.—Dan Evans
Jon Singleton, 1B, Astros (Double-A Corpus Christi/Mesa Solar Sox)
Players and prospects are sent to the Arizona Fall League for a variety of reasons: some are in need of additional reps due to injury, some are beginning the exploration of a new position, some are just warm bodies for a roster, and some are looking to take a step towards an immediate future in the majors. Jonathan Singleton is one of the more promising power bats in the minors, one with limitations that make his ascent to stardom anything but assured. The Astros are sending a message to the 21-year-old masher, and that message (loosely translated) is that Singleton has a chance to be an impact talent at the major league level, and the low-hanging fruit that is a spot on the 25-man roster is within his grasp. With incredible bat speed from a leveraged swing, Singleton has the type of pop that any team would gladly welcome into their lineup. He has explosive hips and wrists, and even though he has exploitable weaknesses in his game—most noticeably, issues against quality breaking balls—Singleton projects to hit 30+ homers at full utility. His hit tool and approach give him multiple dimensions at the plate, but his taste for fastballs could help the write book for opposing pitchers if his cravings are too transparent. He’s not a plus athlete, and experiments in the outfield haven’t been all that pretty, so Singleton’s long-term future will most likely be as a first baseman. The first base prospect rule applies, as Singleton will have to profile as a middle-of-the-order force to be considered a legit prospect, but so far he fits the bill. Ultimately, his performance in the AFL will mean more to the developmental eyes in the Astros org than the fans watching from afar, but with a major league opportunity resting on the horizon, it will be worth paying attention to Singelton’s progress on the way to that reality.—Jason Parks
Dellin Betances, RHP, Yankees (Double-A Trenton/Scottsdale Scorpions)
2012 turned out to be a big step back for Betances, failing to capitalize on the development strides of 2011, that culminated in throwing a couple of innings at the big league level to close out the year. Control problems plagued the righty this season, issuing a staggering 99 walks in 131 1/3 innings across two levels. I caught Betances shortly after his demotion to Double-A and the stuff was certainly there: a 94-96 mph downward moving fastball that topped at 97 mph, a plus-to-better 82-85 mph curve with hard bite and plenty of depth, and a mid-80s changeup that kept batters on their front foot. Standing 6-foot-8 inches, there’s a lot of body to control during the delivery, and having below-average athletic ability doesn’t help him repeat his mechanics or allow him to make necessary adjustments. The command is his biggest weakness and grades out below-average. I noticed something else when I watched Betances in person: missing confidence. The body language wasn’t overly positive and it almost seemed like the 24-year-old was just waiting for something to go wrong. A player’s psyche can be both his best friend and mortal enemy. Bad results can snowball and—in this case—a string of poor outings followed. The Arizona Fall League proves to be interesting as to whether Betances bounces back mentally and takes something positive into the off-season from an otherwise disappointing season.—Chris Mellen
Hak-Ju Lee, SS, Rays (Double-A Montgomery/Phoenix Desert Dogs)
The Matt Garza trade has already netted the Rays a trio of major-league contributors in Chris Archer, Robinson Chirinos, and Sam Fuld, but the prize of that deal may wind up being slick-fielding shortstop Hak-Ju Lee. Lee struggled out of the gate this year, hitting .227/.297/.289 through May 29, before heating up in June (.330/.387/.450). He continued to hit the ball well until he was shut down with an oblique injury in August. Lee credits an approach change for the turnaround, saying that he realized he wasn't a power hitter and that he needed to slap the ball in order to take advantage of his plus speed. His skinny six-foot-two, 170-pound frame lacks projection, so he's unlikely to develop better than 30 power, though good plate discipline and bat control should make him an average hitter at the big-league level. Tampa Bay has struggled to find performance from its shortstops in recent years (.235/.297/.342 since 2010), so even an average bat would represent a substantial upgrade.—Bradley Ankrom
Nick Castellanos, OF, Detroit Tigers (Double-A Erie/ Mesa Solar Sox)
When the Tigers moved Castellanos to the outfield at Double-A, there was a lot of chatter that the move was an effort to get him to Detroit to help a lineup that needed some extra punch. Instead, Castellanos struggled with the adjustment to better pitching and a new position, and Avisail Garcia earned the call to Detroit. Castellanos has star offensive abilities, including raw power that has yet to completely manifest in games. His offensive potential is not the reason you should pay attention to him in the AFL, but it may be hard to ignore in the high-octane environment of the league. You should pay attention to Castellanos because his defensive development will dictate when he arrives in the big leagues. There is nothing currently blocking Castellanos in right field and if he can figure out his defensive reads and the different throwing mechanics required, he should be in Detroit soon. The AFL will provide an opportunity to get repetition and instruction, just what the doctor ordered.—Mark Anderson
Anthony Rendon, 3B, Nationals (Double-A Harrisburg/Salt River Rafters)
Setting aside health, Rendon is a top ten—and perhaps top five—prospect in all of baseball. While the label “five tool player” is too often inappropriately bestowed on prospects, Rendon is a five-tool player in the purest sense. The former Rice star is best known for his advanced offensive skill set, but what sets Rendon apart from other elite bats are his command of the strike zone and his barrel control. He has an uncanny ability to lay off close balls and spoil tough strikes, helping him to eventually find the pitch he needs to do damage. His approach seldom falters, and there is little question in his ability to hit for average, get on base, and drive the ball with authority. Additionally, he is an easy plus defender at the hot corner, showing range to both sides and effortless execution on the run. His arm checks out as an easy plus and he can throw from all the requisite angles. Even after multiple ankle injuries, Rendon’s speed and baserunning rates at least a tick above-average. He routinely clocks home-to-first times in the 4.2 range from the right side and shows good instincts on the base paths, allowing that speed to play better than its raw score. Rendon was limited to just 43 games this year, setting up the AFL as a prime stage for his professional breakout. He is one of those unique talents that can impact the game on all fronts, and this October/November he will get a chance to do just that against some of the better upper-level minor leaguers.—Nick Faleris
Kolten Wong, 2b, Cardinals (Double-A Springfield/ Surprise Sagueros)
The 21-year-old former first rounder spent all of 2012 at Double-A Springfield, where he continued to showcase an advanced bat and strong second base profile. Offensively, Wong has a potential 65 hit tool capable of driving the gaps and putting 12-17 balls in the seats, annually; he draws some comparisons to Boston’s Dustin Pedroia due to his size and his ability to barrel the ball regularly in spite of a high effort swing. While not a burner, he’s an average runner who could steal 20-plus bases a year at the Major League level once he refines his reads. Wong was a steady defender at the University of Hawai’i, but has since progressed with the glove to the point you could hang a future 55/60 grade on it and not get funny looks. His arm strength is above-average, giving his range the opportunity to play up-the-middle, and his pivots and footwork around the bag have continued to improve in each viewing dating back to his time as a rising sophomore with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. Wong’s bat could really stand out in the offensive AFL and, if the rest of the package is as impressive this fall as it was over the summer, he could set himself up well for an extended look during spring training and an early-season call-up.—Nick Faleris
Jacob Realmuto, C, Marlins (High-A Jupiter/Phoenix Desert Dogs)
Miami's third-round pick out of an Oklahoma high school in 2010, Realmuto converted from shortstop to catcher immediately after signing for an above-slot $600,000 bonus. He earns praise for his leadership qualities and ability to handle a pitching staff, the latter being especially impressive considering his relative lack of experience. A former high school quarterback, Realmuto possesses a strong arm that has enabled him to throw out 38 percent of runners attempting to steal. He greatly improved as a pitch-blocker this year, allowing just nine passed balls after losing 25 the year before. Perhaps most encouraging, Realmuto's extra work behind the plate hasn't retarded his development with the bat. He should develop into at least an average hitter with solid power, though it isn't a surprise that Realmuto's pop failed to manifest in the hitter-unfriendly Florida State League. He’s clearly passed Kyle Skipworth as the Marlins’ catcher of the future, and he could push the former sixth-overall pick to the Double-A bench next summer.—Bradley Ankrom
Trayce Thompson, OF, Chicago White Sox (Triple-A Charlotte/Salt River Rafters)
Trayce Thompson was drafted in the second round in 2009 because he is loaded with tools. Trayce Thompson continues to show up on prospect lists despite a .240/.319/.446 career minor league line because he is loaded with tools. I am a sucker for tools. Thompson is a good runner who can play in the middle of the outfield. He also has a very good arm, giving him a very strong defensive profile. On top of that, Thompson has plus-plus raw power. Where the profile falls apart is when you look at the frequency with which he swings and misses. Thompson has always and will always strike out a ton. That’s going to be a part of his game. But with those strikeouts comes the potential for 30 doubles and 30 home runs if he can unlock his power potential. Thompson made very real progress in translating his tools to on-field results in his first taste of High-A this year. Despite seeming to have been on the prospect radar for eons, Thompson won’t turn 22 until spring training next year. With the progress made during the regular season and the additional experience he will gain against more advanced competition in the AFL, the White Sox may have a young player to slot in the outfield between Dayan Viciedo and Alex Rios in the second half next year. —Mark Anderson
Brian Flynn, LHP, Marlins (Double-A Jacksonville/Phoenix Desert Dogs)
There’s a lot to like here. Flynn is tall (6-foot-8) and left-handed, and he saw a significant spike in velocity this season. He can run his fastball up to 95 at times, and has shown the makings of a pair of average secondary offerings. He made excellent progress at the end of this past season, so he could grab the attention of scouts who only saw a mild prospect early in 2012. The Wichita State product now has some evaluators who believe he’ll fit in a big league rotation sooner rather than later. A month of his best work in Arizona could launch him into Miami’s 2013 plans.—Hudson Belinsky