This is the 14th season for the Arizona Fall League, Major League Baseballí•â'¬â"•s domestic, developmental league for prospects. In many ways, ití•â'¬â"•s the ultimate Baseball America league, with rosters bulging with many of the best young players in the game today.
This year the league implemented two changes in regard to which players are eligible to play: A player must have no more than one year active major league service time prior to Aug. 31, or the player has had no more than two years of major league service time in full.
The changes allow for more flexibility for clubs to get big league rookies more experience, and also should bump up the level of competition in the league overall.
Some of those rookies slated to head to the AFL this season are J.J. Hardy and Prince Fielder (Brewers), Jeremy Accardo (Giants), Matt Murton (Cubs), and Brad Eldred (Pirates).
Another change is geographical. The Scottsdale clubs, the Scorpions and Grand Canyon Rafters, moved to Surprise, Ariz., the spring-training site shared by the Rangers and Royals, as Scottsdale Stadium goes through a renovation project.
The leagueí•â'¬â"•s 32-game season began Oct. 4 and ends Nov. 10, with a one-game championship on Nov. 12. The season will be one week shorter than last year, scheduled to end prior to the Olympic qualifying tournament.
Let’s take a look at the top players on each team, broken down by the following categories: Best Pitching Prospect, Best Position Prospect, Emerging Player, and a player who is bouncing back–either from injury or who has come to the AFL to get more work and experience after a down year. Players who already have accrued a certain amount of major league service time will not be eligible for this breakdown, as they also will not be eligible for our AFL Top 20 Prospect List, which will be unveiled in BA and on our web site (baseballamerica.com) in late November.
PHOENIX DESERT DOGS
BEST PITCHING PROSPECT: Greg Miller, lhp, Dodgers
If they handed out awards for minor league comeback player of the year, Miller would be first in line to receive it. Miller hadn’t pitched at all in 2004 because of shoulder problems, and he needed two surgeries to realize the actual problem. After surgery to shave down his shoulder blade (which was causing irritation in the joint), the 21-year-old made remarkable strides in his rehab and was back pitching competitively in late June. He ended up in the Double-A Jacksonville bullpen, with a new arm action but solid low-90s velocity, shy of the 95-96 he showed when he emerged as a top prospect in 2003. Heí•â'¬â"•s still working on his command with his new arm action and must gain consistency on his slider, curveball (a true power curve in í•â'¬â"•03) and his changeup.
BEST POSITION PLAYER: Jarrod Saltalamacchia, c, Braves
Saltalamacchia improved his overall game this season through some major strength and conditioning. The athletic Saltalamacchia has good physical tools behind the plate, with a plus arm and better agility than most catchers. While he refined both his receiving skills and his footwork, he still threw out just 26 percent of baserunners. Offensively, Saltalamacchia has outstanding raw power, particularly from the left side of the plate, where his sweet swing has natural loft. With his switch-hitting ability, solid bat and even his top-shelf work ethic, Saltalamacchia has drawn comparisons to Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek.
EMERGING: Josh Burrus, of, Braves
After spending parts of three seasons in Rookie ball, Burrus is finally developing skills to go with the tools that made him a first-round pick in 2001. He had career highs in stolen bases (36), walks (52) and home runs (16) while jumping to Triple-A in 2005. Burrus tends to get a little pull conscious, but has been adept at shortening up and taking balls the other way. He finished the year going 6-for-19 at Triple-A Richmond.
BOUNCING BACK: Wade Townsend, rhp, Devil Rays
Townsendí•â'¬â"•s case has been well documented. The two-time first-round pick signed with the Rays after being the No. 8 overall pick for the second straight year, and the rust from his one-year layoff showed in his pro debut. He pitched at 90-92 mph with his trademark spike curveball with an effective changeup in predraft workouts, but lacked confidence in is fastball in the short-season New York-Penn League, going 0-4, 5.39 for Hudson Valley. He heads to the desert to build up more strength and hone his command–he finished his pro debut with a 33-24 strikeout-walk ratio.
MESA SOLAR SOX
BEST PITCHING PROSPECT: Adam Miller, rhp, Indians
Miller joined high Class A Kinston in July after missing most of the first half after spraining his elbow in spring training. While he isn’t yet the same pitcher that topped out at 101 mph in the Carolina League playoffs last season, he is making progress. Miller’s fastball sat in the 91-94 range for most of the year, topping out at 96. However, he lacked the same deadly bite on his 87-88 mph slider he showed in 2004. His changeup also needs work. Miller is in the AFL to make up for innings lost to the injury and to further refine his changeup and command of his slider and fastball. All three showed signs of major life in the Carolina League playoffs.
BEST POSITION PLAYER: Ryan Garko, c/1b, Indians
Garko was called up to the Tribe in September, and the only thing holding him from staying there full-time is his lack of position. The Indians have wavered on whether or not to keep his strong righthanded bat behind the plate, as heí•â'¬â"•s a below-average receiver. Scouts doubt he can be an everyday catcher, and though his actions at first base have gotten better, he’s still mechanical and high maintenance at times on the infield corner. Offensively, he’s short to the ball with an efficient swing, allowing him to make adjustments on any pitch in any location. He uses the whole field and showed above-average power with a mature, intelligent approach. But heí•â'¬â"•s in the AFL to work on his defense.
EMERGING: Eric Patterson, 2b, Cubs
An eighth-round pick in 2004 out of Georgia Tech, Patterson had an outstanding debut at low Class A Peoria, hitting .333-13-71 in 432 at-bats this season, and he earned a promotion to Double-A West Tenn for the Southern League playoffs. As with his brother Corey, the Cubs outfielder, speed is Ericí•â'¬â"•s best tool, though his wheels rate as a 65 on the 20-80 scouting scale compared to Coreyí•â'¬â"•s 80. Eric Patterson swiped 40 bags in 51 tries at Peoria. The key to his game is keeping himself under control at the plate–not trying to hit for too much power and instead being focused on getting on base to use his speed.
BOUNCING BACK: Angel Guzman, rhp, Cubs
Guzman was pushing for a big league job in 2003, but his balky shoulder has stalled his progress. He had arthroscopic surgery to repair a slight labrum tear, and the Cubs handled him cautiously in 2004, shutting him down in July because he tired after working nonstop during his rehab. Guzman didn’t make his 2005 debut until early August due to forearm stiffness, and he pitched just 18 innings overall. While his durability is in question, so is Guzmaní•â'¬â"•s stuff, and the Cubs will want to see if his 91-96 mph fastball will ever come back to its 2003 form.
BEST PITCHING PROSPECT: Adam Loewen, lhp, Orioles
The biggest enigma in the Carolina League this season, Loewen has significant potential and significant shortcomings. Loewen has a mid-90s fastball he throws on a steep downward plane, a plus curveball and changeup. What he lacks is consistency, both in his delivery and in his arm slots. Loewen returned this season from a frayed labrum that did not require surgery last year, as the club opted on a throwing program to strengthen his shoulder. He was fully healthy this season and is in the AFL to further hone his mechanics and prove he can be consistent.
BEST POSITION PLAYER: Nick Markakis, of, Orioles/Ian Stewart, 3b, Rockies
One of the true five-tool players in the Carolina League, Markakis won the home run derby at the Carolina League/California League all-star game, then hit two homers in the game. Markakis lacks any glaring weakness, has excellent raw power to all fields and a plus throwing arm. As good as Markakis is, Stewart factors in as well. He missed the first month of the season with hamstring problems, and it took him a while to get going as he hit just .211 at high Class A Modesto in May. But he finished strong, hitting .274-17-86 in 435 at-bats overall. His sweet lefthanded swing produces above-average power to all fields, and heí•â'¬â"•s become a solid average third baseman defensively.
EMERGING: Chris Iannetta, c, Rockies
Iannetta emerged as a legitimate prospect this year, being named to the 2005 Futures Game in Detroit. He has a compact stroke and makes hard, line-drive contact to the gaps. His power is developing, as he hit 11 homers and 17 doubles in his 261 at-bats at high Class A Modesto this season before being called up to Double-A Tulsa. An average catch-and-throw backstop, Iannetta threw out 32 percent of runners at Modesto and had the same ratio in Double-A. His maturity and intelligence make handling pitching staffs one of his strengths.
BOUNCING BACK: Val Majewski, of, Orioles/Clint Nageotte, rhp, Mariners
Take your pick here. Majewski showed solid right-field tools and a good lefthanded swing before labrum surgery ended his 2004 season, just after he made his big league debut; he hasní•â'¬â"•t played since. The AFL will be his season.
Nageotte sustained a forearm strain in spring training, then tried to pitch through the injury and worsened its condition. He missed most of this season before rehabbing in the Rookie-level Arizona League and ultimately joining Triple-A Tacoma’s bullpen where he went 2-1, 2.65 in 34 innings. When healthy, Nageotte has one of the nastiest sliders in baseball, with violent late break that tops out at 87 mph. He also has a power fastball, working from 92-97 mph.
BEST PITCHING PROSPECT: Bryan Bullington, rhp, Pirates
Bullington, the No. 1 overall pick in 2002, finished the season strong, going 8-3, 2.37 over the last three months to establish himself as one of the top pitchers in the Triple-A International League. He finished the season in the majors. He was held back in extended spring training with some mild shoulder fatigue, but after tinkering with his mechanics and gaining strength, Bullington took off. His fastball touched 95 mph at time this season and showed more life as well. He complements his heater with a sharp slider and an improved changeup that gave him a legitimate third option.
BEST POSITION PLAYER: Ryan Zimmerman, 3b/ss, Nationals
Zimmerman made it from the University of Virginia and from being the No. 4 pick in the 2005 draft to the Nationals lineup in September in a whirlwind year. His polish and makeup helped him move so quickly. He’s always had excellent defensive skills, with hands, feet, arm strength and range that all rate above-average. Zimmerman rarely strikes out because of his balanced, up-the-middle approach and shows average speed and good instincts on the basepaths. Look for him to see time at both third base and shortstop this fall.
EMERGING: Neil Walker, c, Pirates
Walker became the first Pittsburgh-area player ever drafted by the Pirates in the first round when they used the 11th overall pick on him in 2004. Both his father Tom and his uncle Chip played in the majors. A switch-hitter, Walker hit for both average and power in his first full season at low Class A Hickory (.301-12-68). He has the potential to be a .300 hitter capable of 25-30 homers annually in the big leagues. He has quick feet behind the plate but lacks polish defensively.
BOUNCING BACK: Guillermo Quiroz, c, Blue Jays
Quiroz made it all the way to the big leagues this season despite adding to his lengthy medical history. He missed time in 2003 with a collapsed lung, and missed two months last season with a broken left hand after being hit by a pitch. This year, Quiroz went on the disabled list again in late March with a muscle injury in his upper back behind his right shoulder. He came back though, starting at high Class A Dunedin, then to Triple-A Syracuse before heading to Toronto. Quiroz has above-average catch-and-throw skills, with plus arm strength and a quick release. At the plate he displays plus raw power but has a long swing, which leaves his offensive potential in question.
BEST PITCHING PROSPECT: Jered Weaver, rhp, Angels
Weaver, the younger brother of Dodgers righthander Jeff Weaver, was the College Pitcher of the Year in 2004, but a long draft holdout that didní•â'¬â"•t end until the end of May cut his pro debut short before it began. Once he signed in late May, the righthander from Long Beach State showed why he was the 12th overall pick. At high Class A Rancho Cucamonga, he went 4-1, 3.82 with 49 strikeouts in 33 innings. He pitches with his fastball in the 90-92 mph range, complementing his heater with a slider and a plus changeup. He commands all his pitches well. Weaver finished his season at Double-A Arkansas, where he went 3-3, 3.98 in 43 innings.
BEST POSITION PLAYER: Brandon Wood, ss, Angels
Wood had an unbelievable year in 2005, leading the minors in doubles (53) and home runs (43) all at age 20. Of his 178 hits, 101 were for extra bases, with the last three coming in a late-season Triple-A cameo. Wood generates his power with a swing with outstanding natural loft and by accelerating the bat head through the hitting zone so well. His strong wrists and quick hands make his swing work well, and he has above-average instincts. He improved defensively in 2005 as well, grading out as an average shortstop.
EMERGING: Billy Butler, of, Royals
When the Royals selected Butler as the 14th overall pick in 2004, he immediately became the systemí•â'¬â"•s best hitting and power prospect. Butlerí•â'¬â"•s quick hands, strong wrists and hand-eye coordination make his unorthodox stance work. He was a California League all-star despite being the youngest player in the league. Still just 19, Butler moved up to Double-A Wichita in August and held his own, hitting .313-5-19 over the last month of the season.
BOUNCING BACK: Travis Hanson, 3b, Cardinals
Hanson missed two-thirds of 2004 with a broken ankle and needed a big year to regain his prospect status. Consider it doneí•â'¬”Hanson batted .284/.347/.458 at Double-A Springfield in his first shot at the level, with 20 homers and 97 RBIs. He has a solid lefthanded swing, hangs in well against southpaw pitchers and has improved his plate discipline. His all-around tools and improved power could help him go from being projected as a utility player to an everyday option at second base or third.
GRAND CANYON RAFTERS
BEST PITCHING PROSPECT: Travis Bowyer, rhp, Twins
Bowyer came into this season marked for a setup role for Rochester, but his power stuff helped him become the closer. He tops out at 98 mph with his fastball, complementing the pitch with a hard slider and mixing it up with a changeup. Stuff has never been a question for Bowyer, but he needs to refine the command of his secondary pitches to profile as a big league closer.
BEST POSITION PLAYER: Lastings Milledge, of, Mets
Milledge went from high Class A St. Lucie to Double-A Binghamton to the Netherlands, where he starred for Team USA in the World Cup in September. He also represented the Mets organization in the Futures Game. He injured his hand diving for a ball early on this season, but just missed two weeks and came back to hit .302-4-22 in 232 at-bats and earned a promotion to Double-A. Milledge’s bat speed is exceptional, and all his tools grade out as average or above.
EMERGING: Denard Span, of, Twins
Span started off the season at high Class A Fort Myers, but was promoted to Double-A New Britain in June and held his own, hitting .285 in 267 at-bats. The best athlete and fastest player in the Twinsí•â'¬â"• system, the lefthanded hitting Span has been timed at 3.8 seconds to first base. Because of his speed, Span can be a game-changer on the bases and defensively. His increased willingness to walk (a career-best 44) helps improve his leadoff-hitter profile.
BOUNCING BACK: Eric Duncan, 3b, Yankees
Duncan had a disappointing season at Double-A Trenton at age 20. He hit just .235 in 451 at-bats with 136 strikeouts, but showed good power, blasting 19 homers. His lefthanded plus power should make him an ideal fit for Yankee Stadium, and he’s not afraid to go the other way in his approach. Duncan committed 27 errors with the Thunder and needs to be more consistent with his throws to first.