PHOENIX — Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge and Dodgers first baseman Cody Bellinger have lots in common. They’re both taller than 6-foot-5. They both took part in this year’s Home Run Derby in Miami. They’re both virtual locks to win rookie of the year (almost certainly unanimously) in their respective leagues. They both have come up with big hits in this year’s postseason.
And both added polish to their prospect pedigree in the Arizona Fall League.
Three years ago, Judge swatted four home runs as part of a Scottsdale Scorpions club that featured current Yankee teammate Greg Bird as well. Last year, Bellinger clubbed three longballs as part of a one-two prospect punch with fellow Dodger Alex Verdugo, who made his major league debut late this season.
Fans who came out to the annual six-week prospect showcase got an early taste of what was to come this October. They saw both men deposit balls to the far reaches of parks in Scottsdale, Glendale, Salt River, Peoria, Surprise and Mesa, and then they watched as those players developed into the monsters they are today.
But Judge and Bellinger aren’t exactly isolated examples. AFL alums dot postseason rosters across the country this year. Mookie Betts played in the AFL. So did Bryce Harper. And Kris Bryant. And Addison Russell. And Francisco Lindor. Heck, Nationals outfielder Victor Robles was supposed to be in the AFL this year, but his skills—particularly his blazing speed—were too tempting for manager Dusty Baker to omit from his Division Series roster.
This year’s version of the AFL opens today, and there’s no shortage of potential stars of tomorrow on the six rosters.
Easily topping the list in Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña, the five-tool wunderkind who started the year in high Class A Florida and blitzed his way to Triple-A Gwinnett by the end of the season. Oh, and did we mention he only recently turned 20 years old?
Acuña, our Minor League Player of the Year, earned some pretty lofty praise on the way up, too.
“I had an opportunity with (Ken Griffey) Jr., with Alex (Rodriguez), and now Acuna. I mean you can throw him into that lot of guys, for me, at 19 years old. He’s only going to get better,” Gwinnett hitting coach John Moses said. “The guys are special when they come around like this.”
Acuña leads a talented Braves contingent that also includes a pair of first-round picks acquired by the Braves in their slew of trades over the past two seasons in righthanders Max Fried (who gets the ball for Mesa on Opening Day) and Touki Toussaint, as well as third baseman Austin Riley and catcher Alex Jackson.
But that’s only the start.
The Yankees used their farm system to acquire a slew of reinforcements at this year’s trading deadline—including a pair of AFL alumni in righthander James Kaprielian and outfielder Dustin Fowler in the deal that brought Sonny Gray to New York—but still have high-end talent in the group they sent to the AFL this time.
Their group is led by outfielder Estevan Florial, who reached double-digits in homers (13) and stolen bases (23) with low Class A Charleston and high Class A Tampa before making a playoff cameo with Double-A Trenton. He was a hot commodity in trade talks as well, but the Yankees were firm in insisting his name be excluded in any deal.
New York is also sending a trio of trade acquisitions with Florial, including outfield Billy McKinney (acquired as part of the Aroldis Chapman trade with the Cubs last summer), lefthander Justus Sheffield (from the Indians for closer reliever Andrew Miller) and righthander Albert Abreu (from the Astros for catcher Brian McCann). Sheffield, who gets the ball for Scottsdale on Opening Night, missed significant time this season with an oblique injury.
The Yankees’ opponents in the first round of the playoffs, the Indians, are sending one of the most interesting prospects of the AFL. Catcher Francisco Mejia, who made his major league debut in September, will continue to get reps at third base as he did briefly in the minor leagues this year.
Mejia is a premium hitter from both sides of the plate and showed a very strong arm defensively but wore down as the season wore on. He’s a smaller player at 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, so his fatigue during a long year as a catcher is understandable. The Indians made a similar move with Carlos Santana in 2014 in an effort to increase his versatility for his eventual move from behind the plate, and appear willing to try the same thing with Mejia.
Do you like hard-throwers? You’re in luck. The AFL this year features plenty of pitchers who can bring the heat. Orioles lefthander Tanner Scott (an AFL repeater), Padres righthander Andres Muñoz, Nationals righthander Jimmy Cordero, Tigers righthander Gerson Moreno and Cardinals righties Jordan Hicks and Sandy Alcantara have each touched 100 mph in the past.
How about top-end defense? The Brewers are sending center fielder Monte Harrison, whose sensational outfield play landed him on SportsCenter multiple times this season. Another Brewer, Lucas Erceg, played one of the slickest third bases in the Carolina League and showed off a well above-average arm at the position too. Mets infielder Luis Guillorme, owner of the fastest pairs of hands in the minors, fits this bill too.
What about big-time power? The Indians’ Bobby Bradley, Giants’ Chris Shaw, Dodgers’ D.J. Peters and Astros’ Yordan Alvarez and the Red Sox’s Michael Chavis all can supply the juice. Oh, and the minor leagues’ all-time home run leader, former Tigers’ farmhand Mike Hessman, is the hitting coach for Mesa. Maybe he’ll get in the cage and take a few hacks in BP to show the young bucks how it’s done.
So if you want to see the stars of next October, make some time to come out to Arizona and check out the fall league. You’ll get to see baseball’s future, and you won’t even need a crystal ball.