Prospect Pulse: Sept. 24

Previewing The Arizona Fall League

See also: Previous Prospect Pulse
See also: Prospect Pulse Archive

As the Arizona Fall League celebrates its 15th year of providing the very best in prospect action, the crop this season is again chock full of the top players in every organization.

Ten players headed to the desert played at the Futures Game in Pittsburgh, and as of the midway mark of the minor league season in 2006, 46 2005 AFL alumni already had reached the big leagues.

There is no doubt the AFL has played a significant role in the development of many of today's major league stars. Since the league's inception in 1992, 1,225 Fall League graduates have gone on to the big leagues; 94 of those have made at least one all-star appearance.

As we do each season at Baseball America, we provide a breakdown of each AFL club's top prospect, a player who is on the verge of a breakout, and a prospect who hopes to bounce back this fall either from injury or a subpar season.


TOP PROSPECT: Troy Tulowitzki, ss, Rockies

A first-round pick in 2005, Tulowitzki has been compared to Athletics shortstop Bobby Crosby since succeeding him at Long Beach State. The seventh overall pick last year, Tulowitzki made a huge impact in his first full season as Double-A Tulsa's leadoff hitter. Tulowitzki's best tool is his bat, with the stroke, strength and bat speed to hit 25-30 homers annually. He has the range, hands and athleticism to be the prototypical version of the big-bodied shortstop.

EMERGING: Luke Hochevar, rhp, Royals

All eyes will be on Hochevar this fall, maybe more so than any other player in the circuit. After putting all the draft drama in 2005 behind him and finally signing as the No. 1 overall pick this past June, Hochevar heads to Arizona to get more innings under his belt after signing with the Royals. No one doubts Hochevar will be lighting up radar guns with 97 mph heat, but the biggest question will be how well he commands his full complement of pitches. Of any pitcher in the AFL, he's the one most likely to be in midseason form.

BOUNCING BACK: Jeff Fiorentino, of, Orioles

A 2004 third-round pick out of Florida Atlantic, Fiorentino badly sprained his ankle within the first week of the season, then missed more time with hamstring problems. Fiorentino didn't get fully healthy until July, but made steps toward salvaging his season in those last two months, and hopes to take that a step further this fall.



The first high school lefthander drafted in 2004--going 17th overall--Elbert reached Double-A this season and ranked seventh in the minors in strikeouts with 173. The 21-year-old lefty has lively stuff, including an 88-93 fastball, slurvy breaking ball and average changeup. Dodgers officials believe Elbert will have an impact on the big league club as early as next season.

EMERGING: Fernando Martinez, of, Mets

One of the youngest players to ever head to the AFL, Martinez turns 18 on the Fall League's Opening Day--Oct. 10. Hampered by various injuries this season, the Mets want to send Martinez to Arizona because of the controlled environment of the AFL provides, rather than sending him home to the Dominican to play winter ball. A center fielder during the season, Martinez also will gain experience at all three outfield positions.

BOUNCING BACK: Philip Humber, rhp, Mets

The AFL represents the next stage of Humber's return from the Tommy John surgery he had in July 2005. The club's first-rounder out of Rice in 2004 (No. 3 overall), Humber returned to the mound 11 months after surgery and went 3-3, 3.22 with 69 strikeouts in 64 innings overall.


TOP PROSPECT: Jacoby Ellsbury, of, Red Sox

A solid leadoff hitter and plus defender in center field, Ellsbury was a human highlight reel in the high Class A Carolina League before missing a month with a hamstring injury. But when he returned, Ellsbury proved healthy, swiping five bases in his first five attempts. While his arm is considered slightly below average, Ellsbury gets good jumps and shows plus-plus range in center.

EMERGING: Trevor Crowe, of/2b, Indians

The Indians decided to move Crowe to second base in August, and while Crowe didn't fare well early in the move to the right side of the infield--he committed three errors in his first two games--the Indians want to see the move through, and the Fall League will play a huge role in that development process. Crowe best profiles as a No. 2 hitter that will hit for average with some power. Mariners outfielder Adam Jones was the highest-profile prospect changing positions last season in the AFL, and Crowe takes over that role this time around.

BOUNCING BACK: Jarrod Saltalamacchia, c, Braves

Slowed at Double-A Mississippi in part by a hand injury, Saltalamacchia batted just .230/.353/.380 in 313 at-bats. The 21-year-old switch-hitting catcher went on to play for Team USA, homering off Cuban ace reliever Pedro Luis Lazo, and get a return trip to the AFL. He started bouncing back during the second half in the Southern League, batting .337 over his final two months.


TOP PROSPECT: Gio Gonzalez, lhp, Phillies

Gonzalez went 7-10, 4.25 in 144 innings at Double-A Reading, due in part to allowing 22 home runs. The 20-year-old has shown plus stuff but not enough consistency. While he has plus life on his 93-94 mph fastball and backs that up with a hard, 85 mph curve, he's struggled to get comfortable with his changeup. His home run numbers augur ill for pitching in Arizona, where the air is thin and the hitters are the best the game has to offer.

EMERGING: Kory Casto, 3b/of, Nationals

Originally drafted as an outfielder out of Portland in the third round of 2003, Casto moved to third base in 2004, then moved back to the outfield after the Nats drafted Ryan Zimmerman last year. Left field is likely where the lefthanded-hitting Casto will see the bulk of his playing time in the AFL. He hit .272/.379/.468 in his first full season at Double-A.

BOUNCING BACK: Eric Duncan, 3b/1b, Yankees

Last year's AFL MVP, Duncan has been hampered by back problems throughout this season and was reassigned to Double-A Trenton from Triple-A Columbus. The 21-year-old did not need surgery on a lingering lower disc issue in his back, but as his .234/.330/.405 season wore on, Duncan was spending more time in the training room than on the field.


TOP PROSPECT: Travis Buck, of, Athletics

All Buck has done since the Athletics took him as a first-round supplemental pick in 2005 is hit everywhere he's been in his brief pro career. The 22-year-old outfielder jumped to Double-A after a month in the California League this year and was leading the minor leagues with 39 doubles in just 84 games before missing significant time in the second half with a sports hernia. Buck has a compact, line-drive swing and rakes to all fields.

EMERGING: Jair Jurrjens, rhp, Tigers

Coming out of Curacao, Jurrjens is in just his second full season of pro ball and jumped all the way to Double-A this season after spending all of last year in the low Class A Midwest League. The 21-year-old pounds the zone with a low 90s fastball and also has a hard, slurvy breaking ball and changeup--the latter of which has made the most strides in 2006.

BOUNCING BACK: Jeff Niemann, rhp, Devil Rays

The 6-foot-9 righthander has spent more time rehabbing various injuries since being the No. 4 overall pick in 2004 than he has on the mound--most recently having a minor surgical procedure to shave down the joint between his collarbone and shoulder last October. Niemann didn't make his debut this year until June, but came on strong as he went along at Double-A Montgomery. When he's healthy, Niemann brings great size and mound presence to the table, as well as an electric 92-96 mph fastball, sharp slider, curveball and changeup.


TOP PROSPECT: Ryan Braun, 3b, Brewers

Braun has a proven track record as a winner. BA's Freshman of the Year, the 22-year-old third baseman helped lead Miami to a pair of College World Series berths in his three seasons with the Hurricanes. The fifth overall pick in 2005, Braun jumped to Double-A Huntsville this season and also was named to the U.S. roster in this year's Futures Game. A five-tool player, Braun has excellent patience at the plate and works counts well. His bat is far and away his best asset, with huge power to all fields. Braun worked hard to greater improve his balance in the offseason, taking yoga classes with Phillies catcher Mike Lieberthal. The Brewers are committed to keeping him at third for the time being, though he could eventually move to first base or the outfield.

EMERGING: Terry Evans, of, Angels

Evans seemingly came out of nowhere this year after spending the past year and a half at high Class A Palm Beach in the Cardinals system. A 47th-round pick in 2001, Evans signed out of Middle Georgia Junior College the next year as a draft-and-follow. An above-average runner with plus power, Evans suddenly has found himself being fast-tracked after being dealt to the Angels for righthander Jeff Weaver. While he had no previous track record of success--and Evans says he made no mechanical adjustments at the plate heading into this season--his .309/.377/.565 numbers this year, including 33 homers and 37 stolen bases, speak for themselves.

BOUNCING BACK: Jamie D'Antona, 1b/3b/c, Diamondbacks

Two years ago, D'Antona was mashing California League pitching along with Lancaster teammates Conor Jackson and Carlos Quentin. Since then, Jackson and Quentin have graduated to the big leagues while D'Antona has yet to even taste Triple-A. The 24-year-old struggled mightily in his first full season at Double-A in 2005 when he hit just .249/.322/.385 in 410 at-bats. He bounced back in his second Southern League stint at Tennessee. D'Antona's best two tools are his plus power and 70 arm on the 20-80 scouting scale. The 2003 second-round pick improved by widening his stance at the plate and shortening his swing slightly. As a result, he's recognizing pitches better and has more bat control. D'Antona will be mostly playing first in the AFL, though he is expected to catch at least one day a week.