Harper Tops AFL List

Top 2010 draft pick shows off total package in pro debut

PHOENIX—Veteran Arizona Fall League observers generally concluded that the overall talent level in the league was down from past years, but there was still a good crop of prospects on the field during the league's six weeks season. As usual, the bulk of the better prospects were hitters since most major league organizations shut down their best pitchers after a full regular season.

To qualify for the list, a player must have had a minimum of 32 plate appearances (one per team game) or pitched 10 2⁄3 innings. First baseman Freddie Freeman (Braves) would have ranked prominently but did not meet the playing time cutoff.

No. 1 Bryce Harper, of, Nationals

What else can be said about Harper that hasn't been completely documented by every news outlet covering baseball? Joining the Scottsdale Scorpions just after his 18th birthday, the 2010 No. 1 overall draft pick quickly proved that he was not overmatched by the older competition. He hit .343/.410/.629 with six of his 12 hits going for extra bases. He showed plus-plus power both in batting practice and in games, with an ability to hit to the opposite field. He was susceptible to good curveballs but showed an ability to make in-game adjustments.  His attacks the ball and at times his swing was overly aggressive—not surprising since as a taxi squad member Harper got to play only twice a week. He showed good routes to fly balls and a plus arm in the outfield. If there were any doubts about Harper being ready to make his regular-season debut in full-season ball next year, he put those to rest with his AFL performance.

No. 2 Dustin Ackley, 2b, Mariners

Ackley put together one of the best seasons in AFL history by batting .424.581/.758, easily breaking the single season on-base percentage record of .537 set by Ken Harvey in 2002. Most importantly, the power that many observers were waiting to see since his pro debut in the AFL in 2009 was on display this fall, especially during the season's second half. When other players started to show their fatigue late in the season, Ackley got a second wind and finished with a very strong second half. His second base defense is still a work in progress but improving as he completes his first season at the position. While in Arizona, he worked out daily with Mariners infield instructor Darrin Garner on both his glove work and baserunning. Ackley's bat is close to big league ready but he will likely begin the season back in Triple-A, where he spent the second half of 2010, continuing to work on his defense.

No. 3 Eric Hosmer, 1b, Royals

Hosmer was late arriving in Arizona due to his time with Team USA in the Pan Am Games qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico. His disappointing batting line (.203/.284/.291) in the AFL was due mostly to fatigue from the long season as well as a product of some balls just not dropping for him. He was making consistent contact but not driving the ball as well as in the regular season, when he hit a combined .338/.406/.571 at two levels. However, he still controlled the strike zone, and there were no problems with his defense.

No. 4 Brandon Belt, 1b, Giants

Belt's surprising performance in his first pro season continued in the AFL as the lefthanded hitter batted a solid .372/.427/.616 for the champion Scottsdale Scorpions. He showed impressive power to all fields and plus defense. His makeup and approach are off the charts, and one scout praised Belt for his even-keeled personality. Like Ackley, Belt also hit better in the second half of the season.  Belt, 22, likely will return to Triple-A, where he finished 2010 after starting the season in the California League. He's the Giants first baseman of the future.

No. 5 Mike Montgomery, lhp, Royals

Few highly rated pitchers are sent  to the AFL but Montgomery, 21, was making up for time lost to a sore elbow during the 2010 regular season that limited him to 20 starts plus two games with Team USA in the Pan Am qualifying tourney. He made three more starts in the AFL, plus a two-inning stint in the league's Rising Stars game, before shutting it down for the year. His fastball was generally in the 91-95 range with a downhill plane, and he used a sharp breaking curveball and solid changeup. While his overall numbers weren't anything special (6.10 ERA, .310 OBA), he struck out 11 and walked just two.

No. 6 Manny Banuelos, lhp, Yankees

Banuelos, 19, was limited to 15 starts in 2010 due to an early season appendectomy, but was impressive in seven AFL games plus a start against Montgomery in the Rising Stars game. He finished strongly by giving up only one run in his last nine innings, and ended with a 3.60 ERA. Despite his 5-foot-10, 155-pound size, the lefty from Mexico has a fastball up to 95 mph as well as a plus changeup and a good curveball. He worked on mixing his pitches better while in Arizona. He also improved his ability to pitch inside to hitters.  Banuelos just needs to throw more consistent strikes and stay healthy next season.

No. 7 Derek Norris, c, Nationals

While Bryce Harper got most of the hype, another Nationals prospect quietly had a nice AFL season. Norris, 21, spent all of 2010 at the high Class A level but wasn't intimidated by the more experienced pitchers in Arizona. He hit .278/.403/.667, showing plus raw power, with four home runs and 19 RBIs, and drew 11 walks in 54 at-bats. Most of the questions on Norris' future revolve around his abilities behind the plate. His defense in Arizona was better than advertised, as he showed soft hands and a strong arm; he primarily needs to improve his release times on throws to second base. With the acquisition of Wilson Ramos from the Twins and Norris' improvement, the catching position is now one of strength for the Washington organization.

No. 8 Casey Kelly, rhp, Red Sox

Kelly was in the AFL last year as a shortstop after spending the 2009 season splitting time between the mound and the infield. But he was strictly a pitcher in 2010 and returned to Arizona in that role. Kelly pitched only four times in the fall before shutting it down for the year. He pitched very well in his first two starts, yielding only one earned run in nine innings before  a bad third outing inflated his ERA. His fastball was in the 93-94 mph range and he mixed in a good changeup and curveball with a compact delivery. He lost a lot of development time in 2008 and 2009 by not focusing strictly on pitching, but he just turned 21 and has already reached the Double-A level.

No. 9 Devin Mesoraco, c, Reds

Mesoraco, 22, finally showed the promise expected of a first-round choice in his fourth pro season, batting .302/.377/.587 at three levels during the 2010 season. While his numbers in Arizona (.242/.250/.455) were only fair, he at times flashed his offensive potential and raw power. Mesoraco's defense drew mixed reviews from scouts, and his deficiencies in catching the ball may have been a result of the fatigue that normally affects AFL catchers at the end of a long season.

No. 10 Jason Kipnis, 2b, Indians

Scouts love this guy. The terms often used to describe the lefthanded-hitting Kipnis are "hard-nosed" and "blue collar." He shows a natural feel for second base in only his first season at the position and even threw in some third base. He's an aggressive contact hitter with gap power and the ability to also drive the ball out of the park. He tied for the AFL lead in doubles with 11 and batted .295/.337/.628. Kipnis, 23, should be ready for a move to Triple-A (where he finished the 2010 season) next year.

Six more to watch

Charlie Culberson, 2b, Giants

Culberson, 21, had a breakout year with high Class A San Jose in 2010 and continued his progression with a strong AFL season in which he batted .366/.394/.591. He tied Kipnis and two others for the league lead in doubles with 11, and drew raves for his gritty, hard-nosed play. He tailed off towards the end of the fall season as he appeared to be wearing down.

Eduardo Escobar, ss/2b, White Sox

The diminutive Escobar, 21, was known more for his plus defense coming into the fall season, but he opened eyes with his surprising power in the AFL. After hitting six homers in the regular season split between high Class A and Double-A , Escobar batted .300/.353/.536 with four homers in the AFL. He spent as much time at second base in the fall after playing shortstop for most of his five-year minor league career. Some scouts believe that second base will be his best position while others are convinced that he can remain at shortstop. Escobar's intangibles and makeup are a plus.

Joe Benson, of, Twins

While his offensive numbers (.236/.300/.400) didn't stand out, Benson caught the eye of scouts for his great athletic ability and plus physical tools. He shows very impressive bat speed that produces great raw power and gets good jumps on the basepaths. He needs to make better contact and cut down on strikeouts. Benson has moved slowly through the Twins system since being drafted in the second round in 2006, but could be ready for a big jump forward as his baseball skills are slowly catching up to his tools.

Jeremy Jeffress, rhp, Brewers

Jeffress' AFL season was as inconsistent as his minor league career has been since the Brewers drafted him in the first round in 2006. Now working exclusively out of the bullpen, Jeffress fanned 14 batters and walked 12 in 12 innings. Even his velocity fluctuated during the fall, but late in the season he was regularly touching triple digits. His electric performance during a one-inning performance in the Rising Stars game was one of the highlights of the AFL season, when his rising velocity teased fans until the scoreboard at Surprise Stadium registered 99 mph, then 100 and finally 101 in his final two pitches. With Jeffress' well-documented personal issues hopefully behind him, he may be ready to contend for a big league bullpen job in 2011.

Eric Hurley, rhp, Rangers

Hurley missed the last two seasons due to injuries (rotator cuff surgery and a broken left wrist), so just getting back on the mound was a major accomplishment for the 25-year-old righthander. But he also pitched well in Arizona, posting a 3-0, 1.82 record and earning Pitcher of the Week honors in week five. He finished the season by not allowing a run in his last four starts, each lasting five innings. His fastball was in the low 90s and he was pain-free. Hurley made his big league debut in 2008 prior to his surgery; he'll have a shot of making the big league team out of spring training but will more likely head to Triple-A.

Conor Gillaspie, 3b, Giants

Gillaspie, 23, has been known as a more of a line drive hitter since joining the Giants organization in 2008 as a supplemental first-round pick, often drawing comparisons to former Giants third baseman Bill Mueller. But the home run pop suddenly emerged in the second half of the AFL season when he hit all five of his homers in his last 37 at-bats to tie for the league lead. The Giants attribute Gillaspie's newfound power to his maturity as a hitter and learning how to handle certain pitches. He hit .306/.350/.597 in 72 at-bats and has a mature approach. Now he has to prove his late power surge wasn't just a desert mirage.