The Arizona Fall League is a showcase for the game's top prospects at the lower levels. The league, in its 20th season, has featured many of MLB's top stars, even a number of future Hall of Famers. The six-team circuit can be a little hitter-heavy, due to its location and an imbalance between the hitters and pitchers selected for the league, but there's no better place to get an eyeful of the game's future.
Here are 10 players to watch, based on what I saw in Arizona. Note that 2011 overall No. 1 pick Gerrit Cole of the Pirates is not on the list, solely because the only time I saw him was a poor outing in the Rising Stars Game on November 5. This is a subjective ranking, and pretty much ignores the players' statistics in a league where the statistics are meaningless.
Bryce Harper, OF, Nationals. Back in the league for a second straight year, Harper continues to look like a natural superstar. He generates easy power from the left side, driving the ball while staying completely on balance. While his power is already legendary -- Harper could be in the Home Run Derby next year if it was just about entertainment value -- he's a complete hitter and is able to go the other way. A catcher as an amateur, Harper is a better outfielder than he was a year ago, though still working at it, and he has the tools to become a very good one, fast and with a very strong arm. Harper is too good for the AFL, and soon will be too good for the minors.
Nick Franklin, SS, Mariners. At 6-foot-1 and 170 pounds, Franklin doesn't look impressive until he starts playing baseball, and then he can look like the best player on the field. Franklin is a switch-hitter who I saw drive the ball, from the left side, to all parts of the park. Just as impressive was his defense, a combination of quickness, hands and arm that stands out in a league where defense is often sloppy. He could come very quickly for a Mariners team that needs help at many lineup spots.
Anthony Gose, OF, Blue Jays. Once just a fast guy playing baseball, Gose has retooled his swing to generate power and become better about working the count for walks so that he can use his top-of-the-charts speed on the bases. He's still a work in progress who has to improve his contact rate when he swings and his reads in the outfield. Gose is still a bit raw, but is the one guy in the AFL who might put up a 50-steal/20-homer season down the road. You can't teach that.
Adam Eaton, OF, Diamondbacks. One of the few true leadoff prospects in the game, the 5'9" Eaton also has surprising power for a player of his size. Eaton isn't afraid to work deep counts and he has good speed on the bases and in the outfield, though it's nothing like what Gose has. Eaton, who reached Double-A last season, could come quickly for a Diamondbacks' team that hasn't had a true leadoff hitter in some time.
Robbie Grossman, OF, Pirates. One of the surprises of the week, Grossman is a switch-hitter who is a little reminiscent of Nate McLouth at his peak, with some speed, a good approach and enough power to be dangerous. Grossman is better from the left side, where he crowds the plater and generates pull power. He was a different player in 2011 after repeating the Florida State League, and the question will be whether his gain in power -- he went from four home runs in 2010 to 13 in 2011 -- survives the jump to Double-A. Grossman can get tied up inside, so he's not a sure thing.
Sammy Solis, P, Nationals. Solis makes the Nationals the only team with two players on this list. The big (6-foot-5, 230-pounds) lefty had the best start I saw all week, throwing four shutout innings with nine strikeouts, many off a nasty breaking ball. Solis was at 94 mph with his fastball most of the the night, matching Jed Bradley for the best fastball I saw from a lefty all week. He looks like he could be the eventual No. 3 starter behind Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann on the 2016 World Series champs.
Christian Bethancourt, C, Braves. Bethancourt looks more like a shortstop than a catcher, and was at one time a pitching prospect. Watch him throw to second and you understand why. He has a big arm and is good about the mechanics of getting up from the crouch and getting rid of the ball. He's quick behind the plate as well. Hitting is the question; Bethancourt has developing power and no approach at all. However, he was one of the youngest players in the AFL, having just turned 20. He's a long ways off, but has great upside.
Jed Bradley, P, Brewers. The No. 15 pick in the 2011 draft -- having high draft picks make their pro debut in the AFL is becoming a common thing -- showed a 94-mph fastball and excellent changeup and command the first time I saw him. The lefty even tied up Bryce Harper, no easy feat. The thing I love about him is his size (6-foot-4, 224 pounds) and the way he uses it, getting his legs into his delivery. He could be one of the first pitchers from the '11 draft to reach the majors; he's polished, he has the repertoire and the Brewers don't have much in front of him.
Leury Garcia, 2B, Rangers. The small switch-hitter made a big first impression, launching one of the first pitches of the game I saw to the wall in right-center field. Garcia is very raw and prone to mental mistakes, like when he was late covering the second-base bag on one play. Garcia hasn't drawn a lot of walks in his career, and seemed to be working on that in Arizona, but to his detriment, as he ended up in a lot of pitchers' counts. The power and speed are very impressive and get him on this list.
Danny Hultzen, P, Mariners. A college pitcher good enough to be the No. 2 overall pick in the draft is probably too good for the AFL. Hultzen, who is very polished and reminds me of the Giants' Madison Bumgarner in that way, has a changeup that most of these hitters have simply never seen. He throws it off a mid-90s fastball, and those two pitches are already major league ready. Hultzen's slider is just a show pitch that will keep left-handed hitters from sitting on the straight stuff. He could be in the Mariners' rotation by late this season, and he wouldn't be rushed in doing so.
Meanwhile, here are five players who were not as impressive:
Christian Colon, IF, Royals. He was mostly slapping at the ball rather than trying to drive it, save for one at-bat in the Futures Game. He also seemed slower and heavier than you'd expect from a shortstop. The best thing he showed was a good approach at the plate. The Royals expected more from the No. 4 pick in 2010.
Matt Dominguez, 3B, Marlins. Dominguez would be one of the best third basemen in the game if he could hit enough to keep a job. It doesn't look like a he will. He just looks overmatched at the plate, unable to catch up to low-90s fastballs.
Kyle Skipworth, C, Marlins. Not to pick on the Fish, but this No. 1 pick isn't working out much better. Skipworth can play behind the plate -- he's tall and athletic and moves well -- but the whole package screams "Joel Skinner", another tall catcher who never learned how to hit.
Aaron Hicks, OF, Twins. It may be unfair to put Hicks here, as you might have been similarly dismissive of Anthony Gose two years ago. Right now, this tools player hasn't made the same turn Gose did, converting his strength and speed into extra-base hits and stolen bases. To Hicks' credit, he has shown a very mature approach at the plate for a young player and may yet build on that. For now, he's a project.
Josh Vitters, 3B, Cubs. Vitters' refusal to work counts -- he was basically ordered to take pitches in some of his at-bats -- has hindered his development, as his great swing is simply used far too often. You can see the potential, but he's just too eager to jump at every pitch, and only the occasional freak like Vladimir Guerrero can pull that off. Vitters may end up as Shea Hillenbrand.