Evaluating prospects in the Arizona Fall League is done at one's own peril. Those who watched Mike Trout play in the league last year, for instance, were not convinced they were looking at anything close to the AL MVP runner-up 12 months later. Trout hit .245 with one home run and was gassed from the extra month of baseball.
But after spending the past three weekends watching Arizona Fall League games, I bravely will venture into the tricky territory of forming impressions about top prospects in the league. Granted, those players not grinding through their first full pro season are likely to have held up better through November baseball. Top starting pitchers, because of innings limits, generally skip the league altogether unless they missed significant time during the season.
But also keep this in mind: The AFL last year included Trout, Bryce Harper, Will Middlebrooks, Mike Olt, Brandon Crawford, Adeiny Hechavarria and David Phelps. It does bear the look of a Coming Attractions feature. Over the past three years, an average of 23 players from the Rising Stars Game, the AFL All-Star Game, were in the big leagues the next season.
What follows is a list of players I saw who might follow in their footsteps. There are no Trouts or Harpers in the bunch, but the quantity of top prospects is impressive. The list is not comprehensive and it's not meant to be a list of ranked players or even a list of those closest to the big leagues. It's a personal list of the most impressive players in a short sample -- to be considered at your own peril.
After getting a whopping 681 plate appearances this year and attempting 204 stolen bases (successful on 165 of them), the 160-pound Hamilton had his long season end when he crashed into the centerfield fence trying to make a catch in the Arizona Fall League championship game Saturday. Hamilton stayed on the ground for nearly five minutes before walking off with assistance and with what was described as lower back stiffness.
Hamilton is an impact offensive player because of his speed and fearlessness, though the pounding his body takes -- he is constantly diving into bases on steal attempts, bunts and pickoffs -- may be a concern. Hamilton, a former shortstop, took well to the transition to centerfield, and he is much more than a slap hitter. He does have gap power from both sides of the plate.
Hamilton is a game-changer. He has scored from second base on a groundball back to the mound as well as an infield pop-up, and he can bunt for a hit just about any time he wants, including with two strikes. Eventually he will need to refine his baserunning game when confronted with the major league tactics of defending it. For now, Hamilton is a guy who likes to take walking leads and time pitchers. Major league teams will counter that preference by making sure he has to take off from a stopped position, which pitchers can enforce with multiple throw-overs and holding the ball.
It's easy to imagine Hamilton has a big-league impact player. He's more than just a burner, and he plays with such an easygoing joy that he is especially fun to watch.
A Florida Gator last spring, Zunino could be a Mariner at some point next season -- he's that polished of a prospect. Zunino caught more than 120 games this year among the Gators, Class A Everett, Double-A Jacksonville and the Arizona Fall League. He hit .360 this summer in minor league ball and .288 in the AFL.
Zunino, who is 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds and is the son of Reds scout Greg Zunino, profiles as a catcher who can hit in the middle of the order with power and become a team leader, not unlike Buster Posey and Yadier Molina in a best-case scenario.
The Mariners, by the way, are so loaded with prospects that maybe they should keep Felix Hernandez around after all. They're not that far off from contending. Middle infielder Nick Franklin will be ready next year with surprising pop in his bat, and pitchers James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen (Walker and Hultzen are top 10 prospects who were not in the fall league) are close.
He has terrific tools -- a major league rightfielder's arm, size (6-foot-0, 210), plus power and enough speed to steal 98 bases the past two years -- but Liriano also showed an advanced approach at the plate and smarts on the bases. Signed at 16, he has not put up huge numbers (.270/.338/.419 in 492 games), but he only now seems to be putting it together.
He will be pitching out of the Yankees bullpen at some point next year, perhaps even at the start of the season. Montgomery has a slider that has such fierce spin and late break that it would rank among the best in the majors right now. Said Yankees catching prospect Austin Romine, "Never seen anything like it. With two strikes the hitters know it's coming and they can't touch it."
The Yankees found Montgomery in the 11th round in 2011 out of Longwood University. His career strikeout rate is 14.6 per nine innings and he has allowed only one home run in 99 2/3 innings. And if righthanded hitters sit on that slider away, he can run a 92-mph fastball in on their hands.
Rendon is a wristy hitter with easy opposite field power, similar to Wright. He has been limited by ankle and shoulder injuries, but he was healthy in the AFL and played well defensively at third base. A pure hitter, he had more walks than strikeouts in the AFL.
Detroit moved Castellanos to the outfield from third base to give him a quicker path to the big league club. He hits a bit like Rendon, with loose wrists, and some observers think he has the kind of pure hitting ability to challenge for a batting title someday.
The comparison is bit unfair because Heathcott should not be expected to put up MVP numbers the way Hamilton has done. But it's apt because Hamilton is Heathcott's favorite player and Heathcott shares a profile with Hamilton that includes a power lefthanded bat, plus speed and the skills to play centerfield. The Yankees took him four picks after the Angels took Trout, New York's pick if Trout were still on the board at 29.
Heathcott's development has been slowed by two shoulder injuries, and though his power hasn't translated into games quite yet, when you watch him take batting practice you see the bat speed and the ability to backspin balls are there. And there is one more skill to like: he plays with an all-out intensity in the vein of Trout and Harper. On an otherwise routine out at the plate in a fall league game, Heathcott plowed over the catcher.
A smallish righthander without overpowering stuff, Anderson posted a 2.86 ERA in 21 starts in Double-A because he has excellent command and changes speeds well. (He missed most of 2011 with a flexor tendon strain). His career rates of strikeouts (9.3) and walks (2.1) per nine innings are intriguing, and suggest he could be a good back-of-the-rotation option.
So polished is Wong that he may have the best chance of any AFL player of being an Opening Day starter in the bigs next year. "He stands out from everybody else in terms of how advanced he is," said one AFL manager. Listed at 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds, Wong is a prototypical number two hitter who works counts, takes walks, steals bases and uses the whole field.
You won't find many scouts who give high grades to his tools. A fifth round pick out of High Point, Roberts turns 24 next February and hasn't played out of A ball yet. But at some point you have to pay attention to the numbers this guy keeps putting up: He led the nation in runs and OBP in college, he posted a .439 OBP in 179 pro games and he put up a ridiculous slash line in the AFL: .446/.565/.662. Yes: a .565 on-base percentage. Part of his on-base skill is getting hit by pitches (56 times in 179 games). If nothing else, he is a prototypical grinder who should not be undersold.