The next generation of fantasy baseball stars is on display every year at the Arizona Fall League, which is part of the reason I really enjoy attending. Obviously there's baseball, which is always good, but awesome weather and getting to mingle with -- and learn from -- scouts, fellow writers and even fans is a treat, too. Last year Mike Trout and Bryce Harper were on display at the AFL; this year, fantasy owners seem most interested in Cincinnati Reds speedster Billy Hamilton, and he certainly didn't disappoint in Saturday's Rising Stars game. I had a great view of the proceedings right behind home plate, and Hamilton, who stole a minor league-record 155 bases (that's not a misprint) this past season, made it worth attending.
In that game, even with the top AFL prospects performing, Hamilton's game-changing speed was very much evident, and it makes fantasy owners salivate at the possibilities. He walked, stole a pair of bases -- the second steal happened when catcher Austin Romine was simply throwing the ball back to the mound -- and scored a run in the first inning. He later reached on a perfect drag-bunt single, drew another walk and scored a second run. While reasonable minds can debate Hamilton's true offensive potential for as early as 2013, he surely needs experience in center field. He is, after all, a converted shortstop. In Saturday's game alone, he looked raw in the outfield, misplaying a double off the wall into a triple and taking a poor route on a fly ball (though he was able to run it down). But he also made a diving catch and showed off a quality arm.
The fascinating speed, which threatens to force the creation of a new level on the 20-80 scouting scale, is legitimate. Some scouts timed Hamilton from home to first base on his bunt single at 3.5 seconds, which is ridiculous. I'll take the under on Hamilton ever stealing 100 bases in a season in the majors, but it's not outrageous. This guy can win one of your five fantasy hitter categories nearly by himself. Consider the fact that nobody stole even 50 bags in 2012, and nobody has stolen 80 in a season in this generation. Among the Hamilton-related topics discussed by fellow baseball writers, scouts and fans over the weekend was where Hamilton would belong in the fantasy rankings if we knew he'd make the Reds and play regularly in 2013. Some people said he'd be a first-rounder. I compared his value to that of Juan Pierre's prime (good batting average, 50-65 steals, 90 runs, no power) and said fourth or fifth round, though there's upside for more steals than that and some power. Sure would be nice if he had middle-infield eligibility! Ultimately, I don't see Hamilton making the Reds next spring, as he remains raw in the field and potentially overwhelmed by hard stuff at the plate. But the possibilities are mighty intriguing.
Of course, most fantasy owners are aware of and likely will overrate Hamilton. Below are thoughts on some other players I saw in Arizona. I also took part in the annual First Pitch Arizona Symposium, hosted by venerable Baseball HQ founder/publisher Ron Shandler and his group. I sat on a panel with industry colleagues Jeff Erickson, Steve Gardner and Joe Sheehan, and much fun was had debating Melky Cabrera (we all seemed to like his potential fantasy value), Mark Teixeira versus Edwin Encarnacion (I chose E5!), Eric Hosmer and Justin Upton bouncing back (yes!) and more. I recommend the First Pitch Symposium for baseball fans in future years.
• Hamilton put on quite a show Saturday, but the game's MVP was the other team's leadoff hitter: Washington Nationals outfielder Brian Goodwin. He homered in the first inning and later doubled in a run, and was the victim of Hamilton's diving grab at the center-field wall. Goodwin, 22, is a five-tool talent with pop, speed and plate recognition, but he's not likely to impact fantasy in 2013. He's not a bad dynasty-league target, though, and there should be room for him in D.C. in 2014.
• Nick Castellanos of the Detroit Tigers was the DH for the East team, and he contributed a pair of singles. Formerly a third baseman, that position is clearly filled in Motown at the moment, so Castellanos played outfield in Double-A Erie this summer and here in Arizona. Scouts were saying he's athletic enough to handle the switch, and hasn't been overwhelmed thus far. He's only 20, but his bat could be a factor late next summer.
• San Diego Padres outfielder Rymer Liriano, who hits right-handed, had three hits Saturday, including a pair of doubles off right-handed pitching. Liriano, 21, hasn't hit for much power in the minors, but scouts say it's coming. Meanwhile, he has stolen 98 bases over the past two seasons, and has starred in the AFL so far. He could be a Padres outfielder by 2014.
• There wasn't much top-end starting pitching to watch, though Saturday's starters should matter soon. The issue for fantasy owners when judging Jarred Cosart (Astros) and Kyle Gibson (Twins) is the potentially terrible teams they will play for, and a lack of definable upside. Gibson could make the 2013 Twins, but he's one year off Tommy John surgery and likely will be on an innings limit.
• A pair of relievers caught my eye. One is San Francisco Giants right-hander Heath Hembree, an intimidating power arm. His name was bandied about during the 2012 fantasy season for stashing purposes, but the eventual champs didn't call him up. Hembree didn't post exceptional numbers at Triple-A, but he throws in the high 90s and complements it with a power slider, which he used to close out Saturday's game. A healthy Brian Wilson likely will get the first shot to close in San Fran, then Sergio Romo, but Hembree is the Addison Reed-type future guy to wait for. Also, keep an eye on Padres right-hander Kevin Quackenbush. He did post big minor league stats (0.94 ERA, 27 saves, though it was in A-ball), and through nine relief innings in Arizona, he still hadn't allowed a base hit. Future closer material (2014?)!
Ultimately, don't take AFL stats too seriously, based on their small sample size and a preponderance of hitters versus elite arms. A year ago, Trout struggled in Arizona, and we saw how that ended up. Arguably my favorite player at AFL 2011 was Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Adam Eaton. I saw him a few times, loved his approach at the plate and speed, and added him in a dynasty league, just in case. Well, "just in case" time is here. He's the D-backs' starting center fielder for 2013, and I'll be talking him up. As for other players I saw last week who should make more immediate impacts in 2013, go with Nick Franklin, Mike Zunino, George Springer and Kolten Wong.
Franklin and Zunino are Seattle Mariners prospects, and each looks ready to contribute. Franklin generates pop despite a slight build, and should push Dustin Ackley off second base in 2013. He has double-digit potential in home runs and steals. Zunino is a catcher with immediate extra-base potential, and unlike Jesus Montero, he holds his own behind the plate, too. Springer of the Houston Astros has immense power; he launched a prodigious home run last week. He also misses a lot of pitches. Wong plays second base and really should win the St. Louis Cardinals' starting job in March. The lefty hitter has a mature approach at the plate and enough power and speed to matter right away. He'll definitely be one of my 2013 sleepers.