The Arizona Fall League's 2012 season starts Tuesday, with two afternoon games in Phoenix and Peoria and a night game in Scottsdale at Salt River Fields. As usual, the league is full of prospects, both established names and players who have made or are on the verge of making moves up (or down) my rankings. The talent this year is heavily skewed towards bats, so don't be surprised to see some high-scoring games over the next six weeks.
Here's a ranking of the 10 players I'm most interested in seeing this year, as well as lists of other players to watch from each of the six AFL rosters. I've omitted some very good prospects from the top 10 because I've seen them too recently or otherwise feel like I've got a good handle on their tools and skills, not because I am down on them as prospects.
1. Javier Baez, SS, Chicago Cubs/Mesa
The ninth overall pick in the 2011 Rule 4 draft out of a Jacksonville, Fla., high school, Baez has huge raw power due to very quick wrists that allow him to drive the ball to all fields, but was widely seen as a candidate to move off shortstop in pro ball. Improved instruction and increased effort on his part now have that flipped around, with pro scouts who got their first looks at him this year giving him a good chance to stay at the position long-term.
The Puerto Rican-born Baez reached high Class A this year at age 19 but played less than a full season after spending April and most of May in extended spring training. The main area of his game that still needs work is patience, as his approach and his stat line have a whiff of Josh Vitters about them.
2. Anthony Rendon, 3B, Washington Nationals/Salt River
Rendon can hit, he can play the heck out of third, and he has some power from pure bat speed, but his nickname might as well be Pre-existing Condition, with a shoulder problem in 2011 and now three major injuries to his ankles (of which he only has two) since he started college, the most recent one taking out half of his 2012 season.
With Ryan Zimmerman's defense and overall durability both showing some cracks this year, there could be an opportunity for Rendon at third that wasn't there when he was first drafted -- but he has to stay healthy enough to take advantage of it, too.
3. Trayce Thompson, OF, Chicago White Sox/Salt River
Thompson was the White Sox's second-round pick in 2009, a rare (for them) high pick spent on a high school player. He was a risky pick at that, as Thompson was all tools but very little polish, and perhaps more famous for his lineage (his father, Mychal, apparently played some basketball) than for his baseball ability. Thompson has developed slowly, but enough that he's now one of the best defensive outfield prospects in the minors, and his strikeout rates have hovered merely at "scary" but haven't risen to "fatal." He has to hit just enough to get to his raw power to become a potential everyday player because of his defense.
4. Billy Hamilton, SS/CF, Cincinnati Reds/Peoria
Hamilton is switching positions from shortstop to center field in 2013, and will play some of both positions in the AFL. I think center is the ideal position for him, as he was always a little stretched at short due to a lack of arm strength, but center field isn't just about speed but about reads and routes, something he'll need to learn starting out here. Hamilton set the minor league record with 155 stolen bases this year, and I would like to watch him steal with impunity -- and he'll get all of the league's catchers to try to show their best throwing times to second base.
5. Hak-Ju Lee, SS, Tampa Bay Rays/Phoenix
Long a favorite of mine for his defense, speed and solid approach at the plate, Lee started the year horribly at Double-A Montgomery before the Rays worked with him to stop his hands from "leaking" at the plate -- in other words, sliding forward prematurely -- and the results were evident in his performance, as he added 178 points of OPS from the first half to the second. I've seen him quite a bit over the years but any time a prospect of this caliber makes a mechanical change, it's great to get a fresh look.
6. Yasiel Puig, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers/Mesa
I saw Puig in only one game in the Arizona Rookie League, where he hit a ball to the warning track in Scottsdale Stadium despite failing to fully square it up. The 21-year-old Cuban prospect received a $42 million, seven-year deal from the Dodgers in June, surprising most other teams involved in the bidding, but showed up in Glendale in July in much better shape than advertised. I still don't feel like I have a great handle on his approach or his hit tool, between the single game I saw, the workout before that, and his very brief time in the hitter-friendly Cal League.
7. Jarred Cosart, rhp, Houston Astros/Mesa
There's very little impact starting pitching heading to the AFL, at least right now, with Cosart just edging out Jimmy Nelson and Robbie Erlin on my pitching watch list. Cosart has the biggest arm of the potential starters, touching 98 mph on occasion with an out-pitch breaking ball, but tends to throw well across his body, a bad sign for future arm health, especially with Cosart's history of minor injuries. I'd like to see where his delivery is, how his changeup has progressed and overall how close he might be to helping Houston's big-league club.
8. Nick Castellanos, 3B/RF, Detroit Tigers/Mesa
Castellanos is more than athletic enough to handle third base, but the Tigers seem content with Miguel Cabrera's poor defense there and moved Castellanos to right field for the final month of the 2012 season. His bat will play anywhere, but it's more valuable at third, of course.
Castellanos told me at the Futures Game that the biggest difference he saw in Double-A pitchers was their ability to locate at the edges of the strike zone, or just outside of it, where A-ball pitchers lacked that degree of command. That showed up in his low walk rate at the higher level, something I'll be watching with him this fall.
9. George Springer, OF, Houston Astros/Mesa
Springer was a rarity out of the University of Connecticut, a potential five-tool college position player who also brought good plate discipline and strong performance to the table. The power and speed were on display in the Cal League this year, although his contact rate wasn't good -- 131 K's in 500 PAs -- and he did most of his damage in the very hitter-friendly home park of Lancaster.
In a scant month in Double-A, he struggled, striking out in nearly a third of his plate appearances. I'll be looking at Springer's overall approach, but especially his plan with two strikes (he really didn't have one in college) and where he's starting his hands before he swings.
10. Max Stassi, C, Oakland Athletics/Phoenix
I loved Stassi out of the 2009 draft as a catcher who could catch, throw and hit for power, but a nagging shoulder problem that popped up his senior year of high school led to surgery that wiped out most of his 2011 season.
The 21-year-old played in only 81 games this year due to an April ankle injury and an August foot injury that ended his season about four weeks early, so he needs the reps. His shoulder is reportedly healthy again, and he showed more power during 2012 (.468 slugging at high-A Stockton), but needs to play a full season next year and show more with the bat. This will be my first look at him since spring training of 2009, and in a major league environment where a catcher who hits .260/.310/.400 is above replacement-level, I like Stassi's chances to regain his old luster.
Other prospects to watch:
Mesa: Onelki Garcia, LHP, Dodgers; Jonathan Schoop, IF, Orioles; Joc Pederson, OF, Dodgers.
Phoenix: Jimmy Nelson, RHP, Brewers; JT Realmuto, C, Marlins; Hunter Morris, 1B, Brewers; Eduard Salcedo, 3B, Braves; Richie Shaffer, 3B, Rays; Christian Yelich, OF, Marlins
Peoria: Robbie Erlin, LHP, Padres; Mike Zunino, C, Mariners; Cody Asche, 3B, Phillies; Stefan Romero, 2B, Mariners; Cory Spangenberg, 2B, Padres; Jeudy Valdez, SS/2B, Padres; Rymer Liriano, OF, Padres
Salt River: Matt Davidson, 3B, Diamondbacks; Chris Owings, SS, Diamondbacks; Carlos Sanchez, 3B, White Sox; Jake Marisnick, OF, Blue Jays; Brian Goodwin, OF, Nationals
Scottsdale: Victor Black, RHP, Pirates; Mark Montgomery, RHP, Yankees; Kaleb Cowart, 3B, Angels; Ronny Rodriguez, SS, Indians; Randal Grichuk, OF, Angels
Surprise: Seth Blair, RHP, Cardinals; Tim Melville, RHP, Royals; Orlando Calixte, SS, Royals; Luis Sardinas, SS, Rangers; Kolten Wong, 2B, Cardinals; Bryce Brentz, OF, Red Sox; Cesar Puello, OF, Mets.