I've been going to the Arizona Fall League since 1999. That's right, this will be my 15th trip to the desert to get a closer look at some of the game's best prospects. Some have gone on to huge things after the AFL (see Pujols, Albert). Others were huge in Arizona, but not so much afterwards (see Wood, Brandon). Regardless of who's there every year, heading to the AFL has always been one of my favorite trips of the year.
The 2013 edition of the Fall League is no different, with a tremendous amount of talent spread throughout the rosters of the six teams. Picking just two who we really want to see isn't the easiest task in the world. Seeing them all, starting on Oct. 8, is really what it's all about. But there are always some that stand out more. That doesn't mean they are necessarily the top prospects there, but rather the ones you're intrigued by or perhaps have never seen perform.
In the case of the 2013 AFL crop, both Jim Callis and I agree that the best prospect is the one we're both looking forward to seeing the most: Byron Buxton, currently No. 1 on MLB.com's Top 100 list. But we agreed to pick two others -- one hitter and one pitcher -- that are high up on our must-see lists.
While Jim went with power for the AFL hitter he'd like to see, I'm going the speed route. I've only seen Delino DeShields Jr. play once, in the 2013 Futures Game, and that was a brief glimpse. Getting the chance to see the Astros prospect for a longer stretch of time will be a highlight of the trip to Arizona.
It will also be against better competition. DeShields' numbers in 2013 were very good -- .317/.405/.468 with 51 stolen bases -- but it comes with the caveat of playing in one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks in all of Minor League Baseball in Lancaster, Calif. To be fair, DeShields' game isn't based around power, which gets a bigger lift, but he'll still need to prove he can do what he did this past year again as he moves up. The AFL will afford him a first opportunity to do just that.
Watching an 80 speed guy (on the scouting scale from 20-80) is always exciting, and those kinds of wheels can really impact the game. Just watch the Cincinnati Reds these days with Billy Hamilton.
I bring up Hamilton for a couple of reasons. The first is that DeShields' gaudy stolen-base totals have been somewhat overshadowed by Hamilton's ridiculous output. In 2012, when Hamilton was stealing 155 bags, DeShields finished a distant second, with 101 stolen bases. He's the only player not named Billy Hamilton to reach triple digits since 2001. DeShields has stolen 187 bases in his pro career to date, with many, many more to come.
The other Hamilton parallel is that DeShields will be making the move to the outfield in the AFL, just like Hamilton did a year ago. Hamilton had been a shortstop and made a fairly seamless transition to center field. DeShields played some center during his 2010 summer debut, but had been exclusively a second baseman since. His speed certainly should play well out there, but how easily he can make the switch could help him get to Houston more quickly.
Pitching in the AFL can be tricky. The hitters are advanced, the parks are fairly friendly to the offense and pitchers are often there working on something specific or are just trying to make up for lost innings. Both Jim and I chose pitchers in this last camp.
While Jim is looking at Mariners lefty Danny Hultzen, who made just seven starts in 2013 because of injury, I really want to see Marcus Stroman throw. I've never had the chance to see him throw in person. Stroman, a Blue Jays prospect, missed time because he had to serve a 50-game suspension for taking an over-the-counter supplement that had banned substances in it. I'm no PED-user apologist, but Stroman stepped up and took responsibility for his mistake, and I'd like to move on.
Stroman was on the USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team in 2011, but he didn't throw in the Prospect Classic I was covering. He was a lights-out closer for that team, striking out 17 and walking just one over 8 1/3 hitless innings. Stroman went back to starting for Duke that next spring and pitched his way firmly into the first round of the 2012 Draft (I know Jim thinks he may have been the steal of the Draft).
Stroman is still starting, and it looks like he should stick there, proving to everyone that an undersized right-hander can fill that role. He had a tremendous year in the Double-A Eastern League in his first full season (10.4 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, .234 BAA, 3.30 ERA), so even though he missed a chunk of the year, he's really not behind the development curve at all. Stroman threw 111 2/3 innings, so he should still have plenty left in the tank.
That doesn't bode well for the AFL hitters, but it works out just fine for those of us who can't wait to see Stroman's electric stuff on the mound.