I've seen the future of Major League Baseball and the future looks GREAT!! Yes, folks, baseball is in good hands thanks to their future stars.
Last week I went to the Arizona Fall League as part of Ron Shandler's AFL Symposium and I'm happy to report that the influx of young talent looks as good if not better than ever before. Fans will be happy to know that baseball has a new wave of solid hitters and lively arms that should solidify the game for years to come. That's great news for all of us fantasy baseball owners, who need new stars to keep the game exciting.
The AFL has turned into a special training ground for MLB and an incredible scouting trip for serious baseball fans. Since its debut in 1992, the AFL has had over 3,000 players and more than 60 percent have reached the majors. AFL graduates have earned nine MVP Awards, three Cy Young awards and 20 Rookie of the Year awards. Last year, 41 All-Stars were AFL graduates. Amazing.
So let's look to the future and find the newest diamonds in the rough. Outside of Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, who I wrote about previously, here are the top players I saw in the AFL this year:
Nolan Arenado, 3B, Colorado: There's a WOW factor when you first see Arenado. The 2009 second-round pick of the Rockies is 6'1", 205 and appears even stockier in person. He's a natural third baseman for a team that desperately needs a third baseman. Still just 20, he spent the entire season at Hi-A Modesto and hit .298 with 20 homers, 122 RBIs and a .349 OBP in 134 games. In the AFL, he hit .404 with 6 HRs, 33 RBIs and a .434 OBP in 27 games. He looks like the real deal, but the Rockies were so patient with him last year that you have to believe the plan is to start him this year at Double-A and let him progress through the minors. But don't be surprised if he's promoted before September and becomes the everyday third baseman by 2013. He's going to be a special one.
Wil Myers, OF, Royals: The Royals have a plethora of young prospects coming up, but now the key is determining which ones are going to be real deals, like Eric Hosmer was. I think Myers will be like Hosmer. At 6'3", 205 pounds, he stands out in a crowd, but his easy swing and long stride on the basepaths also make him noticeable. Since he was drafted in the third round out of high school in 2009, he has impressed at every level. In 2009 at A and Hi-A, he hit a combined .315-14-83 with 12 SBs in 126 games. Then last year he hit .254-8-49-9 at Double-A NW Arkansas with a .353 OBP. He battled injuries last year, but has bounced back with a solid AFL season, hitting .366-4-18 in 22 games with a .490 OBP. Myers will turn 21 on Dec. 10 and the Royals would be wise to give him another full season in the minors, but he's going to come quick and he's going to stick once he arrives. I like this guy a lot and can see him being an impact fantasy player for years.
Danny Hultzen, SP, Mariners: The second overall pick in the 2011 MLB draft didn't get a chance to pitch in the minors last year, but he sure looks good so far in the AFL. He was the winning pitcher in the Rising Stars game as he struck out the side in the first inning and threw two scoreless innings. During six AFL starts, he's gone 1-0 with a 1.40 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP, striking out 18 in 19.1 innings with only five walks. The left-hander throws so easily, yet he hits the mid to high 90s with his fastball. He could easily project to be Seattle's No. 3 starter in a rotation of Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda. Now that's one helluva rotation. I loved what I saw in just one outing and believe he can be in this rotation as early as 2013.
Gerrit Cole, SP, Pittsburgh: Like Hultzen, Cole didn't pitch in the minors last year after being the No. 1 overall pick of the draft, but he has looked good in the AFL. He throws a 97-98 mph fastball with VIOLENCE, but in the Rising Stars game he gave up five runs on two HRs and couldn't even get out of the first inning. Still, you can see what the Pirates liked and at 6'4", 220 he will be a workhorse someday. In five AFL starts, he's gone 3-0 with a 3.00 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and 16 strikeouts in 15 innings. The Pirates need a starter like this and I wouldn't be surprised if they start him at Double-A and he becomes a big part of the rotation by 2013. Solid prospect.
Andrew Cashner & Chris Carpenter, RPs, Cubs: I'm intrigued by both of these guys now being in the bullpen. Cashner was a first-round pick of the Cubs in 2009 and had a shoulder injury last year. He's back to throwing 100 mph and could be a potential closer candidate. Carpenter was a third-round pick in 2008 who struggled mightily with control last year out of the pen. But he still hits 100 mph with his fastball and has harnessed his control in the AFL, striking out 18 with only two walks in 13.2 IP. It wouldn't surprise me to see Theo give these guys a shot at the closer's job with the heat they can bring. We'll see.
Jed Bradley, SP, Milwaukee: Picked 15th last year out of Georgia Tech, Bradley also was a late signee and didn't pitch in the minors. But one scout actually said in Arizona that he would have taken Bradley over Hultzen. At 6'4", 224, the left-hander is an imposing presence on the mound and he has a smooth, easy delivery. He looked good in the Rising Stars game and could advance quickly in the Brewers' system, which suddenly has a lot of good arms.
Brandon Crawford, SS, San Francisco: I'm not sure he will ever be able to hit enough to be a fantasy factor, but the Giants may give him a shot to start again at shortstop this year. In 69 games with the Giants last year, he hit .204-3-21 and he played only 29 games at Triple-A before that. He hit .309-2-13 in the AFL and his bat remains suspect, but keep an eye on him nonetheless.
I also like Pirates OF Robbie Grossman, Kansas City RP Jeremy Jeffress and Philadelphia OF Tyson Gillies. These guys are all providing a bright future for Major League Baseball and for fantasy baseball.
(Greg Ambrosius is the founder of the National Fantasy Baseball Championship and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association Hall of Fame and the Fantasy Sports Trade Association's Hall of Fame. For more information on the NFBC, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to nfbc.stats.com).