For a quarter-century, the Arizona Fall League has helped the top Minor League talent in the game get ready for the big leagues. It's done so with remarkable consistency, sending more than 60 percent of its alumni to the highest level.
The AFL has produced 247 players who have earned roster spots in the All-Star Game, including 33 in last year's Midsummer Classic. There have been 16 MVPs (Mike Trout is a two-time winner), seven Cy Young Award winners and 27 Rookies of the Year to come through the league since it started in 1992.
The recently concluded 2016 edition of the AFL will be no different. Graduates of this silver anniversary class could very well go on to become All-Stars and Hall of Famers, much like Mike Piazza (inaugural AFL Class of '92) did. Who they'll be is a matter of debate.
It is from that conversation that "The Next Big Leaguers" was born. As part of MLBPipeline.com's coverage of all things prospect and the AFL in particular, a group of five experts was assembled to discuss a quintet of up-and-coming stars. Each prospect has lofty expectations and an argument can be made for all of them to have the brightest futures. Those arguments were hashed out in "The Next Big Leaguers."
I was joined by fellow MLBPipeline.com reporter Jim Callis, Jesse Sanchez from MLB.com and LasMayores.com, D-backs broadcaster and SiriusXM host Mike Ferrin and MLB.com columnist and MLB Network Insider Tracy Ringlosby. Here are the five players we focused on in the first edition of "The Next Big Leaguers:"
Cody Bellinger, 1B/OF (Dodgers)
Bellinger, who hit a long home run in the Fall Stars Game, brings both advanced hitting skills and MLB bloodlines to the table. The son of former Yankee Clay Bellinger, Cody has a sweet swing from the left side that generates a ton of power. He maintained his power in 2016 and continued to draw walks while cutting down his strikeout rate, all good signs for the future. A terrific first baseman defensively, he's also athletic enough to handle an outfield corner if needed.
Ringlosbly's take: "He understands how to make adjustments. He hit four home runs combined his first two years in pro ball. That's not enough for a corner outfielder/first baseman. He got that. He started to put more loft into his swing and hit 30 home runs in High A ball two years ago and struck out 150 times. OK, now I've got to adjust to that. He goes to Double-A, hits 26 home runs between Double-A and his short stint in Triple-A and got his strikeout total below 100."
Nick Gordon, SS (Twins)
Another son of a big leaguer, Nick is Tom's kid and Dee's brother. Gordon stands out for his incredibly high floor, rather than any one individual loud tool. He does everything well, particularly his knack for making consistent hard contact and piling up base hits. He's also a sure-thing shortstop. He might not have the most upside of this group, but he's the safest bet to have a very long and productive career as an everyday big leaguer.
Ferrin's take: "While there isn't one standout tool, he does run well, he plays very solid defense at shortstop, he has a strong enough arm for the position and there are bat-to-ball skills that are going to allow him to transition into a typical top-of-the-order leadoff hitter."
Eloy Jimenez, OF (Cubs)
Jimenez made a huge splash on a national stage during the Futures Game in San Diego last July, hitting a long home run and making an acrobatic catch in right field. His Fall League experience, as one of the youngest participants, was predictably up-and-down, but he did register some of the highest exit velocities at the plate over the course of the fall. The Cubs had been patient with development, but he might start moving more quickly as yet another run-producing bat in their system.
Sanchez's take: "He has been a stud since he was 15 years old. He really has progressed into a real star. For all the success the Cubs had this year, winning the World Series, you have to give tons of credit to Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, everybody in the front office for the moves they made. But one of the moves they did not make was trading Eloy Jimenez. He was untouchable. That says a lot."
Yoan Moncada, 2B/3B (Red Sox)
Moncada didn't really get to show what he can do in the AFL as a thumb injury limited him to just six games. Even in that short stint, though, he impressed with his multitude of tools. He's not the current No. 1 prospect in baseball for no reason, and he still projects to be a dynamic offensive player who can hit for average and power as well as run. The only real question is where he'll play defensively, but you find a spot for this kind of game-changing talent.
Callis' take: "A $63 million investment, one of the biggest in baseball for an amateur, and he's lived up to it so far. It's just an exciting tools package. When he signed, the comp people made was that this guy was going to be Robinson Cano with more speed."
Gleyber Torres, SS (Yankees)
The AFL MVP, Torres was a highly-regarded prospect before he played an inning in Arizona. His performance only raises his stock and he should be a top five prospect when the Top 100 is re-ranked early next year. In addition to being the best hitter in the AFL, showing both the ability to hit for average and power with an advanced approach at the plate, Torres also slid over to second for the first time without missing a beat. More than anything, the teenager carried himself like a veteran amongst much older competition.
My take: "Torres is one of the most dynamic prospects in all of baseball. He's just 19 years old and he's already played far beyond his years based on level and how he's carried himself. For my money, he was the most consistent performer all fall."