Just last year, current MLB players like Dustin Ackley, Eric Hosmer, Brandon Belt and Jason Kipnis worked on their skills in Arizona to prepare them for their big league debuts. So it's worth watching this year's crop to get a head start on potential 2012 Rookie of the Year candidates. The six-team league plays six days a week (Monday-Saturday) in six Cactus League stadiums in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Daily start times are 12:35 p.m. and 6:35 p.m. MST.
The two biggest names on the six AFL rosters are currently Nos. 1 and 2 on MLB.com's Top 50 Prospects list and will patrol the same Arizona outfield. Both Mike Trout (No. 1) and Bryce Harper (No. 2) will play for the Scottsdale Scorpions, winners of the 2010 AFL title. Trout, a 2009 first-round pick, could potentially be delayed, should the Angels make the postseason and he makes their playoff roster.
Harper, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, made it up to Double-A at age 18 in his first full season, before shutting it down in August with a hamstring injury. This will be a return engagement for the Nationals outfielder, who was a member of Scottsdale's taxi squad in '10, getting the chance to play twice a week and expierience his first taste of pro ball of any sort. Now AFL fans will get to see him in action on a more regular basis.
"The overall starting pitching appears to be strong," AFL director Steve Cobb said. "Several position players are regarded as premier prospects at their respective positions. And there is no shortage of quality relievers to finish games. This promises to be an outstanding season, perhaps our best ever."
Trout and Harper are two of seven Top 50 prospects who will participate in this year's Fall League season, slated to begin on Oct. 4 and run until the championship game at Scottsdale Stadium on Nov. 19. Aaron Hicks, Wil Myers, Nick Franklin, Brett Jackson and Matt Dominguez comprise the quintet of other Top 50 prospects, strong candidates to play in the Nov. 5 Rising Stars Game, to be held at Surprise Stadium.
TOP PROSPECTS IN AFL
"It's good to be able to play with guys who are about ready to go to the big leagues," said Hicks, the 2008 first-round pick of the Twins who spent the 2011 season in the Class A Advanced Florida State League and will be facing largely Double and Triple-A talent in the AFL. "It's more of an opportunity to get better, to see what the competition is like and to see where I'm at in my progress towards becoming a big league player."
The AFL has been home to nine Major League MVP Award and three Cy Young Award winners over the past two decades. With each Major League organization sending six of its more promising prospects to the league (41 players currently on organizational Top 10 lists are on rosters), there are bound to be more future award winners headed to the desert this fall. Seven AFL players also participated in last July's Futures Game, with Harper and Myers leading a list of Grant Green, Will Middlebrooks, Jefry Marte, Nolan Arenado and Tim Beckham, adding even more to the league's well-established legitimacy.
A recent trend of sending this year's draftees to the AFL will continue as well. The Mariners' Danny Hultzen (No. 2 overall) and the Brewers' Jed Bradley (No. 15), a pair of lefties taken in the first round, will be on the same Peoria Javelinas pitching staff. Fellow college lefty Sean Gilmartin (No. 28) will pitch for the Surprise Saguaros, while LSU outfielder Mikie Mahtook (No. 31), now a Tampa Bay Ray, will roam the outfield for Surprise. For all but Gilmartin, the AFL will provide a first glimpse of professional competition.
That quartet comes from the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, but they are far from the only first-rounders who will be in Arizona. A total of 19 former first-round selections are on rosters, with the potential of more to come with many spots still TBA. The total does not include supplemental first-round picks.
"I feel a little tired," said Hicks, who was the No. 14 overall pick back in 2008. "Being here in the FSL isn't the easiest thing to do, with the weather, the rain delays, things like that. "But I'll have two weeks off where I'll be able to fill back up and go again at the end of the month.
"I've been working on a lot of stuff for my swing, shortening it up, being able to hit the ball to all fields. It's going to help my development to be able to do that, [improving] my pitch recognition and being able to stay within my swing. This will definitely will be a good test."