For more than 20 years, baseball's top prospects have made an annual trip to the desert, helping craft the Arizona Fall League's reputation as a finishing school for future stars. Players such as Mike Trout, Mike Piazza and Roy Halladay each played there the fall before making the jump to Major League stardom.
When the AFL opens play Tuesday, the rosters will once again be stocked with exciting prospects. Twins outfielder Byron Buxton, who is ranked No. 1 on MLB.com's Top 100 prospects list, headlines this year's class, along with fellow top 20 prospects Pirates right-hander Jameson Taillon, A's shortstop Addison Russell and Blue Jays right-hander Aaron Sanchez.
With so many talented young players concentrated in Arizona for six weeks, the AFL remains a crucial part of the player-development process for Major League teams.
"I think it's a tremendous proving ground for players looking to take the next step in their careers, whether it's going from the Minors to the Majors, or high [Class] A to Double-A, or Double-A to Triple-A," Marlins director of player development Brian Chattin said. "You're going to be challenged out there, and you're also going to receive additional instruction and at-bats in games for six weeks that, other than in winter ball, you wouldn't be receiving. I think there's inherent value in that."
2013 AFL rosters
|AFL Team||MLB teams represented|
|Mesa Solar Sox|
|Glendale Desert Dogs|
|Salt River Rafters|
Among the Marlins headed to the AFL this year are third baseman Colin Moran and left-hander Andrew Heaney, the team's two most recent first-round selections. They are among the 24 Top 100 prospects in the AFL.
As the top prospect in baseball, Buxton will be one of the most-watched players this fall. The AFL is just the latest stop after a precipitous rise through the Minor Leagues for Buxton, the No. 2 selection in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft. After beginning his first full season as a 19-year old in Class A Cedar Rapids, Buxton received a midseason promotion to advanced Class A Fort Myers and played for the U.S. team in the Futures Game at Citi Field.
"I think we felt like [Buxton has] shown he's ready from a skill perspective," Minnesota farm director Brad Steil said. "As mature as he is, I think he can go out there and handle being in that type of environment. We wanted him to get the opportunity to face a little bit better pitching before the end of the season, so I think it was a good fit."
Buxton may be the main attraction, but with so many top prospects headed to the AFL, there will be no shortage of storylines to follow during the next six weeks.
Making up for lost time
The AFL also provides a chance for players who missed significant time this season to get extra at-bats or innings pitched before beginning their offseason. The Blue Jays are among the teams that will take advantage of that opportunity this fall.
|20||Aaron Sanchez||Blue Jays||Salt River|
|82||Garin Cecchini||Red Sox||Surprise|
|91||Marcus Stroman||Blue Jays||Salt River|
The Blue Jays will send three prominent right-handers -- Sanchez, Marcus Stroman and Drew Hutchinson - to Arizona in an effort to recoup innings they lost this season. Sanchez, the Blue Jays' No. 1 prospect, missed a month this season with a shoulder injury. Stroman's 50-game suspension for testing positive for stimulants last August forced him to sit out the start of this season. Hutchinson, who graduated from prospect status in 2012 before injuring his elbow, is in the process of coming back from Tommy John surgery.
"It'll add innings they couldn't get during the regular season," Blue Jays assistant general manager Tony LaCava said. "We felt like it would be a good spot for all of them."
Because of the AFL's restrictions on the number of starting pitchers each team can send, Sanchez and Stroman will work out of the bullpen this fall. But LaCava said the Blue Jays continue to see them as starting pitchers in the future.
Other top prospects who will benefit from the extension to their seasons include Cubs outfielder Jorge Soler, Twins right-hander Alex Meyer, Giants right-hander Kyle Crick and Heaney.
A glut of recent Draft picks
Talent evaluators typically say the AFL is equivalent to Double- or Triple-A, and most players have a few Minor League seasons under their belts before they go. But that doesn't stop teams from challenging some of their most recent Draft picks with a fall in Arizona.
Led by 2013 No. 2 overall pick Kris Bryant, four players selected in last June's Draft will play in the AFL this year. Joining the Cubs third baseman are Moran, Tigers right-hander Corey Knebel and Marlins right-hander Colby Suggs.
Chattin said the decision to send Moran and Suggs to the AFL resulted from the opinion of both the Marlins' scouts and player development staff that the duo had the ability to move quickly through the Minor Leagues.
"This was part of that process; to go ahead and challenge them in the Fall League, let them learn from the experiences," Chattin said. "They may take their lumps from time to time, but I think it will benefit them down the road."
There will also be nine first-rounders from the 2012 First-Year Player Draft. Buxton leads a group that includes Cubs outfielder Albert Almora, Heaney, Russell, Indians outfielder Tyler Naquin, Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager, Stroman, Cardinals outfielder James Ramsey and Rays third baseman Richie Schaffer.
While position changes are more frequently seen in instructional league, the AFL gives players who are moving around the diamond another place to get experience.
The most prominent player learning a new position this year is Delino DeShields. The Astros' No. 7 prospect is transitioning from second base to center field
DeShields was an outfielder in high school and moved to second base after the Astros drafted him No. 8 overall in 2010. Astros director of player development Quinton McCracken said he views this move as DeShields returning to his natural position.
"It's uncommon to take a guy from the outfield to the infield and have any success," McCracken said. "He showed us how good of an athlete he is by doing that. He's made tremendous strides at second, but, moving forward, he has greater Major League value back in the outfield."
Kyle Parker, the Rockies' No. 9 prospect, will also be playing a new position in the AFL. Parker has been primarily an outfielder since the Rockies drafted him in the first round in 2010, but will play first base this fall.
Jeff Bridich, the Rockies' senior director of player development, said the move is intended to make Parker more versatile and does not necessarily mean Parker will become a full-time first baseman.