I'm fortunate enough to get to make two AFL trips this year, one for the Fall Stars Game on Nov. 1 and another for the final week of the regular season and the championship game on Nov. 15. There are plenty of prospects I hope to see in person, with Twins outfielder Byron Buxton (Salt River) and White Sox right-hander Francellis Montas (Glendale) the hitter and pitcher I'm looking forward to most.
Jonathan Mayo has his own separate wish list for this week's Pipeline Perspective, with White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson (Glendale) and Cubs right-hander C.J. Edwards (Mesa) his top targets.
Buxton emerged as the game's top prospect in 2013, but he has rarely been 100 percent physically since heading to Arizona last October. He strained his left shoulder on a swing and played in just eight AFL games last fall, then appeared in just 30 games during the 2014 regular season. He sprained his left wrist diving for a ball during Spring Training, reaggravated it on a slide in May, got hit by a pitch on his right wrist in July and sustained a season-ending concussion in an outfield collision in August.
Buxton's list of above-average tools is longer than that litany of injuries, however, which is why he has drawn comparisons to Mike Trout with more power at the same stage of their careers. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, Buxton has well above-average hitting ability, speed, center-field skills and arm strength to go with merely above-average pop. He won't turn 21 until December and could arrive in Target Field at some point next season.
The injuries are more fluky than a long-term concern, so there's no worry about whether Buxton can reclaim his form from 2013, when he batted .334/.424/.520 with 49 extra-base hits, 55 steals and 76 walks in his first full professional season. It just will be fun to see him back at full strength on the diamond again.
"I'm just trying to go there and catch up on some at-bats, trying to do well and try and get my swing back," Buxton told Mayo last month. "I want to go there and see what happens. It's very important, especially if you want to move up the ladder, you have to get the at-bats in, the experience. I'm just trying to slow it down, be patient and disciplined and try to move past the injuries that happened this year."
Montas doesn't have nearly as high a profile as Buxton, though he did establish himself as one of the White Sox best prospects when he wasn't battling knee issues this year. Originally signed by the Red Sox for $75,000 out of the Dominican Republic in 2009, he began flashing a 100-mph fastball when he arrived in the United States three years later. But he also struggled to develop reliable secondary pitches and command, so Boston sent him to Chicago last July in a three-team trade that shipped Jake Peavy to the Red Sox and Jose Iglesias to the Tigers.
Montas did little but light up radar guns after joining the White Sox last summer, but he looked like a different pitcher this season after missing April recovering from meniscus surgery on his left knee. His slider showed signs of giving him a second plus pitch, his changeup was more effective and he did a much better job of locating his pitches where he wanted. He dominated high Class A hitters before needing meniscus surgery on his right knee in late June, then returned in August and reached Double-A.
"His fastball, slider and changeup can all be plus pitches," Chicago assistant general manager Buddy Bell said. "We've seen him up to 102 mph. He could compete for a big league starting job next year. If his command is real, he has No. 1 starter stuff."
Montas was selected to pitch in the Sirius XM All-Star Futures Game before his second meniscus surgery, and a healthy Buxton would have been a lock for the prospect showcase held at Target Field this summer. Injuries scuttled their chances at some prime-time exposure this summer, but the Arizona Fall League will give them the chance to get some and make up for lost time this fall.