The AFL annually brings together some of the best Minor League talent in the game, with prospects going from the Fall League to the big leagues in such vast numbers it's too hard to pick a few examples out. It's pretty simple: Check out the AFL to see who the next superstars will be at the highest level.
So for those of us at MLBPipeline.com, this is an important day. It's not quite the Futures Game or the Draft, but it's not too far behind. Over the next seven weeks, we'll be documenting everything from the openers to the Fall Stars Game (Nov. 1) all the way to the Nov. 15 Championship Game.
One of the best things about the AFL is that you can show up at any ballpark on any day and see a ridiculous amount of talent. That said, some AFL teams look, at least on paper, more talented than others. That's the crux of this week's Pipeline Perspectives: Which AFL roster do we feel is the most talented?
Jim Callis is touting the Surprise Saguaros, with hitters like D.J. Peterson and Jesse Winker as well as arms like Taijuan Walker. Not a bad choice at all. Like I said, there are no wrong answers on this one, but I'm going with the Salt River Rafters.
Last week, Jim talked about Byron Buxton being the hitter he's most excited to see in the Fall League. He's certainly a big reason why the Rafters were my choice this week. He is, after all, the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball. If he's healthy, and past any concussion-related symptoms, there isn't anybody in the Minor Leagues more exciting, more dynamic, than Buxton. He has the proverbial five tools and has shown them all on the field. As a repeat performer in the AFL, I look for him to put up some silly numbers as he makes up for lost time from his injury-riddled 2014 season.
If the Rafters were Buxton only, they wouldn't be a good choice for this Perspectives. But there are several prospects, both hitting and pitching, that make this team intriguing. The pitching staff at the start of the season is unparalleled, in my eyes, starting with Archie Bradley. The D-backs' top prospect, and No. 9 overall, is the second-highest ranked pitcher on the Top 100. He's coming off an up-and-down season, one that saw him throw just 83 innings. He's starting Opening Day in Salt River tonight and you can be assured I won't be missing that one.
Joining him on the Rafters staff is the 2013 No. 1 overall pick, Mark Appel. Appel had his own trials and tribulations in his first full season, but finished the season strongly in Double-A. The AFL could be a nice springboard to a 2015 season for the No. 41 overall prospect (No. 2 on the Astros' Top 20) so he can get back on the fast track to Houston.
Vincent Velasquez isn't in the Top 100, but he might be if he can stay healthy in 2015. Appel's organization mate, ranked No. 8 on the team 20, will likely be working on his breaking stuff while making up for lost innings. Anthony DeSclafini (ranked No. 2 on Miami's Top 20) and Edgar Olmos have big league experience with the Marlins. I'm really hoping to get a look at Jake Reed (I ranked him No. 22 when I listed bonus prospects for the teams I'm responsible for). The Oregon product went in the fifth round and was outstanding in his pro debut, showing he should be a quick to the big leagues type reliever.
And that's just the pitching. Buxton is the only Top 100 prospect on the offensive side of things, but that doesn't mean the Rafters lineup will be devoid of firepower. Astros No. 9 prospect Rio Ruiz (one of the players Houston could afford to sign when they drafted Carlos Correa No. 1 overall in 2012) could be a future Top 100 guy, having made an adjustment in his swing that resulted in a fine 2014 season in the California League. Peter O'Brien, No. 7 on the D-backs Top 20, finished fifth in the Minors with 34 homers and slugged .594. His power, combined with the Fall League's reputation for being hitting-friendly, should be fun to watch. So should his organization-mate Brandon Drury, who joined Arizona's system in the Justin Upton trade. Drury is building a case as one of the more intriguing, yet still under the radar, third base prospects in the game after hitting .299/.362/.510 and reaching Double-A. A big AFL should make him underappreciated no longer.
Jim's choice, Surprise, might have the best offense in the league, but Salt River has the deepest pitching staff without question. Add in Buxton and a slew of guys who may not be high on prospect lists now, but will be, and the Rafters should provide a ton of excitement for Fall League fans this season.