It seems as though players in the Arizona Fall League are getting younger. And with draft picks continuing to sign as late as ever, the Rising Stars Game has become a nice fusion of recent draft picks and high-upside talents.
This year, Nick Franklin and Danny Hultzen turned in two of the top prospect performances in the game.
Franklin showed a mature approach at the plate, hitting balls up the middle and to the opposite field, including a home run to center off of Gerrit Cole. His opposite-field swing reminded me a little of Dustin Ackley's.
While he isn't a great bet to stick at shortstop, he has a thin, athletic frame that should lend itself to second base defensively.
The first scout I talked to in depth about Franklin -- a few years ago -- said the young infielder played the game at a level typical of a college ball player. Drafted out of high school, Franklin had a stellar Low-A season in 2010 before slowing down some in High-A.
He missed time in 2011 with a series of ailments, including mono, that he appears to be completely recovered from. Franklin was the 5th-youngest player to reach Double-A this year. As a potential up-the-middle defender with power, he's a likely candidate to fit inside the top 50 of our 2012 top 100 prospect list.
Hultzen first caught my eye as a freshman at the University of Virginia. A standout two-way player, he is a competitor on the mound who entered college knowing how to pitch and brought his game to the next level his junior year, adding velocity. He wasn't throwing his hardest at the Rising Stars Game -- had some high-80s fastballs -- but it didn't matter.
Hultzen commands three average to above offerings: his fastball, slider and changeup. During the college season, our Lincoln Hamilton saw his changeup as his best pitch. I was very impressed with Hultzen's ability to pound the bottom of the zone with his fastball and locate each of his offerings at the Rising Stars Game. His arsenal is MLB-ready now and he could be a candidate to skip the minors entirely.
I do see him as an above-average injury risk, as a low arm slot and timing issue don't allow him to get into the driveline as he gathers and pushes off toward the plate, but Hultzen is the real deal. If he can string together 3-4 healthy seasons before he hits the free agent market, he could easily rank among the top pitchers from his prospect class five years from now.
A good athlete for someone his size, Wil Myers (pictured above) isn't going to be a game-changer with his glove. I've seen him play the outfield about four times now, and each time he has looked heavy-footed and unnatural. While he's far from a disaster out there, I don't anticipate him becoming an average big-league defender.
That said, Myers can hit. He has wicked bat speed and the potential to be an elite power hitter. Stalled by injuries (knee contusion/laceration/infection) and challenged as the 7th-youngest player in Double-A, Myers made significant progress as a contact hitter during 2011. He also finished strong, hitting five of his eight home runs in the final third of the season.
Myers will turn 21 next month and is still a pretty good bet to reach the big leagues before he turns 22. If he accomplishes that, he could be in the youngest 1% of all big leaguers. If not, he could spend another year in the minors and still potentially reach the bigs and be in the youngest 3% of all big leaguers. Age and time are on Myers' side. Don't weigh his 2011 struggles too heavily, as he still has above-average regular upside.
I really liked Joe Panik's approach. He looks like he's ready to do damage to pitches and he doesn't expand the zone. If the Giants start him in High-A next year, he could make a push for a Double-A promotion come midseason and maybe even a September call-up. He has a chance to quickly reach the bigs as an up-the-middle defender who makes a lot of contact and has some power.
Though the AFL is hitter friendly and it was just a brief appearance, there is reason for concern with Gerrit Cole. His abilities stood in stark contrast with Hutlzen's. Cole didn't have command of his offerings, and while he did show high-90s velocity, he didn't show much feel for commanding his fastball. His changeup looks like a potential above-average pitch, but if he can't establish his fastball command, he's going to struggle.
I also think there's a non-zero chance that his ultimate home is the bullpen. His comfort zone appears to be pitching at a high effort. That doesn't usually work for starting pitchers. If you're planning on riding the No. 1 overall pick and huge signing bonus wave with Cole, know that he is a high-risk/high-reward talent who isn't the greatest bet to have a better career than a half dozen or so other pitching prospects in the minors.
Junior Lake is not a shortstop and he isn't a sure thing with the bat.
Don't write off Christian Colon. Elite contact hitters who can provide up-the-middle defense usually have value in the big leagues.
While he has tried to evade some of it through his acute interest in pogonotrophy, which replaced a fascination with battle paint,, Bryce Harper is playing under monumental expectations. Swinging the bat, running the base paths and playing defense like he won't settle for anything less than domination, he isn't in a smooth, natural groove as a pro ball player. He's pressing. And pressing a lot. It's good to challenge a young super-athlete who hasn't faced much adversity, but 2012 may be a good time to let Harper get into a rhythm and RELAX.
Nolan Arenado had one of the best 0-for-4s I've seen in a showcase event. On top of demonstrating that he has made big strides on defense at third, he made some loud contact and showed an exceptional approach at the plate. Arenado has an uncanny knack for getting his hands through the ball. I see some Pujols in him. I really do. If Arenado doesn't wind up being a well-above-average MLB hitter, I'll be surprised. Throw in potential average or better defense at third base and you have one of the top prospects in baseball. It wouldn't shock me if he ends up having a better career than Harper, not in the slightest.
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