AFL Fall Stars Game Prospects with Best Shot at MLB Stardom
The future of Major League Baseball was on display this past Saturday, as many of the sport’s top prospects showcased their potential in the Arizona Fall League’s annual Fall Stars Game.
Though lesser-known players such as Brett Nicholas (Rangers) and Stefen Romero (Mariners) stole the show by launching two home runs apiece in the game, there were numerous top-ranked prospects that also turned in equally impressive performances.
Having been in Arizona for a majority of the past week taking in games—including the Fall Stars Game—and laying eyes on the league’s premier young talents, I thought I’d share my thoughts (as well as some firsthand video) on which prospects appear poised to make a significant impact in the major leagues in the coming years.
So, here’s a look at the AFL Fall Stars Game’s top prospects with the best chances of becoming MLB stars.
Kris Bryant, 3B, Chicago Cubs
At 6’5”, 215 pounds, Bryant possesses effortless 80-grade power that will undoubtedly translate at the highest level. He does an excellent job of using his height and size to his advantage, hitting down on the ball to create backspin carry to all fields. At maturity, he should be good for 30-plus home runs in a given season.
Though he’s known for his light-tower power, Bryant is a much better hitter than given credit for, with a line-to-line approach and decent pitch recognition.
The right-handed hitter has some swing-and-miss to his game; however, that should steadily improve as he gains professional experience. Bryant won’t contend for a batting title and likely will be pitched around regularly at the major league level, but has the approach and bat speed to be a consistent .270-plus hitter.
If Bryant is eventually forced to move off third base, it won’t be because he can’t handle the position defensively. With average range and actions as well as a plus arm, Bryant’s overall defensive skill set has the potential to be a clean fit at the hot corner.
In his prime, Bryant should serve as a force in the middle of the Cubs lineup, as well as one of the top sluggers and run producers in the game.
Austin Hedges, C, San Diego Padres
A right-handed hitter, Austin Hedges has a short, compact swing geared toward line-drive contact across the entire field. In terms of his approach, Hedges is already adept at working counts in his favor and controls the strike zone better than most players his age.
He doesn’t strike out that often, but his excellent bat-to-ball ability can hinder his selectivity at times and force weak contact. While he’s already an adept low-ball hitter, Hedges does tend to struggle with velocity at the top of the strike zone. However, that could change as he continues to add strength and faces more advanced pitching.
Power has never been Hedges’ thing and probably never will be. That being said, he does have consistent gap pop capable of producing a sizeable doubles total annually. Considering his present strength and feel for the strike zone, there’s a chance that he’ll develop some over-the-fence pop as he matures. Still, it’s doubtful that it will amount to anything more than average power.
Austin Hedges is the best defensive catcher in the minor leagues, without question. Need proof?
Then I suggest you check out this clip (via MLB.com) from Saturday's Fall Stars Game. Despite his age and lack of experience in the high minors, the kid could excel right now behind the dish in the major leagues. He’s seriously that good.
The quickness and efficiency of his footwork is unparalleled among his peers, and his elite catch-and-throw skills, insanely quick transfer and plus arm strength allow him to essentially shut down the running game. Hedges’ pitch framing has continued to improve since turning pro, and he’s drawn endless praise from pitchers and coaches alike. It’s crazy to think that he’s only going to get better.
Hedges’ elite, game-changing chops behind the plate will make him one of the best defensive catchers in the major leagues upon his arrival. There’s simply nothing he can’t do back there. And if the bat continues to develop ahead of schedule, then Hedges has the potential to reach his enormous ceiling as one of the game’s premier catchers.
Albert Almora, OF, Chicago Cubs
Albert Almora is an excellent athlete with present strength in a 6’2”, 180-pound frame that still leaves room for projection. The 19-year-old has above-average bat speed that yields consistent hard contact to all fields and employs a quiet and efficient swing with little wasted movement.
However, what I really like about Almora—and what should allow him to boast a legitimate plus hit tool in his prime—is his outstanding barrel control. The kid has a flat-out knack for getting the barrel on the ball regardless of pitch type and location.
Almora’s power will develop as he matures and should be above average by the time he reaches the major leagues. In general, the outfielder’s all-around offensive skill set is highly advanced for his age and suggests 20-20 potential in his prime.
On the other side of the ball, Almora is a slightly above-average runner that demonstrates excellent instincts in center field through his reads, jumps and positioning. With arm strength best suited for center field, he profiles as an above-average defender thanks to his natural ability and an all-out style. It’s also worth noting that the 19-year-old has a high baseball IQ and mature on-field demeanor.
Almora is a premium athlete who showcases a rare blend of tools, work ethic and advanced baseball skills—each of which should help him reach the major leagues ahead of schedule.
Byron Buxton, OF, Minnesota Twins
Buxton is a rarity in that he’s a teenager with a realistic ceiling of a plus-plus hitter at maturity. While his off-the-charts bat speed and direct path to the ball will give him a chance to hit at the highest level, it’s the mature approach and pitch recognition that gives him the chance to be one of the game’s top hitters.
His power was regarded as his weakest tool when the Twins made him the No. 2 overall pick in 2012. However, his advanced approach and impressive bat speed allowed it to develop ahead of schedule this past season, and he showcased plus raw power to all fields that should ultimately translate to 20-plus home runs annually at maturity.
Beyond that, Buxton should always be an extra-base machine and rank among the league leaders in total bases.
Buxton’s speed is another plus-plus tool and a product of his insanely good athleticism. Despite his lack of experience, he’s already viewed as an elite baserunner capable of taking an extra base with relative ease. His speed also caters to his present ability and future potential as basestealer, and amazingly it even plays up even more thanks to his high baseball IQ.
With all that’s already been said about Buxton’s speed and overall baseball savvy, his projection as an elite defender in center field shouldn’t come as a surprise. While he has the athleticism and wheels to get almost every ball, Buxton’s jumps and aggressive (but direct) routes are especially impressive for a player his age.
With five potential plus tools to his name, it’s obvious why Buxton is regarded as baseball’s consensus No. 1 prospect. Beyond his eye-popping natural ability, the outfielder possesses secondary skills that are uncommon in a player his age.
Addison Russell, SS, Oakland Athletics
Addison Russell is a dynamic right-handed hitter with explosive wrists and strong hands. He also demonstrates a knack for barreling the ball, showcasing advanced bat control that yields hard contact to all fields. And though the 19-year-old’s game features some swing-and-miss at the present, that can at least be partially attributed to his status as a teenager playing against advanced competition.
Meanwhile, Russell’s combination of plus bat speed and present strength calls for above-average power at maturity, if not more, and his wheels should always lead to a high number of doubles and triples.
Russell has the athleticism and range for any position on the field, which is a strong indication that he’ll be able to remain at shortstop.
He is an aggressive but agile defender with plus arm strength that even plays up due to his quick transfer and release. He struggles to control his body at times when attacking the ball, particularly when crashing on a ball in front of him, but it’s easy to envision him improving significantly in that aspect of his defense as he gains experience.
In general, Russell has the makings of an impact shortstop at the major league level with four above-average or better tools that will only improve with experience.