The 2013 Arizona Fall League is almost over, unfortunately.
On Saturday, the Surprise Sagauros will play in the AFL Championship Game at Scottsdale, airing at 3:00 PM (ET) on the MLB Network.
However, Surprise’s opponent in the title bout has yet to be determined. With one game remaining on the regular-season schedule, the Mesa Solar Sox (18-11-1) currently hold a half-game lead over the Salt River Rafters (18-12) atop the East division.
Punching their tickets to the championship game won’t come easy for either team, though, with Mesa set to face Andrew Heaney on Thursday, while Salt River tries their luck against Kyle Crick.
The end of the AFL season also offers an opportunity to reflect on the league’s top hitters, many of whom improved their estimated times of arrival in the major leagues with a strong showing this fall.
Here’s a look at six AFL hitters with bright futures in the major leagues.
Jorge Alfaro, C, Texas Rangers
2013 AFL Stats: .409/.461/.530, 7 XBH, 2 SB, 15/5 K/BB (18 G)
One of the more young and intriguing talents participating in this year’s AFL, Alfaro entered the AFL fresh off a breakout campaign in which he batted .265/.346/.463 with 24 doubles, 18 home runs and 122 strikeouts in 113 games across three levels, including 104 games at Low-A Hickory.
Though the 20-year-old is raw on both sides of the ball, his tools and athleticism give him as much upside as any catching prospect in the game. At the plate, the right-handed hitter has the bat speed to turn around velocity but struggles to recognize spin and keep weight on his backside.
Defensively, Alfaro’s catch-and-throw skills are impressive and produced pop times ranging from 1.86 to 2.03 seconds in my looks this fall. That said, his receiving is still pretty rough; it’s surprising how many balls he flat-out drops. His blocking is decent and seems to play up in games due to his athleticism, though it will also need refinement moving forward. The good news is that there’s plenty of room, and time, for him to improve.
After a tough start in his first taste of the AFL, Alfaro is now leading the league with a .409 batting average through 18 games. Over the last five games, he’s 8-for-18 with five runs scored and two doubles.
C.J. Cron, 1B, Los Angeles Angels
2013 AFL Stats: .408/.471/.697, 11 XBH (5 HR), 19 RBI, 11/8 K/BB (19 G)
After clubbing 27 home runs during his full-season debut at High-A in 2012, Cron took a step back this past season at Double-A—perhaps a result of offseason shoulder surgery. Playing in 134 games, the 23-year-old held his own with a .274 bating average but saw his home run total drop to 14 while striking out a career-high 83 times. As a first-base-only prospect, let alone a right-handed one, Cron’s bat (more specifically his power) will determine if he reaches the major leagues.
At 6’4”, 235 pounds, Cron’s raw power is as big as his size suggests. However, in my looks last week, he struggled to get on top of fastballs at average velocity, as well as those on the inner half of the plate. On the other hand, the right-handed hitter punished pitches down in the zone, especially fastballs.
When he’s able to drop the bat head on the ball, Cron gets excellent extension through the zone and generates big-time backspin carry to all fields. So, basically, while the power is definitely there, I’m skeptical of its utility at maturity.
Cron has been on fire this fall and trails only Jorge Alfaro (.409) for the league’s highest batting average. His five home runs rank second behind Kris Bryant (6).
Albert Almora, OF, Chicago Cubs
2013 AFL Stats: .311/.346/.486, 9 XBH, 12 RBI, 9/4 K/BB (20 G)
Upon his return from a broken hamate bone during the spring, Almora was one of the Midwest League’s top hitters, batting .329/.376/.466 with 24 extra-base hits and a 30-17 strikeout-to-walk rate in 61 games. However, the outfielder’s impressive season end prematurely on Aug. 7, when he was placed on the disabled list with a groin injury.
No hitter impressed me more than Almora during my week in Arizona. The 19-year-old’s combination of barrel control and overall feel for staying inside the ball is ridiculously impressive for a player his age. He’s capable of turning around inner-half offerings when he chooses to, but the right-handed hitter’s barrel control gives him a smooth, natural stroke to right-center field.
Almora has the makings of at least a plus hitter at maturity. Though his high-ish leg kick could be a problem once he faces better secondary offerings at higher levels, his weight transfer and bat path should allow for quick adjustments.
Almora also stood out for how well he appears to track the ball against right-handed pitching. So, it doesn’t come as a surprise that he’s batting .365/.400/.596 with eight extra-base hits in 55 plate appearances against them this fall.
Taylor Lindsey, 2B, Los Angeles Angels
2013 AFL Stats: .225/.270/.363, 6 XBH (2 HR), 10 RBI, 17/6 K/BB (19 G)
Thanks in part to struggles of teammate Kaleb Cowart, Lindsey will open the 2014 season as the Angels’ top prospect. In all seriousness, the 21-year-old deserves the recognition after posting career highs in both home runs (17) and walks (48) in 134 games at Double-A Arkansas this season.
Lindsey has excellent hand-eye coordination and bat-to-ball skills that allow him to make consistent hard contact. The left-handed hitter sets up with his hands low around the torso, only to elevate them as part of his timing mechanism, but he surprisingly doesn’t struggle to hit quality velocity.
While he had always shown plenty of gap power with the ability to barrel the ball to all fields, Lindsey showcased improved over-the-fence pop this past season at Double-A, and it’s carried over into the fall.
Addison Russell, SS, Oakland Athletics
2013 AFL Stats: .296/.370/.457, 10 XBH (8 2B), 4 SB, 13/9 K/BB (20 G)
As a result of his impressive pro debut in 2012, Addison Russell received an aggressive assignment to High-A Stockton to open the 2013 season. As one of the youngest everyday players at the level, the 19-year-old batted .275/.377/.508 with 85 runs scored, 56 extra-base hits (17 home runs) and 21 stolen bases in 107 games.
At the end of the year, the A’s promoted Russell to Triple-A Sacramento for the team’s stretch run, though he went just 1-for-13 with nine strikeouts in three games.
A physically-strong right-handed hitter, Russell 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.
Overall, his 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.
After a slow start to the fall season, Russell has really turned things around in the past two weeks. Over the last 10 games, he’s batting .375/.444/.525 with 11 runs scored and five extra-base hits.
Kris Bryant, 3B, Chicago Cubs
2013 AFL Stats: .365/.448/.743, 15 XBH (6 HR), 17 RBI, 3 SB, 23/12 K/BB (19 G)
Making stops at three levels after signing with the Cubs, Bryant, the No. 2 overall selection in the 2013 draft, was one of the top hitters in the minor leagues over the final month of the season at High-A Daytona, batting .333/.387/.719 with five home runs and 14 RBI in 16 games.
At 6’5”, 215 pounds, Bryant possesses effortless 80-grade power that has translated in a big way at each professional stop. The right-handed hitter 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, it’s easy to see him turning in numerous 30-plus home run seasons.
But while he’s known for his light-tower power, Bryant is a much better hitter than he is given credit for, with a line-to-line approach and decent pitch recognition. Additionally, when he’s behind in the count, Bryant will noticeably shorten his swing and look to drive the ball back up the middle.
This fall, the 21-year-old third baseman has been the sight to see in the AFL, with a league-leading six home runs and 55 total bases through 19 games. Even more impressive is the fact that 15 of his 27 hits have gone for extra bases.