The Top Five. The best of the best of the best. There will be discussion, there will be dissention, in fact, there already has been. is not one person, it is not one analyst. Of the contributors to the AFL Top 25 there were many who felt Stephen Drew should be higher, that Eric Patterson should be Top Ten. On one thing there was complete agreement, and that was who #1 would be. No doubt, no hesitation.

Rankings were compiled with the help of three team affiliated Major League scouts, a director of player development, and two AFL players, all of whom were granted anonymity.  The final rankings were determined by James Renwick, who covers the AFL for  Anyone with more than 130 Major League at bats, or more than 50 Major League innings pitched is disqualified (sorry Matt Murton and Casey Daigle), and anyone with less than 75 AFL at bats, or 20 AFL innings (sorry Jeff Clement and Wade Townsend) is also exempt from the list.  So on we go, to the AFL Top 25.

#5 Ryan Zimmerman 3B/SS Washington Nationals

It's often an argument in the NBA, rarely in the MLB.  Do you draft for this year or years to come.  The Washington Nationals have made it very clear, in the first round they want Major League ready players, and that's what they got in Ryan Zimmerman.

"Really, in a lot of ways, he should have been #1 on this list," our Senior scout said, "because he is, by leaps and bounds, the most polished player in this league.  Defensively, he looks like a 10 year vet, offensively, he looks like a guy who has been hitting in the two hole for the last three years.  There's always work to do, but he's so advanced he can work on specific things, rather than his approach."

In the last three years the Nats have taken Chad Cordero, Bill Bray and Zimmerman in the first round.  Cordero established himself as an elite closer in 2005, Bray had a solid, if unspectacular, season ending at Triple-A this year, and Zimmerman spent 67 games in the minors before the Nationals brought him up.  He hit .397 in the bigs, which is pretty amazing considering he didn't receive consistent playing time, and because of that the Nationals asked him to come to the fall league and get a few more at bats.

"He came down here late, he wanted a couple of weeks off," one of our players said, "Which is pretty understandable considering he basically has been in a baseball uniform everyday since February.  And even if his numbers weren't incredible down here, he looked fantastic.  I know he was the only guy I'd come out early to watch take infield.  And I wasn't the only one."

"His glove is amazing," our NL scout said, "Usually, especially with third baseman, that's the problem, they can hit a ton right away but can't catch anything, but not Zimm, this guy is just special."

The general consensus was that there are players ranked below Zimmerman who have higher ceilings, but that nobody on this list is as ready to play, and contribute, to a Major League team as Zimmerman is right now.

#4 Howie Kendrick 2B Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

 "Seriously, the Angels have a whole freakin infield down here that could end up being in the Hall of Fame," one of our players said in amazement.  "You see Kendry Morales, and then you see Brandon Wood, and then Howie Kendrick, and you just wonder what happened.  How did all these guys end up in the same organization.  It's like a minor league All Star team."

It's not like any of these guys were secrets to the minor league baseball world, but the emergence of Kendrick in the AFL was incredible. 

"The most surprising thing for me is that all these guys are totally supportive, and totally competitive, at the same time.  You don't think every time they hit one out they're reminding the other guys what they did?" our other player analyst said, "Because I can tell you, they do, but at the same time you'll see all three of them talking about pitchers, in the cages together, pointing things out." 

Eventually one of them is going to have to break away from the pack, and the smart money is on Kendrick.

"Just because of the position he plays, I think Kendrick is the first to hit the bigs.  I'm pretty sure he could end up being at least a spot starter next year," our AL scout said, and was backed up by his NL counterpart.

"Kendrick is the first to get the call, because all due respect to Adam Kennedy, but the Angels have Casey Kotchman, Maicer Izturis and Orlando Cabrera ahead of the other two guys, and they're still trying to get Konerko, which would block Morales even more.  Kendrick isn't as flashy, and he doesn't have as much power as Wood or Morales, but he is a little more fundamentally sound, and he can hit."

Kendrick played in the Hi-A California League, the Double-A Texas League, and the AFL.  His lowest batting average at any stop was .342, his highest was the .384 he put up in Hi-A.  Expect a debut in Triple-A next year, and a call up the first time Kennedy goes 0-10.

#3 Stephen Drew SS Arizona Diamondbacks

High profile names are a dime a dozen in the Arizona Fall League, but perhaps the two biggest names in the league were Drew and Jared Weaver, and not necessarily because of their talent.  The two Scott Boras clients were both in the AFL for the same reason, after long holdouts, they needed to get all the work in they could.

"The difference between Drew and Weaver is pretty simple," our NL scout said, "Weaver showed up with a dead arm and underperformed because of the layoff.  Drew on the other hand showed up and acted like he hadn't missed a day.  The Cal League was so overmatched when he was there it wasn't funny.  He's a professional baseball player in every sense of the term."

Rumored to be the Diamondbacks choice as starting shortstop next year, his first full year in the organization, Drew did have something to prove after getting promoted to Double-A and slumping, but perhaps the most exciting thing for the D'Backs was that even though he likely wasn't the best shortstop in the league, he remained focused, and worked hard.

"I'd heard all those rumors about him being stuck up and kind of a pain in the ass," our player said, "but I never saw it, and none of the guys on his team I know ever saw it.  He's quiet, but he works hard, and he has fun."

Our Director of Player Development started scouting Drew when he was a junior in high school, "Look, here's the thing with this kid.  His brother was a big time prospect, had the contract issues, got a lot of negative media.  Stephen saw that happen, and I think basically decided he just wasn't going to try to play games with the press.  You talked to him, he'll give you an interview, but he's not going to go get cocktails later like some of the guys.  He's a minor league player who has never had anything but a Major League outlook, and that's a good thing.  He's here to play ball."

He certainly did that, and while the .337 and six homers were nice, probably the biggest question coming in about Drew was his glove.

"I could see how people think he's not that good defensively," our AL scout said, "but that's what he was down here to work on, and he isolated the problem and solved it.  He was losing focus on routine plays, and he had one little thing to change about his feet.  That was it, but he worked all AFL season on it, and he fixed it, so you know the work ethic is there."

#2 Jarrod Saltalamacchia C Atlanta Braves

"It's amazing how many catchers are coming out of that system right now," our NL scout said, "Estrada, McCann, and this guy will be the best of the bunch.  Start printing the 'Let's Get Salty' T-shirts now, because everybody's going to want one."

'Salty' is farther away from the big leagues than any other prospect in the Top 5, but that doesn't hurt him, or the Braves, because as a catcher, his learning curve is going to naturally be slower.

"They could probably move him up faster than they are going to," our Senior scout said, "but why bother?  Give him time to learn, time to get comfortable, and time for the other kids they have to increase in trade value."

He's an imposing physical specimen, and one of the players thinks he'll get bigger.

"If you look at him, he's already big, but his shoulders haven't fully developed.  I wouldn't be surprised if there's another 25 pounds of muscle on the kid by the time he gets to the bigs."

Our Director of Player Development could hardly contain himself, "The Atlanta organization just simply can't be questioned when it comes to how they handle their prospects.  They don't do anything 'across the board' they evaluate guys individually.  They moved Andruw Jones fast, they slow played Marcus Giles, they just know exactly what they are doing.  A lot of organizations would have had Saltalamacchia in Double-A the second half of this year, and they'd have him in the bigs at the end of next year.  I can't wait to see what the Braves do though, because he's going to be an All-Star, he is going to be better than Javy Lopez.  He's a total package, smart, fun, great work ethic, and talent to die for.  He was one of four players down here who really lived up to their hype for me, and his numbers weren't even that great."

#1 Brandon Wood SS Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

He came in with as much baseball hype as any player, and then all he did to justify it was homer in his first nine straight games.  He never got a big head, he never strutted, all he did was continue to hit, and get better at shortstop.

"He's got some work to do defensively, because he's such a great athlete he's been able to get away with some mechanical flaws his whole life, but he knows it, he knows he's got to change," our Director of Player Development says, "and the most intriguing thing about him is that he could literally play any position in the field.  He's got more than enough bat for the corners, a strong enough arm for right, the speed to play center, and he's smart and fearless, so he could catch.  They didn't, and they won't, but I wouldn't have been surprised if they had sent him down here to get innings out of the bullpen.  Pure talent wise, he was head and shoulders above everybody in the AFL."

Every analyst, player, coach and front office person talked to in the AFL gave quotes about Wood that sounded like that.  And the sad, sick thing is that Brandon Wood is just 20 years old.

"Can you imagine what he's going to do after a year with the weights, a year with a Major League caliber hitting coach, and a year adjusting to breaking balls?" one of our players said.

"Alex Rodriguez moved to third because of Jeter.  If Wood was in the Yankees system, A-Rod would have moved to third for him," our AL scout said, "but he wouldn't have had to, because the kid is humble, and he would have moved to third out of respect for A-Rod."

"What doesn't he do?" our NL Scout asked, "Is there anything?  I watched the kid in his 10th game of the AFL season, when he was on that streak of homers, and he came up with a runner on second and nobody out, and he hit behind the runner.  I was in the stands and all of us were looking at each other with stupid smiles on our faces.  This is a kid who has homered in nine straight games, and he's hitting behind the runner, because he knows that's what he's supposed to do."

"The other thing," our second player said, "that I don't think he was given enough credit for, was that he was essentially playing in front of his home town fans out here.  He grew up in Phoenix [actually Scottsdale, a suburb of Phoenix, just 15 minutes away], and he had more fans there to see him than other entire teams would get, and he never once got a big head.  He was introducing his friends to other ball players, on other teams.  It was really amazing to watch.  He might be the next great ambassador of the game."

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