The AFL Top 25: 25-21

It's only 32 games long, and virtually nobody plays everyday. Pitchers spend the first two weeks (at least) on a pitch count, guys play out of positions, and top prospects are relegated to six at bats a week if they're unlucky enough to be stuck behind hotter prospects at the same position. Still, it might be the most competitive Minor League in America, and the best of the best are there, so has put together a list of the 25 top prospects in the AFL.

Since it is the most recent data, extra weight is given to those who performed well in the AFL, but this list takes into account all of the 2005 seasons, and looks to predict which prospects might have the biggest effect on their Major League teams, and which might do it the soonest. 

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.

#25 Angel Guzman RHSP Chicago Cubs

The crazy thing about Guzman is that he actually threw more innings in the AFL this season than he did in the regular season, as injuries continue to be the only thing holding Guzman from the Majors.  Considered one of the top pitching prospects in all of the Minors in 2003, he simply hasn't stayed healthy long enough to break through.  Despite a 1-2 AFL record Guzman's ERA was just 3.82, which is Bob Gibson-like in the incredibly hitter friendly AFL, where the League ERA was well over 5.00.

Guzman was in the AFL to get innings, and stay healthy, and he accomplished both goals.  His fastball was back up to the mid 90s on occasion, sitting at 92, and though his curveball wasn't as sharp as it has been, there were flashes of a return to form.  It's unclear as of now whether the Cubs will ask Guzman to head to Winter Ball or simply be happy he made it through 30 innings without breaking a bone, either way he'll head into '06 with a shot at the big league club.

"He's always been one of the best arms in that system," our Senior scout said, "probably better than anybody except Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano, and he looks like he added muscle to his frame, maybe that will finally keep him healthy."

#24 Josh Anderson CF Houston Astros

"He's got the best pure speed in this league," said our American League scout, "and he's got pretty decent instincts on the bases, but he's still really raw, especially in the field.  I was surprised at how well he hit, he took a huge step forward, maybe the biggest jump of anybody."

With Willy Tavarez firmly entrenched in center field for the Astros, they'll take their time with Anderson, who still occasionally takes strange routes to balls in center, and chases breaking pitches too often.  He benefited from hitting at the top of an incredible lineup on the Scorpions, seeing almost all fastballs until pitchers got two strikes on him, but when you hit .360 you're doing something right, fastballs or not.

He struck out 80 times at Double-A Corpus Christi in the Texas League, and was here to work on bunting and making contact.  He did both, but still has a swing a tad too long for a lead off hitter, and wasn't tested often because of the fastball heavy environment.

"The biggest surprise with this kid was how well he hit lefties in this league," our National League scout said, "and there were some good ones, but until they start throwing his five straight sliders, the way they will in regular season play, and he doesn't chase them, we won't know how much he really improved."

#23 Garrett Jones 1B Minnesota Twins

Jones ranked second in homers, RBI, and fourth in Slugging Percentage, which was only surprising because of the overall league talent.  The Twins have a hole at first base (assuming Justin Morneau is their DH), and unless they acquire a first baseman via trade the job might be his by default.  Our scouts were divided, with our NL Scout claiming he should be in the bottom half of the top 10, our Senior Scout saying he's not ready for the bigs but has as high a ceiling as any pure power hitter in the AFL, and our AL Scout saying that if the Twins make him their starting first baseman this season he'll be lucky to hit .200, and he doesn't even belong on this list.

His long swing has natural lift to it, and in batting practice he was known to hit some of the longest home runs seen in the AFL, but in the game that translates to an all or nothing approach, which doesn't exactly fit Twins baseball.  Still, on a club that could get significantly younger next season, without much power, he may get time to develop at the Major League level. 

His batting average was up 45 points to .289 in the AFL from the International League, but that's pretty much standard, and anyone who didn't hit .300 down here was looked at in a suspect fashion.  Though few pitchers were bringing their best gas down here, when someone throwing in the mid 90s got in on Jones he looked slow and was unable to get the bat head on the ball.  That could be corrected, and will have to be in order to have success in the Majors.

#22 Matt Kemp CF Los Angeles Dodgers

After hitting over .300 with 27 homers and 90 RBI in the Hi-A Florida State League Kemp emerged as a legit prospect in the Dodgers organization.  He followed that with .383 and three homers in less than 100 at bats in the AFL.

"You expect those numbers in the California League," our Director of Player Development said, "but that was in the Florida State League.  It's still Hi-A, but there aren't as many launching pads down there, the air's just heavier.  I was a little surprised he didn't show as much power here as he did during the season.  He looked a little tired sometimes, and he needs a lot of work in center field, I could see him moving to a corner spot before long."

A drop in power numbers isn't a good sign in the AFL, but one of our two players mentioned they though Kemp looked tired a lot, and might not have been playing at 100%.  His season as a whole is still a success, but next year at Double-A will be a major test for the young outfielder.

#21 Jaime Shields RHSP Tampa Bay Devil Rays

After a short season that proved very productive in the Double-A Southern League Shields impressed mostly because a drastically improved curve ball.  He's one of those pitchers who doesn't look like much, but nobody hits him hard.  His fastball is low 90s and has a ton of natural movement, and his change up is made more effective because rather than the east/west movement of his fastball it has a nice dip at the end of it. 

"I don't know how he's successful," one of our players said, "because he looks like he's throwing batting practice.  His curve has gotten a lot tighter, it's still not incredible, but it's a lot better than it used to be.  The ball just never seems to be where you think it's going to be when you hit it."

Our scouts agreed, but our Senior scout in particular had high praise, "His fastball is harder than Greg Maddux's, and he doesn't spot it nearly as well, but it has that same sort of deceptive movement.  If he learns how to finish it at the catcher's glove, rather than starting it there, he could be a real solid #3 starter."

The AFL numbers speak for themselves, in 30+ innings his 1.74 ERA is amazing, and he consistently had hitters out ahead of pitches.  He worked off his fastball and change far more than his curveball, and probably always will, but the curve is good enough now to at least be a throwaway pitch, just good enough to make hitters guard against it.

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