AC alums shine in Arizona Fall League

Bryce Harper (left) and Mike Trout participated in the 2008 Area Code Games for the Reds and Yankees. Now they're two of baseball's top prospects. Elaine Shepard/ESPNHS

This October, the St. Louis Cardinals capped a thrilling World Series by beating the Texas Rangers in seven games. To the casual fan, that meant we wouldn’t see baseball again until pitchers and catchers report to their respective Spring Training destinations in February.

But the hardcore fan knows baseball has become essentially a yearlong sport. While November typically brings to mind turkey, the gridiron and ridiculously early shopping, it’s also when the Arizona Fall League concluded another exciting season.

The AFL has gone from being an afterthought to now a hotspot for the game’s best prospects. At this year’s AFL Rising Stars Game, which is essentially an all-star game for some of MLB’s top prospects, the upper-echelon talent was on full display.

Several of those players were Area Code Games graduates. Here’s a look at some of the most talented Area Code alums at the AFL.

Bryce Harper, OF, Washington Nationals

Forget living under a rock — you’d have to be living under a gravel pit to not have heard of Harper at this point. The first pick of the 2009 draft, Harper put up monster numbers in advanced A ball before scuffling slightly in his promotion to Class AA, but he showed more than enough to remain among the top three prospects in the game.

As good as he was over the summer, the left-handed hitting outfielder from Las Vegas was even better over the fall. Harper put up a line of .333/.400/.634 with six home runs and four stolen bases in 93 at-bats and impressed scouts with his ability to track balls despite being relatively new to the outfield. Don’t be surprised if Harper is helping the Nationals in June, and maybe even sooner.

Gerrit Cole, RHP, Pittsburgh Pirates

Some were surprised to see Cole go first in a draft that included Dylan Bundy, Bubba Starling, and a plethora of other talented players, but his three-pitch combination proved too enticing for the Pirates to pass on.

If the results over the last two months continue, the Pirates have themselves a keeper. The right-hander posted a 3.00 ERA with 16 strikeouts to only four walks, and his fastball was clocked as high as 101. He’ll likely start the year in Altoona – Pittsburgh’s Class AA affiliate – but barring a setback, Cole will almost assuredly be pitching in PNC Park at some point next summer.

Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

After putting together an other-worldly 2010 season, Trout was put near or at the top of most everyone’s top prospect list. And 2011 did little to diminish that good will. The speedy outfielder posted a .958 OPS with 33 stolen bases before earning a promotion to the show, where the 20-year-old struggled somewhat.

Unfortunately for Trout, those struggles carried over into Arizona. His line of .245/.279/.321 disappointed many, but even with the lackluster numbers, Trout is still one of the top talents in the game.

Nolan Arenado, 3B, Colorado Rockies

Arenado wasn’t on many radars at the beginning of the year, but a strong 2011 has changed that. A second-round-pick in 2009, the right-handed hitting third baseman was lights out for advanced A Modesto, putting up an .836 OPS with 56 extra-base hits. Walks will never be a major part of his game, but the 47 he put up were a significant improvement over the 2010 season.

As good as those numbers were, Arenado was even more impressive in his stint in the AFL, where he was named league MVP. Arenado blistered AFL pitching to the tune of .388/.423/.636 with six homers and 12 doubles. There are questions as to whether he can stick at third base, but even at first base, Arenado is an offensive prospect that must be watched over the coming seasons.

Joe Panik, SS, San Francisco Giants

When the Giants selected Panik with the 29th pick of the first round this June, many were stunned that he went ahead of North Carolina’s Levi Michael, and some argued that he was more of a second- or third-round talent. The St. John’s shortstop did his best to show his doubters wrong this summer, and a .867 OPS with six homers and 13 stolen bases is a promising start.

Panik continued to hit once he got to Scottsdale and finished with a line of .323/.394/.423 for the fall season. A position change is likely in the future, but a solid offensive approach and work ethic could have the left-handed hitting infielder in the big leagues as soon as late 2012.

Christopher Crawford is a regular contributor to Prospect Insider and the founder and executive editor of MLB Draft Insider. Follow him on Twitter @CrawfordChrisV.