PHOENIX -- The Arizona Fall League, proving ground to the stars, turned 20 this season and is just a year away from almost certainly claiming its first Hall of Fame graduate in Mike Piazza.
Piazza, eligible for the Hall after next season, drove a home run over the batters eye at Phoenix Municipal Stadium during the leagues inaugural championship series in 2002, helping manager Jerry Roysters Sun Cities team win it all. For Piazza, the hits just kept on coming in a major league career that included 427 homers, the most by a catcher.
The Fall League prospects just keep on coming, too.
The league has skewed young the past several seasons, so most of the players are at least a good half-year, at the earliest, from making an impact in the majors, most scouts believe.
At the same time, talent abounded.
Fall Leaguers Mike Trout, Brandon Crawford and Adam Bass spent ample parts of the 2011 season in the majors, so they've moved past prospect status. Trout would top the following list despite a mediocre Fall League season, when he appeared worn down. Some wondered what he was doing in the league after playing a full regular season, although he was commended for sticking it out and staying the full year.
While there may not be as many ready-for-the-majors players in this crop, a handful could make an impact in 2012.
Here are four:
Team: Seattle Mariners
Position: Left-handed starter
Draft: First round, 2011
Like Stephen Strasburg two years ago and fellow top-two draftee Gerrit Cole this year, Hultzen made his professional debut in the Fall League. It could not have gone much more smoothly.
Although on a severe pitch limit, Hultzen mixed his three pitches while commanding them all in six appearances for Peoria. He struck out 18 in 19 13 innings and gave up only three runs, posting a 1.40 ERA.
Before the June draft, in which UCLAs Cole and Virginias Hultzen were taken 1-2, one major league executive called Hultzen a Mark Buehrle type but with better stuff. Hultzen topped out in the mid-90s and showed an above-average changeup to go with a slider.
What some people have missed about him is his stuff is really good, one National League talent evaluator said. And he can really pitch. In and out. He locates well. Its not a soft-tossing lefty by any stretch.
One scout said he believed Hultzen has the stuff and makeup to pitch at the major league level now, but whether that happens depends on how the Mariners want to manage his innings during the six months of his first pro season. Cincinnati promoted 2009 No. 8 overall pick Mike Leake to its rotation in 2010, and to me, (Hultzen) is even more advanced than Leake, a scout said.
The same scout does not see the same immediate impact in Cole, taken No. 1 overall by Pittsburgh.
Good velocity, but hitters seem to deal with it. It might be delivery issues. Hitters are timing it up, he said.
Team: Washington Nationals
Position: Corner outfield
Draft: First round, 2010
Harper no long wears war paint the commissioners office forbade it as he did in junior college, but he remains a remarkable figure. Every scout sees the potential that made him the first overall pick by Washington in the 2010 draft: big bat, big arm, extreme intensity.
After a slow start in his second consecutive Fall League season, Harper put together a 16-game hitting streak and hit safely in 19 of his last 20 games. Included was a six-game stretch in which he hit five homers, drove in 17 runs and ran into a wall while hunting down a deep fly.
He brings a lot of intensity into the batters box. He swings hard. Not the most beautiful, rhythmic swing, but hes under control more than you would think and he does not get cheated, one talent evaluator said.
From an NL executive: You know, I hate to say it, but part of you wants to root against him just because of the hype and because he kind of sometimes draws some negative attention. But hes hard to ignore ... one, he plays really hard, and two, hes really good. Hes a good athlete. He can run and throw. He has a chance to live up to all the hype.
With Jayson Werth set in one corner and Mike Morse likely moving back to the outfield in 2012, Harper may not open the season with the Nationals. But one scout believes he will be there before the season is over.
Team: Colorado Rockies
Position: Third base
Draft: Second round, 2009
Arenado led the minor leagues with 122 RBIs at Class A Modesto of the hitter-friendly California League during the regular season, and he extended his breakout season by going .388.423.636 for Fall League champion Salt River. Arenado, who was named the league MVP, led the league with 47 hits (in 29 games) and 12 doubles while driving in 33 runs, and he capped the season with a home run in the league championship game Saturday.
Arenado has a remarkably mature hitting approach that rivals that of offseason workout partner Troy Tulowitzki, a fellow native Southern Californian.
Hes just a pure hitter, said one NL West scout.
Arenado struck out 14 times in 121 at-bats, a remarkably low total for a run producer, after totaling 53 strikeouts in 517 regular-season at-bats. He showed an ability to hit velocity and to stay on breaking ball, a scout said.
Its a very clean swing. The really good hitters stand out, and he stands out. For a kid his age, the way he hit with two strikes, stayed on breaking balls, was pretty impressive.
Reviews were more mixed on his defense, with one scout saying he moves around like an old man but another saying everything seems to come easy for him.
Arenados immediate future is tied to another member of the left side of Colorados infield, Ian Stewart. The Rockies sent Stewart, a former first-round pick, to the minor leagues twice last season to make a swing adjustment, but it did not seem to take, and some in the organization appear ready to move on, especially with Stewart entering his second arbitration year.
Team: Kansas City Royals
Position: Corner outfield
Draft: Third round, 2009
Myers participated in the Fall League for two reasons: to gain the at-bats he lost because of an early-season knee infection at Class AA Northwest Arkansas and also to get more reps in the outfield, his new position after being moved from catcher at the start of the year.
Myers hit .254.253.393 in 99 games in his first exposure to the Texas League, finishing with 23 doubles, eight home runs and 49 RBIs, and the injury probably had something to do with his down offensive season. In the Fall League, the right-handed-hitting Myers showed the smooth stroke that made him Baseball Americas 16th overall prospect entering the regular season, with 14 extra-base hits (four home runs) in 86 at-bats for division winner Surprise.
He hits the ball hard and hes young. Long lever. Hes athletic, one major league talent evaluator said.
Myers has not shown a lot of his power, but he was among the 10 youngest players at Class AA this season.
Theres a lot of hard contact to right-center, so he is the type of guy who could easily grow into it, a scout said.
One evaluator compared Myers to another catcher-turned-outfielder, Washingtons Jayson Werth, in body type and skill set, adding that Myers was a little less swing and miss.
Myers does not turn 21 until December. The Royals are set at the corner outfield spots, with Alex Gordon in left field and Jeff Francoeur and his two-year contract extension in right, so Myers is expected to start the season in the minor leagues, but he may have a short stay.
Players who showed advanced skill sets but probably need more seasoning: Atlanta catcher Christian Bethancourt, San Diego third baseman Jedd Gyorko, Pittsburgh outfielder Robbie Grossman, Texas third baseman Mike Olt, Toronto outfielder Anthony Gose and Chicago Cubs shortstopoutfielder Junior Lake.