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Buxton's return highlights AFL season

Several storylines to keep your eye on in Arizona during Fall League
October 6, 2014

Call it the season after the season.

Some of baseball's best prospects -- seven from each of the 30 Major League organizations to be exact -- have been split up into six teams that will square off against each other in the Arizona Fall League, set to start Tuesday. Players are sent to the AFL for a variety of reasons -- additional playing time after an injury-laden season, an exciting challenge against top talent before the offseason, etc. -- one thing is for sure: it's a graduate school of sorts for players to prove themselves before potentially joining the ranks of the big leagues in the near future. 

With that in mind, here are some of the top storylines to watch during the upcoming AFL season:

1. Buxton's back: There's no doubt that 2014 was a lost season for Byron Buxton. That doesn't mean it has to end on a sour note, though.

The consensus top overall prospect in the game played in only 31 games this season between the Twins' Class A Advanced and Double-A affiliates due to wrist injuries early in the season and a concussion sustained in an outfield collision in his first game with New Britain on Aug. 13. The 20-year-old outfielder, who didn't receive a grade from lower than 60 on the 20-80 scale for any of his five tools, was free from concussion symptoms last month and has been given the green light to make up for lost time down in Arizona, where he'll play for Salt River. 

This will be Buxton's second straight trip to the AFL. The Twins decided to challenge their top prospect after a breakout 2013 season (.334/.424/.520, 49 extra-base hits, 55 steals) by sending the then-19-year-old to Glendale, where he batted .212 (11-for-52) with three homers in 12 games. This return trip will be a chance to prove, first, what he's capable of when healthy as a plus batter with tons of speed and a fantastic center fielder, and second, why he's still considered the top prospect in the game. 

2. Castillo continues catching up: The Red Sox inked Cuban center fielder Rusney Castillo to a seven-year, $72.5-million contract back in late August, and ever since, it's been a rush to get him as many at-bats as possible ahead of his first full season stateside in 2015.

Castillo, who, before signing, hadn't played in an official game since 2013, was sent to the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Red Sox, Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket for their respective playoff runs and participated in 11 games between the three levels, going 12-for-37 (.324) with a homer, four doubles and two steals in his first Minor League foray. Upon joining the big club on Sept. 17, the right-handed slugger continued to show a good bat in a short time, finishing with a .333/.400/.528 line with two homers, a double and six RBIs in 10 games. 

At 27, the center fielder will be one of the oldest AFL participants this season, but he remains one of the more intriguing names as the Red Sox and the rest of the baseball world get more time to evaluate of his skills against promising competition. Castillo is expected to move to Puerto Rico in November for more at-bats in Winter Ball. 

Rusney Castillo continues to acclimate to stateside baseball with the Surprise Saguaros. (Louriann Mardo-Zayat)

3. Bell moves to first: Josh Bell broke out with a .325/.375/.459 line, nine homers, four triples and 20 doubles in 108 games between Class A Advanced Bradenton and Double-A Altoona this season and was rewarded by moving up to No. 3 in's ranking of outfield prospects. His other reward? The Pirates are moving him out of the outfield and over to first base for a trial while he's with Scottsdale in the AFL. 

The Bucs seem to already have their outfield of the future in 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen, budding star Starling Marte and talented younster Gregory Polanco. Each of those players are signed through at least 2017, and it's expected that Bell, who is seen as an average defender in the outfield, will be ready for the big time by then. As it stands, the 22-year-old switch-hitter's best chances to crack the big leagues in the future are at first, a position where Pittsburgh struggled to find consistency in 2014.

It's important to note that this experiment might not work, but it is an opportunity for Bell to open some Major doors for his future this fall. 

4. Appel, Bradley put struggles in past? This past season was supposed to be a big one for both Mark Appel and Archie Bradley. For Appel, it was his first full season in the Minors after being taken first overall by the Astros in 2013. For Bradley, it was expected that he'd have a starting Major League job with the D-backs at some point. 

But nothing went according to script. 

Appel put up a 9.74 ERA in 12 starts (44 1/3 IP) at Class A Advanced Lancaster and was only moved to Double-A Corpus Christi at the end of July when he showed some signs of a turnaround. (He finished on a stronger note with a 3.69 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 39 innings with the Hooks.) Bradley,'s No. 9 overall prospect, started the season at Triple-A Reno but missed two months with elbow soreness from April 26 to June 26. Upon his return, he moved back to Double-A Mobile and stayed there the rest of the season as command concerns (5.9 BB/9) kept him from climbing back up the ladder.

Both talented right-handers have shots at building a little bit of momentum in the offseason when they tack on a few more innings while joining Buxton at Salt River.

Rosters:  Glendale  |  Mesa  |  Peoria  |  Salt River  |  Scottsdale  |  Surprise

5. Seager eager for second go-round:  Look at Corey Seager's numbers since the Dodgers took him in the first round back in 2012 -- for instance, his .349/.402/.602 line with 20 homers and 97 RBIs this season between Class A Advanced Rancho Cucamonga and Double-A Chattanooga -- and it's difficult to imagine a time when he's struggled against his fellow prospects. But it did happen in last year's AFL, when the Dodgers challenged their talented shortstop there at age 19. The lefty-hitting slugger went 13-for-72 (.181) with two homers, three doubles and 25 strikeouts in 19 games with Glendale.

The organization chalked those results, or lack thereof, up to a level of exhaustion after his first full season in the Minors, and now with two strong campaigns under his belt, there's no reason to believe that Seager can't be one of the big stars on the circuit.

"I think he was tired last year, his first full year, in the Cal League and the [Arizona] Fall League," Dodgers vice president of amateur scouting Logan White told's Josh Jackson. "People said, 'Oh, he really struggled in the Fall League.' Whatever. I wasn't worried. I think it was the first-year fatigue factor. He was getting an understanding of the pro game, getting his feet wet.

"His makeup is a 10. His makeup as a position player, it's comparable to Kershaw as a pitcher. I know that's a lot to say, but at the same stage, I thought Kershaw's makeup is a 10. Corey's makeup is fantastic like that. He doesn't panic, doesn't get too high, doesn't get too low. He gets the most out of his tools, and his tools are really, really good."

6. Glasnow takes on big stage:  Tyler Glasnow has turned a lot of heads since the Pirates took him in the fifth round in 2011, and the 2014 season was no different. In fact, it was arguably his best season yet. The 21-year-old right-hander went 12-5 with a 1.74 ERA and ranked eighth in the Minors with 157 strikeouts over 124 1/3 innings for Class A Advanced Bradenton. That K total could have gone even higher had he not missed most of April due to back issues. 

If there's one caveat to Glasnow's dominant 2014, it's that it only came at one level in the Florida State League because the Pirates chose continued success over a bump to Double-A Altoona during the season. In the AFL, however, the 6-foot-7 hurler, who has a mid-90s fastball with a complementary curveball and changeup, will have a chance to prove he can handle some of the best prospects the game has to offer when he takes the mound for Scottsdale. If he can continue to rack up strikeouts in high numbers, chances are his stock will continue to rise, which is saying something considering he went from No. 27 on's preseason ranking of prospects to No. 16 following a midseason update. 

7. Picking up the pace of play: This wouldn't be an AFL preview if we didn't mention the new pace-of-game initiatives that will be instituted at this year's Fall League, a circuit that often serves as a test run for new ideas, such as the challenge system last year. Here are the major changes you can expect to see this fall.

Intentional walks will no longer require pitches but will rather go into effect when the manager signals to the home-plate umpire that he wants the opposing batter to take first base. Batters have to keep at least one foot inside the batter's box while at the plate, with exceptions for a foul ball, an errant pitch, a request for time among others. Pitching changes can last, at the most, two minutes and 30 seconds. Teams will be allowed only three timeouts or pitching conferences during the course of a game. The pitcher must deliver a pitch at most 20 seconds after his previous one. In Salt River games only, there will be a clock in both dugouts, in the outfield and behind home to help give players and coaches an idea of the time limits.

But just because these initiatives will be tested in the AFL, that doesn't necessarily mean they'll be instituted in the Majors in 2015 or any time soon. Baseball tested similar measures in the AFL in 1994, but didn't bring them up to the big leagues. It'll be interesting to see if any of them have a significant enough impact to stick this time around.

Other storylines to follow: 

• The Royals' Kyle Zimmer (tendinitis, lat injury) and the Cubs' C.J. Edwards (shoulder) are top pitching prospects in their respective systems who saw their stock drop when neither was able to come close to triple-digits in innings due to injuries. Both right-handers have electric fastballs and shouldn't have much of a leash on them in the AFL when they suit up for Peoria and Mesa respectively. Opposing batters beware.

• There will be no lack of depth at the shortstop position in the AFL this season. Other than Seager, Francisco Lindor (Indians, Peoria), Addison Russell (Cubs, Mesa), Raul Mondesi (Royals, Peoria), Tim Anderson (White Sox, Glendale), Daniel Robertson (A's, Mesa) and Trea Turner (Padres, Surprise) each can be found at or near the top of their respective organizations' prospect rankings and will showcase their talents in the Grand Canyon State. One to keep an eye on in particular, however, should be Rangers shortstop Michael De Leon, who will become the AFL's first ever 17-year-old when he suits up for Surprise. The youthful switch-hitter owned a .248/.307/.314 line in 93 games while playing mostly at Class A Hickory this season.

Peter O'Brien didn't get much of a chance to make a first impression in August when the D-backs acquired him from the Yankees in the Martin Prado deal. The powerful catcher/first baseman had already set a career high with 33 homers in 72 games in the Yankees system but managed only four games with Arizona's Double-A affiliate in Mobile before fouling a ball off his shin on Aug. 6. He didn't return after that. As such, the AFL should represent a chance for the 24-year-old right-handed slugger to show off his power in his new organization's backyard. O'Brien homered four times in 16 games last season in the AFL, but batted only .190 in that span.

Sam Dykstra is a contributor to