Baseball has the Futures Game, annually showcasing the game's brightest prospects during All-Star Game festivities. Then there's the "Futures League" -- the Arizona Fall League, which puts elite young talent on extended display.
As a barometer, the sudden impact of this postseason loop is unmistakable. All one needs to do is glance at some of the AFL participants last fall who zoomed to the Majors this summer: Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Brandon Crawford.
Seven Pirates prospects spent six weeks on this fast track, which concluded its schedule on Thursday (the final act, the AFL Championship Game between Peoria and Salt River, comes up Saturday afternoon). All played as Scottsdale Scorpions, with various degrees of success.
Most intriguing were the performances of a trio who are eligible for exposure in next month's Rule 5 Draft, unless protected by being placed on the Pirates' 40-man roster. Right now, there are 34 on that roster, which must be filed by next Tuesday. However, not all six vacancies will be filled by promotions from the Minor Leagues. Teams normally keep a few openings for future trades or free-agent signings.
Right-hander Vic Black's AFL line is blatantly misleading: It shows that the reliever put up an ERA of 11.81 in 12 outings covering 10 2/3 innings. However, half of the 14 runs he allowed came in one two-third-inning glitch on Nov. 8 against Peoria. Remove that blotch, and his showing was in line with his eye-catching resume with Double-A Altoona: 1.65 ERA with 85 strikeouts in 51 games and 60 innings.
For better or for worse, Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington simply does not believe in having prospects skip a rung on the Minor League ladder but Black, a 2009 supplemental-round Draft pick who can push his fastball close to triple digits, could be in the big league picture by the second half of the 2013 season.
Right-handed starter Kyle Kaminska -- he accompanied Gaby Sanchez from Miami in last July's deal for Gorkys Hernandez -- built on his good first impression. He went 3-1 with a 1.61 ERA and 0.93 WHIP and continued to show tremendous command. The 24-year-old had 21 strikeouts versus four walks in 28 innings, this after a 22-to-2 ratio in 28 innings between Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis following the trade.
The third Rule 5-eligible will be a tough call -- and is a fascinating subject. You have to love the name -- Gift Ngoepe -- and the fact he hails from South Africa. But he has shown little offensive development -- he hit .232 at Advanced Class A Bradenton this season, his fourth with the organization, and .261 with Scottsdale. He's a smooth-fielding middle infielder, but the Bucs are loaded with that type of player.
The clock is ticking slower on the other four AFL participants, all of whom were drafted in 2010 and spent this past season with Double-A Altoona:
First baseman Matt Curry (.285 with 11 homers and 76 RBIs for Altoona) batted .253, with one homer, six RBIs and four stolen bases.
Outfielder Adalberto Santos (.340, with 17 steals and terrific plate discipline, drawing 32 walks with 39 strikeouts) hit .299 with one homer and 11 RBIs and was successful on nine of 10 steal attempts.
Right-hander Brandon Cumpton (12-11 with 3.84 ERA) made a noteworthy conversion to relief, putting up a 2.57 ERA in 11 appearances covering 14 innings.
Tyler Waldron (8-10, 4.89 with Bradenton and Altoona) another righty giving bullpen work a try after having started 62 of his 68 Minor League games, posted an ERA of 3.14 in 10 outings and 14 1/3 innings.