The Arizona Fall League gets crankin' on Tuesday and it has become a purrrretty hot ticket. Not so much for fans, there ain't a lot of folks at these contests, but for front office folks, scouts, and various other personnel decision makers it's a really good chance to get a look at some upper level prospects. The AFL began in 1992 and features 6 teams playing games over 40 days. Each big league organization sends 7 or 8 players to fill the squads and all the players are on the same team with the other guys from their parent club. In the case of the Rangers' prospects they are all proud members of the Surprise Saguaros! The real allure though, frankly, isn't for the fans or the team employees; it's for the players. Over the years, an AFL invitation has grown in prestige and now it's a pretty big deal. Many of the players have AA experience or above, and are thought of highly by their clubs. Other AFL players might not be as big of a perceived prospect, but they've shown something that makes them more than an organizational filler. And, well, a few are organizational players, but they're advanced org players which makes them way better at baseball than us. Everybody is there to get some work in and improve, because while some of these guys are the best prospects in the game, none of them are big league regulars... yet.
A great resource is MLB's (they own and operate the league) official AFL website: http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/events/afl/ scores, stats, standings (who cares!), even a shop so you can get one of those cool Saguaros hats.
They also have a very active Twitter account: @MLBazFallLeague
It's a good feed full of updates and a little bit of clutter, but I'm certainly the last person who should talk about a Twitter feed sending out a bit of clutter.
Now then, let's chat a bit about the contingent of fellas Texas has sent out to the desert:
Jorge Alfaro is a 28 year old, left-handed middle relief prospect coming off his 3rd Tommy John surgery. Just kidding. He's a 20 year-old beast who'll begin his life of running with the big dogs here. He missed a bit of time this season with a broken hand from a HBP, but still got in 113 contests. Despite finishing the season by appearing in 3 games with Myrtle Beach, this will be a big step up for the young Colombian both at the plate and behind it. Jorge is one of the youngest players in the whole league and the pitchers he'll be catching will be as good as any he's ever done so for up to this point. AFL teams carry 4 catchers, so don't expect him as the backstop more than a couple/few times a week, but he's there for the experience. Perhaps more so than other prospects who have already waded into the upper levels, this is a chance for Jorge to see advanced pitching and to learn how to lay off, pull the ball, develop a 2-strike approach, or sit on a pitch. Behind the plate, this is a chance for him to see curveballs that fall in for called strikes, and offspeed pitches that fade, and to work on his footwork, and to establish a big target, and how to catch the ball- every time. It's a process and he's knee-deep in it. Jorge hits a double for the birds:
Will Lamb is a 6'6" 195lb left hander who turned 23 in September. He made 39 appearances out of the pen this season for Myrtle Beach while starting 1 game. That's 'bout to change. He told me a month or so ago, that the plan is to stretch him out as a starter. He lowered his arm slot a bit this season and it seemed to have good results as his comfort level grew. I'm anxious to see how things go for him in Surprise, because a 6'6" left hander who works hard and can throw hard will always draw some attention. New arm slot:
Ryan Rua is 23. You already know that- because everybody mentions it. Nothing the kid can do about his age. He did what he had to in the Sally for Hickory, which was to look like he needed to move up. Ryan leapfrogged Myrtle Beach and played the last month of the season in Frisco. After scuffling for a couple of weeks, Ryan found some footing in the last shards of the season and hit a couple of mammoth homers (including a walk-off grand slam) with his big, long swing. He can play 2B, 3B, and even a little LF. I like to think of him as a bit Jeff Baker-ish, and if that works out and he spends time in the bigs in a similar role, it'll be because he's versatile and can occasionally plug one well over the fence. Walk-off moonshot:
Nick McBride went on a pretty wild ride in 2013. Began the year in Myrtle Beach, was thrown up to Round Rock for a game, was sent back to Frisco, before ending the season back in Myrtle Beach. The 22 year-old former 5th rounder never got into much of a rhythm this season, as he moved from starter to reliever to starter to reliever. Anyway, Nick's not a guy who's gonna overpower anybody, so he's gonna go to Arizona and continue to develop the ability to throw strikes- quality strikes. Got hit around a bit in Frisco, so the ability to miss the middle third is a direct imperative for him. Big frame (6'4" 180lbs), and a durable arm, so he just needs to throw good strikes and things could work out well for him.
Brett Nicholas was born and raised in Phoenix, so the AFL invitation was a very welcome one. The 25 year old had a helluva year in Frisco. .289/.357/.474 with 21 homers. I chatted with him the day the AFL invites were announced and he was not only excited to get to play in front of family and friends as a professional, but he mentioned playing other positions as well. Primarily a 1B over his first 3 seasons, the 2010 6th rounder has also started 78 games at catcher, including 13 this season for Frisco. He, like Rua, understands his versatility is likely the path to getting a chance in the bigs and Brett embraces that challenge. He's hits left handed with some pop, gets on base a lot, and can occasionally play catcher...that's why he's going to Surprise. Here's a homer off Keyvius Sampson to score Craig Gentry for the only hit Frisco had that day: (The great Alex Vispoli on the call, unaided by nasaly, fill-in guy)
Ryan Harvey has a chance to be next year's Randy Henry. By that I mean a reliever who flies under the radar because he's a reliever, but a reliever who has a chance to be a reliever in the big leagues where relievers are important and can make a lot of money. Got it? The 22 year-old taken out of Seton Hall in the 2012 draft, has a swing and miss pitch. Ryan's slider has filthy potential. His mission is simple, improve command. The nasty slider can get him to the show because it's has genuine "out-pitch" potential, but only if he doesn't walk a lot of guys. The AFL will be a good challenge for the 2013 Myrtle Beach Pelican as the hitters are more advanced than the A-ball dudes he squared off against all season. They'll wait until you throw a strike or they'll just take a free pass. I believe in the kid and I've sorta hitched a wagon of mini-hype to him, so don't let me down Harvey. Got it?
Matt West is the one many of you will be most curious about. Matt last pitched in a competitive game on August 12th...2012. 10 days later he had Tommy John surgery. Frankly, we have no idea what kind of a pitcher he's going to be when the uniforms go on and the hitters are big and real. As you saw with Feliz and many others, velocity isn't back quickly. It's a process for the hard throwers and Matt is most certainly a hard thrower. The converted 3B only began pitching in 2011, so it's not like he's got years worth of muscle memory to fall back on either. The wipeout slider we saw glimpses of? It could return. The upper-90s heat? Same story. I'm not anticipating seeing those at their finest until Spring Training, but this is a good time to get back on the mound. He'll be 25 in November, and as you know, he's on the 40-man roster, so the clock is ticking for the former 2nd round pick from Houston.
So there you have it, 7 guys goin' out to the desert looking for a magic elixir that'll propel them to a previously unimagined high. Happens every year.
Enjoy - offseason - baseball! Love Ya!