Arizona Fall League Preview
The Arizona Fall League season kicks off tomorrow – here’s more than you need to know about it.
The AFL is the brain child of Reds GM Walt Jocketty, who founded the league 20 years ago in 1992. It’s slowly morphed from giving overlooked or perhaps underrated players a look to providing top-flight competition for some of baseball’s best prospects. This is the league that top draft picks from Danny Hultzen, Stephen Strasburg, Gerrit Cole, Bryce Harper and Dustin Ackley have made their professional debuts in, and it’s been an important showcase for top prospects like Wil Myers, Oscar Taveras, Mike Trout, Starlin Castro, Buster Posey and Matt Wieters. It’s also a last chance for clubs to evaluate players who will need to be added to the 40-man roster (and thus may be available on waivers/in the Rule 5 draft); the most famous of these was Dan Uggla who turned a solid AFL season in 2005 into a shot with the Florida Marlins the next year (he had been with the Royals, but what would the Royals want with Dan Uggla?).
The season runs from October 9th through November 15th with six teams playing 32 games each. Each team is made up of players from a five or six MLB organizations; the M’s players always play for the Peoria Javelinas. As in previous years, the M’s have a representative not only on the field, but on the coaching staff, as AA Jackson Pitching Coach Lance Painter will hold the same role for the Javelinas. Painter’s been perhaps the most effective member of the M’s instructional group over the past couple of years, as he’s taught a cutter/slider to several pitchers including Stephen Pryor and Andrew Carraway.
JY’s gone over the M’s contributions to the Javelinas roster here, but the big names are clearly Mike Zunino and James Paxton. The former is looking to build on a brilliant season in the minors and add to his case to start 2013 with the M’s. Paxton wants to show that his post-injury command improvements were real, and that he’s capable of being a real option for the M’s rotation at some point in 2013. Zunino will split time with Tommy Joseph, the ex-Giants farmhand who moved to Philadelphia in the Hunter Pence trade.
Nick Franklin is back for his second tour of duty, having played sporadically in the AFL last year. He’s going to split time with the splendidly named Didi Gregorius of the Reds, the Dutch phenom who made his MLB debut last month after starting the year in A+. Gregorius didn’t exactly set the world on fire at the plate, but is capable of fielding plays like this one (2:30 in the video). The two won’t have to share time with the Reds’ Billy Hamilton, as the speedster is moving to center field for the AFL. Hamilton set the all-time pro record with a staggering 155 steals in just 132 games this year.
The M’s are also sending Stefen Romero and Vinnie Catricala – two bat-first players still looking for a permanent position. Romero had an eye-opening 2012, destroying both the Cal League and the Southern League playing mostly 2B, with some 3B thrown in. Catricala had a strikingly similar season to Romero’s in 2011, when the 3B blew through the Cal League and then posted better stats in AA. He came very close to making the M’s out of spring training and then posted a terrible 2012 with AAA Tacoma – an OPS of .640 and a wOBA under .290 – while moving between 3B and LF. With the emergence of Kyle Seager at 3B (and Alex Liddi’s presence in the org), Catricala may need to play LF at the big league level, but that puts even more pressure on his bat. Romero’s path is theoretically blocked by Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager, but he’s played some OF in the minors and could end up there as well, but fundamentally, these guys need to hit.
The other M’s players are relievers, as Carson Smith, Bobby LaFromboise and Logan Bawcom join a deep and talented staff with the Javelinas. Bawcom came over in the Brandon League trade and saw his command leave him a bit, as he posted nearly equal BBs and Ks with Jackson. He’s a low-90s FB guy with a good slider who went from being an org player to a middle-tier prospect in the Dodger organization before the trade. LaFromboise made a big leap this year, going from a guy who profiled solely as a LOOGY to one who profiles as a *successful* LOOGY. His stats are better across the board in 2012, though it’s worth noting that’s in part the result of facing fewer RHBs. Still, he’s another player who turned his career around after working with Painter in Jackson. Carson Smith is a very hard-throwing right hander the M’s got with an over-slot bonus in 2011. With his velocity and a move to the bullpen, he was one of the young fireballers that many (including me) thought would move quickly in 2012. A dreadful start to the season (along with Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor’s emergence) delayed him a bit, but he clearly figured something out, and was essentially unhittable in the second half of the year for High Desert.
I’d guess Smith will compete for the closer spot with the Padres’ Kevin Quackenbush, another righty who dominated the Cal League during 2012. The fly-balling right-hander gave up only 1 HR and put up an ERA under 1 in the hitters’ paradise, with 70 Ks in 57 2/3 IP. The former 8th round pick hasn’t posted an ERA over 1 in his two MiLB seasons, and while ERA sucks as a metric, I mean…under 1. A low-90s fastball and a tricky delivery make him death on a stick to right-handed bats, so while his ceiling isn’t as high as a Smith or Capps, Quackenbush could play a role in a MLB bullpen. The Padres are also sending Matt Stites, who also posted a sub-1.00 ERA this year, but did so while allowing 3 HRs in the pitcher-friendly Midwest league.
Other random notes: I always geek out for the AFL, because it’s a chance to get hard data on what minor leaguers throw. That’s because two parks in the AFL – Peoria and Surprise – come equipped with pitch fx systems, and you can grab the pitch fx data from gameday. The caveat here, and one I’ve learned the hard way, is that Peoria’s data in particular is really, really wonky. The velocity and pitch types aren’t bad, but the movement data is pretty weird.
Several players who played in the AFL in 2011 have made their MLB debuts, including Adam Eaton, Bryce Harper, Mike Olt, Jean Segura, Derek Norris, Anthony Gose, and David Phelps.
Dave would remind everyone that this is first and foremost a hitters’ league, both because of where it’s played and because many clubs don’t send top pitchers to the AFL. Sure, Hultzen and Cole played last year, but in general, the point stands – there are a lot more of the “do we want to spend a 40-man spot on this guy?” pitchers than there are true top prospects, and that’s led to some so-so prospects putting up amazing batting lines. So don’t get too carried away by the numbers, as some of the league leaders have included Brent Morel, Mike McDade, Colin Curtis, Rhyne Hughes, Corey Wimberley and Kevin Howard. Even the pitchers can surprise, and I still remember thinking that Clint Nageotte had turned a corner with a brilliant AFL following his first surgery (he hadn’t, as it turned out). All of that said, it’s pretty amazing how often an “out of nowhere” player has some AFL stats on his resume. Kris Medlen? Check. Sergio Romo? Check. Steve Cishek? Heck, even Doug Fister, if he counts as “out of nowhere.
Peoria begins its AFL season tomorrow just after lunchtime. Follow along at MLB.com/gameday. Later this week, the Venezuelan League kicks off, as the Lara Cardenales take the field behind manager Pedro Grifol and hitting coach Jose Castro – both of who were fired/did not have their contracts renewed by the Mariners. The rest of the coaching staff there, including pitching coach Andrew Lorraine, are still M’s employees. Probably sounds more awkward than it actually is.