The prestigious Arizona Fall League begins tomorrow (October 8th), as some of the best and brightest stars of baseball’s future take to the fields in Arizona. Every MLB organization is represented by seven or eight players on one of six teams in the league that will be playing on the spring training fields. It is a great place to check out the game’s up-and-coming talent, especially considering the games usually draw less than 1,000 fans.
The KC Royals contingent will be a part of the Peoria Javelinas, who are the defending AFL champions. The Javelinas will be playing in Surprise as the Peoria Complex is undergoing renovations for the 2014 spring training slate. The Javelinas get started tomorrow on the road against Surprise. On Wednesday, they “host” the Saguaros followed up by another home game against Scottsdale. Peoria’s first real road game comes on Friday, as they head to Salt River to play the Rafters.
The Royals are sending some interesting players to the AFL this season, two of which are there for the second consecutive season. One of those is shortstop Orlando Calixte, who was on the taxi squad last year (could only play twice a week). During the regular season in Double-A, he hit .250 with 25 doubles and eight home runs. However, he struck out 131 times in 484 at-bats, which was in the top five in the Texas League. On the positive side, the shortstop only made 16 errors this season, compared to the 46 he committed in 2012. He also played 11 games at third base (two errors) and two games at second base.
The other is reliever Malcom Culver, who is coming off a great season in High-A Wilmington, where he was one of the Carolina League’s top relievers. He finished out the 2013 regular season with a two-inning scoreless stint in Double-A. Opponents hit just .182 against him in the CL and he struck out 76 in 84 innings.
The bromance is set to continue in the AFL between starter Jason Adam and outfielder Lane Adams. Adam is an interesting pick for the AFL considering the amount of innings he has already thrown in his short career. In 2012, he threw 158 innings, which was 54 more than the previous season (which was his first professional season). In 2013, he threw 144 innings in 26 starts. Adam was also very inconsistent (eight runs over 2.1 innings in one start and seven 4-hit innings in the next). Meanwhile, Adams had a solid start back in Wilmington (.276 with 23 doubles and seven home runs), before playing in 44 games in NW Arkansas (.244 with 45 strikeouts). Even though he struggled in the promotion, he was promoted to Triple-A Omaha for the postseason and started every game. He is a huge reason why the Storm Chasers are Triple-A Champions.
Cuban Noel Arguelles continues to struggle in professional ball and missed another huge chunk of the season due to injury. He was rehabbing in rookie ball at the end of the season. He was just 1-8 with a 5.93 ERA in Double-A before being shut down. He walked 53 in 71.1 innings and opponents hit .269 against him.
Cheslor Cuthbert started the 2013 season back in Wilmington and hit .280 with 21 doubles in 60 games before a promotion to NW Arkansas. There, he struggled to hit just .215 with 16 doubles and six home runs in 64 games. His strikeouts rose to 51 (compared to 37 in Wilmington). After committing 11 errors in Wilmington, he made 14 after the promotion. The 25 errors is up a bit from 2012 (20).
The final two members of the Royals missed a good portion of the season due to injury. Starter Angel Baez broke his hand and went on the DL in Wilmington on April 24th after just three starts and did not return to the Blue Rocks until August 9th. He made five starts at the end of the season and went at least five innings in each. His best start was on August 27th against Myrtle Beach, when he allowed one hit over six scoreless innings.
Outfielder Jorge Bonifacio broke the hamate bone in his left hand and went on the Blue Rocks DL on May 14th. He did not return until July 8th, but hit .296 with 11 doubles, three triples, and two home runs in 206 at-bats. He did strike out 40 times. Bonifacio was then promoted to Double-A on July 29th and hit .301 with seven doubles and two home runs in 25 games before ending the season on the DL (his last game was August 27th after one at-bat).
Here is a look at some key dates for this AFL season:
- Philadelphia Phillies slugger Ryan Howard will be officially inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame on October 9th at Scottsdale Stadium. There have been rumors that he may play during this AFL season as part of his rehab from injury.
- New to the AFL this season is the Bowman Hitting Challenge, which will take place on October 12th (on a rare Saturday off). A hitter from each organization will have two minutes to hit live pitching and accumulate points much like the Eastern League HR Derby in Reading back in 2012.
- November 2nd is the annual Rising Stars All-Star Game, which will take place in Surprise. It is usually televised on MLB Network, but no word yet about this year’s game.
- On November 9th, Peoria will play at Salt Lake in the annual Military Appreciation Game.
- The AFL season wraps up on November 16th with the Championship Game at Scottsdale Stadium.
Okay, so enough about the Royals. How about the rest of the league and what players you should be interested in checking out?
MLB.com contributors Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo picked two players (a pitcher and a hitter) to watch. Callis chose Kris Bryant, who was the Chicago Cubs top pick this June out of San Diego. He hit .336 with nine home runs and 32 RBIs in 36 games. His pitcher to watch is Danny Hultzen of Seattle, but he just had shoulder surgery and most likely will not pitch in the AFL. Mayo selected Delino DeShields of Houston as his hitter to watch. The speedster hit .317 with 50 stolen bases in the hitter friendly California League. He will be making a move to centerfield. Marcus Stroman of the Toronto Blue Jays is his pitcher to watch. He had a 3.30 ERA over 111.1 innings and opponents hit just .234 against him. Stroman struck out 10.4 per nine and walked just 2.2 per nine.
I like Mayo’s pick of Stroman and not just because I cover him for my Duke site here at Aerys. I had the chance to see him pitch in person while he was with Double-A New Hampshire this season and I walked away completely impressed (but he is an even better person than a pitcher). Go check him out pitching for the Salt River Rafters.
The Glendale Desert Dogs will be represented by the LA Dodgers, the Miami Marlins, the Cincinnati Reds, the Minnesota Twins, and the Chicago White Sox. The White Sox have a few interesting players in the AFL. Can outfielder Jared Mitchell get back on track after being their first round pick in 2009? He hit just .167 in 2013 with 123 strikeouts in 90 games after hitting just .237 in 2012. Shortstop Marcus Semien was voted the Southern League’s MVP after hitting .290 with 15 home runs and 49 RBIs in 105 games. He would then play in 32 games in Triple-A and then 21 games in the big leagues (.261). Can Semien build on his first callup and prove that he deserves a LONG look in spring training?
The Twins are sending hurlers Alex Meyer and Trevor May, both of who were acquired in offseason trades and spent the 2013 season in Double-A New Britain. When healthy, Meyer had a solid season (3.21 ERA with 84 strikeouts), but only pitched 70 innings in Double-A. May threw 151.2 innings and struck out 159. He was up-and-down, especially in the second half and finished with a 4.51 ERA and opponents hit .256.
The Surprise Saguaros are represented by the Milwaukee Brewers, Cleveland Indians, Baltimore Orioles, Texas Rangers, and Boston Red Sox. The O’s have to decide who will play second base in the big leagues. Prospect Jonathon Schoop could be the guy. He only played in 70 games in Triple-A due to a back injury that also hampered him after his September big league callup (4-for-15 with a homer in his debut). There may also be an open spot in left field in the O’s lineup in 2014 and Cuban Henry Urrutia could earn the spot with a solid AFL showing and spring training. He blew through the minor leagues in his first taste of professional ball (.347 with 21 doubles, eight home runs, and 50 RBIs combined in 314 at-bats at two levels) before hitting .276 in the big leagues. Eduardo Rodgriguez dominated in High-A Frederick (2.82 ERA in 14 starts with 66 strikeouts in 85.1 innings), but struggled a bit after a Double-A promotion (4.22 ERA in 11 starts, though opponents only hit .237 against him). The O’s rotation let them down in 2013 and Rodriguez could see time in 2014.
The Red Sox have the best record in baseball and are sending some interesting players to the AFL, two who are trying to re-establish themselves as prospects. First baseman Travis Shaw hit .305 in High-A Salem in 2012 before a promotion to Double-A. After that promotion, he has struggled to hit much over .220. In 2013, he did hit 21 doubles and 16 home runs, to go along with 50 RBIs, but struck out 117 times in 444 at-bats. Shortstop/second baseman Derrik Gibson was a second round pick in 2008 out of a Delaware high school and hit .290 in rookie ball in 2009. However, he finally hit a respectable .250 this season in Double-A.
Mookie Betts was one of the minor league’s top players, as he hit .341 after a promotion to High-A in helping Salem win the Carolina League title. Garin Cecchini was leading the CL in hitting at .350 before his promotion to Double-A, where he hit .296 and had a .420 on-base percentage (51 walks compared to 52 strikeouts). Reliever Noe Ramirez may be on the fast track to the Fenway Park bullpen, as he blew through two levels of the Red Sox system. He walked just 17 in 75.2 minor league innings while striking out 75. Opponents hit just .236 against him, just .218 by Double-A hitters. Starter Keith Couch may get overlooked in the rotation wherever he is because of the bigger prospect names around him. However, with Double-A Portland, he went 11-3 with a 3.47 ERA in 129.2 innings.
*Sorry about all the Red Sox love. I saw all of their AFL representatives this season in the minors and quite a few impressed me.
There are more than just Royals representing the Peoria Javelinas. Players from the Houston Astros, Seattle Mariners, San Diego Padres, and Philadelphia Phillies will be a part of the team.
The Phillies are sending some players who had very subpar seasons. One of them is lefty Austin Wright, who was great in 2012, but bombed in 2013 with Double-A Reading whether he was starting or relieving (5.92 ERA with 13 homers allowed and 59 walks in 94.1 innings). The Phillies hope that Cameron Rupp may be the answer next season behind the plate, but a thumb injury limited his playing time towards the end of the season. He hit .258 between their two upper levels with 14 homers. Reliever Mike Nesseth could sneak in and steal one of those bullpen spots with competition being wide open. In 35 games in Double-A, he had just a 1.64 ERA in 35 games. In seven Triple-A games, he allowed an unearned run on two hits in seven innings.
The Mesa Solar Sox will be represented by the LA Angels, the Oakland A’s, the Chicago Cubs, the Washington Nationals, and the Detroit Tigers. The Angels are sending three intriguing players to the AFL, including College World Series hero Michael Roth (South Carolina). Roth actually made 15 appearances in the big league this season and could steal a starting job next season. CJ Cron hit 14 home runs and drove in 83 runs while playing first base in the Texas League. He also had 35 doubles, while hitting .274. Cam Bedrosian, the son of a former big leaguer and the former first round pick of the Angels in 2010, is fighting to get back into the prospect talk after missing all of 2011 with Tommy John surgery. This season, he struck out 78 in 63 innings and had seven saves and took off once he moved to the bullpen.
Former Royal Blaine Hardy will be representing the Tigers and deserves it. At their two upper levels, he carried just a 1.67 ERA in 91.2 innings. Opponents hit just .190 against him. Outfielder Tyler Collins hit 21 home runs in Double-A and could be a power option for the Tigers in the future. However, he hit just .240 with 122 strikeouts in 466 at-bats. Devon Travis had a very good collegiate career at Florida State and the Tigers selected him in the 13th round in 2012. He has hit ever since. In 2013 at two levels, he hit .351 with 28 doubles and 16 home runs. He also walks alot (53 times compared to 64 strikeouts in 504 at-bats).
The Nationals have two outfielders on the roster, one looking to build on 2013 and the other looking to regain his prospect status. Steven Souza hit .300 in Double-A with 23 doubles and 15 home runs. He even had 20 stolen bases while hitting in the middle of the Harrisburg order. Oh and he has a pretty good arm in right field. Brian Goodwin would like to forget the regular season, as he hit .252, but missed time due to injury. He did however hit for extra bases: 19 doubles, 11 triples, and 10 homers. He needs to work on his stolen base rate (19 stolen bases, but he was caught 11 times).
The Salt River Rafters will be represented by the Toronto Blue Jays, the St.Louis Cardinals, the Arizona Diamondbacks, the TB Rays, and the Colorado Rockies. A few players on this team are looking to build innings after suffering injuries. One of them is Drew Hutchison of the Blue Jays. He came back around midseason from TJS and made ten appearances (nine starts) totaling just 35.1 innings. Another is former Royal Mike Montgomery of the Rays. He made 20 appearances (19 starts) in Triple-A Durham, totaling 108.2 innings. Opponents hit .268 against him while walking 48.
Shortstop Nick Ahmed was one of the best shortstops I had seen in 2012 with High-A Lynchburg, but Atlanta traded him to the DBacks in the offseason. He played in the AFL Rising Stars Game last year and is looking to get back on track after hitting just .236 in Double-A with his new team. He did have 21 doubles and 26 stolen bases. With all of the injuries to third baseman Evan Longoria, many think the Rays may move him to first base in the near future to save his career. That means Richie Shaffer needs to rebound from a .254, 104 strikeout season in High-A. He also committed 18 errors in his first full season.
Former Royal Cole White, who was released earlier in 2013, had a solid season in the Texas League with Tulsa (Rockies). He had 19 saves in 38 games. The walks are a little high (33 combined), so I am sure he will be working on his command.
With Carlos Beltran set to be a free agent and Matt Holliday being a suspect fielder, James Ramsey could get a shot in 2014 in the Cardinals outfield. He played at three levels in 2013 after being a first round pick in 2012 out of Florida State. He hit .361 at High-A before hitting .251 in Double-A. The strikeouts were really high after his promotion (108 in 93 games).
The Scottsdale Scorpions are represented by the Atlanta Braves, SF Giants, NY Mets, Pittsburgh Pirates, and NY Yankees. Jameson Taillon is the big name on this team. The big Canadian of the Pirates had a solid season over their two upper levels (3.73 ERA over 26 appearances). In 147.1 innings, he struck out 143 and opponents hit .249 against him. Outfielder Alex Dickerson could be knocking on the Pirates door in 2014 after hitting .288 in Double-A. He hit 36 doubles and 17 home runs with 68 RBIs.
The Yankees are sending Tyler Austin to play first base exclusively and to get more at-bats. After returning from a wrist injury late in the season, Austin carried Double-A Trenton to the Eastern League title. He hit .257 overall with 17 doubles, six homers, and 40 RBIs. He walked 41 times in 319 at-bats. Outfielder Mason Williams has tons of tools, but struggled putting them altogether after a promotion to Double-A. However, he looked like former Thunder outfielder Austin Jackson in the postseason. Starter Vidal Nuno is looking to build innings after only throwing 45 combined between Triple-A and the big leagues. If healthy, he could slide into the Yankees rotation next season.
Braves outfielder Robby Hefflinger broke out in 2013 with High-A Lynchburg, as he hit .286 with 17 doubles, 21 home runs, and 52 RBIs. However, he struggled in 53 games after his promotion to Double-A (.170). The Braves know how to develop pitching and Aaron Northcraft is yet another coming up through their farm system. In 26 starts in Double-A, he was 8-8 with a 3.42 ERA in 137 innings. He struck out 121 after leading the CL in Ks in 2012 with 160.
Which player are you looking forward to seeing in the AFL? Let me know!