Raising Arizona – The Fall League Edition

I love the Arizona Fall League. It’s basically a meaningless showcase for scouts, held in near obscurity for tens of fans somewhere in the desert during the Major League playoffs. Despite all that, it’s also a welcome distraction for an October that’s not as fun as we all hoped it would be. Plus, it’s where we got our first professional looks at Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon. Now that the signing deadline of new draftees has moved from August to July, most big prospects break in with a rookie league or A-ball team for the last month of the season, but when the deadline was August, the minor league season was wrapping up which left the wonderfully obscure AFL as the only game in town for these guys. Lots of those guys still show up in Arizona, albeit without that new car smell. But that doesn’t really matter. In fact, not much about the Fall League matters but I still love it anyway. It’s my Hot Stove appetizer and it’s yummy and delicious each and every year.
So what is the AFL?
The Arizona Fall League is a well-regulated winter league for top minor league prospects known as baseball’s finishing school. The league is for each teams’ top prospects who need a little more work or exposure at a bit higher level. Until recently, the league was primarily for AA and up players, but they’ve relaxed the rules for A ball players so there are more of them eligible now. It’s only a six-team league so each team is made up of players from five franchises, who work together to make sure all the positions are covered. This year, the Nats’ players will be playing for the Mesa Solar Sox, along with prospects from the Angels, A’s, Cubs and Tigers. In addition to the little-leaguesque-everybody-must-play attitude, there are also strict pitch limits for all pitchers to make sure no one is over-used. General Managers are known to have a heavy hand in how their guys are used so this is really closer to the instructional league than to a Caribbean winter league, where players play without a lot of control from their home team (although MLB just updated their agreement with the winter leagues with stricter innings limits for young players).
Who’s there and what should we look for?
The big thing to keep in mind is that this is a hitters’ league so take all the stats with a grain of salt. The ball can fly in the dry air, plus most top pitching prospects are shut down by the time the AFL comes around. Teams tend to fill their pitching slots with rehab guys and older relievers who can handle more work. This year, the Nats are sending both.
Sammy Solis and Matt Purke headline the 2013 AFL class as both need more innings due to injury rehab. Both have already made starts and have combined to throw 10 2/3 innings only giving up one earned run. And both left feeling fine, more importantly. Solis was on the fast track before his TJ surgery. In 2011, he struck out 93 batters in 96 2/3 innings while only walking 23 between two levels of A-ball and looked to be on his way to AA when he was injured. He returned to the field this year to throw 57-2/3 innings at Potomac (thus the need for more work) but he only K’d 40 batters and walked 19. That kind of lack of control is typical for the first season back from surgery as feel and command for pitches usually take two years. Hopefully Solis can stay healthy and position himself to begin next year in Harrisburg. If he’s able to rediscover his old command as he progresses, he could be a candidate for a late season call-up next year. Let’s hope last night’s 8 strikeouts over 2 walks in 4 innings is a sign he’s regaining his stuff, if not his command. I expect him to return to AA next year, but a strong AFL season could be a precursor to a fast rise next season that could land him in DC, perhaps before September. Solis will be more highly regarded entering next year than either Taylor Jordan or Tanner Roark were going into 2012.
Purke is in a similar boat, however, his injury was to his shoulder which is much tougher to come back from than an elbow injury. Another hard-throwing college lefty, Purke’s career had been a series of starts and stops before this year. In his semi-full season, he was able to pitch 90 innings split between Hagerstown and Potomac and put up decent numbers, although his strikeout totals dropped dramatically in high-A, which is concerning. He was able to punch out 41 batters in 29 innings in low-A and while he matched that total, 41, in high-A, it took him 61 innings to get there. I doubt he did enough to earn a pre-season promotion to AA for next season, but a strong AFL performance could change that. Ultimately, health is paramount and this AFL season should get Purke over the 100 inning mark for the first time as a pro.
The relievers, Robert Benincasa and Robbie Mirowski, are both college guys and both put up impressive strikeout numbers last year. Mirowski struck out 88 batters over 68 2/3 innings, split between Potomac and Harrisburg while Benincasa struck out 64 over 51 innings, split between Hagerstown and Potomac. These two are hoping to make a name for themselves like former AFL’s Aaron Barrett, Cole Kimball, and Erik Davis. Again, the AFL is a hitters’ league so doing well can boost a pitcher’s stock much more than a hitter’s.
The bottom line on the pitchers is that the starters they come out of the league healthy and ready to go a full season next year and anything out of the relievers is gravy. Hopefully they’ll do well, but that’s secondary to simply getting work in (hat tip to Dan Haren).
The hitters are a little less interesting than years past, which featured Rendon and Harper’s professional debuts, but there are still a few things to look for.
Brian Goodwin is back after a somewhat disappointing minor league season. He hit .252/.355/.407 in Harrisburg and stole only 19 bases while being caught 11 times. Goodwin was drafted as a raw talent but it’s time he starts to show better progress. Ironically, Goodwin built up expectations for himself after a solid AFL performance last year, but that only reinforces the notion that the league is as much for gaining experience and working on kinks that a true platform for evaluation. He’ll probably begin next year in AA again with the hope that he plays himself up to AAA shortly. He’s still got a lot of talent but he’s falling down the pecking order of minor league centerfielders.
Matt Skole will continue his Tommy John rehab while playing third and first in the AFL, so much like the starting pitchers, the only important thing is that Skole gets a little work in to get him ready for next year. Skole played first base for the first time in last Fall League due to Rendon occupying the spot across the diamond, thus, he expects to get more work at the hot corner this time around. He hit a homer in his first game back so hopefully he’s able to regain his timing in the batter’s box to prepare him for next year’s spring training. Skole injured himself only two games into his first AA season, so I expect him to return to Harrisburg next year.
Adrian Nieto put up decent numbers in A ball (Potomac) but he’s most likely participating to give the team enough catchers. He put an impressive .285/.373./.449 triple slash last year, after it took him three years to get there. He’ll turn 24 next month, which means he was old for A ball. Perhaps he’s finally putting things together so an impressive outing could help his standing within the organization.
Steven Souza rounds out the Nats’ participants and is my guy to watch. He’s on the Taxi Squad, which means he can only play two games a week (like Harper, his first year there). He put up monster numbers this year – .300/.396/.557 – in AA and added 20 stolen bases in 26 chances too. He missed some time to injury and has a PED suspension for ADD medicine in his past so he’s not without red flags. The suspension was in the summer of 2010 and Souza has worked hard to put his career back on track by steadily increasing his power numbers the last two years. While Goodwin gets the headlines, it could be Souza’s combination of power and speed that we see in Southeast DC next summer. He should begin next year in AAA depending on how the major league roster shakes out.
So that’s it? That’s the list?
Yes, Mr. Tony, that’s the list. Two rehabbing starters with big upside, a couple of older relievers looking to make a move, and a few hitters with something to prove. It ain’t playoff baseball, but it is interesting and it does matter for the future of the farm team by giving guys extra work and exposure. Plus, it’s the only game in town featuring Nats’ players. Since the numbers don’t matter much, it’s as close to stress-free as baseball as it gets so give the AFL’s Gameday a google or follow the live box scores – you federal workers out there have some time on your hands. Cursing Pete Effing Kozma can’t be full time gig.

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