The idea that no change is for the better receives regular support, one of the latest examples coming at the Arizona Fall League. This annual baseball developmental exercise, to which all 30 Major League teams send some of their best young prospects for six weeks of competition, underwent a number of alterations this time around. The net effect has been a minus.
The biggest change was the movement of the league’s starting date from mid-October to mid-September. The reason—to narrow the time gap with the Labor Day end of the minor-leagues seasons—made sense, but the new calendar ran into the 100-plus-degree daytime temperatures that prevail in the Phoenix area in September. That meant an all-night-game schedule the first two weeks, which in turn meant smaller crowds, the codgers that frequent the games (like me) being mostly day people.
In years past the players wore the uniforms of their parent teams, adding color to the proceedings. This year they wore generic whites or grays of bearing their AFL pickup-team designations (the Desert Dogs, Solar Sox, etc.). And in the name of economy, the league didn’t put out the media guides that provided a handy who’s who of the players for both writers and fans. Yeah, the info was available online, but it took a good deal more doing to get than before.
The final change was a bit ominous, as far as I’m concerned. At Salt River Fields, one of the four spring-training ballparks used by the league, balls and strikes are being called electronically. The home-plate umpire has real decisions to make, on things like checked swings, foul balls and plays at the plate, but on most pitches he receives the calls via signal and his gestures are charades.
MLB uses the AFL to try out ideas, some of which (such as TV reviews) have become part of the game. I have no doubt this one will, too; once the technology exists it’s impossible to resist. Still, this would be one more step in dehumanizing a game that’s already a business first.
As far as talent-scouting goes, this AFL season falls a bit short of previous ones. No player’s skills explodes on the observer, the way Gleyber Torres’s did in 2016, or Ronald Acuna Jr. or Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s last year. But of players worth reporting on there were many.
The most-touted player here has been JO ADELL, a Los Angeles Angels’ possession rated the No. 5 prospect in the game. Only 20 years old, and a first-round draft choice in 2017, he looks the well-muscled part of a future star, but he went 1-for-24 at the plate in his first half-dozen games here, and while he’s caught up some (he was hitting .265 as of Sunday) he hasn’t put on the show that was predicted.
The best player I saw was ROYCE LEWIS, a Minnesota Twins chattel. Also 20, and also a 2017 first-rounder, he was whacking AFL pitching to the tune of .407 as of Sunday, and displaying both power and speed. Further, he’s versatile in the field, in keeping with a present-day trend. In one game I watched he hit and home run and made a circus catch in center field, in another he went 3-for-5 with two doubles and handled third base well. He received a reported $6.725 million signing bonus, so he’s already set for life and could retire today, but I’ll bet he won’t do that. Look for him in the Majors by 2021 for sure, and maybe next year.
My next-best position-player prospect is outfielder BRANDON MARSH, also property of the Angels. He’s 21, a 2016 second-rounder, and he’s posted good minor-league hitting stats over three seasons. He’s a left-handed batter with a Charlie Blackmon-quality beard and a smooth swing who hits for power as well as average. I watched him go 3-for-6 with two doubles and a triple, and he threw in a stolen base for good measure.
Pitchers are hard to scout here because they appear only once every four or five games and then only for a few innings, but I did see a few worth mentioning. One certainly is FORREST WHITELY, 22. That the 6-foot-seven righty has good stuff was made indisputable last year when he led the AFL in strikeouts, but had a clinker of a 2019 season (a 7.99 ERA with four different teams) and was sent by his Houston Astros parent for a rare encore. He’s done all right again, leading the league in Ks with 25 in 16 innings, but his stay has been less than smooth. All five of the outs he recorded in a 1 2/3-inning start here on Friday were by strikeout, but he also gave up two runs on three hits, three walks and three wild pitches before being yanked. He’s Nuke Laloosh reincarnated.
Two pitchers with more stable stuff are SPENCER HOWARD and ALEX WELLS. Howard, 23, is Philadelphia Phillies’ property. He throws fastballs in the 94-97 mph range and can control his curve. Online sources have him in the Phillies’ starting rotation by 2021. Wells is a 22-year-old Australian in the Baltimore Orioles chain. His stuff isn’t as showy as Howard’s but he gets batters out just the same. He has a twin brother, Lachlan, who’s also a pitcher and in the Minnesota Twins system. Both wear horned-rim glasses. Photos make them look like the Hanson bros of “Slap Shot” fame.
Outfielder GREG DEICHMANN, an A’s farm hand, hits with power. He led the AFL in home runs (with 6) and total bases (39) as of Sunday. VIDAL BRUJAN, 21, a second-baseman from the Dominican Republic, with the Tampa Bay Rays, is a little guy (5-9, 155) who hits singles and runs fast. ANDRES JIMENEZ, a New York Mets-chain shortstop from the Dominican Republic, shares those last two characteristics. First-baseman SETH BEER, 23, who came to the Arizona Diamondbacks from the Astros in the Zach Greinke trade, has hit well here and in the minors, but also leads the AFL in errors, with four.
My team, the Chicago Cubs, was supposed to have been represented by shortstop NICO HOERNER, their top pick in the 2018 draft, but he was called up in September by the big team and played well enough to probably stick. The Cubs have another shortstop here, ZACK SHORT, who’s short (5-10 if you believe the program). He fields well, takes a lot of walks and shapes up as a utility infielder.
Position players usually play about two games of three in the AFL, so you take your chances on whom you’ll see. I wish I’d seen JOEY BART, a catching prospect for the San Francisco Giants. The league runs until October 26, though, so I still might.