It’s an old saw that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, but it still cuts plenty of wood. For proof one needn’t look farther than the Arizona Fall League, the baseball exercise that concludes in the Phoenix area on Saturday.
The AFL is the circuit I write about every year at this time, the minor-league finishing school with a six-week, 35-game schedule to which the 30 Major League clubs send seven of their better young prospects, usually class A or AA players between the ages of 19 and 23. The young men play at six of the fine spring training ballparks hereabouts, mostly day games. They seem happy to be here, and with many evenings off, and being close to the fleshpots of downtown Scottsdale, who can blame them?
It’s a good scene for spectators, too. Admission is cheap ($8 for adults, $6 for seniors), you can park right in front of the ballparks, and with an average per-game attendance of about 600 you can sit wherever you want. If you raise your voice a bit you can share your opinions with the umps, players, managers and your fellow fans.
It’s a milieu that brings out the scout in many, including me. You may recall from past blogs that I picked Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant and Francisco Lindor for stardom of their AFL showings, and while it didn’t take an expert to finger those obviously talented guys you might remember me writing about David Bote, the unheralded Chicago Cubs’ chattel who scrapped his way onto the team’s Major League roster and played a key utility role with it last season.
Applewise, you’ll recognize the names of several of this season’s AFL standouts because their fathers were Majors League standouts. One is VLADIMIR GUERRERO JR., whose dad was inducted into the game’s Hall of Fame last summer. Young Vlad, just 19 years old, came to the AFL highly touted, having thumped minor league pitching for a .331 batting average in three seasons and walking more often than he struck out, a signal achievement in this whiff-soaked baseball era. He didn’t disappoint, batting close to .500 for the first half of the campaign and still topping .350 despite a late-season slump.
Vlad Jr. is a stocky kid, standing 6-foot-1 and weighing more than his listed 200 pounds. Weight may be a problem for him as he ages. His fielding also has been questioned, but he made a couple of nice plays at third base while I was watching. The Toronto Blue Jays, to whom he belongs, were criticized for not bringing him up last season, and they surely will in the next one.
Another sure-fire prospect is 21-year-old TYLER NEVIN, the son of Phil Nevin, a long-time Major League player and coach. Tyler was leading the AFL in hitting at .420 as this week began and had a lot more walks (14) than strikeouts (4). Although the 38th player chosen in the 2015 amateur draft (by the Colorado Rockies), he wasn’t highly touted coming to the AFL, partly because of his injury history, but he’s done everything right here, both at the plate and at first base. In one game I saw he had two hits and a walk in four times at bat, stole a base, scored two runs and batted in two. At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds he looks the big leaguer, and he’ll be one by 2020 if not sooner.
A third rising son is DAULTON VARSHO, whose dad Gary was a journeyman player with several teams over eight Major League seasons (1988-95). In addition to having a big-league last name he likewise has a first, having been named for the ex-Philadelphia Philly great Darren Daulton, one of his dad’s former teammates. Like Daulton, young Varsho, age 22, is a catcher, and an unusual one. He’s small for the position, his listed 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds being an overstatement, but fast, with stolen-base base ability, and is athletic to boot. He’s from little Chili, Wisconsin, population about 200, and has spent parts of just two seasons in the minors. Catchers typically take longer to develop than other players, so he’s probably a few seasons away from the bigs, but he promises to give his Arizona Diamondbacks parent team some help at a position where it always needs it.
A bunch of other players also showed well. Cuban-born LUIS ROBERT, 21, one of the Chicago White Sox’s young hopes, is a built-for-speed outfielder who has come on strong at the plate after a slow start, joining the league’s top-10 in hitting (at .361) at this week’s start. BUDDY REED, of the San Diego Padres’ chain, also an outfielder, is a similarly set-up kid who had three hits and a steal in one game I saw. LUCIUS FOX, 21, from the Bahamas and the Tampa Bay Rays, plays a smooth shortstop and hits heavier than his slender frame. COLE TUCKER, a Pittsburgh Pirates property, also looked good at short.
The top prospect from my team, the Cubs, is NICO HOERNER, their first-round choice in the 2018 draft out of Stanford U. He played only 14 games in the minors last season because of injuries but still impressed here, batting over .300 most of the season. He looks to be the sort of player who does everything well but nothing superlatively. He’s a shortstop, a position at which his big team is well stocked, so he might have trouble finding a place, but he’ll play somewhere, sometime.
It’s hard to get a line on pitchers here because they play only every fourth game or so, and then for just a few innings, but I did see a couple of likely ones. JORDAN YAMAMOTO, 22, an Hawaiian in the Florida Marlins’ system, pitched five scoreless innings while I watched. He has a curve ball that’s unusually well developed for someone his age. JON DUPLANTIER, the Diamondbacks’ top pitching prospect, has strikeout stuff, although he had good and bad innings in my presence.
And as always the AFL was a good time, providing me with many entertaining afternoons. Team rosters contained a Daz (Cameron, ex-MLBer Mike’s son) and a Jazz (Chisholm), a Skye Bolt (an Oakland A’s prospect) and a Kieboom, a shortstop first-named Carter. I saw a runner tag up and go from first base to second on a pop foul to the catcher and an infielder lose a ground ball in the sun (OK, it was a high bouncer). Eleven months is too long to wait for next season.