Every baseball fan fancies himself a scout and I am no exception. While my credentials to the title may be lacking in some respects, I’ve seen a lot of ballgames and have this blog with which to broadcast my observations. I also have close at hand the Arizona Fall League, maybe the best place ever to practice the scout’s art.
Regular readers of this space know about the Fall League, but for others a brief recap. It’s the minor-league finishing school for top prospects that runs annually for six weeks, from the second week in October through the third week in November, this year ending on Saturday. Each of the 30 Major League teams assigns seven players to the circuit, usually Class A or AAers between the ages of 20 and 23. They are formed into six teams of 35 players that each play a 32-game schedule. Scores are kept, standings are maintained and a champion is crowned, but the real point is individual performance. The kids play for the scouts— the real ones more than the pretenders—with a big-league berth in a year or so as the prize. About 60% of them eventually make it, so it’s a worthwhile exercise.
It doesn’t hurt that the league functions when the Phoenix area is at its best. Prime tourism time here is from Thanksgiving through Easter, but during AFL season the weather is closest to perfect, with temperatures in the 80s or low 90s, low humidity and dreamy blue skies that invite poetic descriptions. If you’re a ballplayer in your early 20s, getting paid and playing mostly day games, and with the Scottsdale bars to graze in, it’s about as close to paradise as it gets.
Spectators have it good, too. Admission is cheap ($8 for adults, $6 for seniors), parking is close and free and with attendance of less than 1,000 for most games in our excellent spring-training parks you can sit anywhere you want. If your voice carries, you can share your opinions with the umps, players and your fellow fans, for better or worse.
Every Fall League has its star, but this year’s is unusual. It’s TIM TEBOW, the famously pious ex-quarterback who, at age 29 and not having played organized baseball since high school, decided to give the professional game a whirl. The New York Mets indulged him with a minor-league contract and assigned him to the Scottsdale Scorpions, their Fall League club.
Tebow made an immediate splash by performing a miracle. Before a first-week game a fan in line for his autograph fell to the ground with some sort of seizure. Tebow (and others, I’d guess) prayed for him and the man quickly recovered. That was a miracle, right? Local TV and some social media outlets said it was. You could look it up.
But Tebow’s chances for sainthood appear better than his baseball outlook. He’s a big, impressive-looking guy, an athlete for sure, but while he looked like Tarzan he’s played like Jane. As of Sunday he was 8 for 51 at the plate with just two extra-base hits and 15 strikeouts, and his .157 batting average was the league’s second-worst for players with an appreciable number of at-bats.
I saw him play twice, once as a designated hitter and once in left field. He had two fielding chances while I watched, one a fly ball that clanked off his glove after a short run and another on which he turned the wrong way twice and allowed to drop. Neither was scored as an error but both could have been. One only can hope he has a Plan C.
Among the actual prospects, GLEYBER TORRES, a Venezuelan shortstop in the New York Yankees’ chain, was the clear standout. This was no surprise because he was the Yanks’ key acquisition in the mid-season trade that bought the monster relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman to the Chicago Cubs. Not yet 20 years old, Torres is quick of both foot and bat and led the AFL in hitting (at .382) as of Sunday. The Cubs could give up Torres because their brilliant Addison Russell has a 10-year lease on the position, but I’m sure the separation was painful nonetheless.
Shortstops are the best athletes on most teams, and two more excelled here. NICK GORDON, a look-alike of older brother Dee Gordon, is a skinny, live-bodied 21-year-old who was the Minnesota Twins’ first choice in the 2014 amateur draft. He’s played well in 2 ½ minor league seasons, and should be a Twin by 2018. Another Venezuelan, 20-year-old FRANKLIN BARRETO, also appears to have the goods for the Oakland A’s, even though his arm marks him as a probable second baseman.
A trio of outfielders showed well when I was watching. ANTHONY ALFORD was primarily a college football player (at quarterback) for his first two years out of high school in Mississippi before opting for full-time baseball in the Toronto Blue Jays’ chain. He has a way to go fundamentally, but he’s athletic and, at age 21, has time to develop. GREG ALLEN, 23, a Cleveland Indians’ chattel, is swift and hits the ball hard. TYLER O’NEILL, 21, of the Seattle Mariners, is a kind of pocket rocket at 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds, but takes his at-bats seriously and swings big. His 56 home runs in his last two minor-league seasons (at Class A and AA) showed what he can do when he connects.
There’s always room in the Bigs for good catchers and the Minnesota Twins’ MITCH GARVER looks like one. Solidly built, and possessing some batting power, he threw out three consecutive would-be base stealers in a game I attended, a rarity even at the Major League level. He’s 25, old for a Fall Leaguer, but catchers usually take longer than other players to develop.
As a Cubs’ fan I take particular interest in their Fall Leaguers, but this year’s group didn’t sparkle. IAN HAPP, their first-round draft choice (the ninth pick overall) in 2015, looked competent but not exceptional at second base, and VICTOR CARATINI, from Puerto Rico, performed similarly at catcher and first base. The Cubs are well-stocked at all those positions so probably will use the two youngsters in trade.
Pitchers are hard to scout in the AFL because they perform only every third or fourth game, and then for but a few innings, but I saw a couple I liked. FRANKIE MONTAS, 23, from the Oakland A’s chain by way of the Dominican Republic, is a big, heavy guy in the C.C. Sabathia mold, and while the right-hander didn’t blow batters away he got all but one out in the five innings I saw him.
MICHAEL KOPECH, 20, does blow them away but sometimes lets a few slip. I watched him pitch 3 1/3 remarkable innings in which he walked six hitters and hit one but allowed no runs. The Boston Red Sox farmhand has struck out 20 in 17 innings here, and will be dangerous once he gets his act together.