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Five days in Phoenix would have been a lot more enjoyable if MLB hadn’t gutted the Arizona Fall League schedule. No night games, no Sunday games, and no doubleheaders meant that I saw just three games in five days, as opposed to the five games in three days I saw during 2002’s trip.

Nevertheless, the visit to Arizona was enjoyable, not least because I was again a part of Baseball HQ’s First Pitch Arizona. Ron Shandler puts on a great program for fantasy players, more than 100 of whom were treated to analysis and opinion from John Sickels, Rob Neyer, Brent Strom, Rany Jazayerli, Jim Callis, David Rawnsley and a host of HQ’s own experts.

Here’s bunch of semi-connected thoughts from the weekend:

  • Seeing just the three games was disappointing enough, but what was worse was seeing just three teams in those games. It was by choice; after catching the Solar Sox and Desert Dogs Friday in Mesa, most of us wanted to see those teams again on Saturday. B.J. Upton (who can only play on Saturdays) and Dewon Brazelton were the attraction, so many of us headed back to Mesa. (Some guy with a knuckleball fetish really wanted to see Desert Dogs starter Charlie Zink, too.)
  • I’m a performance analyst by trade, so even I take my judgments of what I see in five innings or four at-bats with a big grain of salt. With that said, 2003 #1 overall pick Delmon Young looked very good, showing impressive power to the opposite field. I saw Young’s first two walks in the AFL (one intentional) as well; it’s not that he’s impatient, he just hasn’t missed many pitches. Pirates’ outfield prospect Chris Duffy had two excellent games, displaying patience and gap power. He could end up as a Rusty Greer-type player. Young and Duffy were the two best players I saw in Arizona.

    Other guys who played well included Russ Adams, who could be a rare left-handed-hitting shortstop. Adams looks like he’ll be a Bill Mueller-type hitter, with a good average, solid plate discipline, and he may develop more power than he’s currently showing. Whether it’s Adams at short and Aaron Hill at second, or vice versa, the Jays should have a top-tier middle infield by 2007. Catcher Ryan Doumit doubled and homered in the game I saw, and gives the Pirates yet another reason to trade Jason Kendall. Chris Buglovski of the Rockies–not on any prospects lists I’ve seen–showed an excellent sharp breaking ball in his start.

    In addition to the above players, there was good buzz on the Giants’ Merkin Valdez, the Royals’ David DeJesus, and the Reds’ Joe Valentine, just to name a few.

  • Get out the salt shaker again, if only for a second. With so many of the top prospects down in Panama getting uninvited to the 2004 Olympics, there are more non-prospects than usual getting playing time in Arizona. Of players who have some potential or who are getting hype, few stood out as not being impressive. There are just a lot of guys who have known limitations (Jonny Gomes, Corey Smith, Josh Hancock) or who are here just as roster filler.

    Of the real prospects… well, I watched Dewon Brazelton strike out nine men in five innings, so it seems a bit silly to say I wasn’t impressed by him. His windup strikes me as elaborate, though, and while he broke off a couple of sliders, his main weapon was a fastball, and I don’t think he has the rest of his repetoire down yet. He’s still very young, so this is just a warning to temper 2004 expectations, not to write him off.

    I saw Nick Swisher, part of the Moneyball draft in 2002 for the A’s, come to the plate five times in two games and each time he looked a little bit more like Scott Hatteberg. His performance record shows more power than the current A’s first baseman, but given that Swisher won’t be a center fielder, it’s hard to see what his role will be down the road.

  • I’m not sure whether it was the death of Dernell Stenson, the end of the long season, or the fact that 25 of the top prospects had been removed from the league, but the games were fairly nondescript. I can remember a number of performances from 2002, while this year left very little impression on me.

    There’s continuing talk that the league is going away, that it loses money and that many teams won’t send their top prospects–especially their top pitching prospects–to Arizona. I think it has value as a way of exposing less-experienced players to better competition in a high-profile environment, but some teams seem like they’d be just as happy sending guys to instructional league for three weeks.

    The biggest on-field problem the AFL faces is the difficulty in getting quality pitchers for the league. This year in particular, the rosters are studded with non-prospects and minor-league veterans, most notably 30-year-old Todd Williams, whose career is older than the league. In the new era of workload watching–which is a positive development for the industry–teams don’t want their top arms throwing more competitive innings at the end of a long season. The Dodgers, for example, were apparently supposed to send all three of their live arms (Edwin Jackson, Greg Miller, and Joel Hanrahan) to Arizona. None quite made it there.

    I think you can solve this problem–and it is a problem–in a number of ways. Right now, teams can only send pitchers to the league who have a bare minimum of major-league experience. I think you can raise that minimum to allow pitchers with more service time and innings who could use the work. Oliver Perez is pitching in Venezuela (which, I suppose, is another issue entirely); why not send him to the AFL instead? The Phillies sent a 26-year-old left-hander named Greg Kubes to Phoenix; he’s best described as “Tony Fossas without all that pesky velocity.” Would it have hampered anyone to give that slot to Brandon Duckworth, who was underutilized this year?

    Moreover, why not hold out some slots for guys who are fighting for their careers, say from the minor-league free agent pool or even from the growing class of Quadruple-A relievers? This might diminish the AFL’s cachet as a prospect showcase, but when Pete Bauer and Bryan Hebson are in the room, it’s fair to say that that ship has sailed. Getting a better quality of pitcher into the league would raise the level of play and give evaluators a better idea of whether Dan Johnson is for real, or just the next Ken Harvey.

    One executive suggested inviting the top 10 or so independent league pitchers to the AFL. This would enhance the competitive level of the league, with those guys trying to impress scouts and get contracts, while providing a boost to the overall quality of the pitching. The top eight prospects in the league are hitters, and after Team USA left, something like 26 of the top 30 players remaining in Arizona are hitters.

  • My luggage was a bit heavier coming home this year, and not just because of the great presentation materials (I’ll throw a nod to Deric McKamey and David Rawnsley in particular) at the session. Two books were available that have immediately taken a prominent spot on my bookshelf. The first is the 2004 Bill James Handbook, published by Baseball Info Solutions and the successor to the old STATS, Inc. Major League Handbook. I missed the STATS books like crazy last year, and while only the major-league one is available this year, flipping through it over the weekend was a pleasure. Kudos to John Dewan and Steve Moyer, just to name two people, for making this happen.

    The second book isn’t as well-known, but deserves a mention for its niche. The guys at put out an AFL-specific guide that blends performance analysis and skills analysis in an entertaining way. Because it covers every player in the league, it’s a good way to get a handle on who was impressive and who was just there for fodder. In particular, the guide is a good look at Team USA, which might have been a better selling point before Joe Mauer got the bunt sign. For $10, it’s a great resource and a good read as you wait for Baseball Prospectus 2004.

  • I can’t say enough about the program Ron Shandler puts on. His reputation in the industry allows him to assemble a great cast of speakers, and the attendees bring a tremendous amount of knowledge about the game. The whole weekend is a first-class operation, and I say that as someone who isn’t really a fantasy-baseball guy. It’s like a three-day Pizza Feed on greenies.

    Next year’s will be on Halloween weekend, so keep it in mind for a post-World Series baseball vacation.

Back to the book… I’ll check in next week, Los Angeles County Criminal Court jury selection willing.

Thank you for reading

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