Every year around the end of September, I spend eight to 10 days in Arizona toasting my skin until it achieves a bright red hue. I feed at mass-consumption chain restaurants, food with a fat content specifically designed to induce depression and lethargy. I listen to kids scream in a hotel lobby until my reproductive equipment schedules its own vasectomy. I fall asleep while seated in an upright position, like an 80-year-old overweight narcoleptic. And I watch instructional league baseball.
The Fall Instructional League, or FIL, is a developmental league that starts soon after the minor-league season ends, mostly for players with immature skill sets who are in need of specific instruction, refinement, and education. It’s a place where young players set to continue (or begin) their stateside experience can learn the ways of the force, a place where their road to the majors often begins. It’s Professional Baseball 101 for most participants, a starting point.
The minute-by-minute accounts of my travels in Arizona have been documented before, so I’ll save you the redundancy. However, I will offer an overview of my adventure, starting with routine and ending with some scouting snapshots from the backfields. On this specific trip, I spent the majority of my time in Surprise, watching the young talent curated by the Texas Rangers, talent that includes Ronald Guzman and Nomar Mazara, the 16-year-old Latin American signees who received record-setting cash to join Texas. (More on this later.] Despite the focus on the youngins de Tejas, my eyes were fortunate enough to find talent from other organizations as well; I was able to watch the Mariners, Indians, and Dodgers in (regular) instructional league action, the White Sox, Royals, and Dodgers (different squad) in Advanced Instructional League action (more on this later), and finally, I was able to watch several Arizona Fall League workouts, which included bullpen sessions, batting practice infield, outfield, and more. In eight days, I was able to consume on-the-field talent like Val Kilmer consumes on-the-field calories.
Most mornings started the same, with an eight a.m. alarm, followed by a few cups of dollar store-quality coffee in the hotel breakfast quarters. The dining area at the Holiday Inn in Surprise lacks personality, giving off a conference room vibe rather than an inviting environment where one could enjoy a cup (or four) of coffee, a stale Danish, some borderline white-trash ambiance, and the soothing sounds of department store muzak. I never felt comfortable in the sequestered room, behind hidden doors that are only open to the public for three hours per day. I’m confused if the Holiday Inn wants me to enjoy my morning experience or if they want to keep me uneasy and aware of my station as a temporary visitor.
After mainlining the watered-down nectar and chewing my Danish in a desperate search for a pleasant texture (soft and/or flaky would be preferable), I return to my room to cultivate my scouting paraphernalia, discover every facial imperfection in the pleasant fluorescence of the bathroom, and await the familiar housekeeping knock, which arrives on cue at 8:30. I’ve grown to love the housekeeping ladies. I treat them like family, and they treat me like a crazy white guy who speaks to them in 40-grade Spanish while wearing a Mexican National team jersey. I’m guessing my Luchador mask was a bit much.
The Rangers’ team complex is only a few blocks from my hotel, and I could cover the distance on foot if I wanted to experience heat stroke before 10 a.m. Upon arrival, I’m greeted by the calming visual experience of an empty parking lot, which indicates that the fields are occupied by team personnel only, free from the media and fan mass normally found during spring training. I’m not in the media. I’m not in the media. I’m not in the media.
Including players participating in advanced instructs*, the fields are dotted with about 70 athletes, several coaches, and a handful of team personnel engaging in assorted (yet meticulously calculated and organized) on-field activities.
As the players break into their specific groups, my attention turns to the sexiest appeal, whether that means watching a top prospect throw a bullpen or a top prospect take his turn in the cage. My head is usually on a swivel, keeping my eyes and ears open to possible seduction, following the sounds of talent wherever it might lead me. On most days, finding the twin (they aren’t twins) Latin bonus babies, Guzman and Mazara, is first priority. When the July 2 window opened, the Rangers broke market records by signing Mazara to the largest bonus in history, giving the teenager close to $5 million to bring his elite power potential to the Texas system; Guzman, considered by many to be the best all-around hitter in the J2 class, received a mere $3.5 million, besting all others in market history excluding his new teammate.
Speaking of Guzman… In the cage, he never failed to disappoint, prompting me to proclaim him as the best 16-year-old hitter I’ve ever had the privilege of watching in person. Admittedly, I’m not an experienced scout; I’ve only been participating in the in-person talent evaluation process for five years. But during that time I’ve been exposed to quality teenaged talent, mostly on the Rangers’ side of the coin, starting with players like Cristian Santana and Fabio Castillo (when I first started), to Martin Perez and Wilmer Font, to Luis Sardinas and Jurickson Profar, and to #TheLegend. In short, I’ve seen my fair share of 16-year-old talent (insert obvious NAMLBA joke here), and I can say without much hesitation (or sensationalism) that Ronald Guzman is the best of the bunch. Here are a few of my thoughts on Guzman (from Texas Farm Review, my Rangers-specific scouting site):
I will continue to claim that Guzman is the most impressive 16 year-old prospect I’ve ever seen, despite noticeable flaws that exist in his game. At the plate, Guzman has a deep hand load, bringing the bat well beyond his back shoulder before moving forward. This aspect of the swing is at once impressive and pretty, while presenting a problem going forward, as the deep load makes the journey to the hitting zone lengthy, and thus makes him more susceptible to inside stuff despite the ability to generate bat speed. His weight shift is very quiet, with minimal movement when the transfer occurs, as the front leg barely moves and the torque is created when the hips fire and back leg plants. The swing itself is incredibly fluid, with good bat path and plane, without the swing exaggeration normally found in young power hitters. Like fellow lefty masher, Eric Hosmer, Guzman’s swing is easy and geared for drive to all fields rather than selling out for power. The pitch recognition skills are still very immature, which is to be expected, but that doesn’t mean Guzman is a free-swinger standing in the box hacking at everything. At the present, Guzman no doubt struggles with rec and reaction, but the balanced setup in the box and the swing mechanics don’t breakdown in the face of a poor read; rather, a poor read will result in a swing and miss but the overall composure of the swing will stay intact. Honestly, I love seeing power in a 16 year-old’s swing; let’s face it, its easy to recognize and celebrate. But showing composure and consistency in the swing (at that age) is even more impressive to me. In the field, Guzman is very raw, but not uncoordinated or awkward with his movements. Standing close to 6’6’’, the long-limbed Dominican 1B can snatch throws from infielders directly from their hands, with a wingspan that the NBA would covet. Grounders have been a struggle so far in camp, as has footwork and positioning around the bag. But it’s a new position, and contrary to popular opinion, the skill-set required is not as reductive as “see ball- catch ball.” On the positive, Guzman shows the ability to scoop the ball from the dirt and come off the base to make the catch, despite looking raw in the process. The arm is plenty strong as well, although under-utilized at the position. Overall, Guzman has the potential to be a special player, with hitting skills that aren’t often found in teenaged prospects. The ceiling is a superstar, but development doesn’t occur overnight, so keep that in mind. Physical skills will only take you so far, so makeup is vital to the developmental process. Judging by what I’ve seen so far, Guzman shows the work ethic and intelligence to push himself to the peak of his physical ability.
As I continue to take notes faster than Val Kilmer takes on weight, the morning workouts conclude and I have a chance to grab some food before the instructional league games commence around 12:30 p.m. Post-feeding finds me sluggish and motivationally challenged, as the sun is cooking at temps north of 100 degrees and I’m full of processed (yet tasty) swill. I’m sweating like a water monster. My thirst is hard to quench, but I continue to hydrate, pounding bottled water to the point of water intoxication. I’ve been in better environments. My thoughts turn to the frigid air conditioning provided by the Holiday Inn. I’m dreaming of the cool air hitting my face with its cool spank. It’s almost pornographic at this point.
As the game begins, I’m back to note-taking and engaging in scouting behavior, clocking times with my stopwatch, charting pitches and transcribing velocity readings, studying swing mechanics, watching body actions in the field, and slowly steaming in the unforgiving sun. All that’s missing is a banana leaf and some masa and I’d be a tamale. The talent on the field tickles my fancy, as its immature and unrefined, yet highly projectable and promising. It’s my favorite focus. The names change daily, but the process remains the same, and I continue to take notes. I’m once again aroused by thoughts of cool air and cooler beverages.
After a few hours of game action, the ninth inning comes to its conclusion and the sun breaks the spirit of man. As players depart the field with purpose, I do the same, offering salutations when applicable with an intensity that suggests I’m tired of standing around waiting to say goodbye. I gather my notes, which at this point requires a pack mule to transport, and head to the parking lot, where I will fantasize about the Route 44 Cherry-Limeade that is now only minutes from my mouth. The diminutive ice cubes grade out high thanks to volume and ease of consumption, as they accompany the liquid without dominating it. When the slightly bitter/slightly sweet tonic passes the barrier of my lips, I find a form of religion, and I immediately break out in prayer and hymn. I always tip the Sonic girls a dollar or two when they deliver my purchase, but I never tip the boys. It always takes me by surprise and I fail to recover in time to handle the cash transfer. Sorry, fellas.
Back in the sweet air-conditioned bosom of my hotel, I immediately crack open my notes, reliving the experience as I travel from the top of the page to the bottom. Did first baseman Ronnie Guzman really hit back-to-back bombs in batting practice? Did I really just see that? Yes. Did I already suggest he was the best 16-year-old hitter I’ve ever seen? I should remember to make that comment. I’ll tell Twitter. I make a second notation in case I fail to propagate this new discovery. Ronald Guzman is real, right? I think the sun might be toying with my emotions. I need to focus a little more on my Route 44 and a little less on the realities of Ronald Guzman.
With my thirst quenched, my core temp descending to the norm, and my skin recovering from the day’s abuse, I finally take a deep breath and find some perspective. I might have been uncomfortable during the day, both in terms of temperature and temperament, but on those backfields I was able to watch the stars of tomorrow take their first steps toward their future. The information collected needs to undergo digestion before release, but the pages are thick with my scribbles and thoughts. When the acids make their way through the data, I’ll deliver them to you with charming persuasion and thinly-veiled egomania. Until then, I need to maintain my hydration and win the acceptance of the housekeeping staff at the Holiday Inn in Surprise. I think Ronald Guzman just cleared the fence again. Have I mentioned that he is the best 16-year-old hitter I’ve ever seen?
*The advanced instructional league is literally a league comprised of more advanced lower-level prospects, with complex partners coming together to comprise the roster of said team. In this case, the Surprise roster is half Rangers/half Royals, the two teams that share the Surprise facility.