The Arizona Fall League is the Mecca of the prospect world, giving scouts and fans the most saturating collection of prospects gathered in any one spot at any point on the baseball calendar, save perhaps the one-day Future’s Game. Unlike that all-star exhibition, however, many of the game’s top prospects will ascend to the desert to play for something more than just national exposure and that third digit on the radar gun, with 32 games to refine their skills against fellow top prospects.
In what has become known as a “finishing school” before the majors, there are six teams, each of which consists of prospects from five specific major-league organizations. Within the constructs of the roster, teams assign players to the league based on positional availability. Teams use their roster spots in different ways, everything from an end-of-the-year test for a top prospect to a make-up for lost time for a prospect injured during the year.
From a scouting standpoint, the AFL is a great chance to see a large collection of top prospects at once, something which is especially convenient for someone like me who is trapped in one corner of the country. Here’s what I’ll be looking forward to when I go out to Arizona this fall.
Glendale Desert Dogs
Affiliated Teams: Orioles, White Sox, Tigers, Dodgers, Brewers
The Desert Dogs are drawing their players from four of the weaker farm systems in baseball, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to see here.
What I’m Watching For: How will the hit tools hold up? For many prospects, the AFL will be the toughest competitive test to date, and that’s the case for players like Steven Moya and Tim Anderson. Both are having strong seasons, but there are questions surrounding both, mainly because of the incredible aggressiveness of both players at the plate. That aggressiveness generally gets exposed against more advanced pitching, a new level of which they will see for the first time in the AFL. I’m interested to see how they handle it.
Affiliated Teams: Braves, Indians, Royals, Cardinals, Rays
What I’m Watching For: Scouts love Raul Mondesi and it’s easy to see why. The lightning speed and fluidity in the field at an up-the-middle position are the starter kit for an all-star player, and his swing shows well during batting practice. The games, however, have been a different story, with tons of bad contact and little ability to drive the ball, save for a random six-homer outburst this month that brought his slugging percentage all the way up to .365. The Royals have challenged him incredibly aggressively throughout his career, pushing him to Wilmington as an 18-year-old. Sending him to the Arizona Fall League (where he’ll be the youngest player by almost a year) will be the biggest challenge yet, and I’m not expecting much offensive production from him. What I want to see, however, is a better approach and some competitive at-bats. That’ll be a realistic moral victory for a young prospect.
Bonus Thing I’m Watching For: Sam Tuivailala. Converted position players are always fun to watch develop, and Tuivailala throws 97 with ease, which makes it even more fun. He’s already made the transition from thrower to pitcher, striking out 14.7 batters per nine innings this season. Plus, listening to Mike Ferrin try to pronounce Tuivailala is certain to be a good time.
Affiliated Teams: Mets, Yankees, Phillies, Pirates, Giants
What I’m Watching For: All of the outfield prospects! The Scorpions should trot out an outfield of Aaron Judge, Brandon Nimmo and Roman Quinn a number of times this fall, a trifecta of prospects with high-end tools. Quinn might not be at the same level as the other two in terms of the overall package, but watching him run at full speed was one of the more exciting things I saw all season. Now that he’s roaming center field he should get to use it even more often than when I saw him at shortstop. Nimmo has primarily played center during his career, but while he can handle the position now, he’ll probably end up on a corner by his mid-to-late 20s and will probably defer to Quinn on this team. Watching Judge this season was more fun than I had anticipated, and he gets better with every look. Additionally, the Scottsdale team features Pirates outfield prospect Josh Bell, a fellow Top-50 guy who, though listed as an outfielder on the official roster, is reportedly going to be playing first base this fall. It will be fascinating to see how he takes to the position defensively.
Bonus Thing I’m Watching For: Tyler Glasnow put together another incredible season, but what makes it so incredible is how much he relied on his fastball. That’s both a testament to the pitch and a commentary on the development of his secondary offerings. Developing pitchers without reliable breaking stuff aren’t supposed to miss bats in bunches like Glasnow does. That’s not to say he doesn’t have the potential for better off-speed stuff. In fact, his curveball projects to be a second plus pitch. But it’s not right now. Glasnow even admitted in interviews after some games that when his secondary offerings weren’t working right, he relied heavily on his fastball, which is a case both of a player worrying about on-field performance over his development (hard to knock any player for that) and the teachings of a Pirates organization that stresses fastball command above all else. Glasnow has been able to get by using the fastball as a crutch last year in the Sally League and again this year in the Florida State League, but the AFL lineups will be deeper and the hitters will be better. It will be interesting to see how he reacts.
Mesa Solar Sox
Affiliated Teams: Cubs, Angels, A’s, Blue Jays, Nationals
What I’m Watching For: The development of power in hitting prospects is one of the biggest wildcards and the hardest things to predict, which is why it’s always fun to watch the guys who already have it. The Solar Sox lineup will consist of two first baseman, Matt Olson and Dan Vogelbach, who have it in droves and like to show it off. Olson has flown under the radar this season in his challenge of Kris Bryant and Joey Gallo for the mino-league home run crown, and it appears he’s going to fall just a few knocks short. Imagine how many he could have hit if he had swung a few more times during some of his 111 walks. Vogelbach’s power is still learning to rear its head in games, but I saw a power display from him this season that was better than any I saw all year (one game, two bombs to left-center in an extremely pitcher-friendly park). It will be fun to see what this pair can do in the dry desert air.
Salt River Rafters
Affiliated Teams: Diamondbacks, Rockies, Astros, Marlins, Twins
What I’m Watching For: Byron Buxton. It was a lost year for Buxton, the game’s top overall prospect, who dealt with a lingering wrist injury and then saw his season end in a horrific collision. He was just getting his timing back at the plate when he was promoted to Double-A, but he got hurt again before we could really see how he was going to adjust to the new level. Now I just want to see him healthy and see if there are any lingering effects from either the wrist or the collision.
Bonus Thing I’m Looking For: Mark Appel and Archie Bradley. This pair entered the season as two of the game’s top prospects, but they both had disappointing seasons., though for very different reasons. Appel’s struggles have been well documented, though he’s turned things around in Double-A. He struggled in the hitter-friendly environment of Lancaster, and the AFL isn’t much easier on pitchers. How will he handle it? You would have thought Bradley, on the other hand, wouldn’t even have been eligible for this team given the talk about him making the Diamondbacks roster this spring, but things didn’t work out as planned. An elbow strain cost him a few starts, and when he was on the mound, he threw fewer strikes and missed fewer bats than ever. The stuff is still good but the fastball command hasn’t stepped forward the way we’d all hoped.
Affiliated Teams: Red Sox, Reds, Padres, Mariners, Rangers
What I’m Watching For: If teams want to use the AFL as a finishing school for their top prospects, then look no further than what the Mariners and Padres are doing with D.J. Peterson and Hunter Renfroe, respectively. Both are 2013 first rounders and both were college bats expected to move quickly. Both have already gotten a taste of Double-A and their time in the AFL should help prepare them for Triple-A next season.