Sun rising on Arizona Fall League season
Several top prospects head to desert for more action
While one season is inching toward its dramatic conclusion, another is just about to begin. And the two are connected in many ways.
The Arizona Fall League is set to begin its 19th season on Tuesday with a typical slate of three games -- Mesa at Phoenix, Surprise at the Peoria Javelinas and the Peoria Saguaros at Scottsdale. The 180 players attending what's been called Major League Baseball's "finishing school" want to get to where the remaining participants in this year's postseason are. And they have good reason to believe they might get there one day.
When the 2010 playoffs began, 56 percent of the eight rosters were comprised of Arizona Fall League alumni, a total of 112 players. This was no statistical anomaly, with the last two years being very similar -- 49 percent in 2009 and 56 percent in 2008.
Eric Hinske, who hit a big home run for the Braves in Game 3 of the NLDS, played in the AFL back in 2000 and 2001. Freddy Sanchez, who scored the go-ahead run for the Giants in that same game, was there in 2001 and 2004. Every team in this year's postseason had at least 10 players with AFL roots, with the Rays leading the way with 20 alumni that run from A (Willy Aybar, 2003) to Z (Ben Zobrist, 2006).
Those are all promising numbers that will undoubtedly fuel this year's Fall League crop and their aspirations. A scan around those postseason rosters showed eight players -- Logan Ondrusek and Chris Heisey from the now-eliminated Reds, Michael Dunn, Jason Heyward and Craig Kimbrel of the Braves, Domonic Brown from the Phillies, the Giants' Buster Posey and Mitch Moreland of the Rangers -- who were where this year's AFL crop is now just one year ago.
"When I found out, I was very excited," said Royals prospect Eric Hosmer, the third overall pick of the 2008 Draft, who will head to the AFL after finishing a stint with Team USA in the Pan Am qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico. "It's an elite league. Just look at all the names that are in the big leagues this year from last year's fall league. I've been in Arizona for instructs the last two years and got to watch some games. I can't wait for that to start up."
"As we approach our 19th season, the Arizona Fall League is proud of its continuing contributions to the development of the sport's most outstanding young players," director Steve Cobb said. "Just nine months ago, players like Ike Davis, Jason Heyward, Chris Heisey, Mike Leake, Buster Posey, Mike Stanton, Drew Storen, Stephen Strasburg, Jose Tabata and many others were polishing their skills in Arizona for the six weeks prior to Thanksgiving, and just months before they became household names to baseball fans across America."
Hosmer's Surprise Rafters will start without him in Peoria, taking on the Javelinas, who will be looking to repeat as AFL champions. The Javs ended the Phoenix Desert Dogs' five-year stranglehold on the the championship. Scott Barnes, perhaps known as the return the Indians got for Ryan Garko in their trade with the Giants in 2009, will start for Peoria. Brooks Brown, a sandwich pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks who was traded to the Detroit Tigers in April 2009, gets the ball for the Rafters.
Another first-rounder, Brad Holt (No. 33 to the Mets in 2008) will try to shake off a rough, injury-interrupted regular season with a strong AFL campaign. That begins with an Opening Day start for him and the Solar Sox in Phoenix against Jon Link and the Desert Dogs. Link made nine appearances with the Dodgers over the course of this season and has spent the bulk of his professional career as a reliever.
The Saguaros will send Alex Cobb (Rays, fourth-round pick in 2006) to the mound for their opener. That's right, another legitimate Rays pitching prospect, one who spent the season excelling in the Double-A Southern League (fourth in ERA) and then pitched well up a level in the International League playoffs. He'll be opposed by Ryan Verdugo, the Giants' 2008 ninth-rounder. He's got lefty reliever written all over him -- all but one of his 44 career outings have come from the bullpen -- but he'll start the first game for the Scorpions.
Tuesday is the first in the 32-game AFL schedule that will culminate with the one-game championship at Scottsdale Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 20. The league takes a brief pause to celebrate all the talent on hand with the annual Rising Stars Game, an All-Star game of sorts, in Surprise on Saturday, Nov. 6.
All of the action, of course, can be followed via MLB Gameday, complete with Pitch-f/x for games in Peoria and Surprise. Two games -- the Rising Stars and championship games -- will again be simulcast on MLB.com and MLB Network.
There will also be the unique, and first person, perspective from a slate of AFL bloggers, players who have agreed to share their experiences on MLBlogs. The blogging lineup: