Searching for baseball treasures in the Arizona Fall League

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 13, 2013 - 7:32 AM

Top farmhands gather to compete each fall in Arizona.

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The seats at Arizona Fall League games typically are mostly empty, save for the scouts, who can take in multiple games in one day.

Photo: Photos by Dave Cruz • Special to the Star Tribune,

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– The World Series had ended two days earlier, and that ultimate goal loomed large in the minds of players at Salt River Field. As the pitcher looked in for a sign, it wasn’t difficult to imagine these same young players, potential All-Stars and maybe a future Hall of Famer or two, reaching their sport’s biggest stage someday soon.

In fact, they are all wearing major league uniforms, save the obscure hats, giving this matchup between a soon-to-be Diamondbacks pitcher and Reds hitter a sheen of stars-in-waiting, of ... wait a minute, what’s all the commotion?

“Joyce! Joyce! We’re over here!” a booming voice bellowed from just behind the visitors dugout, breaking the silence and interrupting the concentration. The pitcher stepped off the rubber and glared while fielders relaxed a moment as two members of the night’s sparse crowd connected across the diamond. “And get some nachos!”

OK, where were we?

“Yeah, the surroundings are all big-league here,” laughed Jeff Smith, manager of the Glendale Desert Dogs. “But at the same time, you get reminders that you’re not there yet.”

No, but the Arizona Fall League, even with its unique combination of highly concentrated talent and laid-back atmosphere, can be a huge step in the right direction. For more than two decades, some of the best prospects in baseball — Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout are among the alumni — have gathered in Phoenix each October to wear the uniforms of the Desert Dogs or the Saguaros or the Solar Sox, and extend their season by six weeks, an extra audition for those closest to the Show.

“It was designed to be sort of a finishing school for guys headed to the majors,” said Mike Radcliff, Twins vice president of player personnel, who fills notebooks with observations about players from behind home plate. “It was the last stop for a lot of guys. Like one final test against the closest thing you can find to major league competition.”

Yet competition isn’t really what it’s about, and that lack of intensity gives the AFL its odd mixture of pressurized significance and easygoing indifference. The 210 minor leaguers are here to play well and develop skills that will help them win — someday. But like spring training, winning each day’s game is more a byproduct than a goal.

“I don’t think anyone is looking at the standings, if that’s what you mean,” Radcliff said. “The stats, yeah. But not the standings.”

Extra work

Those statistics are closely tracked, however, by the dozens of scouts — sometimes as many as 50 — who are already in their seats during batting practice, and who usually troop to two games a day, one of the afternoon games and the daily night game, a schedule designed to accommodate as much baseball viewing as possible.

“It’s really a scout’s dream,” said Twins General Manager Terry Ryan, who spends a week here each fall. “There’s no travel,” since all six teams are based in Phoenix-area spring camps, “all the guys you want to see are here, and the schedule makes it easy.”

Each AFL team is required to take batting and infield practice at least twice a week, all players start at least two games a week, and everyone gets Sunday off.

For the players, shortening their winter for some extra exposure is a trade-off they are happy to make. They are put up rent-free in condos near their home ballpark, absorb extra training from some new coaches, get regular days off, and even earn a little more than minor league salaries.

And more than that, “it’s just a real honor to be chosen,” said Max Kepler, the 20-year-old Twins outfield prospect from Germany. “It means they want you, they believe in you.”

Some players are sent to Arizona to work on new skills; Kepler, for instance, is learning to play first base to increase his versatility. Some are assigned here to get more work, such as righthander Alex Meyer, the Twins’ top pitching prospect, who missed nearly two months because of a sore shoulder. A few players go to Arizona to refine a skill, such as infielder Eddie Rosario and his footwork around second base, or righthander Trevor May, who is mastering a changeup. Some simply benefit from exposure to the high-quality level of play, such as relief prospect A.J. Achter.

The 30 major league teams send seven players apiece, with five organizations forming a team. There is an abundance of pitching, since innings are strictly limited after a full season, and at least five players from each organization must have played in Class AA or AAA. In forming the Glendale Desert Dogs along with the Reds, Dodgers, Marlins and White Sox, the Twins sent four pitchers — Meyer, May, Achter and Zach Jones — plus position players Kepler, Rosario and Byron Buxton, their highest-rated prospect who missed the AFL’s final eight games because of a shoulder strain.

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W:W.Chen(14-4) L:R.Nolasco(5-10) S:Z.Britton (31)
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NY Yankees - LP: B. McCarthy 3 FINAL
Toronto - WP: J. Happ 4
Philadelphia - LP: A. Burnett 5 FINAL
NY Mets - WP: D. Gee 6
Cincinnati - WP: J. Cueto 3 FINAL
Pittsburgh - LP: J. Hughes 2
Minnesota - LP: R. Nolasco 8 FINAL
Baltimore - WP: W. Chen 12
Boston - WP: C. Buchholz 3 FINAL
Tampa Bay - LP: A. Cobb 0
Detroit - LP: R. Porcello 2 FINAL
Chicago WSox - WP: J. Quintana 6
Texas - LP: N. Cotts 2 FINAL
Houston - WP: J. Veras 3
Chicago Cubs - LP: C. Villanueva 6 FINAL
St. Louis - WP: P. Neshek 9
Oakland - LP: S. Kazmir 1 FINAL
LA Angels - WP: M. Shoemaker 8
Milwaukee - LP: K. Lohse 5 FINAL
San Francisco - WP: M. Bumgarner 15
Los Angeles - WP: H. Ryu 7 FINAL
San Diego - LP: E. Stults 1
Washington - LP: T. Roark 3 FINAL
Seattle - WP: H. Iwakuma 5
Colorado - LP: J. De La Rosa 2 FINAL
Arizona - WP: C. Anderson 6
Miami - LP: N. Eovaldi 0 FINAL
Atlanta - WP: A. Wood 1
Cleveland 4 Suspended
Kansas City 2
Green Bay 9/4/14 7:30 PM
Seattle
Troy 10 FINAL
UAB 48
(7) UCLA 28 FINAL
Virginia 20
Western Mich 34 FINAL
Purdue 43
(5) Ohio State 34 FINAL
Navy 17
Appalachian St 14 FINAL
Michigan 52
Ga Southern 23 FINAL
NC State 24
Boston College 30 FINAL
Massachusetts 7
West Virginia 23 FINAL
(2) Alabama 33
Rice 17 FINAL
(17) Notre Dame 48
(10) South Dakota St 18 FINAL
(24) Missouri 38
Fla Atlantic 7 FINAL
(22) Nebraska 55
California 31 FINAL
Northwestern 24
Marshall 42 FINAL
Miami-Ohio 27
UC Davis 0 FINAL
(11) Stanford 45
Arkansas 21 FINAL
(6) Auburn 45
(16) Clemson 21 FINAL
(12) Georgia 45
Liberty 29 FINAL
(23) North Carolina 56
Ohio U 17 FINAL
Kent State 14
Louisiana Tech 16 FINAL
(4) Oklahoma 48
Stephen F Austin 16 FINAL
(20) Kansas State 55
Fresno State 13 FINAL
(15) USC 52
Southern Miss 0 FINAL
Miss State 49
Texas-El Paso 31 FINAL
New Mexico 24
North Texas 7 FINAL
Texas 38
(1) Florida State 37 FINAL
Oklahoma State 31
(14) Wisconsin 24 FINAL
(13) LSU 28
Idaho 0 Postponed
Florida 0
South Dakota 13 FINAL
(3) Oregon 62
(25) Washington 17 FINAL
Hawaii 16
Utah State 7 FINAL
Tennessee 38
SMU 0 FINAL
(10) Baylor 45
Miami-Florida 7:00 PM
Louisville
Arizona 9/4/14 7:00 PM
TX-San Antonio
Pittsburgh 9/5/14 6:00 PM
Boston College
Washington St 9/5/14 9:30 PM
Nevada
SMU 9/6/14 11:00 AM
North Texas
Fla Atlantic 9/6/14 11:00 AM
(2) Alabama
Buffalo 9/6/14 11:00 AM
Army
(24) Missouri 9/6/14 11:00 AM
Toledo
Arkansas State 9/6/14 11:00 AM
Tennessee
(8) McNeese State 9/6/14 11:00 AM
(22) Nebraska
Central Mich 9/6/14 11:00 AM
Purdue
Akron 9/6/14 11:00 AM
Penn State
Western Ill 9/6/14 11:00 AM
(14) Wisconsin
(20) Kansas State 9/6/14 11:00 AM
Iowa State
(4) Oklahoma 9/6/14 11:00 AM
Tulsa
Western Ky 9/6/14 11:00 AM
Illinois
SC State 9/6/14 11:30 AM
(16) Clemson
Navy 9/6/14 12:00 PM
Temple
UAB 9/6/14 1:00 PM
Miss State
South Alabama 9/6/14 1:00 PM
Kent State
New Mexico St 9/6/14 1:00 PM
Georgia State
Colorado 9/6/14 2:00 PM
Massachusetts
Fresno State 9/6/14 2:00 PM
Utah
(1) Eastern Wash 9/6/14 2:00 PM
(25) Washington
(15) USC 9/6/14 2:30 PM
(11) Stanford
Ohio U 9/6/14 2:30 PM
Kentucky
Middle Tennessee 9/6/14 2:30 PM
Minnesota
Northern Ill 9/6/14 2:30 PM
Northwestern
Missouri State 9/6/14 2:30 PM
Oklahoma State
Ball State 9/6/14 2:30 PM
Iowa
Maryland 9/6/14 2:30 PM
So Florida
Eastern Mich 9/6/14 3:00 PM
Florida
Georgia Tech 9/6/14 3:00 PM
Tulane
(18) Ole Miss 9/6/14 3:30 PM
Vanderbilt
Old Dominion 9/6/14 5:00 PM
NC State
(8) Michigan State 9/6/14 5:30 PM
(3) Oregon
(19) Arizona State 9/6/14 6:00 PM
New Mexico
Louisiana Tech 9/6/14 6:00 PM
Louisiana
San Jose St 9/6/14 6:00 PM
(6) Auburn
East Carolina 9/6/14 6:00 PM
(9) So Carolina
Duke 9/6/14 6:00 PM
Troy
Idaho 9/6/14 6:00 PM
ULM
(17) Sam Houston St 9/6/14 6:30 PM
(13) LSU
Michigan 9/6/14 6:30 PM
(17) Notre Dame
Lamar 9/6/14 6:30 PM
(21) Texas A&M
Northwestern St 9/6/14 6:30 PM
(10) Baylor
BYU 9/6/14 6:30 PM
Texas
Citadel 9/6/14 6:30 PM
(1) Florida State
San Diego St 9/6/14 7:00 PM
(23) North Carolina
Virginia Tech 9/6/14 7:00 PM
(5) Ohio State
Memphis 9/6/14 9:00 PM
(7) UCLA
Colorado State 9/6/14 9:15 PM
Boise State
Air Force 9/6/14 9:15 PM
Wyoming
Oregon State 9/6/14 9:30 PM
Hawaii
Texas Tech 9/6/14 10:00 PM
Texas-El Paso
Red Bull New York 0 FINAL
D.C. 2
Los Angeles 3 FINAL
Chivas USA 0
Ottawa 10 FINAL
Montreal 20
Winnipeg 30 FINAL
Saskatchewan 35
Toronto 12:00 PM
Hamilton
Edmonton 3:30 PM
Calgary
Phoenix 77 FINAL
Minnesota 82
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