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2022 AFL REPORT
From October 15th through the 22nd I stayed in Scottsdale and attended 10 Arizona Fall League (AFL) games in 6 ballparks. The weather was mostly sunny with highs in the mid-80s cooling off to low-70’s for night games. I went with best friend Vince Lauter and wife Sharry from Monterey. We went to some games with SABR friends Punch Shaw/Julie Hedden from Fort Worth and good friend Nate Perrizo from Mesa. After a two-year hiatus, I was eager to get back for my 22nd AFL trip which provided plenty of action from which to pick the best prospects.
New AFL Venue
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Usually, AFL games are played in spring training parks. In 2022, a triple header of 7-inning games was played onmy 1st day in Arizona. This special event was held in Chase Field, home of the ML Arizona Diamondbacks. This retractable roof stadium opened in 1998 and seats 48,405. The roof came in handy as a thunderstorm occurred at the beginning of the 3rd game.
Rule Changes Tested in AFL
The AFL has been a testing ground for proposed rule changes. Over the years, changes tested and implemented have included:
1. Hitters maintaining one foot in the batter’s box under most circumstances.
2. Managers automatically declaring intentional walks.
3. Teams limiting number of visits to the pitcher’s mound.
A newly created Competition Committee votes on whether new rules are implemented for next season. The Committee consists of 6 from management, 4 from players and 1 from umpires.
On September 8, 2022, based on the recommendation of the Commissioner’s office, the Committee voted in favor of a Pitcher Timer, Restrictions on Defensive Shifting, and the Use of Larger Bases to start in 2023.
1. Pitcher Timer - Pitchers will have up to 15 seconds between pitches when the bases are empty and up to 20 seconds between pitches with runner(s) on base. The pitcher can attempt a pickoff 3 times.
2. Defensive Shifting Restrictions - Teams must have at least four players on the infield—two on either side of second base with both feet within the infield's outer boundary.
3. 1st, 2nd, and 3rd bases will be increased in size from 15 to 18 inches square.
The purpose of these changes is to quicken the pace of the game and provide more in-play action.
I saw the 3 new rules plus the continued testing of an automatic ball-strike system. Under this system, the ball-strike call of the human umpires can be challenged and compared to the automatic system like what is shown on TV during a game. Each team gets three challenges per game, though a team keeps its challenge if it is successful. Only pitchers, catchers, and managers can challenge a ball-strike call.
Even with 20 seconds on the pitcher timer with men on base, additional pressure is placed on the pitcher and catcher to keep runners on base. I saw a lot more stolen bases, but also saw plenty of runners caught stealing. At the ML level, it will be interesting to see how teams strategize to benefit from this rule. The pitcher timer should lead to strict enforcement of the rule requiring the batter to maintain one foot in the batter’s box.
The restrictions on defensive shifts were hardly noticeable during play. However, my feeling is that contact hitters will benefit, especially pull left-handed hitters with a man on 1st base. Slow power hitters should also benefit as infielders will be unable to play in shallow outfield and throw them out on hard-hit grounders.
The purpose of the larger bases is to reduce running injuries with the bigger target to hit. I did not notice a reduction. 10 games are not enough to notice a difference in injuries. However, with the bigger base and the pitch timer, I would expect more stolen bases.
I was surprised by the short time being taken on the ball-strike challenge. I witnessed about 12 challenges in 4 games and the time taken for each was about 15 seconds. When challenges are bunched together, the delays can be distracting. However, most challenges are successful and worth the effort to get the call right.
2022 AFL Picks
The AFL Class of 2022 had 16 of MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 Prospects, the same number as 2021. I was fortunate to see 14 of them missing Brennen Davis (Cubs) and Robert Hassell (Nationals) due to injury early in the AFL season. As usual, position players dominated my listing. Pitching prospects sent to the AFL are usually limited to hurlers that need to make up innings lost due to injury. In recent years, a significant number of pitchers, particularly relievers, display a mid-90’s fastball can make it difficult to select just a few for my report.
The table below provides the basic stats on each of my picks followed by some comments:
Zach Britton – This scrappy left-handed hitter better known for his excellent defensive skills both at catcher and outfield, showed some surprising offense, hitting .404 in 56 PA’s. In 76 games at the A/AA level, he hit .238 with 10 HR’s and 10 SB’s. I saw him show good speed with a triple and single in 3 AB’s. His ability to catch and play outfield should accelerate his ascent to the Blue Jays.
Efrain Contreras – This stocky right-handed hurler made a steady rise through the Padres farm system until he hurt his arm and had TJ surgery in 2020. In his limited pitching at the A+ level in 2022, he was 0-5 in 17 starts. However, he turned that around in the AFL going 1-1 with a 2.45 ERA in 5 games. I saw him give up one unearned run while striking out 5 over 4 innings. Efrain’s fast ball sits in the mid-90’s and is backed by a plus curve. His MLB ETA could be late 2023 as either a set up reliever or spot starter.
Heston Kjerstad – In his 1st year of professional ball, this left-handed power hitter hit .309 with 5 HR’s in 65 games at the A/A+ level. He was then given the ambitious assignment of playing in the AFL. Heston made the most of the opportunity by hitting .357 with 5 HR’s. in 98 AB’s. In 13 AB’s, I saw him go 5 for 13 with 1 HR. However, I also saw a lot of swing and miss. This bat-first corner outfielder with a strong arm needs more minor league seasoning in 2023 and projects to a 2024 ML entry.
Matt Mervis – This power left-handed hitting 1st baseman made a meteoric rise from A+ level to AAA in Cubs farm system during the regular season while hitting 36 HR’s. He continued his successful year by hitting 6 league-leading HR’s in the AFL plus a HR in a post season game. I saw him get 2 singles in 6 AB’s and make good contact. He is a below average runner and adequate fielder at 1B. Matt is expected to get a shot to make the Cubs in spring training next year.
Stephen Scott – In his 3rd minor league season, this left-handed hitting catcher batted .219 with 10 HR’s at the A+/AA levels. He did better in the AFL, hitting .298 with 5 HR’s in 57 AB’s. I saw him get 3 singles in 5 AB’s plus display a strong arm throwing out a runner trying to steal 2B. Stephen is a very quick study as he started catching full-time in 2022. With continued strong hitting and progress in his catching, he could be playing as backup catcher in late 2023.
Ronny Simon – In his 4th minor league season, the switch-hitting 2nd baseman batted .260 with 22 HR’s and 34 SB’s at the A+/AA levels. He did just as good in the AFL batting .325 with a league-leading 24 RBI’s. Ronny was the 1st batter I saw hit this year in the AFL. He made an immediate impression with a triple. The Rays talent-deep 40-man roster had no room for Ronny. I expect him to be selected in the December Rule 5 draft.
Connor Thomas – Every year I choose a starting pitcher for my list with usually poor results. Connor Thomas has that dubious distinction this year. His 2022 minor league record of 6-12 with an ERA 5.47 in 25 starts hardly qualifies him for AFL selection. Connor’s pitching repertoire (high 80’s fastball and mid 80’s slider) does not light up the speed gun. He turned it around in the AFL with a 1.75 ERA in 25 innings with 34 strikeouts and only 5 walks. I saw him have the best AFL pitching performance with 10 K’s and 1 walk in 4 innings. The drastic difference in performance can largely be attributed to the use of a newly developed cutter. Connor earned a spot on the Cards 40-man roster. He should get chance to make the Cardinals in spring training.
Zach Veen – In 2nd minor league season, the left-handed hitting outfielder batted .245 with 12 HR’s and 55 SB’s. Zac did much better in the AFL batting .333 and stealing a league-leading 16 SB’s. I saw him go 3 for 9 with 2 SB’s. He showed more energy than any player I saw. Zach has played mostly corner OF and displays a plus arm. His inexperience and youth will probably delay his ML debut to late 2023.
Jordan Walker – Jordan was by far the most heralded position player in the AFL. This right-handed hitting outfielder batted .306 with 19 HR’s and 22 SB’s at the A/AA levels. He continued his good hitting in the AFL with a .286 batting average and 5 HR’s. I saw him go 6 for 16 with plenty of hard contact and flash a powerful arm. During the 2022, the Cardinals moved him from 3B to the OF in anticipation of him playing corner OF for the Redbirds in 2023
Nick Yorke – In his 2nd minor league season this 2nd baseman hit .232 with 11 HR’s at the A+ level. Nick did much better in the AFL batting .342 with 2 HR’s in 76 AB’s. I saw him go 4 for 12 with several extra base hits. Nick has average range and arm which limits play to 2nd base. He has only played 177 games in the minors and limited play in high school due to injury and Covid. His need for more experience will delay his ML entry to 2024.
Other Points of Interest
Relatively speaking- Darren Baker, Dusty Baker’s son, got limited AFL experience following 2 seasons in the minors. Darren was 10th-round pick of the Nationals out of Cal. He hit .280 with three homers and 15 steals in 105 games at the A+/AA level. The 23-year-old 2nd Baseman only got into 3 AFL games before shutting down. Luisangel Acuna, Ron Acuna’s brother, was signed by the Rangers as a NDFA out of Venezuela in 2019. The 20-year-old Shortstop hit .277 with 11 homers and 40 steals in 91 games at the A+/AA level. He played both SS and 2B in the AFL hitting .238 and stealing 8 bases. His 5’9” 180 lbs. frame does not project to Ron’s power, but his good speed and fielding gives him a good chance to make the Majors.
One Prospect that stands tall – 22-year-old Carlos De La Cruz was signed by the Phillies in 2017 as an undrafted free agent out of George Washington High School in NYC. The 6’8” outfielder/1st baseman hit .271 with 17 HR’s at the A+/AA level. He finished the AFL season batting .307 with 3 HR’s in 62 AB’s. His size comes with a long swing that makes contact challenging. Although I saw plenty of swing and miss, Carlos showed just enough power to make him appealing.
Road Heavily Traveled – When you see an AFL invitee is over 25 years old, what usually follows is a very interesting story. 28-year-old pitcher Spencer Bivens’ journey to the AFL did not disappoint me. Spencer’s unremarkable collegiate career at Rogers State left him with no interested teams in the US. He ended up signing with a French team in a weekend league where he was 9-3 with a 2.51 ERA. His record garnered him interest from US teams in 3 Indy Leagues where he pitched in 2020-2022. In May 2022, the call came from the Giants. He was assigned to San Jose at the A level. His dream year in affiliated ball continued when he was invited to the AFL. In 10 innings of relief, he had an ERA of .87 and struck out 11. I am rooting for his baseball dream to continue in 2023.
Rehab Stint – When the minor league season is completed and Major League team wants to have a player rehab, the AFL has been used for that very purpose. On October 8, Tyler O'Neill, Cardinal outfielder, played for the Salt River Rafters to check out his hamstring injury. After 3 AB’s and 2 chances in left field, he left the game without incident. The same day, the Cardinals were eliminated from the playoffs and Tyler was not needed for future post season games. In 2016, the AFL was used for rehabbing Cubs Kyle Schwarber before he played in the post season.
Most Publicized AFL Player – No pitcher received more notice in the AFL than Ranger prospect, Kumar Rocker. After a successful collegiate career at Vanderbilt, this 6’5” fire-balling righty was drafted in 2021 by the NY Mets. However, signing issues and injury concerns left him unsigned by the Mets. He decided to reenter the 2022 MLB draft rather going back to college. Before being drafted by the Rangers, he pitched 11 games in the Frontier League. He then worked out at the club’s training facility before going to the AFL. His lack of competitive pitching showed as he pitched in 6 games going 14 innings with an ERA of 4.50 and 18 K’s. In the one game I saw him pitch he was only able to go 2 innings giving up 3 hits and 3 runs while striking out 3 with his 95 MPH fastball. He needs at least a full season in minors before a ML arrival.
After 2 years not at the AFL, I really enjoyed seeing MLB prospects playing under ideal conditions – great weather, intimate atmosphere, and good play. I look forward to going again next year.
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