The Arizona Fall League begins today, but let’s be honest, it’s really not for everyone.
• The AFL can be a prospect showcase of sorts, but I tend to think of it more as a player development tool. It’s used to give pitchers innings and give hitters at-bats; a little extra playing time for guys trying to work on a few things or simply make up for lost time.
• In most cases, the Fall League is not any sort of final step to the big leagues, but it is occasionally a step toward winning a 40-man roster spot or getting on the prospect radar a little bit.
• The prospects involved range from some of the very best in the game, to marginal players trying to open eyes and exceed expectations.
Basically, if you don’t like the player development side of the game, the start of the Arizona Fall League probably means nothing. If you do like the follow the young guys, then this is a chance check a few more box scores and see some meaningful names.
The Yankees are sending seven players — three position players, four pitchers — to play for the Scottsdale Scorpions with prospects from the Mets, Braves, Pirates and Giants. These are the Yankees getting started in Arizona.
Tyler Austin and Mason Williams are the big names here — “Two of the youngest guys in Double-A in the country,” vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman said — but don’t overlook Peter O’Brien. The Yankees second-round pick in 2012 had a massive season, hitting .291/.350/.544 between Low-A and High-A. He was drafted as a college catcher, but he began playing a lot of this base this year. Newman said O’Brien will play both catcher and third base in Arizona.
“He’s a catcher,” Newman said. “And we’re trying to see if he can play third base. We think he’s got offensive potential. He’s got huge power. I mean, big-time power. Who knows where we’re going to have a need?”
Even with Jesus Montero gone and Austin Romine basically graduated to the big leagues, the Yankees system is still pretty deep behind the plate. The Yankees believe O’Brien might be able to play elsewhere if necessary, so he’s learning a new spot.
After a breakout 2012, hit just .257/.344/.373 as a 21-year-old in Double-A. He missed significant time with a wrist injury, so the Fall League is a chance to make up for lost time. It was a down year, but the Yankees also really challenged Austin with a fairly aggressive assignment. He needs some at-bats.
Batting average and on-base percentage took a hit after his promotion to High-A, but he still slugged .486 at the higher level. Fall League is considered hitter friendly, so O’Brien might be able to mash out there. A little extra time at third base should be helpful, too.
Considered by many to be the best prospect in the system heading into this season, he got off to a slow start in High-A, turned things around in June and July, then got a late bump to Double-A. The Fall League is a chance to get few more at-bats against fairly advanced pitching.
None of the Yankees top pitching prospects were sent to Arizona. There’s no Rafael De Paula or Jose Campos or Manny Banuelos. Instead, it’s a fairly unusual and in some way anonymous group. For most Yankees fans, the most familiar name is probably Vidal Nuno, the lefty who made a handful of spot starts in the big leagues but ultimately missed a lot of time with a groin injury.
With Brett Gerritse, James Pazos and Fred Lewis. Most of you are thinking two things: Who and why? The short answer is that they’ve clearly shown something to grab the Yankees interest. For a more detailed answer, consider Lewis in particular. At 26 years old, he’s the oldest player on the Scottsdale roster. He’s a former 47th-round pick who largely seemed to be organizational filler. But the Yankees like that he throws hard and has a feel for a breaking ball from the left side, so they’re going to get a little longer look at him in Arizona.
“He’s kind of popped up and emerged in the last year and a half,” Newman said.
A 12th-round pick back in 2009, he’s spent the past two-plus seasons in Low-A Charleston, but his strikeouts jumped considerably this year, from 70 in 2012 to 108 in 2013 (and his walks actually went down). He’s been both a starter and reliever, but pitched especially well as a starter late in the year.
Nothing really stands out about the numbers — wasn’t particularly good against lefties, didn’t really throw that many innings — but the Yankees seem to like his arm. The Fall League is a hitters’ league, so he’s going to have to earn any success down there.
After a breakout 2012 and a strong showing in big league camp, Nuno got three spot starts with the Yankees this season and should be a legitimate candidate for a big league job this spring. His season was cut short because of injury in June, so he mostly just needs more innings.
A 13th-rounder in 2012, he had a promising debut in Staten Island, and he spent the second half of this season with Low-A Charleston. He had a 1.05 ERA with 33 strikeouts against eight walks. He allowed a run in two of his last 13 outings. He turned 22 in May, and he’s the fourth-youngest pitcher on the Scottsdale roster.
Associated Press photos