AFL Spotlight: 2013 Arizona Fall League preview
The “AFL Spotlight” is a weekly feature piece on a player from the Cleveland Indians farm system that is participating in the Arizona Fall League. Today’s piece is not a feature on a player but instead an overview on all of the Indians players participating. The league starts today October 8th and runs through November 16th.
The 22nd season of the Arizona Fall League (AFL) gets underway today. The offseason league is a hot bed for some of the top prospects and potential near future Major League players from every organization who get a chance to hone their skills against some of the top competition in the minors. Most importantly, it gives every player a chance to show off their abilities to tons of baseball executives and scouts from every organization over a six week period of games.
The AFL originally started back in 1992 as an alternative to some of the offseason leagues in the Caribbean. MLB teams created the AFL to provide a more easily accessible offseason league so teams could better monitor their minor league players and give the players an option to continue playing baseball stateside in the offseason.
By having a league that is governed and monitored by MLB it helps ensure players are used appropriately and that any injuries to players are handled correctly. MLB teams provide all of the managers, coaches and training staff in order to help ensure players get the best care and instruction. The creation of the AFL also helped reduce costs for teams with regard to travel for offseason leagues and provide better scouting opportunities.
The AFL is not just for the players as it is also a great development opportunity for coaches and managers with big league aspirations, and it allows umpires in the Umpire Development Program to get more experience as well. But in the end it is still almost all about the players.
Five MLB organizations make up each of the six AFL teams, and each MLB team sends seven players to their AFL team for a total of 35 players per team. This year the Indians are partnered up with the Brewers, Orioles, Rangers and Red Sox to make up the Surprise Saguaros roster. While each team has 35 players, only 30 players are active. The other five players are deemed “taxi-squad” players, which are players that are only eligible to play on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
As to who is selected to go, Major League teams hold a position draft in August to determine who goes and who the priority players will be at each position on each team. Most of the players that are sent are considered near Major League ready options or players that a team wants to see play in a more competitive environment.
There are some specific rules that apply in regard to who a team can send to the AFL, though at times there are exceptions made to these rules. The rules are as follows:
- All Triple-A and Double-A players are eligible, provided the players are on at least a Double-A level roster no later than August 1st.
- Only one player below the Double-A level is allowed per Major League team.
- One foreign player is allowed as long as the player does not reside in a country that participates in winter ball, as part of the Caribbean Confederation or the Australian Winter League.
- No players with more than one year of credited major league service as of August 31st are eligible; except a team may select one player picked in the most recently concluded Major League Rule 5 Draft.
- To be eligible, players on minor league disabled lists must be activated at least 45 days before the conclusion of their respective seasons.
The seven players that the Indians are sending to the AFL this year are right-handed pitchers Shawn Armstrong, Trey Haley, Jeff Johnson and Will Roberts along with catcher/infielder Tony Wolters, second baseman Joey Wendle, and outfielder Tyler Naquin. An eighth player, catcher Jake Lowery, is expected to participate but is not on the current active roster and will probably serve as an extra catcher and be activated later in the AFL season with one of the relievers being deactivated.
Here is a quick capsule on each of the eight players the Indians are set to send to the AFL. Please note, I am not yet sure which Indians’ payer will be on the taxi-squad, but my guess is Lowery will be on it if and when he is activated. Also, additional players may be sent over the course of the AFL season due to injuries, etc.
Shawn Armstrong (RHP): Armstrong, 23, had a disappointing season because of injuries and put up a 4.14 ERA in just 33 appearances, and in 37.0 innings he allowed 35 hits, 3 homers, 21 walks and had 48 strikeouts. He actually pitched in the AFL last year so his return is somewhat of a surprise, but much needed in order to make up for some lost time this year because of a hand injury. As mentioned above, it makes sense to have him pitch stateside where the Indians and MLB can more closely monitor and control his workload. His fastball this season was not as explosive as it was in 2012 when he touched 99 MPH in his last outing in Arizona, so he will continue to work through some adjustments with his delivery to get that consistent high velocity back and also command his fastball and secondary pitches much better.
Trey Haley (RHP): Haley, 23, is another power armed reliever that had a disappointing year because of injury and inconsistency. He put up a 4.70 ERA in 39 appearances at Double-A Akron, and in 44.0 innings allowed 37 hits, 0 homers, 39 walks, and had 46 strikeouts. He is another returnee from the 2012 AFL team who once again missed time off and on this past season because of various injuries and it really affected his consistency. There is a ton to like about him because he can hit triple digits on the radar gun, limits hits and home runs, and gets strikeouts, but the walks continue to plague him. This fall it will be all about getting his work in, staying healthy, and getting more consistent with his delivery to set him up for an important 2014 campaign and hopefully get him on the right track.
Jeff Johnson (RHP): Johnson, 23, is an up-and-comer in the pen who continues to put up great numbers to go along with some interesting stuff. In 46 combined appearances this season at High-A Carolina and Double-A Akron he went 0-1 with a 2.25 ERA, and in 48.0 innings allowed 40 hits, 2 homers, 15 walks and had 50 strikeouts. That ability to limit hits and walks and get swing and miss has him squarely on the Indians radar as a possible pen option in the near future and the AFL will be a great test for him. He has a nice fastball that gets up to 95-96 MPH with good movement and a very good out-pitch splitter. He will continue to refine his arsenal and delivery in the AFL and probably look to fine tune his inconsistent slider.
Will Roberts (RHP): Roberts, 23, had one of the more underrated seasons for an Indians prospect this past season. Overall, he went 8-12 with a 4.77 ERA in 27 starts between High-A Carolina and Double-A Akron, and in 154.2 innings he allowed 173 hits, 17 homers, 36 walks and had 107 strikeouts. Each of the five teams on the AFL roster has one pitcher that is a designated starter, and Roberts should be that guy for the Indians. The numbers were not overly impressive this season but he showed durability, the ability to eat innings, and can really command the baseball. He also pitched much better at Double-A than at Single-A the last two years. He’s looking like a Matt Packer-like prospect from the right side that is pretty polished and has a big opportunity this fall to show what he can do.
Tony Wolters (C/INF): Wolters, 21, is the young pup of the group and might be the most exciting prospect of the bunch. He made the transition from middle infield to catcher at the tail end of spring training this year so his playing time was limited, but even with such a huge conversion he managed to have a nice season offensively hitting .277 with 3 HR, 33 RBI and .722 OPS in 80 games at High-A Carolina. The Indians are very excited about his potential behind the plate and he solidified his standing as a legit prospect at catcher this season with some amazing strides in just six months at the position. The AFL will present the opportunity for him to face more experienced baserunners and work with more experienced pitchers, which will help him in his continued development behind the dish. He may also get some time at shortstop or second base.
Jake Lowery (C): Lowery, 23, had a nice bounce back season from a tough 2012 campaign as he hit .264 with 7 HR, 33 RBI and .796 OPS in 82 combined games between High-A Carolina and Double-A Akron. He came into the season in the best shape of his career and it no doubt helped drive his performance and the consistency of it all year. The Indians absolutely love everything about him from a makeup, character and leadership perspective, so now it is about getting much more consistent with his approach at the plate, tapping into his power more, and taking a big step forward in his receiving skills behind the plate. The AFL probably won’t provide him with a lot of playing time, but the experience being around so many good catching prospects and coaches could still really help even if he is not playing.
Joey Wendle (2B): Wendle, 23, had an extraordinary first full season and really put himself on the map with his performance as he hit .295 with 16 HR, 64 RBI and .885 OPS in just 107 games for High-A Carolina this season. He has a knack for hitting and has a very good approach as he will take a walk and limits strikeouts, but the most impressive thing with him is the raw power. He has such a nice, quick swing and a lot of strength in his wrists and forearms that he could be a 20+ homer a year player down the road if he maintains health and his approach does not erode. The big question marks are his age since he dominated High-A at 23 years old and also his defense which the opinions vary on but the general consensus is that he is an average at best defender. The AFL will be a big stage for him to showcase his talents and be considered a lot more seriously as a prospect going forward.
Tyler Naquin (OF): Naquin, 22, had a solid first full season as a pro and hit a combined .269 with 10 HR, 48 RBI, 15 stolen bases and .739 OPS in 126 games between High-A Carolina and Double-A Akron. He was much better at Carolina (108 G, .277 AVG, .769 OPS) and really struggled in his short stint at Akron (18 G, .225 AVG, .571 OPS), and while the power numbers were a surprise the bigger surprise was the lack of discipline at the plate as he struck out 134 times. He made huge strides as a defender in center field and should get everyday opportunities in the AFL to continue to fine tune his skills defensively. He also really needs to hone in on his approach and discipline at the plate so that his good bat-to-ball ability and good base-running skills can show more.
Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.
Really hope Wendle has a good experience. He can prove a lot with this opportunity.