A Postcard From Arizona: Fall League Cubs, White Sox

Most people who visit Phoenix and vicinity from the North do so between New Year’s Day and Easter, the better to escape the frigid weather in their regular habitats. It’s nice here then—except for the summers, it usually is—but that’s not my favorite time in my adopted home area. If I were coming, I’d pick October or November.

Unlike in winter it almost never rains here during those months, and while October high temperatures regularly top 90 degrees the saw about “dry” heat actually is true and makes conditions more pleasant than with similar readings elsewhere. By November, average highs have dropped into the 70s, perfect by any standard. The sunshine, light air, and deep-blue desert sky conspire to create a Chamber of Commerce idyll.

Best of all, October and November are when the Arizona Fall League holds forth in the Valley of the Sun. The AFL is baseball’s—and Arizona’s—best-kept secret, and persists in that distinction even though it’s regularly advertised as such in the local news outlets. That’s fine with me because I like it just the way it is.

The AFL consists of six teams of 35 players each, seven from each of the 30 Major League clubs. It’s a minor-league finishing school for some of the better Class A and AA prospects, with a few AAA players and an occasional young major leaguer in need of additional innings thrown in for leavening.

The teams play 32-game schedules, this year beginning Oct. 9 and ending Nov. 17, with daily bills usually consisting of two day games and one at night. The venues are the nicest little ballparks you’ll ever see—the spring-training homes of the Cubs (in Mesa), Giants (Scottsdale), A’s (Phoenix), Padres and Mariners (Peoria) and Rangers and Royals (Surprise). Admission is cheap: $7 for adults, $6 for seniors and kids.

Spring-training baseball in Arizona means crowds, traffic jams and ticket scalpers. Not the Fall League. The parks each seat between 8,000 and 10,000 people but daily attendance rarely tops 300, including the scouts who sit hunched behind home plate with their radar guns athrust. You can sit just about anywhere you want, with extra seats for elbowroom and foot propping.

Parking is free and rarely more than a few yards from the gates. Your chances of taking home a foul ball are good, especially if you’re willing to leave your seat to pick one up. If you’re proud of your opinions you can share them with the players, coaches, umpires, and fellow fans merely by raising your voice.

The baseball isn’t Major League, but it it’s not far behind. Much of the fun is in watching the 20-to-24-year-olds play and guessing which will be starring in the Bigs, and when. Sometimes, this isn’t difficult: it didn’t take a Tony Lucadello to pick out the likes of Ryan Howard (AFL 2004), Ryan Braun (2006), Evan Longoria (2007) or Starlin Castro (2009). Usually, though, the players are two or three years short of bloom, so you can puff your chest a bit if you’re eventually right. The league says that about 60% of the 3,500 players who have performed in it since 1992 have made a big-league roster.

I’ve seen a few players this fall who look like excellent bets to make it big in the Bigs. Alas, none of them are in the employ of the Cubs or White Sox. Billy Hamilton, a Reds’ prospect, showed up here as possibly the game’s fastest player at any level and has done nothing to disappoint; in one game he scored from second base on a routine pitcher-to-first groundout. Lanky Nick Castellanos, in the Tigers’ chain, is just 20 years old but is mature physically and hammers the ball to all fields. Good catchers always are at a premium, and the Mariners’ Mike Zunino is a sturdy, strong-armed youngster who hits with power from that position.

It’s testimony to the long-range nature of the Cubs’ rebuilding plans that the team’s two highest-rated prospects—outfielders Albert Amora, who’s 18 years old, and Jorge Soler, 20—aren’t far enough along in their development to rate a Fall League look. Each has only a fraction of a rookie-league campaign under his professional belt.

The most touted young Cub here is Javier Baez, their first-round draft choice of 2011, who won’t turn 20 until December but has put in a season of A ball. His has been a good news-bad news story in Arizona. The good news is that when he hits the ball it goes, with three home runs and a league-leading 13 RBIs in his first 11 Fall League games. The bad news is that he lacks plate discipline (11 strikeouts to one walk) and was hitting just .213 in a hitter’s league.

Baez is a shortstop, a post at which the Cubs appear set with the above-mentioned Castro. Baez is being tried at third base here but the early returns have been poor; he made two errors in one game I saw and would have had another if a teammate hadn’t dug this force-play throw out of the dirt.

Nonetheless, Baez’s Fall League manager, Rodney Linares of the Astros’ chain, forecasts a bright future for the young man. “He’s been jumpy at the plate and maybe a little uncomfortable in the field, but you can see he has the talent to be an impact player,” says Linares. “It’s just going to take some time.”

A couple of other Cub prospects may have earlier Wrigley Field arrival dates than Baez. Outfielder Matt Szczur (pronounced “Ceezer”) is a dirty-uniform type whose stocks in trade are hustle and speed; he needs to get on base to be effective but works hard to do it. Kevin Roderick, 24, is a rare Fall League pitcher who is getting his breaking balls over the plate consistently, and he’s shown an effective changeup as well. Manager Linares says he could be in the Cubs’ bullpen in 2013.

The top-rated White Sox’ prospect here is 21-year-old outfielder Trayce Thompson, a second-round draft pick in 2009. He looks to be at sea with a .105 Fall League batting average (2-for-19) through October 23, but had 22 home runs in Class A last season so has hit the ball sometime. Andy Wilkins is a heavy-legged first baseman with a walk-off, game-winning home run to his credit here. The Sox will need first-base help in a year or two and could give him a look.

The biggest Sox splash has been made by Andre Rienzo, a pitcher with a curious resume. He was born and raised in Brazil, and last season served a 50-game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs (at 6-foot-3 and 160 pounds the right-hander could use some bulking up), but he’s been whipping wicked fastballs past Fall League hitters, and his minor-league stats are good.

The Sox like skinny pitchers—can you say “Chris Sale”?

Just sayin’.

STORY ART: Main image made in-house with photo courtesy riptheskull/cc.

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