Pleskoff: AFL set to showcase elite young talent
For a baseball fan, this might be the best time of year. It might be the best fall vacation a baseball lover could ever imagine. One fact is certain: It's among the best opportunities to see a collection of top baseball prospects in a relatively condensed geographic area. It's a month of watching future stars in a relaxed and unpressured environment. Unlike Spring Training, the Arizona Fall League is all prospects, all the time.
In culinary terms, it's a Filet Mignon dinner with creamy mashed potatoes, stuffed mushrooms and nicely sliced tomatoes on the side. It's a three-scoop hot fudge sundae with whipped cream and a plump cherry resting cheerfully on top. It's like not having to eat green vegetables. It's like being selected to be the judge in a 4th of July rib tasting contest. Well, you get the picture.
That, friends, is what the Arizona Fall League is like for baseball fans. It's that good.
The AFL was founded in 1992 in Phoenix, Ariz., and was brought to life by its architect, 2011 Hall of Fame Buck O'Neil Award winner Roland Hemond. Hemond believed in the concept of keeping players together in one place during the offseason. The AFL provided clubs the opportunity to shepherd top prospects through the process of continuing their development. The players in the AFL could be monitored, encouraged and be provided the opportunity to refine their skills in front of the watchful eyes of team assigned coaching and training personnel. It was a brilliant concept. And it's worked beautifully.
Hemond and a staff of very dedicated, hard-working baseball executives planted the seeds of a fantastic concept and nurtured it with long hours, knowledge, wisdom and baseball experience. They created something from nothing. With few resources and pockets full of hope, the tireless AFL staff consisted of a few optimistic and positive thinking people. They beat the bushes to find sponsors. They developed team logos and nicknames. They created a schedule, leased Spring Training facilities, and in some cases, even sold food outside the stadium. They handled all the logistics for team rosters and even picked up the players at the airport.
Led by its first president, Mike Port, the small staff plowed ahead against difficult odds for success. The AFL was a new product for Major League Baseball. The concept was fresh. Creative. It hadn't been done before. There were skeptics. It would cost money. Would there be a return on the investment? The staff did everything possible to create a culture of welcoming hospitality to players from each of the 30 big league clubs. Players were being given an opportunity to showcase their skills in the beautiful fall Arizona weather.
To this day, the league takes on the caring, 'how can we help?' culture established by Roland Hemond and the initial staff of the AFL.
The inaugural staff may have been the most dedicated people on the planet. People like Port, his assistant, Tim Purpura, director of marketing Lou Klimchock and administrative assistant Martha Jo Black, (daughter of the late Joe Black) put the idea into practice. Each of those individuals has been impactful in the game. They turned a concept from the drawing board to reality. They didn't have a permanent office until two weeks before the season began. They put it together with hope, trust in one another and a belief in the concept of player development.
The brightest star in the AFL galaxy remains active with the league today. A critical contributor of the original staff, senior administrator Joan McGrath is the thread around which the AFL quilt is sewn. Some say that no individual is indispensable. Joan McGrath may be the exception to the rule. Since the inception of the league, countless staff and players have been touched by the tireless and unselfish work of McGrath. In short, she makes things happen.
Effective and efficient Steve Cobb is the current director of the AFL. He and his staff have done a wonderful job building upon the traditions and nuances that make the league so special. He is extremely proud of the class of 2011 that will begin play Tuesday and conclude with the championship game Saturday, Nov. 19. The patchwork quilt that is the AFL is certainly the sum of its parts. Every Major League club sends prospects to form the league. A compilation of five big league clubs is placed together to form one of the six teams that comprise the league. Two 3-team divisions send their top clubs to the championship game. Specific guidelines are used to form the rosters.
AFL players wear the jerseys of their home club. Each player wears a hat with the AFL team logo. Fans enjoy seeing the away uniforms of their favorite team, something they don't usually experience.
This year, the AFL may host one of its most exciting arrays of prospects. Director Cobb has indicated, "The 2011 rosters are deep and talent-laden and could become one of the most impressive classes we've showcased in Arizona."
Notable participants include the top two picks from the 2011 Draft -- Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole, the No. 1 overall pick, and Mariners' top Draft choice, Danny Hultzen. The Brewers' top pick, Jed Bradley, was assigned to the league but then was pulled out when he suffered a groin injury.
There are also six 2010 first round Draft picks playing this year, including the '10 first overall pick, Bryce Harper. And Harper will be playing in the same outfield as Mike Trout, the No. 1 overall prospect on MLB.com's >Prospect Watch list.
The league provides players the opportunity to work on pitching or hitting mechanics in a less stressful setting than a regular season game. Most pitchers have logged their quota of innings on the mound by the time the AFL games are played. In some cases, however, pitchers are assigned to the league to make up for lost time due to injury. That will be the case with Diamondbacks prospect Charles Brewer, who had a concussion and an injured hand that cost him time at Double-A.
Other players want to hone their skills after a season that needed a little more refinement. That will be the situation with Florida Marlins third base prospect Matt Dominguez and Angels catcher Hank Conger. Often those additional at-bats and a tip or two from the coaches on hand can rejuvenate a player and send him on his way to a career in the big leagues.
Rosters include 35 players per team. Each Major League team is required to provide seven players. Each AFL team is provided with 20 pitchers. Only 15 pitchers are eligible each game day.
Some players listed on the advanced rosters have already played for their Major League club. For example, San Francisco shortstop Brandon Crawford, San Diego's James Darnell, the Tigers Will Rhymes and Danny Worth, the Rockies' Tim Wheeler along with the Angels' Conger have seen Major League playing time. Pitchers like Scott Diamond of the Twins and Anthony Bass of the Padres will be given a chance to gain additional experience on the mound beyond what they gained during the Major League season.
The AFL will be a "finishing school" showcase of talent that should not be missed.
Bernie Pleskoff has been a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.