Baseball: Arizona Fall League-Fall Stars Game

Each fall, many of baseball top prospects descend on Arizona for the annual Arizona Fall League. A baseball wonk’s dream, some of the biggest blue chippers in the game compete in an exhibition schedule designed to showcase their talents and get much needed repetitions against top talent.

theScore’s Steph Rogers spent a week covering the AFL, talking with many of baseball’s future stars. Below is her introduction to the AFL experience and an interview with Cubs top pick in the 2013 draft, Kris Bryant. Enjoy!

It could be any November day in the Phoenix area. The temperature hovers in the low-mid 60′s and in one of MLB’s spring stadiums, a smattering of fans can hear strike three slicing through the air. It’s that calm.

Arizona Fall League is baseball’s six-week finale for the game’s top prospects. There’s an underwhelming amount of coverage for an overwhelming amount of talent across the six teams in two divisions.

Every autumn since 2002, the league’s managers and coaching staff select one player to be honored with the Joe Black Most Valuable Player award. It’s namesake, former Brooklyn Dodgers right-hander, was the first black pitcher to win a World Series game. Manager Chuck Dressen brought him out of the bullpen to make three starts in seven days for the Dodgers’ run in 1952. They lost the Classic, 4-3, to the New York Yankees.

At 78, Black died in Scottsdale. It was 2002.

Asked about Black after his death, Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully said: “His legacy is the thought that unheralded players can rise to the heights, that someone who at the time was considered an ordinary athlete could wind up pitching Game 1 of the World Series.”

Scully wasn’t talking about Fall League, but the legacy he describes could be all of the players who trek stadium to stadium each fall.
Not that any of these men, even the ones who look young enough to still be wandering the halls of a high school, are ordinary. They’ve already been told they’re something special; they’ve been selected in a June marathon first-year player draft from thousands of high schools and colleges, or plucked from the Caribbean or Latin America. They’ve already stood out to the experts and analysts in charge of ranking their skill sets and predicting their futures in a prospect list. Now, they’ve been sent to the desert after their regular season for one last hurrah — what their organizations hope will be the few extra swings or pitches they need to keep being something special.

Of the nearly 3,700 Fall Leaguers in the last two decades, 197 were named MLB All-Stars. Fall League’s alumni boasts 11 MLB MVPs, three Cy Young Award winners, three World Series MVPs and 24 Rookies of the Year. Players have recorded Silver Sluggers and Gold Glove Awards. They’ve led the Majors in hits, RBIs, and stolen bases.

Chip Cannon was the Joe Black MVP in 2006. An 8th round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays in the 2004 draft out of South Carolina’s The Citadel, Cannon was the Southern Conference’s batting champion that same season. The left-batting, right-handed pitcher posted a 4.59 ERA in his 15 starts. In 18 games in the Appalachian League, his arm tossed a 4-0 season, striking out 38 in 37 2/3 innings of relief.

Cannon raced through the Midwest and Florida State Leagues in 2005 as a first baseman, finishing his first full professional season with Double-A New Hampshire. In 2006, his slugging percentage (.476) was third best in the Eastern League, his 226 total bases good for fourth best. He played the second-most games (135). Cannon also was the runner-up in strikeouts, with 158.

Toronto sent him to Arizona.

Among the best competition in the minor leagues, Cannon found his swing. He hit .352/.460/.714 with the Phoenix Desert Dogs and walked 21 times in 29 games. He was the home run leader, with 11. Cannon also led the league in RBIs (29), total bases (75), slugging percentage (.714) and OPS (1.188).

The Desert Dogs were 20-11 that season, the only team to finish with a winning record. Phoenix captured the AFL title game, 6-2, over the Grand Canyon Rafters.

Elsewhere in the valley, Yunel Escobar was the batting champion (.407). He led the annual AFL Top Prospects team, a group that saw many of its names appear perennially on Major League lineup cards in the near future (Astros’ Hunter Pence, Diamondbacks’ Mark Reyonolds, Padres’ Kevin Kouzmanoff), some became perennial All-Stars (Rockies’ Troy Tulowitzki, Rays’ Ben Zobrist) and some went on to make headlines for failed drugs tests, subsequent suspensions, and perennial denial (Brewers’ Ryan Braun).

Red Sox’s Jacoby Ellsbury wasn’t named to that group of top players, nor was then-Met Philip Humber. Though roughly 60 percent of AFL graduates have historically reached the major leagues, the rest will never fly on charter flights, or make the nearly half-million dollar minimum salary in their first year on a big club payroll, or play a grueling schedule under the lights of 30 big stadiums.

This year, on November 30, Chip Cannon will celebrate his 32nd birthday. He has an ordinary career slash line (.255/.340./.476) to his name. He struck out 609 times, about 1/3 of his total at-bats (1,809) over his time at every rank of the minor leagues. In 2009, He was released by the Montgomery Biscuits, Tampa Bay’s Double-A affiliate after hitting .103 in eight games. He had three hits — all home runs. He struck out 21 times. That was it. The show goes on.

Cannon was heralded in a Citadel school release as “one of the most prolific baseball players in program history” in advance of his induction into athletic department’s Hall of Fame. The former Baseball America All-American was one of six athletes to be honored on Nov. 13, 2013.

The same day at HoHoKam Park in Mesa, Ariz., Kris Bryant had a rare day on the bench as the Solar Sox defeated the now-Glendale Desert Dogs, 3-2. Within the week, Bryant was the 2013 recipient of Joe Black’s award.

As the focus was on the Boston Red Sox conquering the St. Louis Cardinals at the end of October, Bryant had both members of the media (yes, all two) wanting to talk to to him. The Cubs’ first-round pick (second overall) last June graciously gave his time, something he’ll find he has much less of as he makes his way to Wrigley Field.

Bryant was selected by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 18th round out of his Las Vegas high school in 2010. The third baseman chose college over Toronto. At the University of San Diego, he was the hitting leader for two straight seasons in the West Coast Conference.

He hit .354/.416/.692 in 18 games at Short-Season Boise and .333/.387/.719 in 16 games at Daytona in the Florida State League this year. Against the best pitching from every organization’s farm, Bryant didn’t slow the tear. He finished his AFL season batting 364/.457/.727 and earning his MVP nod.

He’s sitting in the Cubs dugout at HoHoKam for the first and last time this fall. I mention something about the familiarity of a spring home, as if Bryant’s been doing this forever. He reminds me that he’s never been to spring training. It’s the memo that he’s playing (and speaking) at a level above many of his peers. He’s still brand new.

The Chicago club will move down the freeway in Mesa when pitchers and catchers report in 2014. Bryant will probably find he’ll continue to tear through the Cubs system regardless of where he calls his spring home.

Bryant represents one path and Cannon is another. We’ll hear from five other prospects from around this year’s Fall League: Twins right-hander Alex Meyer, Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager, Mariners right-hander Brandon Maurer, A’s shortstop Addison Russell, and Nationals lefty Matt Purke.

They each talked about who or what helped them get to where they’re at, what the professional experience has brought, and what the next challenge is. Even with a similar set of questions, they’re all very, very different players.

The hundreds of players who pass through the AFL every season are just as diverse. They spend six short weeks at this crossroad — a literal and figurative equal playing field — before heading off in their own directions again for however short or long their careers will go.

Less than a week after Chip Cannon became a Citadel Hall of Famer on Nov. 13, he attended his swearing-in ceremony at Charleston Law School. Kris Bryant was planning to take a deserved break with family and friends in his native Las Vegas before he starts preparing for his first February.

——

SR: There are so many sources to influence a game, whether it’s something you’ve seen or been told or discovered on your own. Obviously only so much of it works for every person. What was the first piece of advice, or lesson, or method that you can remember actually improving your play?

KB: I think the biggest thing was probably high school when things started to quicken up a bit, you start to see scouts at your games. The coaches I played for used to say, “You never know who’s watching you.” And I really took that to heart because you could be practicing, there could be nobody in the stands and someone could be watching you. It could be a general manager of a team. I just try to go out every practice, every game just playing as hard as I can and trying to do everything right. That piece of advice has really helped me along the way.

SR: Did it ever make you nervous not knowing who might be watching? How do you adapt to the feeling of having a set of eyes on you once it’s brought to your attention?

KB: I wouldn’t say it did, but if you know who’s there, you might see someone you know, it’s in the back of your head that you want to do well for them. It never really affected me. I think just being exposed to that at a young age, I mean, I was a sophomore in high school, it really helped me being able to handle that (going forward).

SR: When you were first drafted by Toronto in 2010, you decided to go to college. There must be a big difference between who you were and how you were playing at that point to when the Cubs selected you in June.

KB: Oh yeah. I could go on and on. There’s so much. In high school, you’re really young. You’re not as mature as you’d be in college. There was a whole lot I had to learn. I’m really glad I went to college. I mean, little things, like learning how to do your own laundry and cooking your own food. Having the responsibilities that you didn’t really have when you were living with your parents at home. It really helped me grow up. A bunch of things on the field, too. There’s so much more to this game than going out there and hitting a ball or fielding a ground ball. There’s scouting reports and figuring out what the pitcher’s going to throw you and how the other team plays the game. There’s so much stuff that i never really thought of in high school that going to college really helped with.

SR: What part of that translates best into playing professionally?

KB: I would say the preparations. Just sticking with a routine that works for you. That was what we did every day. We’d go in and do the same thing. If you’re doing that, you’re going out on the field, you’re ready to succeed. You have a whole lot of confidence knowing that if you’re doing the same thing every day, you’re going to get similar results every day. That was a big thing for me.

SR: Obviously that’s paid off, with where you’re at right now.

KB: Absolutely. Absolutely, I would say 100 percent. One of the biggest things we did in college was the whole mental side of the game. Before every game, we’d sit in a circle and have a team breathe session where our coach would walk us through some thoughts we’d have in our head. The mental stuff, preparing us for the game by visualizing – the pitcher on the mound, that kind of stuff. I really try to incorporate that into my game here (at fall league), but it’s kind of tough when you don’t know who’s pitching every day or you haven’t seen these guys before. I’m sure I’ll be able to do it in the future though.

SR: What are your current preparations like and when did you adopt that routine for a game?

KB: Doing the same thing. Figuring out what time the game is, waking up at the same time, getting to the field early, eating breakfast. I take everything slow. If you’re rushing on game day, you don’t feel yourself. I try to get here early, sit at my locker for a little bit and relax. Go hit in the cage, go out and take ground balls, take some BP. Literally, the same thing every day. I think baseball players are creatures of habit and we do what works for us. If it gets you this far, we kind of stick with what’s been working.

SR: At this point, who do you love to face? Not a name necessarily, but the type of pitcher you want to see standing on the mound.

KB: I like hitting off lefties because we don’t see them that much. You see their arm a whole lot better than you see a righty; it’s coming from behind your back. I still have trouble at times. They’re all good pitchers out here. It’s made me make some adjustments out there.

SR: What benefit is there to an offseason league where you’re around coaches and players from other organizations in terms of how you approach your game?

KB: It’s huge. Guys from different organizations all have bits of advice for you that you might not get with your organization. It’s really good to talk to the coaches but I think the biggest resource for us is the other players to see how they go about their business and watching their routines.

[Each organization sends seven players to AFL. Six teams are created, each comprised of players from five organizations. From the first week in October until the middle of November, games are played Monday through Saturday, highlighted with the annual 'Fall Stars' All-Star Game, and capped with the championship game on the final Saturday night. Bryant and the Cubs prospects played alongside players from the Angels, Athletics, Nationals and Tigers. The A's will move into HoHoKam when the Cubs vacate next spring.]

SR: Whose routine have you liked here?

KB: A good one for me is Wes Darvill. He’s actually with the Cubs. He doesn’t play every day, but he’s always out there working as hard as he can. He’s never wanting to not take a ground ball, which is something I admire. He has a really, really good work ethic. Watching him, just out here on the field, really motivates me to do what he’s doing.

[It's an interesting choice for Bryant, who received a $6.7 million signing bonus in June, to cite Darvill as a good resource. The 22-year-old logged five seasons in the Cubs' farm, finishing this year with a .253/.324/.365 line in the Florida State League. Darvill was selected in the fifth round of the draft in 2009, one year after Brookswood Secondary high school teammate Brett Lawrie went 16th overall to the Brewers. The left-handed hitter wasn't supposed to be in Arizona this year. Top shortstop prospect Javier Baez was set to lead the Cubs' Fall League delegates, but was a late scratch by Chicago. When Baez was dropped from the roster, Albert Almora was moved from the taxi squad (roster spots that are active just twice each week) to the regular roster. Darvill took Almora's spot on the taxi squad.]

 

SR: What’s your current challenge, the thing you’re working on trying to figure out?

KB: I tend to be a perfectionist. There’s so much I want to work on. The biggest thing is not getting myself out. I think that’s a big thing for all of us. Even watching it on TV, hitters go up there and they’re not swinging at the right pitches, you know, chasing balls out of the zone. That’s what I really want to work on. Just trying to get a good pitch to hit and putting a good swing on it. Not necessarily getting hits or hitting home runs or driving people in, just hitting the ball hard and getting a good pitch to hit.

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