Diamondbacks AFL Participants

The Arizona Diamondbacks send four starting pitchers, a reliever, a catcher, an infielder, and an outfielder to the Arizona Fall League this year as members of the Phoenix Desert Dogs. Play begins Tuesday, October 7th when the Desert Dogs host the Mesa Solar Sox at 12:35 pm MST. Find out more about the D-backs' participants inside.

What does it mean to participate in the Arizona Fall League?  Usually, it means that you will be playing in the majors within the next year or two, and probably at a very high level.  The 2006 All-Star Game, for instance, featured 25 AFL alums.

This year, the AFL rosters have expanded from 30 to 40 per team, allowing each parent organization to send eight prospects to play there rather than the usual six.   Here is more info on the eight Diamondbacks prospects that will play for the Phoenix Desert Dogs this fall:

Max Scherzer, RHP

Scherzer is one of two Desert Dogs currently on a 40-man roster and the only one of these eight Diamondbacks who participated in the AFL last season.  In fact, he is the perfect example of player making an impact at the major league level shortly after participating in the AFL.  Although he suffered from blown leads and lack of run support, Scherzer compiled a 3.41 ERA in seven starts and a 2.37 ERA in nine relief appearances with the Diamondbacks.

With the Scottsdale Scorpions last fall, Scherzer fanned 18 batters in 12.2 relief innings while allowing just six hits and three earned runs.  This fall, Scherzer will work as a starter, pitching about four innings per game to prepare him for full-time starter's duty next season.

"We just want to build up his innings," D-backs general manager Josh Byrnes said. "It's just a conditioning aspect and building him up to the neighborhood of 140 innings."  

Scherzer will also work on an offspeed pitch to combat left-handed batters, who hit him at a .319 clip at the major league level this year.  Right-handers batted just .167 against him.

Brooks Brown, RHP

Brown had a disappointing 2008 season, having gone 6-15 with a 4.18 ERA after going 10-7 with a 3.20 ERA last year.  Part of the culprit may have been fatigue; Brown had been 6-10 with a 3.54 ERA prior to his final six starts of the season, in which he went 0-5, 6.40.

The question, then, is why would the organization choose to pitch him in the AFL rather than let him rest his arm for next year? This is something of a sink-or-swim mentality.  Brown was a supplemental first-round draft pick two years ago, and is envisioned as more of a workhorse middle-of-the-rotation pitcher than as a dominant, Max Scherzer type.  If Brown cannot maintain his effectiveness deep into games and deep into the season, the Diamondbacks may as well find out now, because he would not be very effective as a relief pitcher (5.88 ERA in the first inning this season).

It is entirely possible, of course, that his past six starts were merely a bump in the road for a young pitcher still trying to figure things out or trying to do to much playing behind an offense that provided him with very little run support.  His performance in the AFL and subsequently in the 2009 season will go a long way towards gauging his future worth.

Hector Ambriz, RHP

Like Brown, Hector Ambriz struggled with the Mobile BayBears this season, but still remains one of the organization's top pitching prospects.  After going 10-8, 4.08 in the hitter-friendly California League last year, he went 5-13, 4.89 in the pitcher paradise that is the Southern League. 

Unlike Brown, Ambriz did get stronger as the season progressed.   He was 2-8, 5.77 through his first dozen starts of the year, then went 3-5, 4.18 the rest of the way, and did not allow more than two earned runs in any of his final six appearances. 

Ambriz, then, seems to have made adjustments to the stronger, more disciplined batters he faced in Double-A than what he was used to in A-ball.  The hitters he combats in the AFL now will represent another big step up from unfiltered Double-A hitting, so it will be very interesting to see how quickly he can adjust once again.

Tony Barnette, RHP

Possibly the most improved pitcher in the organization, Barnette rose to the challenge of skipping a minor league level.  His success in Double-A was hardly immediate, as he went 2-5 with a 6.60 ERA in his first nine starts.  He worked hard to correct a mechanical flaw and alter his approach slightly to the advanced hitters he was facing, and went 9-2, 2.87 for the remainder of the season.

"It's been a good learning experience for me," Barnette said of his double promotion.  "These past couple of months, I've proven to myself, and hopefully proven to they guys who gave me the opportunity, that I do belong to be here and that they made the right decision.

Clearly, in selecting him as one of four starting pitchers to participate in the AFL, the Diamondbacks have shown that they will continue to challenge Barnette.  Should he respond with a dominant AFL performance, he could be knocking on the door to the majors by the end of 2009.

Reid Mahon, RHP

Reid Mahon is the ultimate underdog story.  After going undrafted as a five-year senior in 2006, he has emerged as the best pure reliever in the Diamondbacks' system.  He was perfect in 18 save chances in Mobile this year before hitting a bit of a speed bump in Tucson, where he walked 14 in 24 innings en route to a 5.25 ERA.

He will face similar challenges in the AFL, whose stadiums present the same difficulties for pitchers as Tucson Electric Park does, and whose hitters are at least as good as the average one found in Triple-A.  Mahon's heavy, sinking fastball gives him a great weapon with which to combat the hot, dry air that allows fly balls to carry there.  What he needs to work on is the command of his slider, which does not break overly much and cannot always be thrown for strikes consistently.  Good hitters can sit on his sinker and stand a chance, whereas if he had a quality secondary pitch to use, any hitter would be in deep, deep trouble facing him.

John Hester, C

John Hester has seen increased playing time in each of his three seasons with the Arizona Diamondbacks, though his production has remained steady.  Neither the conversion from aluminum to wood bats nor the superior pitching that he has faced at higher levels has curtailed his offense.  He was considered excellent defensively coming out of Stanford and has gotten even better, throwing out 30% of would be basestealers, posting a .988 fielding percentage, and allowing just five passed balls in 2008.

What is left for Hester to learn in the AFL?  "I could definitely improve more power-wise and average-wise," replied Hester.  "I'm still learning my swing and what I need to do. I'm a long way from reaching my full potential on offense, I believe."

Hester batted .311 with 17 doubles and nine home runs in the final three months of the season, so we have already begun to see the improvement of which he speaks.  With Wilkin Castillo now a Cincinnati Red, a strong performance in the AFL could make Hester the first catcher in line to step into a role with the big league club.

Rusty Ryal, 2B/3B

Originally drafted as a third baseman, Rusty Ryal has now played nearly as many games at second base as at the hot corner in his minor league career.  He claims to be equally comfortable at both positions, but his career fielding percentage at second is an impressive .979, while his mark at third is just .912.

With Orlando Hudson unlikely to return to the Diamondbacks next year, Chris Burke and Augie Ojeda coming off disappointing seasons, and Emilio Bonifacio having been traded to the Nationals, Ryal could realistically be asked to help out the major league squad at second base.  His bat could probably use one more season in the minors, however, so this stint in the AFL is a great opportunity for him to accelerate his learning process.

That learning process was evident this season when he improved his Double-A OPS from .696 in 47 games last year to .777 in 128 contests this season.  His strikeout rate improved from once every 4.0 at-bats to once every 4.8 at-bats.  Simply pitting the ball in play often gives you a chance when you are playing in Arizona.

Evan Frey, CF

Frey enjoyed one of the most impressive seasons of any Diamondbacks position player prospect.  Not only did he create havoc on the base paths and flag down anything hit even remotely close to centerfield, but Frey continued to hit the ball with authority as well. 

Frey made 290 putouts and gunned down 10 base runners from centerfield this season while his 37 stolen bases were second to Oaks teammate Pedro Ciriaco within the organization. He has now hit .313 in two minor league seasons with a .395 on base percentage.

The most surprising aspect of Frey's selection is his inexperience.  Usually, players join the AFL after a full season at the Double-A level. Frey has only played for two months above Low-A ball and has yet to taste Double-A action.  If he can hold his own in the AFL against older, more seasoned players, Frey's stock in the organization will rise even further than it has over the course of this year, if that's possible. 

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