Watching an Arizona Fall League game is like taking a glimpse into the near future. A higher percentage of players from the AFL make the major leagues than do Triple-A prospects. Usually about 20-25 % of major league All-Star rosters are comprised of players who spent time in the AFL at one point. These are players whom their parent organizations believe in. These players are nearly major-league ready. These players are about to face tougher competition than they have at any point in their careers and likely the highest level of competition they will face until they reach the major leagues.
Here, then, are the four pitchers and four position players that will represent the Arizona Diamondbacks on the Scottsdale Scorpions beginning next week.
RHP Bryan Augenstein, Age 23
After going 5-0 with a 0.78 ERA over his first six Double-A starts, Bryan Augenstein found himself in the major leagues as the first of what would be many midseason callups for the D-backs. He struggled in two big league starts before being reassigned to Triple-A Reno. He spent some time on the disabled list, then shuttled between those three levels of play with limited success for the rest of the season.
Augenstein totaled fewer than 100 innings pitched overall due to the injury and his sporadic use in the big league bullpen in September. His participation in the Arizona Fall League will boost his innings count up to where he can give the team a full season as the number five starter should the sinkerballer win that job in spring training. One interesting note about Augenstein is that his velocity did not improve upon moving to the bullpen, indicating that his future is as a starter.
LHP Tom Layne, Age 24
At the start of the 2009 season, Tom Layne did not look like a big factor in the D-backs' future plans. A bit old for the California League, the left-handed reliever was falling behind hitters rather than attacking the strike zone, which is something the organization frowns upon. Visalia pitching coach Wellington Cepeda was able to instill in Layne the confidence to trust his stuff and go after hitters, and Layne began to flourish. By the end of July, the sinkerballer had stepped into the starting rotation and was solid enough in four starts to merit a promotion to the BayBears' rotation once Jarrod Parker was shut down for the season.
Layne's 0-3 record, 4.94 ERA, and 24:19 strikeout-to-walk ratio in a half dozen Double-A starts won't wow anyone. He continued to get three ground outs for every fly out, however, which helped him hold Southern League batters to a .229 average and go 31 innings without allowing a single home run. Layne will be used primarily as a reliever this fall, which is the role in which he has traditionally been better, but the fact that he was able to hold his own as a starter against some advanced hitters late this summer has put him back on the prospect map.
LHP Scott Maine, Age 24
Scott Maine began the season in Mobile with fellow left-handed relievers Daniel Schlereth and Clay Zavada. Despite the fact that he pitched well consistently all season, he watched his teammates ascend to the major league level while he continued to toil in Double-A ball. Maine was finally promoted to Triple-A in early August, where he was greeted rudely with nine hits and five earned runs over his first three appearances.
But the way Maine finished out the season says a lot about his mental resiliency. Over his final seven appearances, the University of Miami product allowed just three hits over eight shutout innings, earning saves in his final two games. Maine enters the Fall League supremely confident in his abilities, but uncertain of what kind of opportunities he will receive in 2010. The D-backs' 40-man roster is filled to the brim with three extra star players on the 60-day disabled list as well. Zavada and Schlereth are likely to open the season as the D-backs' left-handed relief corps and Maine will likely need to wait for an injury to one of them to even get added to the 40-man roster.
RHP Cesar Valdez, Age 24
Like Augenstein, Cesar Valdez will be battling for the fifth starter's role in Phoenix after battling injury for part of 2009. Unlike Augenstein, Valdez got off to a rough start this year, sporting a 7.50 ERA and .327 BAA over his first three starts. Valdez made some adjustments, however, and went 5-3 with a 3.23 ERA in the months of May and June. All told, he fared better than many expected in a hitter's ballpark and league, going 7-6 with a 4.78 ERA in 96 innings.
The reason his success was somewhat unexpected is that his fastball tops out in the high-80s. Where his impeccable command and strong secondary pitches allowed him to miss the bats of less-seasoned players, Valdez was only able to fan 60 Triple-A batters in 96 innings, which is generally not a recipe for success at Aces Ballpark. He was nevertheless able to induce a lot of ground balls through location and with his changeup, which can bite like a splitter.
1B Brandon Allen, Age 23
Allen created quite a bit of excitement by batting .324 with 12 homers and 32 RBI in 38 games with the Reno Aces after being acquired from Chicago in the Tony Pena deal. He then disappointed somewhat after a callup to the majors by hitting just .202 with four homers and 14 RBI in 32 games with the D-backs. Those four homers, however, averaged 422 feet in distance, according to hittrackeronline.com.
A closer look at his Triple-A numbers reveals that he benefited greatly from playing at Aces Ballpark. Clearly, when Allen hits the ball on the sweet spot, it carries out of any ballpark, as evidenced by his homering once every 12 Aces at-bats both at home and on the road. However, Allen really enjoyed the park's batter's eye, which allowed him to bat .359 in his home games. It's absence limited him to a .279 clip away from Reno. What Allen must work on in the AFL is seeing the ball better under any conditions - not just favorable ones - as his 40 strikeouts in 104 major league at-bats is wholly unacceptable.
SS Pedro Ciriaco, Age 24
Ciriaco initially struggled in his transition to the Southern League, batting just .180 in 61 April at-bats. Since then, he has hit .314 in 408 at-bats. The sinewy shortstop surprises with occasional power despite his skinny build, and has blazing speed. He finished second in the league with 38 steals and was caught just 10 times for a terrific 79% success rate.
The real reason that Ciriaco was selected to both the Mid-Season and Post-Season All-Star teams for two straight years, however, is his defense. Ciriaco has always made acrobatic defensive stops that defy belief and rocket throws to first base. But his error rate has improved for four straight seasons, making him as reliable as he is spectacular. Ciriaco will take over at shortstop if Stephen Drew has injury problems again next season. Don't be surprised if he eventually bumps Drew to second base because of his defensive prowess, either.
OF Collin Cowgill, Age 23
Every major league organization is allowed to send one player to the AFL who has not yet played above A-ball. The Diamondbacks selected Collin Cowgill for that honor not only because he was limited to 61 games before he fractured his right hand in June, but also because Cowgill has a swing and an approach at the plate that should handle elite pitching.
Cowgill took the California League by storm, batting .311 with a dozen extra-base hits and 18 RBI through his first 20 games. His production tapered off in the subsequent month-and-a-half prior to his hand injury, but Cowgill still showcased a rare combination of power, speed, defense, and the ability to control the strike zone. He remains one of the best outfield prospects in the farm system and should begin 2010 in Double-A regardless of his AFL numbers.
OF Cole Gillespie, Age 25
With the impact that Brandon Allen made on the Aces this season, Cole Gillespie's excellent performance went largely underappreciated. In 42 games since coming over from the Brewers' organization in the Felipe Lopez trade, Gillespie went .304/.418.514. Like Allen, however, those averages were far less impressive away from Aces Ballpark, at .276/.357/.431.
Because Gillespie is the oldest of the D-backs that will appear in the AFL and because the major league outfield is crowded with Justin Upton, Conor Jackson, Eric Byrnes, Gerardo Parra, and Chris Young, Gillespie is under a lot of pressure to produce. His AFL performance will go a long way towards determining whether the D-backs will add Gillespie to the 40-man roster before the Rule 5 draft this winter. If they elect not to, the other 29 teams will be able to claim Gillespie, and the Felipe Lopez deal would look pretty lopsided.
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