The Arizona League is professional baseball unlike anything you’ve ever seen. On any given night, there are a small handful of people who aren’t employed in the sport watching games. At least a third of the roster is inactive each night, watching the game in shorts and warm-ups on the metal bleachers flanking the back fields. Tight pitch counts and inning limits mean that you probably won’t see a starting pitcher pick up a win all year.
But it’s also a fantastic place to watch as young international players make the adjustment to the United States, newly-drafted players acclimate to the professional game, and rehabbing players from multiple levels work their way back into shape. If you’re ever in the Phoenix metro area in the summer, it’s worth spending a night out at the AZL – but bring your own drinks. And seats.
Righty Andres Muñoz, the youngest player on the roster at the start of the year, may not weigh any more than his listed 165, but he has big velocity. In his outing on Thursday, he sat 96-98 with good movement on his fastball, and also broke out a 77 MPH slider. He came back Saturday and held the velocity without much effort in the delivery. He doesn’t project to add a lot of muscle to his 6’2” frame, but he’s got fantastic arm speed and good strength in his lower half.
When Muñoz took the mound Thursday, nearly a dozen other pitchers who’d been sitting lazily in the stands came and huddled around the backstop to watch and catch radar guns, and all the support staff stopped what they were doing for the first two batters – always a good sign that you’re in for a treat. He’s still got a lot of work to do to refine his command, but his upside may be greater than that of anyone I saw throw.
I only got a brief look at Fernando Tatis, Jr. and Hudson Potts, who got the news of their promotions after Thursday night’s game. But the two 17-year-old infielders both stand out for loud tools. Potts appears to be carrying more muscle than his listed 180 pounds, and is noticeably stronger than he was on the Perfect Game showcase circuit last summer. Even as one of the youngest members of the draft class, he already shows an advanced approach on both sides of the game.
Tatis doesn’t set up at the plate with his hands quite as high as his father did, but it’s also not hard to see shadows of his father’s mechanics in his swing. He absolutely crushed a ball to the left-center gap (TrackMan had it at 109 MPH exit velocity), but a gusting wind knocked it down so that it bounced off the track for a ground-rule double. In virtually any other setting in professional ball, it would have been a no-doubt homer. That’s just one of many reasons that stat lines in the AZL can be less than informative. (The next night, to make up for it, the wind was blowing out at the same velocity and helped several balls.)
Outfielder Tre Carter’s signing was delayed when a regular check-up with his physician raised concern about a potential heart issue. But after a month of monitoring and further exams, the 11th-rounder got full medical clearance and signed just before the deadline. A fast-twitch athlete who at one point was considering an opportunity to play wide receiver collegiately, the left-handed hitter finally got into game action just before my trip out. After a 2-for-4 night on Thursday, he was visibly frustrated working on drills in the cage Friday. It will be interesting to see how he handles challenges next spring as he competes for a spot on the TinCaps roster.
A slightly more under-the-radar late-round high school outfielder really stood out even though he wasn’t yet in game action. Jack Suwinski, was dealing with a minor leg issue, but he was cleared to hit live BP on Saturday. Swinging from the left side, he showed impressive raw power, blasting several balls out to right-center, but also worked to the opposite field some. He’s built very solidly and may grow out of the speed he’d need to stay in center, but the Illinois prepster, who got $450,000 above the standard pick after the 10th round, could be an interesting player to watch in 2017. He didn’t turn 18 until the end of July.
Of the three high school pitchers from this year’s draft class, I only saw Dan Dallas in game action, but I watched both Mason Thompson and Reggie Lawson throw bullpens. Dallas, the lefty in the group, is not nearly his listed 6’2”, but he uses his body to really drive through his pitches. Thompson, who’s 6’6” and just over 200 pounds right now, has the most advanced approach of the three and clearly used the experience during his rehab process to learn more about his craft. It probably doesn’t hurt that he’s had plenty of exposure and coaching from former big-leaguers since before he entered high school.
Lawson has the biggest velocity of the trio, cutting loose in the mid-90s even in his side session. He was definitely working to find the feel with his change in the 30-pitch bullpen I saw. Thompson has topped out at 93 so far in game action. It’s not hard to project either of the righties adding 20 pounds of muscle before they reach the big leagues.
Catcher Bryant Aragon has some of the easiest pull power in the system. After spending most of his age-17 season rehabbing a shoulder injury in the desert last year, he’s been much less restricted in his second go-around. A native of Sonora, Mexico like Luis Urias, he didn’t produce much on the field this year, but if he’s free and clear from the outset of spring training next year, he and Jose Lezama could be in a pretty solid competition behind the plate.
Reinaldo Ilarraza was the most advanced of three shortstops the club signed internationally last summer, so he stayed stateside when Kelvin Melean and Kelvin Alarcon headed to the DSL after spring training. The switch-hitting 17-year-old had a pair of shin injuries this year – after recovering from the initial bone bruise, he slammed a foul ball into the exact same spot in his third game, and sat for almost three more weeks – and was still noticeably hobbling when I saw him. He went hitless in the eight at-bats I saw, but drew a few walks and had a solid approach from both sides of the plate. His numbers in 13 games this year should be pretty much ignored.
The wonderfully-named Henry Henry is definitely one of the loosest guys around. He was almost always talking – with fellow players, coaches, ground crew, pretty much anyone who didn’t move away fast enough – constantly in motion, and easy to pick out from a distance. A month older than Muñoz, the Dominican righty is already more of a physical presence and will grow more. He dealt with a little bit of a leg issue earlier in the summer, so I saw him work after a 13-day layoff. His velocity wasn’t where I hear it has been before, sitting 91-92 with his fastball, and he could probably stand to calm down a bit. But it’s easy to see what Chris Kemp’s international scouting staff saw in him last summer.
The departure of Tatis and Potts meant that Eguy Rosario came over from the Dominican a week before his 16th birthday. The infielder (he’ll play best at second/third rather than shortstop) looked completely at home from the moment he first walked out of the clubhouse early Friday afternoon. His approach through cage work and batting practice was efficient and mature, using easy mechanics and fast wrists to spray balls around.
In his first game action, the Dominican – who’s closer to 180 than 150 pounds – was jumpy initially, swinging at a first-pitch change in his first trip to the plate and grounding out on the first pitch in his second at-bat as well. But in his third time up, he took a few pitches, settled in, and then rifled a single to left for a clean hit. Obviously, 30 at-bats in the AZL don’t tell you much about a player, but the fact that he was there to get them certainly does. Rosario has emerged as a player who deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the other talented young infielders who have been AJ Preller’s bread-and-butter in talent acquisition and development.