Updated AFL Recap: Week one

In 2004, the six teams of the Arizona Fall League set records for batting average, slugging percentage and runs per game. To combat this offensive surge, Major League Baseball encouraged teams to send more developed arms to the showcase winter league this year. A week into the season, this strategy is yielding less-than-stellar results.

How much have the hitters dominated thus far?
Through 14 games played, the league batting average is .312.
The Grand Canyon Rafters and Peoria Saguararos have a combined ERA of 11.83.
And the Javelinas' 5-3 victory on Monday – the league's lowest-scoring contest yet – is one of only four games in which neither team scored in double-digits.

To understand just how many extra-base hits have been launched into the desert skies, look no further than Padres' first base prospect Michael Johnson. On its own, his .550 slugging percentage is quite impressive… until you realize that team leader Dan Uggla (Diamondbacks) has more than doubled Johnson's output at 1.143. But in the power-happy AFL, even that gaudy number is only good for third place behind shortstop sensations Brandon Wood (Angels) and Stephen Drew (Diamondbacks).

It's not too hard to discern the reason for this disparity. With pitching prospects restricted to tight inning and pitch counts, teams are not eager to send their top arms out to the desert after a long season of work. While 18 position players taken in the first round of the draft over the last three years are in the AFL, only five pitchers with such pedigrees joined them.

The Padres' contribution to the league reflects the typical dichotomy. At the plate, Johnson and George Kottaras represent two of the organization's top position prospects. Johnson has averaged a homer every 20 at bats through three seasons and Kottaras is a career .300 hitter. Corey Smith is a former number one draft pick whose raw power is unquestioned even as he struggles with plate discipline and making consistent contact.

On the mound however, Jack Cassel has amassed a 26-29 record working mostly out of the bullpen since 2002 and hard-throwing lefthander Rusty Tucker just completed a sub-par year at Double-A Mobile while coming back from Tommy John surgery. Even Craig Breslow, who contributed to the big league team this season, was in independent ball just one year ago.

While it's hard to imagine that the Surprise Scorpions will hit .400 through the season's final game, or that the league will continue to average three home runs a game, last year's 12.07 runs per game is most likely in danger.

Perhaps in 2007, Major League Baseball can move the outfield fences back to 500 feet and call batters out after only two strikes to even things up a bit.

Notes:

Through the first week, Johnson has hit .300 with a .391 on-base percentage. Ironically, the lefty has fared better in his early match-ups against southpaws. He has collected four hits – including a pair of doubles – in six at bats against lefties. During the year in Lake Elsinore, he slugged .130 points higher against righties.

Jack Cassel, whose ERA at Triple-A Portland would have been 3.29 but for a six-run outing at Tucson in June, has not allowed a run in two AFL appearances thus far. He earned the victory with one inning of relief in the season-opener, then held Surprise to only one unearned run in three innings as a starter on Saturday.

Each of the Javelinas' four catchers got a start behind the plate, and have appeared in at least two contests thus far and both Jeff Clement (Seattle) and Kottaras have also seen action at DH. Kottaras is just 1-for-7 in his early action.

The Javelinas are tied with the Phoenix Solar Sox for their division lead at 4-1 through the first week. The Surprise Scorpions, who remain undefeated, handed them their only loss when they plated 13 runs after Cassel left the game on Saturday.


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