The rosters for the Arizona Fall League were released today. Six White Sox minor league players will be participating, along with a hitting coach, as part of the Glendale Desert Dogs.
Before we get into each player, some background might be helpful. The AFL is an annual prospect showcase that runs from early October to the middle of November, where MLB teams each send five to seven representatives as part of a combined squad. Players generally have been at the AA level or higher, though each team can have one (or sometimes two) exceptions to that relatively loose guideline. This all means the rosters of these six teams are layered deep with prospect talent, so it's a treat for the fans as well as scouts and executives.
The White Sox are aligned with the Glendale Desert Dogs, who play their home games at Camelback Ranch. The Glendale team opens play on Tuesday, October 9, at Peoria. They play a 30 game slate, and then there is a one-game championship November 17. Here's a link to the league schedule.
So how do team decide who to send? Beyond the AA-level guideline, here are some reasons clubs typically put players in the fall showcase:
- Key prospects who missed time to injury, to make up reps
- Minor leaguers with 40-man roster decisions looming in November, so that both the native team and other teams' evaluators can make decisions on roster additions or possible Rule 5 selections in December
- Players who the team wants to expose to consistently deep opposing talent, and see how they handle it (these players sometimes are set for accelerated development paths going forward)
- Showcasing talent to the rest of the league as potential trade bait
So AFL teams are not simply the team's top upper level prospects. With that background, let's look at the Sox entrants for the 2018 edition, including the rationale behind the decision, and what to expect from each.
Luis Robert, OF, A+ Winston-Salem (age 21)
- Who is he: A top fifty prospect in all of baseball, ranked around third in the Sox system, seen by some as a true five-tool talent. The ceiling of a starting center fielder with plus speed, plus raw power and plenty of arm is tantalizing, but he's nowhere near major league ready. Robert missed the majority of the season due to thumb injuries (re-injured same thumb).
- Why he's here: Primarily to make up for lost time. He's going to finish the year with only about 30 regular season games under his belt. But the AFL is also key for Robert to test his batting eye and hit tool against a phalanx of high-talent pitchers, in the hopes of accelerating his development.
- What to watch for: In addition to just staying healthy, Robert's hit tool has the most question marks. The Sox will be hoping Robert shows some selectivity in his plate appearances, and consistency in his swing. His contact rate could be telling.
Luis Alexander Basabe, OF, AA Birmingham Barons (age 22)
- Who is he: Occasionally residing just outside of MLB Top 100 prospect lists, Basabe is another toolshed outfielder like Robert. Tenth in the Sox system at present, Basabe is a more polished than Robert but has a lower ceiling. That said, he's got a decent shot to stick in center field with his foot speed and above average arm. His raw power has typically graded above average as well, and there's athleticism to burn. His 2018 has been an encouraging bounceback from an injury-addled 2017.
- Why he's here: This choice is a little less clear, as he's already on the 40-man roster and has played a full season across two levels. But there is still rawness in his game, both at the plate (swing and miss) and defensively (routes and general maturity). So mostly this looks like development acceleration.
- What to watch for: Similar to Robert, ensuring Basabe can put together good plate appearances against advanced pitching is key. So watch for his ability to work long counts and get pitches to drive. If he can get some center field reps, watch how he tracks.
Zack Burdi, RHRP, AAA Charlotte Knights (age 23)
- Who is he: One of the best relief pitching prospects in baseball - Fangraphs listed him as the only bullpen arm in their recent MLB Top 125 list. Coming off Tommy John surgery last year, he's recently been on a rehab assignment with the AZL club. Prior to the surgery, Burdi broadsided hitters with an 80-grade fastball that ran from 97 to 102 mph, a slider hovering around 90 mph with big bite that is plus when on and a change-up around the same velo as the slide piece.
- Why he's here: Reps - that's it. He has little to nothing left to prove against minor league hitters, having knocked them down effectively through AAA last year. He just needs to get his arm back up to speed, literally and figuratively.
- What to watch for: Don't focus too much on velocity - he likely won't yet be back to triple digits. In recent AZL rehab action there were reports ranging from 93 to 97 on his fastball, from Eric Longenhagen of Fangraphs as well as our local correspondent. As long as he's at least in that range, generally around the strike zone and has some amount of command of his offspeeds, that's a win.
Laz Rivera, SS, A+ Winston-Salem (age 23)
- Who is he: A lesser known than those listed above, Rivera is a true pop-up prospect who's gone from a 28th-round senior signing in 2017 to a borderline Top 30 prospect in the system. Defensively he seems likely to be able to stay at shortstop, gaining praise for his glove and footwork from scouts. Offensively he's aggressive but has hit for average and some power at three stops in about 1.5 pro seasons.
- Why he's here: Coming into the system at 22 years old and turning 24 in September, the team needs to push his development timeline. What better way than an extra month of play, against some elite pitching prospects?
- What to watch for: So far, that hyper-aggressive approach at the plate has not hurt Rivera in terms of results (18.2% K/PA. .315 AVG, .358 OBP in 2018). But as he moves up that won't continue to be the case - he needs to be more selective. Long counts, and ideally maybe some walks (he's drawn 10 in 495 PA so far this year), would be positive indicators at this point. With his speed, defense and lightning-quick bat, adding patience at the plate, could make him into a valuable major leaguer.
Zach Thompson, RHRP, AA Birmingham Barons (age 24)
- Who is he: A 6'7" reliever in his 5th pro season, he moved into the bullpen midway through last year. Thompson relies on big downward plane on his fastball paired with a spike curveball. The results this year across High-A and AA have been strong: 7.0 H/9, 3.5 BB/9, 9.3 K/9.
- Why he's here: Thompson would be exposed to the Rule 5 Draft this winter if he's not added to the 40-man roster. His chances of getting added aren't high, nor are the odds of him being selected, but both are non-zero. Turning 25 during the AFL campaign, the team needs to see what they have in him, and there's a chance he could even be a trade candidate. He's here for talent evaluation.
- What to watch for: Stuff, pure and simple. How effective is his combination of heavy fastballs and knuckling curves against elite hitters? Does he look like a guy who could be a major league reliever in 2019? That question is in play for both the White Sox and other clubs watching.
Tanner Banks, LHSP, AA Birmingham Barons (age 26)
- Who is he: An 18th round pick in 2014, Banks will turn 27 before the AFL completes. He's been used almost as a system-wide utility starter, moving up and down to different affiliate rotations and posting mostly solid results at each level. The stuff is fringy but it's been effective, he's a workhorse and he throws a ton of strikes.
- Why he's here: Banks was certainly the biggest surprise on the roster. He has been effective enough up through AA to be valuable to the organization, but doesn't appear on or near any top prospect lists for the Sox. The team would need to add him to the 40-man roster in November to avoid exposing him to the Rule 5, but he doesn't seem to be at high risk of being selected.
- What to watch for: His results in AA this year improved a lot over 2017, but has his stuff advanced enough to put him on the prospect radar? He certainly fills the zone, but questions remain on if he has the pitches that could anchor a repertoire with major league potential, perhaps even as a reliever? Our writers haven't gotten a look at him this year so we'll be watching for the same things our readers are.
Winston-Salem's hitting coach Charlie Poe will be taking on the same role for the Desert Dogs in the fall league. So the offensive players will have a familiar coach to work with.
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