Fall Instructional League 2015 - Recap

Every year in mid-September, once the minor-league seasons have ended, a brief supplemental season for the youngest / newest minor league players, including many from the Dominican or Venezuelan leagues, head to Arizona (and Florida) for the Fall Instructional League, or “Instructs” as they’re called. For 3 weeks, the 50+ farmhands who were invited to attend, work on particular aspects of their game in a relaxed “teaching” environment, while also playing games to put what they’ve learned into practice.

Generally speaking, the activities take place on the backfields in the early part of the day. Players report with the sunrise, coaches arrive when it’s still dark. Drills and skill-building takes place while it’s still relatively cool. Except this year – with record heat…but never mind that.

Each team schedules a Camp or Work day at least once a week. Games are scheduled Mon through Friday at 12:30pm and on Saturdays at 10:00am. On a team’s last game of the session, game time is 9:00am. Sundays are a league-wide OFF day, just as it is in the Arizona Fall League.

That being said, given their informal structure, anything may be changed at any time as long as the two teams agree. Most of us learn that the hard way. Then again, this isn’t a league that wants spectators, either. It exists to help the players with more personalized attention and instruction one last time before heading home until the spring.

Instructional League games are the standard nine innings…usually. Sometimes 10 if a pitcher needs to throw. Some additional differences from regular season games include:

  • Most pitchers will throw usually 2 innings, often only 1, rarely 3 or more.
  • A batter may come to the plate every inning, which is quite common with rehabbing major league players with their team in playoff contention – they get the at-bats needed.
  • “Roll it!” is bellowed from the dugout, bringing the inning to a close. Usually when it looks like the 3rd out isn’t as close as expected.
  • Stats and scores are not documented or even kept.

The White Sox played their first Instructional League game on September 22nd and their last on Saturday October 10th. The next day, players headed home with an off-season plan and a solid season under their belt.

I attended a handful of games and saw members of the AZL Championship team, as well as several rookies (and a few other youngsters) who spent the season in Great Falls and/or Kannapolis, and several stateside debuts of new international signees, as well. Oh…and I saw a first round pick. Again. {Spoiler alert: he’s good.}

I was fortunate to talk with White Sox Director of Player Development Nick Capra – one of the nicest, most helpful front office executives there is. We talked about various names on the roster, I asked for some insight, his opinion, and he obliged.

First and foremost: there is in his view a prototypical position player in the White Sox farm system: The Grinder. One who leaves it all out on the field and at the plate. He hustles, doesn’t focus on individual an role; does concentrate on being a team player. His uniform is clean before first pitch, but after that, chances are slim it stays that way. Each player on this roster, to a man, fits the description.

And, as Capra adds: “They play the game the right way.”

I knew this about the players on the AZL Championship team. I loved watching that team play – loved it! Hustle, diving, fearless grinders; on the field and on the basepaths.

At the plate: Bunt for a single? Sure. Sacrifice? Ok. Whatever is needed. That’s the attitude I saw from Jake Fincher, Danny Mendick, Bradley Strong, Tyler Sullivan, Corey Zangari and Seby Zavala throughout the summer, as well. As expected, the group that led the Arizona League in almost offensive category, performed well during Instructs.

The standouts to me, during Instructs include:

Zangari’s offensive power is a given, but his defensive skills, which were the focus of his instructed efforts, really are underrated.

Great Falls’ –  Frank Califano, Grant Massey, Antonio Rodriguez, and Casey Schroeder. Cut from the Grinder mold.

Califano’s defensive skills as an outfielder are swoon-worthy; attention-getting, awesome.  Massey’s skills at the plate and on the basepaths made me interrupt a conversation with another team’s scouting director, so I could pay complete attention.

Rodriguez (“A-Rod”) is listed at 6’4”, 190 lbs and it must be old information – he is more solid than that. The 20 year old, with decent speed and a good arm, will grow into his tall frame.

I worried that Schroeder, with his strawberry blond hair and fair skin would sizzle in the unseasonably hot “fall” we’re having. Silly me. He’s a catcher, and a good one. He’s tough. He was fine. Actually, he was more than fine. Solid defender, good arm, good with a bat.

Since we’re talking about catchers who can hit a little and who are strong defensively… Seby Zavala is at the very top of that list. He spent more time as a DH than he did behind the plate while in camp, but there’s nothing this kid doesn’t do exceptionally well.

Five international signees from the most recent signing period made their first stateside visit. I saw a few of them in action, and they all have one thing in common: they are all so young! Seriously. When they signed in July, they were 16 years old. Since then, 2 have turned 17: Brayant Nova on August 25, and Franklin Reyes on September 11. The other 3 will join them: Santo Vasquez on November 27, Fernando Tatis Jr on January 2, and Harvin Mendoza on February 18.

Generally, teams will bring some of their international rookies to Instructs after a full season in the Dominican or Venezuelan leagues (the Sox have just the DSL team). The game is faster in the states and the Sox are to be commended for testing these teenagers right away.

I asked Capra what he saw from the young players. In his usual candor, he said “All are good; talented; and young. For a first look, they’re all performing well.”

The three I saw include:

OF – Franklin Reyes, a 6’4”, 235lb righthanded outfielder from the Dominican Republic, who was the 27th ranked international free agent in that class. Reyes, who turned 17 on September 11, signed for $1.25 million. His power is the attention grabber; both his arm and bat. For someone so young to be his size means there is still quite a bit of “filling in” to come. Wow.

3B – Fernando Tatis Jr. – listed at 6’3”, 185lbs – and that sounds about right. The 16 year old son of former MLBer, performed well at the hot corner. High socks on the tall, thin right-hander complimented his projectable power.

Harvin Mendoza, a 5’11”, 180lb lefty from Venezuela, was not listed on the roster I had. After a little digging, I was surprised to find he wasn’t pitching. A lefty, who as recently as last year, was quite good on the mound. Mind you, this is as a 15 year old. But after watching him play 1st base (not the outfield he was signed as), usually in tandem with Zangari, I saw why he’ll be an everyday player. Good bat boosted by a little leg kick, good speed, and decent defensive skills, as well.

While position players often play half a game, each pitcher is on the mound for one or two innings. As expected, the pitchers’ innings up to the end of the season determine who will participate and how much.

The arms I saw, in very limited time include: White Sox top draft pick, RHP Carson Fulmer who went well into the college baseball postseason with Vanderbilt. And RHP Jordan Stephens, who was on a strict innings limit throughout the AZL season, and pitched 1 inning during Instructs and then returned home to start his off-season.

Among those I saw for the first time include right-handers Matt Cooper, Danny Dopico, Drew Hasler, Lucas Shearrow, and David Trexler. Good stuff from each – given the very limited time I saw them.

I also saw a group of pitchers who I first saw in the AZL: Chris Comito, Taylore Cherry, Brandon Quintero, Jaider Rocha, Andres Sanchez, and Yosmer Solorzano. Each was as solid during this short time as they were during the summer. Brandon Quintero flies under the radar, but he brings his arsenal of a fastball, slider, change-up with him. On top of the fact that I have never seen him have a bad outing, Capra offered, “He’s a pitcher; not a thrower.”

Great group of pitchers; great group of position players.

Taylore Cherry (6’9” 290lbs) and Drew Hasler (6’6” 245lbs) are the bouncers; the ones you’d want to walk you to your car in a dangerous neighborhood (if you were me). Hard throwers, both, but not gas. Deception and size work in both their favor.

The Instructional League is not a time to report stats or even production. It’s a time to learn and grow; when the field coordinators and front office personnel can see the players one last time before the off-season.

There is so much to be positive about within the White Sox farm system.

Watch it grow.

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