The Arizona Rookie League (AZL), also known as the Fire League, started in earnest yesterday. It features official minor league teams but is cut from its own cloth when compared to other levels. Familiar FutureSox face Kim Contreras offers a nice primer of the league as a whole, which you absolutely should check out.
The gist of it is that AZL Rookie Ball features the newborns of the system; typically those who are recent draftees or international signings. Some of the independent minor league signings tend to skew older. Rosters are fluid, often seeing churn as players are promoted. The atmosphere is more developmental than competitive, yet by no means are these not real games. The players are tuned in, finally tasting professional baseball under the bright lights and hot Arizona nights for the very first time.
Games are played at Cactus League facilities, meaning you can catch AZL games at the White Sox’s Camelback Ranch home in Glendale, Arizona. The league is of the a non-revenue variety, so the experience is unorthodox and Kim goes through just what to expect.
While these games may have a different vibe for fans, it’s business as usual for the players and the launching point for many in the organization. This year is no exception, as the roster features some of the newest names straight out of the 2016 amateur draft.
Ever Magallanes is the manager, while Gary Ward takes on hitting instruction and Felipe Lira serves as the pitching coach. The complete roster can be found here, but some highlights will be touched on below.
The White Sox are hoping to bear some fruit from their revamped presence in the international market. Luis Castillo (2012, $450,000), Maiker Feliz (2013, $450,000), and Felix Mercedes (2014, $250,000) are three infielders signed out of the Dominican Republic who are names to watch on this year’s AZL team. Keep an eye on Amado Nunez as well, as he’s been getting some rave reviews from scouts who saw him in last fall’s Instructs.
It will be interesting to see who from this group might escalate through the system, but it’s nice to see this new wave of international players finally making its way onto a stateside affiliate. Of the three, only Mercedes has had significant time in AZL Rookie Ball.
Luis Curbelo was a 6th round pick in this year’s amateur draft and was inked to a hefty, over-slot $700,000 deal. Curbelo may or may not have the goods to stick at shortstop, but the 6’3″, 185 lb infielder could profile in a corner spot if he taps into his power. Ranked 104th on MLB’s pre-draft pipeline, he’s said to have “excellent bat speed and some offensive upside.”
The prize in this category is Micker Adolfo. Rated FutureSox’s 10th best prospect, Adolfo has some hype to his name. Signed to a team record $1.6 million deal in 2013 he had been rated the #2 international prospect by MLB.com. Adolfo got his first taste of the AZL at just 17 years old. That’s over two years younger than the average player at that level. He showed some pop over 47 games but struck out in over 40% of his plate appearances. He gave the AZL a second go last season and was showing an improved hit tool through 22 games, but his season ended abruptly when he broke his leg on a slide home.
Adolfo opened 2016 in low-A Kannapolis but struggled through 15 games. He’s here on rehab from a recent, minor injury, so in theory he’d be back in Kannapolis soon. Still just 19 years old, Chicago can certainly afford to be patient with him. This will be a key season for Adolfo as a strong showing in will add more helium to his profile. He has tantalizing power potential but the key will be if he can forge an approach conducive to tapping into it.
Franklin Reyes is just 17 years old but will be getting his first look in rookie ball. Chicago’s largest international investment during the 2015 signing period ($1.5 million), Reyes has major power potential. MLB.com gave him a 70 grade in that department before his signing. It makes sense as Reyes has decent bat speed from a a 6’4″, 205 lb frame.
His power will always be his calling card as the rest of his tools are fringe level or highly raw. Outside of a strong arm, his defense may never be anything special. Same goes for his speed. The concern is really couched in his hit tool as it’s expectedly raw. Like Adolfo, he’ll need to develop an approach that allows the power to play. Overall, Adolfo and Reyes are highly intriguing prospects but they’re also major tests for a system that has consistently failed with these types of profiles.
2016 13th rounder Michael Hickman will get his start in the AZL but the other catcher to keep tabs on here is Jhoandro Alfaro. The younger brother of Jorge Alfaro, the top prospect who went to the Phillies in the Cole Hamels trade, Jhoandro has less of a ceiling but still holds intrigue. Signed in 2014 as a 16 year-old out of Columbia he comes with better defense. However his bat will take some time to catch up. Alfaro had a tough time in 28 AZL games last season and will look to get back on track this year. He has the defense to stick behind the plate and a competent bat could make him a serviceable backstop down the road. He’s currently on the 7-day disabled list, so we’ll see a lot of Hickman too, especially early.
The pitching on this year’s AZL club is stacked with recent draftees. Louisville RHP Zack Burdi is at the top. Burdi is a Downers Grove, IL native with nasty stuff. He sports significant velocity and has even topped 100 mph on his fastball. Behind the plus-fastball he has a slider and change up. In theory he could be worked out as a starter with hopes of honing in his command and developing a fourth pitch, but the realistic future is that of a back-end bullpen guy. One school of thought is that the 21 year-old was taken by Chicago with hopes of being fast tracked to the bullpen for the stretch run. If that’s the case and 2016 stands as a target year, Burdi’s time in the AZL may be short-lived.
2nd rounder Alec Hansen will also make his White Sox debut in the AZL. The 6’7″, 225 lb right-hander has massive potential but is quite the project. The Oklahoma University product features a plus-fastball and a slider that can run up to the mid-80s. He’s got a curveball in his arsenal as well and even a feel for the change-up. With such a durable frame and potentially four pitches, Hansen has all the looks of a starter. The issue lies in his control and his BB/9 ballooned to seven during a junior season that saw him unceremoniously relegated to bullpen duties. Hansen could be a hidden gem though. The stuff is there and control might be what ultimately controls his destiny.
Jimmy Lambert (5th round, 2016), Bernardo Flores (7th round, 2016), and Ian Hamilton (11th round, 2016, and an over-slot bonus) are other arms going straight to the AZL after being fairly high draft picks in ’16.
Blake Hickman opens the season here, currently on the DL as he continues to recover from Tommy John surgery. Hickman was taken last year in the 7th round, despite the early word being he was unsignable, but he went to the surgical table before he played in any pro action. He’s a significant prospect, and one to watch when he does get back into action.
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