Arizona Fall League 2001 retrospective

I own a few baseball books, and from time to time, I’ll scour the shelves for inspiration. Usually I end up lost in one of Bill JamesBaseball Abstracts or an old STATS Baseball Scoreboard, but the other day I stumbled onto a thin volume I’d forgotten: The Arizona Fall League 2001 Media Guide.

I’ve long been drawn to the minor-league game, and in 2001, I finally drove out to Phoenix to get a first-hand look at some of the brightest “future stars” baseball had to offer. My main memories of that trip were having a blast talking baseball with my friend Bill all weekend and being impressed by a kid from San Diego making noise in the Texas Rangers organization — name of Hank Blalock (he paced the AFL with 11 homers that autumn and established himself in the big leagues shortly thereafter).

I could have hung out there for the entire season, but the realities of everyday life afforded me the opportunity to watch just two or three games. What is it about those games? The intimate setting? Knowing that one day you’ll be able to say you saw so-and-so before most people had heard of him? A little of each; I suppose it would be like having seen U2 at some random club in Ireland back in the ’70s.

As I flipped through the Media Guide, I was instantly transported eight years into the past. Books often have this effect on me. The words offer a particular meaning, but they also trigger images and memories.

In this case, I saw the names of so many prospects that never delievered on their promise: Tony Torcato, Mike Paradis, J.R. House, Eric Munson, Chad Hermansen, Geoff Goetz, Joe Borchard, Drew Henson, Joe Thurston, Chin-Feng Chen… It reads like a Who’s Who of careers that didn’t happen.

On the other side of the proverbial coin, you could field a decent team in 2009 with the best players from the 2001 AFL. Sure, your rotation would be a little thin (Justin Duchscherer would have been a candidate, but he missed all of 2009) and you wouldn’t have a true shortstop, but this isn’t a bad 25-man roster:

SP: Erik Bedard (Bal), Aaron Harang (Oak)

Bedard, then 22 (ages are 2001 baseball ages, i.e., as of June 30, 2001), had just completed his second professional season. In a harbinger of things to come, he dominated (2.15 ERA, 12.1 SO/9) at Class-A Frederick, but made just 17 starts. Bedard fashioned a 3.67 ERA in the AFL, fanning 27 in 27 innings. He made a cameo with the Orioles the following year before sticking for good in 2004, enjoying some success, and eventually being traded to Seattle for Adam Jones and others.

Harang, then 23, didn’t have as good a year as Bedard, although a 4.14 ERA at Midland — one of baseball’s most hitter-friendly environments — is more than respectable. AFL hitters batted .356 against Harang, who made 15 starts for Oakland the next year. In 2003, Harang was shipped to Cincinnati in exchange for Jose Guillen, where he has enjoyed a good run as an innings eater.

RP: Grant Balfour (Min), Mike Gonzalez (Pit), Matt Guerrier (ChA), Brian Fuentes (Sea), Bobby Jenks (Ana), Jeremy Affeldt (KC), Francisco Rodriguez (Ana)

Balfour, then 23, destroyed the Eastern League (1.08 ERA, 13.0 SO/9) in his first full season as a reliever before hitting a small bump after being promoted to Triple-A late in the year. Balfour worked just 12 innings in the AFL. He spent the following season at Triple-A, then received a late-season call-up in 2003. After missing most of 2005 and 2006 due to injury, Balfour bounced around before enjoying a breakout 2008 with the Rays.

Gonzalez, also 23, split the 2001 season between Class-A Lynchburg and Double-A Altoona, working both as a starter and out of the bullpen. Used exclusively as a reliever in the AFL, Gonzalez posted a 1.92 ERA in 22.2 innings, striking out 23. He returned to the Altoona rotation in 2002 before making a brief appearance with the Pirates in 2003. The next year, he emerged as a dominant lefty specialist and has been an effective reliever when healthy ever since. Gonzalez now plies his trade for the Braves, who in January 2007 acquired him for Adam LaRoche.

Guerrier, then 22, went 18-4 between Double-A Birmingham and Triple-A Charlotte in 2001. In the AFL, batters hit .216 against the young right-hander, who was traded to Pittsburgh for Damaso Marte the following March. Guerrier spent 2002 and 2003 in the Nashville rotation before being claimed on waivers by the Twins, who converted him to the bullpen, where he continues to thrive.

Fuentes, then 25, moved to the bullpen in his fourth full season in the Mariners organization, crafting a 2.94 ERA and 12.1 SO/9 in 52 innings at Triple-A Tacoma before coming up for a handful of appearances with the big club. Fuentes is listed on the Peoria Javelinas roster in the Media Guide, but I can find no record of his AFL accomplishments. Traded to Colorado for Jeff Cirillo in December 2001 (oops!), Fuentes took over the closer role in 2005. Now with the Angels, Fuentes has notched 163 career saves.

Jenks, then 20, had just finished his first full professional season. The stocky right-hander spent most of 2001 in the Cedar Rapids rotation before receiving a late-season promotion to Double-A Arkansas. He posted an ugly 6.97 ERA in the AFL but fanned 49 batters in 31 innings. The White Sox claimed Jenks off waivers from Anaheim in December 2004 and moved him to the bullpen. He came up to the big club in 2005 and has been closing games in Chicago ever since.

Affeldt, then 22, made 25 starts for Double-A Wichita in 2001, posting a 3.90 ERA. His ERA in the AFL was stratospheric (7.25), although he fanned 31 batters in 22.1 innings. Affeldt spent most of the following season in Kansas City and bounced between roles before settling in as a full-time reliever in 2007. Since leaving the Royals in a July 2006 trade, the southpaw has made brief but effective stops in Colorado, Cincinnati and San Francisco.

Rodriguez, then 19, made 20 starts for Class-A Rancho Cucamonga in 2001. Despite a lofty ERA (5.38), he showed promise (11.6 SO/9). Rodriguez, who is not listed in the Media Guide, fanned 22 batters in 13.1 innings in the AFL. He exploded onto the big-league scene a year later, winning five games in relief in the post-season. After dominating as a setup man for a couple of years, Rodriguez stepped into the closer role in 2005 and now has 243 saves to his credit.

C: Miguel Olivo (ChA), John Buck (Hou)

Olivo, then 22, had hit .259/.347/.472 at Double-A Birmingham in his first season with the White Sox (he was acquired from Oakland for Chad Bradford in December 2000). Olivo hit .295/.367/.477 in the AFL and spent the following season back at Double-A, where he hit .306/.381/.479 and stole 29 bases. He reached the big leagues in late 2002 and stayed for good. Olivo has bounced around a bit (five teams in seven-plus seasons) but enjoyed a fair amount of success despite his steadfast refusal to draw walks.

Buck, then 20, was coming off a .275/.345/.483 showing at Class-A Lexington. He hit .286/.347/.476 in the AFL, but then stalled out at higher levels in the Houston system. In June 2004, Buck was dealt to Kansas City as part of the package that brought Carlos Beltran to the Astros. After spending a few seasons as the Royals’ de facto starting catcher, Buck moved into a support role in 2009, backing up… Olivo.

1B: Jorge Cantu (TB), Travis Hafner (Tex), Nick Johnson (NYA)

Cantu, then a 19-year-old shortstop, had hit .256/.287/.342 at Double-A Orlando. The slash stats aren’t impressive, nor is the 17/93 BB/SO ratio, but a teenager playing a premium position at Double-A is always worth a second look. I can find no record of Cantu’s performance in the AFL, although presumably he shared time with Bill Hall. Cantu spent a couple more undistinguished seasons in the high minors before developing power in 2004. He came up late that season and followed it up with a solid 2005. After then nearly fading into obscurity, Cantu got a second chance in 2008 with Florida, where he has re-established himself as a productive hitter while moving down the defensive spectrum.

Hafner, then 24, found himself stuck behind Rafael Palmeiro and Carlos Pena (and about to be passed by 2001 first-round pick Mark Teixeira). After hitting .282/.396/.545 at Double-A Tulsa, Hafner played in just six AFL games before getting hurt. He followed up with a .342/.463/.559 performance at Triple-A Oklahoma and subsequent trade to Cleveland for Einar Diaz and Ryan Drese (oops!). With the Indians, Hafner established himself as a premier offensive force for a few seasons before being downgraded from “dangerous” to “useful” in recent years.

Johnson, then 22, was coming off a .256/.407/.462 campaign at Triple-A Columbus after having missed the previous season due to injury. He didn’t actually make it to the AFL, but saw material playing time for the Yankees in 2002. Larry Bowa‘s nephew was traded (with Juan Rivera) to the Expos for Javier Vazquez after the 2003 season. Johnson’s career to date is best described as “productive when healthy.”

2B: Mark Ellis (Oak), Orlando Hudson (Tor), Brandon Phillips (Mtl)

Ellis, then 24, had been acquired as part of the Johnny Damon trade a year earlier (Arizona manager A.J. Hinch and the late Cory Lidle also were part of that deal). Ellis hit .273/.351/.417 at Triple-A Sacramento and followed that up with a .308/.421/.471 line in the AFL. He took over as Oakland’s starting second baseman in 2002 and, except for the 2004 season, which he missed because of injury, has yet to be displaced.

Hudson, then 23, was coming off a .306/.382/.470 performance split between Double- and Triple-A. He then abused the AFL, hitting .426/.524/.750 and stealing eight bases. Hudson stepped in as Toronto’s starting second baseman the following season. After a few years with the Blue Jays, he spent some time in Arizona and now plays for the Dodgers, where he continues to be one of the game’s better second sackers.

Phillips, then 20, had hit .292/.372/.440 at Single- and Double-A. He followed that up with a .344/.396/.516 line in the AFL. In June 2002, the Expos, under stewardship of MLB and its agenda of extricating professional baseball from Montreal, sent Phillips, Grady Sizemore and Cliff Lee to Cleveland for 17 Bartolo Colon starts. Phillips never established himself with the Indians, though, and was shipped across the state a few years later, where he blossomed with the Reds.

3B: Chone Figgins (Ana)

Figgins, then 23, was acquired by the Angels for Kimera Bartee midway through the 2001 season and hit .234/.313/.332 in Double-A that year. I cannot find anything on Figgins’ AFL exploits, but he hit .305/.364/.466 the following season at Triple-A Salt Lake. After splitting time between the minors and Anaheim, he stuck with the Angels for good in 2004.

SS: Freddy Sanchez (Bos)

Sanchez, then 23, hit .334/.378/.456 at Single- and Double-A. He stayed hot in the AFL, posting a .348/.423/.426 line. Sanchez continued to rake in the Boston system, but never got more than a few cameos with the big club thanks to the presence of Nomar Garciaparra. Traded to the Pirates in July 2003, Sanchez shifted to third and then second base, where he carved out a nice little career for himself before being traded to the Giants this year.

LF: Carl Crawford (TB), Marcus Thames (NYA)

Crawford, then 19, was coming off a .274/.323/.352 performance at Double-A. As with Cantu, age and position (Crawford played center field back then) helped assuage concerns about his lackluster numbers. Crawford hit .386/.419/.514 and stole nine bases in the AFL. He split the following year between Triple-A and the big leagues, where he has ranked among leaders in triples and stolen bases ever since.

Thames, then 24, had just completed a monstrous .321/.410/.598 campaign at Double-A Norwich. He followed that up by hitting .346/.426/.568 in the AFL. Thames’ success did not carry over to the next year, however, as he hit just .207/.297/.378 at Triple-A Columbus before getting a cup of coffee with the big club. Midway through Thames’ second season at Columbus, the Yankees dealt him to the Rangers for Ruben Sierra. After seeing limited action in Texas, Thames signed with Detroit in December 2003 and has established himself as a serviceable fourth outfielder who feasts on left-handed pitching.

CF: Josh Hamilton (TB), Marlon Byrd (Phi)

Hamilton, then 20, struggled through an injury-marred .200/.250/.290 season in just 23 games split between Single- and Double-A. He made a token appearance in the AFL before being shut down again. Hamilton’s subsequent personal issues that led to his extended departure from the game (he sat out all of 2003-2005, and all but 15 games of 2006) have been well documented, as has his miraculous re-emergence as a bona fide big-league ballplayer. Despite missing so much development time, Hamilton contributes when healthy.

Byrd, then 23, hit .316/.386/.555 at Double-A Reading before posting a .331/.373/.459 line in the AFL. It took a few years and address changes, but Byrd finally established himself in 2007 with the Texas Rangers, where he splits time in center field with the aforementioned Hamilton.

RF: Michael Cuddyer (Min), Ryan Ludwick (Oak)

Cuddyer, then a 22-year-old third baseman, was coming off a .301/.395/.560 campaign at Double-A. He hit .336/.380/.516 in the AFL, then spent a few years trying to find his way at the big-league level before fulfilling his promise in 2007.

Ludwick, then 22, hit .264/.344/.484 at Double- and Triple-A but managed just 22 at-bats in the AFL before getting hurt. Traded to Texas before the 2002 season, Ludwick continued to pound baseballs in his new organization but never did much for the parent club. After another false start with the Indians, Ludwick finally kicked his career into high gear with St. Louis in 2007.

* * *

Some quasi-useful players didn’t make the cut: Gerald Laird, Mike Jacobs (then a catcher), Bill Hall (then a shortstop), Hank Blalock, Eric Hinske, Willie Harris, Austin Kearns.

You’d have to stick one of the second basemen at shortstop, and maybe try to move one of the others plus Hafner or Johnson for some pitching, but this isn’t a bad start. Here’s a possible lineup against right-handers (I’ve included a DH since we’re not playing actual baseball; the first set of slash stats represents 2009, the second represents career totals):

  1. Crawford LF, .305/.364/.452; .295/.335/.437
  2. Figgins 3B, .298/.395/.393; .291/.363/.388
  3. Johnson 1B, .291/.426/.405; .273/.402/.447
  4. Cuddyer RF, .276/.342/.520; .270/.344/.457
  5. Hafner DH, .272/.355/.470; .281/.387/.526
  6. Hamilton CF, .268/.315/.426; .292/.356/.508
  7. Hudson 2B, .283/.357/.417; .282/.348/.431
  8. Sanchez SS, .293/.326/.416; .299/.334/.417
  9. Olivo C, .249/.292/.490; .243/.278/.423

And here’s how it might look against lefties:

  1. Figgins 3B
  2. Hudson 2B
  3. Cuddyer RF
  4. Ludwick DH, .265/.329/.447; .271/.340/.493
  5. Cantu 1B, .289/.345/.443; .278/.323/.456
  6. Byrd CF, .283/.329/.479; .279/.340/.422
  7. Thames LF, .252/.323/.453; .243/.306/.491
  8. Sanchez SS
  9. Olivo C

Of course, the beauty of the AFL isn’t just getting to say you saw guys like Jenks, Rodriguez and Crawford before they became household names. At no extra cost, you’ll also be able to bandy about such now-forgotten names: Bobby Van Iten, Eric Eckenstahler, Josh Kalinowski, Craig Kuzmic, Kevin Eberwein, Jeremy Lambert and Donnie Bridges.

Best of all, you’ll come away with memories of watching talented kids pursue (with occasional success) their dreams. If you do it right, you’ll have a blast in the process.

References & Resources
The Arizona Fall League 2001 Media Guide, Baseball-Reference, Baseball America Almanac 2003. Special shout out to Bill Mitchell’s Minor League Watch, which proved invaluable in presenting stats from the 2001 AFL, which have become very difficult to find.

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Comments

  1. OsandRoyals said...

    Most of the pitching prospects are coming from double-A or triple-A so they’re advanced but typically have some problems with something.
    However there is no doubt that it’s a hitters environment with Arizona park effects, decent but not great pitching and hosting the best position player prospects around.

  2. Dylan said...

    Seeing the lack of cyrrent MLB startering pitchers is not that surprising, as most teams would rather not send their top pitchers unless they happened to throw a low number of innings that year. Most of the time you would see guys who are old for their league, or who scuffled during the year.
    Seems kinda counterintuitive to send some of your top hitting prospects to play against B level picthers, but its seems to work ok on the hitting side.

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