Now that there appears to be a plan in place for re-starting MLB, it’s time to begin thinking about the minor leagues. A traditional minors season remains a virtual impossibility, but per Baseball America, MLB has been considering the idea of expanding the Arizona Fall League (AFL) in order for each team to get prospects who might not otherwise see game action some much-needed live reps.
The AFL, often called “prospect graduate school,” is a short-season league made up of some of the brightest and most exciting prospects in baseball who are just a year or two away from their MLB debuts. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Ronald Acuña Jr. were in the league just a few short years ago, and Mike Trout, Mookie Bets, Bryce Harper, Aaron Judge, and numerous other baseball luminaries are all alums of the program. Teams also send players to the AFL for extra work if they’ve missed part of their season due to injury, or to get a more extended look at a player they’ve recently acquired in trade, as the Mariners did with Jose Caballero this past AFL season. Typically, the AFL runs from September to October, with every MLB organization sending five to seven prospects to play on six AFL teams (the Peoria Javelinas, the Scottsdale Scorpions, the Salt River Rafters, the Surprise Saguaros, the Mesa Solar Sox, and the Glendale Desert Dogs). For many of the players from East Coast teams like the Yankees and Orioles, this is the only opportunity they’ll have to play in Arizona spring training sites.
Under the expanded plan being considered, however, each MLB organization would field their own team of prospects utilizing their own spring training sites. Florida would become its own fall league (the FFL, I guess). According to the Baseball America article, there is even talk of a second team of lower-level prospects, which could help fill in the developmental gap left by the lack of a minor-league season.
Right now we can only speculate about which players would be included in an expanded AFL format, but the impending cancellation of the minor league season leaves many lower-level prospects who would not typically be candidates for the AFL without an avenue to play meaningful baseball. Players in the AFL are usually MLB-adjacent, having completed all or part of a season at Double-A, or in special cases—like that of Mariners phenom Julio Rodriguez—at least spent some time at High-A. But without an MiLB season, that leaves players like top overall pick Adley Rutschman, who has 47 PAs with the Delmarva Shorebirds of the South Atlantic League (A), without an opportunity to play. The same goes for the #2 pick in the 2019 draft, Bobby Witt Jr. (KC), as well as other Top-100 prospects like Kristian Robinson (ARI), Ronny Mauricio (NYM), Corbin Carroll (ARI), Kevin Alcantara (NYY), and others, to say nothing of the hotly anticipated debut of Yankees prospect Jasson “The Alien” Dominguez, who is yet to take a professional AB. Clearly, something must be done for players of this caliber, and sending them to the DSL or on the backfields of their team complexes to scrimmage might be a cost-effective measure, but not one that moves the developmental needle much if at all.
For the Mariners, the proposed taxi squad should allow for the next wave of prospects like Logan Gilbert, Ljay Newsome, Joey Gerber, Sam Delaplane, and likely Jarred Kelenic to get their feet wet in the bigs. Julio Rodriguez might be able to talk his way onto a taxi squad spot, but would also be a solid candidate for a full AFL season (Julio was assigned to the AFL this past year but had his season cut short due to some back tightness). Cal Raleigh is another player who falls into the in-between territory, and would likely have been headed for the AFL this season anyway, although the heightened need for catchers might bump him up to taxi squad.
However, there’s a group of prospects for the Mariners who aren’t developmentally ready to be on a taxi squad, but don’t have the traditional AFL resume, either. Pitchers George Kirby, Juan Then, Isaiah Campbell, and Brandon Williamson all need pitching reps—especially Campbell, who hasn’t pitched professionally yet—but throwing them into a situation where they’re pitching to players like Wander Franco or Nolan Gorman or Andrew Vaughn, all players who would likely be AFL-bound in a typical year, seems cruel. Noelvi Marte, Jonatan Clase, and Milkar Perez headline a group of DSL players who were slated to test their skills stateside this season. And then there’s the group of players just drafted who would normally be playing in Everett; when will they be able to begin their professional careers?
If the Mariners were to make an AFL team entirely of their prospects, even assuming taxi squad players would be barred from participating, as one of the league’s better farm systems, they should be fairly competitive. In fact, Baseball America lists the All-Prospects Mariners as one of the squads they’d be most interested in seeing. Here’s a vision of what that lineup might look like (the * indicates a likely taxi squad player):
C: Cal Raleigh*, Carter Bins, Jake Anchia
1B: Joe Rizzo, Tyler Keenan
2B: Kaden Polcovich, Jose Caballero
SS: Noelvi Marte, Juan Querecuto
3B: Austin Shenton, Bobby Honeyman
OF: Julio Rodriguez*, Jarred Kelenic*, Jonatan Clase, Luis Liberato, Zach DeLoach
SPs: George Kirby, Isaiah Campbell, Brandon Williamson, Juan Then, Damon Casetta-Stubbs, Ray Kerr, Devin Sweet, Emerson Hancock
That’s...pretty fun. Catcher gets thin in a hurry if you project Raleigh to taxi squad, as does outfield if you take off the twin teen titans, but infield looks better than I expected it to, especially considering you can scoot a lot of those players around from position to position. Well, except to shortstop, where defense might be an issue. But that pitching squad! Mercy.
If you’re interested in seeing the all-Mariners prospects team in “action”, Baseball America announced today that they’ll be simulating an all-prospects season using our favorite tool, Out of the Park Baseball. Tonight the rosters will be announced for each team at 6 PM PT on their Twitch stream, and games will follow after that for the next three months. BA will keep live stats on their website and recap game highlights, as well as streaming live “games”, on Twitch. You can read more about the Baseball America Prospects League here.