In a year where the blows keep on coming for MiLB, the latest was officially announced today: confirming what many suspected, there will be no Arizona Fall League this year.
The AFL is a yearly month-long league sometimes called “prospect graduate school.” Many of the MLB’s top prospects (and now players) are alums of the league, but it’s also an opportunity for clubs to get extra reps for players who lost time due to injury or are learning a new position, players whose developmental timetable a club wants to accelerate, players an organization is showcasing as a possible trade piece, or simply someone they want to see more from. Being named to the AFL is considered an honor, and a strong AFL performance can help a fringe player land on the national radar or get people even more excited about a well-regarded prospect. More importantly, the games matter; there are standings, an All-Star game, and a championship game.
The official reasoning as given in this Baseball America article about the cancellation is that MLB was concerned the AFL facilities were insufficient to absorb 40-man rosters for each of the six fall league teams while providing sufficient space for players to maintain proper social distancing. That claim looks specious, however, in light of the multiple reports that MLB considered both the spring training sites in Arizona and Florida as alternate training sites or possibly even locations for an MLB “bubble.” Furthermore, the spring training complexes were built to accommodate both major-league and minor-league players, with multiple locker rooms at several of the sites and plenty of practice fields surrounding the main complex. The field at Salt River, in particular, home of the Rockies and Diamondbacks, rivals some MLB stadiums in quality.
In lieu of the traditional AFL, the 15 teams that train in Arizona have agreed to conduct their instructional leagues at their complexes there and play against each other, with each team sending around 40 prospects. The “season” will vary based on organizational decisions; some teams, like the Athletics, won’t start playing until mid-October and end as early as October 31, and others will start as early as October 5 and not finish until mid-November. The Mariners are expected to finish up by November 15, which is the opening date for LIDOM, the Dominican Republic’s baseball league. Several Mariners prospects have been given approval to play for their LIDOM teams, most notably top prospect Julio Rodriguez, who is slated to appear with the Leones de Escogido.
The teams in Arizona will be divided into East and West Valley teams. The Mariners share the West Valley with their complex-mates the Padres, plus TEX/KC (Surprise), LAD/CWS (Camelback), and CIN/CLE (Goodyear). (Maryvale, the Brewers’ complex, is also technically in the West Valley, but the East Valley is short on teams and the Giants are already fielding two teams to make things even). It appears that the Mariners, however, will only be playing in a quad with three other teams in order to limit travel: their complex-mates the San Diego Padres, and the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals, who share the complex at Surprise, the nearest stadium to Peoria at about a twenty-minute drive.
The Mariners haven’t participated in traditional instructional league—or “instructs”—since at least 2016, when the club started moving away from instructs and more towards mini-camps focused on specific skill acquisition, like Gas Camp (velocity) or High Performance Camp (strength training). While played against other clubs, instructional league games were more like practice than traditional games: things like batting order and counts aren’t always observed; coaches can interrupt games to provide specific coaching; the side isn’t always retired after three outs. It’s unclear whether this version of instructs will be more like that or traditional games; it feels like something that might be negotiated between each team based on developmental needs. However, it seems like with no minor-league season, the benefit is in having players get as close to a traditional game experience as possible.
As for who will be invited, we’re still finding out names. Dipoto has said both that it will be “Top 30” prospects and that the range of players will be significant, from DSL players all the way up to polished MLB-adjacent players. We know Jonatan Clase, the speedy outfielder who was in the DSL last season, has been invited, as has infielder Joe Rizzo, who was a surprising omission from the player pool group. As Tacoma has begun divesting players—Taylor Trammell, Tyler Keenan, Kaden Polcovich, and others all recently left the alternate training site—it would stand to reason that those players are also being given some downtime before being summoned back to Arizona. We’ll continue to update you as we get a better sense of the roster and what the day-to-day of the league looks like, as well as any crumbs of information that we can get along the way about what’s going on down there.
If the Arizona Fall League returns in 2021, and you’ve been on the fence about going, let this be your inspiration to finally book that ticket. The weather is great, everything is way cheaper than during the high season of Spring Training, the players are more accessible, and you can get invested in your new favorite prospect and expand your baseball fandom. It’s a pure baseball experience and I cannot recommend it highly enough. I’m so sad there won’t be a league this year, but will treasure every moment of being there if or when I get to return in the future.