The Arizona Fall League is an off-season league designed to showcase the game’s brightest young prospects and gain them extra experience with an eye towards accelerating their timeline to the big leagues. It’s an honor to be selected to play in the AFL, with teams often opting to send their top-ranked offensive prospects to get some extra reps against developing arms. Stars of the past—Albert Pujols, Mike Piazza, Derek Jeter, Roy Halladay—as well as those of the present game—Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Julio Rodriguez, Ronald Acuña Jr., Mike Trout—have all taken part in the AFL. So, too, has Zach DeLoach.
DeLoach was selected in the second round by the Mariners during the COVID-shortened 2020 Draft, the 43rd overall pick out of Texas A&M. Limited to the alternate site to begin his professional career, DeLoach—like so many of his fellow COVID-year draftees—had a disjointed start in pro ball, skipping rookie and single-A ball to go straight to High-A Everett in 2021. The accomplished Aggie showed no signs of difficulty adjusting, however, walloping High-A pitching and earning a quick midseason promotion to Double-A Arkansas, where his bat understandably slowed down as he faced more sophisticated hurlers. Looking to gain DeLoach even more experience, the Mariners sent DeLoach to the AFL after Arkansas’ season ended.
That might not have been the correct call. DeLoach struggled mightily in the AFL, striking out around 27% of the time and posting a dreadful line of .162/.329/.265 over 18 games. Small sample sizes abound in the AFL, but his performance at the plate bore out from the stands: in the looks I had at him that fall, he seemed lost at the plate, unable to execute a plan against the midtier arms of the AFL. His body language as he walked back to the dugout seemed dejected, which is understandable. The smooth-swinging DeLoach has a lefty swing that’s built for contact. His career strikeout rate at Texas A&M was under 12%, and when the Mariners drafted him in 2020 he’d spent the summer before starring for the Falmouth Commodores in the Cape Cod League: an equally small-sample-size league, but with drastically different results for DeLoach, who parlayed his scorching summer into a strong start to his junior year with the Aggies before COVID shut things down.
Things didn’t improve for DeLoach in a full year at Arkansas. He managed to pull his strikeouts back down towards his career norms, but didn’t hit the ball with authority; 70% of his hits at Arkansas were singles. Dickey-Stephens Park, where the Travelers play half of their games, is a notorious power-sucker (albeit more for righties than lefties), but DeLoach’s speed, just average, prevented him from turning those singles into doubles. Meanwhile, DeLoach was leapfrogged in the line for the big leagues by Cade Marlowe, a 20th-round pick who never earned the kind of prospect acclaim DeLoach did but has outperformed his higher-drafted peer at every level, including the AFL in 2021, when Marlowe stole headlines as a pop-up prospect. It was Marlowe, not DeLoach, who was summoned to join the team at the end of the 2022 season as a member of the taxi squad, and Marlowe who was called to fill in for an injured Jarred Kelenic in 2023.
But the Mariners have long professed that they are deeply invested in DeLoach and in love with his swing. Marlowe may pack more power in his bat, but DeLoach has the track record of controlling the zone that the organization admires—a skillset they have openly spoken about prioritizing this off-season. DeLoach might not have a standout tool, but if he can lengthen the lineup through solid plate appearances and putting the ball in play, that brings value to a team that was too often boom-and-bust in 2023. DeLoach is younger than Marlowe, as well, although not that young, as he’ll play this year as his age-25 season. However, one important thing has changed for DeLoach this off-season: he’s now been added to the 40-man roster, and finds himself with his best chance yet to crack the Opening Day roster with the departure of fellow lefty outfielder Jarred Kelenic and an outfield that’s currently largely in flux.
The Mariners have time and time again vouched for their confidence in Zach DeLoach: drafting him highly, steadily advancing him up the minor-league ladder regardless of results, and offering him opportunities with trips to the AFL and invites to big-league spring training. This season, he’ll likely get a chance to demonstrate to the team that that confidence was well-earned. Moreover, he can wipe away the struggles of his early pro career and prove it’s not how you start but how you finish.