The Arizona Fall League (“AFL”) is often described as “the prospect finishing school”. While many weighty names have certainly passed through, it’s also necessarily populated with fringe guys and org guys. The White Sox have contributed more than their fair share of the latter but this season could send a few more high quality names than in the past.
There are six AFL teams, with five major league clubs contributing players to each affiliate. The White Sox affiliate is the Glendale Desert Dogs, who are based out of Camelback Ranch. Other clubs contributing to that affiliate are the Dodgers (duh), Indians, Phillies and Pirates. The AFL starts play on October 10 and teams play a schedule of 30 games over six weeks.
Each club is required to assign at least seven players to its AFL affiliate, a minimum of four pitchers and three position players. It’s strongly encouraged that one pitcher be capable of starting. Position players are assigned via a sort of “assignment draft” among the five clubs. Additional pitchers or position players may be assigned to the “taxi squad” and are eligible to play no more than twice per week.
There are eligibility requirements, though they are sometimes relaxed/waived. Any player on an AAA or AA roster by August 15 is eligible. Up to two players who were on an A+ roster by August 15 may be assigned. Up to two players who were not on an A+ roster may be assigned. International players are eligible so long as they are not on the reserve list of a Winter League club from the player’s home country. No player with more than one year of major league service time (excluding time on the disabled list) is eligible.
Generally speaking, the AFL is weaker on legitimate pitcher prospects. After long seasons, clubs usually do not want their pitchers to take on additional offseason game work unless that pitcher has missed significant time during the season. Position player prospects are much more likely to be seen as capable of extending their playing seasons into the fall without detriment, though, again, you’ll often see players who missed significant time getting assigned. Also, guys who are bubble candidates for protection from the Rule 5 draft are often assigned to give clubs a last opportunity to evaluate them before making that decision.
Players want to play in the AFL not only because of its prestige and the ability to continue developing but also because it’s another six weeks of being paid when they otherwise would not be. While I am not aware of the specific salary being public, all players receive the same salary and, given that the league is made up of AA or so players, the salary is likely commensurate with that level — so a bit less than $2000 per month.
Trying to think along with the clubs on these assignments is difficult for a variety of reasons. But here’s my outsider’s guess at some logical candidates.
The most obvious starting pitcher candidate is Jordan Stephens, as the righty missed the first two months of the season and will not exceed 100 innings pitched after throwing 141 innings in 2016. While not one of the high profile White Sox pitching prospects, the 2015 5th round pick has legitimate major league potential.
Among relievers, Jace Fry is another obvious candidate, as the lefty missed about a month and also would require 40 man roster protection this offseason. A two-time TJS guy, he’s necessarily limited to relief but the 2014 3rd round pick has a solid repertoire that suggests a medium leverage or better role in the majors.
Ian Clarkin is another starter who has missed significant time with injury: three weeks in May while still with the Yankees and recently more than a month with an oblique problem. The lefty has also missed significant time in prior seasons (including all of 2015) so, developmentally, he’s further behind most players who have been pros for five seasons. Particularly if Stephens is on the team, he’d likely pitch as a reliever.
If Bryan Clark doesn’t receive a September promotion, he’s another 40 man roster bubble guy who might get a look, though it would be his second straight season in the AFL. The lefty projects more as a low leverage reliever, as his platoon splits in the minors have been largely non-existent.
Eloy Jimenez may be getting a second consecutive trip to the AFL. While he’s on the roster of Gigantes del Cibao, that didn’t stop him from being assigned to the AFL in 2016. Like the Cubs, the White Sox would likely prefer their top prospect stay in the US and the timing of his promotion to Birmingham (exactly on August 15) certainly suggests that. The 20-year-old missed just over the first month of the season and other nagging injuries have limited him to just 84 games.
Given that it appears Ryan Cordell will not make it back this minor league season, he’s another candidate. The outfielder has been limited to 68 games and hasn’t played since June 26, though Rick Hahn said he’d likely be back for instructional league, which occurs before the AFL.
A couple guys in the upper levels who might see their seasons extended are Eddy Alvarez and Danny Mendick. Both players provide infield positional versatility, a good attribute to have when playing time for more shiny prospects is prioritized, and both are older prospects whose time to show their future value is now.
The White Sox promoted Zack Collins at the same time as Jimenez, which could suggest they’re considering assigning him also. He has played a full season, though, and after an extended 2016 that saw him on Glendale’s taxi squad, he may deserve a rest.
Beyond the above candidates, the White Sox contribution would probably be more org guy types. It’s possible, though, that they might use the taxi squad to give a more inexperienced player some reps, as they did with Collins last year. Alex Call, who missed time due to injury, could fit that description. There are numerous pitchers who could find themselves filling out the relief corp and one additional name that might be interesting is Thad Lowry.
Outside of Jimenez, there aren’t any international players who look like they’ll merit inclusion. Some players who could use offseason games — like Johan Cruz (Gigantes del Cibao) or Micker Adolfo (Estrellas Orientales) — are much more likely to get regular playing time in their winter leagues. As a Colombian, Tito Polo has no home country league and last season played 18 games in Mexico. If Cordell doesn’t play, he might be the next guy in line.
Also note that it’s normal that one or two players drop off the roster prior to the start of the AFL or even during it, sometimes more. They’re ordinarily replaced by new players or players moving off the taxi squad to the full roster; usually this is from the same club but could be from any of the other contributing clubs.