PHOENIX—Instructional league and the Arizona Fall League already make the Phoenix area a baseball hotbed every fall.
There's another league in town this fall as the Advanced Instructional League (alternately referred to as the Parallel League) kicked off its 14-game season on September 24. It's a one-year experiment intended to provide additional work for players who normally might have been slated to participate in the now defunct Hawaiian Winter League.
There had been talk by Major League Baseball of launching a "Junior Fall League" to replace the league in Hawaii, using several of the newer stadiums located on the west side of Phoenix. But that league didn't come to fruition this year, leaving organizations with no place to send their prospects more advanced than the normal instructional leaguer but not yet ready for the AFL or one of the Caribbean winter leagues.
J.J. Picollo, Kansas City's assistant general manager in charge of Scouting and Player Development, pitched the concept of Advanced Instructional League (AIL) to other farm directors. The eight organizations that share four of the west-side complexes in Arizona—Reds and Indians, White Sox and Dodgers, Royals and Rangers, and Mariners and Padres—all agreed to be part of the first iteration of the league, with four teams being formed in a co-op environment.
"We jumped on board because we thought it was beneficial, especially with the Hawaiian Winter League being non-existent this year," Dodgers farm director De Jon Watson said. "It was an opportunity to get some of our advanced kids another few at-bats and a few more innings . . . a chance to end up against better competition that they may not have seen over the course of the summer."
"We want a place for our kids to continue their development, so this provides us the opportunity to have our core instructors with them during this co-op type of situation. It really works out great for us from a development standpoint."
While instructional league rosters consist primarily of recent draft picks and newly-signed Latin teenagers, the AIL is populated more with players who already have reached high Class A, or advanced college players getting their first taste of pro ball.
The teams have earmarked certain players to participate in the league, although rosters are somewhat fluid with players going back and forth from regular instructs as needed.
Among the players appearing in the first days of the Advanced league were righthander Brad Boxberger (Reds, supplemental first-round pick in 2009); outfielder Engel Beltre (Rangers); catcher Josh Phegley (White Sox, supplemental first round), infielder Johnny Giavotella (Royals); and outfielder Scott Van Slyke (Dodgers).
"This benefits the in-between guy, maybe even the older player that needs to work on stuff," said Reds manager Julio Garcia, co-managing the Goodyear complex team with Cleveland's Aaron Holbert.
Dodgers manager Jeff Carter added, "A lot of these guys aren't used to playing this much baseball, so it's just enough to get a look without wearing them down."
Dodgers outfielder Xavier Paul , who spent the last two seasons in Triple-A plus a few games in the big leagues, is an exception to the normal experience level in the AIL. Paul was also seeing time in the regular Instructional League.
"We're trying to keep him sharp and get (him) some quality at-bats," said Watson, "in case there's a need at the major league level. If there's a need for someone off the bench in the majors with some speed or an outfielder, he'll be sharp enough to go up and contribute."
The players also see the advantage of facing better competition than they normally would in instructional ieague.
"Hitting against better pitchers is better," said Reds third base prospect Neftali Soto. "Here they've got a lot of experience and they know how to pitch better." Soto also said that his participation will better prepare him for winter ball in his native Puerto Rico.
By the same token, the pitchers in the Advanced League are aware that they will gain from facing better hitters. "It gives you more feedback because it gives you time to face guys with a little more experience or ability," said righthander Taylor Thompson, the White Sox' 44th-round draft pick this year.
The players participating in the Advanced League are aware that they likely would have been targeted for the trip to Hawaii if that league hadn't been discontinued.
"It would have been a lot nicer to be out there (in Hawaii)," said Reds infield prospect Alex Buchholz. "I guess you could say it's a little more paradise over there."
Thompson added, "That would have been something special . . . you usually only get to go to Hawaii on vacation, but if you get to go there for baseball that would be something real nice. But this is fine . . . you've got great weather and you're around here playing baseball, so either way it's a good experience."
White Makes Pro Debut
GOODYEAR, Ariz.—Indians first-rounder Alex White, a righthander out of North Carolina, was expected to pitch in the Advanced League, but instead he pitched a scoreless inning against the Reds in regular instructs Saturday. It was White's first time on the mound since he pitched for the Tar Heels in the College World Series in June.
"It felt great to finally get back out there," said White. "I was just trying to make sure I hit my spots, get my pitch count in, trying to get my arm back in shape and make a few starts out here."
White will be with the instructional league team until the Indians break camp on Oct. 16. He expects to get in four or five starts before shutting it down until spring training. It's uncertain whether White's future is in the rotation or the bullpen; he believes it's still too early to worry about his ultimate spot.
"Right now I'm working as a starter," he said, "but we left all options open. I want to be a starter but I'm going to do whatever they tell me to do and whatever's going to make it easier for me."