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PHOENIX—With temperatures already approaching 90 degrees, the nearly 40 members of the Glendale Desert Dogs worked out Monday morning at Camelback Ranch, one day prior to the start of the 24th Arizona Fall League season.
The players know that an assignment to the AFL is an opportunity to showcase their skills in front of the baseball world—or at least for the scouts, team executives and several hundred fans observing the three daily games during the next six weeks. But with the major league postseason in full swing, Desert Dog players from the Astros and Dodgers organizations are also keeping a close eye on the fates of their respective big league teams.
Dodgers righthander Jharel Cotton moved into the bullpen after his August promotion to Triple-A just in case he was needed to help the big league team. Cotton didn't get the call to Los Angeles, but he's ready in the very unlikely event that injuries dictate the need for another bullpen arm for the big league club.
“I'm playing against a great group of guys here in the Fall League," Cotton said. “If they call on me, I'll be ready."
An unheralded 20th-round pick from East Carolina in 2012, Cotton wasn't expected to be this close to the majors after just three-and-a-half seasons. It wasn't until midway through the 2014 season with high Class A Rancho Cucamonga that the native of the Virgin Islands put himself on the radar.
Cotton attributes his improvement to changing his mindset on taking instruction from the Dodgers’ staff.
“I'm somewhat hard-headed," Cotton said, “but I found out listening is the key. I got better because I listened to my coaches and I worked really hard."
A jump in fastball velocity didn't hurt, too. Touching 90 mph coming out of college, Cotton now gets his heater up into the mid-90s with good downhill movement, significant considering that the righthander stands one inch shy of six feet tall. He attributes the increase in speed to hard work and, most importantly, his extreme long-toss regimen.
“I feel like it loosens my arm up," Cotton said. “I go as far as 300 feet or 300-plus feet. I just like letting it rip, letting it go and getting it lengthy."
As an organization the Dodgers are fine with Cotton's routine, according to Bill Simas, the former major league pitcher who was Rancho’s pitching coach in 2015.
“As far as we're concerned, we want them to throw and be comfortable with who they were when they came in (to the organization)," Simas said. “He's kept that going … a little longer than most would like, but it works for him and it's been paying dividends."
Long-tossing also played a role in the development of Cotton's money pitch, a plus changeup delivered with the same arm speed as the fastball. Cotton explained that as a youngster he relied more on his curveball, liking the up-down spin of the pitch. When he was 15 he started working on the changeup while long-tossing and noticed that it had good movement. He increased the use of the pitch while in college, remarking that “it was moving like crazy."
“Now it's my best pitch," Cotton said.
Simas believes Cotton will be able to rely on more than just the fastball and changeup.
“He's learned to use the curveball," Simas said. “It's come along, and he's got a cutter/slider that he's added to his repertoire which really helped him. He's putting his pitches together and he's a confident guy."
Cotton spent the bulk of his 2015 season with Double-A Tulsa after recovering from a broken wrist sustained on a comebacker in April.
With the Drillers, Cotton spent time with some of the Dodgers’ brightest pitching prospects, sharing living quarters in Tulsa with Julio Urias and Jose De Leon, the Nos. 1 and 3 prospects in the Texas League. It was an invaluable learning experience for Cotton.
“After games we would talk among ourselves to see what we've got to get better at," Cotton said, “and how we can get better as pitchers … I love playing with those guys. I learned a lot from them, of course. They just helped me as a player and as a pitcher."
The Dodgers are eager to see how Cotton handles the challenges of pitching in the Arizona Fall League, facing many of the top hitters in the minor leagues.
“I'm really happy to see Jharel get a chance to participate in the Fall League," said John Shoemaker, the longtime Dodgers manager and coach who managed at Rookie-level Ogden in 2015. “He's a kid who's really worked hard in our organization … this will be a good test for him. (He's a) small kid but he's got a big arm."
Davis Cheers On Astros
Astros third baseman J.D. Davis is another Desert Dogs player keeping a close watch on the progress of the playoffs. Even during the course of this interview, Davis was well aware that the Astros were locked in a battle with the Royals.
“It's awesome to see your team in the postseason and doing so well," Davis said. “As a minor leaguer you want to go up there and get a shot at the postseason—that's all you want to do, get up there and play, and play in the best environment."
For now, Davis is content with furthering his baseball education during the six-week stint in Arizona. The 2014 third-round pick from Cal State Fullerton headed to the desert with specific ideas as to what to improve.
Davis spent more time in college at first base or in an outfield corner, not to mention pulling double duty on the Titans pitching staff, so improvement at third base was important after joining the Astros organization.
After working on softening his hands earlier in his pro career, Davis now is looking to improve his footwork around the hot corner.
“Just keeping my feet moving, if it's charging the ball, lateral or side to side," Davis said, “and just reading the ball off the bat. Just getting more reps and doing more agility drills."
Davis spent 2015 at high Class A Lancaster, where he posted a .289/.370/.520 slash line with 26 home runs and 101 RBIs in 120 games. With strong winds that often blow out from home plate, it's one of the best hitting environments in pro baseball. But it's also a place where a hitter can get himself into some bad habits.
“I started out with a good approach," Davis said, “but in the middle of the season I got pull-happy. I started to try to crush the ball instead of just using my hands."
Davis worked with his hitting coaches to get back to working the ball up the middle and to the right side, and the efforts paid off as he hit .382/.466/.842 in August. Davis hopes to build on that success during his time in the AFL.
During the regular season he also worked with former big leaguer Morgan Ensberg, a special assignment coach with the Astros, on being able to hit different pitches.
“Ensberg came down and he was helping me stick to an approach on how to hit the cutter," Davis said. “In college you really don't see a cutter, (but) a cutter is really becoming a weapon in the minor leagues and the major leagues."
He’s also worked on hitting sinkers.
Davis knows he's got his work cut out for him but is motivated to continue to make progress, with a likely promotion to Double-A Corpus Christi in 2016. That move will put him closer, geographically and classification-wise, to Houston. With the Astros organization having a bright future, Davis is eager to be a contributor.
“I'm excited to be part of the Astros organization," Davis said, “and I'm looking forward to hopefully making an impact in the years to come."
This year's AFL managerial lineup includes: Glendale Desert Dogs—Bill Haselman (Dodgers); Mesa Solar Sox—Mark Johnson (Cubs); Peoria Javelinas—Rod Barajas (Padres); Salt River Rafters—Tripp Keister (Nationals); Scottsdale Scorpions—Matt Quatraro (Indians); Surprise Saguaros—Carlos Subero (Brewers). … The Peoria Javelinas return to their home at the Peoria Sports Complex after a one-year absence due to stadium remodeling. This year it's the Surprise Saguaros who will temporarily relocate, playing home games at Salt River Fields while Surprise Stadium gets a face lift.