PHOENIX--After a day off on Monday following the Bowman Hitting Challenge, the Arizona Fall League opened on Tuesday with a cornucopia of powerful and highly decorated arms. The four starters on the mound for Peoria, Surprise, Scottsdale and Salt River featured three righthanders who were ranked No. 1 entering the season and another righty who placed among his team’s system.
The day kicked off with Peoria at Surprise and Mariners righty Taijuan Walker vs. Royals fireballer Kyle Zimmer. As far as straight pitching lines were concerned, Walker bested Zimmer with five punchouts and no walks in four one-run innings. Zimmer, who last pitched in the Triple-A Championship Game, was touched for three runs on three hits in 3 2/3 innings. He fanned three and walked two.
Despite that, Zimmer’s arsenal was a shade more impressive than his counterpart. Both pitchers brought their fastballs into the high-90s, but Zimmer’s breaking ball, a dastardly curve in the mid-70s, and changeup set him apart. Aside from a home run allowed to Patrick Kivlehan, Zimmer mostly kept the ball on the ground, getting six grounders against zero flyouts.
Walker, like Zimmer, touched as high as 98 with his fastball, and generally sat between 94 and 96 with some cut at the lower velocities. His curveball, while effective in the 73-74 mph range, lacked the power of Zimmer’s offering. He also threw a hybrid slider-cutter in the 89-90 mph range with solid and sudden lateral movement that helped generate his six groundballs.
The hitting star of the afternoon was Padres outfielder Hunter Renfroe, who reached Zimmer and hefty Rays righty Matt Lollis for doubles, one on a fastball and one on a not-so-good slider. He also scored twice and drove in a run. Rays catcher Justin O’Conner was 3-for-5 with a double as well, and, as he is wont to do, picked a runner (Jace Peterson) off of first base.
Given O’Conner’s rifle arm, just about everybody in the house with a stopwatch was on edge when Mallex Smith drew a three-ball count early in the game. Smith stole 88 bases this year. O’Conner caught 55 percent of runners. Alas, the at-bat ended in a groundout and the stopwatch-holders were left unfulfilled.
The nightcap, Scottsdale at Salt River, featured Diamondbacks righty Archie Bradley, who dealt with shoulder problems this season, and Pittsburgh righthander Tyler Glasnow, who missed time early with back issues. This matchup didn’t pan out as well as Walker vs. Zimmer (neither man lasted more than two innings, and Glasnow didn’t make it out of the first), but both showed off the stuff that earned them their pedigrees.
Of the two, Glasnow was the most impressive, despite walking three in two-thirds of an inning and throwing just 14 of his 29 pitches for strikes. His fastball was consistently in the 95-97 mph range, and his curveball was a powerful low-70s breaker that varied its shape between true 12-6 break and 11-5 action. No matter which way it broke, hitters were powerless to do anything against it.
He struck out just one and was close to another but the home plate umpire ruled his 3-2 curveball against Arizona’s Brandon Drury crossed the strike zone just low. Once he gains consistency with his arsenal, the sky is the limit for Glasnow.
Bradley, a first-rounder in 2011 out of Broken Arrow (Okla.) High, also showed off three pitches, including a lively fastball in the 94-96 mph range, a plus curve in the low-80s and a changeup at 86-87. His windup features a big leg kick, and he was unable to repeat his delivery at times, which led to a bit of inconsistency at times. He allowed three runs (one earned) on four hits over two innings with a strikeout and a walk.
While the pitchers drew top billing entering the game, the night’s best performers were a pair of a Yankees prospects--first baseman Greg Bird and right fielder Tyler Austin. Combined, Bird and Austin were 5-for-9 with two runs six RBIs.
Bird was particularly impressive, showing off a sweet swing from left side and an advanced approach that allowed him to work deep into counts until he found a pitch he could drive. The result was a pair of ground-rule doubles, one to left field and one to right, and a booming home run over the right-center field wall. Austin, who finished the year strong after dealing with a nagging wrist injury from 2013 in the early part of the season, lined two nearly identical singles through the middle, plating a run each time.
Arizona catcher Peter O’Brien, traded from the Yankees to the Diamondbacks at midseason, had two hits including a home run to left-center field.
Other standouts included Mets outfielder Brandon Nimmo, who made loud contact twice, including a double on which he showed good speed instincts and took third base when the throw in went awry. Pittsburgh catcher Elias Diaz popped a 1.90 time from behind home plate and also made an athletic play to recover on a wild pitch and throw out a runner at third base.
Houston righthander Tyson Perez fanned four over two innings with a combination of 92-93 mph fastball and mid-80s slider.