Scout’s Diary: AFL Still A Great Secret

As a baseball lover, this is my favorite time of year.

No, not because the Major League playoffs are underway. Sometimes they are great, sometimes not. This year I appear to be less into them than I have in several seasons. When you work in baseball and your team isn’t in the playoffs you tend to lose your rooting interest.

No it is my favorite time because the Arizona Fall League is under way.

The Arizona Fall League might be one of the best kept secrets in baseball, which is really too bad, because it may be the best bang for the buck a baseball fan could expect to have.

The AFL, for those who don’t know — and too many of you don’t — is, basically, a showcase league for the best minor league prospects in organized professional baseball.

Each team sends around seven of its top current prospects to Phoenix for six weeks of games. This year the schedule runs from Oct. 13 through Nov. 21. The prospects are assigned to six different teams and those teams play each other every day of the week except Sunday, often with two games starting at 12:30 in the afternoon and one at 6:30 at night.

It’s a great opportunity for a scout to see hundreds of good players over a very short period of time. For instance, when I scout a minor league game during the season I might see two or three decent prospects per team per game. I also see a bunch of fringe, would-be prospects, and a lot of non-prospects. That’s OK. That’s how the job works. It’s my job to sort through the guys who can only play a little to find the guys who are really good.

But the AFL gives us scouts rosters full of decent guys to observe and project. Not all are top prospects. For example, a lot of Major League clubs are scared to send their top pitching prospects for fear that they have already been overworked during the season and might get injured. So they send an assortment of longshot lefty relievers and future cast-offs.

But history has shown that the AFL produces future major leaguers, even the best the major leagues has to offer.

The AFL began in 1992 and in it has produced more than 1,700 Major Leaguers, including 141 All-Stars—38 in 2009 alone. Six MLB most valuable players are AFL alumni: Jason Giambi, Ryan Howard, Justin Morneau, Dustin Pedroia, Albert Pujols and Jimmy Rollins. Three Cy Young winners played in the AFL: Chris Carpenter, Roy Halladay and Brandon Webb.

In several cases it has been the coming-out-party for future stars, like Ryan Braun and Troy Tulowitzki a couple of years ago, and Tommy Hanson last year.

There have been 18 MLB rookies-of-the-year who played in the AFL.

You get the idea. It is a launching pad for quality young players, often the last step in their development to becoming Major League stars.

But you know who comes to these games besides scouts? Almost nobody.

The games are played at the spring training homes of the Cubs, Athletics, Mariners, Padres, Rangers and Royals, in stadiums that can seat thousands of fans, and which are often completely filled during spring training games.

But sometimes scouts feel like they are the only people in attendance at an AFL game. There may be a few agents, some girlfriends, player family members and a senior citizen who took a wrong turn somewhere, but often it feels like that’s it.

The stands are often 90-percent empty.

I am not kidding.

True story: We know scouts love to talk during games but I had a scout tell me once that he was afraid to speak at all during an AFL game because it was so quiet he felt everyone in the stadium would here what he was saying.

That’s empty, folks.

Seriously. You want to hear what swear words young players like to use? You want to hear what the umpires and managers say to each other during an argument? Come to an AFL game.

And I can never figure out why this is the case. Why do fans flock to spring training games, paying top dollar for tickets, hotel rooms and flights, when they can visit the same warm city and the same ballparks in the fall for much less money and hassle and see many of the same great, young players?

Did I mention that AFL tickets cost six bucks for adults, and five for seniors and kids 17 and under? And there are all sorts of discounts and group rates, and packages which make it even cheaper than that.

Plus, don’t tell anyone, but you can probably talk or sneak your way into an AFL park on most days because with that many fans showing up it ain’t exactly as hard to get into as A-Rod’s mansion.

It just doesn’t make sense. Fans love to come to spring training to get a glimpse of the young, new star on their team. They fight and claw to get close to him, to get a good luck and maybe an autograph. Fantasy players are all over the place in spring training, looking for sleepers for their teams.

Are you kidding? With the AFL the work is practically done for them. Most of the top guys are there, and they are all over the place. You can practically walk right up to them any time you want, and ask them to be sure to steal as many bases as they can next year.

So, come on, people, get on board. Come check out the AFL. Book the flight, come see a week of games, see the best young players baseball has to offer. Just remember to keep your voice down.