A Guide To The 2019 Arizona Fall League Rule Changes

Image credit: Forrest Whitley, Arizona Fall League All-Star Game (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The Arizona Fall League is going to look a bit different this year.

The league will still feature six weeks of future all-stars, MVPs and playoff heroes battling it out under the desert sun, but the format for the games has undergone a few notable changes.

The most obvious change is the schedule. Traditionally, the AFL got going in early October, roughly a month after the minor league schedule had concluded and right as the Major League Baseball playoffs were kicking into gear. This year, the league will open on Sept. 18, just one day after the Triple-A National Championship Game.

There are a few reasons for this change, but the most prominent revolves around pitchers. Typically, pitchers in the Arizona Fall League have had a layoff of about a month between the close of the minor league season and the opening of the AFL.

With the new format, pitchers can transition seamlessly between the regular season and the AFL without worrying about having to ramp back up after a period of down time.

“That was something we were really happy about. I think it’s really beneficial on the pitching side of things,” Twins farm director Jeremy Zoll said. “It’s really hard to figure out the right setup for certain pitchers, how to keep their arms active if they had already pitched a full season and then are going to have over a month gap between the regular season and pitching in the Fall League.”

The new schedule has benefits for position players, too. Namely, a longer offseason. Under the old format, players would have a month or so off between the regular minor league season, then play in the AFL until mid-November. That left just a couple of months before they needed to report to spring training and prepare for the next season.

The 2019 AFL season concludes on Oct. 26, which leaves all of November, December and January for players to rest and rehabilitate before getting ready to do it all over again.

The new plan was not made suddenly. The league had always utilized a steering committee of big league general managers to discuss changes, but before last season it added a group of 10 farm directors who discuss new ideas to bring to the steering committee.

The AFL, after all, is a developmental league that serves at the behest of big league teams. So instead of changes being suggested and enacted by the AFL itself, the new ideas came from the people who would benefit directly.

“Last year was the first year we did it,” AFL director Bill Bavasi said, “and the two thoughts they had to bring the most utility to the league, for them, was to move the season to coincide better with the minor league season, to start when the minor league season ends and to have it end at a time when most of the rest of their organization is shutting down.”

That last part is key. In previous years, an easy way to bridge the gap between the regular season and the AFL was instructional league in September. Traditionally, all 30 organizations hosted what was essentially a carbon copy of minor league spring training, but with smaller rosters. These days, more and more teams have either stopped playing instructional league games—instead opting for specialized camps designed to hone individual skills—or have scrapped instructs entirely.

With that avenue disappearing, there weren’t many options for pitchers trying to stay fresh between the regular season and the AFL. Moving the schedule up a few weeks eliminates that down time and provides an easy fix to a complicated problem.

The one problem created by an earlier schedule is that it moves the early portion of the season into a time before Arizona’s notorious daytime heat begins cooling down somewhat. The Rookie-level Arizona League plays almost exclusively at night to avoid daytime temperatures that often go beyond 110 degrees, but the traditional AFL schedule—especially in the early part of the season—involves day games at two sites and a third game played at night.

That setup makes it easy for scouts, media and fans to catch two games in one day, especially if two games are played at, say, Mesa and Salt River, which are separated by just nine miles. If those day games are played in cauldron-like conditions, however, getting fans to buy tickets would be a difficult sell.

To remedy that problem, all September AFL games will be played at night.

“In Arizona, noon is just intolerable until you get to October,” Bavasi said. “You’ve just got to put them under the lights and you’ve got to do the best you can. And listen, Oct. 1 here can be pretty warm (too), so we’re just going to do the best we can to protect the players from that heat.”

Once October hits, the league will revert to its traditional schedule.

The second major change involves the pool of players eligible for the AFL. In previous years, a series of restrictions was in place to keep AFL players limited to mostly prospects at Double-A or Triple-A who were viewed as being on the cusp of contributing in the major leagues. Those restrictions have been lifted for this season, and anybody under contract is eligible.

“Somebody could be coming out of college or high school and only played a few games in the minor leagues (after they were drafted), and they’re eligible for the Fall League,” Bavasi said. “If they’re under contract to you, you can send them. I’m oversimplifying it, but I’m really not oversimplifying it because it is that simple.”

The wider range of candidates should mean a more talented group of players. For example, a system with its best prospects concentrated in the lower levels won’t be handcuffed into sending less talented players to fill the roster spots they are committed to fill.

“Our hope and the farm directors’ hope is that this gives them a better opportunity to either put a prospect at every position that they are assigned, or they can get utility out of that position by bringing one of their really valuable players back from injury,” Bavasi said. “We hope that that brings a lot more utility to the league.”

That also means that the league could get a few injections of major league star power, especially in its early portions. The AL and NL Wild Card Games this year are on Oct. 1 and 2, roughly two weeks into the new AFL seasons.

The minor league seasons will have concluded, meaning that teams needing to get rehabbing players at-bats or innings will have few other options. That’s a win-win for the Fall League and MLB. Big league teams get a place to get their injured players back to game speed, and the AFL gets a potential boost at the box office.

The earlier start time is a permanent change, but the new roster rules are in place under more of an experimental basis. They were approved for use this year, with the understanding that they would be reviewed after the season to go over the positives and negatives.

This season will also feature two fewer ballparks. Scottsdale Stadium and Surprise Stadium are out of commission for the year, so Salt River Fields and Peoria Sports Complex will pull double-duty. Scottsdale and Salt River will play at Salt River Fields, while Peoria and Surprise will be in Peoria.

The Arizona Fall League will be earlier, will feature a potentially deeper well of prospects, and will take place more at night than ever before. Even with all of those changes, it will remain the best way to see the future of baseball over six weeks in one of the sport’s most fan-friendly environments.

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