Proposing The Florida Fall League, A Revamped Arizona Fall League For 2020

Image credit: Royce Lewis (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

There are plenty of hurdles to having a 2020 MiLB season. Even if there is one, it’s obvious that minor leaguers will not get in a full season of games. 

Front office officials for a variety of teams acknowledge the need to get minor leaguers as much game experience as possible this year—no one wants to have a lost developmental year. Even if minor leaguers could get back on the field in June or July, they will not get a full season in 2020.

To try to make up for the lost development time, there have been discussions of having a supercharged instructional league or extended time at the team’s spring training complexes in Florida and Arizona. 

We have a better idea.

Instead of glorified scrimmages on backfields, we’re proposing a supersized version of the Arizona Fall League. But we’re not stopping at Arizona. We’d also like to see a version of the AFL in Florida. Let’s call it the Florida Fall League. 

Now, let’s start by acknowledging that all of this is dependent on being able to protect the health of the players, coaches and everyone else involved. As much as teams and players worry about the significant effects of losing hundreds of live at-bats and dozens of innings pitched, it pales in comparison to keeping everyone safe.

If the health concerns can be alleviated, this idea has a lot of advantages. Unlike the regular minor league season, the AFL and new FFL aren’t designed to be money-makers—they are purely player-development vehicles. If it’s necessary to play fanless games because of the coronavirus pandemic, the revenue hit would be quite modest—the AFL as it currently stands isn’t paying for itself.

Normally, the Arizona Fall League gathers prospects to play on six teams, meaning each MLB club gets around seven roster slots. In a year when every team’s minor leaguers are going to get decreased at-bats or innings, it makes sense to massively expand that to ensure that many more prospects get some top-notch developmental time.

So, we propose taking the Arizona Fall League from six teams to 15, with another 15 in a Florida Fall League. Each club could field its own 30-35 player roster and play at their own spring training stadium, giving each MLB team a chance to provide an excellent developmental experience for a significant number of the team’s best prospects.

Such a format would create the greatest assemblage of prospects we’ve ever seen. Normally, the AFL has a significant number of top hitting prospects, but very few of the top pitchers because most of them have already reached their innings limits for the year. The limited roster spots also squeeze out some prospects.

This year, every pitcher and hitter will be struggling to get anywhere close to a normal workload, even if baseball manages to resume this summer. Logically, teams would want to get almost all their best prospects playing time in this newly developed super league unless those players have already graduated to the majors.

Such a format would also likely lead to significantly increased fan interest. The AFL is great for diehard prospect fans, but for the more casual fan, it’s harder to get invested in seeing how the Saguaros or Javelinas are doing, since it’s a co-op team with players from a variety of clubs. These leagues’ standings would actually matter to fans—are your team’s prospects better on the field than your biggest rival? And a Yankees-Red Sox prospect game just means more to everyone than a Peoria-Salt River tilt.

A true 15-prospect team battle to win an AFL or FFL title would crown two teams as the prospect kings of 2020. A one or three-game series pitting the AFL and FFL champs would be outstanding as well, but with concerns about costs and travel, we’ll leave that for now as a pie-in-the-sky dream.

The downsides? It would cost more than the traditional Arizona Fall League for each MLB team at a time when MLB is looking to save money.

Of course, some of those costs are relative. If a supercharged AFL and FFL help a couple of prospects per club be ready to contribute in the big leagues quicker in 2021, the modest costs of holding a larger league will be justified by the player-development benefits.

As importantly, if MLB is playing in September, October or even November as it hopes, it would be hard for MLB to devote the attention to this that it deserves. This is potentially useful offseason programming for MLB Network, and is something that could have significant fan interest. But it becomes a lot harder for it to get television attention at a time when regular season or playoff baseball is ongoing. Last year we saw that when the AFL schedule was moved to earlier in the fall. This year with a likely later MLB season would only add to this issue.

Also, 15 teams is not an ideal number for either league for scheduling purposes–someone is off every day. But it makes the most sense to keep teams at their Florida and Arizona complexes, so that’s an unfortunate reality.

Overall, our proposal is a prospect fan’s dream and would help provide a salve on the very likely absence of a Futures Game this year. Get this up and going and we can all start hopefully dreaming of a fascinating fall for baseball.

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