Friday, November 09, 2007

2007 Arizona Fall League

Even before the final out of the 2007 season had been posted on the left field scoreboard at Isotopes Park, die-hard fans began processing possible post-season scenarios in their brains in an attempt to delay the inevitable arrival of the most fearsome of rivals- old man winter. With no post-season play on the horizon for the Albuquerque team, many fans accepted their fate of watching the reminder of the major league season from the comfort of their recliners. A few fans began using hand-held electronic data machines to consult home schedules of major league teams and accessing online banking accounts to determine whether or not they were actually going to be forced to call it a season just yet. Only the Pisceans and other dreamers rolled out star charts and began weighing their chances of obtaining major league division, league or (gulp) World Series tickets.

Another option would be to swallow a heaping spoonful of pride and travel to the cities involved in the minor league playoffs and championship. Besides proving to be a rather bitter pill to choke down, that experience would also prove rather costly.

Perhaps the best cure for minor league post-season blues is the Arizona Fall League. The AFL is the annual magical gathering of top prospects for six additional weeks of practice and organized games under the watchful eye of some of the finest coaches ever to have played the game of baseball. Six teams comprise the league- currently marking its 16th year in operation. The games are played mostly in front of a large group of scouts, former players, family members and autograph collectors. At only $6 per person for admission, you would be hard pressed to find a better bargain for your money in the sporting world.

Players from the Florida Marlins joined players associated with the Dodgers, Padres, Phillies and Tigers forming the Peoria Saguaros. In addition to practicing and playing games at the Peoria Sports Complex, the Saguaros are bussed around the Valley of the Sun to other Spring Training facilities where they take on teams including the Phoenix Desert Dogs, Scottsdale Scorpions, Mesa Solar Sox, Surprise Rafters and Peoria Rafters. Each of the AFL teams also play games against Olympic teams for the United States and China.

The 2007 Saguaros roster included three Isotopes pitchers- Craig Molldrem, Ricky Nolasco and Ross Wolf, as well as pitching coach Rich Gale. Other players from the Marlins organization participating in the Fall League include Chris Coghlan, Brett Hayes, Jai Miller and Scott Nestor.

Second baseman Chris Coghlan hit for an average of .287 over 115 games combined with the Greensboro Grasshoppers (A) and Jupiter Hammerheads (A) this past season. Coghlan swatted a dozen round-trippers, scoring 77 times and driving in 82 runs. Collecting 31 doubles as part of his 125 hits on the season, Chris also ended up swiping 24 bases out of 29 attempts.

Thru 13 games during the 2007 AFL season, Coghlan has accumulated 15 hits and maintained a .313 batting average. Yet to homer in Arizona, Chris has hit three doubles. He also has been caught steeling in each of his three attempts.

Catcher Brett Hayes played in 91 games in 2007 with the Jupiter Hammerheads (A) and the Carolina Mudcats (AA). Hayes compiled .254 batting average, scored 32 runs and drove in 42. More than one-quarter of his hits fell for extra bases.

Hayes’ Fall League average thru 14 games has dipped to .224, with 6 runs scored and only 2 driven in. However, Brett appears to work very hard behind the plate, and isn’t shy when it comes to flashing the leather, or keeping base runners honest. I have no doubt that Brett will soon be winning over the hearts of many Isotopes fans.

Outfielder Jai Miller’s first name is Randall, but this article might be one of the few places you’ll ever see it used. The right-hand hitting outfielder finished the 2007 season batting .261 over 129 games with the Carolina Mudcats (AA). Miller’s 106 hits included 26 doubles, 2 triples and 14 homers. Jai nearly drew as many walks (55) as RBIs (58). Miller stole a dozen bases while getting caught five times.

Thru 18 Fall League games, Miller’s average has hovered right around .264 while collecting 19 hits including 3 doubles, a triple, and one round-tripper. His 24 strikeouts in 72 at bats are obviously something to keep an eye on. Barring some blockbuster moves by Florida during the winter, I expect to see Miller playing right field in Albuquerque in 2008, with Brett Carroll in left, and Alejandro De Aza patrolling center.

Unless De Aza has another outstanding spring, it seems unlikely that his 2007 production of a .261 average, 14 runs scored, and 8 batted in will prove enough to land him a starting position in Florida’s outfield. De Aza’s 2 stolen bases in 2007 compared to 27 steals in 2006 while batting .278 for the Carolina Mudcats suggests that the Marlins need to figure out a way for the youngster to get some at bats on a consistent basis. Albuquerque seems as good as any place for that to happen- perhaps the best.

Due to his veteran status, the Marlins had to obtain special permission from MLB in order for Ricky Nolasco to participate in the Arizona Fall League. After missing the majority of the 2007 season following elbow problems, Nolasco did toss 33.2 innings in the minors- compiling a record of 1-4 with a 7.49 ERA, and 21.1 innings for the Marlins where he went 1-2 with a 5.48 ERA.

Possibly beginning to turn the corner in his recovery, Nolasco has a 3.78 ERA over 16.2 innings pitched in 5 AFL games what is generally considered to be a hitter’s league. I would be surprised to see Ricky in an Isotopes uniform in 2008.

Also pitching for the Peoria Saguaros this fall is right-handed reliever Craig Molldrem. Having spent the majority of his season with the Carolina Mudcats (AA), Molldrem finished the 2007 season with a record of 5-4 and a 4.61 ERA.

In seven Fall League appearances, Molldrem has been saddled with a 15.75 ERA. The five long balls Craig has allowed in only 8 innings are just two shy of his total allowed over 70.1 innings during the regular season. Hopefully, his work with Rich Gale during the Fall League will pay dividends in 2008.

I had never seen right-handed reliever Scott Nestor pitch before since he spent the entire 2007 season with the Carolina Mudcats. Due to the way things worked out while I was in Phoenix, I still haven’t. The fact that the Marlins selected Nestor for the Fall League suggests that they believe he will only improve on this season’s numbers; 2-4 with a 4.44 ERA, and 86 strikeouts vs. 41 walks in 75.0 innings.

Thru 8.1 innings over 7 games this fall, Nestor’s ERA is at 4.32 with 10 strikeouts and 4 bases on balls. I would anticipate seeing Nestor on the Isotopes team when they break from Spring Training.

Right-handed reliever Ross Wolf spent a couple of weeks in the Fall League following his second call up to the parent club during 2007. However, Wolf only pitched a single inning, and yielded two runs (one earned) on two hits before the Marlins made the decision to shut him down for the winter. I talked to Ross briefly before he headed to Florida for an MRI on his shoulder that he described as a precautionary measure. Wolf did log a total of 59.2 innings over 59 games for Albuquerque and Florida during the regular season, so some time off probably wasn’t unwarranted.

The Arizona Fall League… where some of the questions about next season are answered today!

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