For fans of good teams, the end of MLB’s regular season means the start of the postseason. For rebuilding teams where the prospects are what matters most, October means something different: Arizona Fall League season. The league is a place where some prospects can be tested against higher competition, others can make up for injury-shortened seasons with extra work, and still others can try to carve out a name for themselves.
The Orioles announced their Arizona Fall League participants on Wednesday morning. This year’s contingent of players headed to the AFL’s Mesa Solar Sox is headlines by outfielders Kyle Stowers and Yusniel Diaz. The group also includes infielder Greg Cullen, catcher Ramon Rodriguez, and pitchers Cameron Bishop, Logan Gillaspie, Connor Loeprich, and Nick Vespi. Their teammates with this club will be drawn from the Cubs, Marlins, Athletics, and Blue Jays organizations.
The most recent Orioles AFL group from two seasons ago featured four of the team’s top 30 prospects at that time. By that standard, this is more of a prospect-light group, as there are only two of the top 30 heading out to Arizona: Stowers and Diaz. On the other hand, this is still better than the group three years ago, where the biggest prospect names among the O’s contingent were Ryan McKenna and Stevie Wilkerson.
The AFL rosters overall include 17 of MLB Pipeline’s current top 100 prospects, including four prospects in the top ten. None of the top 100 players come from the Orioles organization, but that’s not too surprising. Their top 100 ranked guys aren’t really in a position to get an AFL assignment.
Some notes about each of the prospects heading out to Mesa from the Orioles organization:
The Orioles CBB round pick from the 2019 draft - Mike Elias’s first with the franchise - really showcased his power potential in his first full professional season, blasting 27 home runs across three levels. He’d made it to Triple-A by season’s end. Downside: A 32.3% strikeout rate. A strong AFL could propel the Orioles Co-Minor League Player of the Year into the 2022 corner outfield mix.
The former headliner of the Manny Machado trade has fallen far from where he was. Injuries limited him to 54 games with Norfolk this season, and he wasn’t good in those games, hitting .157/.225/.251. Diaz turns 25 years old tomorrow. He is at a point where if he doesn’t start showing improvement, he’s just going to be a prospect who never made it.
I have to tell you that I follow the Orioles minor leagues decently closely with this job and I could not tell you one thing about this guy without looking him up. He had been in the Dodgers organization before this season and only played in 54 games across three levels with the O’s.
This 24-year-old infielder arrived in last summer’s Tommy Milone trade with the Braves. He was limited to 38 games this year, posting a .757 OPS in 24 games with Double-A Bowie. As a 2018 college pick, he is Rule 5 eligible this offseason. The O’s probably don’t view him as a candidate to protect from that draft.
A 26th round pick by the O’s in 2017, Bishop was a swingman in Bowie this year, though he only had the chance to pitch 48 innings. At 25, he’s old for the level, but it’s not unusual for bullpen candidates to emerge from the O’s AFL contingent. His 60 strikeouts in 53 innings across two levels are at least interesting.
The 24-year-old righty reliever joined the Orioles organization this year after having been with the Brewers. He split between Aberdeen and Bowie. His 5.60 ERA in 15 Bowie games was not good, but the strikeout and walk ratio (36/8 in 27.1 innings) is not bad.
Loeprich was also in his first season with the Orioles organization after having been drafted by the Pirates in the 20th round in 2018. Loeprich had to get started with a little rehab all the way down in the Florida Complex League before settling at High-A Aberdeen, where he had a 7.16 ERA in 11 games, 10 starts.
Turning 26 next week, Vespi has been with the Orioles since they picked him in the 18th round in 2015. He only made it above Delmarva this season. At Bowie, Vespi had a WHIP under 1 in 14 games, then he got smoked in 19.2 Norfolk innings, with a 6.86 ERA. Ouch. Like Gillaspie, there’s something to like in the K/BB ratio (51/17 in 38.2 innings this year); a big problem at Norfolk was he gave up six home runs.
This year’s Arizona Fall League will include some of the rule experimentation that was across the minors this year. Pitch timers, shift restrictions, slightly larger bases, and in one stadium, an automated strike zone, will be employed. The league’s schedule runs from October 13th to a championship game on November 20th, with 29 “regular season” games per team.