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Wrapping up the Orioles in the Arizona Fall League

Heston Kjerstad was named the MVP of the AFL. Good job for him.

Arizona Fall League Home Run Derby
Heston Kjerstad in action in the AFL Home Run Derby.
Photo by Jill Weisleder/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Another year of the Arizona Fall League has come and gone. After this weekend, it’s over, and with it, so is every kind of MLB-affiliated baseball until spring training rolls around. If it makes you feel any better, we’re now within three months of when pitchers and catchers report. It’ll get here eventually.

The Scottsdale Scorpions team that contained seven Orioles prospects, headlined by Heston Kjerstad, came up short of playing for the bragging rights AFL title. They were in contention heading into the final week of play, then lost all three games last week to fall out of the picture. The #2 and #3 seeded teams (out of six) played a one-game play-in and the winner played the #1 seed for the championship. The title game was won by Surprise, the top seed.

Overall, this was a seriously hitter-friendly league environment, though offense did decline from the beginning to the end of play. Teams averaged 5.67 runs scored per team per game, with all batters combining for a .771 OPS. As a point of comparison, MLB teams averaged 4.28 runs per team per game this season, with batters altogether having a .706 OPS.

Here’s how things went for the seven Orioles guys out there. It was much better for some than others.

Heston Kjerstad

Kjerstad was pretty much the story of the league. This was recognized by whoever decides such things as “MVP of the Arizona Fall League,” with Kjerstad winning that award. Some past winners have included Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, and Ronald Acuña Jr., so this isn’t some completely meaningless recognition. Kjerstad’s circumstances were unique since he’s older than the typical AFL prospect and has gone through the various things he’s gone through in his pro career.

Hopefully, he can carry this stuff forward into next year’s minor league season. Let’s keep in mind, again, that this was a 22 game sample size against pitchers who were probably not as good as he’d face in Double-A next year, let alone in MLB. But still, it was a good effort against who he was put up against: He batted .357/.385/.622, leading all AFL batters in hits and total bases.

One downside is that Kjerstad struck out in 29.8% of plate appearances. Despite pitchers generally having problems throwing strikes in AFL play - the league had a 5.2 BB/9, compared to MLB’s 3.1 BB/9 this season - Kjerstad only walked five times. My speculation has been that the O’s wanted Kjerstad to get in swings against live pitching, but it is worth keeping an eye on. That kind of stuff cropping up in the next regular season would be a concern.

There were scouts who came away from seeing Kjerstad in Arizona who were positive about what they saw. That included MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis, who said Kjerstad “looks like the guy” he was that made him the #2 overall pick in 2020. This wasn’t a unanimous opinion, though, as The Athletic’s Keith Law saw Kjerstad and wrote that he saw a player who was still having a hard time catching up to average velocity fastballs, probably due to rust from his long layoff.

I’m glad Kjerstad can take some real positives from his Arizona time, and looking forward to seeing whether he can prove skeptics like Law wrong next year. Will the Orioles want to see Kjerstad show better results at High-A Aberdeen, or will this AFL stint be enough to have them bump him up to Double-A Bowie to start next season?

César Prieto

Not much good to say about how things went out there for the 23-year-old Cuban infielder. Over 15 games, he batted .189/.267/.359. If a person was to try to find something good to say, you might note that he walked in 10% of plate appearances and had power numbers that would be acceptable if only his batting line was raised by like 60 points.

What’s next for Prieto? Probably another trip to Bowie to start next season.

Reed Trimble

The 22-year-old outfielder Trimble missed most of this minor league season due to surgery on a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder. He was in Arizona, like Kjerstad, to get some extra reps against live pitching. Things improved for Trimble as the AFL schedule went along. He finished with a .244/.375/.333 batting line in league play. The 2021 second round pick will need to show some power eventually.

Noah Denoyer

Denoyer, 24, seems to have come out of the 2022 season with his prospect arrow trending up a bit, though how much depends on how excited one is by performance of a 24-year-old at Bowie. In 51.2 innings as a multi-inning reliever or occasional starter for the Baysox, Denoyer maintained a K/BB ratio of 5.82 and had just a 0.794 WHIP. The desert was less kind to him, as he ballooned to a 1.400 WHIP and couldn’t even muster a 2/1 K/BB. It was a hitter-friendly environment. We’ll find out today if all of this is enough to get Denoyer onto the 40-man.

Nolan Hoffman

Hoffman is a side-arming righty who was first drafted by the Mariners in the fifth round in 2018. The Orioles plucked him in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft last year. An ERA of 3.65 isn’t too exciting for a reliever, but the K/BB ratio of 17/2 is. Maybe we’ll see him in Norfolk’s bullpen next year, unless some team really gets weird and picks Hoffman in the MLB part of the Rule 5 this year.

Easton Lucas

At 26, Lucas was one of the oldest players to be sent to the AFL this season. A Marlins 14th round pick in 2019, Lucas was traded to the Orioles for Jonathan Villar ahead of the 2020 season. The reliever’s AFL results looked a lot like how he pitched for Bowie this year: Plenty of strikeouts, concerning walks. Seven walks out of 46 batters faced is a lot. It’s also a small sample size, so, you know.

Nick Richmond

13 runs allowed, with nine strikeouts to eight walks in nine innings, is probably not a sign that you’re going to need to commit this Orioles minor leaguer to your memory. Richmond was originally an undrafted free agent signed by the Tigers in 2019.