You could be excused for having missed out on this year’s championship game for the Arizona Fall League. It fell right in the middle of a busy slate of college football games this past Saturday (which was a beautiful, 76-degree day here in the Metroplex) and, for the most part, only the most diehard followers of the minors would be punching their remotes to tune into MLB Network for the broadcast in the middle of November (other potential viewers might have included those who didn’t want to see his alma mater serve as a collective mop for the Florida State Seminoles to clean Bobby Bowden Field with).
Those who did flip over to the game were treated to the Rangers-affiliated Surprise Saguaros winning their second-ever league championship (and first since 1995). After winning the West Division with an 18-12-1 record, the Saguaros blanked the East Division-winning Mesa Solar Sox 2-0 for the title.
Of the nine Rangers players who suited up for Surprise this season, just two played in the final game. Top Texas prospect Jorge Alfaro caught all nine innings and drove in the game’s first run with an RBI single up the middle in the second inning; it was his lone hit in three at bats while holding down in the seventh spot in the order. Righty reliever Keone Kela pitched a perfect eighth inning and didn’t let a ball out of the infield to complete the Rangers’ contributions to the victory.
So how did the Texas talent do during the AFL out in the Copper State? Here’s a rundown of the Rangers minor leaguers:
(Note that for a variety of reasons, the AFL generally is quite hitter-friendly, so you will want to take some of these numbers with a grain of salt.)
C Jorge Alfaro: 19 G, 80 PA, .386/.438/.500, .938 OPS, 6 2B, 3B, 0 HR, 11 RBI, 18 R, 5 BB, 17 K, 2-5 SB, 3 E, 5 PB, 7-14 catching basestealers
There’s a lot to like about Alfaro’s performance in the circuit, as well as some indications that Rangers fans should exercise some patience while waiting for the Colombian backstop’s Arlington arrival (it’s unrealistic to think he’ll be the 2015 Opening Day catcher – he spent nearly the entire 2013 season with low-A Hickory). In addition to a cannon throwing arm, Alfaro’s other calling card has been his power (rare for a catcher). Although he did not go deep in his 19-game stint in the desert, that’s a pretty triple-slash line. The sixth-youngest player in the league, the 20-year-old was the Saguaros’ primary catcher (his 15 games behind the dish were tied for the most among all AFL players), and he gunned down 50 percent of attempting basestealers. That mark was bested only by Peoria’s Austin Hedges (Padres), who caught 12 of 22 (55%) runners. Alfaro is still a work in progress defensively, however, as his league-leading five passed balls indicate (only one other player had more than two). Still, the performance was very encouraging for arguably the Rangers’ most exciting minor league prospect.
RHP Lisalverto Bonilla: 3 G, 1-0, 0.00 ERA, 5 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 8 K, 1.00 WHIP, .167 BAA
One of the newest members of Texas’ 40-man roster, Bonilla is a changeup specialist with an electric fastball and a solid slider. After flaming out in Triple-A, he spent the last half of the 2013 regular season with the RoughRiders. The word “dominant” doesn’t come close to describing what Bonilla, Picked up in the Michael Young trade, did this summer in Frisco; because “Santeria” is currently playing as I type this report, I’ll go with the word “sublime” to label his efforts. In his short time in the AFL, Bonilla simply continued what we saw him do on the mound at Dr Pepper Ballpark. Of Bonilla, Frisco pitching coach Jeff Andrews told me that if he can consistently throw his fastball at the knees of hitters, he will have a long and extremely profitable big league career, because the heater and change are that good.
RHP Ryan Harvey: 3 G, 0-1, 1 SV, 5.40 ERA, 3.1 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 6 K, WP, 1.50 WHIP, .273 BAA
Harvey started the AFL with Surprise, but the Rangers elected to remove him from the Surprise roster for non-injury reasons after only three appearances. The thought here is that the organization wanted to limit his innings after tossing a career-high 58 innings in a variety of roles for Myrtle Beach this past season. I would expect to see the former Seton Hall Pirate with the RoughRiders in 2014.
RHP Keone Kela: 7 G, 0-0, 2 SV, 0.00 ERA, 8.2 IP, 5 H, R, 0 ER, 5 BB, 10 K, 1.15 WHIP, .172 BAA
The youngest pitcher on the Saguaros (20), Kela may be a candidate to skip the Advanced-A level and begin 2014 in Frisco after an impressive AFL campaign (I would doubt it, however, given his age). A hard-thrower, Kela overwhelmed opposing batters by proving very difficult to make contact against. His walk rate was a bit higher in the AFL (5.19) than it was during the regular season (3.46), which he split between Hickory, Spokane and the AZL Rangers.
LHP Will Lamb: 6 GS, 1-1, 8.69 ERA, 19.2 IP, 29 H, 22 R, 19 ER, HR, HB, 19 BB, 10 K, 2 WP, 2.44 WHIP, .349 BAA
After starting 32 of his first 43 professional appearances in 2011 and 2012, the Rangers moved their former second round draft pick into the bullpen this past season, making all but one of his 39 appearances for Myrtle Beach as a reliever. Lamb responded with his worst statistical season as a professional despite pitching in the hurler haven the Pelicans call home. He got another shot at starting in the AFL, but as the numbers above indicate, it did not go well. The former two-way player at Clemson will still be just 23 for the entire 2014 season, so time is still on his side and left-handed pitchers with good stuff are always valued. Next year will be a very important one for Lamb and for the Rangers to see what they have in him.
RHP Nick McBride: 10 G, 1-0, 6.43 ERA, 14 IP, 21 H, 12 R, 10 ER, 2 HR, 8 BB, 9 K, BK, 3 WP, 2.07 WHIP, .339 BAA
McBride split 2013 between Myrtle Beach and Frisco while also making a cameo appearance in May with Round Rock. He was very effective out of the bullpen for the Pelicans but did not have much success as a starter in the tougher Texas League. The former fifth rounder worked out of the pen for Surprise and appeared to have the same difficulties he had with the RoughRiders: too many baserunners. His fastball command was not sharp and his breaking ball needed a lot of refinement in his time with the ‘Riders and, despite showing flashes within starts, would often get burned by putting himself in too many difficult situations.
1B Brett Nicholas: 17 G, 66 PA, .230/.273/.393, .666 OPS, 7 R, 7 2B, HR, 6 RBI, 3 BB, 11 K
Nicholas earned the opportunity to showcase his abilities in the prestigious AFL by way of his breakout regular season with the RoughRiders. One of the most complete offensive players in the Texas League this past season, Nicholas struggled a bit with the bat out in Arizona, as the numbers indicate. That may be the result fatigue from playing essentially every day over a full season for the first time, so I wouldn’t necessarily read too much into those numbers. His AFL campaign did have a few highlights, however. He was tied for fifth in the league in doubles, named the MVP of the Rising Stars Game with a two home run performance and he got married just as the fall season was beginning. I’m not sure how much he will be looked at for the Rule 5 draft next month, but he gets a lot of Chris McGuiness comparisons and McGuiness was selected by the Indians last year before being returned to Texas in the spring. While Nicholas does not have the same power that McGuiness has, he does have more versatility with his ability to play catcher. He played the position in college and has a decent amount of professional experience behind the plate (he’s often told me he’s still a catcher at heart playing first base). He is expected to catch full-time in the Dominican Winter League following his stint with Surprise. Nicholas would seem to be a good fit with a National League team with his ability to play multiple positions and swing a solid bat.
3B Ryan Rua: 17 G, 71 PA, .175/.268/.385, .633 OPS, 13 R, 4 HR, 15 RBI, 7 BB, 24 K, 6 E
Perhaps the most unexpected breakout season across the minors, Rua exploded onto the prospect scene with a 32 home run campaign for low-A Hickory (104 games) and Frisco (23 games). That tremendous power was on display in the AFL with four home runs, which tied for fifth among all players. Those homers, however, were his only extra-base hits in 71 plate appearances and it is apparent that he had some of the same contact issues he had with the RoughRiders. Like Nicholas, it could be the result of a long season that led to the diminished numbers. Rua is a very polarizing prospect for those in the business. His power is genuine and obviously comes out in games, not just at five in the afternoon. In addition to improving his contact, he needs to improve dramatically defensively. After primarily playing second base for the Crawdads, he shifted to third base with Frisco and played there for Surprise as well. Rua committed six errors in the AFL and while his arm is good enough for the position, his positioning and hands need work. At times he looks a little stiff with hands that are too hard at the hot corner. Hopefully the increased reps he gets at third will allow the defensive aspects of his game to catch up to his power.
RHP Matt West: 10 G, 1-0, 3.72 ERA, 9.2 IP, 12 H, 4 R, HR, 7 BB, 10 K, WP, 1.97 WHIP, .293 BAA
A member of the 40-man roster, West (who turns 25 today) has spent the bulk of the year rehabbing from the Tommy John surgery he underwent in 2012. A former second round pick out of high school (originally as a position player), West made one appearance for the AZL Rangers in August and saw his workload significantly increased with Surprise. The biggest signs of encouragement from West’s numbers are his ten strikeouts – indicating he can still gas it to get elite hitters out – and his ten appearances without any injury complications. His performances seemed to get better as the AFL season went on, hopefully setting the stage for a successful comeback season in 2014. If all goes well, he could put himself in position for a big league role at some point next year.
Finally, a reminder that, despite the AFL getting the MLB Network treatment with some of the best minor league prospects on the field, it’s still not close to the big leagues at least when it comes to the strike zone. Two screenshots from the strike three call on a 3-2 pitch in a 2-0 (championship) game. This was the final out.