Before they become stars, Yankees prospects join the Minor Leagues' best in the Arizona Fall League
By Jon Schwartz
Yankees Magazine |
It's Oct. 25, 2016, and tonight, on the banks of the Cuyahoga River, a most unlikely World Series will begin, with the Cleveland Indians hoping to end nearly seven decades of futility, and the Chicago Cubs eager to reward a fan base that has waited more than a century for a parade.
Before the flyover and the fireworks and the first pitch, though, there's another game to be played some 2,000 miles to the southwest, part of a small circuit where the sport's future is competing with its present for attention. This game, though … this might be one to remember.
It's the 25th season of the Arizona Fall League, a six-week prospect showcase that brings the sport's stars-to-be to the Phoenix area for a post-season wind-down. The Yankees have sent nine players, ranging from Greg Bird -- who missed all of 2016 after hitting 11 home runs in two months in 2015 and is finishing up his rehab assignment - to Nestor Cortes -- a low-profile pitching prospect who nonetheless used his finesse to dazzle at Low-A Charleston this past season. The Yankees contingent suits up for the Scottsdale Scorpions alongside prospects from the Mets, Angels, Phillies and Giants, and the pinstriped representatives are turning heads.
"The feedback from all the clubs, scouts, our personnel, is that they're doing extremely well," said Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman. "We look like we have the best guys out there."
This is an interesting time to be a Yankees fan. Tonight's World Series game matches up two Yankees trade partners from earlier in the year. And sure enough, Andrew Miller will play a starring role for the Indians before the night is up, after featuring as part of a dominant Yankees bullpen for much of 2016. No doubt the Yankees are excited about all the players that they acquired as July turned to August, but that's comfort for another day. Tonight, watching Miller and Aroldis Chapman occupy the game's grandest stage will be sobering.
But in Peoria, Arizona, before just a few handfuls of fans, another name from that same Miller trade is firing darts for the Yankees. J.P. Feyereisen was a 16th-round pick by Cleveland in the 2014 MLB Draft, but he put together an impressive 2016 between the Indians and Yankees organizations. Still, in a trade in which the Yankees also acquired Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield and Ben Heller, Feyereisen garnered less attention from the media.
In this particular game at the Peoria Sports Complex, Feyereisen replaces fellow right-hander Dillon Tate -- also a deadline addition, from Texas in exchange for Carlos Beltran -- who replaced yet another member of the organization in Brody Koerner. Over the first seven innings, Koerner and Tate allowed no runs on three hits and two walks, striking out seven and wowing the scouts in attendance. Feyereisen, standing 6-foot-2, takes the mound in the bottom of the eighth and allows a leadoff double to Rays prospect Kean Wong. But he gets the next three batters in order -- a fielder's choice, a swinging strikeout on a slider and a flyout -- and cedes the mound with the Scorpions ahead, 3-0.
In the bottom of the ninth, the first non-Yankee to pitch for Scottsdale gives up a walk-off grand slam. The Scorpions lose.
The players might want to resort to cliché -- it's just one loss, tomorrow is another day, et cetera. And that's true. But here in the Valley of the Sun, it's also somewhat meaningless. Tomorrow's not the point - the real stuff is still a long way off. This is about the future, about way past tomorrow.
In the meantime? There's the show that Tyler Wade put on all day, his game- changing speed front and center. There's Gleyber Torres, who demonstrated baseball instincts way beyond his 19 years. And the pitchers? Good lord, the pitchers.
A loss? Cashman will take a loss like this today, tomorrow and forever.
A Springboard to the Majors
About 50 percent of the players on 2016 Opening Day rosters were Arizona Fall League alums, and in nine of the last 10 years, at least one of the two Rookie of the Year Award winners in MLB -- including 2016 National League Rookie of the Year Corey Seager -- played in the circuit. Four times, both winners have. This year was particularly notable for the AFL, as Mike Piazza became the first alum to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Major League teams have been sending their top prospects to Arizona for a quarter-century now, and that doesn't figure to change anytime soon.
"If you can get to the Arizona Fall League, your chances of getting to the Major Leagues are enhanced," said Steve Cobb, the league's director. "It's become the place for the top players to make a stop." But it can be more than a brief interlude in a prospect's MLB development. The hope, especially in the case of the rapidly rebuilding Yankees, is that it's a true coming-out party.
"Obviously the talent is very impressive," said Carlos Mendoza, a field coordinator in the Yankees organization who served as one of the Scorpions' hitting coaches in Arizona this fall. "And the age. You're looking at Greg Bird, kind of the veteran of the group, and he's only 23. That's very impressive. We're talking about guys like Tyler Wade -- only 21 -- Miguel Andujar -- only 21 -- Gleyber Torres -- only 19. That's very impressive.
"We're preparing these guys to win championships at the Major League level, and this is where it starts."
The life cycle in the AFL is short and accelerated, and it sets the aging process on hyperspeed. Right-hander James Kaprielian -- the Yankees' 2015 first-round pick -- talks about the young budding stars around him as though he, himself, is some old-timer. Discussing Torres, the centerpiece the Yankees acquired from Chicago in the deal for Chapman last summer, Kaprielian hardly sounds like a guy who is just 22.
"I just think his maturity level is right there," Kaprielian said, joining the masses in hailing the Venezuela native's remarkable poise and posture. "That's the stuff that impresses me about him, just because he is 19 years old."
Or there's Greg Bird, at the time just 23 years old and 46 games into his Big-League career. He speaks of being back in the AFL for a second time as though he were a veteran on the wrong side of 35. "I think it's a good experience because it puts you in more of a leadership role, where guys are coming to you for advice," Bird said. "I think it's a good generation of baseball that's coming up right now. There's a lot of young players that are exciting."
Bird may be the old-timer in the group, but it's the exciting young shortstop Torres who will eventually be named AFL MVP after leading the league with a .403 batting average, and adding three homers and 11 RBI in 18 games. Not bad for the youngest player in the league -- and both the youngest batting champ and MVP in AFL history.
If the Arizona Fall League is where the game's next bright stars first show themselves, then Yankees fans are ready for dusk. After the 2015 season, two members of the organization -- Tyler Austin and Gary Sanchez -- put up solid numbers in Arizona before exploding onto the scene in the Majors in the second half of 2016. The year before, Bird and Aaron Judge put on a good power show of their own. Even if success in the desert doesn't guarantee Major League greatness, it's still a meaningful checkpoint in a prospect's career.
"I don't know how close I am, but this is a good start," Cortes said. "I'm going the right way. I'm going forward."
Hard Work, Little Fanfare
The way forward, even under the ideal (if hot) November conditions in Arizona, involves more than a little bit of work. Life in the Fall League is enjoyable and the mood light, but the grind is real, and it's different for every player. Among the Scorpions, the player whose development is being scrutinized the closest is former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, who is representing the Mets. But the guys wearing pinstripes have enough projects of their own on which to focus.
For some, like Bird, Kaprielian and Koerner, the six weeks in Arizona are the last stage in a rehab process -- a few extra at-bats, a few extra innings, some time on the field against live pitchers or hitters. The goal is to help put a happier face on the end of a tough, closed-off year.
But over in left field during a pregame workout, Wade is learning how to play the outfield. Most scouts are watching his workout partner, Tebow, but for Wade -- an infielder whose progress is probably blocked unless he can learn to play a new position -- the training is just as important.
"Whatever gets me to the Big Leagues and helps the New York Yankees win is my goal, and that should be the goal for everybody -- to help the team win a championship," said Wade, who was the shortstop on the Double-A Eastern League's postseason All-Star team after the 2016 campaign. "I've played infield my whole life. But when it comes down to it, if the Yankees need me to play left field or third base, and they need me to win a game that way, I'm going to do it."
In the Oct. 25 game against Peoria, Wade shows that if he can find a position with a track to the Majors, he can add value. In the top of the third inning, he reaches on a fielding error, then steals second. The next inning, he beats out an infield single before stealing his second base of the game. And in the top of the sixth, he just misses reaching on an infield single, thrown out by the smallest of margins. As for his fielding, there are no hiccups. The work is paying off.
The same goes for Feyereisen. When the Wisconsin resident came over from Cleveland, he was hailed as a fireballing reliever. And true to form, he delivered a fastball with confidence and verve, as well as a power slider. That trend continued in his first outing in Arizona.
"I came out and threw all fastballs," he said. "Our pitching coordinator said, 'It's time to learn to throw your off-speed.' So the past two, three outings now, I've kind of learned that when I'm not pitching with just fastball, I've got to learn to throw my off-speed for strikes, and also locate it out of the zone, too. And the past couple of outings have been a little tougher than normal, but it's just teaching me more."
With a maturity that belies his 23 years, the pitcher understands that some growing pains today will pay off down the road. He's been struggling to learn a change-up since his freshman year of college. The time is finally right. "Everyone looks at stats out here, but if I can come out of this league with a third pitch and say that I gave up a few home runs here and there, but I can take away runs when I'm in the Bronx or Scranton or Trenton next year, I will definitely take that."
Five Organizations, One Team
If the youth and good cheer gives off a spring training vibe, so much else about the Arizona Fall League experience trends toward the surreal.
The players all wear hats with their AFL team's logo but with the jerseys and pants of their parent club, so the field is a hodgepodge of styles and colors, up to 10 Big-League uniforms at once. The members of five Big-League organizations that make up the Scottsdale Scorpions all work toward the same goal for nine innings every day, but during workouts and downtime, the players often retreat to the comfort of their regular teammates.
"The first couple of days, we were all really cliquey," Koerner said. "You hang with your team, then you start to warm up to everybody and everybody starts to hang out with everybody else. Especially in the bullpen, you get talking to everybody."
Even if the divisions break down as the six weeks pass by, some remain. For one thing, most players feel more comfortable throwing with acquaintances, mostly for purposes of practicality -- a familiar, regular throwing partner will be quicker to notice if something seems wrong. But more than that, the personal goals each guy brings to Arizona will -- one hopes -- eventually pale in comparison to the shared vision each pinstriped Scorpion has.
"We're pushing each other," Kaprielian said. "Although we're here working on different things, the nine of us want to be teammates in New York. So for us, we're trying to get each other better, to push each other, to learn from each other."
Tom Goodwin is a Mets coach, but this fall, he is managing the Scorpions. Throughout the pregame drills, it's perfectly common to see Goodwin, all decked out in Mets gear, chatting with Tate or Bird, offering advice and tips, supporting them as they reach for the summit. "Big-time camaraderie," he said. "We have these different jerseys. But it's all about the hat that you have on."
Still, every time Torres makes a spectacular play up the middle, Kaprielian admits that he gets a bit more enjoyment out of it. "I'm going, 'That's my guy back there!'" Kaprielian said. "Even if I'm in the dugout and I'm watching the game, if a guy hits a rope up the middle and Gleyber makes that play, I'm looking at all the guys around me. I'm like, 'Hey man. Yankees right there. Yankees. Look at the pinstripes.'"
Development vs. Winning
As such, it's no surprise that players in Arizona are able to find positives even when a walk-off grand slam ends what had otherwise been a Yankees showcase. The Scorpions lost, but the Yankees of the future looked amazing. "At the end of the day out here, it's about development," Bird said. "And I care about the development of the Yankees."
Cashman and his front office lieutenants follow along with the prospects' progress in the Valley of the Sun, checking progress reports every day and reading assessments of everything that happened during the games. And with MLB's annual general managers' meetings taking place in Scottsdale, he was able to bring a lot of members of his staff out with him to see some action in person. The reports he got throughout the six weeks were plenty encouraging.
"I do believe," Cashman said, "that there are a lot of players that our fanbase should be excited to have coming through these doors, and hopefully a collection of them can become a core, so that we can make astute trades and create some signings to fill in to have a legitimate championship contender."
For a guy like Cortes, just being in the Arizona Fall League is enough right now. A late addition to the roster, Cortes was a day away from boarding a plane to play winter ball for the Indios de Mayaguez in Puerto Rico when he got the call that he should go to Arizona instead. But what's good enough right now quickly fades. Being here is fine; great even. But Cortes wants to show that his repertoire can work in the Big Leagues. And he wants to win a championship in the Majors some day. In the meantime, he's not going to be caught treating the AFL as anything other than a real, nightly competition.
"There's a championship on the line," he said. "We're here already, so we might as well win it."
Faith, the Bible says, is the evidence of things not seen, and while the world watched the Cubs parade down Michigan Avenue in November, barely anyone saw nine Yankees prospects put on a show this past fall on the other side of the country. But Cashman is playing a different game these days. Market pressures and changing philosophies mean that even if a team wanted to "buy" a world championship, it probably no longer could. The Cubs waited 108 years for a World Series title. It has only felt that long for Yankees fans and executives.
But to fly the most celebrated of all W flags, the Cubs had to go to the wilderness first. The Yankees, it seems, won't have to fall quite so far. In an entirely different desert, a bunch of future Yankees may have shown the path out.
Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the 2017 New York Yankees Official Yearbook. The 2017 New York Yankees Official Yearbook is an official Yankees publication. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications