The Arizona Fall League begins a 32-game schedule on Tuesday and the Pittsburgh Pirates are sending eight players to the league. It’s a talented group that will be playing for the Scottsdale Scorpions, alongside prospects from the Yankees, Mets, Phillies and Giants. The Pirates will send pitchers Tyler Glasnow, Nick Kingham, Adrian Sampson, Joely Rodriguez and Thomas Harlan; along with first baseman Josh Bell, catcher Elias Diaz and infielder Dan Gamache. Also going to the AFL is Pirates’ bench coach Jeff Banister, who will manage Scottsdale.
The most interesting player to watch will be Josh Bell, who is making the move to first base. He has already been playing some first base in the Fall Instructional League, so the position isn’t totally foreign to him. This will be the first real time he has spent playing the position. Bell was named the best hitter by the Florida State League and he spent almost half the season in Double-A, where he hit well, albeit without any power. He missed the last two weeks of the season with a bruised knee, which did not keep him out of any Instructional League action. The extra time in at first base will allow Bell to reach the majors quicker at his new position as opposed to learning it during Spring Training, because the bat looks like it could be ready soon.
While Bell will be the most interesting due to the new position, Tyler Glasnow is the best prospect from the Pirates organization that is going to the AFL. He had a tremendous season that ended with him being named the FSL Pitcher of the Year and MLB.com’s Pitching Prospect of the Year. Glasnow led all Pirates’ pitchers with 157 strikeouts, while posting a 1.74 ERA and .174 BAA. His season ended poorly with a playoff loss in which he gave up six runs and six walks in three innings. His fastball command improved during the season, but he still has work to do. He also showed an improved change-up, though that pitch could still use some work before it’s considered a strong third pitch. Glasnow should get in about 25 innings if all goes well.
Nick Kingham is another top prospect in baseball headed to Scottsdale. He had a tough finish to his half season at Indianapolis, which started great. Kingham had a 3.34 ERA this year in 159 innings. However, he posted a 4.99 ERA over his last 61.1 innings so he really had two different seasons. With a half season of Triple-A already, Kingham shouldn’t be too far off a promotion to Pittsburgh, assuming next year he is more like the first half pitcher from this year. The extra innings in the AFL will allow him to start all season next year and into late September if necessary, without worrying about an innings limit.
Adrian Sampson had a terrific season this year that ended with a promotion to Triple-A for four starts. The 22-year-old had a 2.55 ERA in 24 starts with Altoona, after posting a 5.14 ERA for Bradenton last year. He is in the same situation as Kingham, where the extra innings in the AFL will allow him to pitch through the end of September. That’s assuming he can put up another strong season and carry that over to a late-season promotion to Pittsburgh. Sampson had two rough starts and two strong outings for Indianapolis, so his progress is a small step behind Kingham’s right now.
The AFL has a rule that if players have winter ball in their home country, they can’t play in the league. They also have rules about lower level players, injured players and guys having Major League experience, but that hasn’t stopped them from breaking all those rules in the past. With that in mind, Elias Diaz and Joely Rodriguez will be in the AFL this year despite having winter league options. Diaz had a terrific breakout season, while Rodriguez headed the other way this year. Rodriguez will be looking to make up for some lost innings, after he was sent to the bullpen in July. He put up a 4.84 ERA for Altoona in 134 innings, allowing 151 hits. Compared to last season, Rodriguez saw a big drop in his strikeouts, his excellent ground ball rate went down and he walked slightly more batters in six fewer innings, so he can use the extra work.
Elias Diaz went the opposite way of Rodriguez, putting up his best career numbers after an underrated season last year in Bradenton. Diaz played well during winter ball last year and was able to carry that success into the regular season. He hit .328/.378/.445 in 91 games for Altoona, then got a late promotion to Indianapolis, where he split catching duties with Tony Sanchez. Diaz is a fantastic defensive player, so if he is able to hit in Triple-A, you could be looking at a future regular in the majors. He turns 24 just after the AFL season ends, so he is still young for a minor league catcher.
The last two players aren’t top prospects, but did look good at times in Double-A, so it’s interesting to see how they handle the competition in the AFL. Left-handed pitcher Thomas Harlan had a 3.71 ERA in 60.2 innings for Altoona. It’s not a bad number considering he started the year in Bradenton’s bullpen and moved to the rotation when he was promoted to Altoona. Pitching coach Stan Kyles talked in this article about how well Harlan handled the move to the rotation. He has excellent control, but he’s held back by a very low strikeout rate (3.9 SO/9) and he turned 24 prior to the season, so he is a little old for someone who has just a half season of Double-A. He doesn’t have the stuff that the other four pitchers have, so Harlan relies on ground balls and control for his results.
Dan Gamache is making up for some lost time, as a broken foot in Spring Training caused him to miss a good portion of the season. He hit well during his return to Altoona, but Gamache lacks upside and his defense at third base was awful. He spent about half of his time at second base. Gamache doesn’t have any standout tools, so it’s hard to project success at the higher levels. Just like Harlan, the AFL is a great test for him.
The AFL will be experimenting with new rules to help speed up the game. A recap of the rules can be found here. Last year, replay was introduced during the AFL and that too will be used this year, though only during home games for Salt River. The season runs until the Championship game on November 15th and includes the All-Star (Fall Stars) game on November 1st. Josh Bell represented the Pirates in the Bowman Hitting Challenge on Saturday night, the opening event of the AFL season.