Yesterday I got home from my trip to the Arizona Fall League. I got a lot of updated information on the prospects who are out there, and will be rolling out articles over the next week, with my articles on Trevor Williams and Steven Brault already posted.
The AFL trip wraps up my travel for the year. Thanks to the subscription model, I think I did more traveling this year than the previous six seasons combined. It was great getting out on the road for all of the expanded coverage this year, but I’ll also enjoy being at home for a few months. And by that, I mean I’ll be camped out in my office for pretty much all of the next month, finishing up the Prospect Guide.
At the end of each trip, I always had a few takeaways to recap. The biggest was always what I got from the coverage, and my takeaway from the series, or the minor league team I saw, or the event/area I covered. On the personal side, each trip also represented an opportunity to try new foods and beers that were local to the areas. For some reason, I never put all of this down in articles, instead using it for my own personal notes.
I had an idea during this recent trip to start an article series at the end of each road trip, focusing on the takeaway from the coverage, but also detailing the beers and food that I tried. I know that the “Things to Do in Bradenton During Spring Training” article I do each year is very popular among people who make that trip. I also got several responses in the surveys last month from people who enjoyed the times when the site went a bit off-topic.
I decided to start this article series: Bucs, Beers, and Bites. This happens to be my last trip of the year, although maybe if this article gets good feedback, I’ll do a few from Bradenton over the off-season, such as when mini-camp takes place. This is basically going to be three articles in one, with an article on each section. There will be some people who don’t care about the off-topic stuff, and that’s fine. You don’t have to read it, but I’m including it for those who might be interested. Feel free to read the first part and skip over the rest. If you do like the off-topic stuff, let me know and I’ll continue doing more like this.
Off-season ball tends to get over-hyped for the impact it can make on a player’s future. The hype and expectations tends to get bigger when you’re talking about organized leagues, rather than regular instructs. But in each case, a player is working on specific things, and in each case, the work being done probably isn’t going to change much during the off-season.
In the long-run, you might see some players make lasting changes and improvements that were started in the AFL. But those players could have done the same thing during instructs, or even working at home. You don’t see their name in the box score each day, so there’s not a constant reminder that they’re working on stuff, and that is probably what leads to the desire to see players in off-season leagues.
The AFL is basically a showcase league. It gives players some extra time against upper level opponents, and this time is probably more significant for the hitters. In either case, the playing time isn’t going to be significant enough to make a lasting impact. It’s just a preview of the upper levels for a guy expected to make the jump from A-ball, or some added work for a guy who was already in Double-A.
Everyone is working on something specific in the AFL, whether that’s continuing their work from the regular season, or adding a new pitch/making some other adjustment that just started in the fall. As noted above, this is just the start, and the work done in Spring Training and the regular season the following year on these things is much more important to the overall development.
I say that the AFL is a showcase league because players do the same thing as they would in instructs, but do it on a larger stage. If you go to instructs, you’ll see a few scouts in attendance. If you go to the AFL, you’ll see at least 50 scouts in the stands for every game. For scouts that want to see a ton of prospects from all different types of teams, the AFL is the perfect place. The stadiums are located close together, and you can usually see two games in one day, with a ton of prospects on either side available to watch.
For someone like me, who only covers one team, the AFL is actually worse than instructs. At instructs, you get to see a ton of players, and usually two full teams worth on a given day, all for the team you cover. In the AFL, you’re sitting around waiting for the 1-2 prospects in the lineup, and hoping that you see one inning out of a pitching prospect you follow. In that way, it’s a lot like covering your average Pirates farm system team from the 2009 and earlier era.
I’ll also point out why we cover the AFL daily. The league is really not that different from every other in-season league. In fact, the level of competition is a bit higher, which makes it a bit more intriguing. But the games don’t matter in the long run, players are focused on development first, and this gives a way to continue tracking that development. It’s a smaller sample size — the equivalent of following a team for a month during the season — but important to keep track how players are doing.
I’m not saying it’s pointless to go to the AFL. You just get a lot more value from the interviews than the live coverage, and those interviews help add perspective to the stats and the daily live coverage we have on the site. For example, I didn’t see Steven Brault pitch, but even if I did, my opinion on him isn’t going to change based on a few innings. But I can learn what he’s working on by going out and interviewing him, and that tips me off on what to follow going forward, and whether any changes have been made.
Basically, instead of the AFL being special and different from the regular season, it’s actually the same for us. It’s not much different from how we approach the regular season. We’ll have nightly box score reports, and then I’ll go cover the team for a week to get answers behind the scenes, lending perspective to those numbers in the box scores.
The biggest impact the AFL could have is that showcase factor. We saw this with Austin Meadows. His home run in the Fall Stars Game didn’t change his upside. It just gave a small glimpse of his potential on a very big stage. After that home run, there were a lot of positive reviews on Meadows. People were noticing him as a top prospect. They noticed the quick hands, the short swing, the potential for more power at the plate as he fills out — all of the things you’ve read about on this site all throughout the year. None of it was new, but the AFL gave him a bigger stage to display all of these tools, and he took advantage of that.
This doesn’t mean the Pirates sent Meadows to the AFL to showcase him. That could be true on some small level, but it’s probably as minor as the extra work he’s receiving against upper level pitchers. I’d say that the latter is probably more important for the Pirates.
Overall, the site never had the resources in the past to cover the AFL. We didn’t miss much on the live report side of things, but we usually had to wait until Spring Training to learn about the changes being made. This week, we basically had a mini-version of the in-season live reports, with no obvious changes to the player values. But there was a lot of value in the interviews, with a lot of good information.
That’s the AFL in a nutshell. It’s probably not going to make a difference in the development of a player, and only plays a small step in their development path. For a reporter like myself that is only covering one team, you can find new information, but there aren’t going to be drastic changes, and the values of the players won’t change. And for the MLB scouts, the AFL is amazing, as it gives them access to more top prospects in game action than any other league throughout the year.
Typically when I go to a new area, I want to try beers local to the area, with a big focus on craft beers. I went with Tecate light in most of my trips to the Mexican restaurant I’ll mention below, but had a few local Arizona beers.
The first one was Sunbru by Four Peaks Brewing Company. This was a Kolsh that was crisp and light, which is exactly what you want on a hot afternoon in Arizona. It wasn’t too hoppy, and had a refreshing flavor. It also paired perfectly with the fried green tomato salad I’ll discuss below. If I lived in Arizona, this would be a six pack beer. Something with good flavor that’s not too heavy, and where I wouldn’t mind having a few while watching a game.
Before discussing the next two, I’ll say that I’m a big fan of chocolate porters and milk stouts, which is something that really developed in the last year. I also feel like you’re seeing a lot of interesting flavors come out in this department in recent years, going beyond just the chocolate variety, although maybe I’m just starting to notice it more. My love of these beers is a bit strange, as they’re not the type of beers you usually would drink when it’s hot in Florida, which is every month except January. Somehow I’ve trained myself to drink a bold flavored porter, even when it’s 95 and humid.
I tried Achocolypse by Prescott Brewing Company, which is a chocolate porter. The flavor was good here, with a strong cocoa aftertaste. While there was some bitter dark chocolate involved, the smoother cocoa flavor carried the beer. Sometimes with chocolate porters you get a beer that can be bitter, with just a hint of chocolate, and that’s not bad. Other times, you get what almost tastes like a beer milkshake. which might not be appealing to some. This one was closer to the latter. If you’ve ever had “Shake” by Boulder Beer, then this beer is similar. I prefer Shake, but Achocolypse wasn’t far off.
The last beer I tried was my favorite of the trip. It came after reading a review from Eno Sarris at Beergraphs. It was the Candy Bar Milk Stout at Fate Brewing Company. This is a small batch brewery, and while they do growler fills, they don’t have any distribution that I could find. That’s a shame, because I would load up my fridge with this, and then buy another fridge for my food, and end up stocking more of this beer in there.
I’m not the best at describing beers. I don’t have an easy time breaking down why I specifically liked a beer, or the flavors involved. Most of the time my review ranges from “I’m going to need something to eat to mask the flavor of this crap” to “Holy balls that was amazing, please throw more of that beer directly into my face, thank you.”
To copy the description, the beer is brewed with “honey roasted peanuts, cacao nibs, vanilla bean, and a touch of sea salt. Decadent and slightly sweet with a chocolate/peanut nose and a roasty finish.”
All of these are things that would make me want to try the beer, especially the vanilla bean. Anyone who has ever done some intense baking, and who has worked with vanilla bean will appreciate all the work that goes into this flavor. You can get vanilla bean paste as a shortcut, but the best approach is steeping vanilla beans in milk, then scraping out the seeds. It’s a tedious process, and takes some time, but the results are amazing, and lead to great flavor. I don’t know which approach they took here, but you could taste some subtle vanilla flavoring.
Overall, the beer wasn’t overpowering sweet. Instead, it almost adopted the trend of the honey roasted peanuts. It was sweet, but only in the same way honey roasted peanuts are sweet. It also had a bit of a roasted flavor. The regular beer had a bit of effervescence which was nice when paired with the sweet flavor. They also had it on Nitro, which resulted in a much creamier version of the beer that made it a bit sweeter. I’m not sure which one I liked better, although I definitely like the mouthfeel of the first one. On that same subject, after drinking this beer, the rest of my night consisted of a coating inside my mouth that you’d get after you eat a ton of Whoppers. I can’t describe it in any other way, but every time I would draw in air through my mouth, I’d taste a malt-like flavor. That made for a great rest of the night.
Unfortunately, you can only get Fate beer in the Phoenix area, but if you’re there, this is an absolute must try. I didn’t get a chance to try their other beers, as I had to limit myself so I could drive home and get packed for the airport the next morning, but I’m looking forward to going back. They also have small bites of food that looked interesting, although the kitchen closed by the time I got there.
Normally when I get back to Tampa from a trip, my first stop is Taco Bus for some amazing tacos. That won’t be necessary this time around. I usually try to go to a few different places when I’m in a city for a week, but my second day in the Phoenix area I went to La Santisima in Glendale, and liked it so much that I returned a few more times.
They start you off with a basket of chips, as you’d expect from any Mexican restaurant. However, this place has a salsa bar, with over a dozen different options. I went with the Mexican style salsa, guacamole (which was a creamy style), pecan salsa, tomatillo, chipotle, and a seven chiles salsa. The last one set my mouth on fire, and after a few bites, that creamy guacamole and the pecan salsa were my best friends. The latter wasn’t salsa as much as it was a condiment. It would probably go well as a dip for chicken fingers.
The big reason I went here was for the dogfish shark taco, seen in the center picture below. It had a great flavor, and was basically the equivalent of an amazing fish taco. I added some tomatillo salsa on top, which was a great pairing. The breading was a bit thick for my taste, as I like less breading and more crunch. This one wasn’t loaded with breading, but didn’t have any crunch. The ingredients were fresh, which is really what you need from this style of tacos. It’s probably not healthy, but that aspect makes it feel like you’re eating healthy.
The taco on the right was a grilled cactus taco. I’ve never eaten cactus before this, and got it because why wouldn’t you try that? The flavor was interesting. Consistency wise, it was like a grilled poblano pepper. It had some acidity, and almost a citrus like taste. This was a pure veggie taco, and while my return trips consisted of only the other two tacos, I did like the cactus taco. Basically, I learned that in a zombie apocalypse, I’d be totally fine living in the desert off of grilled cacti.
The one on the left is a sweet pork sweet taco topped with guacamole. Not a healthy option at all, but the flavor combination was amazing. The pork was savory, the guac was creamy, and there was pineapple in there which made it sweet. The pork was also charred, and that concentrated flavor really complemented the sweet, fresh pineapple.
The other notable place I went to was Short Leash, which is a hot dog place that has three locations in the Phoenix area. This is one of those types of places that I’d absolutely go to every time I went to Phoenix, but if I lived there, I’d try to avoid it as often as possible, in order to avoid dying by the age of 37.
The big reason I went there was for “The Bear”. That’s a hot dog of your choice (I went all beef, but you can get other options, like a veggie dog, or even a brat) in a flat bread wrap, topped with smoked gouda, peanut butter, BBQ sauce, bacon, and cracker jacks. Yes, cracker jacks as a topping on a hot dog. How has this not made it into a MLB park yet? It’s the All-Star game of baseball food.
On the surface, this combination sounds like it would never work. You’ve got a hot dog, and that already comes with expectations that you’re going to put the normal ingredients on, or the Chicago dog ingredients if you’re getting crazy. I’ve had a hot dog with pulled pork and cole slaw on top as well, but that’s not as crazy as this combination.
I love peanut butter on burgers. It’s something I tried a few years ago, and it’s life changing. The peanut butter melts, and you get a gooey, savory topping. So I could accept that. The smoked gouda made sense as well, individually. Bacon? Who doesn’t want bacon on everything. BBQ sauce? I’ve had it on hot dogs, such as the pulled pork ones. Cracker jacks? That’s crazy, but I’ll accept it. All of them together? It sounds like something you’d try, just to say you’ve tried it, but something that won’t really work.
It did work. The gouda was shredded, and a bit hardened by the smoking process, making it almost the consistency of a soft cabbage. This also allowed the peanut butter to combine with the cheese, along with the BBQ sauce and bacon to get in the mix. The result is that you got every flavor in each bite. And that’s what really works here. I’m a huge fan of multiple flavors in a meal. The more flavors, the better the dish. This one had savory (peanut butter), creamy (the gouda/peanut butter combo), spicy (the BBQ sauce…I tend to like a sweeter and thicker BBQ sauce, but that wouldn’t work here, as it would overpower things and send it all in one direction, whereas the thinner and spicy BBQ sauce really contrasted well with the rest of the toppings), salty (the bacon), and of course sweet (peanut butter). As for the cracker jacks, they didn’t play a big role here. It was kind of just a surprise in each bite that only accented the overall ensemble. It didn’t really change the flavor, but added a second great flavor, kind of like putting candy on frozen yogurt. It was a nice surprise to be chewing, and then all of a sudden crunch into a kernel of caramel popcorn. That definitely added another aspect to this in terms of mouthfeel.
I got this with house made chips, because you always get house made chips if that’s an option.
Before this, I also had to try a salad from the same place. I say “salad” like it’s healthy, and this wasn’t exactly healthy. It was a fried green tomato and avocado stack salad. Growing up in Virginia, I definitely have an affinity for fried green tomatoes, which drew me to this dish. They stacked layers of tomatoes and avocado on top of a salad of arugula, roasted corn, bacon, and creamy house made bleu cheese dressing. The flavor combination was great. It was kind of like south meets southwest, with the tomatoes and bacon providing that southern home cooked taste, and the avocado and roasted corn adding the southwest flavor. This is something that would be easy to make at home if you can get ahold of some green tomatoes. It might even be somewhat healthy if you remove the bacon.
Scratch that last comment. I say crazy things sometimes.
Finally, I’ll mention that I’m not a fast food fan at all. I’d say I never eat it, but sometimes it’s impossible to avoid when you’re on the road and have a busy schedule. I never eat it at home, and when I do eat it on the road, I’m going for a place that has good ingredients, fresh food, and usually specializes in one thing.
Being on the west coast, I had the opportunity to try In-N-Out burger. For years I’ve been hearing about how this was the best hamburger place, so I had to give it a shot. And it might be controversial to those who love it, but I wasn’t impressed, and didn’t get the hype. This was just a typical fast food place, and while the burgers were better than places like McDonalds and Burger King, I wouldn’t take them over Five Guys. This also wouldn’t touch a good food truck burger. From what I gathered, the appeal of this place is that it’s cheap, fast, and fresh. The burgers were good in those parameters, but if you don’t mind waiting a bit longer, you can get a much better burger elsewhere. And if you’ve got a Five Guys nearby, you can get a much better fast food burger, with way more topping choices, and french fries that are 100% better.
In other “fast food places that specialize on one thing”, I grabbed some chicken fingers from Raising Canes one night after a late game when everything else was shut down. I love Canes, as there used to be one near where I lived in Virginia. Their chicken fingers are made fresh from scratch, hand battered, and come with sauces that are also made fresh. As far as quality chicken fingers that are cheap, fast, and fresh, this place is the best. I don’t want to go the In-N-Out route and say they’re the best chicken fingers you can get, but in terms of fast food chicken fingers, they’re at the top of my list.
If you enjoyed this feature, let me know in the comments below. I’ll be reading your responses in between segments on the exercise bike.