Desert sun shines on prospects

Desert sun shines on prospects

Before becoming leading contenders for Rookie of the Year honors this season, Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard and Athletics closer Huston Street attended graduate school at the Arizona Fall League.

Class is in session again in the Valley of the Sun. On Tuesday night, six, 30-player teams began a 32-game regular season -- six fewer than usual due to the Olympic Baseball Qualifying Tournament, which will be held Nov. 15-19 in Phoenix.

The AFL's 14th season culminates on Nov. 10, when the championship game is played at Phoenix Municipal Stadium.

The AFL could be called "the diamond in the desert" because so many of its participants have reached the big leagues.

"More than 1,200 (nearly 50 percent) players have made it to the Major Leagues," said Steve Cobb, the AFL's executive director for the past 13 years. "I don't think there is another league that can make that claim. In one average game, there are 30-plus Major League prospects."

Word has gotten around that the AFL is the place to go for taking that final step between high-Minors and the big leagues.

"I heard a lot of good stories from guys who had played [in the AFL] and I considered it a pretty big honor to be invited," Street said. "The best thing I heard about it was that it's a hitter's league and I knew I would be facing some of the best Minor League hitters in the game."

That information was right on.

The 2004 season was the biggest offensive campaign in the league's 13-year history. Clubs combined to score nearly a run more per game than in any other season. The league batting average, at .292, smashed the previous high of .285 set the previous year. Teams averaged more than 12 runs per game, eclipsing the mark of 11-plus runs per contest set in 2003. AFL teams averaged more than 20 hits per game and boasted a .444 slugging percentage, both tops in league history.

But Street met the challenge head-on and succeeded in a big way, compiling a 0.98 ERA in 18 innings.

More than anything, the AFL experience increased his confidence and provided an important stepping stone from the College World Series in the summer of 2004 to Oakland in 2005, when he developed into one of the best closers in the Major Leagues, finishing with 23 saves and a 1.72 ERA in 67 relief appearances.

"To get from where you start, to where you are," he said, "you have to claw your way to the next level and see where you end up. Playing in the AFL definitely opened my eyes on how talented these guys really are."

Howard, who hit 22 home runs for the Phillies this season and helped them challenge for the National League Wild Card berth, was among the elite hitters in the AFL, batting .331 with three home runs and 24 RBIs for the league-champion Phoenix Desert Dogs, a team that included Street.

Howard and Street are just two of the latest AFL honor students, a list that includes Nomar Garciaparra (Scottsdale, 1994), Derek Jeter (Chandler, 1994), Mike Piazza (Sun City, 1992), Jason Giambi (Peoria Javelinas, 1994), Shawn Green (Scottsdale, 1993) and Todd Helton (Peoria, 1996).

All have been inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame, along with managers Jerry Manuel, Dusty Baker and Mike Scioscia -- three skippers who used the Fall League to develop their managerial skills.

"The players love it because you can measure yourself against other top prospects," said Rangers shortstop Michael Young (Scottsdale, 2000). "You get an idea what it's like to play with, and against, guys who are going to be in the big leagues the following year, or shortly thereafter.

"Besides that, the weather is great, the travel is a piece of cake, you can focus entirely on baseball and the facilities are first-class because games are played at Spring Training stadiums. I had a blast. Whoever thought of the AFL, it was a great idea."

That would be longtime baseball executive Roland Hemond.

Prior to the AFL, young players needing more innings or at-bats after the regular season were sent to Winter League teams in Puerto Rico, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. However, winning games seemed to take precedent over developing talent, and in many cases, some of the game's top prospects were overused.

Top executives from MLB teams decided that a league, such as the AFL, would be a win-win proposition, as it would make it easier to manage players' playing time and monitor their progress. And it would be more cost efficient.

"I have always liked the AFL because it gives the best prospects in the game a chance to play against each other and polish their skills in a competitive environment," former general manager Pat Gillick said. "It also can give them confidence going into the next season if they do well. The results have been pretty darn good."

There are roster-formation stipulations.

• Each of the six AFL teams comprises players from five MLB organizations.

• Every player must have two or fewer years of MLB experience (up from one year), not counting any time spent on the disabled list.

• Every roster includes three catchers, five outfielders, 15 pitchers (five starters), five infielders and two utility players. The teams are allowed to have a "taxi squad" -- usually two or three players who can be activated only on Wednesdays and Saturdays during the six-week season.

• Each player's salary (paid by the parent club) is about $750 per week plus $125 meal money.

The AFL teams and affiliations this season are: Peoria Javelinas (Brewers, Orioles, Mariners, Padres, Rockies); Grand Canyon Rafters (Marlins, Mets, Rangers, Twins, Yankees); Mesa Solar Sox (Cubs, Giants, Indians, Reds, Tigers); Peoria Saguaros (Blue Jays, Nationals, Pirates, Red Sox, White Sox); Phoenix Desert Dogs (Athletics, Braves, Devil Rays, Diamondbacks, Dodgers) and Surprise Scorpions (Angels, Astros, Royals, Phillies and Cardinals).

The rosters begin taking shape every June when officials from each MLB team select two of the eventual six players it will send to the league. Through a series of conference calls and "negotiating," the five organizations will come up with their 30-man roster. Managers, coaches and trainers also are selected by the respective MLB organizations on a rotation basis.

This year's managers are: Scott Little (Dodgers and Desert Dogs), Luis Rivera (Indians and Solar Sox), Gary Pettis (Javelinas and Brewers), Eddie Rodriguez (Saguaros and Nationals), Ron Warner (Scorpions and Cardinals) and Ken Oberkfell (Rafters and Mets).

"Stats don't mean a lot," said Benny Looper, the Mariners' vice president of scouting and player development. "We don't worry about that a whole lot. We just want to see them facing better competition."

It's all about getting better, and having fun at the same time.

"This has probably been the most fun baseball total experience as I have had in my life," Street said after his Desert Dogs team won the AFL title last year. "I've never been around a group of guys that jelled like we did. I'll cherish these six weeks forever."

And he still feels that way.

"The biggest reward is the people you meet," he said. "When our baseball careers end, we'll always be friends. It was cool playing with guys from other organizations. It was like being part of an All-Star team every day for six weeks."

Jim Street is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.