The role of fall leagues

This is the time on the baseball calendar when the minor moves take place, the ones that go unnoticed by casual fans until they check the 25-man roster in early April. But just because they don’t make the front (or back) page doesn’t mean organizations aren’t putting a lot of time and effort into the discussion.

Yesterday was the non-tender deadline for players who are still under team control but who may be getting too expensive for their skill set. These decisions are more financially based than anything else. Is this player worth what he is expected to make in arbitration next year? If not, it’s bye-bye. It’s a decision that requires analytic time, but not much else.

A few weeks ago, however, teams had to make decisions on their 40-man rosters. That requires a lot more than analytics.

The players up for debate on those roster spots, on whether they should be added or removed, are younger players. The decisions on them are rooted on the scouting side of an organization, if for no other reason than the players involved typically haven’t appeared in the major leagues long enough (if at all) for there to be enough hard data to decide from a purely analytic angle.

In the great analytics/scouting debate, no one is actually saying that scouts should be replaced by computers. That’s a fictitious argument made by those on the other side of the fence, Harold Reynolds, and whoever wrote Trouble With the Curve. There will never again be all of one or the other, at least not once the Phillies figure out how to turn on their computers. The organizations that have had the most success over the past decade are the ones that have found the best way to use both sides together.

These minor decisions aren’t always so minor, as a history of the Rule V draft will tell you. This is where fall and winter leagues, and specifically the Arizona Fall League, play a huge role.

We love the AFL, mainly because it is the only way to fill the voids in our hearts and lives immediately after the World Series. It’s also typically the best collection of prospect talent outside of the Futures Game. But it’s not all top prospects in the desert.

Unlike the international winter league rosters, the AFL rosters are determined directly by the major league organizations, who assign players there and determine what role they will play on that particular team for the next month. This provides organizations an opportunity to get one last look at players they may need to make a decision on soon thereafter. It’s not surprising then that teams often send fringe prospects who are Rule V draft eligible for one last look before deciding whether to protect them on the 40-man roster.

Sometimes, however, it works the other way around, and proves my point even more directly.

Last week, the Colorado Rockies out-righted outfield prospect Tim Wheeler. What that means is that they removed him from their 40-man roster and exposed him to waivers. He went unclaimed, as the Rockies expected, so he is still a member of their organization.

Wheeler is not a top prospect, but he used to be. Coming off a 33-home run season as a 23-year-old in Double-A, Wheeler appeared to be a significant part of the Rockies’ future. In short, a wrist injury and a change in approach at the plate have limited him to just five home runs since then and he is no longer on most people’s prospect radars.

After his two straight disappointing seasons, the Rockies sent Wheeler to the AFL, using up one of their eight spots. This means one of two things— they don’t appreciate the value of these spots or they knew they needed to decide on Wheeler’s future and wanted to get one last look at him. Wheeler, at this point, was simply taking up room on the 40-man roster that would be needed for offseason flexibility and was becoming expendable. Essentially, it was put up or shut up time for Wheeler as he headed to the AFL.

He did not put up, but that’s not really the point here. Wheeler was not great in the AFL and once again showed little power, an outcome that had to be expected by the Rockies. Still, their use of an AFL spot on him allowed them to get one last, truly focused look at him. They could send a large contingent of their scouts there with the sole purpose of determining if he was ever going to return to being the power-hitting prospect he had once been. By now we know how it turned out.

This is just one example of the AFL’s role. The league is not there for us. We love it, but in reality, it is a tool for front offices to get a strong, consolidated look at prospects on the fringe against other prospects in similar situations. We love when the Byron Buxtons play there, and its reputation as a “finishing school” for the top players is one of its many roles, but the real purpose is to help teams make better decisions on prospects located closer to the middle of the spectrum.

References & Resources

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Getting into the nitty gritty of baseball action via a new(er) programming language.

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