Established in 1992 by Roland Hemond, one the more underappreciated and cherished figures in baseball history, the Arizona Fall League offers a unique opportunity for many of the game’s top prospects to hone their skills and gain additional experience following the conclusion of Major League Baseball’s regular season.
In addition to playing against other highly-touted prospects over the course of a 32-game schedule that lasts until mid-November, nearly every AFL contest is attended by a variety of professional scouts and front-office personnel.
Comprised of six different teams divided into two divisions, as many as six prospects from each organization are selected to participate during an annual draft in August. While most clubs opt to send players with either Double- or Triple-A experience, they are also free to select one Class-A prospect to participate in the prestigious league.
A player may be chosen to play in the AFL for a variety of reasons, the most common being to make up for time lost during the regular season due to injury or suspension, or simply to refine their skills with the hope of beginning the following season at a higher minor-league level.
Although the AFL has now been in existence for 21 years, the league’s Most Valuable Player award was first introduced in 2002. Since then, the accolade has been given to 11 different prospects, only one of whom has been a pitcher (Tommy Hanson, 2008).
Much like the California (High-A) and Pacific Coast (Triple-A) Leagues, the AFL takes place in a hitter-friendly environment where all offensive statistics and production tends to be inflated. Furthermore, few teams elect to send their top pitching prospects to participate, as a majority of them have either reached their seasonal innings limit or been asked to refine their command/arsenal in the instructional league.
Basically, hitters are seemingly never forced to face top-notch pitching on a daily basis.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that hitters who boast substantial raw power, many of whom ultimately garner MVP honors, perennially dominate the AFL. As a result, and as you will see, it’s an award that shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
Ken Harvey, 1B, Kansas City Royals (2002)
The league’s first recipient of the award, first baseman Ken Harvey (Royals), entered the fall after a breakout minor-league season at Triple-A Omaha in which he batted .277/.342/.465 with 30 doubles and 20 home runs in 128 games. Although he would ultimately post a .733 OPS in 271 career big-league games with the Royals, the right-handed hitter never came close to matching his 2002 production and has been out of baseball since 2010.
Chris Shelton, 1B, Detroit Tigers (2004)
After posting a 1.008 OPS with 21 home runs and 90/76 K/BB in 130 games between High- and Double-A in 2003, 24-year-old Chris Shelton played in only 18 games for Triple-A Toledo in 2004. And even though he did somehow reach the major leagues, the right-handed hitter struggled to the tune of .196/.321/.283 in 27 games with the Tigers.
After capturing the AFL MVP award that fall, Shelton, to his credit, would ultimately play in 222 big-league games for the Tigers over the next few seasons. And although he amassed 34 home runs during that span, Shelton also struck out 194 times.
Unfortunately, that would be the high point of his career, as he proceeded to bounce between three different organizations over the next four years and has been out of baseball following the 2010 season.
Chris McGuinness, 1B, Texas Rangers (2012)
Fresh off a breakout minor league season for Double-A Frisco in which he batted .268/.366/.474 with 23 home runs and 107/69 K/BB in 123 games, 24-year-old Chris McGuinness needed to have a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League as a Rule 5 Draft-eligible prospect. And just like so many of the power-hitting first basemen that came before him, he thrived in the league’s hitter-friendly environment and posted an .838 OPS with four home runs and 16/13 K/BB in 25 games.
More importantly, the left-handed hitter tallied a league-leading 27 RBI, which ultimately led to his selection as the 2012 AFL MVP.
And how was McGuinness rewarded for his improved production and overall impressive regular and fall seasons? By being left off the Rangers’ 40-man roster and becoming Rule 5-elibile, of course. While I hope that he proves me wrong, I have a feeling that the 2012 season may be as good as it gets for him.