The Arizona Fall League provides a great opportunity for young players to get a few more at bats (or innings) against live pitchers (or hitters) and the Indians took full advantage this year. The Tribe sent seven players and a coach to the Surprise Saguaros including their 2011 first round draft pick Tyler Naquin and the transitioning Tony Wolters. Former Indians reliever and current Lake County Captains coach Steve Karsay was the pitching coach for the Surprise squad.
The Saguaros were a very successful as a team, clinching the Western Division title with a week left in play. In the end they went 18-12-1, 4.5 games ahead of of the second place Desert Dogs. Along with the Indians, the Saguaros are made of minor leaguers from the Red Sox, Brewers, Orioles and Rangers. Overall, three hitters batted over .350 while three pitchers had an ERA below three with at least 14 innings pitched. There was little question that overall, the Saguaros were the most talented squad during the 2013 Fall League season and the Indians were a big part of that. They will play the Mesa Solar Sox for the AFL Championship this Saturday in Scottsdale.
The Saguaros knew they had their superstar in Naquin, who was coming off a good season with the Carolina Mudcats, and made the most of him. He lead the Saguaros in games, starting as center fielder and lead-off hitter. He turned things up to another level against his fellow Fall League opponents and is a solid candidate for MVP, coming in the top ten in average (.339), doubles (4) and steals (4) while finishing second in RBI (18) and first in hits (39) and runs (22). Naquin will likely go back to AA next year, where he ended the 2013 season, but has made a strong case for a short stint at that level, moving up to the AAA level.
Armstrong entered the AFL after his second season in AA and destroyed the combination as part of a very strong Saguaros bullpen. He has been one of the most used pitchers in relief, pitching in 10 games and throwing 11.1 innings. In those games, he lead all relievers with a 1.59 ERA and 16 strike outs. If he has one drawback, Armstrong is still having control issues, walking 10 batters in those 11 innings. While it didn't particularly hurt him in the AFL season, it is never a good sign to see a relief pitcher walking a batter per inning.
Unlike Naquin, Wendle has not been used in a full time role, but like him, he has been very successful offensively. He was just drafted in 2012, but has already powered through the Advanced A. During the Fall League Season, Wendle knocked in 12 RBI on the strength of seven extra base hits. He did this while playing in just 15 games, splitting time with Mookie Betts (Boston). When he did play, he played and batted second and was significantly better than Betts, with an OPS of .863 compared to .741.
Roberts was trusted with a spot in the starting rotation after splitting time between the Carolina Mudcats and Akron Aeros during the past season. His success in AA (7-9, 4.57 ERA) didn't translate into success in the desert, however, as the favorable weather conditions and high fast balls lead to six home runs, twice the amount of the next worse pitcher on the Saguaros.
Despite his struggles, Surprise stuck with Roberts in the rotation for the duration and he made seven starts, allowing an ERA of 6.67 while going 0-3.
Wolters is an interesting case and should have been a perfect fit for the AFL. A long time top prospect at second base and short stop, an extreme log jam in the middle infield (Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Dorssys Paulino and more) forced him to switch positions. Everyone agreed to make him a catcher and thus far the experiment has not completely panned out. While he has been fine defensively, his offense has not bounced back to his 2012 form when he slugged .404 for the Carolina Mudcats.
With the Saguaros, he has been relegated to bullpen catcher as the fourth string catcher on the team. He was only able to get into 14 games, during which time he hit just one double and batted .178. At just 21 years old, Wolters still has some time to learn the position and get back to focusing on hitting, but at this point he is in danger of being left behind.
Tyler Sturdevant & Trey Haley
Haley has been a top reliever for the Indians farm system during the past three seasons and started the Fall Season with the Saguaros, but was replaced by Sturdevant after just 1.2 scoreless innings. Sturdevant is the exact type of player the AFL exists for. After missing all of 2013 due to injury, having professional baseball to play during the off-season allows him to make sure this isn't totally a lost year. The flame throwing right hander was nothing but dominant, throwing four innings in four games, striking out three. Of course, at 26 years old and a two year AAA veteran, Sturdevant is one of the older players in the league, but it is very promising to see that he still has it after a season off.