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To the Far Blue Mountains

It has been a dream and a goal of mine to drive out to Phoenix one of these Octobers and spend a month at the Arizona Fall League, watching the best minor leaguers play ball in a relaxed and honest atmosphere. A lot of that dream is quintessentially American: to just pick up and go West for a while, with nothing but the Saturday Evening Post and a baseball schedule to guide you. A lot more of that dream is that the AFL is almost like walking into a bygone era of barnstorming baseball, where the best players from the teams would get together to just play ball in the winter. The relay has been passed from Babe Ruth to Buck O’Neill to Eddie Feigner to Dustin Ackley.

On Saturday I escaped the sometimes suffocating bubble of dreary Rochester just by turning on the AFL championship game, but more than that I escaped the tighter bubble of Baseball’s problems: competitive imbalance, the frustration of twelve years of losing, and a looming labor war. They were all completely out of mind as I was transported to the sun-drenched field in Scottsdale to see the Phoenix Desert Dogs take on the Peoria Javelinas in a one-game playoff.

The game began with the most exciting play in baseball: Frederick Keys center fielder Matt Angle hit a gap shot on a high fastball and then showed off his speed, digging easily into third for the leadoff triple. Angle’s inclusion on the Desert Dogs is interesting enough; he’s the most advanced of the Orioles’ outfield prospects but unlikely to dethrone anybody on the major league squad. Angle has very little power but tries to make up for it in speed and plate discipline, the classical definition of a leadoff hitter. He’ll be in Bowie next year, but I don’t see any place for him in Baltimore anytime soon.

The big news of the day was the exclusion of wunderkind Stephen Strasburg, who had twisted his knee shagging flyballs. He would have been the Phoenix starter, but instead we were left without the biggest name of the league. I couldn’t blame the announcers for their disappointment, as I myself was also pondering the absence of some of our own top prospects: The Brandons Three.

Brandon Erbe had gotten hurt (sprained finger), a fitting end to an injury-plagued year (shoulder fatigue). Erbe’s raw talent is worth getting excited over, but he’ll need to really assert himself as a healthy starting pitcher in 2010.

The two first basemen, Brandon Snyder and Brandon Waring, had gone home to attend weddings. I’ve covered these two guys a lot over the course of the year, but it’s worth repeating: I do not believe that either one of them can be the long-term first baseman in Baltimore. Snyder’s gotten good marks this fall, particularly in the field, but he doesn’t have the power to hit at first. Waring has power, but I worry about the rest of his game.

The big moment of the game for Orioles fans came with finally seeing Josh Bell in living color. Everything I’ve read about the man suggests he really might be something special at third base long-term in Baltimore, but it definitely is hard to look at him and his Kirby Puckett body and think “above average defender at third”. Bell, who didn’t do anything at the plate on Saturday, notoriously needs to figure out how to hit lefties (one of the more glaring needs for the Orioles in general), and I suspect we might not see him until late 2010 or even early 2011. He had an absolutely terrific year in almost every regard, but he remains a work in progress.

The championship game was a back and forth affair, and it seemed like the Desert Dogs were going to pull out their sixth consecutive championship until Orioles non-prospect Josh Perrault entered in the eighth and served up a plethora of hard hit balls, culminating in an immense go-ahead, two-run blast deep to left, giving the game to the Javelinas. Perrault has gotten some word of mouth, but the guy is 27 years old and a seven year minor league veteran. That he was left off the 40-man roster and will be exposed to the Rule V Draft is telling as to how the Orioles view him.

Even though Phoenix didn’t pull it out and claim the meaningless title of Arizona Fall League champion, the escape from the Northeast winter to the dry heat of Arizona and the underlying excitement of top prospect barnstorming – with Josh Bell rocking the road uniform – really made my day, and might just be enough to get me through this cold winter.

4 comments to To the Far Blue Mountains

  • neal s

    And now word comes that Rad Hams is now a Padre. This isn’t a “good riddance” scenario since I have nothing against the guy, but I can’t say I’m bummed that he’s no longer around. Let him be someone else’s project.

  • d.

    you gotta make the trip sometime. i’ve been three times now, and it never gets old. the quality of play can be exceptional, and in one game where the Saguaros faced the Javelinas, we saw some great talent living up to their hype.

    and in addition to enjoying the beautiful dry, hot air and a dip in the outdoor pool, you get the chance to talk to the guys like nowhere else and get the occasional autographed foul ball if you’re lucky.

    if there’s any interest, i shot some video and posted it on youtube – search for the keyword AFL or user dmhmt.

    anyway, great recap, it was almost like being back there.

    happy thanksgiving!

  • neal s

    @d. – Thanks so much for checking in – great stuff.

    I checked out a couple of your YouTube videos. In particular I dug the one of Josh Bell. He’s got a really interesting batting stance. Compact, but with good rhythm. It reminds me of someone but I can’t put my finger on it. My brain keeps saying Craig Biggio but that might be complete nonsense.

  • Andrew

    The guy whose name first popped into my head when I first saw Bell was Tony Bautista, but that’s obviously an exaggeration. He’s a weird looking hitter, but everybody thinks he’ll be at least average as a bat at third, so who am I to argue?