This year I saved up my vacation days in anticipation of a great Arizona Fall League experience and I was able to attend all of the Solar Sox home games and a handful of their away games. Including the Fall Stars game and the Championship game, I attended 22 games in total. I was not disappointed. For what it’s worth, I thought I would share some of my observations from those games – later focusing on The Big Three (Almora, Bryant, Soler).
For a quick flavor of the games, as most of you know by now, the majority of the games are played during the day, with maybe 15% or so night games. The weather conditions are superb, with most day game temperatures in the 75 to 85 degree range, with low winds and cloudless, sunny skies. Crowds average around 450 (with at least 75 or so being early arriving autograph hounds). There is open seating and concessions. If you get there when the gates open an hour before the game, you can catch batting practice for the visiting team. You can hear some conversations clear across the stadium and the players can hear everything that’s yelled their way.
I am not denying that the AFL is a hitter’s league. It most definitely is. The ball has a little more carry, they say breaking balls don’t break as much here, and that teams are reluctant to send their top pitching prospects to the AFL. But with all that (and more, I’m sure) I think the league is a bit overrated as a hitter’s league and that it is NOT an ideal situation for an offensive player. Consider that most players aren’t in the lineup for more than two or three games in a row, making it harder to stay in hot streaks. Some players are asked to play new positions and move around a lot in the field. We always hear about how that can affect hitting. Hitters often never face the same pitcher twice in a game and may only bat 3 or 4 times all season against the same pitcher. Also, many of the pitchers have good stuff and throw hard, and are likely there to work on command, the result of which, you see a lot of very uncomfortable at bats.
Now on to the Big Three...
Unfortunately, this won’t much help win ball games, but one thing that became clear early was that these are three very likeable guys! Cubs fans will have no problem rooting for these young dudes. They all signed tons of autographs with smiles on their faces before every single game. There were nothing but pleasant exchanges with the fans. Their excellent comradery with teammates and among themselves was good to see (ps: I would say the same thing about Baez last year).
There is just so much to like. I believe Almora was the 2nd youngest player in the AFL this year. From his first game where he had 4 hits and homered on the first pitch of the year to the Solar Sox, through the final game he played, he was impressive. First and foremost, Almora’s outstanding OF skills were on display. He plays a very shallow CF (probably too shallow) and goes back on balls effortlessly and gracefully. He seems to know exactly where every ball hit in his general direction is going to land, and he gets there quickly. His jumps and his routes are almost perfect (whether in LF, CF or RF!). Only once did I see him get turned around even a little. And when he gets to a ball, he knows exactly what to do with it. His arm appears to be above average and his release is very quick. He and Soler never missed a cutoff man or threw to the wrong base.
At the plate, Albert hit slightly over .300 with flashes of slugging ability, but only walked 4 times in about 80 plate appearances. Though the sample size was small, he also struggled mightily against LHP in only around 25 ABs. I suspect that Albert still has issues with his wrist. He simply is unable to check his swing. When he tries to check, it winds up being an awkward half swing leaving him in obvious discomfort (shakes his hand and wrist with a grimace). On every occasion I saw this (6 or 7 times?) he followed that up with another feeble swing – either striking out or making a weak out of some kind – as he trots into the dugout shaking his head. I hope this is not anything that stays with him. But his swing and the consistent hard contact he makes are nice to watch. At any rate, the good news is that he got in some much needed work against some excellent competition.
Albert is an excellent base runner. His instincts are great and he cuts the bases with the same precision he shows in the field. His speed is slightly over average and he is not a base stealer - and I hope he discovers that soon.
I strongly suspected right from the start of the AFL that Soler was playing hurt (same leg). He was not playing the same game that I saw him play a year earlier in the AZ League. Speed had no part whatever in Soler’s game in the AFL – and make no mistake – it is a part of his game. He must have been told by trainers and coaches to take it slow, as he often did not run to first or take an extra base. He never even attempted a steal. Soler heard it from the fans a few times for “dogging it” and that was unfortunate, because like I said, he MUST have been told to take it easy. Soler cares! I observed Jorge working out in the field after several games (workout under observation of a Cubs trainer). I saw no other player doing anything of that sort at any time during the season.
Nevertheless, Soler’s AFL was a tad disappointing as he showed little patience (5 walks in about 90 PA’s) and not much power at all. The great majority of his hits were ground ball hits and nearly everything he got up in the air was an out. The best thing about his AFL was simply that he got some sorely needed playing time and AB’s in and that was great to see.
In the field, I was greatly encouraged by what I saw, as I was never convinced of his skills there. He has a great arm, and like I mentioned, he knows where to throw the ball. I never saw him miss a cutoff man or throw to the wrong base. Opposing runners respected his arm and he displayed a couple laser beam throws to third and home. Leg issues aside, he gets to all balls you would expect, taking good routes and taking charge on short pop ups. He played smart and I think he is an excellent RFer.
Although he is an inch or two taller, Jorge Soler reminds me a lot of a younger Justin Upton. What an athletic speciman Soler is! And he definately put on some muscle and a few extra pounds since I had seen him in spring training.
League MVP Kris Bryant got off to scorching start. His wide balanced stance and fast swing generate so much raw power that it can be jaw dropping - and that was on display early. The sky high 435 foot bomb he hit was one of the most awesome things I’ve seen all year – heck, for a forgetful old Cubs fan - maybe the most awesome ever! But then, opposing pitchers understandably just stopped throwing him strikes. Although his power numbers cooled, his walk totals climbed as a result. He wasn’t swinging at everything and finished with 14 walks in about 90 PA’s while maintaining a BA that flirted with .400 and a league leading OPS of 1.184 (just beating out teammate CJ Cron). He never looked bad all year. The concerns about a high strikeout rate however did not vanish. He fanned 23 times in those 90 PA’s and that will be something that remains a concern. Also, Bryant looked very much more comfortable against RHP (OPS around 1.500). In the small AFL sample vs LHP he didn’t fare nearly as well (OPS around .750 – so only about half the number).
In the field, Bryant probably demonstrated enough skill to hold the position for now. His final stats will say he started and played in 16 games at 3rd base and made one error (of course the two he made in Fall Stars game don’t count!). That one error was a duplicate of the bad between the legs error he made at the Falls Stars game. But hey, if he only makes one error every 16 games with the Cubs, I’m sure we’d be very happy with that. From what I saw, Bryant appears to have pretty good hands and a very strong arm, but very little range. His ability to get down and stay down on a ball and his ability to field and throw while moving in (toward home) will be key – and he did not show a lot of skill at either from what I saw.
Physically, Bryant reminds me a lot of a young Dave Kingman.
Finally, a shout out to Dallas Beeler who pitched well in the last 3 crucial games he started – and especially well in the championship game.