The 2011 Arizona Fall League begins today, with the Mesa Solar Sox playing their first game at 12:35 PM MST (3:35 PM EST). The Pittsburgh Pirates have seven players on the Solar Sox this year. Jarek Cunningham, Brock Holt, and Robbie Grossman will represent the Pirates on the offensive side of the game, while Gerrit Cole, Nathan Baker, Michael Colla, and Phil Irwin will all join the Mesa pitching staff.
The AFL is mostly filled with players from the AA and AAA levels, giving some valuable playing time to these prospects. For Cole, the playing time will be valuable, as it will allow him to get some innings, after sitting out since early June while waiting to sign. For Cunningham, Grossman, and Baker, it will be their first opportunity to go against talent from the higher levels. Holt, Colla, and Irwin will gain additional experience against the upper level talent. Here is what each player could afford to work on:
Cole - The big thing here is just getting innings under his belt. The extra innings could allow him to make the jump to the AA level sooner in 2012, as the Pirates won’t have to spend as much time getting the rust off. For Pirates fans, it will be exciting to see the first results from Cole. He already put up a strong instructional league debut last week, and he made his second start yesterday. He might have one more instructional league start in him before he joins the Mesa Solar Sox. At the least, he probably won’t pitch until the weekend.
Grossman - He had a big breakout year in 2011, with a notable accomplishment of being the first minor leaguer since 2004 to walk and score a run 100 times each in a season. Despite the strong results, which also led to an .869 OPS and 13 homers, Grossman missed Baseball America’s top 20 prospect list for the 2011 Florida State League. While I was down in Florida, I talked to a few people, both inside the organization and outside the organization, about Grossman’s upside. The general feeling was that he doesn’t have the speed for center field, and won’t have the bat to be a solid starter at the corners. The AFL is more of a showcase league, and will give Grossman a chance to change the minds of his doubters.
Cunningham - Jarek missed a lot of time in the second half of the 2011 season with concussion symptoms, so getting time in the AFL this year will help. Despite missing pretty much the final two months of the season, Cunningham was tied for second in the organization in home runs with 15, needing just 315 at-bats to get there. His power is the biggest thing driving his prospect status, as that kind of power is rare for a middle infielder. However, his plate patience needs some work, and some experience against upper level pitching should give him a head start towards improving in that area in 2012, when he is expected to make the jump to the AA level.
Holt - He didn’t have a bad season in Altoona in 2011, but it wasn’t a season that built on his prospect status. Holt hit for a .288 average and a .743 OPS, which was low due to a lack of power. He’s got a lot of speed, and can play the shortstop position, although he’s better suited defensively for second base. Unless he adds some power, he probably won’t be more than a utility guy, and the extra playing time in the AFL should give him a chance to further develop.
Irwin – After a great 2011 season, which saw him put up a 3.14 ERA in 140.2 innings between high-A and AA, Irwin will go to the AFL. He added a sinker ball in high-A, and leaned heavily on the pitch when he made the jump to AA. His slider was a nice pitch, but not necessarily an elite pitch. He profiles as more of a back of the rotation starter, or a strong bullpen arm, and the extra innings and experience should help him get to the AAA level next year, ater pitching 87.1 innings in AA.
Baker – It was kind of a surprise that Baker didn’t make the jump to Altoona this season. He struggled initially, but had a strong season starting in about mid-May. The big drawback was his walk rate, which sat consistently around his 3.1 BB/9 season rate. He had a similar issue in 2010 after jumping to high-A. Baker isn’t a dominant pitcher, so he’s going to need to limit the walks if he wants to have success in AA or higher.
Colla - Perhaps one of the bigger surprises of the 2011 season was the fact that Colla put up a 3.70 ERA, mostly working in the rotation, after working exclusively as a reliever his entire career. He had strong ratios, with a 7.3 K/9 and a 2.6 BB/9, and he did all of this in 133.2 innings, which reduces the chance that it was all a fluke. Statistically, he looked good enough to have a shot as a future #4-5 starter, although the fact that he’s been a reliever his entire career will cast doubts about whether he can start. The added workload will give him a chance to show that his 2011 numbers were no fluke.
Throughout the AFL season I will be updating the progress of these players, with the first update coming today after the Mesa Solar Sox game.