Arizona Fall League Preview: Pirates are Sending a Solid Group of Prospects This Year

The Arizona Fall League begins play tomorrow afternoon. The Pittsburgh Pirates are sending seven players to the league, four starting pitchers and three position players. The group that they are sending this year is one of the better ones for prospects. Below you’ll find a preview of the players being sent, how the league works (including a new rule this season) and our schedule of coverage.

The Players

The Pirates selected a strong group of players this year, although one of the better prospects isn’t expected to play. Mitch Keller is one of the top prospects in the entire AFL this year. He’s going there to make up for some lost innings and work on his changeup in game situations against strong competition. Keller is going to be a big focus of the coverage because he will draw the most attention from those in attendance each game, which will include plenty of scouts and people who cover prospects.

Cole Tucker would have been the second best prospect that the Pirates are sending, but his hand injury in the playoffs last month changed those plans. He wasn’t going to be ready before the second half of the AFL season, so he was replaced on the roster by Mitchell Tolman. Players have joined the AFL after the season has started, so it’s possible that Tucker could still play in the league at a later date. As of right now, I haven’t heard that being ruled out, though that doesn’t mean he’s still an option either.

For Tolman, it gives him some added experience against upper level pitching. He joined Altoona right before the season ended and received a total of 39 plate appearances, including playoff time. He will likely be the starting second baseman for Altoona next year, but it’s possible he could see time at other spots in the AFL. He was the Gold Glove winner at third base in all of college in 2015, so it wouldn’t be hard to adjust back to that spot to help add versatility to his game.

Taylor Hearn is going to the AFL to make up for lost innings due to an oblique injury on July 13th. He returned just in time to throw two innings in the GCL. He’s been pitching in the Fall Instructional League the last few weeks. One interesting thing to watch with Hearn is the development of his slider. He made an adjustment mid-season this year and things were really coming together during his final two starts when he had 19 strikeouts in 10.2 innings.

Kevin Kramer lost a lot of time this season due to a broken hand, getting hurt on June 10th and not playing again until early September. He returned shortly before the playoffs for Altoona and played a total of eight games. Kramer went 4-for-28 at the plate, so the results weren’t great, but just the fact that he returned and was able to play everyday was a good sign. Not only is he going to the AFL to make up for lost time, but the Pirates are using the league to take a look at him at shortstop. Kramer has been playing shortstop during instructs these last few weeks.

JT Brubaker is one of the more intriguing players to watch this fall. He went from having an average fastball pre-2017, to topping out at 99 MPH in his final starts this year. He also went from being a fly ball pitcher last year to being a ground ball pitcher this season. Not only did he add about 5-6 miles per hour on average to his fastball, but he did a better job of keeping it down in the zone most of the time. He still has some consistency issues, which limited his overall success, but that’s one of the reasons why he is going to the AFL this year.

Brandon Waddell will have things to work on in the AFL, but the big reason he is going is due to missed time. Two forearm injuries limited him to 72 total innings, including his playoff start. He’s been getting more time in during instructs, but I’d expect him to see a lot of innings this fall.

The Pirates have’t announced roles for the players yet. We will find them out as the daily lineups are released during the first week. While they are sending four starting pitchers, it’s highly unlikely that all four will be used as starters this fall. That’s because each team will have about ten starting pitchers and they use a regular five-man rotation. Someone like Waddell might be in the bullpen, but still pitch three innings each appearance.

Sean McCool talked to Keller, Waddell and Brubaker before Altoona began their playoff run. We had their thoughts on the AFL here.

The final player going to the AFL is Logan Hill. He missed the final six weeks of the season and the playoffs for Altoona due to a hand injury. The AFL will help give him more at-bats against upper level pitching and a chance to continue his rehab from injury, instead of waiting until March before he sees live pitching again.

Our mid-season updated prospect rankings included all seven of these players in the top 50. Tolman at #43 was the lowest ranked among the AFL group and he finished up strong, plus got the late season promotion. You usually don’t get seven legit prospects going to the AFL from the same team, but all seven of these players are at least intriguing players to follow.

The League

The AFL plays a 30-game schedule this season. That’s down from 32 games in the recent past. The Pirates have changed affiliates again this season, returning to the club they used back in 2015. They will play on the Glendale Desert Dogs this year after playing for the Surprise Saguaros last season. Glendale will also have prospects from the Phillies, Dodgers, Indians and White Sox.

The move this year could limit the amount of information we get for each game. The league for the last few seasons has had PITCHf/x in Peoria and Surprise. That was great last year when they played their home games in Surprise and had the occasional road game in Peoria. If the league didn’t add PITCHf/x in any of the other four stadiums, then that means that we will only get pitch selection/velocity readings for six games, three each in Peoria and Surprise.

This year, the AFL is experimenting with the extra innings runner rule that the Pirates used in the DSL and GCL this year for the first time. Once the game goes into extra innings, each inning will start with a runner on second base. That runner will be the batter who made the final out in the prior inning. In the GCL and DSL, that didn’t always help limit games, but the AFL games are limited to 11 innings regardless (due to pitching availability), so it’s basically just an extension of the experimental phase of this new rule. The AFL has been used to test new rules in the past, so it’s possible we could see the extra innings runner used at higher levels of the minors next season.

The Coverage

We will have recaps of all 30 games, as well as the Fall-Stars game on November 4th, and if Glendale wins their division, then they will play in the Championship game on November 18th. The Fall-Stars game is similar to an All-Star game, except the selections tend to lean more towards the best prospects, rather than the best performing players. You can already pencil Mitch Keller into that game.

While we won’t have PITCHf/x for as many games (unless the other stadiums finally added it), the AFL does get heavily scouted, so I’ll try to find as much information as possible each game and include it in the recaps. One of the focuses of our coverage will be the development of Mitch Keller’s changeup, which was strong during the playoffs for Altoona this year.

Glendale usually plays Monday through Saturday, and games start at either 12:35 PM or 6:35 PM local time. On the East Coast, that would be 3:35 PM and 9:35 PM start times prior to daylights saving time ending on November 5th, and 2:35/8:35 start times after. Arizona doesn’t observe daylight saving time, so that’s why we see four different start times for games even though the league only has two start times all season. That being said, Glendale only has three night games all year and they are all next week before the time change goes into effect. So you’ll mostly see the game recaps posted here around 6:00 PM each day.