The Mesa Solar Sox start their defense of their 2021 Arizona Fall League title today as the AFL kicks off their 2022 season. The Solar Sox will play at the Scottsdale Scorpions tonight. This is the 30th anniversary of the AFL, which was founded in 1992.
Major League Baseball likes to call the Arizona Fall League “Baseball’s Finishing School.” It’s that and it is a lot of other things. The Arizona Fall League is a place for minor league ballplayers to get in extra work before Spring Training and possibly a major-league debut the next year. Most of the players are supposed to at least have experience at the Double-A level. (There are exceptions to this rule.) The AFL is also a place for teams to get another look at their players before having to make decisions on whether to add them to the 40-man roster — or just showcase prospects for the winter trade market. Some players in the AFL missed a lot of time with injuries and the league is a chance for them to “catch up,” so to speak. In recent years, it’s also been a place to try out new rules and to give promising minor league managers a chance to work with different players.
For the players named to the AFL rosters, it’s a honor and a chance to play more baseball. The other benefit is that they are on a roster with players from five different teams and the players always mention how much fun it is to play with guys from other organizations. Not only can they make new friends, but they are exposed to methods and philosophies that perhaps aren’t taught in their own organization.
There are six teams in the AFL, divided into two divisions of three. The 30 MLB teams are divided into groups of five to make up the six rosters. The Mesa Solar Sox are in the East Division and play in Sloan Park, the Spring Training home of the Chicago Cubs. As such, the Cubs are always assigned to the Solar Sox. Additionally, the Athletics, whose Spring Training home is also in Mesa, are also always on the Solar Sox roster.
The three other organizations sending players to the Solar Sox this year are the two Florida teams — the Rays and the Marlins — as well as the New York Yankees. While the Rays and Marlins have both frequently been one of the teams on the Solar Sox, I cannot remember the Yankees ever being assigned to the Mesa club. I checked back to 2003, which is as far back as I could find the rosters, and the Yankees were never a part of Mesa. So that’s an exciting change for the Solar Sox this year. (Well, it’s exciting for me.)
The Arizona Fall League will have games from Monday through Saturday every week. Teams will play five or six games for six weeks. The “Fall Stars Game” will take place on Sunday, November 6 at Sloan Park. The one-game playoffs will start on Friday, November 11 in Peoria and the Championship Game will be held the next day, November 12, at Scottsdale. Traditionally, the “Fall Stars” and title game are televised on MLB Network.
Each team selects six players for the AFL to fill out the 30-man rosters. The six players the Cubs are sending this season are left-handed pitcher Bailey Horn, left-handed pitcher Riley Martin, right-handed pitcher Sheldon Reed, right-handed pitcher Zac Leigh, first baseman Matt Mervis and outfielder Brennen Davis.
If you’ve been following the Cubs Minors this season, you’ll know that there is a big disparity between the position players the Cubs sent and the pitchers. Traditionally, teams don’t send their top pitching prospects to the AFL unless they missed time with injuries and they need to get their innings in. This, combined with the warm, thin air of Arizona, tends to make the league very high-scoring.
Brennen Davis was the Cubs’ top prospect heading into the 2022 and was expected to make his major league debut this past season. But Davis missed most of the season after undergoing back surgery, so the AFL is a chance for him to find the hitting stroke that he had before getting injured. Matt Mervis had a monster season, going from South Bend to Tennessee to Iowa, all the while hitting .309 with 36 home runs and contributing 119 RBI, which was tops in all of the minors.
The four pitchers, on the other hand, are all relievers. They all had good seasons and they all struck out a lot of batters while walking a few too many. All of them have a chance to pitch in the majors, but because they’re relievers, their upside is low and you won’t find them on many Top 30 prospect lists.
Horn is the pitcher the Cubs got from the White Sox in the Ryan Tepera deal. He’s got a great fastball-curve combination if he can get it over the plate. Martin is also a left-handed curveball specialist who pitched for both South Bend and Tennessee in their playoff runs this year.
Leigh is a right-hander who throws very hard, allows little contact and strikes out a lot of batters. He also walks a lot of batters, so he’s clearly in the AFL to work on his control. Reed was the closer for the South Bend Cubs down the stretch this season and he got the save in the decisive game 3 of the Midwest League Championship Series.
One thing that’s different about this year’s Cubs contingent on the Solar Sox: None of them will be playing for a spot on the off-season 40-man roster. The only one of the six who is eligible for the Rule 5 Draft this winter is Davis, and there is no chance the Cubs leave a top 100 prospect unprotected. The six Cubs will be looking to impress the front office, but all six of them should be wearing Cubs colors next year, barring a trade.
The most interesting non-Cub prospect on the Solar Sox is Yankees outfielder Jasson Dominguez, who is also one of the Top 100 prospects in the game. The 19-year-old Dominguez has already reached Double-A and he’s one of the better athletes with one of the better power/speed combinations in the minors.
The A’s sent two players they picked up in trade over the past year. Right-hander Ryan Cusick went to Oakland in the Matt Olson deal. He had a rough season in Double-A and will be looking to finish the season on a high-note. Additionally, Oakland got right-hander J.T. Ginn from the Mets for Chris Bassitt. He was coming off of Tommy John surgery and is no doubt looking to get some innings in after only throwing 35⅓ innings in Double-A this year.
One final note: All of the new MLB rules for 2023 will be in effect for the 2022 AFL season. So if you want to see a preview of pitch clocks, bans on shifting and larger bases, you’ll get the chance in the AFL.