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AFL rosters packed with talent again in '0708/27/2007 1:30 PM ET
By Lisa Winston / MLB.com
If you looked at the Arizona Fall League from a Hollywood angle, you could say that the 2007 season looks like it's going to be a blockbuster.
The marquee names, the "headliners," simply jump of the page when you look at the rosters. And while it's always a good rule to temper one's excitement when looking at it on paper, frankly, it's hard not to get a little tingly at first glance at the six rosters.
They're dotted with first-rounders galore, as well as other players that, while selected perhaps a little lower, have established themselves among the top prospects in the game.
Among the first-round picks heading to Arizona: outfielders Trevor Crowe (Indians), Chris Lubanski (Royals), John Mayberry (Rangers), Cameron Maybin (Tigers), Colby Rasmus (Cardinals), Andrew McCutchen (Pirates), Gregory Golson (Phillies) and Travis Snider (Blue Jays); infielders Evan Longoria (Devil Rays), Blake Dewitt (Dodgers), Cliff Pennington (As) and Trevor Plouffe (Twins); catcher Jeff Clement (Mariners); and pitchers David Huff (Indians), Greg Miller (Dodgers), Max Scherzer (Diamondbacks) and Joe Savery, Philadelphia's top pick this past June out of Rice.
Now these players, generally six or seven per organization (taxi squad designations allow for more than the allotted six), head to Arizona for the sweet 16th season of AFL action.
The league has become known as an elite "finishing school" for players who are considered ready, or nearly so, for the Majors. And its alumni have gone on to some pretty lofty heights, including 24 former AFL players participating in the 2007 Major League All-Star Game in San Francisco.
And Savery, who along with LaPorta is one of two '07 first-rounders headed there, is especially looking forward to the experience of getting to face mostly Double-A and Triple-A hitters.
The southpaw, taken with the 19th-overall pick by the Phillies in June, has posted a 3.07 ERA in four pro starts at Williamsport of the short-season New York-Penn League.
He admits that when he was first approached about heading to the AFL he wasn't totally sure exactly what the league was, thinking it might be a West Coast-based instructional league.
But once he got more information about it he was definitely more than happy to be adding a few weeks to an already long spring and summer of baseball.
"This is a great chance for me to possibly jump a level to start next year and hopefully fast-forward my progression to the big leagues, because that's the ultimate goal," said Savery, 21. "An extra month of playing ball and getting to learn around guys who are going to be in the big leagues next year is such a great opportunity."
Savery's stuff itself has never been in question so he's planning on concentrating on his command during this stint in Arizona.
"What separates me from the big leaguers is control and the best way to learn is to go out there and face the top-level talent," he said. "I have to work on throwing more strikes, throwing my fastball to both sides of the plate. I can't get away with things I could get away with in college."
While Savery is hoping this opportunity will fast-track him even more come Spring Training, some participants aren't really thinking past October and November in the Valley of the Sun.
Baltimore Orioles outfield prospect Jeff Fiorentino, for example, is looking forward to the opportunity to build on a strong second half of the 2007 season he enjoyed at Double-A Bowie in the Eastern League with a return to the AFL, where he played for the Grand Canyon Rafters (now the Surprise Rafters) last year.
Fiorentino appeared in only 104 games with Bowie in 2006 due to nagging injuries (hamstring, ankle) but hit .275 with 13 homers and 62 RBIs in that limited showing. He got off to a blistering start in his AFL debut, hitting .340 in October before petering out to a .178 average down the stretch in November.
This season at Bowie has been the opposite for Fiorentino, and he hopes to keep that momentum going for good this time around. The 24-year-old, who has had two tastes of the big leagues with Baltimore so far in 2005 and 2006, hit just .160 for the Baysox in April but has hit .325 since July 1 with nine of his 13 homers in that span.
"This gives me a second chance to go out there after last year and show I can stay strong and not fade," said Fiorentino, the Orioles' third-round pick in 2004. "I just want to work on staying more consistent and continue what I've done the second half of this season, fine-tuning those adjustments."
He has only good things to say about his first time through the league, so not surprisingly is looking forward to the return trip, though this time he'll be playing his games for the three-time defending champion Phoenix Desert Dogs.
"It's a high level of baseball, good umpires and good talent," he said, "plus 80 degrees and sunny every day."
Making his first appearance on an AFL roster is Cleveland Indians reliever Randy Newsom, who, along with T.J. Burton, is one of two Indians bullpen stalwarts assigned to the Surprise Rafters taxi squad. With nine Indians players on the initial Surprise roster, anything could change, but he's hoping that his name remains on that list when opening day rolls around.
The taxi squad is a group of players designated on each team to play on Wednesdays and Saturdays only, giving organizations the opportunity to bring extra players while also giving the everyday guys some well-earned time off after a long season.
For Newsom, the 2006 Carolina League playoff MVP known for his rubber arm and ability to pitch several days in a row, the possibility of pitching twice a week and knowing when he's going to pitch is a new situation, but one he welcomes.
"You know that if you go out there you're not going to pitch more than three times a week anyway, so this would simply let me know which days I'm playing and I'm not used to that," said Newsom, who posted a 1.50 ERA in 11 games at Advanced A Kinston this year before moving up to Double-A Akron where he has 17 saves and a 3.25 ERA. "But I'll find a way to keep myself sharp in between games and it will be a good test for me."
He's also hoping to get a chance to work on some of the finer points of pitching that he didn't get to do since he was usually in games in key situations due to his role at Akron.
"I just think I need innings to work on balancing my stuff, things I wouldn't do in tight game situations," he said. "I've thrown a lot of high-leverage innings in close games where I'm using my best stuff."
A non-drafted free agent originally signed by Boston out of Tufts University, Newsom was one of the players involved in the Coco Crisp deal, joining the Cleveland system mid-2006. Since then he has been one of the most reliable and best-liked players wherever he's gone.
But as a non-drafted player, he's also realized that it would take more than most to climb up the prospect ladder so he is understandably excited by the possibility of playing in the AFL.
"It's one of those things you want to do, to play in the AFL," said the 25-year-old right-handed submariner. "It's the best of the best in terms of Minor League prospects in one place so it's a real honor."
Action begins on Tuesday, October 9, and runs through the one-game championship that will be played at Scottsdale on Saturday, Nov. 17, at 12:35 p.m. (local time), with Sundays off. In addition, the second annual Rising Stars Showcase, which will display the cream of the crop when it comes to prospect status and 2007 on-field achievements, will be played at Surprise on Friday, Oct. 26, the off-day (weather permitting) before the final weekend of World Series action.
Scattered within those weeks, on dates still to be announced, will be induction ceremonies for the four new members of the AFL Hall of Fame: Chicago White Sox outfielder Jermaine Dye (Sun Cities Solar Sox, 1995), Minnesota outfielder Torii Hunter (Phoenix Desert Dogs 1998), Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee (Solar Sox, 1995-1006) and former manager Ken Macha (Tempe Rafters, 1994).
In addition, Team USA manager Davey Johnson will bring his squad to Arizona for a week in late October, where the club will face each of the six AFL teams before heading to Taiwan in early November for the IBAF World Cup tournament.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.