A year ago at this time, the Arizona Fall League created a buzz with its annual announcement of the elite prospects league's managers and coaches. That came in the form of Ryne Sandberg, who served as the Mesa Solar Sox's hitting coach last fall.
It's unfair to expect a Hall of Famer every year for the AFL, but that doesn't mean the league isn't excited about the tremendous teachers who'll guide the six teams as the league heads into its 18th season of operation.
"We've had Hall of Famers participate in the league in the past, but they don't come along every year," said AFL executive director Steve Cobb, mentioning Eddie Murray as another Cooperstown enshrinee who spent time in Arizona. "This year, they are excellent instructors and highly garded by their organizations. There's been a lot of lobbying behind the scenes. That's always been a good sign for me, that the organization is pushing."
The selection process has become a challenge for Cobb and company as the amount of qualified candidates seems to grow annually. This year's managers are Bo Porter (Mesa Solar Sox), the Marlins' third-base coach; Gary Cathcart (Phoenix Desert Dogs), manager of the Toronto Blue Jays' Double-A affiliate, the New Hampshire Fisher Cats; Jeff Banister (Scottsdale Scorpions), Minor League field coordinator for the Pittsburgh Pirates; Kevin Bradshaw (Peoria Javelinas), a long-time Detroit Tigers coach and manager who serves as the organization's Minor League infield coordinator; David Bell (Peoria Saguaros), the son of Buddy Bell who spent 12 seasons in the big leagues and now manages the Carolina Mudcats, the Cincinnati Reds' Double-A affiliate; and Brian Rupp (Surprise Rafters), skipper for the Wilmington Blue Rocks, the Class A Advanced affiliate for the Kansas City Royals.
Cathcart might have the most pressure on him as the Phoenix manager. The Desert Dogs will be aiming for their sixth straight AFL title, a run difficult to explain considering that not only do the personnel change every year, but so do the organizations feeding each AFL roster. This year's Desert Dogs players will come from the Oakland A's (the one constant because the A's Spring Training home is in Phoenix), the Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Blue Jays and Washington Nationals.
The other club alignments are as follows:
Mesa Solar Sox: Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Florida Marlins, Los Angeles Angels, Minnesota Twins.
Scottsdale Scorpions: Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates, San Francisco Giants.
Peoria Javelinas: Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers, Seattle Mariners.
Peoria Saguaros: Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians, Cincinnati Reds, Houston Astros, San Diego Padres.
Surprise Rafters: Kansas City Royals, New York Mets, New York Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers.
There was talk that when the AFL season started on Oct. 13 (running through Nov. 21), there would be a new addition along with it. When Hawaii Winter Baseball closed its doors following its 2008 season, discussions began about moving it -- a junior AFL, so to speak -- to Arizona. The idea was to have a league for lower-level, A-ball prospects to run in conjunction with the very successful AFL. For a number of reasons -- the economy, for one -- plans didn't come together in time for this year, but all signs point to the junior AFL debuting a year from now.
"It's not going to occur here in 2009, but we are very optimistic we can launch a junior fall league in 2010," Cobb said. "We are certainly going to put together a steering committee of farm directors and do our very best to roll the projected expenses into the 2010 budget. We are optimistic we will be able to get it off the ground and operative in 2010."
With the absence of any league for the players who'd have gone to Hawaii, the rules for this year's Fall League have been tweaked. In the past, the rules have allowed each organization one exemption for an A-level player. In 2009, two exemptions will be available for each Major League team.
"That's somewhat of a bridge to get what we hope we'll have next year," Cobb said. "If they choose, they can have two players who have signed as of Aug. 17. It takes into account those drafted players who signed at the 11th hour."