On April 6, Timber Rattlers outfielder Monte Harrison collected Wisconsin's first hit of the season, an infield hit against the Quad Cities River Bandits on the first day of the Midwest League season. Eight months and ten days later Harrison was still playing baseball and, what's more, he was still excited to be doing so. He talked his way back into the lineup on Thursday for the Arizona Fall League's Salt River Rafters, started in right field and played the 135th game of his 2017 campaign.
Harrison was one of nine prospects representing the Milwaukee Brewers in the AFL. The list includes eight former Timber Rattlers: Pitchers Adrian Houser (who also played for Wisconsin in 2017), Nate Griep (2016), Quintin Torres-Costa (2016) and Jon Perrin (2015), outfielder Corey Ray (2016) and infielders Jake Gatewood (2015-16) and Lucas Erceg (2016) joined Harrison on a roster alongside prospects from the Diamondbacks, Rockies, Orioles and Marlins organizations in the six team league. The Rafters played their 30th and final game of the fall on Thursday.
Salt River lost on Thursday to finish the season 13-15-2 (the AFL allows for ties in games that would otherwise extend past the 11th inning), but despite the losing record Brewers Farm Director Tom Flanagan said it has been a successful fall season for his players.
"I think you try not to look at the numbers," Flanagan said. "You can't help yourself when you're around it every day like our staff is, but (2017 Arizona Summer League Brewers hitting coach and Salt River coach) Brent Del Chiaro, in speaking with him he spoke glowingly about most of our guys, and the one thing he didn't waver on was the effort and the way they've carried themselves out here. I think that says a lot with the long season, finishing strong both effort-wise and professionally, it shows well for all of these guys going forward."
With an abbreviated schedule and a large roster (Salt River used 16 position players and 22 pitchers over 30 games), frequent playing time can be a challenge to come by for AFL players. Flanagan noted the chance for position players to learn to keep themselves ready and in rhythm without being able to rely on taking the field every day.
"It's an opportunity for them to maybe hit it a little harder in the cage off of the velocity machine, just different things depending on the guy and what they're working on in terms of how they can hold up, how their swing can be helped with a routine versus the day-to-day grind that kind of keeps your timing in shape with game at bats. Here they have to provide that on their own through their work," Flanagan said. "So I think it helps them to learn to look at the game a little differently. Certainly they're observing a lot more, you know they're on the bench a lot more."
Players are assigned to the Fall League for a variety of reasons and with a variety of goals in mind, but Flanagan cited one overarching benefit for all the players in the desert this fall.
"I think the one individual thing that applies to all of the players is, in most cases, it gets them used to playing that extra-long season," Flanagan said. "In other words, with the minor league season wrapping up with a month-plus to go and the playoffs in the big league season, this teaches them how long the season is and how they need to prepare both physically and mentally to keep up with that grind."
Even before reporting to Salt River Fields for the first time, Corey Ray and Lucas Erceg had already played the longest seasons of their lives. 2017 was both players' first full professional season and their Fall League assignment finished off a year where they played 135 and 144 games, respectively. Despite the fact that a very long year was nearing the end, however, Flanagan said both players were holding up well.
"This last week of the Fall League, mentally it's more of a test for guys. It's kind of like 'senioritis' or something in school, guys see the finish line but mentally they have to keep grinding," Flanagan said. "I spoke with Brent Del Chiaro at length yesterday about our guys and he said obviously they all want to get home, but it's not shown up at all in terms of their effort and work ethic. They're putting in the time. They're still eager to play."
Ray and Erceg both joined Harrison in the lineup on the final day of the fall season. Harrison had a hit and drew a walk in the game and finished the Fall League batting .283 with a .333 on-base percentage and .604 slugging in 14 games. His five home runs were tied for the third-most in the league despite the fact that every player tied with or ahead of him on the list had 17 or more additional at bats.
"I think everyone's happy for him (Harrison)," Flanagan said. "He loves to be out there, number one, and I think being away from the game due to kind of freakish injuries, a couple of inopportune fractures to the ankle and the hamate that took away a lot of at bats."
Counting his time with Wisconsin, High-A Carolina and Salt River this season Harrison collected 506 at bats in 2017, nearly 200 more than he had seen in any other professional season to date.
"More than anything, that's probably most important to Monte. Not only has he gotten those at bats, he's really allowed himself to develop. You saw the tools individually, flashes here and there, but now over a sustained length of the season like this he's done it at every stop, including here in the Fall League."
Given all of the prospect-laden lineups and the thin, dry air, the Arizona Fall League can be a very difficult environment for pitchers. Every AFL team posted an earned run average over 4 this fall, including Salt River at 4.60. Jon Perrin was able to work through the challenges, however, and led all of the Brewers' representatives in innings pitched with 15 1/3. Perrin was prepared to work in extra games during the fall after missing some time during the season, and was able to take on more opportunities after the Brewers decided to end Adrian Houser's season early.
"He was benefitted a little bit with Houser getting capped at where we wanted to see him get to physically," Flanagan said. "He (Perrin) picked up a few starts in Houser's slot, maybe two starts. Then he's obviously a guy that can start or relieve, we like him still as a starter but coming out of the bullpen here, he's a guy we told the staff, 'don't be afraid to give him multiple innings.' So he was able to soak up a few of those."
Perrin and his teammates faced a lot of good hitters in a hitter-friendly environment this fall, but Flanagan said their goals and emphasis remain the same.
"It's really not that different than what we tell them during the season. I don't think we adjust or they adjust to the setting or to the league or anything like that. The hitters are usually ahead of the pitching out here but the one thing we sell to our pitchers is that they're generally going to be on regular rest or a more regular schedule than the hitters, so I guess it balances out a little bit in that regard. Where the position players are getting a few more days off, they're keeping on a somewhat more normal rhythm," Flanagan said.
Certainly both the pitchers and the hitters in the Arizona Fall League have one thing in common: After a very long baseball season, they're ready for a break. The window between the end of this season and the start of the next will be shorter for them than it is for most minor league players, but Flanagan noted that it's an opportunity to prepare for the life that may lie ahead.
"It's really something that I think is part of the development process," Flanagan said. "These guys will learn how to adjust, as they will have to do in the big leagues, with that changing end point of the season and not always mid-September like the minor leagues or early September. It's going to go at least until October 1 in a few years for these guys. So I think it's all part of that process of developing."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.