Only a handful of fan bases are able to enjoy playoff baseball at this point, but there’s something for every team's fans in the prospect finishing school known as the Arizona Fall League. The Orioles are sending a host of interesting relievers and a former first-round draft pick there to get a look at them against some of the game’s best young players.
The Orioles’ participants in the AFL, which begins Tuesday, will be playing for the Peoria Javelinas in the six-team league, where Short-A Aberdeen pitching coach Justin Lord is serving in that same role and High-A Frederick manager Keith Bodie is also on the coaching staff.
Bodie, in that role for the Keys, spent a good portion of this year with the two highest-profile players the Orioles sent out to Arizona. Outfielder DJ Stewart, the team’s 2015 first-round pick, endured a miserable start to his first full season by batting .230 with a .719 OPS in the South Atlantic League for Low-A Delmarva before he was promoted at the All-Star break.
In player development terms, it was simple: Stewart hadn’t mastered the level, but was clearly better than how he was performing and was due for a change of scenery for a variety of reasons. Once he got to Frederick, he almost immediately turned it around. Stewart hit .279/.389/.448 with six home runs in 59 games for the Keys, and he’ll go to Arizona to keep getting at-bats and to maintain some of that progress.
The Orioles' other high-profile participant in the AFL is making his second trip out west. This time last year, left-hander Tanner Scott was cementing himself as an intriguing piece in the Orioles system with a fastball that sat in the mid 90s and routinely touched 100 mph out of the bullpen.
Scott’s raw stuff still impressed this year, but he struggled to deal with the expectations that came with his fall league performance early in the season and ended up with a 4.76 ERA in 64 1/3 innings between Frederick and Double-A Bowie, striking out 81 but posting a 1.508 WHIP. Midway through his time in Frederick, Scott toned down his delivery a bit and saw a spike in his command, but it didn’t translate after that earned him a promotion to Bowie. Even so, his outings will be appointment viewing for the scouts in the AFL — triple-digit velocity from the left side is something any team will covet, and Scott has it.
Three other relievers with somewhat intriguing arsenals are joining Scott — right-handers Jesus Liranzo, Jimmy Yacabonis and Stefan Crichton. Liranzo, who was signed as a minor league free agent in the Dominican Republic in 2013 but had Tommy John elbow reconstruction in 2014, is eligible for the Rule 5 draft though he’s just 21 and has 105 professional innings under his belt.
He has a fastball that sits 95-96 mph and a usable slider, and posted a 1.87 ERA with 66 strikeouts in 53 innings this year between Delmarva and Bowie.
Yacabonis bounced back from a rough 2015 to strike out 67 in 64 2/3 innings with a 2.64 ERA between Frederick and Bowie, using a heavy, mid-90s fastball and flashing a breaking ball. He, too, is eligible for the Rule 5 draft this year, as is Crichton, who had a 3.73 ERA in 48 appearances for Bowie this season.
Rounding out the Orioles’ participants are infielder Adrian Marin, who like Scott is repeating the AFL after hitting .232 for Bowie, and catcher Austin Wynns, who had an impressive season as he shuffled between three levels this year. Wynns hit .287 with six home runs and a .751 OPS over stints with Frederick, Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk. He’s a fine defensive catcher on top of that, and some evaluators believe he’ll open eyes in an environment like the AFL.