First Pitch Arizona — Baseball, Food & Beer

Baseball season doesn’t have to be over the day after the final pitch of the World Series.

Thanks to the hard work of Brent Hershey and Ray Murphy of Baseball HQ, it isn’t.

Once again, we were spoiled by a great finale to the MLB season with the Astros’ seven-game triumph over the Dodgers. In the wake of last year’s incredible Game 7 between the Cubs and Indians, and now three years removed from Madison Bumgarner’s Game 7 heroics to push the Giants over the Royals in 2014, it seems impossible that baseball could give us more, and yet somehow, it does.

For most fans, the final out in October marks the end of the season and baseball is gone until pitchers and catchers report to spring training in February. Since 2009, I’ve been making an annual trip to Arizona after the World Series for Baseball HQ’s First Pitch Arizona conference.

In a travel schedule with a handful of great events — FSTA, LABR, Tout Wars, NFBC and NFFC drafts — this trip always make a run for a spot at the top of the list, and it somehow got even better in 2017.

Similar to the way baseball’s Winter Meetings bring Twitter to a live form, First Pitch Arizona does the same for your favorite people who write and talk about fantasy baseball throughout the year.

Imagine a conference that begins the process of preparing you for next season, while allowing you to watch games featuring some of the game’s future stars in perfect weather. Want to join a 15-team NFBC style mixed draft during the first week of November? How about a 12-team auction? Maybe you’d like to talk pitching 1-on-1 with Paul Sporer, get DFS strategy advice from Derek Carty, or pick the brain of Dave Potts? You can do all of those things, and more, at this event.

If you’ve been on the fence about attending in recent years, check out the detailed write-up of the program from 2017 first-time attendee (and panel member) Alex Chamberlain of FanGraphs. The 2018 conference is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 1-4.

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Audio

We recorded our first podcast in front of a live audience during this year’s event. It’s a four-man effort with Clay Link, James Anderson, and Todd Zola all joining me at the mic. A very wide range of topics were covered, and Todd subtly makes his case for ‘Zola mentions Kole Calhoun’ to become the center square of our podcast episode bingo cards.

You can subscribe for future episodes (free) by clicking the Subscribe button in the player window below.

Players of Note

The way it worked out, I watched four games closely during this trip, including the Fall Stars Game on Saturday night, which MLB Network has aired for several years now. I didn’t get to see all of the top prospects in the league this season, and the looks I was able to get were understandably limited in terms of the volume of innings pitched or at-bats taken.

Ronald Acuna, OF, ATL —  Hearing professional scouts speak at this conference over the years, one of the most challenging aspects of their jobs is to report only what they see and not to infuse that with anything they might already know about the player. If you had never heard of Acuna and saw his two games that I saw in the Fall League, you might wonder what the hype is about. Particularly in the Monday game after the Fall Stars showcase, Acuna’s plate appearances were lacking in quality, but it’s completely understandable that fatigue has probably set in as he’s 19 years old and had already played 139 games before reporting to Arizona for extra work. Acuna was caught stealing the only time he reached base Saturday night, but he was cut down by an excellent throw from Mets catcher Tomas Nido, whose 1.91-second pop time is elite among big-league catchers.

There are plenty of elite prospects who have gone to Arizona and looked worn out throughout the Fall League season, and that’s not even the case for Acuna, who homered in a game that I did not see Friday, and has done everything well overall both in the Fall League and throughout his minor league season, which wrapped up at Triple-A in 2017. It’s entirely possible that he’ll be called up after 10 days of the 2018 season pass, ensuring that the Braves will have him under club control through 2024.

Victor Robles, OF, WAS — Robles showed better in the Fall Stars Game on Saturday, earning MVP honors in the process. To my untrained eye, Robles appears to have a slightly leaner frame than Acuna, it’s easy to wonder if Robles’ game will feature a little less pop and a little more speed than Acuna’s in the long run. Having already accrued service time with Washington at the end of the 2017 season, Robles will likely have to wait a few weeks longer than Acuna before getting the call in 2018. Adam Eaton will return from injury to join an outfield that will likely start with Michael Taylor in center field and Bryce Harper in right on Opening Day.

Kyle Tucker, OF, HOU — Tucker was among the players I saw twice, and the limited looks were both encouraging. He has an unconventional swing, but it works for him. He’ll turn 21 in January, and regardless of whether he remains in Houston or if he’s traded elsewhere, Tucker may open the year back at Double-A before a midseason promotion to Triple-A. Like Acuna, it’s easy to wonder if he’s somewhat worn out after a long season, as he’s failed to show the same pop in Arizona that he displayed against much older competition at Corpus Christi following his promotion to the Texas League during the summer.

Corey Ray, OF, MIL — Ray posted a sub-.700 OPS as a 22-year-old at High-A this season (he turned 23 in September), dropping him in the eyes of prospect analysts since he should have been able to dominate at that level as a first-round pick in 2016 out of Louisville. Ray picked up a pair of stolen bases against Pirates prospect Mitch Keller in the Fall Stars Game and finished 1-for-3 with a walk and run scored, but he also struck out twice. The Brewers have a crowded outfield situation with Lewis Brinson knocking on the door and both corner spots locked down with Ryan Braun and Domingo Santana, so Ray should get a full season at Double-A to try and get back on track.

Michael Chavis, 3B, BOS — In addition to make a lot of loud contact throughout the weekend, Chavis made a nice play on a softly-hit ball to third base during Monday’s game in Glendale. He has a very solid build, which fully supports the power numbers he showed throughout his season in the minors in 2017, but it’s difficult to imagine him anywhere other than a corner-infield spot. With Rafael Devers currently occupying third base, Chavis needs a trade to occur for a clearer path to playing time, unless the Red Sox pass on adding a first baseman in free agency and decide to give Chavis an opportunity to become their long-term solution at the position. Keep an eye on his walk rate as he continues to advance as he’s been under 8.0% BB% since rookie ball in 2014.

Francisco Mejia, C/3B, CLE — There is a pretty strong divide as to whether the Indians should continue to use Mejia behind the plate, but he’s been playing other infield spots this fall. He’s listed at 5-foot-10, and the small frame is one of the reasons his future behind the plate is in doubt. Fortunately, the hit tool appears to be very good, and while he’s unlikely to begin the year in Cleveland, he may be versatile enough to play two or three different positions once he’s deemed ready to handle big-league pitching regularly. Regardless of his position, a bump to Triple-A to begin 2018 seems likely. My only fear is that he’ll hit at a level that’s very good for a catcher, but much less exciting if he only qualifies at third base down the road. In many leagues, he’ll qualify only as a UT-option to begin 2018.

Josh Naylor, 1B, SD — Naylor surprised the crowd Saturday by legging out a triple in Saturday’s Fall Stars Game after he lined a pitch down the right field line. Just 20 years old, Naylor topped out at Double-A in 2017 and he’ll likely return to that level to begin 2018. Despite his surprising speed and athleticism for a short, stocky frame, the concern with Naylor comes from the potential for his body to become worse in the not-so-distant future. It’s easy to see the projection of more game power from him in the near future, but the Padres have no need to rush him.

Luis Urias, SS, SD — I’ll leave the detailed write-up to our lead prospect analyst James Anderson here since he’s been the high man on Urias for a long time, but Urias took a 96-mph fastball over the left-center field wall in the Fall Stars Game, and he’s shown more than enough defensively at shortstop to stick at the position. Put simply, James appears to be right to like him as much as he does.

Charlie Tilson, OF, CHW — Tilson is getting reps during the final weeks of the AFL after a lost 2017 season due to a stress fracture of the navicular bone in his ankle. Health is the key for him during the coming weeks as he could be ready to push his way into the center-field conversation for the White Sox during spring training. On a team that will likely be pressed to manufacture runs, Tilson should get plenty of green lights, making him a threat to deliver 20-25 steals if he is a regular this season.

Justus Sheffield, P, NYY — The last smooth lefty starter I saw wearing pinstripes in Arizona was Manny Banuelos, and while he failed to meet high expectations due to a variety of injuries that have plagued him in the years since, Sheffield shined in the Fall Stars Game as one of the two starters Saturday night. Most specifically, I came away impressed with his ability to throw back-foot sliders against right-handed hitters, but I thought he commanded his pitches well overall, especially for a 21-year-old lefty. Put me in the optimistic camp about Sheffield eventually delivering on his potential, but don’t expect to see him in the big leagues before the second half of 2019 at the earliest.

Mitch Keller, P, PIT — Of the 38 pitches Keller threw in Saturday’s Fall Stars Game, 28 were fastballs, eight were sliders, and only two were changeups. Perhaps he was instructed by the Pirates not to use his changeup much, but that will ultimately be an important part in establishing his ultimate ceiling. While he had good velocity on his fastball, his only two whiffs on this particular evening came from 95+ mph fastballs near the top of the strike zone. He uncharacteristically issued a pair of walks, but there’s little in his profile that suggests control will be a problem as he continues to advance, giving him a safe floor. The progress of his secondary pitches is worth monitoring closely in 2018.

Tanner Scott, P, BAL — Scott made a pair of appearances out of the Baltimore bullpen in September, which flew completely under the radar of this author. When Jeff Zimmerman turned to show me a 100 on the radar gun after a fastball against the first batter Scott faced Saturday, I became much more interested in seeing what else he had in the arsenal. He appeared to generate the top-shelf velocity with ease, which made the triple-digit heat more surprising. In addition to the big fastball, Scott offers a nasty slider, which he uses to get a ton of swings-and-misses when he buries it in and below the strike zone. The O’s may have to use him as a starter based on organizational need, but he looked immediately ready for a role in the Baltimore bullpen as he fanned four in two frames. The issue for Scott throughout his time in the minors has been control, as he issued 46 walks in 69 innings at Double-A Bowie in 2017.

Sandy Alcantara, P, STL — Like Scott, Alcantara received a late-season jump from Double-A to the majors in 2017. Unlike Scott, he’s shown enough control to increase his chances of sticking as a starter, especially if he can fill out his currently wiry 6-foot-5 frame. Alcantara generated swinging strikes with five of his 22 pitches Saturday, mixing a big fastball (which topped out at a game-high 100.1 mph according to Statcast), 90-mph changeup, and slider. Like Scott, Alcantara appears ready to contribute to the big-league bullpen, it’s just a matter of sorting out the organization’s plan for him to begin 2018. Should that happen, it’s easy to wonder if he might find his way into the closer role for St. Louis down the road. If he continues as a starter, he’ll likely open the season at Triple-A Memphis after spending the entire minor-league portion of his year at Double-A Springfield in 2017.

Max Povse, P, SEA — One of the starters in a Monday game at Glendale, Povse yielded a lot of hard contact in his first inning before settling down. At 6-foot-8, he has an extreme downward plane with his offerings, and he was mixing four pitches effectively. He’ll likely get a chance to stick in the rotation and open the season with a challenge as a starter for Tacoma in the Pacific Coast League.

J.D. Hammer, P, PHI — Hammer cruised through a pair of scoreless innings out of the bullpen Monday, throwing a 95-96 mph fastball and 85-86 mph curveball (of course) in the outing according to Baseball HQ’s Brent Hershey. Hammer, who also wears Rick Vaughn glasses on the mound, will likely start 2018 at Double-A with the hope of contributing in the Phillies’ bullpen by season’s end.

Jordan Hicks, P, STL — Hicks overpowered hitters during the lone inning I saw Thursday at Sloan Park in Mesa, showing high-90s heat with a filthy slider. He’s more than a full year away from contributing as a starter, but a step forward on the control front during his time at High-A in 2017 is also an intriguing part of his profile.

Interested in more coverage from the Arizona Fall League? Check out James Anderson’s column (which should be posted by the end of the day Thursday). Not currently a subscriber? Get a free 10-day trial, or sign-up today!

Bebidas & Comidas 

Thanks to the spring training dining guides kindly provided by ESPN’s Keith Law, I always eat well in Phoenix. Thanks to the top-shelf beer prowess of Eno Sarris and many of the other speakers at the conference, I always drink well in Phoenix too.

For those interested, here’s a run-down of the what and where:

Matt’s Big Breakfast — Phoenix’s signature breakfast place. Get bacon as a side if it’s not already a part of your preferred entree. The menu is actually somewhat small here, but I’ve really enjoyed everything I’ve tried over the years. Grade: 70/80

Sip — Take an old Jiffy Lube, turn it into an open-air coffee shop and bar from local and regional craft brewers. This place had a nice mix of freelancers getting work done, dog owners having a relaxing morning, and at least three fantasy baseball nerds enjoying the shaded patio. Great for spending and hour or two outside before or after a game. Grade: 70/80

Little Miss BBQ — If you go before they open, expect to wait at least an hour in line for your food. We went 30 minutes before closing (4p) on Thursday and chopped brisket was the only remaining meat. In an attempt to get more of the menu Friday by arriving at 2p, pulled pork was still available. There was no line, but the cost is a significantly reduced menu. All of the sides I’ve tried — including jalapeño cheddar grits, potato salad, and beans — are excellent too. For first timers, I would recommend going an hour before they open, waiting it out, and getting four or five meats to share. If you somehow have room, the pecan pie is awesome too. Also, don’t sleep on their mustard. Grade: 80/80

Culinary Dropout — There are multiple locations, the groups I was with for two visits went to the Tempe one. Everything here was on point, from the service and atmosphere to the food and drinks. Entrees ordered included Pork Ribs, Rainbow Trout, Ribeye Beef Cap, Fried Chicken, The Pub Burger, and the Turkey Pastrami Sandwich — there were no complaints about any of it. They also had a nice tap (18) and bottle selection, or $1.95 brown-bag options for those who are drinking for volume. Grade: 70/80

Casella’s Deli — A repeat…now an annual tradition. It’s cash only, and made-to-order at a slow pace, but well worth the wait. Sunday’s menu was limited based on how busy they get on Saturdays. This time, I tried the pizza hoagie (they were out of the Italian Beef, which is the best I’ve had anywhere) and it was very good. The service here is as friendly as it gets. Casella’s celebrated their 40th anniversary this past spring.  Grade: 70/80

Snooze — Another great breakfast spot, and this one has a very robust menu. Everything across the board sounded great, I went with a breakfast burrito (added bacon) and it was excellent. It seemed very busy here for mid-Morning on a Monday. Grade: 70/80

Pizzeria Bianco — At one point, Bianco was hailed as the best pizza place in America. It’s the best neapolitan-style pie I’ve had anywhere, and the best pizza overall that I’ve tried so far in Phoenix. The crust is perfect…chewy in the middle, crunch and flaky around the edges. I preferred the Sonny Boy to the Wiseguy, but I don’t think you can really go wrong. Expect long waits most times of day, but we walked in after a game around 3:45 on a Monday and had a table right away. Perfect if you plan on catch two AFL games in the same day. Grade: 75/80

***

There were plenty of great beers that came from growlers that large groups of us were sharing, but here’s what I was able to identify over the course of the week:

Trillium – Melcher Street IPA — One of the best breweries in Boston, and arguably the country, Trillium’s assortment of pale ales never disappoints. This trip is one of the only times all year I end up getting to try their stuff. (Huge Thank You to Adam Standish) Grade: 4.5/5.0

Monk’s Cafe Flemish Sour Ale — A widely available sour from Belgium, with better balance than most of this style. Grade: 4.25/5.0

Modern Times – Fortunate Islands — Sweet, sticky, and tropical. Grade: 4.25/5.0

Full Sail Brewing Company – Bourbon Barrel Aged Wheatwine Ale — I’m not usually a fan of barleywines, but the barrel-aging put a perfect nose on this one. Grade: 4.5/5.0

Boulevard – Snow & Tell — A new offering from a brewery that now has distribution in the upper midwest. Malty and smooth. Grade: 4.0/5.0

The Shop Beer Company – Church Music — A local spot in Tempe near Culinary Dropout. So far, the best IPA I’ve had that is brewed in the Valley. 4.25/5.0

The Shop Beer Company – Ransom Note — Not quite as good as the Church Music, but worth trying. Grade: 4.0/5.0

Southern Tier – Thick Mint — A nice bring from Tim Heaney. Smells like a Girl Scout Cookie Thin Mint, tastes good up front, and then something is a little off in the finish (slightly bitter). A fun one to try at least once, and I think most of the room enjoyed it more than I did. Grade: 4.0/5.0

Huss Brewing Company – Koffee Kolsch — I think I liked this one more than the rest of the room, but the hazelnut flavor really comes through. A lighter style coffee beer with plenty for the palette. Grade: 4.25/5.0

SanTan Brewing Company – Devil’s Ale — A solid IPA from a local brewer. Not a must try, but a fine option if the selection is limited and you want something brewed nearby. Grade: 3.75/5.0

Follow me on Twitter @DerekVanRiper