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Arizona Fall League set to return this week

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The eleven-month off-season finally comes to an end.

Williamsport 2015
Wet Luzinki's Minor League Photo Safari #KilomeDay

Ah, autumn; that majestic time of year when we all put on hoodies and everything dies. As the earth prepares for its frigid slumber, human populace be damned, baseball sends its hottest prospects to the desert so that they might find a better chance for survival.

And what a crew has gathered this season!

There’s Rays pitcher Brent Honeywell, a NERF gun-toting screwballer! Michael Kopech, the Red Sox’ second-best right-handed pitching prospect, who lost two months of 2016 after breaking his hand fighting a teammate! And who could forget Tigers powerhouse Christin Stewart, who put aside a lucrative acting career in the Twilight franchise and has become a slugger with such power, his staggering BP sessions have been known to “elicit gasps from onlookers.

Aaron Rowand is managing the Glendale Desert Dogs, and after Curtis Granderson’s attempt to emulate his famous face-smashing catch in the NL Wild Card game, Rowand’s probably primed to show the youngsters how it’s done.

Former Phillie Steve Schrenk will serve as the Scottsdale pitching coach (I have his autograph on a baseball that is also signed by Mike Lieberthal, Pat Burrell, and Harry Kalas! And Alex Arias), undoubtedly sharing the wealth of syrupy gossip he has from 52 games with those legendary 1999-2000 Phillies squads.

And don’t forget - you forgot, didn’t you - Tim Tebow will be on hand to promote his new book on life’s inevitable sucking:

“Life isn’t easy. We all experience the ups and downs of relationships, career, and choices. Some of our best plans go awry. Lifelong dreams don’t come true. People fail us, and we fail others too. Maybe worst of all is the heartbreak of rejection.”

Tim Tebow’s web site

Already, the madness is underway. Just this past Saturday, each franchise sent a slugger to compete in the fourth annual Bowman Hitting Challenge. The Phillies tabbed Mitch Walding, a third baseman who pounded out a .440 SLG and 10 HR with Clearwater this season before a promotion to Reading, where he managed three more dingers in 23 games. Walding’s focus on his AFL performance is such that he has not communicated with the outside world since announcing his departure.

But sadly, Walding wasn’t able to make much of a dent in the contest, from which Indians prospect Bradley Zimmer emerged the thunderous champion. The event wasn’t quite a home run derby, as hitters received points for both home runs and for hitting targets spread throughout the field. Zimmer was lauded for getting a bunt down.

“Isn’t that what this is all about? Getting the bunt down?” Zimmer asked afterward, cursing the future of baseball with wretched bunts for the entire next generation.

With only this single exhibition completed, already there are questions being raised about high profile AFL attendees. Boston’s Yoan Moncada was largely a no-show in the contest, and even when he would homer, he found a way to be overshadowed.

Presumably, Matt Klentak was buying that kid hot dogs and nudging a lucrative rookie deal his way before the end of the evening while somewhere, Rowand simmered with jealousy.

And then, there are the Phillies prospects.

Last season, the Phillies younglings were made a part of the Glendale Desert Dogs. J.P. Crawford was there, the highest-ranked prospect from MLB.com to head west that year. His hotly anticipated performance ended after five games when he tore the UCL in his left thumb, because baseball is a cruel trick for which we repeatedly fall and ask for more. Anyone hoping for more watchable performance elsewhere in the Phillies contingent would go wanting, as none of the position players posted especially exciting numbers (Andrew Knapp, coming off his prolific break-out season in Reading, set the bar with a .235 BA and .669 OPS, nice) and the hurlers rushed to see who could skyrocket their ERA to the highest point in the stratosphere (Although Tom Windle wound up in pretty good shape). The Desert Dogs finished 13-15 behind the Surprise Saguaros in the AFL West division; historians are still piecing together the debacle.

But hey, this is a brief time period in which young players, some of them teenagers, are probably trying to make an impression. Some go in hot. Some come in cold. This time, the Phillies are sending from their fertile farmlands RHPs Victor Arano and Miguel Nunez, LHPs Jeff Singer and Brandon Leibrandt, infielders Scott Kingery and Mitch Walding, and outfielder Aaron Brown. It’s not exactly the higher profile crew that went last season, but the Phillies have more questions to answer among their minor league system than ever, with a surfeit of new talent acquired over the last year. Kingery - an Arizona native and University of Arizona alum - popped up as Baseball America’s 14th-ranked 2016 Florida State League player as a second baseman, a position I had assumed the Phillies would just retire after the departure of Chase Utley.

You never know what’s going to go down in the desert. Tune in, then, as the AFL plays out all of these subplots starting on Thursday until the championship game on November 21.

Or, you can fall asleep in front of the MLB post season, being thrilled by the sport at its highest level and concocting fun, robust fantasies.