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No off-season for Phillies prospects in the Arizona Fall League

Garrett Cleavinger is using the AFL to sharpen a new weapon.

MLB: Fall Star Game Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

After a hectic season of face planting, inside-the-parking, and general minor leaguering, the offseason is a time to unlace those cleats and cool off.

“There’s five Phillies guys and we’re renting a house,” Phillies pitching prospect Garrett Cleavinger says. “We come here and hang out by the pool, play video games, watch TV, relax.”

Of course, you have to sparse in some workouts. Can’t shirk the routine completely. You may have taken some big steps this year; don’t want to regress, revert, and atrophy just to spend a few afternoons poolside.

“We show up to the field usually around 7:30, 7:45 every day,” Cleavinger says. “You get your work in in the morning, whether you have a lift that morning or you have early hitting or you go watch film with the hitting coaches.”

You know what? Maybe just scrap the whole “relax” thing. We’re trying to play big league ball, here. Just because the “season” is “over” doesn’t mean baseball ends. It’s a full frontal assault on your free time, not that you mind—this is the path you’ve chosen. Lace those cleats back up, kid. Cook-out’s canceled.

“You... do your personal work and then we head out to the field and take BP... and then it’s time to roll.”

In the off-season, we walk our own desert; wandering the formless time between October and March as weakened, enfeebled scrubs, begging for death. But for young prospects across baseball, there is an actual, more literal desert to wander; one in which they continue playing baseball while we pass out in our dinners. The Arizona Fall League is the developmental think tank to which a group of prospects from each team are sent each year and spend a few weeks practicing and playing games together while the rest of us are at home, shrieking at each other about the MLB post season.

“It’s a little more select,” says Cleavinger. “That’s a good feeling when your manager comes up to you and says, ‘Hey, we want to send you out to Arizona this fall and you’re only one a few from that organization that’s going.’”

Cleavinger is part of a pitcher-heavy contingent of Phillies prospects who are temporarily making up part of the Glendale Desert Dogs of the AFL: Cornelius Randolph, Edgar Cabral, Zach Green, Trevor Bettencourt, Elneiry Garcia, and J.D. Hammer all went along as well. Cleavinger is a recent addition to the organization, having been acquired from the Orioles in the Jeremy Hellickson trade, saying the move, while initially shocking, has been “extremely positive” as he’s benefited from having the fresh eyes of new instructors breaking him down.

The AFL offers Cleavinger and his new teammates the chance to intermingle with even more coaches and players from other organizations, with enough down time to throw s*** at the wall and see what sticks.

“We have a ton of pitchers on these teams,” Cleavinger says. “We sit in the bullpen and bounce ideas off each other and learn from each other’s experiences. And we’re lucky enough to have two really good young pitching coaches from the White Sox and the Dodgers, and from personal experience, they’ve been a huge help. Overall, our pitching staff would say they’ve been a huge help and a major asset.”

The Desert Dogs’ pitching coaches of which he speaks, Connor McGuiness and Matt Zaleski, do indeed have big, meaty brains to pick.

McGuiness is a baseball data farmer who sits at the head of Slidestep Consulting and serves as an analyst for the McNamara Baseball Group, an agency representing baseball players from high school to the majors. The 27-year-old is now the pitching coach for the Dodgers’ Low A affiliate in Michigan.

Zaleski was, in 2013, a ten-year minor league vet who had never sniffed a spot on the White Sox’ big club, but at 31 years old, he said he would, “play until they tear the jersey off” him. After another season, Zaleski shifted into a coaching role in Chicago’s farm system where his wealth of experience is mined for the next generation of hurlers.

The twin guidance of the more analytical McGuiness and the now shirtless Zaleski have been cited by Cleavinger as beneficial to his progress as he works on what scouts have deemed his more vulnerable points: fastball command and a limited arsenal.

Cleavinger says he’s “talking to pitching coaches... with a plan of developing a slider, and also incorporate my change-up more in outings; fastball command to start out a count and then working in a slider and mixing in a change-up as well. I’ve talked to them about grip and hand movement, the kind of action you’re looking for. They understand it more because it’s new to me, so they’ve been a good resource for me to go to when I’ve been trying to learn this new pitch and how to make it work.”

Through 38.2 IP with the Orioles’ AA affiliate in Bowie, Cleavinger logged a hefty 6.82 ERA and 1.83 SO/W after appearing in 27 games. His path to being drafted started as a sophomore at Oregon, struggling to rein in his command; a recurring theme throughout his career. His wildness subsided his junior year, however, and he emerged from the wilderness as the most fearsome closer in the PAC-12. Dots of control issues did not deter the Orioles from grabbing him in the 2015 draft, but his time as an Orioles prospect was not ideal. Baltimore was convinced he could ride a mid-90s heater and a breaking pitch all the way to the majors; cut to the Jeremy Hellickson deal that landed him in the Phillies’ lap, and he has yet to reach a big league roster—there’s a reason he’s in Arizona prioritizing his fastball command.

You never know from whose mouth the adjustment that unlocks a player will be muttered, which is what makes the AFL such a breeding ground for development as young hurlers get access to coaches and fellow prospects who they may never have run into. Zaleski, specifically, can probably talk to Cleavinger about thirsting for that big league experience, infected by baseball after chasing it for over a decade. And he can most likely see that passion in the young pitchers surrounding him, including Cleavinger, who is part of the next group trying to nab one spot on a limited roster quickly filling with future stars.

“You see so many young guys, either playing in AAA or playing in the big leagues,” Cleavinger reflects on watching the Phillies in 2017. “You have guys like Rhys Hoskins and guys like that that are being called up and so it’s definitely an exciting feeling throughout the organization knowing that these young guys are making splashes in the big leagues, and you’re not too far from that.”