Now that we’ve made it through the regular season Indians minor league affiliates and since the 2020 Arizona Fall League has been cancelled as well, let’s take a look at the greatest Indians players to participate in the Arizona Fall League over the last decade. The AFL is a mixed league in more ways than one, comprised of players from mostly Advanced A through AAA. These players are mixed with those from four other teams to create the six fall league rosters, the Mesa Solar Sox, Phoenix/Glendale Desert Dogs, Salt River Rafters, Peoria Javelinas, Surprise Saguaros and Scottsdale Scorpions. While those teams who have an affiliate with a home field (like the Mariners and Padres in Peoria) play there consistently, teams like the Indians have to fill in where there is room and over the last decade they have played for everyone except the Salt River Rafters.
Most players sent to the fall league go for one of three reasons: they missed most or all of the previous season due to injury or suspension and are trying to catch up, they are a top prospect attempting to skip a level (usually AA or AAA) or they are trying out a new position. The rest of the rosters are filled as needed to provide full teams. Because of this, players rarely repeat seasons so nearly all of the ten below played just one season in the AFL.
10. Tyler Naquin – CF – 2013 Surprise Saguaros
By the end of his second season in the Indians system, Naquin had already moved through advanced A Carolina, then he used the 2013 fall league to move straight to Akron by year three. With the Saguaros, he play 27 games and hit .339/.400/.417 with four doubles and four steals. One of Naquin’s biggest issues to this point had been his strike out rate and overall pitch selection and he made vast improvements while in Arizona, walking 11 times with 18 strike outs. This didn’t stick, however, and plate discipline remained an issue for Naquin throughout his big league career.
9. Sean Brady – LHSP – 2017 Glendale Desert Dogs
Beyond being caught for a semi-viral photo when he was standing next to Ka’ai Tom in the dugout, Brady’s 2017 AFL season should be remembered as one of the best by an Indians pitcher in the last decade. His 2.78 ERA was the best for an Indian with enough innings to care about as he six starts and threw 22.2 innings. Four of his seven earned runs allowed came in one short appearance, so in general he was even better than his ERA would show. He struck out 16 and walked just five for a 1.19 WHIP.
Brady was playing in the AFL because he missed nearly all of 2017 with injury and his success there allowed him to pitch a full season in Akron in 2018. While this season was successful, his 2019 was not and he was released by the Indians early in the year.
8. Greg Allen – OF – 2016 Mesa Solar Sox
After spending a significant time in Akron in 2016, Allen used the 2016 AFL season to help vault him straight from AA to the big leagues in 2017. In 22 games with the Solar Sox, he hit .269/.380/.449 with three home runs, ten walks and 12 steals in 14 attempts. Despite there being many speedy Indians to play in the AFL over the last decade including Clint Frazier, Bradley Zimmer and Francisco Lindor, Allen was the only one to really be a base stealing threat and his power was just a surprise bonus. He never came close to that .449 SLG in any other year of his career, before or after, leading one to believe it may have been an issue of small sample size. Even so, to hit 3 home runs in 22 games was quite a feat for Allen whose record for a full season was 7 in both 2015 and 2016, both times in over 120 games played.
7. Francisco Mejia – 3B – 2017 Glendale Desert Dogs
Mejia was sent to the 2017 Fall League for one reason and one reason alone, to see if he could play third base. He had played one game there during the regular season, but otherwise had pretty much been exclusively a catcher throughout his MiLB career. The Indians knew that his bat was good enough for the big leagues, but not his glove, so they had to find a new home for him. In the AFL, he played 15 games (ten at third) and hit .365/.397/.476 with two home runs and 12 runs scored. It was entirely his offensive performance that earned him this spot on the list.
Defensively, Mejia was timid and had limited range, but only committed two errors in 21 total chances. This was enough, however, to give up on the experiment and move him to the outfield in 2018 in Columbus. Interestingly enough, following his trade to San Diego, Mejia has played almost exclusively catcher and his bat has been his biggest detriment, particularly in 2020.
6. T.J. House – LHSP – 2012 Scottsdale Scorpions
House may have been a roster filler in 2012 as he pitched well during a full season in 2012, mostly in Akron. Even so, he was even better in Scottsdale. He made six starts that covered 27 innings with an even 3.00 ERA. He didn’t allow a home run and walked nine while striking out 26. While fatigue possibly marred his final two starts (he did throw 149.1 innings in the regular season, a career high at the time), he was terrific over his first four, allowing a 1.59 ERA across 17 innings with 18 k’s.
Despite extended success in Akron in 2012 and in the AFL, House began 2013 back in Akron, but was quickly promoted to AAA, then would go on to make 19 appearances and throw 102 innings in the Majors in 2014.
5. Bradley Zimmer – CF – 2016 Mesa Solar Sox
Zimmer fell into the category of top prospects who were nearly big league ready, but could use a little polishing. He had played some AAA in 2016, but had major strike out issues in both Akron and Columbus. Looking to become MLB ready in 2017, Zimmer did improve his strike out and walk rates in the AFL, going from striking out in 31% of plate appearances to 27% and from walking in 17% of plate appearances to 20%.
Zimmer also hit for great power with Mesa and was active on the bases, batting .257/.421/.514 with four home runs and eight steals in nine attempts. This was an Indians record for total home runs over the last decade in the AFL, tied by Yu Chang and Clint Frazier.
4. Kirk McCarty – LHSP – 2019 Mesa Solar Sox
McCarty (pictured at top) had a very strong start to his minor league career out of college, but missed almost all of 2019 due to injury. When he did pitch, he struggled in Lynchburg despite a good start there the year before. The Fall League made a ton of sense for him and he had a very strong performance for Mesa. In six appearances, McCarty threw 24 innings and struck out 19 with a 3.00 ERA. He was incredibly efficient, walking six and allowing 17 hits for a 0.96 WHIP.
This performance likely would have pushed McCarty into AA had there been a 2020 season.
3. Jesus Aguilar – 1B – 2011 Phoenix Desert Dogs
Aguilar had an impressive season with Lake County and Kinston in 2011 before joining the Phoenix Desert Dogs to wrap up the season. There, he hit .339/.458/.610 with seven doubles and three home runs in 16 games. This helped push him into AA in 2012 and he reached the big leagues by 2014. One of the hardest workers in baseball, Aguilar didn’t even stop after the AFL in 2011 despite playing 126 games in the regular season. He went on to play with the Leones de Caracas in his home country of Venezuela, something he has continued to do every off-season since.
2. Cord Phelps – 3B – 2010 Peoria Javelinas
Phelps had a very good season in Akron and Columbus in 2010, but he did so exclusively as a second baseman. With Jason Kipnis at the same level and the likely selection for big league 2B replacement, Phelps converted to third during the 2010 AFL season. He hit even better than he had in the regular season, batting .367/.474/.557 with a particular increase in power. He hit three home runs and four doubles in 19 games.
Defensively, however, the experiment was a failure and he committed eight errors in 44 total chances, leading him to essentially never play third base again for the Indians, although he would later on for the Orioles and Phillies.
1. Yu Chang – SS/2B/3B – 2016 Mesa Solar Sox & 2018 Glendale Desert Dogs
The only two timer on this list, Chang initially joined the AFL as a short stop in 2016 after spending all of the regular season with Lynchburg. He hit a very impressive .304/.361/.393 with five doubles in 15 games. This launched him into AA in 2017, then he spent 2018 in Columbus, still as a short stop. Now banging on the door to the big leagues, Chang had a Francisco Lindor sized block in the way and he traveled back to Arizona, this time for the Glendale Desert Dogs as anything except a short stop.
Starting the season at third and ending at second, Chang hit .337/.396/.523 with four home runs and four doubles in 23 games. Not surprisingly, a few years of age helped Chang hit for more power, but he also limited his strike outs and increased his walks. Unlike the other defensive switches on this list, Chang’s worked out perfectly and he has now played 38 games in the big leagues including games at second, short and third.