Detroit Tigers top prospects Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson both had long, successful campaigns in 2021. But their seasons aren’t quite over yet.
The top two prospects in the Detroit Tigers system are headed to the Arizona Fall League (AFL) for another month of competition against some of the best prospects in all of baseball.
They will play for the Salt River Rafters, where they’ll be joined by Ryan Kreidler, Chavez Fernander, Wilmer Flores, Zack Hess, and Garrett Hill, as well as prospects from the Brewers, Diamondbacks, Mets, and Rockies.
For those unfamiliar, the Arizona Fall League (AFL) is an annual tournament of sorts in the greater Phoenix area. Each MLB club sends seven minor leaguers (four pitchers and three position players) to the league, and they combine to form six 35-man teams.
This year’s AFL season begins on October 13th, and the 30-game regular season concludes on November 19th. The Fall Stars game is November 13th, with the AFL Championship Game one week later, and both games will be broadcast on MLB Network.
A few weeks ago we took a guess at who might be headed to the AFL this year, and though we did include Greene and Torkelson, we thought it was unlikely they’d attend. But their inclusion is yet another sign the Detroit Tigers are serious about giving them a shot to win MLB jobs next spring.
This year’s class might be the most star-studded group of Detroit minor leaguers ever, but many former attendees have gone on the to the big leagues. Alex Lange and Derek Hill were in the 2019 AFL, Spencer Turnbull went in 2016 and 2017, and back in 2012 Nick Castellanos hit .242 with one homer.
It’s important to remember that success or failure in the AFL doesn’t necessarily mean much for a player’s future. It’s a short schedule, and sometimes players are just tired.
Mike Trout famously posted a .600 OPS with 5 walks and 33 strikeouts in the AFL in 2011, while past OPS champs include Eric Duncan, Chip Cannon, and Adam Engel.
With that, let’s take a little closer look at this year attendees.
Detroit Tigers AFL Hitters
Riley Greene had a spectacular season in which he turned himself into a consensus top-10 prospect in baseball. He missed just a handful of games this year, including the final outing of the season, but the Tigers clearly want him to get as many plate appearances against good competition as possible.
Torkelson found Triple-A pitching a bit tougher than Greene, so this will be another good test for him. He went to college at Arizona State, so this will be something of a homecoming for him, and he’s bound to have a lot of local support.
Ryan Kreidler’s inclusion is another sign the organization thinks he has a real future in the big leagues. What’s most remarkable about Kreidler’s year is how his raised his performance down the stretch. His batting average jumped 50 points after he moved from Double-A Erie to Triple-A Toledo, and his strikeout rate dropped by 6% while his walk rate rose by the same amount.
Detroit Tigers AFL Pitchers
The pitchers this year generally aren’t considered top prospects, but they are interesting, at the very least.
Garrett Hill was a 26th round pick in 2018, and this year he split his time between High-A West Michigan and Double-A Erie, where he put up impressive stats. Hill doesn’t wow with stuff, but he shows above-average control, and so far in pro ball he has shown a near-elite ability to avoid home runs. He has allowed just 8 long balls in 237.1 career innings.
Like Hill, Fernander is a late pick from 2018 (35th round) who split his time between West Michigan and Erie this year. A native of the Bahamas, Fernander is a pure relief arm who can run his fastball into the mid-90s. The AFL will be a good chance for him to continue to refine his secondary offerings.
Detroit took Hess out of LSU in the 7th round in 2019, and though he started a bit in college, he’s been a pure reliever in pro ball. He has shown brief flashes of dominance in that role, but this year his fastball mostly sat in the low-90s. He will flash an above-average slider and a decent changeup, but his violent delivery has seemingly led to some real control issues. The AFL will be a good test for him.
Wilmer Flores is pretty easily the most intriguing pitcher the Tigers are sending to Arizona. He’s the younger brother of the MLB infielder of the same name, and Detroit signed him as an amateur free agent after the 2020 draft. He’s still just 20, and hasn’t pitched above Low-A yet, but this year he showed an impressive fastball that touched 97 MPH with outstanding spin rates to go along with a curveball that generated a 51% whiff rate. He’ll be one to watch.