Moving into the continental US, let’s take a look at the closest minor-league team to home.
This is the first year of the Arizona Complex League, it having previously operated as the Arizona Rookie League. Like all the minor leagues, the ARL was canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19, and as part of the wholesale re-organization of the minor leagues, it became the ACL this year. There are a total of 18 teams taking part, in three divisions of six teams apiece. The participants basically reflect the franchises who form the Cactus League (so teams on the Western side of the country), but the Giants, Brewers and Royals each have two teams taking part.
Games take place at the various spring training parks, with around a 60-game season, typically starting in late June. There’s no fee for admission to these games – but you need to bring your own concessions, as these are not open. I’d recommend sunblock too.
The ACL D-backs finished with a record of 20-39, finishing fifth in the six team East division. This is about par – the Diamondbacks have never won the ACL/AZL, or even reached the championship game. The struggles this year were mostly a result of the pitching, with the team allowing a league worst 6.27 runs per game. This was a combination of both poor pitching (6.07 ERA, 17th in the league) and bad defense (95 errors, also second-worst). The offense wasn’t much better, their OPS of .681 ranking 16th. But there was some excuse there, with the D-backs having the youngest hitters in the league, the only team with an average age below 19 (18.9 years, compared to a league average of 19.8).
Another factor might be that, now we are in the North American leagues, it’s more likely good performers will find themselves getting promoted. That leaves the weaker members behind, diluting the talent pool. Though this should apply to all teams equally, it may be a factor if the D-backs are more aggressive. Only five members of the ACL D-backs appeared in even half the 59 games, and all of them had an OPS below .670. The team’s best hitter was likely Deyvison De Los Santos, whose five HR led the team, despite playing just 25 games. In those, he hit .329, with a 1.031 OPS, getting him a promotion to Visalia in early August. The third-baseman did cool down there (.760 OPS), but he is still only eighteen.
Speedy outfielder Jeferson Espinal went the other direction. He didn’t fare so well, after starting the season in A-ball, being held to a .576 OPS, along with a 37% K-rate. That got him sent down to the ACL, but he seemed to blossom there, with a triple-slash line of .352/.446/.507, for a .953 OPS. He also finished the year with a total of 16 SB in 19 attempts. Finally, there was another outfielder, Junior Franco, who hit .304 with good plate-discipline, getting his on-base percentage up to .404. That helped give him a .923 OPS over 27 games and 94 plate-appearances. He was also effective on the base-paths, stealing 10 bases while being caught only once.
As you can imagine, not a lot to write home about here. Though matters weren’t helped by lackluster efforts from a number of rehabbing Diamondbacks. Madison Bumgarner, Jon Duplantier, Riley Smith, Tyler Clippard, Taylor Widener and Taylor Clarke combined to throw 19.1 innings with an ugly ERA of 12.57. But control generally seemed to be an issue, as you might expect, given the relative age and inexperience of these pitchers. But even by the standards of the ACL, a walk rate of 5.8 per nine innings is not good. There were several candidates for the Ricky ‘Wild Thing’ Vaughn award. In the end, the panel awarded it to Sarlin Polanco who in just 7.2 innings, walked 12, hit 3 more and uncorked 11 wild pitches.
The best ERA of anyone with a dozen or more innings was Joe Elbis. He had a 3.40 ERA over 39.2 innings, and bucked the trend with a glowing K:BB of 46:4. Elbis went up to Visalia and pitched well there, with a 3.86 ERA and K:BB of 13:3 in 14 IP. The right-handed Venezuelan only turned 19 a few weeks ago. Almost the only other figures that stand out belonged to Bryan Castillo. He overpowered hitters, fanning 15 in 10.2 innings, but at age 22, you’d expect that of him. The more age-appropriate level of Visalia proved rather less comfortable for him, and Castillo’s control evaporated, with 13 walks and 3 hit batters in just 4.2 innings of work in A-ball.