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Appraising Arizona: AFL's all-time best

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  October 11, 2011 11:54 AM

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Let's see, it says here I started pecking away on this goofy post about the Arizona Fall League on September 2. That also happens to be the day the Red Sox fell out of first place in American League East for good with a 10-0 loss to the Rangers. The reason for pushing it aside had something to with a hunch that no one gives a damn about autumn baseball in Arizona when the big league team in Boston is spectacularly blowing its chance of playing into October. I'm perceptive like that.

harperbrycefinn1010.jpgActually more than a few half-formed posts and columns or whatever you call them get lost in the shuffle along the way here -- I'm beginning to think my look at each of the Orioles' 21 straight losses to begin the 1988 season, which I began at some point during the Red Sox' miserable start in April, will never see the light of day. Unless, I suppose, the Sox start 0-6 again next year. After the shocking and miserable bookends to this season, I don't dismiss anything as a possibility anymore.

I'm resuscitating this one, however, for a couple of reasons, most relevantly the original one: I thought it was pretty cool when it was announced back in early September that Bryce Harper and Mike Trout -- the consensus Nos. 1 and 2 prospects in the sport -- would be teammates this year for the Scottsdale entry in the AFL, where they'd be joined by the excellent Red Sox third base prospect, Will Middlebrooks. And that got me wondering which team in the 20-year history of the AFL might have had the most talent.

(Update: For the moment, we'll have to limit it to the 1992 through 2007 seasons. The chunk of text for 2008-10 has unwittingly been sacrificed to cyberspace, so I'll need to do the research again. Hopefully I'll have it posted sometime tomorrow. Rats.)

middlebrookswill1010.jpgSo, I looked. The search wasn't as simple as I thought it would be. If there's a thorough historical accounting of stats and rosters in the AFL, I couldn't find it. The all-time AFL player list on MLB.com sufficed, though, and through 20 years of prospects, suspects, and dudes named Lou Pote, these are the three most talented teams I came up with:

2003 Peoria Sagueros: Featuring Adrian Gonzalez, David Wright, Rickie Weeks, and Josh Willingham.

2004 Scottsdale Scorpions: Featuring Dustin Pedroia, Rickie Weeks, Russell Martin, Carlos Quentin, Rickie Weeks, James Loney, and Conor Jackson.

2005 Phoenix Desert Dogs: Featuring Jonathan Broxton, Stephen Drew, Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, James Loney, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, James Shields, Kurt Suzuki.

Mesa wasn't shabby either in '05, with Curtis Granderson, Joey Votto, and Brian Wilson.

Honorable mention goes to a 1994 Scottsdale Scorpions squad that had a supreme shortstop (Nomar Garciaparra), arguably the best basketball player of all-time (Michael Jordan, playing not just out of position but out of sport as an outfielder), and was managed by Terry Francona.

Anyway, those are the highlights. And if you're into this sort of thing, I show my work below by looking at the most familiar names -- and for the fun of it, a few obscurities -- on each team through every AFL season beginning in ...

1992
Chandler: Mike Lierberthal, Greg Pirkl, Kevin Stocker
Grand Canyon: Billy Ashley, Mike Kelly, Ryan Klesko, Mike Lansing, Grady Little (Mgr.), Tony Tarasco, Rondell White
Phoenix: Carl Everett
Scottsdale: Bob Hamelin, Scott Hatteberg, Brad Pennington, Troy Percival, Kevin Rogers, Ken Ryan, Dusty Baker (Mgr.)
Sun Cities: Tim Bogar, Rico Brogna, Mike Piazza
Tucson: Paul Shuey, Aaron Small, Ryan Thompson

I don't even want to know how Baker handled -- or mishandled -- all of those power arms in the Scottsdale staff.

1993
Chandler: Mike Matheny, Justin Thompson
Mesa: Greg Blosser, Ray Durham, Scott Hatteberg, Todd Hollandsworth, Jeff McNeely, Larry Thomas
Scottsdale: Garret Anderson, Shawn Green, Charles Johnson, Paul Shuey
Sun Cities: Derek Lowe, Tanyon Sturtze
Tempe: Cliff Floyd
Tucson: Rich Aurelia, Rusty Greer, Darren Oliver, Eric Wedge

That Scottsdale lineup had two of the sweeter lefty swings of their era in Anderson and Green.

sellersjeff1010finn.jpg1994
Chandler: Derek Jeter, Charles Johnson, Jason Kendall, Mike Myers
Mesa: Doug Glanville, Curtis Pride
Peoria: Jason Giambi, Ruben Rivera
Scottsdale: Terry Francona (Mgr.), NOmar Garciaparra, Michael Jordan, Lou Pote, Joe Randa, Michael Tucker
Sun Cities: Brian Giles, Jeff Sellers, Chris Stynes, Chris Weinke
Tempe: Garret Anderson, Rich Aurelia, Tony Clark, Ken Macha (Mgr.)

Tito, Nomar, and MJ? I think I'd enjoy reading a book about that Scottsdale team. (And no, I have no idea what Jeff Sellers was doing in this league.)

1995
Mesa: Aaron Boone, Cory Lidle, Pokey Reese, Aaron Small, Tanyon Sturtze, Antone Williamson
Peoria: LaTroy Hawkins, Matt Lawton, Derek Lowe, Chan Ho Park, Mark Sweeney, Jason Varitek, Todd Walker
Phoenix: Jason Kendall, Lou Merloni, Trot Nixon, Lou Pote
Scottsdale: Rich Aurelia,
Sun Cities: Alan Benes, Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye, Derek Lee, Mike Myers
Tempe: Darin Erstad

Lots of core members of the Red Sox' 2003-04 team spread out around the league here.

1996
Mesa: Adrian Brown, Donnie Sadler, Shane Spencer
Peoria: Todd Helton, Raul Ibanez, Jason Varitek
Phoenix: Chris Carpenter, Ben Grieve, Sidney Ponson
Scottsdale: Aaron Boone, Doug Mirabelli, Richie Sexson, Jaret Wright
Sun Cities: Lance Dickson, Geoff Jenkins, Paul Konerko, Derek Lee, Paul LoDuca, Mike Sweeney, Antone Williamson

Fifteen years later, the three Peoria players listed are still in the big leagues.

1997
Grand Canyon: Jeremy Giambi, Travis Lee, John Rocker, Scott Sauerbeck, Enrique Wilson, Preston Wilson
Mesa: Sean Casey, Justin Speier, Dmitri Young
Peoria: Rolando Arroyo, Orlando Cabrera, Mark Kotsay, Paul LoDuca, Ryan Minor, Mike Scioscia (Mgr.)
Phoenix: Mark Bellhorn, Michael Coleman, Cole Liniak
Scottsdale: Aaron Boone, Scott Schoeneweis
Sun Cities: Geoff Jenkins, Corey Koskie

I'm just going go ahead and say that the Grand Canyon team is the most annoying, particularly from a Boston perspective, in the history of the league.

1stensondernell1010.jpg1998
Grand Canyon: Brett Abernathy, Morgan Ensberg, Roy Halladay, Shea Hillenbrand, Ryan Minor, Chris Singleton, Alfonso Soriano, Dernell Stenson, Wilton Veras
Maryvale: Bronson Arroyo, Julio Lugo, Warren Morris, Scott Williamson.
Peoria: Ryan Anderson, Mark Bellhorn, Eric Chavez, J.D. Drew
Phoenix: Matt Anderson, Torii Hunter, Gabe Kapler, Carlos Lee, Doug Mientkiewicz, A.J. Pierzynski, Jeff Weaver
Scottsdale: Mark Mulder
Sun Cities: Michael Barrett, Brett Billingsley, Randy Wolf

I don't know if the AFL has a disabled list, but that Drew/Chavez/Anderson Peoria team probably would have found a way to invent one.

andersonryan1010.jpg1999
Grand Canyon: Michael Cuddyer, Jody Gerut, Scot Shields
Maryvale: Aubrey Huff, Jim Morris
Mesa: Paxton Crawford, David Eckstein, Adam Everett, Steve Lomasney, Corey Patterson, Aaron Rowand
Peoria: Ryan Anderson, Pat Burrell, Paul LoDuca, Vernon Wells
Phoenix: Milton Bradley, Kevin Gregg, Jake Westbrook
Scottsdale: Brad Penny, Calvin Pickering, Jason Tyner

The Jim Morris on the Marydale roster was the inspiration for the movie "The Rookie.''

2000
Grand Canyon: Joaquin Benoit, Kevin Mench, Ryan Vogelsong, Michael Young
Maryvale: Brad Lidge, Darnell McDonald, Tony Pena (Mgr.), Jimmy Rollins
Mesa: Marcus Giles, Brian Roberts, Jayson Werth, Dan Wheeler
Peoria: Juan Uribe, Jack Wilson
Phoenix: Danys Baez, Jin Ho Cho, Casey Fossum, Shea Hillenbrand, Steve Lomasney, Ryan Ludwick
Scottsdale: Heath Bell, Stubby Clapp, Brian Cole, Lyle Overbay, Albert Pujols, Ty Wigginton

Pujols led a talented Scottsdale team that included Cole, a promising Mets outfielder killed in a truck accident that spring.

2001
Grand Canyon: Freddy Sanchez
Maryvale: Erik Bedard, Bill Hall, Brian Roberts
Mesa: Miguel Olivo
Peoria: Scott Atchison, Hank Blalock, Carl Crawford, Chone Figgins, Travis Hafner, Josh Hamilton, Drew Henson, Kevin Mench, Francisco Rodriguez
Phoenix: Ryan Ludwick, Scott Proctor
Scottsdale: Orlando Hudson, Brandon Phillips, Francisco Rodriguez, Kyle Snyder

Not many more teams in league history more interesting than the Peoria squad of Crawford-Hamilton/K-Rod/Henson.

2002
Grand Canyon:Rocco Baldelli, Jung Bong, Jorge Cantu, Kevin Cash, Michael Cuddyer, Nick Green, Adam LaRoche, Chase Utley, Jerome Williams
Maryvale: Mike Adams, Bill Hall, J.J. Hardy, Corey Hart, Drew Henson
Mesa: Garrett Atkins, Clint Barmes, Matt Holliday, Cody Ross
Peoria: Mark Teixeira, Shane Victorino
Phoenix: Jhonny Peralta, Brandon Phillips
Scottsdale: Chone Figgins, Wily Mo Pena, Kevin Youkilis, Kyle Snyder, Brandon Webb

Pretty accomplished crop of hitters in the 2002 AFL class, including Utley, Teixeira, Holliday, and Youk.

2003
Grand Canyon: Merkin Valdez
Mesa: Dewon Brazelton, Jonny Gomes, Brad Hawpe, Matt Holliday, Kelly Johnson, Luke Scott, Kelly Shoppach, Adam Stern, Nick Swisher, Ryan Theriot, B.J. Upton, Delmon Young, Charlie Zink
Peoria Sagueros: Adrian Gonzalez, David Wright, Rickie Weeks, Josh Willingham
Peoria Javelinas: Matt Thornton
Scottsdale: Casey Kotchman, James Loney, Jeff Mathis, Sergio Santos, Dernell Stenson

I don't know who pitched for that Peoria team, but with that hitting talent, I don't think it matters.

pedroiafinn1010.jpg2004
Grand Canyon: David Aardsma, Scott Baker, Jason Bartlett, Jeff Francoeur, Curtis Granderson, Brian McCann, Ryan Raburn
Mesa: Geovany Soto, Adam Wainwright, Delmon Young
Peoria Jav: Shin-Soo Choo, Mike Morse, Seung Song
Peoria Sag: Aaron Hill, Ian Kinsler, Nate McLouth, Freddy Sanchez
Phoenix: Jeremy Brown, Jeremy Hermida, Ryan Howard, Mike Napoli, Carlos Ruiz, Huston Street
Scottsdale: Conor Jackson, James Loney, Dustin Pedroia, Russell Martin, Carlos Quentin, Rickie Weeks

Scottsdale gets the nod over Grand Canyon for the most talented. What, you thought we'd side against Pedroia?

2005
Grand Canyon: Robert Andino, Lastings Milledge, Denard Span
Mesa: David Aardsma, Curtis Granderson, Joey Votto, Brian Wilson
Peoria Jav: Prince Fielder, J.J. Hardy, Corey Hart, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Ian Stewart, Dan Uggla
Peoria Sag: Adam Lind, Brandon Moss, David Murphy, Ryan Roberts, Neil Walker, Chris Young, Ryan Zimmerman
Phoenix: Jonathan Broxton, Stephen Drew, Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, James Loney, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, James Shields, Kurt Suzuki
Surprise: Michael Bourn, Billy Butler, Howie Kendrick, Kendry Morales, Matt Tupman, Jered Weaver, Brandon Wood

Mesa and Peoria were deep . . . but Phoenix probably had more talent than any team in league history.

1ellsburyjacoby1010.jpg2006
Grand Canyon: Troy Tulowitzki, Neil Walker
Mesa: Matt Albers, Fernando Martinez, Mike Pelfrey, Hunter Pence, Kevin Slowey
Peoria Jav: Jacoby Ellsbury, Yunel Escobar, David Pauley, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Gaby Sanchez
Peoria Sag: Brett Gardner, Gio Gonzalez, Chase Headley, Brendan Ryan
Phoenix: Dustin McGowan, Jeff Niemann, Ben Zobrist
Scottsdale: Ryan Braun, Mark Reynolds

That Braun/Reynolds combo must have made for some batting practice fun in Scottsdale.

2007
Mesa: Sam Fuld, Craig Hansen, Matt LaPorta, Jed Lowrie
Peoria Jav: Brett Gardner
Peoria Sag: Cameron Maybin, Ricky Nolasco, Will Venable
Phoenix: Andrew McCutchen, Nyjer Morgan
Scottsdale: Evan Longoria, Ricky Romero, Sergio Santos, Max Scherzer, Travis Snider
Surprise Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison

Comparatively thin year talent-wise, though Scottsdale again had an elite hitter in Longoria.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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