By Garett Mansfield
The first weekend of games in the Arizona Fall League are in the books with Monday, September 23 serving as the league’s first day off.
The AFL is a six-week showcase of baseball’s future stars divided among six squads. Seven members of the Pittsburgh Pirates minor league system are competing for the Peoria Javelinas alongside prospects from the Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros, San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners developmental chains. (San Diego and Seattle share the Peoria Sports Complex as their MLB Spring Training and player development home).
All seven Pirates prospects appeared in games with the Curve in 2019: shortstop Oneil Cruz (MLB.com No. 3 Pirates prospect), outfielder Jared Oliva (No. 11), catcher Jason Delay and right-handed pitchers Blake Cederlind (No. 28), Cody Ponce, Nick Mears and Beau Sulser.
Jared Oliva, 2019 Altoona Curve MVP, has translated his Eastern League success to the AFL rather quickly. He had five hits over his first four games of the year before taking his first 0-for of the young campaign on Sunday. He has managed to reach base in all five games by working one walk in each contest. He is also leading the AFL with three stolen bases. He was a leadoff hitter for most of his career until a lineup change around mid-season shuffled into the third spot of Altoona’s batting order, a trend that has continued with Peoria with him batting third and fourth. Oliva has also appeared in left field a few times in addition to his natural position in center.
Oneil Cruz has been under the microscope ever since the Pirates acquired the 6-foot-6 shortstop at the Trade Deadline in 2017. The AFL will allow him to make up for some lost time after a broken foot earlier this spring delayed his promotion to Double-A until late July. He put up an impressive display of batting practice prior to his debut and knocked an RBI single in his second at-bat off former Bucs first-round pick Shane Baz. However, Cruz has gone 0-for-his-last-13 at the dish.
Jason Delay is splitting catching duties with Luis Campusano (Padres No. 6 prospect and MLB.com No. 7 Catcher prospect) and Colton Shaver (Astros). He has gone 1-for-8 in his two starts and has thrown out 2 of 8 would-be-basestealers.
Blake Cederlind is the first to make two outings and he has struggled with command. With triple-digit life on his fastball, the Pirates’ fifth-round pick in 2016 has walked five and thrown three wild pitches over two innings. Cederlind allowed a one-out, solo homer to Salt River’s Jerar Encarnacion (Marlins No. 17) and went on to walk the bases loaded but escaped the one-out spot with a strikeout and fly out to center. He worked with Delay behind the plate on Sunday and walked two but still posted a scoreless outing.
Beau Sulser was the last Pirates player to appear when he started on Sunday night, also with Delay doing the catching for Peoria. Altoona’s 2019 Co-Pitcher of the Year went three innings and, like Cederlind, uncharacteristically walked three hitters. Pittsburgh’s 10th-rounder had only walked three or more in a game two times in his pro career. Despite the walks, he held Surprise to two hits, both singles, on Sunday night which resulted in their lone run on the right-hander during the second inning.
Cody Ponce, acquired by Pittsburgh from Milwaukee in late-July for Jordan Lyle, started on Friday and pitched four innings. He yielded one unearned run and fanned four hitters
Nick Mears also debuted on Friday night with a scoreless ninth frame to close out a 5-1 victory for Peoria over Mesa. He walked one and picked up one out on the ground with two more in the air.
The Pirates have one more connection to the club with Dave Turgeon, Pittsburgh’s Minor League Coordinator of Instruction and a nine-year member of the organization, managing Peoria this fall. The club won their first three games before narrow defeats on Saturday and Sunday. Additionally, the Strength and Conditioning Coach on the team is Logan Byman, who has served as the strength coach for the Bradenton Marauders since 2017.
With members of four other organizations fielding the Peoria club, there are a number of intriguing names serving as teammates with Oliva, Cruz and the others. Cruz is among five of MLB.com’s Top 100 prospects with outfielder Jarred Kelenic (No. 14, Mariners), right-handed pitcher Forrest Whitley (No. 17, Astros), outfielder Julio Rodriguez (No. 26, Mariners), Cruz (No. 58) and Campusano (No. 87, Padres). Among the representatives for the Red Sox, outfielders Jarren Duran and Marcus Wilson, infielder C.J. Chatham along with pitchers Bryan Mata and Tanner Houck all appeared in Eastern League games with Portland this year.
The AFL returns to action on Tuesday while Peoria plays six tilts over the next week before taking next Monday off. Further coverage of the Arizona Fall League and be found here.