SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Fall League wrapped up on Saturday with the Salt River Rafters falling late to the Peoria Javelinas 3-2 at Scottsdale Stadium. About a week ago, I caught up with a few of the Rockies prospects about their experience representing the team in the AFL.
Infielder Tyler Nevin (no. 12 PuRP) was a late addition to the roster, but has absolutely dominated all of his competition — hitting .426/.535/.593 with three doubles and three triples in 17 games with the Salt River Rafters. After spending two separate stints on the 7-day disabled list in 2018, Nevin was eager to get the extra at bats.
“To be honest, [my goal] was just going out there, just looking forward to extra at bats,” he said. “I missed a little time this year, in previous years I’ve missed more time than I would’ve liked so I was excited for the opportunity to come out here and get some more at bats against high quality competition.” All of that hard work paid off, as Nevin took home the AFL Batting Title on Saturday afternoon. Going into 2019, he said he was most looking forward to “a good, long, healthy year.”
Since he was drafted in 2015, Nevin has been plagued by injuries. With the exception of his short season in Grand Junction, he has spent time on the DL during each of his full professional seasons. In 2016, he was taken out by hamstring issues; in 2017, he battled a wrist injury for two months; and in 2018 he hopped on and off the DL with quadriceps strains.
“I’m just planning to stay on the field and let my ability take care of itself,” he continued. “No more ‘hey he got hurt again.’ I just want to play a full season, have fun with my teammates and, you know, play some baseball.”
Outfielder Sam Hilliard (no. 13 PuRP) was also looking to take advantage of the opportunity for extra at bats.
“My main goal was to get better at having consistent offensive at bats, being more under control, keep my head as still as possible, and just take good swings at good pitches and have good at bats,” he said. In 2018 with the Hartford Yard Goats, Hilliard hit .262/.327/.389 with only 34 extra base hits (22 doubles, 3 triples, 9 home runs). He also led the team with 23 stolen bases.
He said that he changed up his pregame routine a little bit, spending more time “in the cages doing a little bit more velocity work, BP instead of just flips and tee work.”
“I feel like that helps me get ready for the game, get ready for actual pitching,” he continued, “I don’t manipulate my swing as much as I do when I’m hitting off a tee so I feel like that’s more helpful.” It certainly seems to have paid off, since Hilliard trails only Tyler Nevin in batting stats — hitting .328/.389/.516 with two doubles, two triples, and two home runs with the Rafters.
PCL MVP Josh Fuentes had different goals coming into Fall League.
“What I really wanted to do was to prove to the GMs or the scouts here that I’m not just a no-name guy, you know, someone who got lucky. I’m here to play in the big leagues,” he said. Fuentes is the cousin of Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, and he is working on making a name for himself beyond just “Nolan’s cousin.” After winning PCL MVP in 2018, he also takes the bronze atop the podium of Rafters’ hitters — hitting .301/.356/.482 with four doubles, a triple, and three home runs in 21 games.
Fuentes said that his big goal was to “drive the ball more and strike out a little less,” but the big thing was hitting home runs.
“I only had 14 [home runs] last year so to prove to these guys that I can hit homers, I think that’s huge,” he continued, “especially nowadays, everyone’s looking at homers and they want power numbers so if I can do that and hit a couple more homers, I think that’d be great.” Fuentes finished the AFL season with three home runs, which led among his Rockies teammates and tied him for fourth in the league alongside five other prospects. Diamondbacks prospect Jazz Chisholm also finished with three home runs, tying Fuentes for the Rafters lead.
Fall Star closer Justin Lawrence “wanted to attack hitters this year,” he said. “I wanted them to know I was coming out here playing against some of the best talent in baseball so there was no reason to nitpick — I wanted to go right after these guys. My big goal was to attack and second goal was to work on a changeup.” He certainly has been attacking hitters, striking out 13 in 10 ⅔ innings and posting a 3.38 ERA. He only walked six batters. In comparison, Mitch Horacek struck out 12 in 11 ⅓ and Jesus Tinoco fanned 14 in 15 ⅔. He also said he’s been noticing a lot of success.
“When I’m in the zone, I’m getting the results I want so there’s no reason to nitpick or try and be too fine — just put it in the zone,” he said.
He also found common ground with Sam Hilliard with his big takeaway from AFL — just have fun. “You just gotta have fun,” Lawrence said, “it’s the exact same game. It doesn’t matter what level you’re at or what it is — it’s baseball and if you do what you’re supposed to do, you’ll be successful at any level.”
Hilliard echoed that sentiment by saying his big takeaway was to “just have fun. It’s my first offseason playing and I can just never get enough of baseball, so just take every day one day at a time and enjoy.”
And what a fun season it was, even with such a bitter ending. Look for these four guys — as well as Ryan Castellani (no. 7 PuRP), Jesus Tinoco (no. 21 PuRP), and Mitch Horacek — to continue up through the Rockies minor league system and maybe even break the major league roster here soon.