The Arizona Fall League may no longer be the true “finishing school” it never was.
MLB announced some changes this week which boil down to:
• It starts sooner (i.e. mid-September)
• Everyone is eligible (e.g. no AA, AAA requirement)
Previously, as non-MASN commenters already know, there had been restrictions on foreign players (one per team), service time (no more than 1 year except for Rule 5 picks), and level (only one at A+ or lower). For 2019, these have been lifted.
The party line is the changes were made “to avoid downtime at the end of their seasons and instead transition directly into the Arizona Fall League schedule.” However, it’s hard not to notice that the earlier date just happens to coincide with the end of the regular season (i.e. September).
This concerns me because one thing that has been proven over the last few years: If there’s a way to game the system it will be gamed. The coming rule change regarding the DL and options to the minors (increased from 10 to 15 for both) is an example of how front offices figured out how to shuffle pitchers back and forth versus the intent (presumably) of protecting players by shelving those with short-term injuries instead of keeping them active.
Next year, rosters will be limited to 28 in September. However this year, teams could theoretically send guys to Arizona instead of calling them up – keeping the service-time clock frozen and saving a few bucks immediately by virtue of not having to pay the MLB minimum. Or perhaps someone they’d like to have available in the MLB playoffs who needs some time to get ready or as a hedge against an injury.
The former, I’m pretty sure could happen. The latter, probably not this year… MLB has already stated it will review these changes, which, in theory, means they may put some restrictions back if the chicanery is too egregious. But it’s not hard to envision a playoff-bound team with a hard-throwing lefty that they’d only want to have face one or two batters sending him to the AFL to stay loose and face live competition (dead guys always seem to strike out looking… *rimshot!*).
One thing I do agree with is that this may help improve the league’s pitching a little bit, since starting pitchers won’t be coming off 6-8 weeks of downtime. Teams will still shelve top-tier pitchers and guys with innings caps, but you may see some second-tier, non-Rule-5 guys getting asked to throw a few more innings.
What this will do to instrux, which still take place in roughly the same timeframe, is not clear. That will probably vary according to the organization. But I tend to doubt the idea of very young guys going the AFL instead.