The most familiar face to Diamondbacks fans will be that of Casey Daigle. The right handed pitcher made 10 starts for the Diamondbacks during the disastrous 2004 campaign, and many thought he would compete in Spring Training for the #5 starter spot. Instead, to the surprise of many, including Daigle, he was sent to Double-A Tennessee. There was a purpose for the move, and no one in the front office looked at it as a demotion.
"I'm sure he wasn't happy when he found out that's where he was going," Miller says, "but we wanted to see him as a reliever."
Daigle had pitched almost exclusively as a starter coming up in the minors, and the Diamondbacks wanted to see how his arm would handle the rigors of throwing on consecutive days out of the pen.
"From what I understand, even though he wasn't very happy when it first happened, he's kind of happy about the way it worked out, and it never affected the way he threw."
As for what role Daigle might fill, that is still uncertain, but may be one of the things they find out in the AFL.
"A late inning guy definitely," Miller says, "whether it's as a set up or a closer, we're not sure yet, but he's got good stuff, so all the options are open."
Daigle won't be lonely in Peoria, as he'll be joined by three other current Smokies on the Desert Dogs roster. Infielder Dan Uggla spent the first half of the season in Tennessee as an everyday player without an everyday position. In the second half he finally established himself as the everyday second baseman, and his ability to hit for both power and average is intriguing at a position the Diamondbacks will need to fill in the next few years, as Craig Counsell gets older. Through Sunday Uggla was hitting .305 with 20 homers, and while the AFL is often a training ground for players changing positions (during last year's AFL campaign Jackson first started hearing rumors about moving to first base), for Uggla, who has played every infield position this season, it could be that Uggla's mission will be to improve his defense at second, something he has stated he'd like to do.
Uggla, who was named to the AFL squad a few days after the initial rosters had been announced, filled a spot some had speculated was being saved for the number one overall player taken in the 2005 draft, Justin Upton. Miller dismissed that quickly.
"Upton isn't ready for that league, we're talking about players who are right on the cusp of the Majors, he'd have his lunch eaten there. He'll start in the Instructional League."
It was a reminder just how much work high school players, even the best ones, need to put in. It is a lesson that another AFL selectee has learned first hand. Outfielder Jarred Ball has emerged this season in Tennessee as a speed maven with developing pop in his bat, and the Diamondbacks will be looking for Ball to cut down on his strikeouts, and continue to develop as a center fielder, a position Miller and the Diamondbacks knew he could play, even though he had not been a regular center fielder prior to this season.
"This is a switch hitter with great speed, and hopefully he'll develop into a lead off hitter," Miller says of Ball, "We want him to work on cutting down his strikeouts, but this is a kid who has advanced one level at a time, which is what you expect from a kid drafted right out of high school. We know he has raw power, he's got a really quick bat, but that power doesn't necessarily come right away, it comes with time."
As for Ball's ability to play center, it was never questioned, it simply hadn't been asked of him until this season.
"We knew he could play center, and that's always what we had looked at him as. It was just a situation where he can play all three positions, and if there was someone else we wanted to see play center field, he would move to one of the corners, because he's got such a strong arm, he can play right field as well."
The biggest name to suit up for the Desert Dogs, from any organization, will be Stephen Drew. Prior to this season the Florida State alum was known as much for not playing as he was for his many skills. Drew, the Diamondbacks first round pick in 2004, and a Scott Boras client, was involved in a long holdout, finally signing with the Diamondbacks just minutes before they would have lost the rights to him, and he would have reentered the draft. Once he suited up though, Drew almost immediately began showing why the D'Backs were willing to take a chance on a player they knew it would be hard to sign.
Drew began his pro career in the Hi-A California League, with the JetHawks, and in 38 games he hit .389 with 10 homers, 38 RBI, and 33 runs scored. While some had initially wondered if Drew would be ready to start that high, his number proved he was more than ready, and the Diamondbacks agreed, giving him a promotion to Double-A Tennessee after just a little over a month in the Cal League. While Drew's number in Tennessee have been down, it was a no brainer for Miller and the Diamondbacks to send him to the AFL.
"He's a natural, and we knew he's be there," Miller said of Drew.
As far as the statement that Drew has 'struggled' Miller disputes that as well.
"I'm not willing to say he's struggled. He isn't putting up the ridiculous numbers he did in the Cal League, but he's hit the ball hard often. It's a situation where he's been hitting the ball right at guys, but it's not like he's been lost there or anything. I was out in Tennessee last week, and what I saw was a real good ballplayer adjusting to a higher level."
The AFL is made up primarily of Double and Triple-A players, but the Diamondbacks looked a little lower in their system for a second outfielder to send, and they found it in Lancaster left fielder Alex Frazier.
Frazier came into the season one of the Diamondbacks brightest outfield prospects after hitting .313 with 20 homers and 80 RBI in the Lo-A Midwest league with the South Bend Silverhawks. He had made some adjustments to his swing in the offseason, and his power numbers were down through the first two months of the season with Lancaster, but he felt he was finally turning the corner toward the end of May, when he made a diving attempt in the outfield, and severely sprained his wrist and thumb. The injury kept him out more than a month, but since coming back he's been on a tear. In the first two months, before the injury, Frazier had hit just five home runs and driven in 28 RBI, in roughly the same number of games since his return he's been hot, cranking 12 homers and driving in 38. Athletic, with speed and power, the Diamondbacks have assigned Frazier to the 'Taxi Squad,' meaning he'll play only on Wednesdays and Saturdays, but he'll be available to workout with the team, and with the coaches, on a daily basis.
Getting players who missed time extra work isn't necessarily a priority, but it does factor in the decision as to who gets an invite to the AFL.
"It isn't necessarily the first thing we look at," Miller says, "but you don't want to wear anybody down either."
While Uggla has played virtually every game this year, both Drew, because of the holdout, and Frazier, because of the injury, missed time, and the AFL can be an opportunity to get these hitters more at bats, and more one on one instruction. For pitchers, the number of innings thrown can be a major factor.
"When we send a starter, we want to make sure they haven't been used too much, so a guy like Murphy was a perfect fit because he missed time with the hamstring injury."
Bill Murphy started the season among the top three left handed starters in the Diamondbacks organization. He came to the club last season, and there were high expectations for him, expectations that were put on hold when he felt a twinge in his hamstring just days into spring training. The injury caused him to miss more than a month of the season, and though he's made 22 starts, he's thrown just a shade over 100 innings this season, so his arm should still be relatively fresh, something the Diamondbacks are cautious about.
But the Diamondbacks are not done naming players. There is still the possibility that the Diamondbacks could add two more players, a pitcher, and a catcher.
"Right now we really want Miguel Montero there." Miller says.
Montero, a 22 year old catcher from Venezuela, has had a breakout season in 2005. He came into the season playing for the Hi-A Lancaster JetHawks, and absolutely dominated, leading all of minor league baseball in hits and runs scored for a significant portion of the first half. In 85 games for the JetHawks Montero hit .349 with 24 homers and 82 RBI, after being selected to play in the Futures Game Montero found that when he left Detroit, he wouldn't be headed back to Lancaster, but instead would be bound for Kodak Tennessee, home of the Diamondbacks Double-A Tennessee Smokies. In Tennessee Montero has had ups and downs, but been adjusting nicely, and is a perfect candidate to go to the AFL to work on defense and staying back on the offspeed pitches that are the biggest difference between Hi-A and Double-A pitching.
The problem is that Montero is signed to play on a Venezuelan Winter League team, and in order for the Diamondbacks to get Montero into the AFL, they must get permission from the Venezuelan team.
"It hasn't been worked out yet, and frankly it's not going well," Miller told FutureBacks, "The AFL is a developmental league, but for his Winter League team that's their season, those two and a half months are their whole year. We're still working on it, because we want Miguel to get the experience of the AFL, and if we can get it worked out, we're going to do it."
The final spot on the roster has yet to be determined, but it will be a pitcher, and several candidates come to mind. At the forefront would be two Tennessee Smokies starters, Enrique Gonzalez and Tony Pena. Both pitchers have shown sustained periods of brilliance, and both have shown serious holes they need to work on, but both could be hurt by the fact that they have thrown a lot of innings. Despite missing four starts at the beginning of the year with a sore elbow, Pena has already thrown more than 130 innings, and by the end of the year could approach 150, while Gonzalez has already eclipsed the 150 inning mark, and could push 175 by the end of the year.
The Triple-A Tucson Sidewinders have at least one obvious choice on their roster, reliever Jason Bulger. The hard throwing right hander has gotten his first taste of the Major Leagues this past week, and the AFL could be the springboard that vaults him onto the 2006 Major League roster permanently.
Though it is somewhat rare for pitchers below the Double-A level to get the call, there are two candidates currently pitching for the Lancaster JetHawks who might get the nod if the Diamondbacks are willing to take a chance on them. Garrett Mock has had an eye opening season for Lancaster. His plus fastball has been complimented with one of the best right handed curveballs of the California League, and despite the 160+ innings he's thrown this season already, coaches and scouts have been impressed with how strong he still looks. After a couple of weeks off in September, he could be ready for limited duty in the AFL.
Likewise, A. J. Shappi has been one of the quickest risers in the organization, moving from the Short Season-A Yakima Bears to the Hi-A JetHawks in just two seasons. His intelligence could be the deciding factor, as he may be able to learn more than perhaps any other pitcher in the organization in the short window afforded those playing in the AFL.
"We thought he'd do very well at Lo-A, and we thought he'd learn pretty quickly once he got to Hi-A," Miller says of Shappi. "He's going to have a chance to make the Double-A rotation next year in spring training, and I don't think anyone around here would be surprised if he did."
Does that mean Shappi, who's already thrown almost 180 innings this season, could be in line for an AFL spot? He'd be a dark horse, but one that could simply be a year ahead of schedule, as he would certainly be one to watch for a 2006 AFL spot.
There is no deadline for naming players to the AFL, so the Diamondbacks are in no hurry to name their final two players. Montero, if it can be worked out, is a given, but if not, there is no guarantee the Diamondbacks would even send another catcher. Phil Avlas has had a solid year since being moved back down to Hi-A after recovering from injury, and it's possible that Koyie Hill could get some extra work in since he played sparingly for long stretches of the season with the Diamondbacks, but neither is definite.
In fact nothing is set in stone, an injury, even something as simply as a strain, could get a player bumped out of the AFL rotation, which is what happened to Carlos Quentin last season. Which brings up an intriguing point. If Montero wasn't able to go, might the Diamondbacks attempt to send Quentin, who's bat certainly needs no work, but who might take advantage of the AFL season to continue his work in center field?
With no deadline, Miller has other matters to attend to. The AFL season opens on October 4th.