Watkins, Players Excited For AFL Opportunity
Image courtesy of Seth Stohs, Twins DailySure, he played for the Twins in the big leagues for a little while, but as a player, Tommy Watkins never had the opportunity to play in the Arizona Fall League. However, the 38-year-old former infielder turned minor league hitting coach turned minor league manager learned in late July that he will lead the Salt River Rafters through their Fall League schedule. It’s an opportunity that Watkins is looking forward to.
“The opportunity to manage in the Fall League means a lot to me. The responsibility to coach our prospects, as well as prospects from other teams, is an honor. I am humbled that the Twins trust me with this role, and I plan to work tirelessly to exceed the expectations of the Twins, my fellow coaches and my players.
Like the players in the Fall League, the managers and coaches are also trying to work on their crafts and learn from others.
“For coaches and players, the Fall League is the perfect setting to grow and learn while turning heads and having some fun in the process. Personally, I am looking forward to being reunited with some of my former players, developing all the players on our team and learning from the other coaches on my staff.”
Watkins will be tasked with managing an entire team, but for the Twins Daily audience, you’ll primarily want to know which Twins prospects he will be managing. The Twins announced in late August that they are sending eight players to the Arizona Fall League. They are sending hitters Brent Rooker, Luke Raley, Travis Blankenhorn and Jaylin Davis. Four Twins minor league pitchers will also be pitching in the Fall League. They include RHP Griffin Jax, Adam Bray, Hector Lujan, and LHP Devin Smeltzer.
Soon after Watkins learned he would be the manager, he was able to inform some of his Chattanooga Lookouts players that they would be joining him.
Brent Rooker noted, “I got the to the park early one day in Chattanooga and Tommy had just found out that he would be managing and I got an invite. He called me into his office and gave me the news.”
For the players in Ft. Myers with the Miracle, they were told by Twins minor league director Jeremy Zoll.
Hector Lujan said, “I learned about the Fall League through our farm director Jeremy Zoll. Waking up to a text from him saying if there was a spot for me if I’d like to participate in the Fall League. It was a pretty exciting start to the day! ”
When the initial rosters were announced, hard-throwing lefty reliever Alex Robinson was on the list. He had been placed on the Disabled List by the Miracle in late August with some shoulder issues.
In his place, right-handed pitcher Adam Bray, the Minnesotan who came to the Twins in a March trade from the Dodgers. Bray didn’t hesitate, “I was invited by our farm director. He asked me if I would be interested, and I immediately said ‘Yes’!”
Bray understands that it is an honor to get the chance to play in the AFL. “I am very excited and honored to be chosen to play and represent the Minnesota Twins in the AFL! I have heard that you are playing against very good competition and that it’s a big honor to get selected for this.”
While the Fall League isn’t just about top prospects, it is a strong gathering of talent from around baseball. For instance, players from countries that have a Winter League are not able to participate without getting a waiver from their Winter League team. However, there are exceptions. Several years ago, the Twins got approval from Eddie Rosario’s team in Puerto Rico and he played in the AFL.
Players are excited about the opportunity to play in the Arizona environment.
Another former Dodgers prospect, who came to the Twins on July 31st with Luke Raley in exchange for Brian Dozier, is Devin Smeltzer. He noted, “I’ve heard it’s an awesome experience on and off the field. Best of the best competition. Really looking forward to it.”
Travis Blankenhorn said, “I’m thrilled the Twins are giving me the opportunity to represent the organization in the Fall League. I’ve heard some things about the AFL, and they were all good, so I am looking forward to heading out there.”
Due to some first-hand stories, Jaylin Davis is excited to be in the Fall League too. “I’m really excited about getting the opportunity to get to play in the AFL. I played with some guys this season that went last year. So I got a chance to pick their brain a little and ask them about their experiences.”
Lujan is looking forward to participating in the AFL for several reasons. “My thoughts for the Fall League are that I think it’s a great opportunity to get new experiences and to be able to compete with other players from different organizations. I think it’s a challenge in a good, but I believe it should be a great learning experience for myself and my fellow teammates that are participating as well. I’ve heard nothing but good things about the Fall League.”
And knowing his AFL manager and having played for him before doesn’t hurt either. “I heard that it’s a very fun atmosphere and knowing that Tommy Watkins is going to be our manager makes it very exciting too since he was my manager last year in Cedar Rapids. It should overall be a great time.”
Rooker’s thoughts pretty well sum up what the entire group thinks. “It’s a very exciting opportunity. Obviously there’s a ton of talent in the league so it will be a lot of fun getting to compete against some really good competition. Everyone I’ve talked to says it’s one of the most fun baseball experiences they’ve ever had. I’m really looking forward to it.”
But it is more than just a fun experience. It is an opportunity to showcase their skills, not only for the Twins but for the other 29 MLB clubs who will have coaches, scouts and front-office types at the games. 40-man roster decisions can be made on some players based on seeing something. Some players are sent to the AFL to work on specific things.
Travis Blankenhorn is choosing to keep things simple for himself. “I am looking forward to playing and just going out there and giving it my all.”
Adam Bray’s looking forward to testing himself. “There are always things to work on. I think facing good competition and being challenged in this league is going to be what I am looking forward to!”
Same thing for Jaylin Davis, “I think the biggest thing for me is going out there and getting to compete against some really good guys.”
Hector Lujan, the Twins 2017 Harmon Killebrew Award winner for the Cedar Rapids Kernels, is looking to work on a new pitch, but also continue to by a positive influence in the community.
“The Twins have discussed things to work on, and I also have things in mind that I want to work on. I would like to work on my splitter to get more comfortable throwing it, and continue to keep developing consistency on my pitches, and just to continue to keep doing what I can to develop myself as a pitcher. Hopefully I can reach out to the community and kids around the neighborhoods we will be playing. Just over all really excited for this!”
Devin Smeltzer was drafted as a starter and was a full-time starter in his first full season of pro baseball last year. He began the 2018 season as a starter as well, but when the calendar turned to July, the Dodgers moved him to the bullpen. All ten of his appearances with the Lookouts this year came out of the bullpen as well. So, it may not be surprising to hear what he wants to work on and work through.
“For me it’s just to get more experience out of the bullpen, see some high competition, and enjoy the experience.”
Brent Rooker started 46 games at first base in Chattanooga in 2018. He also made 44 starts out in left field. He’ll obviously continue to work on his offense, but he will also get more opportunities to work on his defense too.
“I think the plan is for me to play outfield while I’m there. So it’ll be a great opportunity for me to just continue to get more reps and experience in left field. Doing that, along with getting the at-bats against some of the best arms in the minor leagues, should put me in a good place developmentally going into next season.”
The Arizona Fall League’s final regular season game will be Thursday, November 15th. The championship game will be on Saturday, November 17th.
Rooker may have an opportunity to represent the Twins in the Bowman Hitting Challenge on Saturday, October 13th. He also is a likely participant in the November 3rd Fall Stars Game. However, if the Rafters make it to the championship game, Rooker will not be able to participate. But he’s got a good reason. He’s getting married. He said he will just have to “leave Arizona about five days early.”
The AFL season starts next Tuesday. Steve Lien will again be providing weekly updates throughout the AFL season, so be sure to check back often to see how this group is performing.
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