The Scottsdale Scorpions team contains seven players from the Twins, Giants, “Guardians,” Rays, and Red Sox.
As was announced just last week, the Twins are sending four pitchers and three position players. Right-hander Cody Laweryson and lefties Kody Funderburk, Zach Featherstone, and Evan Sisk will get some extra innings on the mound. Outfielder Matt Wallner, infielder Andrew Bechtold, and utility man Michael Helman will get more opportunities at the plate and in the field.
For the Twins representatives, it is their first time playing in the league. Most of them hadn’t even been to Arizona for the Fall League as a fan. The lone exception is Kody Funderburk, who grew up in Mesa, Arizona, and frequented the ballparks in the Fall.
The southpaw was a two-way player at Dallas Baptist, but he has been solely a pitcher since joining the Twins as their 15th round draft pick in 2018. He began this season at High-A Cedar Rapids, where he made ten starts and was 1-3 with a 3.18 ERA. In 45 1/3 innings, he had 59 strikeouts. He moved up to Double-A Wichita, and all seven of his appearances came out of the bullpen. He posted a 1.25 ERA and had 23 strikeouts in 21 2/3 innings.
Ryan Smith has earned praise for his terrific work as the hitting coach of the Wichita Wind Surge, the same role he will have for Scottsdale.
Smith noted, “Prior to last week, I had never been in Arizona!”
The Twins prospects finished the season in either Cedar Rapids or Wichita. Both teams made the playoffs. They got a couple of weeks off before heading to Arizona for a week of practice.
Each player has things they want to work on during their time in the Fall League. Likewise, Smith intends to continue to improve himself during his time there.
He said, “ I’d like to continue to sharpen my communication (and Spanish-speaking) skills with this new group of players.”
For Evan Sisk, the Fall League provides him with an opportunity to work on pitches and such. He came to the Twins at the trade deadline from the Cardinals in the J.A. Happ trade and spent the final two months working in the Wind Surge bullpen. He will also get to know these Twins teammates better.
Minnesota native Matt Wallner missed about two months of the 2021 season because of a broken hamate bone. This time will allow him to get some of those missed at-bats back. He noted, “Working on seeing and being more comfortable against the better arms in this league.”
Kernels starter Cody Laweryson missed time early in the season. His season began in June, and he made 14 starts. In 58 2/3 innings, he had 73 strikeouts. For him, it is mainly about working on his confidence. “My biggest thing to work on is keeping my confidence high no matter how my outings are going.”
Like Funderburk, Zach Featherstone was a two-way player in college. The Twins drafted him in the 12th round of the 2016 draft as a first baseman/outfielder. He spent that first year in the organization as a hitter. However, he quickly moved to the mound. Unfortunately, after just a handful of innings in 2017, he had Tommy John surgery. He missed the 2018 and 2019 seasons. He was ready for a rehab appearance when a hurricane shut down the GCL season. Like others, he did not pitch in 2020. So you can imagine what it meant for him to get back on the mound for the Cedar Rapids Kernels in 2021. And he was terrific. By season’s end, he was the Kernels closer, and his pitches were much sharper.
He noted, “I’m going to be working on getting ahead of hitters more often, attacking the strike zone with all three of my pitches.”
Featherstone throws a low-to-mid-90s fastball, a curveball, and a slider that can be devastating at times.
Michael Helman was drafted as a middle infielder in the 11th round of the 2018 draft out of Texas A&M. His power arrived in 2021. In 121 pro games between 2018 and 2019, he had 19 doubles and seven homers. In 111 games for the Kernels in 2021, he hit 21 doubles and 19 home runs.
Helman did so while spending time playing all over the diamond. Having played one pro game in the outfield over his first two pro seasons, he played 42 games in left field, 27 games in right field, and 26 games in center field. He played 20 games in the middle infield.
He pointed out, “I would like to become more of a complete player all around both on the offensive and defensive sides. I’m not sure if I’ll be playing more outfield or infield. I guess it just depends on where they want to work me in.”
In the season’s first half, he split his time between first base and third base. After the Twins promoted Jose Miranda to St. Paul, Bechtold played more third base. In 99 games, he hit 23 doubles and 18 home runs. The day after the Wind Surge clinched a playoff spot, Bechtold played his first game as a catcher. It is something he had been working on for about a month.
“I’m definitely going to be continuing to work on my catching. Catching for me was a project the last month or so of the season, and we put in a lot of work. I was able to catch in a game in Double-A this year because of how well the progression we were working on worked. I know catching is a valuable tool for me to have. I’m excited to continue to work on it and continue to get more experience. Along with catching, I want to continue to develop as much range as possible at third base and continue to fine-tune my approach at the plate.”
The Arizona Fall League is something that baseball fans should include on their bucket list. And for players, the opportunity to play in the league is tremendous. The players should be excited about this opportunity, and they all are.
Bechtold said, “I’m most looking forward to playing against guys you may not normally see, whether that’s because of the league they are in or level. I think the AFL is a great opportunity to see guys first-hand and see how you compare to some of the other organizations’ top talents. I think playing with high-caliber players for an extended period of time pushes you and forces you to play your best baseball, so I’m looking forward to that.”
It is about testing yourself against prospects from around baseball.
Featherstone said, “I’m looking forward to getting to compete against some of the best minor league competition from this year.”
Laweryson explained, “I would say I’m most looking forward to the competition I’m going to face and the great players I’m going to be playing with.”
Wallner echoed the sentiment, “ Looking forward to competing against upper-level competition that’s out here.”
And so did Helman, “I’m looking forward to the opportunity to play against some great competition.”
One of the great things about the Fall League and playing with coaches and players from other organizations is the chance to learn from others. Maybe try something that will click for them and help them achieve another level of success.
Smith is undoubtedly looking forward to that. “I’m really looking forward to the collaboration with coaches and players from other organizations, as well as enjoying the great fall weather out in AZ. ”
To summarize, Bechtold said, “I’ve heard a lot about it just being a baseball fan growing up, and I always knew it was something I would want to play in one day if given the opportunity. I think the Twins have a good group of guys here, so I’m excited to experience it with them and really take it all in and enjoy my time here.”
In the past, I have chatted with players after the AFL season is complete to hear their experiences. Most are just thrilled to have had the opportunity to have met such great players and people from other organizations. It’s fun to see if they were able to accomplish some of the things they wanted to.
Each week throughout the AFL season, Twins Daily will update how the Twins prospects have performed.