By Zach Larson
MESA – After a one-year absence courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Arizona Fall League made its return to six spring training stadiums around metro Phoenix this year, and it brought a lot of familiar faces home to Arizona.
The six-week league features top prospects from around baseball, including several this year with ties to the Grand Canyon State. Few of them were more impressive than Toronto Blue Jays prospect Graham Spraker, who was born in Tucson and played at Mountain View High in nearby Marana.
A right-handed relief pitcher who made 11 appearances for the Mesa Solar Sox, Spraker was nearly perfect in the Fall League. He didn’t allow a run, struck out 17, walked two batters and was named AFL Reliever of the Year.
Spraker put an exclamation point on his AFL season by pitching the final inning of Mesa’s 6-0 victory over the Surprise Saguaros in the championship game at Salt River Fields, retiring the side in order in the bottom of the ninth to seal a one-hit Solar Sox win.
Spraker was just one of a variety of Arizona high school alums performing around the 2021 AFL. They included Spraker’s Solar Sox teammate Brock Whittlessy, born in Mesa, who played from 2013-15 under longtime Highland Hawks coach Scott Cook in Gilbert.
On the other side of the title game, Rangers prospect Sam Huff, who appeared in 10 games in 2020 for Texas, was on the Surprise roster but did not get in the championship game.
Cienega High School, situated just east of Tucson, was represented by Nick Gonzales of the Peoria Javelins, Matthew Dyer of Glendale’s Mountain Ridge High played for the Scottsdale Scorpions and Queen Creek High pitcher Kody Funderbunk also played for Scottsdale.
And slugger Nolan Gorman, a product of Sandra Day O’Connor High in Phoenix and one of the premier prospects in the league, was limited to a six-game cameo for the Glendale Desert Dogs because of a hamstring injury. Still, Gorman, the top-rated prospect in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, collected six hits, drew seven walks, scored eight runs, belted a home run and drove in four in just 23 plate appearances.
For all of the Arizona products, it was a chance to play in front of familiar faces.
Born in Tucson, Spraker played at Mountain View High School in nearby Marana, and this was his second trip through the 30-game AFL season. He pitched for the Scottsdale Scorpions and posted a 5.68 ERA in the pre-pandemic 2019 Fall League.
“I haven’t thought about high school for a while, but it’s been great to be back in Arizona,” Spraker said. “Before 2019, I had not been back since those (high school) days.”
He had plenty of support.
“My girlfriend gathered all my friends and family together and took a picture for me of them watching me play,” said Spraker. “It reminds you what baseball is all about.”
The 26-year-old was a 31st-round pick by the Blue Jays in the 2017 draft after playing at Quincy University in Quincy, Illinois. He has worked his way up the Toronto’s Triple-A affiliate in Buffalo.
However, the Blue Jays have a bunch of pitchers in the way of the right hander. Kevin Gausman and Jose Berrios recently inked long term deals with Toronto. Spraker also finds himself among a lengthy prospect list, all vying for a spot at the Major league level.
“It’s rewarding that I am progressing through a system that’s competitive and full of talent,” Spraker said. “It keeps you honest. You really have to fight to keep your job. I hope to be a part of the team next year and hope I can contribute.”
Gorman is proven as a hitter, but he was in the Fall League to polish his skills at second base after the Cardinals moved him from third. He capped his high school career by winning the 2018 6A championship with the O’Connor Eagles. The Cardinals selected him with the 19th overall pick in that summer’s MLB Draft and he finished 2020 with the Cardinals’ Triple-A Memphis affiliate.
The Salt River Rafters also had an Arizona-born player on the roster in Colorado Rockies prospect Michael Togila, but the 23-year-old doesn’t consider it home. While he was born in Phoenix, the Pacific Northwest is where he put down roots.
“I know it’s all over the scoreboards everywhere I go, but I’m not really from here,” Toglia said. “I lived here for about two years before moving to the Seattle area.”
Still, like the other players with Arizona ties, the Fall League season was an opportunity to perform with loved ones looking on.
“I’ve got a lot of family down here, and they have supported me at all the games I’ve played in,” Toglia said. “It’s been a good time.”