For the past 27 years, Major League Baseball teams have been sending six to eight of their top prospects to the Arizona Fall League (AFL) for six weeks of intensive baseball against serious competition. Better than 60 percent of these AFL participants go on to make it to the major leagues.
The AFL is also a laboratory for the game’s latest innovations. In past years, MLB has tested pitch clocks, instant replay and different baseballs. This season, the league introduced robot umpires in every game at Salt River Field.
Cullman native and Chicago Cubs prospect Keegan Thompson is fresh off an AFL stint with the Mesa Solar Sox. He was joined on the team by six other Cubs prospects, as well as players and coaches from the Athletics, Angels, Indians and Tigers organizations.
Every player’s development and path to the majors isn’t direct or vertical. Furthermore, one’s route to the AFL isn’t predetermined. Typically, pitchers and position players are sent to Arizona to make up lost innings or at-bats due to injury.
Some younger players are moving through their organizations at a record pace. Others are switching positions or simply making tweaks.
Thompson, a 24-year-old, 6’1”, right-handed pitcher, grew up an Atlanta Braves fan because everyone in the neighborhood liked them. He remembers going to his first game with a couple of buddies after his senior year in high school at the old Turner Field.
Thompson played and practiced with his older brother Chase’s team and was accustomed to playing up in age, which he said helped him quite a bit. He also gave basketball and football brief shots but felt his height at the time (5’7”) worked against him in the former and that he didn’t much care for getting hit in the latter.
Thompson thrived on the baseball field for Cullman High under coach Brent Patterson and earned countless accolades at the local, regional, state and national levels.
The two-time Alabama Gatorade Baseball Player of the Year wanted to continue his career in the Southeastern Conference, looked at Alabama and Auburn, and ultimately signed early with the Tigers. While Cullman is still home, Thompson spends much of each offseason on the Plains.
Save for the injury that resulted in Tommy John surgery and cost him his 2016 season at Auburn, Thompson has enjoyed his journey since graduating from Cullman High. He even found a silver lining from the extended time off.
“It was very difficult because I wanted to be out there with the guys playing, but it gave me time to focus on the weight room,” Thompson said. “I lost a little baby fat, cleaned up a bit and got stronger.”
In his freshman year, Thompson made 12 starts, appeared in 14 games and went 5-3 with a 2.01 ERA. He struck out 73, walked 23 and didn’t surrender a single home run in 89 1/3 innings. The righty also compiled two complete games, a shutout and a save, and batted .244 with 13 RBIs. He was named to several All-Freshman teams at the conference and national levels.
Thompson was electric as a sophomore, starting 11 of his 12 appearances and piling up two more complete games, a 7-3 record, a 3.10 ERA and a save in his lone relief effort. In 69 2/3 innings, he struck out 62, walked 16 and allowed five home runs. On offense, Thompson sported a homer, two RBIs and a .182 average in only 11 at-bats.
He also pitched with and missed time due to elbow soreness, which eventually resulted in Tommy John surgery and him sitting out the entire 2016 season.
The Detroit Tigers selected Thompson with the 985th overall pick in the 33rd round of the 2016 draft, but he opted to return for his third season with Auburn.
Thompson picked up right where he left off once back on the field, going 7-4 with a 2.41 ERA, 10 quality starts, 75 strikeouts and 17 walks in 15 starts spanning 93 innings as a redshirt junior.
The SEC was well represented in the most recent AFL season, and several prospects were already plenty familiar with Thompson.
Alex Lange, a former teammate in the Cubs system and rival at LSU, needs no help remembering one of Thompson’s college outings.
“It was a Friday night, and I missed the start due to arm soreness, but he went into the ninth strong,” Lange said. “He was definitely legit and pitched a complete game.”
Thompson signed with the Chicago Cubs after being selected with the 105th overall pick in the third round of the 2017 draft. The Cubs took pitchers with seven of their first eight picks, including Lange at 30th overall.
“We bonded,” Lange said of the class. “The Cubs drafted a bunch of arms that year, I think six or seven in the first seven rounds. We all transitioned together, and it created a lot of competition right out of the gate. We went to Eugene (Low-A), then Myrtle Beach (High-A) together, and it was a lot of fun. I had a blast getting to know Keegan and that staff.”
Thompson started his professional career with the Northwest League’s Eugene Emeralds, making one start and going 1-2 with a 2.37 ERA. He struck out 23 and walked only four in 19 innings spread out over seven appearances.
The move to Oregon from his home state of Alabama was dramatic, but one Thompson enjoyed.
“It was really nice, and the weather was awesome, like 70s to 80s all the time and with no humidity,” he said. “I was able to relax and take it all in on the few days off we had. When I got back to the South, it was in the 80s, but with the humidity, it felt like it was 100.”
Thompson bypassed the Midwest League’s South Bend Cubs and instead began the following season with the Carolina League’s Myrtle Beach Pelicans. In 12 starts and 67 2/3 innings for the High-A club, he went 3-3 with a 3.19 ERA, 61 strikeouts, only 13 walks and Pitcher of the Week honors on two separate occasions.
Thompson was then promoted to Double-A, joining the Southern League’s Tennessee Smokies. He pitched another 62 innings, bringing his total for the year to a career-high 129 2/3. He posted a 6-3 record and 4.06 ERA with the team, striking out 54 and walking 21.
Thompson didn’t think much about his return South but was surprised by his mixed results.
“It was weird, because last year, all of my bad starts at Double-A were in Alabama. You’d think that would be the opposite,” he said. “It was kind of funny how it worked out. You’d think growing up in Alabama your whole life, you’d have your best outings there.”
Thompson returned to Tennessee to open the 2019 season. A promising start was quickly derailed by more elbow soreness, with a long trip to the injured list following five innings of no-hit, eight-strikeout ball in his season debut.
He missed nearly all of the 2019 campaign until joining the Arizona Cubs for four rehab appearances in August.
A six-week stint in the AFL was just what Thompson needed to get back on track for the 2020 season.
His approach to the fall league was extremely straightforward.
“I’m just trying to make up for lost innings,” he said. “I’m trying to focus on what I always do, which is to try and get guys out and help the team win.”
Thompson touts a fastball in the low- to mid-90s, and his best pitch is a slider that breaks away from right-handed hitters and in on lefties. He has a traditional 12-6 curve and used his time in the AFL to work on his changeup grip based on some suggestions from his Mesa teammates.
“He’s got a lot of pitchability and can pitch to both sides of the plate with all his stuff,” said Solar Sox pitching coach Jamie Vermilyea. “His stuff isn’t going to jump out at you velocity-wise, but he knows how to make use of his stuff really well.”
Players and coaches agree that one of Thompson’s biggest strengths is his mound temperament. He hardly ever comes across as rattled, displaying the same even-keeled disposition in both the good times and bad.
“He’s very steady on the mound and easy to work with,” said fellow Cubs prospect and Solar Sox catcher Miguel Amaya. “I don’t have to worry about him.”
Solar Sox manager Mike Rabelo offered an equally complimentary assessment.
“I know that he missed time this year due to injury, but he mixes it up,” Rabelo said. “He pitched at Auburn, a major Division 1 team, and he’s done a good job for us. He’s got great pitchability, and I think we overlook that aspect sometimes. He also never gives in.”
While Thompson would admit to getting off to an inconsistent AFL start, he weathered the ups and downs to finish on a strong note. He wound up 1-1 with a 4.62 ERA in seven starts, leading all AFL pitchers with 25 1/3 innings and tying for sixth with 26 strikeouts.
Thompson never lost his composure or confidence despite a couple of rough outings in the middle of the season. He ended the fall with two brilliant starts, tossing nine shutout innings of three-hit ball to go with eight strikeouts and zero free passes.
“I’ve had a couple highs and maybe three or four lows so far, and I can learn from that,” Thompson said. “You can’t let it get to you and think that you’re not good enough just because you had a bad game.”
Like most AFL pitchers, Thompson was a big fan of balls and strikes being called by a robot umpire.
“You actually get the high strikes and low strikes, and you can never get mad at them,” he said. “If you miss a spot in and you get the outside corner, you will get that called a strike instead of a ball.”
Two years into his professional journey, Thompson — who isn’t always keen on talking about himself — is beginning to better understand the developmental process and how pitchers must adapt as they move up in the minors.
“At each level, the strike zone gets smaller and smaller, and the hitters get better and better,” he said. “They lay off the pitches that guys chase at the lower levels. You just have to mix in other pitches, and you can’t get in a routine of what you throw first pitch or second pitch with those guys. You have to be all over the place, kind of random and sporadic with your pitches.”
Thompson has been able to follow the Cullman baseball team and its championship pursuits on Twitter, and is proud of the program for bringing home its fifth state title this past spring.
Away from the field, Thompson enjoys his Netflix — especially “Peaky Blinders” — and time on the golf course. He doesn’t claim to be the greatest golfer but likes to relax and hang out with his buddies regardless of how he plays.
“Keegan puts a high premium on his Netflix and going out for food,” said Lange, Thompson’s former road roommate.
During the season, it’s mostly Chipotle, and pizza is his default postgame option. Back home, he’s looking forward to feasting on his mom’s salmon and shrimp.
When Thompson eventually gets the call to pitch for the Cubs in the big leagues, he’ll probably celebrate with a hearty steak dinner — a fitting reward for all his hard work.
“He’s a good guy and a tireless worker,” said Mesa teammate Scott Effross, another Cubs pitching prospect. “He is always the first here and last one left. He works really hard to perfect his craft. I know that when he got injured earlier this year he was bummed, but that wasn’t going to stop him from taking care of his business.”