The 30th season of the Arizona Fall League is complete, and as always the game’s best prospects stepped up with big performances. The AFL has annually given the Joe Black MVP Award to the top performer, and the Dernell Stenson Sportsmanship Award has been a staple since 2004. In 2021, the league added more hardware to the list, so this is the second straight season awards are handed out to the pitcher, offensive player, reliever, breakout and defensive players of the AFL season. Here are this year’s winners:
MVP: Heston Kjerstad, OF, Orioles
After not being able to make his pro debut until June of this year because of myocarditis, the 2020 first-round pick was just happy to be on the field at all. The O’s No. 9 prospect played like it, too, leading the AFL in total bases (61) and finishing with a robust .357/.385/.622 line in 22 games with Scottsdale. He finished in the top five in average, slugging, home runs (5) and RBIs (17).
Pitcher of the Year: Connor Thomas, LHP, Cardinals
The 5-foot-11 left-hander shook off an inconsistent regular season in Triple-A to dominate the hitter-friendly Fall League from start to finish. The Cards’ No. 24 prospect became the first pitcher in the AFL since 2014 to have a double-digit strikeout game when he whiffed 10 on Oct. 17. He led the AFL with 34 strikeouts in 25 2/3 innings (11.9 K/9) while walking just 1.8 per nine and finishing with a 1.75 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and .224 batting average against for Salt River.
Offensive Player of the Year: Zac Veen, OF, Rockies
The Rockies’ top prospect had struggled when he reached Double-A at the end of the 2022 season, but he clearly made some adjustments when he got to the AFL. He brought his high-energy play to Salt River and hit .333/.444/.444 with a 15/8 K/BB ratio and a league-best 16 steals in 18 attempts.
Reliever of the Year: Evan Reifert, RHP, Rays
The Rays’ reliever may have been the most dominant pitcher of any sort in the Fall League this year. Over his 11 2/3 innings for Mesa, he allowed just one hit and no runs while walking four and striking out 25. His punchout total trailed only Thomas. That’s a 19.3 K/9 rate, with 25 of the 35 outs he recorded coming via the strikeout. He finished with a .028 average against and an 0.43 WHIP.
Breakout Player of the Year: Edouard Julien, 2B, Twins
The Twins’ No. 14 prospect came into the Fall League with a reputation for drawing a ton of walks and a profile as an offensive-minded infielder. He did nothing to hurt that reputation with Glendale, walking (23) more than he struck out (22) while winning the AFL batting title (.400). He also led the league in OBP (.563) and OPS (1.249) while finishing second with a .686 slugging percentage and third with 48 total bases.
Defensive Player of the Year: Luis Matos, OF, Giants
While the Giants’ No. 3 prospect still has things to prove at the plate, there are no questions about his ability to roam the outfield. His reads and routes have improved, and he showed all fall with Scottsdale that his speed and instincts will work very well in center field, where he played errorless baseball and used his solid arm to pick up a pair of assists.
Dernell Stenson Sportsmanship Award: Lawrence Butler, OF/1B, A’s
Not only does Butler, the A’s No. 14 prospect, have 20-20 potential as an offensive player, he works tirelessly to improve his game on both sides of the ball. He continued to focus on shortening his swing to cut down some of the swing-and-miss in his game while also embracing full-time play in the outfield. His work ethic and his big personality are reasons why he was chosen to win the Stenson Sportsmanship Award, created in 2004 to honor the memory of former player Dernell Stenson, who was killed in 2003 in Arizona during the AFL season. The sportsmanship award is presented annually to the player who best exemplifies unselfishness, hard work and leadership.