Six prospects nominated for Stenson Award
Sportsmanship honor given annually by AFL in memory of late Reds player
MESA, Ariz. -- The main focus of the Arizona Fall League is to help prospects in the final stages of their development. It gives extra at-bats, defensive reps and innings to players hoping to make the jump to the Major Leagues.
While refining skills is the point of emphasis, the AFL also honors one player each year for qualities unrelated to on-field performance. The Dernell Stenson Sportsmanship Award pays tribute to the former Reds big league outfielder who was murdered while playing in the AFL after the 2003 season. It's given to a player who exemplifies Stenson's unselfishness, hard work and leadership.
Managers from each of the AFL's six teams recommend one of their players for the Stenson Award, with the winner announced during Saturday's championship game (which will be broadcast on MLB.com and MLB Network at 3 p.m. ET). This year's nominees are: Salt River Rafters third baseman Andy Burns (Blue Jays), Surprise Saguaros third baseman Garin Cecchini (Red Sox), Glendale Desert Dogs corner infielder Travis Mattair (Reds), Peoria Javelinas third baseman Jonathan Meyer (Astros), Mesa Solar Sox second baseman Devon Travis (Tigers) and Scottsdale Scorpions outfielder Cory Vaughn (Mets).
Phoenix Desert Dogs third baseman Mark Teahen won the first Stenson Award in 2004. Though the honor has nothing to do with prospect status, each of its nine recipients has played in the big leagues -- a tribute to the qualities the award stands for. Last year's winner was Salt River right-hander Cole Kimball, who spent six seasons climbing from 12th-round Draft pick to the Nationals' bullpen, only to tear his rotator cuff shortly afterward.
Mattair played in last year's AFL championship game, during which Kimball received the award. He says getting nominated this fall is a tremendous honor.
"It's about character and the person you are, not how you're playing," Mattair said. "Usually, awards are for performance, and this means a lot to me, because people think highly of me as a person.
"My parents taught me to be a good person first. That's the most important thing to me. I believe in karma. If you're good to others, others will be good to you."
Mattair dreamed of playing college basketball, but he found the Phillies' offer too good to refuse when they selected him in the second round of the 2007 Draft. He took the 2010 season off to pursue an opportunity to play hoops at Boise State before returning to baseball. Since the Reds chose him in the Triple-A phase of the 2011 Rule 5 Draft, Mattair has hit 32 homers during the past two regular seasons and worked his way to Double-A.
Nicknamed "Moose," Mattair is one of the most talkative players in the league, known for chatting up teammates and opponents alike. Glendale manager Jeff Smith hadn't met Mattair before this fall, but says he didn't have to deliberate when it came to picking his team's Stenson Award nominee.
"As a manager, you look for players who make the team better, who make the team concept better," Smith said. "Travis is one of those guys. He always roots for other guys and makes the atmosphere more fun and competitive for everybody.
"He never has a bad day in baseball. He makes it lot more loose and fun for everybody, and he gets after it. You couldn't ask for a better player to have on the team. His personality, makeup and drive will carry him as far as his skills."
Similarly, Mesa manager Bill Richardson says selecting Travis, who is ranked the Tigers' No. 12 prospect, as his club's nominee was an easy decision.
"There aren't too many people in life who after a five-minute conversation you realize what a good soul he is, as well as a talented player," Richardson said. "He has time for everyone. He works so hard on honing his craft, yet he's always talking to fans. It seems like he's known them forever.
"You talk about an 'it factor,' and he's got it. When the game is on the line, he's always in the middle of it. As a manager, you're happy because you know he can deliver. He's a winner."
Travis' lack of size knocked him down to the 13th round of the 2012 Draft, but he works diligently to get the most of his 5-foot-9, 183-pound frame. He helped Florida State reach two College World Series in three years, leading all players at the 2012 CWS with a .563 batting average. Travis continued to rake in his first full pro season, reaching High A while finishing second in the Minors in hitting at .351.
"I'm just so thankful to be nominated for this award," Travis said. "I've always been a very appreciative kid, and coming from my manager, it's pretty special that he sees me as that kind of guy.
"This definitely means a lot more to me than anything I do on the field. I always try to be the type of dude who goes about his work the right way. I'm glad people see that."
Jim Callis is a senior writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.