Tomorrow, the 2021 Arizona Fall League will kick off, with the Chicago Cubs participating as part of the Mesa Solar Sox. The prospect-laden league will play through until its championship game on November 20.
Last week, finally, we learned the names of the seven players who will represent the Cubs on the Solar Sox. For the most part, the Cubs are using this year’s AFL for two reasons: 1) extra playing time or innings for players that had shortened seasons, and 2) to have extra data on players they are considering protecting from the Rule 5 Draft (protection requires adding them to the 40-man roster in November). Brett touched on the seven players in his piece, but I wanted to go a little deeper on the specific items on each player’s developmental to-do list …
Danis Correa, RH RP, age 22.1
Rule 5 Eligible? Yes.
2021 Stats (A/A+): 37 IP, 21 H, 1.95 ERA, 18 BB, 60 K, 0 HR-A.
Quick Scouting Report: Can get to 100 mph out of a 5-foot-11, non-muscular frame thanks to ridiculous arm speed. Trouble staying healthy before 2021. Used both a curveball (his preferred pre-pandemic secondary) and slider to some success in 2021.
What Cubs Will Hope to Learn in AFL: When Correa arrived to the Myrtle Beach Pelicans in June, he’d thrown TWO innings of professional baseball in 3.5 years. A successful season was going to be merely a moderately healthy one. Not only did Correa stay healthy and consistent in the four months that followed, but his stuff was electric enough that he demands 40-man roster consideration. The AFL will represent the most advanced hitting he’s faced, and the Cubs will monitor the success of the fastball against those smarter hitters. In Low-A you can get by throwing 99 in the middle of the zone, but as he moves up the ladder, he’ll have to locate that pitch to the top third of the zone. What will that do to his walk rate?
Ryan Jensen, RH SP, age 23.9
Rule 5 Eligible? No.
2021 Stats (A+/AA): 80 IP, 56 H, 4.16 ERA, 31 BB, 90 K, 10 HR-A.
Quick Scouting Report: Short, athletic right-hander with long arm action. Pitches primarily off a mid-to-high 90s sinker with elite horizontal movement. Four-seam fastball has solid life up in zone. Right-handed hitters will see a slider, left-handed hitters now get curveballs and changeups. Can fall into ruts of losing feel for strike-throwing.
What Cubs Will Hope to Learn in AFL: Not enough has been made of Jensen’s final 11 starts: 2.23 ERA, 27.5 K%, 7.9 BB%, 52 GB%, .174 BAA. I think the Cubs are anxious to explore how far this breakout has taken Jensen’s skillset. I thought the end of his High-A stint was notable in that he’d found the game plan that worked best for him against left-handed hitters: more changeups, more curveballs, outside corner fastballs. In Double-A, I thought the story was all about how overwhelming the sinker was. For the whole package to come together, Ryan’s slider still needs more consistency, he needs more confidence in throwing what I believe is a really good changeup, and I’d like to see fewer non-competitive two-strike waste pitches.
Watched Ryan Jensen’s outing from yesterday: 4 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 5 K. Sat 96, touched 98. Showed curve (83-85), slider (86-88), changeup (90-92). Only 4 swinging strikes but cruised nonetheless. My favorite sequence: 97 at knees then a 85 plus curve starting to same tunnel. pic.twitter.com/NdkwRd7i8h
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) August 15, 2021
Caleb Kilian, RH SP, age 24.3
Rule 5 eligible? No.
2021 Stats (A+/AA): 100.1 IP, 75 H, 2.42 ERA, 13 BB, 112 K, 5 HR-A.
Quick Scouting Report: See here. Classic starter build, ball comes out very easy. Good feel for a four-seam fastball that varied a lot in velocity , and often pitches with a cutter as his primary offering. Adds a curveball and changeup that both flash good movement but lack swing-and-miss bite.
What Cubs Will Hope to Learn in AFL: The COVID spread on the Tennessee Smokies cost Kilian his chance at a 120-inning season, and it cost the Cubs a meaningful amount of data as they consider a development path for him in 2022. The AFL will help rectify that, and if I had to guess, will give the Cubs and Kilian a chance to work behind-the-scenes on those curveball and changeup grips. The two big questions for Caleb’s future is if he can pitch 95+ mph consistently, and if an off speed pitch will emerge as a plus swing-and-miss offering. A good Arizona Fall League could leave Kilian projected to the Opening Day Triple-A Iowa roster.
The video below of the new Cubs RHP prospect, Caleb Kilian, is included in the piece below. I think it's a good illustration of Kilian's arsenal. This is an advanced arm that may see Wrigley in 2022. https://t.co/J61l1MwGUc pic.twitter.com/OhQkfWZp1V
— Greg Zumach (@IvyFutures) August 1, 2021
Brendon Little, LH RP, age 25.2
Rule 5 Eligible? Yes.
2021 Stats (AA/AAA): 41.2 IP, 39 H, 3.24 ERA, 19 BB, 53 K, 4 HR-A.
Quick Scouting Report: Lower body muscle development took step forward during 2020 which led to more velocity in 2021. But the breakout is probably more attributable to a slider that has mostly replaced his curveball (you’ll still see a few here and there) and is absolute death on left-handed hitters. I liked his changeup in 2019, but don’t feel like we saw it much in 2021.
What Cubs Will Hope to Learn in AFL: This is the most plain and simple “he’s pitching for a 40-man spot” case on the roster. Little finished the season pitching really well, striking out 18 of the final 44 batters he faced in Iowa. But the Cubs have real depth with left-handed relievers, which in general is a really fungible commodity for Major League rosters. If Little shows out in Arizona, he likely competes for a Major League bullpen job in Spring Training. If he doesn’t, I think it’s likely the Cubs take the risk on the Rule 5 Draft. A big month ahead for the former first-round pick.
Luis Vazquez, SS, age 22.0
Rule 5 Eligible? Yes.
2021 Stats (A+/AA): .264/.352/.328 (96 wRC+) in 142 PA.
Quick Scouting Report: Fabulous defensive shortstop with all the tools to be plus there in the Majors. Added muscle this year but still pretty slight. Bump in walk number this year is the headline. Raised hands pre-swing, uppercut swing.
What Cubs Will Hope to Learn in AFL: Vazquez had midseason hand surgery and still was able to get back and have a good final six weeks of development, even getting a boost to Double-A when COVID hit that roster. While this assignment is mostly about making up for the time he lost with injury, I think the Cubs are giving long shot consideration to adding Vazquez to the 40-man roster. There’s a precedent for bad teams drafting-and-stashing this player type in the Rule 5. But it’s far more likely this doesn’t happen, and the Cubs use this time to try and improve Vazquez’ contact rates with a swing that has a bit of a hole on high fastballs.
Nelson Velazquez, OF, age 22.8
Rule 5 Eligible? Yes.
2021 Stats (A+/AA): .270/.333/.496 (122 wRC+) in 425 PA.
Quick Scouting Report: Strong, barrel chested 6-foot-even right-handed hitter. Came into camp in better shape this year, with more hints of the explosive athleticism of his youth, than he’d shown in 2019. I thought he played a pretty good center this year, but still believe right field is the long-term home. Plus arm. Destroys fastballs, destroys left-handed pitchers.
What Cubs Will Hope to Learn in AFL: You can absolutely make the case that Double-A is more advanced than the AFL, but there’s no doubt the AFL will offer nastier game-to-game off speed pitches. And I think this is what the Cubs want to see: how Velazquez looks against pitchers with Major League caliber secondary stuff. Interesting competing 40-man decisions ahead with Velazquez and Michael Hermosillo, two guys in different spots on the development curve who succeed in similar ways.
— Tennessee Smokies (@smokiesbaseball) August 13, 2021
Andy Weber, UT IF, age 24.2
Rule 5 Eligible? Yes.
2021 Stats (AA): .214/.302/.321 (75 wRC+) in 149 PA.
Quick Scouting Report: Tall and slender infielder. Good footwork and actions at any position, but oddly mistake-prone in the field in 2021. Line drive swing that doesn’t quite make sense when put alongside a way-too-high strikeout rate.
What Cubs Will Hope to Learn in AFL: In addition to injury, 2021 was just a plain-and-simple bad luck season for Weber, and the Cubs want to try to help him end it on a better note. Everything needs to be better than it was in his Smokies stints this year: more contact, more patiences, fewer errors. Those skills are all there, I expect he’ll show them more consistently in the AFL.
2 out double by Andy Weber. I love his swing pic.twitter.com/assSYO9VBt
— Jordan Miller (@Miller_MiLB) May 27, 2021