Arizona Fall League games that feature five Cubs prospects are always going to get my attention, but a big comeback victory for the Mesa Solar Sox with lots to discuss specifically regarding those five? Yeah, that gets its own post!
Last night was a pretty good encapsulation of the seven games the Mesa Solar Sox have played this AFL season. They didn’t pitch that well, with Cubs prospects Caleb Kilian and Ryan Jensen ending their appearances with Mesa down 5-0. But the bats bailed them out with a four-run ninth inning ending in a 7-6 win. The theme of the day was four walks from two surprising people: Kilian allowing four, and Nelson Velazquez accepting four.
It was a career-high number for both players, and certainly runs counter to who these guys have been in the past. Kilian allowed just one earned run in his two innings of work, despite the four walks, but is clearly working through some things (his previous outing was really rough). I’d also note the AFL is trying out an automatic strike zone this season, and a guy like Kilian that traditionally works the corners could be going through some growing pains with that implementation. No matter the specific struggle, however, I think it’s fair to wonder if this AFL stint will nudge Kilian back to the Double-A Tennessee roster to begin next season. Which is okay.
Velazquez, on the other hand, is surely helping his case for an Iowa roster spot (to say nothing of a 40-man roster spot next month).
The 22-year-old outfielder is currently 15th in the league in OPS, despite not yet tapping into his significant power tool, with a .316/.458/.474 line overall. While I’m thrilled to see the return to patience –after a 9.5 BB% in July and August, Velazquez walked just twice in September – it’s worth noting the AFL has been the land of free passes so far: the league average is 6.4 walks per game. So while the Cubs do their internal evaluating this month, with an eye on forthcoming 40-man roster decisions ahead, it will be important to gauge how much of that walk rate can be sustainable against regular season-caliber pitching.
But wait, I’ve buried the lede here. Last night we had a Luis Vazquez home run!
— Prospects Worldwide (@ProspectsWorldW) October 22, 2021
I touched on Vazquez a little bit in my Cubs-specific AFL preview, but since then, I got some feedback that I probably undersold his chance at the 40-man roster. Like Velazquez, Vazquez is eligible for selection in the December Rule 5 Draft if he isn’t protected next month by placing him on the 40-man roster. It’s a decision that will come down to the wire, with lots of debate on both sides, and you can bet his coaches will unanimously argue on behalf of the 22-year-old shortstop. They love Luis, so I think any progress with the bat in the AFL is going to go a long way in those conversations. Last night’s home run and two walks took the overall line to .222/.364/.389, where you note the continued dedication to patience, you see the sneaky bit of pop, but you’re still worried about the strikeouts (7 in 22 PA).
(Brett: For me, the big question on Vazquez is not so much about whether you want to keep him in the system (great defensive shortstop with offensive upside is an obvious keeper), but instead is about how realistic it is that he would get popped in the Rule 5. Having just turned 22, Vazquez played just eight games above High-A this past year. That’s it. And while he was pretty darn good at the plate at High-A South Bend this past year, even there he played only 23 games! So you’re basically asking whether a team would put a guy on their big league, 26-man roster for a full season when he was a defensive-replacement type up and-and-down the farm system in 2019 (which, by the way, was a huge compliment to his makeup and his glove), missed the pandemic year, and then played 31 games at High-A and Double-A in 2021, showing a decent bat but big strikeout rate. Maybe the AFL will answer the question for the Cubs and/or for possible picking teams – again, I don’t want to undersell the glove, which is fantastic – but it’s possible he’s just a guy the Cubs will roll the dice on, thinking no team could realistically carry him in the big leagues. OK. Back to Bryan.)
Ryan Jensen came in relief of Kilian last night, and you’d grade the outing similar to Caleb’s: better than his first, but not yet where it needs to be. Overall: 3.0 innings, 4 hits, 3 runs, 1 walk, 6 strikeouts. Jensen allowed a no-doubt home run in his first inning of work to left-handed batter Drew Lugbauer, who would also get Jensen for an RBI single in his final inning. It was good to see more strike-throwing from Jensen last night versus the previous outing, but you don’t want it to come at a significant increase in hard contact. The development, particularly against advanced left-handed hitters, continues for the former first-round pick.
Finally, Andy Weber led off and played third base last night, going 0-for-5 with a walk, and getting charged for two errors on one play. Overall the 24-year-old is 2-for-15 with six walks so far with Mesa.
Let’s finish the post by emptying the notebook on a few non-AFL items:
• Nice look by Brad at the Double-A development we saw from Chase Strumpf. A big 2022 season looms for the former second rounder; you hope he cuts the strikeouts, reaches Triple-A Iowa, and leaves a no-doubt case for a 40-man spot by season’s end:
If you combine July and August you even out some of the BABIP noise and get this very respectable line: pic.twitter.com/6CgpfN5Qbg
— Brad (@ballskwok) October 21, 2021
• Arizona Phil compiled his season stats for the Cubs Instructs team at The Cub Reporter, where I think you’ll find a little more optimism on the pitching side than with the offense. Luke Little’s finish to camp is probably the one I’m hearing reverberate around the organization the loudest, but fine showings from (to name a few) Drew Gray, Luis Devers, and Parker Chavers.
• I was in Arizona earlier in the month and while I didn’t see enough worth posting about, did have fun one morning watching Chris Morel and Felix Stevens take infield practice together. Chris has my favorite throwing arm in the system, and it was yielding good practice for the learning-first-base Stevens. Worth the (free) price of admission. Morel was in Arizona to help him prepare for the forthcoming LIDOM (Dominican winter ball) season, and he’s built on that with a good first few days with his team there:
Christopher Morel went yard in winter ball today! pic.twitter.com/dBA49dumfg
— Brad (@ballskwok) October 20, 2021
• I’ve mentioned Strumpf and Morel here, which reminds me to share my post about the Smokies utility infielder who reached Triple-A and had a really unheralded sneaky-good season: Levi Jordan. This guy was fourth in the Cubs system in line drive rate, and that increase in hitting the ball hard also led to a jump in power, going from one home run in 2019 to eight in 2021, both in a half-season’s worth of at-bats. The versatility and dominance against left-handed pitching produce a really natural bench profile that’s worth keeping an eye on when the Triple-A season begins next year.
Season I want to hype up a bit more: Levi Jordan (@levijordan_)
Overall: 252/330/399, 93 wRC+ at AAA, 111 at AA. 2B/SS/3B. 1.034 OPS vs LHP.
Newfound power stroke was there all season, added patience as year went on (first 41G – 5.6%, last 38 – 12%).
Good guy to have around!
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) October 20, 2021