A Big Day for Cubs Prospects in the AFL, Especially That Red-Hot Nelson Velazquez (But Also the Pitchers!)

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A Big Day for Cubs Prospects in the AFL, Especially That Red-Hot Nelson Velazquez (But Also the Pitchers!)

Chicago Cubs

Let’s just start with the batting line for Nelson Velazquez in the Arizona Fall League following another day reaching base four times: .415/.520/.732 in 50 plate appearances. Absolutely, positively ridiculous.

It’s the kind of hot streak that changes the conversation. Once a debatable case for the 40-man roster (protecting him from selection in the Rule 5 Draft), Velazquez is now a lock for a spot thanks to his close to the year at Double-A and now his destruction of the AFL. Instead, we get to talk about what Major League roles and timelines are realistic for the powerful 22-year-old. It’s been that kind of a stretch.

As to avoid accusations of small sample size overreaction, however, let’s look at the last 50 games that Velazquez has played in, which stretch across the end of his time in High-A, his seven weeks in Double-A and the AFL: .303/.391/.585.

The number that jumps out there is of course the slugging percentage, as the outfielder has really tapped into his physical strength and translated it into hard contact. Yesterday he hit his third home run of the season for the Mesa Solar Sox, a 107-mph high blast to left field:

But while the power always seemed a foregone conclusion during Velazquez’ time in the Cubs system, the surprising thing about those 50 games is the walk number: 23 in 215 plate appearances (10.7%) – including two yesterday. This is coming from a guy facing the best pitching of his life, and the same guy that walked just 11 times in his first 50 games this season (5.4%). And we’ve even seen progress in the strikeout rate: 33.7% with the South Bend Cubs this year in 288 plate appearances, 25.7% in 187 plate appearances in Double-A and the AFL. Every trend is a good one right now.

We know eventually that will stop; struggles are inevitable and probably forthcoming. The BABIP gods simply won’t stand for what’s been allowed to happen in the last 75 games (.372). Even a guy with some of the best exit velocity numbers in the system can’t hope to keep that up, and work will have to continue on getting the strikeout rate to sub-25%. Yet, Velazquez’s accomplishments should allow for that continued development to happen at Triple-A out of the gate next year; I think the older, funkier pitching you find at that level will be a good test for what Nelson needs to work on.

And he’s earned it.

It was an exciting day at Sloan Park yesterday not just for the Velazquez outing, but for the Cubs pitching prospects on the mound, Ryan Jensen and Caleb Kilian. The two combined for seven innings of no-run baseball, as the Solar Sox completed just the third shutout of the season in the Arizona Fall League.

In that clip, Jensen talks about what must clearly be a focus for him in the AFL: throwing strikes with breaking balls. Too often this season he would fall behind in the count and throw problematic get-me-over fastballs (he kind of references this in the video when talking about being too predictable). While getting those pitches to corners is one necessary adjustment, the other is having the ability to spin in breaking balls in 2-0 counts. Another clue that the breaking balls are the focus in Arizona for Jensen: their velocities.

During the season, I noted one Jensen start where his curveball and slider velocity were very similar: 83-85 on the curve and 86-88 on the slider. So what particularly piqued my interest from Jim Callis’ live look write-up of Jensen’s start yesterday was this note:

“The Fresno State product relied mostly on his two-seam fastball, which sat at 94-96 mph and touched 98, while mixing in some 88- to 90-mph sliders and 81- to 83-mph curveballs.”

I read that and presume the Cubs are working on differentiating those pitches better, adding more velocity to the slider and more spin efficiency to the curveball. Something to keep an eye on.

The velocity number that popped the most for me in that Callis piece, however, was noting that Caleb Kilian was “topping out at 97 mph.” Kilian pitched a brilliant three innings: one single, six strikeouts and three groundouts. Kilian’s velocity is considerably up from his first outing in the AFL, and yesterday’s report seemed more in line with what we saw in the Giants organization when his season was at its hottest.

Finally, shouts to infielder Andy Weber, who singled and walked twice while playing shortstop. The Virginia product now is tied for the league lead in walks (10), which seems notable for a guy that hasn’t walked over 10% of the time at a level since high school. Patience actually seemed like a commitment of Weber’s near the end of his season with Double-A Tennessee, but that seemed like a small sample size blip, when combined with his stretch in Arizona it seems more like a developmental emphasis. It’s a good call, easily the lowest-hanging fruit to make Weber a viable offensive option at the top level. He’s now hitting .273/.442/.424 in nine games with Mesa.

Author: Bryan Smith

Bryan Smith is a Minor League Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @cubprospects.