Fall League Fridays: Cubs prospects ending Arizona season on high note
There was a bit of hype heading into the Arizona Fall League’s Fall Stars Game surrounding the three Cubs prospects selected.
All three seemed to be hitting their stride going into the game: Nelson Velazquez was lingering at or near the top of almost every important offensive category. Andy Weber, a versatile infielder who struggled through an injury-plagued Double-A debut last season, was suddenly an OBP machine with extra-base power. And Caleb Kilian had gone 12 scoreless innings over his last 3 appearances after giving up 7 runs and not recording an out in his AFL debut.
While their AFL East teammates rallied for a 6-5 win, the individual performances didn’t quite shake out as they hoped. Velazquez and Weber went a combined 0-for-7 with 3 strikeouts. Kilian was the AFL East’s starter and finished with this line: 2.0 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 4 K. He was also credited with the win. Below is a video showcasing Kilian’s pitch mix that game:
Acquired from San Francisco in the Kris Bryant trade, the Cubs Caleb Kilian started Saturday's Fall Stars game for the East. Mixing five pitches (FF, 2S, CT, CB, CHG) with + command, generated whiffs high and low in the zone. #4 starter profile. #PLiveAFL pic.twitter.com/uyAAJaWvWR— Prospects Live (@ProspectsLive) November 14, 2021
This game was only a small blip in an incredible AFL season put together by two Rule 5-eligible position players who may have solidified spots on the Cubs 40-man roster this winter. Kilian was lights out in an offense-happy environment against higher competition.
And all this culminated in the Mesa Solar Sox clinching a spot in the AFL championship which will be played Saturday, and where Kilian will start:
Can confirm Caleb Kilian will start tomorrow's @MLBazFallLeague Championship Game for the Mesa Solar Sox @ 6 pm CT on @MLBNetwork.— Lance Brozdowski (@LanceBroz) November 19, 2021
Caleb & I talked a few weeks ago about his curveball tweak & working w/ MLB baseballs for the first time: https://t.co/P6FsAY1Qhj
📸: @ScottyChags pic.twitter.com/qb3Q2flSFC
Marquee Sports Network analyst Lance Brozdowski reflects on two offensive gems from this season’s AFL:
Nelson Velazquez, OF, 22
2021 AFL stats: 124 PA, 16 XBH, 9 HR (league leader), 24 RBI, 17 BB, 34 SO, .385 BA, .480 OBP, 1.191 OPS
Drafted 2017, 5th Round
If there wasn’t enough evidence that being able to objectively measure bat speed through a combination of max exit velocity, average exit velocity and 90th percentile exit velocity could predict breakouts, Velazquez has done his part to prove the point.
It could be argued Velazquez broke out in the 2021 minor league season by hitting .270 with 45 extra-base hits in 103 games between High-A and Double-A. But his AFL performance has almost certainly pushed him into the conversation of the top 30 power-contact bats in all of minor league baseball.
This breakout also had roots in a swing adjustment Velazquez made prior to the 2020 season. The subtle change was to rely on more of a toe tap with his front foot as opposed to a larger leg kick that forced him to occasionally come off balance.
“When I was hitting with a leg kick, I tried to get the ball too out front and my barrel came down a little bit,” Velazquez said. “And now, I’ve put in my mind that if you’re hitting good [with a] toe tap, keep doing it. Why change?”
Combine time settling into a new stance with an immense amount of machine work against breaking balls during the Covid-19 shutdown, interactions with coaches on the Mesa Solar Sox that educated him to focus his swing on where he has a higher probability for extra-base hits, and this is the result — the best combination of power and contact in the Arizona Fall League.
“This is a continuation of a really excellent season,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer told Marquee Sports Network’s Andy Martinez. “Super proud of [Velazquez], he’s hitting as well as anyone out there.”
Andy Weber, INF, 24
2021 AFL stats: 103 PA, 9 XBH, 2 HR, 20 RBI, 17 BB, 24 SO, .271 BA, .388 OBP, .859 OPS
Drafted 2018, 5th Round
Unlike Velazquez’s AFL campaign — an assignment to gather more information ahead of a 40-man roster decision — Weber came to Mesa in hopes of playing his first full month of live baseball since 2019.
The Cubs placed Weber on the IL on three separate occasions this season, forcing him to amass only 44 games played. The first because of a turf toe injury, the second because of a hasty return from the same turf toe injury and the last because of Covid-19’s effects within the organization during the end of the season. But now, Weber stresses he is healthy and the injuries are behind him. He currently wears a metal plate in his cleat to help prevent turf toe from popping up in the future.
A key beyond playing time and getting his body right has been a shift over to third base from shortstop, where he received virtually all of his playing time in 2021 with Double-A Tennessee despite not playing the position until he entered professional baseball. His positional breakdown by percent of innings played around the infield heading into the AFL’s Championship Weekend is 51% third base, 34% second base (a position he hasn’t played since 2018) and 15% shortstop.
“It’s good to be versatile, it’s good to be available,” Weber said. “The footwork is a little bit different [between shortstop and third base] and you obviously have less time to react. Getting reps is the biggest thing for me.”
And although Weber doesn’t see himself as ever developing the light-tower power that a player like Velazquez showcases daily, he knows his approach at the plate is to make good contact.
“I think I’m learning how my swing works better,” Weber said. “When I was injured, I had a lot of time to think about the mental side of the game, learning how hitters think. P.J. Higgins was out [in Arizona] rehabbing with me and I got to pick his brain a lot.”
Weber’s offseason goals are to add weight, something he has struggled with his whole career thanks to a fast metabolism. Even if he puts weight on this offseason, the key will be trying to maintain the muscle he adds as he gets into the depths of the 2022 minor league season.
Velazquez went 3-for-3 Thursday night, driving in a run with each hit as the Solar Sox won 3-1. Here’s his RBI double and third RBI hit:
Nelson Velazquez continues his monster season! The @Cubs prospect slams an RBI double off the left field wall to kick off the scoring affair at Salt River! @NBCSChicago pic.twitter.com/SYv2shmRnI— MLB's Arizona Fall League (@MLBazFallLeague) November 19, 2021
Nelson Velazquez is on 🔥, accounting for all three Solar Sox RBI. The powerful @cubs outfielder is 3-for-3 and turning heads at the AFL! @NBCSChicago pic.twitter.com/VHhkZplnTZ— MLB's Arizona Fall League (@MLBazFallLeague) November 19, 2021
Ryan Jensen had a solid start Tuesday, allowing 2 runs on 4 hits, walking 3 and striking out 3 over 4 innings in Mesa’s 5-2 loss.