Cubs 2021 Arizona Fall League preview
The Arizona Fall League makes its return Wednesday after being cancelled last season due to the ongoing global pandemic. A 30-game regular season will feature six prospect-laden teams squaring off in Arizona over the next six weeks, with the Fall Stars Game scheduled for Nov. 13 and the AFL Championship Game played Nov. 20.
Mesa, Ari., will be home to seven Cubs prospects teaming up with minor leaguers from the Orioles, Marlins, Athletics and Blue Jays.
On the pitching side, a pair of Top 20 Cubs prospects will get innings for the Mesa Solar Sox: 2019 1st-round pick Ryan Jensen (RHP, No.15) and Caleb Kilian (RHP, No.16), who was acquired for Kris Bryant in a July trade. 22-year-old fireballer Danis Correa (RHP), who recorded the final out of a combined no-hitter for the Myrtle Beach Pelicans earlier this year, and 2017 first rounder Brendon Little (LHP) are both Rule 5 eligible and an impressive showing could help them lock in a spot on the 40-man roster in December.
This scenario applies to the position players representing the Cubs in Arizona as well. Nelson Velazquez (OF), Luis Vazquez (INF) and Andy Weber (INF) are all Rule 5 eligible and must be added to the 40-man roster in December or risk being exposed to the Rule 5 draft.
Some current major leaguers from the 2019 AFL season include Jonathan India, Dylan Carlson, Shane Baz and Jo Adell, as well as former A’s and current Cubs Greg Deichmann and Alfonso Rivas. That fall, Nico Hoerner, Keegan Thompson and prospect Miguel Amaya (C, No. 6) headlined the Cubs players in the AFL.
Experimental Rules Changes
Another thing to watch this fall will be the implementation of a few rules changes that were already in place throughout different minor league levels this season. Pitchers will be kept honest to a 15-second pitch clock and limited to two pick-off attempts per plate appearance in an effort to speed up games and increase action.
To curve the effect of shifts, two infielders will be required on each side of second base and limited to positioning within the infield dirt. Base sizes will also be increased from 15 to 18 inches in an effort to increase stolen base rates and avoid player collisions. The automatic ball-strike (ABS) system will return, previously used in 2019, and used at games played at Salt River Fields (15 games).
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Lance Brozdowski’s scouting report and outlook
Ryan Jensen, RHP (AA)
The depth of Jensen’s repertoire makes him unique from a development standpoint. There’s a lot he could work on to make him a better pitcher. Below we’ll speculate on two ideas Jensen might be tasked with working on in the AFL aside from merely raising his total innings.
His primary method of attack starts from his fastballs, where he prefers a sinker to right-handed hitters and a four-seamer to left-handed hitters. He has a natural ability to generate plus arm-side run because of his ability to pronate his hand through ball release, as many would say in development circles. The drawback of this skill is that his four-seam fastball doesn’t profile like many of the plus four-seamers pitchers throw. It’s kind of stuck between a true sinker and a true four-seam fastball. This results in left-handed hitters succeeding at a rate greater than right-handed hitters, whom he dominates. Jensen told Marquee Sports Network back in July that he’s been working on the life his four-seam fastball has, in an effort to improve his lefty woes.
If fastballs aren’t his main focus in the AFL, he will probably focus on his ability to supinate — the opposite of pronate, and the main hand action required to throw a good breaking ball. For Jensen, that manifests in his slider and curveball. His slider doesn’t possess a lot of total movement. It’s a tight pitch, which means the primary way to make the pitch better is to improve the command or increase the pitch’s velocity, the latter being one of the most important factors in any pitch’s success and something that Jensen mentioned to Marquee as a development goal this season. His curveball on the other hand possessed the highest chase and whiff percentages of any offering he threw this season. There may not be much adjustment needed to make that pitch major-league caliber.
Nelson Velazquez, OF (AA)
With the unexpected emergence of Frank Schwindel and Patrick Wisdom, it’s fun to speculate on who might be the next under-the-radar bat to make an immediate impact in the near future.
Velazquez posted some of the strongest batted-ball metrics in the Cubs system this season. His 90th percentile average exit velocity — which looks at how well he hits the Top 10% of his hardest-hit balls — sits among some of the best in all of the minor leagues. This metric has stronger predicting power than a number that encapsulates only one batted ball event, like max exit velocity would. In layman’s terms, Velazquez consistently hits the ball hard.
That skill resulted in a .270/.333/.496 line this season between High-A and Double-A. Dating back to 2019, his track record is strong. Strong production in the AFL — where scouts peg competition to be something between Double-A and Triple-A — would all but lock him into some kind of major league role in late 2022 or 2023.
The limit in Velazquez’s profile is his defense. He’s not an agile outfielder and doesn’t possess a strong arm to make up for it, but the AFL is a place for development. Maybe Velasquez polishes up his defense or gets reps at another position to accelerate his timetable to the major leagues.
Brendon Little, LHP (AAA)
One of the ways to determine the strength of an organization’s pitching player development is to look at the depth of their bullpen arms. While the Cubs have been routinely considered below average in their ability to develop pitching in the past, one of the first places the tide turns is with upper-minors leverage relievers. Brendon Little is a good example of an arm that shows the organization’s improvement.
Little threw a sinker, four-seam, slider and curveball this year between Double-A and Triple-A. The two offerings that already look like major league pitches are his sinker and slider. His sinker got up to 94-96 mph this season and his ability to kill vertical movement on the pitch (cause the ball to drop more than a hitter would expect) is superb. There are essentially just four pitchers in baseball who can kill as much vertical movement from as high of a release height as he has. And Little throws harder than all but one of them. Think Dallas Keuchel, Framber Valdez and Zach Britton when imagining his sinker.
Little’s slider mimics that of fellow left-hander Brailyn Marquez’s in its movement profile. His ability to throw the pitch hard, between 87-89 makes for a devastating offering, one that dives straight downward and almost solely allowed him to strikeout 31% of the batters he faced at Triple-A this season.
The wrinkle? He may not even be a reliever. 2021 marked his first appearances out of the bullpen and he routinely went beyond a single inning. It seems likely that he could follow the Justin Steele or Keegan Thompson path of development where he makes an impact out of the ‘pen in 2022 and then is stretched out to a starting role. The issue will just be whether he can neutralize right-handed hitting.
But for now, the AFL just seems like a chance to increase his workload after throwing 41.2 innings this season in a late June MiLB debut due to injury.