CHICAGO — Prior to the Arizona Fall League’s championship game on Saturday, Cubs outfielder prospect Nelson Velazquez was presented with the year’s MVP trophy. Then, Chicago pitching prospect Caleb Kilian spun six perfect innings to help Mesa to the title.
With much of the focus shifting to the Cubs’ up-and-coming players, as the Major League team navigates this transition phase, what took place in the AFL this season was attention-grabbing in Chicago.
“There were some really, really impressive performances this year,” said Cubs infielder Nico Hoerner, who played in the AFL in 2018 and reached the Majors the following year. “It is 20 or so games, but it’s a different 20 games. Each of those games is pretty significant.
“Seeing what Nelson and Caleb did, it’s just really cool to see that and it just creates some good energy going into Spring Training, too. I think everyone in the organization is aware when people do special things like that.”
Velázquez (No. 29 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 Cubs Prospects list) solidified the team’s decision to add him to their 40-man roster by hitting .385 with nine homers and a 1.191 OPS in 26 games for Mesa in the AFL. He continued the swing tweaks and approach adjustments he implemented and honed with High-A South Bend and Double-A Tennessee this year.
“Ultimately, it was just staying in the strike zone,” said Matt Dorey, the Cubs’ vice president of player development. “Really focusing on swinging at and making solid contact on the pitches in the zone that he can drive.
“He really bought into that, and in Double-A, we saw the results. He was unbelievable for like 130 plate appearances there, and then we really wanted to challenge him even further in the Fall League.”
The 24-year-old Kilian — acquired from the Giants as part of the Kris Bryant trade last season — made only four starts for Double-A Tennessee before his regular-season campaign concluded on Aug. 20. That put a near two-month gap in game action before the AFL.
Following a rough AFL debut, in which he allowed seven runs without retiring a batter, Kilian (No. 14 on the Cubs’ Top 30) spun a 0.45 ERA the rest of the way. In that span, he had 26 strikeouts against four walks in 20 innings, including the championship game performance.
Dorey said what has impressed the Cubs about Kilian — beyond the stuff — was the pitcher’s willingness to test out new pitches and grips in the AFL environment. The righty continued to work on adjustments with both fastballs, his changeup and his curve.
“He was definitely exploring,” Dorey said, “and willing to try to be comfortable being uncomfortable, trying these new pitches and new grips in the Fall League on a pretty big stage. I was really proud that he stuck to it and he didn’t revert back to what he’s always been comfortable doing. I think we all saw that pay off in that last outing.”
Here are some more Cubs prospect notes:
On Brailyn Márquez
The start of Márquez’s 2021 season was delayed by COVID-19-related issues, and the big lefty did not pitch in a game due to persistent left shoulder woes. The good news is that the Cubs’ No. 2 prospect has resumed throwing and is on target to move back on a mound before the end of the year.
“He’s in such good shape physically right now,” Dorey said. “He just really got after it with his nutrition. It’s unbelievable how good of shape he’s in right now.”
Since the end of last season, Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer has said there is a chance for Márquez to be a “pitching weapon” as soon as 2022. Dorey seconded that sentiment.
“That’s real. That’s not smoke and mirrors,” Dorey said. “His job is to continue to crush this offseason and take what he’s done to this point and really parlay that into a healthy Major League camp, where there’s, for the first time in a while, a real opportunity for him to come in and earn a job.”
On Brennen Davis
This past season, outfielder Davis climbed to Triple-A Iowa from High-A South Bend, took home Futures Game MVP honors with a two-homer performance during All-Star Week and assumed the No. 1 slot on the Cubs’ Top 30 Prospects list.
The Show could come calling for Davis as soon as next summer.
“His goal is to help win a World Series in Chicago,” Dorey said. “I talk to him a lot about checking all the boxes. Not to be cliché, but we don’t want him to skip any steps, and I don’t want him to go backwards. I keep reminding him that all these bits of adversity, these are opportunities to learn from and grow from and to put in your tool bag for down the road.
“And he is super humble. He really does have a good perspective about life — not just baseball. With the Futures Game and the two homers, there was just a lot of things for him to get caught up in this year, and he didn’t. And he won’t, because he does have his sight set on something much bigger.
• Outfielder Pete Crow-Armstrong (No. 5) has resumed hitting, following surgery on his right (non-throwing) shoulder last season. Chicago acquired Crow-Armstrong from the Mets last season as part of the Javier Báez trade.
“He’s right on schedule — normal progression,” Dorey said. “He’s facing front toss. We’re not cranking up velocity yet on the machines or anything. He’s going to be starting coach BP pretty soon. He’s right on par to start on time in Spring Training and be full-go.”
• The Cubs believe that Tommy John surgery (right elbow) is imminent for catcher Miguel Amaya (No. 4), per multiple sources. Amaya, 22, was limited to 23 games for Double-A Tennessee last season due to what was initially described as a right forearm strain. The timetable for his return is to be determined.