Ah, autumn is in the air. And you know what that means: leaf piles, clogged gutters, scary pumpkins, and the Arizona Fall League. Now that we know which Chicago Cubs will be playing for the Mesa Solar Sox this fall, let’s take a look back at some Cubs hitters who made their mark in the league. (And let’s face it, it’s just gosh darned fun to say “Mesa Solar Sox.”)
The hitters discussed in this post all finished in the top ten in OPS in the Arizona Fall League in their respective seasons. Numbers in parentheses indicate league rank. All stats are from the AFL database or Baseball Reference unless otherwise indicated.
Looking back at 5 Cubs hitters who flourished in the Arizona Fall League
2013: Kris Bryant, 1.184 OPS (1), 6 HR (1)
Our memories our getting shorter. As we face a daily fire hose of information pouring out of our phones, laptops and other electronic what-all, we are forced to empty our cerebral attics much more frequently than before. Those happy Kris Bryant memories now lie moldering in a northern Indiana landfill, next to discarded ramen cups and political yard signs. The man himself labors (or not – he’s been hurt much of the season) for a strangely mismanaged franchise playing in the least populated time zone in the lower 48.
So let’s dig up those memories, the ones where Bryant was a destroyer, if not of worlds then of pitcher’s careers. Yes, he stumbled through 148 miserable plate appearances in the wood bat Cape Cod league when he was 19, and he went 1-for-6 in a very brief rookie league stint at age 21. Other than that, Bryant never had a sub-1.000 OPS in college or pro ball until he reached the majors in 2015. There, his OPS plunged to … .858., good enough to earn Rookie of the Year with all 30 first-place votes.
For the next four years Bryant was the monster under every pitcher’s bed, slashing .284/.385/.516. Since then, he’s still been a good hitter, but nothing like the pre-2020 version, in part because injuries have become more or less a permanent aspect of his game.
Flags fly forever, and fans will never forget that Bryant was a key crewmember of the S.S. Cursebreaker. But the memories of his hitting dominance have faded. He doesn’t keep pitchers awake at night anymore, and possibly never will again.
2015: Jeimer Candelario, .981 OPS (5), 5 HR (T – 2)
Go to Baseball Reference and type “Jeimer” in the search box. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
As you can see, he’s the only Jeimer that has ever set foot on a big league field. Just by making it to pro ball, Candelario carved out a niche for himself. Small solace, in all likelihood, for a player who saw his path to the majors blocked by superstars at the two positions he could plausibly play. It’s never good when the guys ahead of you already have TV contracts.
Candelario wouldn’t have much more than a pumpkin spice latte with the big club, but his minor league power impressed the Detroit Tigers enough to send Alex Avila and Justin Wilson down I-94 in exchange for his services. (The Cubs also threw in Isaac Paredes – yeah, who knew?)
It’s a trade that probably helped all concerned. Although he’s struggling this year, Candelario seems to have established himself as a roughly major league average hitter at the hot corner – at worst a starting third baseman for a second division squad, which the Tigers most certainly are. Avila and Wilson made decent contributions the post-2016 Cubs rosters that nevertheless failed to attain dynasty status, and Paredes is having a breakout season this year with the Exorcised Rays.
2017: David Bote, .931 OPS (9)
Yeah, I see it too – no idea why the Cubs can’t produce a dominant performance in even-numbered years. Perhaps this is evidence of as an as-yet undiscovered (and frankly not very effective) ruminant-related curse.
David Bote is the only player discussed in this post to have received a multi-year deal from the Cubs (five years/$15 million). That is probably one of the stranger baseball-related sentences you will read today. That contract, puzzling at the time, has not aged well.
Bote signed the extension in April 2019, just two years after his stellar Fall League effort, and would go on to have a solid if BABIP-fueled performance that season (.257/.362/.422, .333 BABIP). It’s been all Neifi Perez since then, as he’s slashed .209/.288/.357 for an OPS+ of 75 (Neifi’s with the Cubs was 74). Bote’s battled injuries as well as ineffectiveness, and the backloaded contract now gets expensive: $9 million over the next two seasons before two club option years that the Cubs surely will not exercise.
One advantage of being a big market team is that $9 million errors are not fatal. But they narrow a team’s range of options. By comparison, the Cubs’ apparently successful bet on Drew Smyly cost a bit over $5 million. Bote’s contract will make it a little harder to take a similar flyer next season, and Bote is occupying a roster slot that soon could be put to better use. As bad major league contracts go, this one is hardly the worst, but it’s a stone in Jed Hoyer’s shoe, and he already has quite enough of those.
2019: Alfonso Rivas, .866 OPS (9), .417 OBP (3), 0 HR (T – 61)
Rivas has been an on-base machine everywhere he’s played. Everywhere, that is, except The Show. You can see the problem in his Fall League stat line: great eye but limited pop.
Ayyyyy! Rivas’ slash lines
- Minors: .289/.391/.411
- Majors: .257/.337/.340
That major league line actually isn’t awful; his career batting average and on-base are better than the (albeit anemic) league averages this year. But Rivas’ power just disappears at the major league level, and drags that bolshy minor league OBP down with it. Baseball has changed significantly in recent years, but there is still little room for a punchless first baseman.
In theory there’s still time to improve. Rivas has had just 300 major league plate appearances, less than half a full season. The Cubs don’t have any obvious first base answers in the minors, though one of their less gazelle-like outfield prospects may end up there, given that there are realistically only two outfield spots up for contention. But Rivas has never shown over-the-fence power: in four minor league seasons over 1,000 plate appearances he has just 15 homers.
There have been first basemen with very low single-season homer totals in the expansion era, but most of them were established veterans toward the end of their careers. You’ll see a lot of Pete Rose and Rod Carew and Mike Hargrove on that list. Wes Parker is there, of course. But if you want to find a guy under 27 who hit less than five homers at first while qualifying for the batting title, there’s just one. Cliff Floyd did it in the strike-shortened 1994 season at age 21, and he played multiple positions that year.
Developing power at the major league level isn’t impossible. Ketel Marte hit a total of eight homers in his first three major league seasons; he’s hit 73 in the five seasons since (including this year). But given that the Cubs front office is openly panting for more power, Rivas probably needs to turn the corner soon if he’s to stick in the Cubs (or any other) major league lineup.
2021: Nelson Velazquez, 1.192 OPS (1), 9 HR (1), 34 K (T – 1)
Here again, the stat line tells the story. Velazquez can send objects to the moon faster than NASA, but oh my does he whiff. At 30.1 percent, Velazquez’ strikeout rate this season would be fifth in the realm if he qualified for the batting title. There’s a path to success through this terrain: Patrick Wisdom, Eugenio Suarez and Kyle Schwarber all have higher K rates, but they also have ISOs over .200. It is thus a narrow path. Velazquez will need to hit even more homers or find a way to cut down on the Ks if he is to remain in the Cubs’ plans.
Velazquez certainly has a better chance to stick than Rivas, but he also faces more immediate internal competition. As noted above, there are two open outfield spots and probably an opening at first, but there are well over three players competing for those three slots. Velazquez has a distinct advantage over the guys behind him in the minors: he got here first. But he’ll have to improve fast if he wants to stay.