Fans like to get really excited about the Arizona Fall League, but for most players, it's Saturday school. For the most part, it's a place where players who have fallen behind in their work do their makeup assignments so they can go on to the next grade next year. Now it does have a limited number of spots and it is kind of an honor to get selected, so that's where my metaphor falls apart. But I hope you get the point. The Arizona Fall League is about getting in more work. It's about gaining more experience. It can be a scout's paradise, but it's not exactly fan-friendly.
Additionally, because it's about getting more experience, most teams don't send any top pitchers because "more experience" (i.e. innings) is the last thing they want their pitchers to get. That, combined with the thin, dry air of Arizona, makes it the happy hunting grounds for hitters. On top of that, players are often playing out of position (because prospects from different clubs play the same position) so defenses are sometimes questionable.
All in all, it's a lot of really talented athletes from different teams playing high-scoring games of questionable quality. So it's just like the NHL All-Star Game. Except not on ice. There goes another analogy falling apart.
Now that I've burst your bubble, let me blow it back up. There is a lot of talent every year in the AFL and a lot of guys who end up having great major league careers. Just last season, Christian Yelich, Kolten Wong, Anthony Rendon, Jake Marisnick, Didi Gregorius, Nick Franklin and Mike Zunino played in the AFL, and those are just the guys who played in the majors this season. The rosters in 2011 were even more ridiculous, with Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Will Middlebrooks, Gerrit Cole and Nolan Arenado among the participants. There's really no better place than the AFL to see the stars of tomorrow.
The Cubs are tentatively sending eight players to the Mesa Solar Sox, the team they stock along with the Athletics, Angels, Tigers and Nationals. Those players are infielders Javier Baez and Kris Bryant, outfielders Jorge Soler and Albert Almora, and pitchers Arodys Vizcaino, Armando Rivero, Dallas Beeler and Matt Loosen. That's an incredible amount of talent for one team to send to the the AFL. They're sending their top four prospects and another one from the top ten. I'm not an AFL historian so I can't say "That's the greatest amount of talent one team has sent since the Rangers in 2003" or anything, but that's definitely the most talent I've ever seen the Cubs send to the AFL.
John Manuel, writing in Baseball America, had this to say about Bryant, Baez, Almora, Soler and Athletics shortstop Addison Russell: "Frankly, this is a ridiculous assemblage of talent for Mesa, which should have some 'can you top this' moments in batting practice." Maybe you should skip the games and just watch batting practice, because that's going to be something special. The only team even close to Mesa's offensive talent level is Glendale, and that's only because they've got Byron Buxton, along with Corey Seager.
Now remember, the rosters are subject to change. The games don't start until October 8, and usually one player gets hurt or a team decides a guy has played enough after all. But as it stands now, the Mesa Solar Sox (Soler Sox?) are going to have an incredible display of talent.
So here's a quick look at the seven players the Cubs are sending and why I think they're going.
Javier Baez: Baez has had a pretty good season this year, hasn't he? Of course, he's second in all of minor league baseball in home runs to Georger Springer (who played in the AFL last season). If you've been reading the Minor League Wraps all summer, you're familiar with Baez.
I'm a bit surprised Baez was named to the AFL this season. He played last season in the AFL, and that was to challenge him against older and more experienced pitchers to see how he'd do. It was a humbling experience for Baez, as he didn't exactly set the league on fire with his .211 batting average in 14 games before he exited with a minor hand injury. But the point was to show Baez the adjustments he'd have to make going up the ladder, and in that case, sending Baez to the AFL last season was a success.
With Russell also on the Mesa squad, Baez will be playing some positions other than shortstop. But I wouldn't take this as the Cubs making and decisions on where he's going to play in the majors. I don't think Baez really needs more opportunities to hit this season, but if he's going to be playing in the majors next year, he needs to see more chances on defense. The tools are all there for Baez to be a good defensive shortstop, but he needs to be more consistent, and that's only going to come with more experience. I don't really care if Baez hits much in the AFL (although I think he will), but I mostly want to see him improve his technique and decision-making skills on defense. Once he does that, he'll probably be ready for the majors.
Kris Bryant: I'm also a bit surprised that Kris Bryant is playing in the AFL, since his season started way back in February when the University of San Diego started its season. But he didn't play at all in June and only at the end of July because of the draft and the negotiations afterwards. So his assignment to the AFL is no doubt an attempt to get more reps against advanced pitching. He hasn't played above High-A, so this will be a chance to see the type of pitching he'll face next season in Tennessee.
Bryant got off to a slow start to his professional career that was no doubt a result of the rust from the contract negotiations. Because once he got in the groove of things, he started hitting and hasn't stopped. Bryant hits the ball hard and far. He does also tend to swing and miss a little more than you'd like, so perhaps his time in the AFL will focus on making more contact or seeing what he'll have to do to not stop making contact against more advanced pitching.
Jorge Soler: Soler played this season in Daytona where he showed plus power and a great hitting approach. He was a disciplined hitter who drew a lot of walks and made a lot of contact, at least for a slugger. But what he wasn't healthy for much of the season and he missed the last two and a half months with a shin injury. So his trip to the AFL will mostly be about making up lost time.
Albert Almora: It's rare to see a player who hasn't played above Low-A in the Arizona Fall League, but Almora is a rare type of player who shows much more mature skills than almost any other player his age. Undoubtedly, the Cubs think Almora can handle it. Although maybe they think he can only handle it twice a week since he's on the "taxi squad" that only plays on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Almora's first season in full-season baseball was pretty successful in one sense, he hit .329 with a bunch of doubles, showed very good defensive skills in center field and showed an improving approach at the plate as the season went on. What he didn't show was much health. Almora missed a lot of time due to a broken hamate bone and a groin injury. He only played 61 games this year and only 33 last season. Putting Almora in the AFL is all about getting him more experience and making up for lost time.
Arodys Vizcaino: I shouldn't need to tell you why Vizcaino's here: he hasn't pitched in a game outside of spring training since 2011. Vizcaino was expected to be part of the Cubs pitching staff this season, but a setback in his recovery from Tommy John surgery caused the Cubs to shut him down to make sure he was completely healthy before pitching again. Vizcaino and his mid-90s fastball and knee-buckling curve are expected in Wrigley Field next April, and the Cubs want him to get used to pitching again before spring training starts. I think the Cubs would be foolish to use him in the rotation next season with his long injury history, but he should pitch out of the pen all of next year.
Armando Rivero: Rivero also went close to two years without pitching, but in his case it wasn't an injury but rather it was about defecting from Cuba and overcoming all the legal roadblocks before he could sign with a major league team. The Cubs inked him for $3.1 million last March, but he didn't take the mound for a team until pitching for Kane County in late June. He finished the season in Tennessee.
Rivero is 25 years old already and he's missed a lot of time, so again, this is about getting him more experience. The plan is undoubtedly for him to pitch in Wrigley next season. He's strictly a bullpen pitcher as he really only has one pitch, a mid-90s fastball. He's got a breaking pitch, but it needs work and that may be another reason he's here. Don't worry if he gets knocked around a bit come October as that may be a result of him working on his secondary pitches.
Dallas Beeler: Beeler doesn't wow anyone with his stuff (although it's decent enough), but at his best, he keeps the ball down, doesn't walk anyone and gets a lot of ground ball outs. He was off to the best season of his career with the Smokies when in May, he tore a tendon in the middle finger of his right (pitching) hand and didn't pitch again the rest of the season. He did have a 3.13 ERA after nine starts when he sustained the injury
So his assignment in the AFL is to get more innings in. Additionally, Beeler is eligible for the Rule 5 draft this winter, so the Cubs will have to make a decision about if they want to add him to the 40 man roster.
Matt Loosen: Loosen came into this season with a lot of expectations. Baseball America ranked him as the Cubs' No. 27 prospect coming into the season. He's got four pitches and all of them project out to be at least major league average. He struck out almost a batter an inning in Daytona in 2012. He's got the potential to be a No.4 or No. 5 starter in the majors.
When he started the season in Tennessee, he had a big problem keeping the ball off of the grass behind the outfield walls. In his last six starts for the Smokies before getting demoted back to Daytona, he allowed 12 home runs.
But in Daytona, he flourished again. In nine starts, he allowed only two home runs and posted a 1.82 ERA. He pitched a nine-inning no-hitter on July 8, just missing a perfect game. That earned him a trip back to Tennessee where he was mostly cured of his gopheritis, but now he couldn't throw strikes. In 27 innings over six starts since returning to the Smokies, Loosen has walked 20 batters. (He has struck out 23, so at least that's good.)
Loosen is also eligible for the Rule 5 draft. It seems unlikely he'll be protected, if only because it seems unlikely he'd get taken at this point. But the Cubs are going to want to get a good look at Loosen to see if he's more likely to be the guy in Daytona or the guy in Tennessee going forward.