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Player competitiveness and the Arizona Fall League

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The Cubs selections to the AFL will be announced soon.

Erick Leal
Larry Kave/Myrtle Beach Pelicans

Baseball players are quite competitive. To an extent, they have to be, to fight through the lousy wages in the minor leagues with the glimmer of a hope of the 40-man roster. As success kicks in, the premise of “betting on yourself” doesn’t go away. Jeff Samardzija (trade) and Jake Arrieta (free agency) left the Cubs after having the opportunity to sign extensions. However, in rare instances, the “betting on yourself” nature can be used by the organization to upgrade themselves in the wager.

Shortly after Theo Epstein went against his history and publicly offered Samardzija an extension, Samardzija was traded to Oakland. After being offered quite a few chances at sticking around for a team-accepted rate, Arrieta left for Philadelphia, with the Cubs getting college draft selection Paul Richan as compensation.

I imagine quite a few current Cubs have been offered extensions, though only Anthony Rizzo has signed one. Players remain competitive, and that usually makes signing extensions difficult. However, players who have been in a pipeline for their entire careers are occasionally interested in “one more season.” Especially since “all our friends are here.

After six full minor league seasons, minor league players are able to become minor league free agents. Actual free agency, free agency. However, eight-figure deals aren’t normally offered in those cases. Some players will leave, especially if they feel wronged or in a positional crunch.

Sometimes, though, and for unexpected reasons, a player in his “walk season” does represent a reasonable opportunity for the team to have leverage. The Cubs have a few players in their free agency season in the minor leagues. Alas, they have a mechanism to use the player’s competitiveness in a degree of a win/win scenario.

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The Arizona Fall League is generally thought of as a prospect showcase, such to the extent it’s thought of, at all. Each club in the AZ Fall League combines players and coaches from five different organizations. The Mesa Solar Sox are the Cubs affiliate in the league.

The Cubs will send eight players to represent the Solar Sox. Four other teams will, as well. Normally, top prospects are the primary draw. Kris Bryant played for the Solar Sox. So did Albert Almora Jr. Kyle Schwarber did, famously, in 2016. The pitchers are a bit of a jumble of players returning from injury, or otherwise seeking more innings. The AZ Fall League is usually about hitters.

However, when players “in their walk year” are involved, the team can use a degree of leverage. To play in the Fall League, a player must be signed for his parent organization for the next season. Which seems obvious, when you consider the standard players in the league. But, the Cubs have a few players with special circumstances this time around.

Danny Hultzen, lefthanded pitcher

Drafted second in the draft the year Javier Baez was selected by the Cubs, Hultzen pitched 124 innings in 2012, and very little since. Hultzen has been on the mend with the Cubs in Mesa this season, and has been a “traditional” opener for the Mesa Cubs in the Arizona Summer League late this season. He hasn’t pitched at a higher level that the Arizona League, and the seasons are in the process of concluding.

Hultzen likely thinks his 90 mile per hour velocity and repertoire are better than a league awash in late-round draft choices, and young international talent. I would agree he deserves a better look that he’s gotten so far. How would Hultzen fare in the Fall League?

He’d likely pitch an inning every three or four days against well-regarded prospects. If he succeeds in the Fall League, another organization would likely show a degree of interest in him. However, to pitch for the Solar Sox, he’d have to agree to a “successor contract”, which gives the Cubs the right of first refusal on Hultzen in 2019. To get the carrot, he has to sign the contract, first. Otherwise, he can become a free agent without much added to his resume for 2018.

Allen Webster, righthanded pitcher

A bit similar to Hultzen, Webster has MLB experience, but has traveled the same road as Hultzen in 2018. However, Webster has pitched more, at higher levels. Eligibility for the league is being below one full year (1.000, or 172 days) of MLB experience. Webster is currently situated at 0.157, which indicates 157 days. That’s short of an entire season.

Adding Webster’s mid-90s fastball to the Solar Sox would give him added looks for all 30 teams. Having him sign a successor contract would help the Cubs. He (along with Hultzen, if added) would be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft, if left off the 40-man roster.

Erick Leal, righthanded pitcher

Leal is in the same boat as Webster and Hultzen, though for a bit of a different set of circumstances. Added in the Tony Campana trade, the first of Leal’s six full seasons were spent with the Diamondbacks. Leal advanced to Advanced-A in 2016, and pitched in the Fall League that season. He then missed time with injury.

This year, Leal has pushed back to Myrtle Beach again, and had a season that would get him more publicity if he were a hard-thrower. He isn’t.

Leal signed a successor contract with the Cubs over the previous off-season. To pitch in Mesa again, he would need to do the same. Would he be willing to? Should it be offered? He isn’t a hard-thrower, but a WHIP of 0.667 should be valued, either way. Right?

Caro has never been considered a top prospect, unlike Webster and Hultzen. However, Caro has had a rather good season in both South Bend and Myrtle Beach. Like the two more highly-regarded pitchers, Caro can walk in the off-season.

The Cubs are a bit sketchy on outfielders for the Solar Sox roster. Caro and Eddy Martinez are among the most likely.

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The Cubs’ contributions to the Solar Sox should be announced soon. By league specifications, only two players of the eight can be lower than Double-A participants. As such, only two of Leal, Caro, and Hultzen can be sent to the Mesa squad. However, rules for the loosely-knit squads change periodically. Or are relaxed.

I’ve started on a number of “possible Solar Sox participant” articles. In part, because I should. I’ve learned, through the years, if I don’t like my article, neither will you. This thought-process held from front to finish.

Whether Webster, Hultzen, Leal, and Caro are included on the Solar Sox roster or not, I hope you’ve been mildly amused and educated. I know I have. And I’ll pay more attention to Solar Sox games than I should, when they start. After all, they represent the Cubs.