Arizona Fall League: Cubs key prospects look to make impressions

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Cubs key prospects looking to make impressions in AFL originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Five years ago Friday, the Cubs clinched their first pennant since 1945.

But as they celebrated their NLCS win over the Dodgers, one member of their eventual World Series championship team was not at Wrigley Field.

Kyle Schwarber, who missed most of the 2016 season with a knee injury, was gearing up for a return to the Cubs in the Fall Classic. The same night the Cubs won the pennant, he played in his first game since hurting his knee that April — in the Arizona Fall League.

The Cubs are obviously in a much different place this October than 2016, when Schwarber used the AFL to launch his World Series comeback. 

Coming off their worst season since 2014, the Cubs have what they feel is a strong group in this year’s AFL, a group they’re counting on to be part of the next championship core. 

The AFL is especially important this year after the 2020 minor league season — including last year's AFL — was lost due to COVID-19.

RELATED: Meet the Cubs exec with toughest job in baseball in 2021

Here’s a rundown of the Cubs prospects competing with the Mesa Solar Sox.

RHP Caleb Kilian

The Cubs acquired Kilian at the trade deadline in the deal that sent Kris Bryant to San Francisco. The 24-year-old is their No. 14 overall prospect, per MLB.com.

Kilian posted a 2.42 ERA in 19 starts between Single- and Double-A with the Giants and Cubs in 2021. He displayed excellent command, tallying 112 strikeouts and only 13 walks in 100 1/3 innings.

He’s made one appearance in the AFL, getting tagged for seven runs without getting an out, although it was his first appearance in about two months and the AFL is a developmental platform for prospects.

Kilian is viewed as one of the deadline acquisitions closest to a big-league debut, perhaps sometime next season.

RHP Ryan Jensen

Jensen was the Cubs' first-round pick in 2019 and is their No. 15 prospect, according to MLB.com. He reached Double-A near the end of the 2021 season.

Jensen, 23, finished 2021 with a 4.16 ERA in 20 starts, striking out 90 with 31 walks in 80 innings. He finished strong after a rough June, turning in sub-2 ERAs in July, August and September, making 10 starts across that stretch.

Mark Johnson, Jensen's Double-A manager, told NBC Sports Chicago he was really impressed with Jensen's fastball after seeing him pitch in September.

Said Johnson: "He just needs some more innings and more experience to develop his secondary stuff and develop controlling a running game and all those little things that really matter a lot, especially at a higher level."

Jensen has made one AFL start, surrendering four runs in 1 1/3 innings.

RHP Danis Correa

Correa, 22, has yet to make an appearance in the AFL but is coming off a good 2021 season, his first since 2018, after missing 2019 due to injury and COVID-19 wiping out the 2020 campaign.

Correa, whom the Cubs signed out of Colombia as an international free agent in 2016, turned in a 1.95 ERA in 26 relief appearances with Single-A Myrtle Beach and South Bend.

Correa wields a high-90s fastball and struck out 60 batters in 37 innings with 18 walks this season.

LHP Brendon Little

Little, the Cubs’ first-round pick in 2017 (27th overall), transitioned to relief in 2021 after exclusively starting from 2017-19. He reached Triple-A Iowa for the first time this season.

Little, 25, has battled command in his minor-league career but posted a 3.24 ERA in 26 appearances with Tennessee and Iowa in 2021, striking out 53 in 41 2/3 innings. 

The lefty has made one AFL appearance, allowing two runs in one-plus innings Saturday before leaving the game with a trainer.

OF Nelson Velazquez

Velazquez has carried over his impressive 2021 to Arizona, going 6-for-18 with three doubles in his first four AFL games. He had a breakout 2021 in the power department, slugging 20 home runs between South Bend and Tennessee.

Velazquez, who hit .270/.333/.496 between Single- and Double-A this season, is the Cubs’ No. 29 prospect, per MLB.com. The 22-year-old and 2017 fifth-round pick reached Double-A for the first time this season.

The Cubs named him their minor league player of the month for August.

SS Luis Vazquez

Vazquez, 22, is one of many shortstop prospects the Cubs are high on in their farm system, with perhaps the best glove among that group. The 2017 14th-round pick missed a chunk of 2021 due to injury, playing in 34 games, but finished the season in Double-A.

Vazquez, who hit .264/.352/.328 across three levels in 2021, is 3-for-15 through four AFL games.

INF Andy Weber

Weber, 24, was limited to 44 games this season due to three trips to the injured list. He spent the entire season with Tennessee — outside of a brief rehab assignment in rookie ball — and batted .214/.302/.321 for the Smokies.

The 2018 fifth-round pick known to be a quality defender is 2-for-10 through three AFL games.

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