After nearly two years, the Arizona Fall League is finally back. This annual event served as a prospect proving ground where organizations could send their upper level prospects to face off against higher level competition. According to the AZ Fall League, the majority of all participants in the league make the majors, which is a remarkable statistic. This fall, the Cubs will send six representatives to team up with Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles (Angels), and Oakland farmhands to field the Mesa Solar Sox.
Historically, organizations sent only players in the AA or higher levels, but with the following changes made in 2019 (see below) the options for who a team can send are nearly infinite.
Beginning with the 2019 season, any player under contract with a Major League organization will be eligible for nomination for the Fall League. Previously, all Triple-A and Double-A players were eligible, so long as they were in Double-A by at least Aug. 1. Clubs could also nominate one player below the Double-A level (as the Cubs did with Nico Hoerner in 2018) and one foreign player from a country that doesn’t have a winter-ball circuit. Also, no players with more than one year of Major League service time could participate.
Now, all that is gone, which could lead to some fascinating Fall League rosters. Clubs could, in theory, send multiple Major Leaguers who need more development time or, at the other end of the spectrum, load their AFL contingent with younger players who they want to get experience against advanced competition. MLB added that this particular change will be evaluated again after the 2019 AFL season, so if rosters get too crazy, the change might not be around for long.Sam Dykstra in 2019
Picking the Cubs 2021 Reps
In identifying players below I tried to be realistic in innings totals for the year. Privately, the Cubs have noted a goal of approximately 100 innings for many of the Cubs minor league starters so this rules out many of the starters who have pitched since the beginning of the season. Names like Max Bain and Cam Sanders likely would not have the room to add more innings while staying under the limit. Other pitchers like DJ Herz, Richard Gallardo, and Tyler Schalffer are likely a year away from this level.
On the hitting side, expect a mix of positions since these teams do need to field a full roster. Each organization can send six participants and the AZ Fall League is a great time to emphasize versatility. The final consideration is that the AZ Fall League can serve as 40-man roster tryout prior to the Rule 5 draft. Todd Johnson provided a great breakdown of 40 man roster considerations.
- Chris Clarke: The 6’7″ righthander has looked solid in his return form a lingering hip injury. He has been making up for lost time, but at the time of this article only has 40 2/3 innings. Clarke should be a fast-mover in 2022 and likely will start at AA or higher. He has used a starter’s arsenal to succeed at South Bend (4.30 ERA with 41 Ks in 40 2/3 innings). Clarke is already 23 years old so debuting at AA at 24 isn’t a concern, but it would be advantageous to let him compete against upper level players this fall.
- Jordan Wicks: Once Wicks made his debut, this pick became much more realistic. The Cubs 2021 first-round pick logged 92 1/3 innings for Kansas State prior to the draft and was widely regarded as one of the most advanced pitchers selected. There are some that feel that Wicks should start at AA next season in a similar manner to Los Angeles Angels LHP, Reid Detmers, who was the top college lefty in the 2020 draft. Even if Wicks only pitches in shorter outings, he should have the opportunity to try his hand against competition that will likely be in the A+/AA range of talent. Out of all the selections, this feels the least likely.
- Dakota Chalmers: The Cubs claimed the righthander with a killer fastball/curveball combo from Oakland in June. The former Dan Kantrovitz draft pick has had a mixed bag this season and sits with a 6.55 ERA, but he has had flashes of brilliance. Chalmers is eligible for the Rule 5 draft if not added to the 40-man roster. With that fastball-curveball combination it wouldn’t be in his best interest to give up on starting, but it would be ideal for him to at least get a run as a reliever in AZ to finish out the season.
Other pitchers to consider: Ryan Jensen, Danis Correa, Gabriel Jaramillo, Ethan Roberts, Michael McAvene, Brandon Hughes, Brian Hudson
- Brennen Davis: After missing the first month of the season following a concussion suffered late in Spring Camp, Brennen Davis has absolutely scorched the ball to a tune of .284/.387/.507 in 79 combined games between A+ and AA. His K% is still high at 29.6%, but that number has decreased in the last month. Davis is not far from making his Wrigley debut and the AZ Fall League makes complete sense to give some additional reps and face off against high level competition.
- Chase Strumpf: Strumpf mashed during instructional league last year. He continued that trend into 2021 with a solid start at South Bend, but his .211/.335/.380 line at AA leaves much to be desired. Instructional league is not a viable option to grade how well Strumpf if progressing. He has battled injuries, but has started to turn it around before being put on the 7-day IL following a COVID outbreak at AA. If healthy, Strumpf should get a chance to play all over the diamond for the Solar Sox.
- Casey Opitz: Already regarded as having a major-league caliber glove and demeanor at C, Opitz should be a quick mover through the minor leagues. He is a strong bet to spend time in AA in 2022. Every team needs catching and I’d bet the Mesa Solar Sox pitchers would be lining up to throw to Optiz. The 2021 draftee is currently slashing .300/.382/.334 in limited at-bats.
Other hitters to consider: Nelson Velasquez, Andy Weber, Chris Morel
What do you think?
Rosters are set to come out soon. Who do you think will suit up as the Chicago Cubs’ representatives on the Mesa Solar Sox. Games begin October 13th!