According to Major League Baseball, 24 players from this year’s All-Star Game at AT&T Park in San Francisco played in the Arizona Fall League at one point.
The Cubs announced Monday the names of the seven players who will represent the organization in this year’s Arizona Fall League, which begins Tuesday, Oct. 9 and runs through Thursday, Nov. 15. (A league championship game will be played the following Saturday on Nov. 17.)
The players whom the Cubs have selected for this year’s event are pitchers Matt Avery, Justin Berg, Grant Johnson and Rocky Roquet; infielders Josh Lansford and Joe Simokaitis; and outfielder Sam Fuld (Watch Video).
Of those players, only Lansford has not seen playing time above A-ball and could be considered the headliner of the Cubs 2007 AFL selections. By rule, an organization is allowed to have only one prospect on an Arizona Fall League roster that was below the Double-A level when the season ended.
Lansford is batting .273 with 17 doubles in 84 games at Peoria this season, but has not played since July 20 because of a sprained MCL.
Now nearing the end of his rehab stint in Mesa, Ariz., Lansford expects to be ready to play by the time the Fall League opens in just over a month.
“It’s doing a lot better now,” Lansford said of the injury, which forced him to be carted off the field after a collision with pitcher Jake Renshaw. “I’m finishing up my rehab in Mesa and hopefully I’ll be able to make it back up to Peoria for any playoffs.”
Cubs Minor League Hitting Coordinator Dave Keller said prior to Lansford’s injury that, “the best thing that’s happened on that (Peoria) team is the development of Josh Lansford.”
Lansford isn’t sure about all of that, but he does feel that his first year of full-season ball has gone relatively well.
“My defense was there and I definitely started to come around offensively,” Lansford said. “I thought it was a good year. Ryno [Peoria manager Ryne Sandberg] taught me a lot about the mental part, the different counts and what the pitcher is most likely going to try to do.”
Typically, prospects who spend a full season at the Class-A levels of the Cubs’ farm system earn their post-season stripes in the organization’s annual Instructional League in Mesa from mid to late September through October. That makes Lansford’s entrance into the Fall League and the subsequent older competition he will face there all the more impressive.
“It’s a really big honor that they chose me out of all the A-ball players,” Lansford said Monday. “For them to choose me, I’m really thankful.”
Joining Lansford will be one infielder, one outfielder, and four pitchers.
Both Simokaitis (Watch Video) and Fuld began the year in Double-A and each was moved up to Triple-A following the midway point of the season.
Fuld has since returned to Tennessee and is having another solid year at the plate with a .295 average and a .371 on-base percentage in 82 Double-A contests. He began the year on the disabled list with an oblique injury before joining Tennessee in late April. Fuld has 24 extra-base hits with Tennessee this season, and just 36 strikeouts to 33 walks.
Simokaitis, drafted two years ago from Nebraska, joined Iowa in late July after batting .257 in 76 games with Tennessee. He has hit .248 in 31 games at Triple-A and has advanced through the farm system quickly after a four-year college playing career in Lincoln.
“I’m definitely happy (with advancing),” Simokaitis said. “Being around the older guys like Ronny (Cedeno), I’ve tried to improve every day.”
Simokaitis has also flashed some versatility, playing third base and the outfield in addition to short. He’s also seen playing time at second base.
“The more versatile you are, the more valuable you are to a club,” he said.
Of the pitchers, Johnson’s name is the least surprising to find on the list. The right-hander and Cubs second-round draft pick in 2004 was initially slated to participate in last year’s Fall League event, but was bumped when the club acquired pitcher Adam Harben from Minnesota for INF/OF Phil Nevin.
Having struggled with mechanics for much of his tenure in the Cubs system, Johnson has been used exclusively in relief for over a year now and has made 27 appearances from the Tennessee bullpen. In 47 1/3 innings at Double-A, he has a 4.37 ERA and 43 strikeouts.
For his part, Avery has split time between Class-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee this season, having logged 64 2/3 innings in relief.
A ninth-round selection from Virginia in the 2005 draft, Avery posted a 1.61 ERA in 19 appearances with Daytona before getting moved up in late May to Tennessee, where he is 2-2 with a 4.46 ERA in 28 games.
The right-hander initially came to the Cubs as a starter from the ACC, but converted to relief pitching last season in Peoria.
In the midst of his second season with the Cubs’ farm system after being traded from the New York Yankees’ for Matt Lawton in 2005, 23-year-old Berg has enjoyed sporadic success this season with a 5.21 ERA in 24 starts.
A sinkerball pitcher that can run his fastball into the mid-90s, Berg has struggled with command at times this year with 63 walks (second most in the farm system). After tinkering with a curveball last season in Daytona, he has since gone back to a slider after making the jump up to Double-A.
Of the pitchers who have made the biggest trek up the ladder this season, one would have to include Roquet in that group.
The 24-year-old is in his first pro season, but had already progressed to Double-A less than one year after signing as a non-drafted free agent. Roquet began the year with 16 consecutive scoreless outings at Peoria and then spent hardly a week in Daytona before getting moved up to Tennessee.
In 25 appearances with the Smokies, Roquet is 4-0 with six saves and a 2.72 ERA. He has struck out 40 in 36 1/3 innings with the team.
The right-hander pitches off his fastball and slider and topped out at 97 mph in the Northwest League with Class Low-A Boise a season ago.
Housing the Cubs’ contingent of prospects in the AFL will be the Mesa Solar Sox. The Solar Sox will host prospects from four National League Central clubs: the Cubs, Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers, and St. Louis Cardinals. The Solar Sox will also house prospects from the Boston Red Sox. Astros minor league skipper Dave Clark will manage the team.
Currently, none of the Cubs’ prospects in this year’s Fall League have been designated as “Taxi Squad” players (Wednesday and Saturday play only).