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After The Fall: Baseball Lives in Arizona

MESA, Ariz.–Anyone who thinks the Chicago Cubs will glide to the top of the National League on the wings of their (very) young prospects should recall the name of Josh Vitters. He was the team’s top choice in the 2007 amateur draft and the third pick overall, a 17-year-old who was hailed as the best hitter in his class. Every “can’t miss” cliché extant was hung on him, and one and all expected him to supplant Aramis Ramirez as a fixture at third base at Wrigley Field. Every time he came to the plate in spring-training games here the HoHoKam Park organist would play the theme song from the movie “The Natural.”

Now, seven seasons have passed and Vitters’ star has fallen. He’s been a decent minor-league batsman, with a .282 average in 2,063 turns, but has been unexceptional otherwise, and his 2012 call up with the big team was a disaster, yielding just 12 hits and 33 strikeouts in his 99 official times at bat. This year he struggled with injuries and played in just 28 games with AAA Iowa. He’s no longer listed among the team’s top prospects and rumor has it he’s being shopped for whatever he might bring.

This inoculation against irrational exuberance is timely because of the way a trio of newer Cub prospects is performing in the Arizona Fall League, whose October 9 to November 17 season is playing out in the Phoenix area. Kris Bryant, like Vitters a third baseman and high draft choice (No. 2 overall last June), is hammering the ball for average and power, and Albert Almora, a keen kid outfielder and the team’s top 2012 draftee, is doing the same, although not so much in the power department.

Jorge Soler, the Cuban outfielder who is being paid like a big-leaguer even though he won’t be one for a while, is performing in a gingerly manner after an injury-plagued minor-league campaign, but showing enough to whet appetites for an eventual breakout. The old Cubs fans who predominate in the HoHoKam stands these soft desert-autumn afternoons and evenings are grinning broadly, thinking that hanging around for a few more years might prove worthwhile.

Success in the Fall League doesn’t necessarily mean Major League stardom, but doing well here doesn’t hurt, as the likes of previous participants Ryan Howard, Ryan Braun, Derek Jeter and Joe Mauer have shown. The league’s six-team, 32-game schedule gives a handful of young prospects from each of the 30 MLB clubs a chance to strut their stuff against the best of their age-group peers under the eyes of scouts who appreciate the fact that all the action takes place within an hour’s drive or less. The players like it, too, in no small measure because the mostly day-game format leaves them plenty of time to sample Scottsdale’s night life.

The Cub buzz here has been especially strong because the team is showcasing three of its A-1 prospects, something clubs don’t often do because such top-of-the-list types generally are older and farther along the developmental track than AFL invitees. The number was supposed to have been four because shortstop Javier Baez was included on the original roster of the Mesa Solar Sox team for which Cub youngsters perform, but the club withdrew him, reasoning that he probably was weary from rounding the bases on the 37 home runs he hit in two minor-league stops in the just-concluded season.

Baez, the Cubs’ top draft pick in 2011, played in the Fall League last year before bowing out with an injury. There, he hit the ball hard but didn’t hit it often (his BA was .211). Further, he was a drag in the field at both shortstop and third base, a trait that continued last season in the minors. Still just 20 years old, he needs more seasoning as well as a safe position, but if the team wants to sell tickets he’ll probably be a Cub next year.

There aren’t many 6-foot-5 third basemen, but if he keeps hitting the way he has it will be hard to keep Bryant away from Wrigley Field. Before coming here he’d played just 36 games as a pro after signing with the Cubs in July, but at age 21 he’s a year older than Baez and played three years of college ball at San Diego State U., which should count for something.

Because of his height and lanky frame Bryant has been likened to Dave Kingman, the Cub slugger of the late 1970s. The comparison isn’t apt stylistically; while Kingman wrapped himself around home plate and tried to pull just about everything, Bryant has an upright stance and short swing, and hits to all fields. In his best game here, on Oct. 15 against the Scottsdale Scorpions, he hit home runs to both left and right field, plus a ground-rule double that one-hopped the fence at the 390-foot mark in left-center. Some fans sitting behind home plate thought that drive left the park on a fly and gave the umpires grief about it the rest of the game.

At the midpoint of the Fall League season Bryant led the league in home runs (4), runs batted in (14), total bases (38) and slugging percentage (.905), and had the third-best batting average, .429. Barring injury he’s a certain AFL all-star and possible MVP. Better yet, raves his AFL manager Bill Richardson, from the Angels’ chain, “his inside is better than his outside. He’s a 6-tool player, the sixth being his work ethic. His fielding needs work but he’s doing it. I’ll be surprised if he isn’t a Cub pretty quick.”

It’ll probably take Almora longer to graduate, if only because of his age. At 19 he was the second-youngest AFLer on opening-day rosters, and has played in just 94 minor-league games since signing with the Cubs last year out of high school in Hialeah, Florida. Still, he’s impressed at every stop as a lead-off or No. 2 hitter and solid fielder with the range to play center.

Slim but tightly wound, Almora hit the first Fall League pitch he was saw out of the park at HoHoKam. He had three other hits that day, including a double. Almost as impressive was a game a week later in which he was 1 (a double)-for-6 in the box score but had three line-drive outs that would have gone for extra bases if hit a few feet to the left or right. “He’s a nice kid, too—opens doors for the ladies,” offers Richardson. “If I had a daughter I’d let him date her.”

Soler, the 21-year-old Cuban defector to whom the Cubs gave a nine-year, $30 million contract last year, had a rough go of it at Class A Daytona last season. That was partly his own doing (he was suspended after charging the opposing dugout with a bat during a melee) but mostly because of foot-bone stress fracture that ended his regular season in June and put him in a walking boot for two months. His timing at the plate has been off here, and either from inability or caution he’s been reluctant to run all out. He’s DHed as often as he’s played his normal position of right field.

But at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, with broad shoulders and a narrow waist, Soler has a physique that screams “ath-uh-lete.” After a slow start he’s shown flashes of the ability that caused the Cubs to pay up for his services, going 3-for-4 with 2 RBIs in one game last week and hitting a go-ahead, two-run home run in another. One earlier shot he hit at Hohokam that left the park foul has yet to come down.

Pitchers are harder to evaluate here because they rarely go more than a couple innings a week. None of the Cub mound contingent of Dallas Beeler, Lendy Castillo, Matt Loosen and Armando Rivero has stood out. The White Sox pitchers, based in Glendale, have fared better, but two of them (Charley Leesman and Stephen McCray) are 26 years old, elderly for these precincts.

The White Sox haven’t made much of a splash here because, necessity being the mother of promotion, their best young prospects (Avisail Garcia, Leury Garcia and Erik Johnson) already have broken in their big-league uniforms. Infielder Marcus Semien wore the pinstripes, too, after a September call-up. He’s here anyway, hitting under .200, and after a three-stop, 158-game regular season is looking like he needs a nap.

Micah Johnson, a sturdy second-baseman, showed well in a half-dozen games before his audition was cut short by an elbow injury. The bat of outfielder Jared Mitchell, the ex-LSU wide receiver who was Sox’s top 2009 draft choice, is showing signs of life, something it hasn’t done since he lost the 2010 season to a torn ankle tendon. The Sox would like nothing better than to see him thrive, and under high Arizona skies anything seems possible in the spring.

Huh?

Oh, right. It’s fall.

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