Velazquez homered in four different games and batted .480/.552/1.000 with nine RBIs and eight runs in six contests. Kilian made a nearly perfect three-inning relief appearance, permitting just one hit while striking out six during a 12-0 shutout of the Glendale Desert Dogs last Wednesday.
Velazquez tapping into power
The Cubs' No. 29 prospect ranks among the overall AFL leaders in several categories: first in hits (23), homers (five) and total bases (43); second in runs (15), doubles (five), extra-base hits (11) and OPS (1.234); third in slugging (.791); fourth in batting (.397) and on-base percentage (.493); fifth in RBIs (14) and sixth in walks (11). It's a continuation of a breakout regular season in which he posted a slash line of .270/.333/.496 with 20 homers and 17 steals in 103 games between High-A and Double-A.
A fifth-round pick out of a Puerto Rico high school in 2017, Velazquez creates some of the best raw power and exit velocities in the Cubs system. He's an average runner who's aggressive on the bases, and he fits the right-field profile with his power and plus arm strength.
The 22-year-old attributes his success this season to the work he put in during the pandemic layoff in 2020. Though his development with the Cubs was limited to Spring Training and instructional league, he spent a lot of time back home in Puerto Rico honing his offense and defense.
"During the quarantine in 2020, I never stopped practicing or doing my job," Velazquez said. "I practiced six days a week every week for a year. It was something that really helped me, doing my cage work, my outfield work with my trainer and my coaches. I just bring what I do over there and bring it in here, and it's something that keeps helping me."
In particular, Velazquez tried to address one of his weaknesses. He did much more damage against fastballs than breaking balls in 2019, so he spent hours improving his ability to identify and hit the latter against pitching machines in Puerto Rico. He also made strides with his plate discipline when he got to Double-A and the Fall League.
"In 2019, I had a pretty good year, it wasn't bad, but I wasn't hitting the breaking ball very well," he said. "So in 2020, I focused more on hitting the breaking ball from the machine so I can see the breaking ball, see where I can hit it, find my power spot. This season I was hitting both, I was hitting the fastball and the breaking ball, so I think the machine helped me a lot."
Kilian quickly turns it around
While Velazquez has excelled from the start of the AFL season, Kilian got a rude introduction to the developmental circuit. In his first outing for Mesa on Oct. 16, the Cubs' No. 14 prospect was tagged for seven runs without recording an out against the Salt River Rafters.
Kilian hadn't pitched in an official game since Aug. 20 after getting caught up in a COVID-19 outbreak at Double-A Tennessee, and his fastball velocity and overall command were diminished against Salt River. They were both back to normal against Glendale, when he worked at 95-97 mph. He looked like the guy who led the Minors with an 8.6 K/BB ratio while posting a 2.42 ERA, .205 opponent average and 112 strikeouts in 100 1/3 innings between High-A and Double-A this season.
Besides making up some lost innings, Kilian also is making some changes to his repertoire. While his fastball and hard cutter remain his best pitches, he's trying to revamp his curveball and changeup.
"I'm also working on two new pitch grips," the 24-year-old righty said. "They were kind of foreign to me the first outing, but they're starting to get more comfortable and I think they're making my pitches better...
"I'm spiking now. It used to be a regular curveball, but this one seems to be a little sharper and a little faster too. I'm trying to get a better changeup going. It was pretty average this season. It's a circle change so I'm trying to get that perfected."
An eighth-round choice out of Texas Tech in 2019, Kilian is still acclimating to a new organization. The Giants traded him and outfield prospect Alexander Canario to the Cubs in exchange for Kris Bryant in July.
"I didn't know it was going to happen. I had no idea," he said. "I was going to go throw a bullpen, and I got a call and I was traded and in Tennessee the next day. It was overwhelming at first, but it's a good opportunity and I'm happy to be here."