Cubs' Velazquez off to strong start in AFL
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Nelson Velazquez’s goal for his time in the Arizona Fall League is pretty simple.
“Just keep doing what I’m doing now,” he said.
After an impressive end to his regular season at Double-A Tennessee and a solid AFL start, few could blame him for that philosophy.
The Cubs' No. 29 prospect went 2-for-4 with a double, a walk, four runs scored and an RBI to help visiting Mesa defeat Scottsdale, 11-9, on Wednesday.
The effort was Velazquez’s second multihit game in his first four contests with the Solar Sox, and he sits 6-for-18 (.333) with three doubles and an early .868 OPS over that span.
The 22-year-old outfielder got off to a quick start Wednesday by ripping a single up the middle in the second inning and came around to score as part of the three-run frame. After walking and scoring again an inning later, Velazquez picked up an RBI double in the fifth as the Solar Sox added another three-spot. It took an adjustment to add the extra-base hit to the Chicago prospect’s resume.
“The first hit was a fastball inside, so I was able to catch that ball where I wanted,” Velazquez said. “The second hit, they kept throwing me fastballs, and I just caught the ball up front and middle-away. I had to change to get that hit.”
The ability to adjust both on the fly and over the long term is a big reason why Velazquez is in the Arizona Fall League in the first place.
Drafted in the fifth round of the 2017 Draft, the right-handed slugger put up solid numbers but hadn’t cracked above Class A in his first three seasons in the Cubs system. He spent the canceled 2020 season home in Puerto Rico, focusing on hitting against pitching machines; specifically ones that afforded him better looks at the breaking balls that had been giving him fits and leading to high strikeout rates at the lower levels.
Velazquez finally got that look at High-A this summer and handled himself well at South Bend, posting a .261/.321/.456 slash line with 12 homers and 12 steals in 69 games. But he truly took off at Double-A Tennessee following an early August promotion. He produced a .290/.358/.581 line with eight homers in 34 games for the Smokies, showing off his trademark power while cutting his K rate from 33.7 to 25.5 percent.
If the past two years have taught Velazquez anything, it’s that he can do the most damage when he swings at pitches in his zone, specifically fastballs in or breaking balls away. That can establish a baseline of success he can build on as he did Wednesday, when he was also able to get to the heater on the outside corner. It’s an energy he’s tried to carry throughout 2021.
“When I started playing Spring Training, I felt like I was doing what I did in the quarantine,” he said. “So when I got into the season, it really helped me.”
This AFL campaign could be an important one for Velazquez. He has the power potential and the plus arm to be a prototypical right fielder at the top level, and his string of results in 2021 have the Cubs paying attention. That comes at a crucial time, considering he is eligible for the Rule 5 Draft this offseason and will need to be added to the 40-man roster to be protected from that process.
An impressive Fall League will only help his case. But all Velazquez is worried about is keeping his strong 2021 going for as long as he can.
“Right now, I’m not thinking about that,” he said of the roster spot. “I’m just playing. I hope I can be there next year. I think I can be there next year.”
Orioles second baseman Greg Cullen homered and plated three runs from the ninth spot in the Mesa lineup, while Blue Jays first baseman Spencer Horwitz added three RBIs on a 2-for-5 day.
No. 5 Red Sox prospect Jeter Downs hit a solo homer in the first inning for Scottsdale, moving him into a tie for the AFL with three blasts on the young season. Eighth-ranked Giants prospect Patrick Bailey went deep for the first time for the Scorpions in the loss.