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Cubs prospects face tough competition in Fall League

MESA, Ariz. -- Earlier in his baseball life, Tony Zych wasn't aware of the unseen opponent pitchers face when on the mound.

He knew it was his job to get the batter out at the plate, but getting out of his own head was another story.

Now at the tail end of his second professional season after a productive collegiate career at Louisville, the Cubs right-handed pitching prospect has learned to not make his responsibilities more complicated than they need to be. And so far, the results are paying big dividends.

Zych, who's ranked No. 20 on Chicago's Top 20 Prospects list, is one of seven Cubs prospects playing for the Mesa Solar Sox in Arizona.

In seven relief appearances so far in the hitter-friendly Fall League, Zych has surrendered just one run on eight hits while striking out three. His 1.29 ERA, midway through the team's schedule, ranks lowest on the club.

"I try to keep it pretty simple," Zych said. "That has come with experience. I don't try to put too much long-term thinking into it. I don't think I have to have a certain ERA. I just try to go out there and play the best I can with what I have. Hopefully the results turn out positive, but I just need to focus on every pitch and try to make good ones. The end result will be what it is and I'll know I've done all I can do."

The 22-year-old is coming off a productive 2012 regular season, which he began at Class A Advanced Dayton and finished at Double-A Tennessee. In 61 1/3 total innings, Zych finished with a 3.67 ERA while striking out 64 and walking just 19.

Even with a full season already under his belt, the right-hander still feels OK health-wise.

"I kept a good routine all year, stayed strong and I still feel strong," he said. "Obviously you are starting to get a little tired but I still feel pretty good."

While in Arizona, Zych is trying to fine-tune his fastball and slider while working in his newest pitch, a splitter. The experimenting against such quality competition, Zych hopes, will pay off next season.

"I like the fact that the competition is really good, you can't just go out there, you have to bring it," he said. "You have to learn how to get guys out at a higher level. There's a definite difference you can tell. You can blink and there could be three or four runs on the board and you're just like, 'What happened?'"

Cubs hitters in the Fall League
Undoubtedly one of the most high profile players in Arizona, Javier Baez leads the Cubs' contingency in the Fall League.

Ranked No. 1 on Chicago's Top 20 Prospects list, Baez is an above-average defensive shortstop with plenty of pop in his bat along with the ability to hit for average.

The 19-year-old began his season with Class A Peoria hitting .333 with 10 doubles and 12 home runs before being promoted. However, he struggled in Dayton, batting .188/.244/.400 in 23 games.

The Cubs want Baez to get more work this fall against quality competition in Arizona before deciding where he begins the 2013 season. In his first 57 at-bats with Mesa, however, his struggles have continued. He has hit just .211 while striking out 14 times. On the bright side, his power is on display, as he leads the team with four homers.

Not much farther down on the Cubs' prospects list at No. 6 is Matt Szczur.

The speedy outfielder, who was also a football star in college at Villanova, is closer to the Major League level than Baez. Between Dayton and Tennessee this season, the 23-year-old combined to hit .360 with 26 doubles and 42 steals.

He's done well so far in Arizona, batting .264 with a .371 on-base percentage in his first 14 games.

Originally signed out of Cuba in 2010, Rubi Silva heads to the Fall League for an extended look after just his second professional season in America.

The 23-year-old outfielder tore up Dayton this year, batting .302, before being promoted to Tennessee for the final 20 games of the season. Facing stiffer competition than he has been used to, Silva hasn't fared particularly well in Arizona thus far, collecting just eight hits in his first 43 at-bats.

Cubs pitchers in the Fall League
Dae-Eun Rhee just finished his first full season at Double-A and now is in Arizona to get in extra innings and work on his control issues. Signed as a free agent from South Korea in 2007, Rhee walked 51 batters this season in 142 1/3 innings while only striking out 78.

He finished his campaign 9-8 in 26 starts with a 4.81 ERA, but through 9 2/3 innings in the Fall League as the Cubs' designated starting pitcher, the right-hander has allowed seven earned runs on 17 hits.

Perhaps one of the best late round draft picks in recent franchise memory, Nick Struck has consistently proved the doubters wrong. Originally drafted in the 39th round in 2009, the right-hander has proved to be one of the better arms in the farm system, at least statistically speaking.

In 26 starts for Tennessee in 2012, the 23-year-old put up a 3.18 ERA over 155 2/3 innings while striking out 123 batters and walking 44. His dominant season turned plenty of heads in the organization and earned him a trip to Arizona to continue proving himself against quality competition.

In seven appearances out of the bullpen for Mesa, Struck has given up five earned runs while punching out six batters.

The final representative in the Fall League for the Cubs, Kevin Rhoderick, is a native of Arizona. The right-hander pitched 57 2/3 innings of relief for Tennessee this season, posting a 4.99 ERA.

He has given up four earned runs and struck out 12 batters in his first 7 2/3 innings with Mesa.

Javier Baez, Matt Szczur, Tony Zych