Listach on AFL Nods

KODAK, Tenn. – The Mesa Solar Sox roster is dotted with Tennessee Smokies players as four pitchers from the team were selected by the Cubs to play in the Arizona Fall League on Monday. They will be joined by an outfielder and an infielder who both spent most of the season in Double-A ball.

"It's a great place," Tennessee Smokies Manager Pat Listach, who has twice done managerial stints in the league, said of the Arizona Fall League. "Whoever came up with the idea did a great job with it. It's a winter league, but you don't have to leave the country to play. You don't have to go to Mexico or the Dominican Republican or Venezuela. It's a great idea."

Said Steve Cobb, AFL executive vice president: "That was the beauty of this, and that seemed to be one of the unifying factors for all the clubs. They created a Fall League where all of their personnel would be involved, with reduced travel and immediate accessibility on the part of scouting."

The Cubs will be represented by pitchers Matt Avery, Justin Berg, Grant Johnson and Rocky Roquet. Outfielder Sam Fuld () and infielder Joe Simokaitis (), who both spent most of the summer in Tennessee, also were selected. Infielder Josh Lansford, who played in Class-A Peoria this summer, rounded out the Cubs' seven picks.

There are six teams in the AFL, which begins play on Oct. 9 and continues through Nov. 15 with a league championship game on Nov. 17.

Besides the Solar Sox, there are the Scottsdale Scorpions, Peoria Saguaros, Phoenix Desert Dogs, Peoria Javelinas and Grand Canyon Rafters.

The games are played in the Spring Training stadiums used by the Giants, Mariners, Padres, Cubs, A's, Royals and Rangers, and all the stadiums are within a few minutes of each other so that players don't endure the long travel that is the norm over the summer.

"You're going to see some Major League players" Listach said. "You look at the list of players that have played in the Arizona Fall League, and the list goes from Dusty Baker being a manager to Derek Jeter. The talent level is there, and most of those guys that play there play in the big leagues."

For both top position players and pitchers, the league is a place to stay in shape, face top-notch competition and be scouted.

The event becomes a showcase for the top talent in the minor leagues.

"That's exactly what it is," Listach said. "You get in a place where big league prospects are coming through, and at the same time every scout that comes through Arizona is going to see them. Every GM, every scout, and every major league manager usually comes through and sees some games."

The pitchers won't throw too many innings in the short-season venue, but they will see how they match up against the some of the best hitters in the developmental pipeline to the big leagues.

"They'll get 20 to 25 innings at the most, but it's against better competition and you see how you fare," Listach said. "It's the best of the best. It really is the best of the best in the minor leagues."

Berg has thrown 127.2 innings this season, the second-highest on the Tennessee staff. He is 6-7 with a 5.22 ERA and has put together two strong outings in August to end the regular season. Despite the high number of innings, Berg has only surrendered three home runs this season.

The other three pitchers have come out of the bullpen for the Smokies this season. Avery is 2-2 with a 4.30 ERA and 34 strikeouts to 14 walks in 44 innings with Tennessee, and Johnson is 1-1 with a 4.37 ERA and was nearly unhittable in August. He has 43 strikeouts to 20 walks with three saves.

Roquet, a flamethrower and a crowd favorite – the PA system at Smokies Park plays the theme from the movie "Rocky" when he enters the game – is 4-0 with a 2.72 ERA and 40 strikeouts to 14 walks.

Fuld, who primarily plays center and right field, is hitting .294 with 20 doubles and two home runs for Tennessee. He returned to the club last week from Class AAA Iowa when outfielder Matt Camp was sent back to Class-A Daytona and INF/OF Alberto Garcia went on the disabled list.

Fuld spent two weeks in Iowa and hit .269 with a homer, a triple and four doubles in 14 games. He drew nine walks in 52 at-bats.

Simokaitis, a shortstop and second baseman, spent most of the season with Tennessee and hit .257 with nine doubles. He was called up to Iowa on July 26 and is hitting .239 with six doubles and a homer in 32 games with the Triple-A club.

"The farm director picks them, and it's the seven players we feel are our top prospects that haven't been in the big leagues yet and have been in Double A for the most part," Listach said. "One Single A player is allowed."

That player is infielder Josh Lansford, who hit .273 with 17 doubles in 84 games at Peoria this season, but has not played since July 20 because of a sprained MCL. Lansford, who has been on a rehab stint in Mesa, expects to be ready to play by the time the Fall League starts.

As of now, none of the Cubs' selections have been designated for the "taxi squad." Those players can only play twice a week.

"If anybody gets hurt, then he can go to a full-time position," Listach said of a player on the "taxi squad." "They can work out all week, but they can only play on Wednesdays and Saturdays."

Listach said there is nothing not to like about getting picked to play in the desert in the fall.

"It's the top prospects in the organization, the weather's great in Arizona at that time of year, and you get to go play against other top prospects," Listach said. "It's a great competition and a good time out there."

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