Right-hander Matt Avery is one of four Cubs pitching prospects that is scheduled to represent the club in that venue beginning next month, and he will not be completely surrounded by unfamiliar faces.
Five of his teammates from Class AA Tennessee this past season, RHP's Justin Berg, Grant Johnson and Rocky Roquet, and INF Joe Simokaitis and OF Sam Fuld, are scheduled to join Avery in Arizona.
Fall League play is set to begin Tues., Oct. 9 when the Mesa Solar Sox, who will house prospects from the Cubs, Astros, Cardinals, Brewers and Red Sox organizations, play the Phoenix Desert Dogs. The Desert Dogs, reigning three-time champions of the Fall League, will house prospects from the A's, Orioles, Pirates, Twins and White Sox organizations.
All but one player chosen to represent the Cubs in this year's Fall League spent playing time at the Double-A level this past season. Each organization is allowed to put one player that spent the past season in the minor leagues in Class-A ball on their Fall League roster and for the Cubs that player was INF Josh Lansford, who spent 2007 in the Midwest League with Peoria.
For his part, Avery is looking forward to the event, which will serve as his first taste of post-season competition (minus the playoffs) since being selected by the Cubs in the ninth round of the 2005 draft from Virginia.
Avery, 24, has never spent time in the Cubs' annual Instructional League camp because he has been busy the past two off-seasons working on his college degree. (Avery still has two more credits to obtain before he can graduate. He is planning to finish off his degree beginning in January, he said.)
"I'm looking forward to the whole experience," Avery said of the AFL. "There's obviously going to be some unbelievable players out there, so hopefully I can go out there and pitch well, represent the Cubs well among all the good players there, and then hopefully have a little fun while I'm out there."
Avery came to the Cubs following a three-year pitching career in the ACC. His final two years at Virginia were spent as a starter, where Avery compiled a 13-7 record and a 3.79 ERA in 31 games, including 29 as a starter.
He would spend only his professional debut season as a starter in short-season A-ball before the Cubs moved him into the bullpen the following year amid the influx of starters at the Low Class-A level of the system.
Avery immediately took to the relief role, garnering Midwest League All-Star honors at Peoria and finishing with a 2.15 ERA and .188 average against in 48 appearances spanning 67 innings. He struck out 76 and walked 27.
By and large, Avery put together a strong follow-up showing this past season. He began the year at Class High-A Daytona and was moved up to Tennessee after posting a 1.61 ERA in 19 games spanning 22 1/3 innings.
He seemed to handle the transition to Double-A quite well but had a pair of rough nights toward the end of the season, which saw his ERA shoot up to 4.22 by the time the regular season ended in early September.
Because he was a former starter, Avery was able to give Tennessee more than just one inning of work on many nights. He went two innings or more in 13 of his 31 appearances with the club.
"Except for the past two years, I'm used to being out there for some time," Avery said. "I like it when I get to stay out there for a couple of innings. You get into the flow of the game and get a little momentum going."
In Avery's repertoire you will find a fastball, changeup and slider. He came to the Cubs with a curveball as his out-pitch, but started throwing the slider in Minor League Spring Training in 2006.
The slider has been a good set-up pitch for Avery, he said.
"My first Spring Training, I came in with a curveball and once we broke to Peoria, I just didn't have any confidence in it so I went to a slider," Avery said. "Looking back on it, I think it was a big adjustment. I think the pitch has been a pretty good one for me."
By the time Avery got the promotion to Double-A in late May, his work had shifted from learning how to throw his pitches to precisely when to throw them.
"It was about paying attention to the hitters and thinking about what I'm about to throw rather than just chunking it, because the mistakes are more magnified and they turn into doubles and triples and what not," Avery said.
"(It's about) knowing when to throw my different pitches and not so much how to throw them, but the right time to throw them," he said.
And with the Fall League on the horizon, the event will provide Avery a good opportunity to continue that work, all the while showcasing his game in front of countless major league scouts and front office members.
According to Major League Baseball, a total of 24 players that participated in the 2007 All-Star Game in San Francisco played in the AFL at one time.
The Cubs have their own criteria for sending players to the Fall League, and it has nothing to do with whether they view the players they select for the league as future big league All-Stars.
One of the more obvious reasons for selecting a player is that it gives certain pitchers that may have missed playing time in the regular season as the result of minor injuries a chance to get more innings in and stay sharper, and position players such as Lansford a chance to get more at-bats.
"After that, you're looking at guys that maybe by going there and playing, they have a chance to skip a level or move up a level," said Cubs Director of Player Development Oneri Fleita.
Avery was never injured this past season (or any other since being drafted), but whatever the reason the Cubs chose him, he is happy to be invited to the party.
"I'm excited just to get the opportunity to go out there," he said. "I'm pretty stoked about going there and pitching."
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