"What usually takes place is you recommend your players, and someone in the Fall League has to kind of put it all together," said Oneri Fleita, the Cubs' Vice President of Player Personnel. "They try to look at how the organizations match up."
Each of the six Fall League teams house prospects from five different organizations apiece. In the Mesa Solar Sox case, those organizations are the Cubs, Atlanta Braves, Detroit Tigers, Florida Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies.
Fleita said that determining a club's pitchers is a relatively simple task because every organization will send one starter and three relievers. But putting together position players is not so easy, he said.
"If everybody wants to send shortstops and third basemen, that wouldn't work. Those guys (at the AFL offices) do a great job of putting it all together. There's a lot of communication. We talk about it and it's kind of interesting every year how it's formed, but the end result is always good and we get to match a few positions that we want," said Fleita.
The Arizona Fall League opened its 2008 schedule on Tuesday, and one-third of the Mesa Solar Sox's starting lineup consisted of Chicago Cubs farmhands. Of them, shortstop Darwin Barney was the only one to record a hit with a 1-for-3 performance in a 3-2 victory over the Phoenix Desert Dogs. Both catcher Steve Clevenger and outfielder Tyler Colvin started and were 0-for-3 and 0-for-4, respectively.
Barney, 22, played in 123 games for Class Advanced-A Daytona this past summer and batted .262 with 22 doubles and 51 RBIs as the team's primary shortstop. He was a fourth-round Cubs draft pick from Oregon State in 2007.
Like a lot of other infielders brought to the Fall League, Barney figures to get some looks at a couple of different positions in the infield while in Arizona.
"We wanted Darwin Barney to get a chance to go there and play short and maybe second just to give him some versatility," said Fleita.
The 22-year-old Clevenger – already a versatile player who saw reps behind the plate and at first base and has experience as a middle infielder – played in 84 games this season at Daytona. He batted .313 with 20 doubles and 39 RBIs.
Each organization is allowed to bring only one player from a Class-A roster to the Fall League, and because the Cubs had already awarded that slot to Barney, Chicago had to ask the league for permission to add Clevenger.
"Because he was in the (Fall League) last year, they gave us sort of a waiver on his A-ball status," Fleita said of Clevenger.
The Cubs drafted Clevenger in the seventh round of the 2006 draft from Chipola Junior College in Florida. He is expected to spend the bulk of his playing time in Arizona behind the plate.
Fleita said the Cubs tabbed Nate Spears, an infielder with Class AA Tennessee who batted .299 with 22 doubles and 51 RBIs, because they want him to play "all over the infield." Spears, 23, whom the Cubs acquired in the Corey Patterson trade to Baltimore in January, 2006, spent most of this past season at second base.
None of the four Cubs pitching prospects named to the AFL saw playing time in Tuesday's opener. Chicago tabbed left-hander Donald Veal, and right-handers Rocky Roquet, Esmailin Caridad and Jesse Estrada to participate in the event.
Neither Caridad nor Estrada was on the initial Fall League roster. The Cubs added Estrada to the AFL roster in place of right-hander Justin Berg, who will play winter ball in Venezuela, and Fleita said Caridad made the group because the club was afforded a "TBA" that was not listed on the initial roster.
The 24-year-old Estrada appeared in 40 games this season between, mostly between Tennessee and Class AAA Iowa. He finished up 7-3 with a 5.20 ERA in 76-plus innings.
At 6-foot-8, Estrada is listed in the Cubs' media guide as the tallest pitcher in the farm system. Already an intimidating figure on the mound, Fleita said that Estrada's prospect status rose this year thanks to an increase in velocity that the organization had been hoping for.
"(Minor League Pitching Coordinator) Mark Riggins, along with (Tennessee pitching coach) Dennis Lewallyn and (Iowa pitching coach) Mike Mason, between the three of them I think they made a few adjustments in his delivery so that pretty regularly we're starting to see the velocities that we thought he might throw," Fleita said of Estrada.
"Along with the slider and sinker and changeup, he's a very intimidating-looking guy on the mound. He's always been a strike-thrower, so these guys feel there's something left in the tank."
The Cubs drafted Estrada from Grayson College in Texas in the 31st round of the 2004 draft.
Fleita noted that Roquet put together a strong finish to the season after a rough go of things early on. Roquet spent most of the year at Tennessee, where he was 4-2 with a 3.70 ERA and three saves in 39 appearances over 48 2/3 innings.
The Cubs signed Roquet as a non-drafted free agent in 2006 after finishing up his college career at Cal-Poly.
"His velocity early in the year was down for whatever reason and toward the end he really picked things up and finished off well," Fleita said of Roquet. "We were really pleased and he was promoted to Triple-A, and got a chance to pitch a little in the playoffs and got some nice experience at that level."
Veal, though one of the Cubs' consensus top pitching prospects, is coming off his second straight up-and-down season at Tennessee. Veal, 24, finished 5-10 there with a 4.52 ERA in 29 starts spanning 145-1/3 innings and for the second straight season struggled with his command at times, walking 81 batters.
"He continues to show those spurts," said Fleita. "He's a left-hander and when he wakes up in the morning he's left-handed. It's not uncommon for him to go through the bouts of control issues that he had, but he's still got a great arm and when he's locked in, he's unhittable."
Fleita said the Cubs might entertain the idea of using Veal in a relief role.
"Just to see if we can't find something that clicks for him to give him consistency," Fleita said. "That's really all we need is consistency because all the stuff and the arm is there."
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