To many baseball fans, the Arizona Fall League is a mystical place where top prospects go away and come back better. Major League Baseball bills it as a "finishing school for the game's elite prospects."
Lower Township's Matt Szczur hopes the AFL is where he develops from a double-A center fielder into someone who could play for the Chicago Cubs sometime this upcoming season.
Szczur is playing for the Mesa Solar Sox, one of six teams in the AFL, which runs from Oct. 9-Nov. 15. The 23-year-old split this past regular season with the Cubs' high-A and double-A teams.
"I envision him probably being in the big leagues at some point next year," Solar Sox manager Rodney Linares said in a phone interview Tuesday.
Two factors make the league special. First, it's selective, as each MLB organization gets to send only a limited number of players. Second, there's less emphasis on statistics and more on development.
"A lot of guys joke around about it. We call it kind of like a 'Stress-Free Baseball League,' " Szczur, the 2007 Press Male Athlete of the Year for Lower Cape May Regional High School, said in a phone interview Tuesday. "You're out here having fun. The stats count, but they don't count."
The league is stacked with talent. Not only is it exclusively top prospects, but each roster has nearly 40 players, so hitters generally face at least four or five elite pitchers per game.
"These guys are playing against the best of the best," Linares said. "It's not much about the workload or the instruction that they get out here. It's more the playing time. Going out there and seeing better pitchers and seeing better pitches, and understanding the strike zone. And they just feed off each other and they get better. When you look at it, it's kind of like being in an All-Star game every day."
Szczur was a Florida State League All-Star this past season at the high-A level. He hit .267 between there and Double A.
He was placed on the Cubs' 40-man roster at the end of the season for the second year in a row, a stipulation of the contract he signed in January 2011. Szczur already had signed a deal upon being drafted in the fifth round in 2010, but the second contract got him to give up football, since he had been an NFL draft prospect at Villanova.
Szczur would not have been eligible for the Rule 5 draft anyway, but being on the 40-man roster means that his three "option" years already have started and after 2014 the Cubs will not be able to send him to the minors without waivers.
Szczur's agent, Rex Gary, said being on the 40-man is "really good for Matt" for three reasons: He gets invited to major-league spring training; he won't have to move back and forth after 2014; and if the Cubs are deciding between two players for a roster spot in 2015, the player who has options left is more likely to be sent down.
"Hopefully the timing is ideal for both (Szczur and the Cubs)," Gary said.
Szczur said his goal is to play for the Cubs this season.
"That's the mentality you have to have," he said. "You can't say, 'Oh, I'll be there next year,' or, 'I'll be there the following year,' because you've got to want to try hard. You've got to want to be the best you can."
Szczur's future with the Cubs likely is as a leadoff hitter. That means getting on base is a priority, so he has been working on seeing more pitches during each at-bat in Arizona. He's hitting .264 in 53 at-bats, with eight walks and a .371 on-base percentage. Most baseball experts would like their leadoff hitters batting .300 with a .400 on-base percentage.
"Something clicked for me this fall league," Szczur said. "I'm being more selective and drawing walks and having great ABs almost every time I get up to the plate. And that's what a lot of guys look for, to make sure you're not swinging at junk, you're putting a good swing on the ball every time you're up to bat, and that's what I wanted to work on.
"I wanted to be selective but not too selective. Swing at my pitch and try and drive it every time. And I think for some reason out here I buckled down and I finally started doing that."
Szczur rents an apartment in Scottsdale, Ariz., which is near Mesa. He spent all of last offseason there preparing for spring training, which for the Cubs is also in Mesa. He lives alone, but his parents, Marc and Kathy, are out visiting for a few weeks now. His girlfriend, Natalie Cooper, also plans to visit.
Szczur has gone sight-seeing in Arizona, but he spends most of his free time drawing and painting. He also recently learned to crochet.
"I'm kind of an artsy guy," he said. "It's very therapeutic."
He also follows the Villanova football team, texting coach Andy Talley before every one of the Wildcats' games.
Szczur said he plans to come home at the end of the AFL season to spend some time with his family and his girlfriend, away from baseball until spring training in February.
While he will go to spring training with the big-league club, Szczur is expected to start the season in the minors. From there, though, he could move up because the Cubs are a young team with few positions solidified.
"I've just got to kind of control my own destiny and go out there and work every day, and try and put myself in the best position to get called up," Szczur said.
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