Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A waaaaaay too early look at the 2015 Lugnuts!

Now that it has been officially announced that the Lugnuts are a Blue Jays' affiliate for the next two seasons, it's time to start forecasting the 2015 Lansing Lugnuts!
I'm excited about this because...
Interruption: I'm no Photoshop master, but what do you think?
PDCQuick trivia question:  That's Daniel Norris as the centerpiece of the graphic. Can you guess who was my original cover Lug before switching to Norris at the last minute? Here's your answer.
...listen to this prospect-laden starting lineup:
We begin with 2014 11th overall pick Max Pentecost, who should be the Lugnuts' starting catcher and top prospect. Place Rowdy Tellez at first base, add in Franklin Barreto at shortstop, and the Lugs feature three premier talents batting consecutively (likely 2-3-4 in the order). The ideal super-prospect leadoff hitter is center fielder Anthony Alford, who should drop by from April-ish through July-ish before heading back to Ole Miss. There's the chance, too, that D.J. Davis returns to Lansing for a second go-round, which puts D.J. in center, if not also at the top of the order.
We begin to build:
1. Anthony Alford / D.J. Davis, CF
2. Franklin Barreto, SS
3. Max Pentecost, C
4. Rowdy Tellez, 1B
From here, we look to the Vancouver Canadians' 2014 starting lineup. Vancouver's top players, alongside Barreto, were first baseman Ryan McBroom (.841 OPS), outfielder Chris Carlson (.790 OPS), second baseman Tim Locastro (.774 OPS), third baseman Alexis Maldonado (.747 OPS) and speedy Roemon Fields (48 steals, 64 runs scored in 72 games).
For OPS comparison, consider that Mitch Nay, Midwest League Postseason All-Star and all-around Lugnuts standout, finished 2014 with a .731 OPS in Lansing.
5. Ryan McBroom, DH
6. Chris Carlson, RF
7. Alexis Maldonado, 3B
8. Tim Locastro, 2B
9. Roemon Fields, LF
It's likely we'll see a Lugnuts returnee or two -- perhaps Chaz Frank in the outfield. We should also see 13th-rounder Gunnar Heidt as well as rising Bluefield Blue Jays, perhaps catcher Dan Jansen or teenage third baseman Lane Thomas (Toronto's 5th-round pick this past June).
The starting rotation might see the return of Shane Dawson and/or Starlyn Suriel, though I'm hoping both land in Dunedin. Likelier, we'll see prospects Matt Smoral, Jairo Labourt and Ryan Borucki rising from Vancouver. Will Toronto try Alberto Tirado in the starting rotation again, or did he find his true home in the bullpen? Where do a healthy Adonys Cardona and Tom Robson land? For now, put me down for:
1. Matt Smoral, LHP
2. Ryan Borucki, RHP
3. Jairo Labourt, LHP
4. Chase Mallard, RHP
And maybe Jesus Tinoco (R), Evan Smith (L) or Grayson Huffman (L) moving up from Bluefield?
The bullpen is a hazier area to project:
Andrew Case, RHP
Yeyfry Del Rosario, RHP
Adaric Kelly, RHP
Michael Kraft, LHP
Joe Lovecchio, RHP
Justin Shafer, RHP
Alberto Tirado, RHP
Chase Wellbrock, RHP
That's where things really get tough, so let's leave off right there.
Realistically, consider the quantity of top Blue Jays prospects likely to land in Lansing next season: Alford, Barreto, Borucki, Labourt, Pentecost, Smoral, Tellez, Tirado.
The farm system is fertile, and the Lugnuts are reaping the benefits.

The Tradition of Re-Creation Broadcasts

In August, I promised SB Nation's Bluebird Banter that I would write about my annual game re-creation tradition. Here it is:
Every August, during an otherwise routine evening at the ballpark, I re-create a live Lansing Lugnuts baseball game.

I stand in the open press box, a baseball glove, a ball, and two broken bats at the ready, and receive minimalist messages sent in from my broadcast partner: "Ball," perhaps, or "Single." Then I sculpt the play, from the pitcher heaving a deep breath as he bends over to receive the sign, straightening at the waist, cranking back and letting it fly... cracking the bats together... a chopper up the middle, past the diving shortstop, into center field, base hit!

My August tradition comes with the origin of my industry...

Friday, September 19, 2014

22 little Lugnuts and how they grew

(Yes, that title is a reference to this book.)
During the past two days, I examined the top prospects and performers in the Eastern and Western Division.
Today, I examine the Lansing Lugnuts.
It is easy to list in big bold lettering Top Prospects in Lansing in 2014 and follow that up with Miguel Castro, D.J. Davis, Matt Dean, Chase De Jong, Kendall Graveman, Dawel Lugo, Mitch Nay, Rowdy Tellez.
Heck, if I were a broadcaster for another team trying to capture the Lugnuts' season, I would focus on Kendall Graveman and Mitch Nay, and maybe Miguel Castro, Derrick Loveless, Griffin Murphy, and Jeremy Gabryszwski, too.
I'd rather do this, though:
Lugnuts Who Had the Best Season of Their Professional Career
That's what this is about, isn't it? This is about players who are growing, improving, developing.
  1. Anthony Alford - now playing at Ole Miss, made Single-A debut and was a smash success.
  2. Justin Atkinson - entered 2014 with reputation as no-hit glovesman, exited with a .291 average and an OPS approaching .700.
  3. David Harris - showed off speed, terrific power, and the versatility to play left field and third base in addition to second base.
  4. Derrick Loveless - career highs in every offensive category, and not just because of the full-season schedule; he was the Lugs' true breakout position-player prospect, and a deserving midseason All-Star; should be one to watch in the coming years.
  5. Ian Parmley - no, Ian didn't have a great experience in Lansing, but he was tremendously effective in Dunedin after a second-half callup.
  6. Jorge Saez - what a season! Jorge crushed it in 42 games for the Lugs (.825 OPS, superb defense), moved up to Dunedin and overcame early struggles to finish strong.
  7. Rowdy Tellez - began in Bluefield, opened with a slew of at-'em balls that gave way to a white hot streak that led to a late Lansing promotion; batted .357 (15-42) with two homers in limited MWL action.
  8. Dickie Joe Thon - tough call here between his splendid 2013 and this year, but Dickie played in 103 games, which was a big step (even with a late season concussion); bashed 27 extra-base hits, diversified to left field and second base, and set himself up for a much better 2015 in Dunedin.

    There's no Mitch Nay or Matt Dean on this list because their 2013 seasons were better. There's no shame in that, especially considering this was their first full-season experience and both did their darndest to carry the Lugs' offense all season.
  9. Miguel Castro - from the Dominican Summer League in 2013 to the Florida State League in 2014, with an impressive four-start cameo in Lansing along the way; the Kevin Durant lookalike is legit.
  10. Jimmy Cordero - fatigue cost Cordero time from late April until the second half, but he returned with greater velocity (upwards of 100 mph) and greater command; if he refines his change and slider, he becomes lights-out.
  11. Brady Dragmire - no, the ERA (2.91) wasn't as low as it was last year (2.16), but Brady discovered his role in the second half, destroying MWL offenses with a low-90s sinker and pinpoint command; add a breaking ball to that mix and he'll master the Florida State League, too.
  12. Alonzo Gonzalez - I'm going out on a limb with this one, but my gosh, was Alonzo good by year's end! His fastball sat 93, and he used it to challenge the best hitters in the league; a 6'5 lefty who throws 90s and has strikeout stuff is a definite candidate to rise.
  13. Francisco Gracesqui - added a curve to his fastball/change repertoire, improved his command (by light years), and finished the year with a 1.26 ERA and 44 K's in 35.2 innings between Vancouver and Lansing; that's one heck of a nondrafted free agent.
  14. Kendall Graveman - in April, he was in Lansing; in May and June, he was in Dunedin; in July, he was in New Hampshire (for one start); in August, he was in Buffalo; now he's in Toronto. In one word: Success.
  15. Phil Kish - the power sinker was money, the command was superb, and an assignment down to Vancouver to take the lead in the Canadians' bullpen led to 14 innings with only one unearned run allowed; Kish should pitch in Dunedin next year.
  16. Jason Leblebijian - 0.00 ERA; what a pitcher!
  17. Joe Lovecchio - after wearing down at the end of 2013 pro debut, earned 2014 Northwest League All-Star nod, and then allowed only two runs in 7.2 innings in Lansing.
  18. Griffin Murphy - the former 2nd-round pick found himself in the first half, dominating the MWL with a circuit-best 16 saves; his fastball was in the 90s, his slider was wicked. (He lost himself in Dunedin, unfortunately.)
  19. Scott Silverstein - the 11-4 record is gaudy, the ERA (4.08) is a bit lower than 2013 (4.15), and, most strikingly, the lefty averaged more than one strikeout per inning while being used more heavily than any other Lugnuts reliever. Next year: Dunedin!
  20. Starlyn Suriel - his composure and performance led to a speedy promotion from Vancouver (even speedier than Castro), and he pitched effectively (3.21 ERA) in nine appearances.
  21. Frank Viola III - it culminated in a release from Dunedin, but the knuckleballer sure had fun in Lansing, allowing only two runs in his first 15.2 innings.
  22. Chase Wellbrock - the only 2014 draftee to reach Lansing, he was unhittable in Bluefield (one earned run in 24.1 innings, with 34 strikeouts compared to one intentional walk), and then debuted with three scoreless innings at Dayton.
Did I miss anyone?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Legends of the 2014 Midwest League: Eastern Division

Today, An Unofficial Guide to the Top Performers of the 2014 Midwest League: Eastern Division Edition
Andrew Velazquez
Andrew Velazquez, Prospect of the Year. (Emily Jones, MiLB.com)
This is going to be far more opinionated than the Western Division edition, in which I referred mainly to stats. As such, it will likely be far more inaccurate -- but it might be far more fun to read.
Bowling Green Hot Rods - Tampa Bay RaysDuring the first half, the Hot Rods relied on Granden Goetzman, age 21, who has a distinctive Hunter Pence-esque chopping sort of swing that proved greatly effective in the Midwest League (though he struggled upon an FSL promotion), and Kean Wong, age 19, who played terrific defense and consistently found his way on base in a way that belied his age. Wong stuck around for the second half with the new partnership of the awesome Willy Adames, age 18, acquired in the David Price deal from Detroit. Adames, believe you me, is a future star: He draws walks, he plays defense, he hits, he hits for power, and he's so young. The fourth cog in the Hot Rods' engine was outfielder Johnny Field, age 22, who also contributed across the board (62 runs, 35 XBH, 18 SB, .827 OPS) before excelling during his own call-up to the A-Advanced level. Among pitchers, there were quite a few cameo appearances: Let me direct your eye toward 5'10 Jaime Schultz, age 23, though he only stuck around for nine starts. Lefty Blake Snell, age 21, fared well through eight starts in his second go-round in the MWL before pitching the first no-hitter in Charlotte Stone Crabs history. Fellow high draftee Ryne Stanek also made only nine starts, striking out 12 Lake County Captains in six innings on July 2nd before vaulting forward. The stalwarts were youngster German Marquez, age 19, offering a taste of high-ceiling promise, and Jake Faria, age 21, who shut down both hitters and baserunners (9 CS in 16 attempts). In the bullpen, hard-throwing Colton Reavis, age 24, was the headliner -- and he also wowed the Hot Rods staff and Bowling Green community with a glowing, charismatic personality that made him the favorite for pregame ceremonies. That's quite a few intriguing prospects for a 61-77 team.
Dayton Dragons - Cincinnati Reds
The Dragons were an odd bunch. They were fantastic at the start of the year, winning nine of their first 12 and 16 of their first 23 games. Then star Beau Amaral, age 23, was promoted, as was star reliever Layne Somsen, age 25, and the Dragons fell back to .500. Still, all was not lost. Enigmatic lefty Ismael Guillon, age 22, appeared to break through, and Mexican League signee Sebastian Elizalde, age 22, was legit. In the second half, the Dragons added 2014 first-round picks Nick Howard (21), the Virginia ace, and Alex Blandino (21), the Stanford superstar shortstop, to a roster featuring 2012 first-round hoss Nick Travieso (20) and first-round five-tool CF Phil Ervin (22). Clearly, they would run away with the division, right? Nope, and Ervin finished with a mere .680 OPS, though he did have 48 XBH and 30 SB. Travieso has the makings of a bulldog, though, and basketballer-turned-baseballer Amir Garrett, age 22, looked to have a lightbulb moment, blossoming into the dominant lefty the Reds had been hoping for.
Fort Wayne TinCaps - San Diego PadresReliever Tayron Guerrero, age 23, stands an imposing 6'7 and throws one of those arrives-in-a-hurry balls. (Yes, he touches 100 mph.) We begin with Tayron, who enjoyed a true breakout season after campaigns of frustration, because the Fort Wayne TinCaps didn't feature the greatest amount of interesting pitchers this year. 2014 7th-rounder Ryan Butler, age 22, made an impressive pro debut, and 6'4 Evansville product Kyle Lloyd, age 23, used a filthy splitter to lead the Midwest League with 155 strikeouts. That's about it.... so let's talk hitting! Trea Turner (21), Fernando Perez (20), Dustin Peterson (19), Franmil Reyes (19), Jake Bauers (18), often in that order, struck fear into the opposition. 2014 1st-rounder Turner knocked our socks off -- he sizzled at shortstop, he was impossible to keep off base, and he smoked a 97-mph Miguel Castro fastball waaay over the wall in left-center. Perez was a pure hitter, Peterson showed off pure power, Reyes was a 6'5, 240-lb. bearded hulk, and young buck Bauers was voted the league's top 1st baseman on the Postseason All-Star Team. The first-half sensation was returning Mallex Smith, age 21, who influenced the game with his incessant bunting and electric speed. Smith finished the year with a mighty fine 88 steals. Keep an eye out for San Jose State product Nick Schulz, age 23, who notched a pair of multi-HR games, and sweet-fielding 2B/SS Josh Van Meter, age 19, who (as a left-handed hitter) had no troubles hitting left-handed pitching. I'd have no trouble seeing Van Meter on a Major League roster within 3-4 years, if not sooner.
Great Lakes Loons - Los Angeles DodgersHello, Great Lakes! Catcher Kyle Farmer, age 24, was one of the best players we saw in the Midwest League all year, earning him a promotion after 57 games. (He did everything, and he did it well.) That opened the door for Jesmuel Valentin, age 20, to star, but the 2012 1st-rounder was traded away to the Philadelphia Phillies. The rest of the offense? Eh. Maybe you like big Joey Curletta, age 20, though the league figured out the pull-happy outfielder by season's end. Slugging third baseman Paul Hoenecke, age 24, blasted 37 doubles and 15 homers, but the left-handed batter hit a mere .136 against left-handed pitching. The true impact players in Midland resided in the bullpen: fireballing Jacob Rhame (21), Victor Araujo (21) and his crazy slider, Dartmouth product Michael Johnson (23), free agent Mark Pope (24), and 2014 draftee Matt Campbell (22). That should be just about all for Loons conversation... except that a right-hander named Jose De Leon, age 22, showed up during the second week of August and blew the doors off the Eastern Division:
  • August 14th vs. Bowling Green: 6 innings, 3 hits, 1 run, 7 strikeouts
  • August 19th at Fort Wayne: 6 innings, 4 hits, 0 runs, 14 strikeouts
  • August 24th at Dayton: 5 innings, 5 hits, 2 runs, 9 strikeouts
  • August 29th vs. Lake County: 5.2 innings, 2 hits, 1 unearned run, 12 strikeouts
Lake County Captains - Cleveland IndiansDe Leon's performance was even better considering what the Lake County Captains were doing as a team in August, scoring 153 runs with a .756 team OPS in 30 games, as a miserable first-half team caught fire and raced all the way to the playoffs (and eventually the league Championship Series) in the second half. Dorssys Paulino, age 19, continued to disappoint in his second year in the MWL, and didn't exactly impress in a position change from shortstop to center field, but his teammates pulled their weight: 2013 fifth overall pick Clint Frazier, age 19, became lethal in July (.957 OPS), showcasing five excellent tools; powerhouse first baseman Nellie Rodriguez, age 20, mashed 22 homers amid 57 extra-base hits; and shortstop Ivan Castillo, age 19, showed a remarkable learning curve, improving on a monthly basis: .407 OPS in May, .562 in June, .660 in July, and .774 in August. If the season continued into December, Castillo would have put forth Bondsian numbers. In the starting rotation, righty Mitch Brown, age 20, combined with lefty Anderson Polanco, age 21, to pose quite the 1-2 punch. The bullpen saw two consecutive unhittable closers, with the lights-out Ben Heller, age 23, giving way to the slightly less effective Trevor Frank, age 23... but only less effective in comparison to Heller, who struck out 64 of the 148 batters he faced. (In the ninth inning, the Midwest League batted 2-for-40 with zero runs and 23 strikeouts against Heller. He was phenomenal.)
Also, the Captains had a player named Sicnarf Loopstok, and this is a wonderful thing.
South Bend Silver Hawks - Arizona DiamondbacksThe Silver Hawks had a pitcher named Jose Jose, and this is also a wonderful thing. The Silver Hawks additionally had record-breaking shortstop Andrew Velazquez, age 20, who reached base in 74 consecutive games, more than any other Minor Leaguers in history. He was voted the Midwest League's Prospect of the Year, which probably peeved fans of every other MWL team. With great consideration to those fans and their sensitivities: Andrew Velazquez is a special talent. He's a switch-hitter, with equal parts danger from both sides. He's a shortstop, and a great one at that. He draws walks, he hits gappers, he has power, he has speed, he has daring, and he has confidence bordering on gusto. Time and again, Andrew Velazquez took over the game. And then, with Velazquez invariably on base, the opposition had to pitch to Daniel Palka, age 22, with his 23 doubles, five triples, and 22 home runs. First-rounder Stryker Trahan, age 20, flopped in his transition to the outfield and was moved down to short-season ball and back to catcher (though he managed to strike out 146 times in 95 games before the demotion). Outfielder Justin Williams, age 19, flashed potential, and switch-hitting outfield mate Chuck Taylor, age 20, showed both patience and tools. The starting rotation was solid, especially with acquisition Anthony Banda, age 21, taking in the second half after first-rounder Braden Shipley, age 22, and strikeout king Blayne Weller, age 24, carried the first part of the year. The Hawks' real strength, like the Great Lakes Loons, was found in the bullpen: Jose Jose worked alongside Midwest League right-handed reliever of the year Silvino Bracho, age 22, who struck out 70 batters in 43.1 innings, and Midwest League left-handed reliever of the year Will Locante, age 24, who gave up a .064 average to left-handed batters (3-for-47), and should be a sure bet to skyrocket up the system.
West Michigan Whitecaps - Detroit TigersLet's get this out of the way: masterful southpaw Kevin Ziomek, age 22, was the best starter we saw in the Eastern Division all year... unless it was sinkerballer extraordinaire Austin Kubitza, age 22. Then again, Buck Farmer, age 23, went from the Midwest League to the Detroit Tigers in the span of several short months... and Jonathan Crawford, age 22, was the Tigers' 2013 first-round draft pick out of Florida. Ziomek was voted the MWL left-handed starter of the year, Farmer was voted the MWL right-handed starter of the year, and it's hard to argue with either one. Ziomek met up with the eventual champion Kane County Cougars on July 28th (in Kane County, no less), and struck out 13 Cougars in six brilliant shutout innings. The West Michigan bullpen, with lefty Joe Mantiply, age 23, and righty Zac Reininger, age 21, was pretty darn good, too. The starting lineup took a hit when Willy Adames was traded to Tampa Bay/Bowling Green, but Javier Betancourt, age 19, played a more-than-capable SS/2B; Domingo Leyba, age 18, was tremendous (.397 avg., .914 OPS in 30 games) after an August callup; and Raph Rhymes (24) and Dominic Ficociello (22) were serviceable veterans with punch all year long. That leaves the 2014 Midwest League Most Valuable Player: Wynton Bernard, age 23, who was released by his hometown San Diego Padres, signed with the Detroit Tigers -- great scouting! -- and proceeded to lead the MWL in every single category you can conceive of (slight exaggeration), reaching base 225 times in 131 games. Stealing bases? 45 thefts. Hitting for power? 42 extra-base hits. Slash line? .323/.394/.442. He was exceptional.
When we remember the 2014 Midwest League season, I have no problem remembering Wynton Bernard most of all.
Notice that one team was missing?
Don't worry, I'll talk Lugnuts tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Legends of the 2014 Midwest League: Western Division

Let's get to it!
An Unofficial Guide to the Top Performers of the 2014 Midwest League: Western Division Edition
Boooooooog. (Image Source: Beloit Snappers)
Caveats: I don't know the Western Division all that well, since the East only plays the West three games each (except in the case of the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, who faced the Lugnuts exactly twice due to snowy weather). We shall be trusting in my memory and the power of black and white stats on my computer monitor.
Let's have fun!
Beloit Snappers - Oakland Athletics
Herschel Mack "Boog" Powell IV, age 21, Midwest League All-Star Game MVP, nicknamed because of his dad's love for Orioles slugger Boog Powell, and the league's leading hitter before he tested positive for an Amphetamine and missed the rest of the year on suspension; hey, it was fun while it lasted! When he hit his stride, he was nearly impossible to keep off base. It's going a bit far to say this, but you could make a case that the suspension denied Powell the league MVP and Prospect of the Year Awards. Outfielder Tyler Marincov, age 22, was the Snappers' top slugger (29 2B, 16 HR) and basestealer (17 SB). Dylan Covey, age 23, flashed great stuff even if it didn't always produce the best results (4-9, 4.81, 101 IP, 70 K). Oklahoma State closer Brendan McCurry, age 22, enjoyed a near-spotless debut as a 22nd round pick (26.1 IP, 12 H, 1 run, 3 BB, 34 K). I really enjoyed watching Ronald Herrera, age 19, pitch early in the season, especially thanks to one of the better curves we saw all year, but the curve/effectiveness was nowhere near the same after he was traded to San Diego in the Kyle Blanks deal. (On the bright side, his change-up was on the upswing.)
Burlington Bees - Los Angeles Angels of AnaheimBo Way, age 22: One four-hit game, three three-hit games, eight extra-base hits, and 56 times on base in 29 games for the Kennesaw State 7th rounder; it's a wonder he didn't score more than 21 runs. If you'd prefer a player who stuck around all year, let me direct you to second baseman Kody Eaves, age 21, with his 54 extra-base hits, 25 steals, and 228 total bases (ranking him third in the league), though he only walked 29 times. (Why in the world did the Bees keep batting him leadoff -- 107 of 130 games played?) Burlington's best first-half hitter was dynamic Chad Hinshaw, age 23, who posted an .864 OPS and scored 51 runs in 59 games before receiving a promotion to Inland Empire (where his OPS sank to a mere .822). First baseman Eric Aguilera, age 24, also proved capable with 40 XBH and 17 steals. Among pitchers, Victor Alcantara, age 21, had the buzz of a high-90s fastball, a Futures Game appearance, and an 11-strikeout gem on August 5th. The anchor to the rotation was right-hander Harrison Cooney, age 22, who spun a nine-inning shutout on May 30th and gave the Bees quality innings all season.
Cedar Rapids Kernels - Minnesota TwinsMitch Garver, age 23, was the star, spending the entire season in Cedar Rapids and making it count with a .298/.399/.481 slash, including 29 doubles, 16 homers, and a 61/65 BB/K ratio. Power, discipline, and tough to strike out, while playing 63 games behind the plate, 4 games at first base, 51 at designated hitter, and receiving two pinch-hitting opportunities. (In the first, he supplied a game-tying RBI double in the bottom of the tenth inning against West Michigan. Nice.) It's not often you'll hear of a first baseman who's also a stolen-base threat, but 6'3, 210-lb. 1B/OF Chad Christenson, age 23, swiped 30 bases to go along with nine home runs; his season was dampened by decreased performance in July and August. Third baseman Jonatan Hinojosa, age 21, might be worth keeping an eye on. After serving a 50-game suspension following a positive test for Nandrolone, he hit safely in 17 of 19 games, including 10 multi-hit efforts. The Kernels' bullpen featured staggering effectiveness: Dallas Gallant (28.0 IP, 3 R, 46 K), Brian Gilbert (10.0 IP, 1 R, 12 K), Brandon Peterson (12.2 IP, 1 R, 19 K), Jake Reed (25.0 IP, 2 R, 31 K), Todd Van Steensel (34.2 IP, 5 R, 45 K), and hard-throwing 2nd rounder Nick Burdi (13.0 IP, 26 K). The most headlines went to starting phenom Kohl Stewart, age 19, the 4th overall pick in 2013, but a shoulder impingement abridged Stewart's season. That created room for the emergence of Chih-Wei Hu, age 20, who struck out 10 Dayton Dragons on July 26th, and added his own name to the Twins' prospect conversation.
Clinton LumberKings - Seattle MarinersSure, the LumberKings featured Dominican Burt Reynolds, but the team's biggest hitter was outfielder Austin Wilson, age 22, who managed to fit in graduating from Stanford with the rigors of battering Midwest League pitching (.291/.376./.517). A strained Achilles sidelined him in July, however, and he played only seven games in August before his season ended. Fellow prospect Tyler O'Neill, age 19, also was felled by injury, missing May 11 - August 4 after punching the dugout and breaking his hand. The team's other standout hitter, infielder Zach Shank, age 23, did his utmost through June 30th (.838 OPS) before moving onward to High Desert. Among pitchers, well, there was Eddie Campbell, age 22, who gained notice for his poor command at the start of the year (44 walks in 58 innings in the first half) before settling down and twirling a team-leading 134.2 innings. And there was Edwin Diaz, age 20, who whiffed 111 batters in 116.1 IP, finishing things off with a five-inning, nine-strikeout, no-hit masterpiece at Quad Cities.
Kane County Cougars - Chicago CubsNothing to see here. Pass on through.
Kane County Cougars - Chicago CubsSo... the Midwest League champion Cougars were 98-49 this season, with 91 wins in the regular season and seven consecutive victories in the postseason. 2014 1st-rounder Kyle Schwarber, age 21, dropped in for 23 games, which turned out to be plenty of time to amass 50 total bases. The rest of the offense -- Jeimer Candelario, Jordan Hankins, unwhiffable Ben Carhart, speedy Shawon Dunston, Jacob Rogers, Jacob Hannemann, Cael Brockmeyer, Trey Martin, and a cast of dozens were various shades of solid to bothersome to productive, but the Cougars didn't win on offense alone. This was the best pitching corps in the league, bar none, allowing a meager .227 opposition batting average. Pick your poison: Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year Jen-Ho Tseng, age 19, who might have had the best command we saw all summer, or Duane Underwood, age 20, who twirled six no-hit innings in the Championship Series indicated. Add in Juan Paniagua, Tyler Skulina, and relievers as efficient as Justin Amlung, Jose Arias, Francisco Carrillo, Zack Godley, James Pugliese, Jasvir Rakkar, and you understand why Cubs fans are feeling increasingly optimistic.
Peoria Chiefs - St. Louis CardinalsI'm starting to worry that I'm merely listing names instead of giving more instructive info -- this is the trouble about writing about players who either never played the Lugnuts or who played the Lugs only sparingly. It is my pleasure, then, to say that we saw no speedier/best defensive center fielder in 2014 than Peoria's C.J. McElroy, age 21. He was a force. The rest of the offense, save Justin Ringo, appeared rather negligible, both on paper and in person, though Rowan Wick, age 21, has awesome power. Among the pitchers, first-rounder Rob Kaminsky, age 19, (1.88 ERA in 100.2 IP) enjoyed a strong year; fireballer Kyle "Bear Claw" Barraclough, age 24, blew smoke (40.0 IP, 60 K, .152 avg.); and Alex Reyes, turned 20 on 8/29, is a big-bodied kid who filled his starts with walks, strikeouts, and a great deal of entertainment. If I was an optimistic Cardinals fan, I would not hesitate to jump on the Reyes bandwagon. He was an awesomely imposing figure with a sky-high ceiling.
Quad Cities River Bandits - Houston AstrosThe defending champs featured Carlos Correa, Mark Appel, Lance McCullers, Rio Ruiz, and Vincent Velasquez in 2013. They were pretty dang good. This year, they showcased outfielder Brett Phillips, age 20, who crushed the MWL to the tune of an .883 OPS (with 46 XBH and 18 steals) before rising up to Lancaster and smoking the poor California League (.990 OPS) during the season's final month. He was joined by third baseman Tyler White, age 23, who also knocked the ball all over Modern Woodmen Park (.305/.414/.485) before feasting in hitter-friendly Lancaster (75 times on base, .527 SLG in 43 games). Vanderbilt product Conrad Gregor, age 22, rose even farther, spending 44 impressive games in Iowa, 47 better games in California (.367/.449/.678), and lastly 33 games in Double-A Corpus Christi, where his success finally stalled. 6'4, 265-lb. first baseman Chase McDonald, age 22, meantime, stayed put in Quad Cities all year, where he bashed 25 doubles and 16 homers. Since I'm biased, the first pitcher I'll mention is former Blue Jays farmhand Kevin Comer, age 22, traded to Houston in the crowded 2012 J.A. Happ deal, who finished the year with 10 strikeouts against Clinton on August 27th. If I were biased toward Canada, which is becoming a distinct possibility, I'd have begun with Evan Grills, age 22, who pitched terrifically from mid-May onward and earned a ticket to Lancaster. (Things didn't go as well there, but, hey, it's the California League. What can you do?) And If I weren't biased, I'd begin with Futures Game prospect Michael Feliz, age 21, who excites quite a few intelligent baseball folks with his potential, and blew away Burlington with nine K's in eight shutout innings on August 5th.
Wisconsin Timber Rattlers - Milwaukee BrewersEight different Timber Rattlers played in at least 100 games, which is nice. (Only four Cougars played in at least 100 games, only three Snappers managed the feat, and only two LumberKings lasted that long.) One of those Rattlers was catcher Clint Coulter, age 21, who smacked 22 homers among his 53 extra-base hits, drew 73 walks, and more than lived up to his first-round selection (27th overall) in 2012. Heck, why wasn't Coulter voted Prospect of the Year? (We'll find out tomorrow.) Plus, in today's "Batting Average Isn't as Important as You Think," outfielder Michael "Meant to be a Rattler" Ratterree, age 23, batted a cool .235... while drawing 75 walks (.350 OBP) and slamming 33 doubles, five triples, and 18 homers to put his OPS at .802. Ratterree ranked second in the MWL in walks; Coulter was third. First place belonged to Rattlers infielder Taylor Brennan, age 22, who drew 87 free passes, thereby ensuring that Wisconsin played the longest games in the league. As for the Rattlers' pitchers, the great Taylor Williams, age 23, went 8-1 with 4 saves and a 2.36 ERA in 107 innings while pitching in a piggyback tandem. In a different system, the Kent State product might well have broken records. Check it:
  • A start on July 10th, seven innings, two runs, eight strikeouts.
  • In relief on July 16th, four shutout innings, five strikeouts.
  • A start on July 21st, six and two-thirds innings, one run, nine strikeouts.
  • In relief on July 27th, four innings, one unearned run, eight strikeouts.
  • A start on August 1st, seven shutout innings, one hit, eleven strikeouts.
  • Promoted to Brevard County (Florida State League).
Call Taylor Williams, blindly, the best pitcher in the Western Division. Call Brett Phillips or Clint Coulter the best hitter in the West (honorable mention: Booooog Powell), and come back tomorrow for the Eastern Divison.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The most powerful teams in Midwest League history

Those are your Midwest League champion Kane County Cougars, honored before yesterday's game at Wrigley Field. This was a dominant champion, too: The Cougars finished the regular season 91-49 and then swept their way to the pennant with seven consecutive postseason wins.
(In 2013, by the way, the Cougs finished a delightful 55-80, the worst team in the Western Division. The Eastern Division's worst team was the 54-83 Lake County Captains. Naturally, the two clubs met for the championship this autumn. Kane County's PDC with the Cubs is now up, and it's unknown whether they'll extend their PDC another two years -- but, hey, it was fun while it lasted.)
The 98-49 Cougars were a true powerhouse, which started me thinking about other dominant Midwest League teams who won the league title. We're skipping 2010-2013, where the team with the best won-lost record in the regular season lost in the postseason. (This includes the 2010 90-win Great Lakes Loons, the 2011 Billy Hamilton-led Dayton Dragons, and the 2012 Lugnuts of Sanchez/Syndergaard/Nicolino fame.) This brings us to...
2009 Fort Wayne TinCaps, affiliated with the San Diego Padres: 94-49 in the regular season, 7-2 in the postseason. Go ahead, make the case for the inaugural TinCaps, rebranding from the Wizards and moving into brand new Parkview Field, as the best team in MWL history. Future Major Leaguers: Mat Latos, Blake Tekotte, Dan Robertson, Jaff Decker, Matt Clark, Cole Figueroa, James Darnell, Dean Anna, Ali Solis, Vince Belnome, Andy Parrino, Simon Castro, Erik Davis, Anthony Bass, Brad Brach, Colt Hynes, Nick Greenwood. That's a record-breaking 17 Big Leaguers on one team, and when Allen Dykstra makes his MLB debut (likely next year), it'll be 18. The atmosphere at Parkview Field was ridiculous; any time you handed these guys a defeat, it was like an enormous accomplishment.
2006 West Michigan Whitecaps, affiliated with the Detroit Tigers: 89-48 in the regular season, 7-2 in the postseason. Remember when Cameron Maybin was going to be a superstar? This was his team, and the 19-year-old Maybin dominated. Other notables: Will Rhymes, Matt Joyce, Michael Hollimon, Burke Badenhop, Luke French. And thus ended the Whitecaps dynasty, which had reigned over the Midwest League since the 1990s.
2001 Kane County Cougars, affiliated with the Miami Marlins: 88-50 in the regular season, 5-0 in postseason before MWL championship series was halted after one game due to Sept. 11th terrorist attacks; named co-league champions with South Bend. One of my worries in compiling this list was that in looking solely for impressive won-lost record I would be neglecting teams boasting truly great talent. No worries here - the 2001 Cougars had 19-year-old Adrian Gonzalez at first base and 18-year-old Miguel Cabrera at third base. In retrospect, that's sensational.
** Special 1997 note: The '97 West Michigan Whitecaps finished the regular season 92-39. Your 1997 postseason champs? The 69-68 Lansing Lugnuts. **
1995 Beloit Snappers, affiliated with the Milwaukee Brewers: 88-51, 7-1 in the postseason. In their first year going by the Snappers name (a change from Brewers), Beloit eased to the MWL crown behind 18-year-old Ronnie Belliard, slugger Derek Hacopian, and the pitching of Brian Tollberg and first-rounder Jeff D'Amico. More than anything, though, the Snappers won thanks to offense, compiling a .354 team OBP to offset a 3.91 team ERA. Good pitching beats good hitting? Not always.
** Special 1987 note: The '87 Springfield Cardinals went 94-46 thanks to the hitting of phenom Todd Zeile, but they lost in the playoffs as the 82-58 Kenosha Twins hoisted the league trophy for the second time in three years. **
1982-1984 Appleton Foxes, affiliated with the Chicago White Sox: The home field for Appleton was Goodland Field, and it certainly was good for the faithful. The 1982 Foxes were 81-59, riding the pitching of Mike Tanzi and the slugging of 19-year-old Daryl Boston and 21-year-old Wade Rowdon. The 1983 Foxes were even better, finishing 87-50 behind 18-game winner Rich Devincenzo and relief sensation Al Jones. (I love Jones's numbers: 11-1, 0.97, 55 appearances, 22 saves, 102 innings, 54 hits, 124 strikeouts; what a relief pitcher!) The next year, Appleton was a mere 87-49, knocking out Springfield in a hard-fought championship series to grab a third consecutive league title. It is the last time that an MWL squad has accomplished the threepeat.
1978 Appleton Foxes, affiliated with the Chicago White Sox: 97-40, 4-1 in the postseason. Tigers TV broadcaster Rod Allen is probably the most well-known Fox in retrospect, but Appleton (with 11 future MLBers, including a cameo from future All-Star Britt Burns) was feared in its time. The patient Foxes drew 705 walks, averaging over five walks per game, and starters LaMarr Hoyt (18-4, 2.90), Jackie Smith (11-3, 2.89), and Ross Baumgarten (9-1, 1.82 in 10 starts) were aided by ace closer Dewey Robinson (10-3, 1.72, 17 saves). The only disappointment was 1978 7th overall pick Vic Walters, who would be out of baseball by the end of 1979.
1975 Waterloo Royals, affiliated with the Kansas City Royals: 93-35, 2-0 in postseason. The Kansas City Royals were establishing themselves as a force in the AL West, with two major talents on their way up the pipeline in speedy Willie Wilson and submarining Dan Quisenberry stopping by Waterloo to buoy a terrific Royals squad. (In case you're unfamiliar with the Quiz, here are some of the quotes that made him legendary... and here's a fantastic eulogy to him, with even more of his thoughts.)
1969 Appleton Foxes, affiliated with the Chicago White Sox: 84-41, no postseason necessary, as Appleton won both halves and was declared the champion. Heck, Appleton was so good, the Foxes took on the Midwest League All-Stars on July 21st and beat 'em 5-3. The winning pitcher in that game was 19-year-old Bart Johnson, who finished the year 16-4, 2.17. 22-year-old teammate Don Eddy was even better at 18-3, 1.81, as the Foxes notched a 2.61 team ERA.
1965 Burlington Bees, affiliated with the Kansas City Athletics: 82-40, no postseason necessary due to winning both halves. Four-time American League All-Star Sal Bando was the standout talent in the Bees' lineup which batted a meager .233. The pitching corps was another matter, putting forth a 2.54 ERA thanks to aces Gordon Riese (14-2, 1.99), Tony Pierce (9-7, 1.84), Raul Medrano (12-1, 2.06), and the fantastic Joe Bosworth (6-2, 1.12), who allowed only 41 hits and 10 earned runs in 80 innings. Only Pierce, though, would make the Major Leagues.
1963 Clinton C-Sox, affiliated with the Chicago White Sox: 83-41, no postseason necessary due to winning both halves. There strike me as zero notable Major Leaguers on the C-Sox --- C-Sox? --- but Jerome Rozmus's amazing professional debut deserves note. The Illinois product went 17-5, 1.44 in 25 starts, allowing only 136 hits in 200 innings. He then pitched well for Tidewater in both 1964 and 1965 and was done in baseball after one Double-A appearance in 1966.
And, lastly...
1958-1961 Waterloo Hawks, affiliated with the Boston Red Sox: The Hawks weren't great in the first half of 1958, but they won the second half and then won the league title. In 1959, led by Galen Cisco, they finished 76-48 and won both halves, capturing the title again. In 1960, they posted an 81-43 record, winning both halves for a third straight MWL championship. And in 1961, they won the first half... but lost both the second half and the league playoffs to the Quincy Giants.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Let's talk about PITCH (Talks)

Starrett Group
What a lineup of speakers! (Source: @StarrettGroup)
On Thursday, I drove to Canada.
My motivation was an invitation; Kevin Kennedy asked me if I wished to take part in a Minor League baseball two-broadcaster panel with Triple-A Buffalo Bisons voice Ben Wagner.
The setting was PITCH: Talks on Baseball, created by Kevin, and described on its website as "a new speaker series about baseball," with the stated mission "to connect with the growing crowd of sophisticated baseball enthusiasts by facilitating informed and entertaining discussions on the game we love." It's a brilliant idea, and one that should spread to other baseball-loving cities as soon as possible. Get on that, Detroit.
This was the seventh and final PITCH talk of the season, with each one scheduled on a Blue Jays off day. No Jays game? Join "a very casual gathering of like-minded and very informed baseball enthusiasts" to talk baseball. (That description comes directly from Kevin's email. He could simplify it, if he chooses: Join smart, cool baseball fans just like you. This was quite the smart, cool crowd.)
The starting lineup, fittingly, featured nine speakers.
The night started unofficially at 6:30 p.m., with the first Pitch of the program at 7:00 p.m. Beverages were provided by Left Field Brewery; food was provided by Bunz.
Minor League - crowd
Source: @Minor_Leaguer
The seamheads -- a term I use lovingly -- filed in and shmoozed.
Source: @PitchTalks
Calgarian twitter sensation Ruhee Dewji set the table.
From her initial experiences learning about baseball -- avoiding the embarrassment of pronouncing Derek Jeter' surname as if it were French -- Ruhee transitioned into an examination that (politely) neared an excoriation of those fans who recoil from novices and feel the need to lord their years of loyalty above their fellow rooters.
Two years ago, I wrote an essay for The Good Point about three groups of fanbases that are as despised as they are necessary... including the frontrunner as one of these. Ruhee countered this point: There are frontrunners, true, but there are also people who were not raised on baseball by their parents, who came to the game of their own volition later in life, and are self-motivating in their willingness to learn more about about baseball. The national pastime is as enthralling as it is complex as it is awesome. Anyone who chooses to immerse her/himself in baseball is worth welcoming rather than being scoffed at. But she has experienced/witnessed scoffing, and condescending, and worse. Her most memorable line, paraphrased, wondered if a new baseball fan was supposed to enter the national pastime with a registration form and a Houston Astros jersey.
Her poetic thesis, aimed at longtime fans: "Don't be a [jerk]."
The evening was off to a splendid start.
Image Source: @PitchTalks
From Ruhee's humor -- for Canadian readers, humour -- the second session turned first insightful and then dour.
The engaging Morgan Campbell of the Toronto Star introduced his special guest, Arturo Marcano of ESPN Deportes, who used PowerPoint to teach the assemblage about the history of the so-called Winter Leagues (also called "winter ball"): the off-season leagues in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Venezuela.
But why are these leagues called the Winter Leagues, if it is not Winter in any of these four nations? Because they take place during the Winter months to us in America. This foreshadowed Arturo's central concern.
After showing lists of the greats from baseball's past who played winter ball -- Negro League legends such as Josh Gibson and Hilton Smith, MLB icons Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente, recent standouts Ryne Sandberg and Orel Hershiser -- Arturo connected winter ball on a local level for the Jays fans in attendance. The Cardenales de Lara had a special agreement worked out with the Blue Jays, and so the Jays sent their top players to Lara in order to compete each offseason. Examine this site and note those names: Willie Upshaw and Ernie Whitt, Doug Ault and Garth Iorg, and more, all of them turning the citizens of Lara into Blue Jays Nation South... or perhaps Blue Jays Nation South America.
But the exit of Pat Gillick, said Marcano, ended this affiliation. Beyond this, he added, the Winter Leagues are now all suffering from diminished MLB participation compared to decades past. A player who partakes in a certain number of games from April through September, for instance, is now prohibited from playing in Venezuela or the D.R. When asked toward specific points (causes, effects, consequences) in his post-PowerPoint Q&A session, Arturo's voice turned heavy -- he explained that the answers he would like to give would be long indeed.
I speak for the group when I say that we would have been ready to hear far more of his perspective, but it was time for an intermission before the next pair of stoic speakers.
Good time
Image Source: @PitchTalks
Okay, so Ben Wagner and I were not as serious as Arturo.
It is here that I should mention the host, Jordan Strofolino. Ruhee was on stage by herself; Morgan was Arturo's liaison. With Ben and me, respectfully, I would guess that the minority of those in attendance knew who he was, and that far, far fewer than that could have picked me out of a crowd.
Jordan, in his role as emcee, had welcomed the crowd in, kept things moving, conducted a raffle -- I didn't purchase a ticket through lack of Canadian funds, but all proceeds went to support the Jays Care Foundation, another mark of how top-notch everything was -- and now he was being asked to warm the crowd up to two strangers on the stage, both of us known, if at all, for our voices.
(This is a little unfair: Ben Wagner is rightfully gaining a name for himself. His Buffalo Bisons have had several enormous games aired on the Fan 590 each of the last two seasons, and he had just appeared on the Blue Jays' airwaves the previous night, first in the third inning with Jerry Howarth, and then again during the postgame show with Mike Wilner. But I was definitely a pretty darn anonymous figure.)
Warm things up, Jordan did -- asking us about our teams, our cities, and ourselves, before turning things over to the Q&A.
Image Source: @PitchTalks
I had worries, let me tell you.
I worried that the crowd would have no interest in me or the Lugnuts; I worried that I would be asked about the status of the Lugnuts' PDC; about specific prospects not measuring up to expectations; about why I wasn't wearing a nice sports jacket -- heck, I took that "very casual" dress code seriously. (I love that shirt.) There were impressive people in the crowd, too: the National Post's John Lott, the Toronto Star's Brendan Kennedy, Baseball Canada and Baseball America's Alexis Brudnicki, TSN's Natasha Staniszewski, the MLB Fan Cave's April Whitzman, Bluebird Banter's Minor Leaguer, the triad comprising the fourth (keynote) panel, and probably far more VIPs than I'd ever be able to recognize. (Also, co-creator of Around the Nest Craig Durham stopped by, which thrilled me.)
In the end, there was nothing to worry about.
Ben and I talked pranks, promotions gone wrong, life on the road, favorite ballparks, and -- man, who knows what else? The moment was a tremendously exciting blur.
When we concluded, a second intermission was held. Then the keynote panel began.
Image Source: @PitchTalks
From left to right in that pic: SportsNet's Stephen BruntTSN host Dave Naylor, and SportsNet's Jamie Campbell. This was pure Blue Jays discourse, simultaneously blunt and honest, but also thoughtful. The consensus: They love and appreciate Jays manager John Gibbons and general manager Alex Anthopoulos (though Toronto's confidentiality alternately stymies and frustrates them), and they understand the Jays' strengths and obstacles.
Afterward, Brunt confided that he too had been worried about the questions he would be asked. He needn't have bothered; this was not a JaysTalk postgame call-in crowd, this was a gathering of, yes, sophisticated baseball aficionados, and their minds were on different matters. When asked about a dream interviewee, the conversation turned toward interviews already conducted (and also those interviews that never happened, due to Dave Stieb's boorishness and Bo Jackson's tobacco-spitting acumen).
Jamie Campbell turned introspective; he thought back with great clarity to his childhood, about the first baseball game he attended, and about the occasion that he received an autograph personally from Lyman Bostock. In this setting, surrounded by fellow baseball fans, he leaned forward and mused into his microphone. I can write with certainty that the evening meant as much to him as his words meant to those who hear them.
As for Dave Naylor, he worked in concert with his two colleagues, running his ideas past them, answering all queries with practicality and reason. And when the event concluded, he smiled and smiled. Whether he was sitting on stage with the lights upon him, or standing amid the chairs in the dim light afterward, he looked as comfortable and relaxed as a man in his living room.
If I was this impressed, as a non-Blue Jays diehard, I wonder how those sitting around me felt.
I have read two write-ups of the seventh PITCH talks so far.
The first was by Al Yellon of SB Nation's Bleed Cubbie Blue. (Key quote: "I had a great time and would love to see something like this in Chicago.")
The second was by Avry Lewis-McDougall. (Key quote: "What I saw was a very refreshing environment and topics from all over the baseball world are touched on such as the success and struggles of the Toronto Blue Jays, racial matters in baseball, the future of the game in terms of rules and umpires and other topics.")
I'll add in one final quote, from Karim Kanji via Twitter: "Best #pitchtalks of all time in the history of everything.")
Full power to you, Kevin Kennedy, and here's hoping for many more PITCH talks in the seasons to come.