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
Whoa.
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.
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Notice that one team was missing?
Don't worry, I'll talk Lugnuts tomorrow.

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