Minor League Playoff Preview
FIVE (5) of the M’s minor league affiliates kick off playoff series tonight, which is remarkable enough without even mentioning that their Arizona League team’s already wrapped up a championship and the Dominican League team just lost in their league’s semifinals a few days ago. You can find some great previews from outlets like MiLB.com, whose Southern League preview is excellent, and from the local papers, like Todd Milles’ Tacoma Rainiers-centric preview in the TNT or from the broadcasters, like this great post from the Rainiers’ RG, Mike Curto. What follows here is somewhat duplicative, but I thought I’d pick out some things to watch for (the games should be on MiLB.tv if you’ve got it) and describe how each high team and their big league club approaches the playoffs in the minors.
That last point’s kind of a big one, as in some sense the minor league playoffs interact with and interfere with another big goal, at least for the upper-level teams. In the past week, we’ve seen Nashville (another club in the PCL postseason) lose a decent chunk of its starting rotation, as the A’s have promoted Daniel Mengdon, Raul Alcantara (who made his big league debut a few days ago), and Jharel Cotton, who’ll make his big league debut tonight. The A’s are trying to figure out who will be competing for rotation spots next year, and have decided that getting them big league experience is more important than trying to win a minor league title. Of course, this problem (or balancing act) is more acute for those teams that have a lot of 40-man roster players, especially 40-man prospects. The M’s have a smattering of 40-man guys, from Cody Martin to Zach Lee to Dan Vogelbach, but have opted to keep them in Tacoma. By outrighting a number of others – Wade LeBlanc, Joe Wieland, Jarrett Grube – they took care of a good chunk of this “problem” weeks in advance.
With that, let’s take a quick look at the four highest-level series:
AAA Pacific Coast League
Teams: Tacoma vs. El Paso Chihuahuas (SD)
Best of 5 games
Tonight’s starters: Jarrett Grube (TAC) vs. Frank Garces (ELP)
Prospects: Dan Vogelbach (TAC), Manuel Margot, Hunter Renfroe, Carlos Asuaje (ELP)
This series had to happen. Way back in April, former Rainier Chris Taylor’s throw to first ended up plunking Chihuahuas’ mascot ‘Chico’. The feud escalated with twitter hijinx, Taylor ripping up a sign Chico held out, etc., and from there, the Rainiers found a rival in the two-year-old Padres affiliate. The pitching staff for both teams leans more towards org depth, as we see in tonight’s game, as minor league vet Jarrett Grube faces off with lefty Frank Garces, who spent some time in the Padres’ pen this year. Grube made the MLB bullpen for a few days before being outrighted back to Tacoma, while Garces was mediocre as a LOOGY and spot starter for San Diego. Garces throws in the high-80s and has a change and slider, but his big league role is limited: he’ll be a LOOGY or middle reliever, nothing more. Even in the minors, he’s struggled mightily against right-handers.
The Chihuahuas have a number of good position player prospects, as you’d expect from a team that’s made so many rebuilding-type trades over the past 12 months. The key ‘gets’ in the Craig Kimbrel, Carlos Asuaje and Manny Margot, are both playing in the series, but the Chihuahua’s biggest bat this year has been 2013 1st rounder Hunter Renfroe, who slugged 30 HRs. The Rainiers won the season series, for what that’s worth; the Rainiers dominated in April when the club had the aforementioned Taylor, Mike Zunino at catcher and James Paxton in the rotation. This series comes down to whether Tacoma’s experienced staff can handle El Paso’s pure talent/prospect advantage on the offensive side. One final note: Patrick Kivlehan spent much of the year in Tacoma, but is now a member of the Chihuahuas. Better not give them any inside intel.
Gametime tonight’s 5:30, and for the locals, the series shifts to Tacoma on Friday. Tickets are available here.
AA Southern League
Teams: Jackson vs. Montgomery Biscuits (TB)
Best of 5 games
Tonight’s starters: Andrew Moore (JAC) vs. Chih-Wei Hu (MON)
Prospects: Tyler O’Neill (JAC), Willy Adames, Jake Bauers, Brent Honeywell (MON)
Jackson absolutely dominated this series, winning 16 of 20 games against the Biscuits, on their way to the league’s best overall record. But the past few weeks belonged to Montgomery, as the Biscuits ended the year hot, while Jackson limped to the finish line with a 2-11 run in the last 13 games. In this series, both teams have excellent pitching, with the Generals employing the SL’s pitcher of the year in recently-returned-from-injury Ryan Yarbrough, while the Biscuits have the biggest pitching prospect in screwballer Brent Honeywell. Taylor Guerrieri and tonight’s starter, Chih-Wei Hu, give the Biscuits a potent 1-2-3 in the rotation.
Hu joined the Rays org from Minnesota, in a trade for RP Kevin Jepsen. Hu led the league in ERA, but isn’t an overpowering guy, but he throws 4 pitches and has solid command. That sounds a lot like Andrew Moore, another guy with solid low-minors results, but who doesn’t light up the radar gun or make scouts drool. For the position players, the Generals are paced by league MVP, Tyler O’Neill. The Canadian had a jaw-dropping year despite a late slump, and he’s clearly the guy Montgomery will be careful with. The Biscuits counter with SS Willy Adames, 3B Patrick Leonard (a part of the old Wil Myers/James Shields trade) and Jake Bauers, a corner IF/OF guy with a great batting eye.
Gametime: 4:05 Pacific
A+ California League
Teams: Bakersfield vs. San Jose (SF)
Best of 5 games
Tonight’s starters: Osmer Morales (BAK) vs. Jordan Johnson (SJ)
Prospects: Zack Littell (BAK), Thyago Vieira (BAK), Drew Jackson, (BAK) n/a (SJ)
Soooo, San Jose. They finished the year with a losing record, but snuck into the playoffs with a wildcard. Their best players and prospects – including 1B Chris Shaw and P Andrew Suarez – ended the year in AA, leaving a staff that looks…not good. I know I’ve probably doomed the Blaze, but on paper, Bakersfield’s just better. I’m not even sure who to highlight here. Jason Forjet? Jordan Johnson? Pick one. The prospects have all long since moved on.
Bakersfield started well, and then got an influx of talent from the dominant Clinton Lumberkings, including SP Zack Littell, who dominated in his time in the California League. Drew Jackson didn’t have a big year, but he’s still a great defensive SS with good bat-to-ball skills, and the guy who led the NWL in batting a year ago. Of note, reliever/closer Thyago Vieira has apparently added some serious gas to his fastball, as he was recently seen touching 100mph. Minor league vet Kyle Petty’s a solid, if streaky, bat at 1B and 2B Gianfranco Wawoe’s had a solid bounce-back year after a mediocre one in Clinton last year.
A Midwest League
Teams: Clinton vs. Peoria (STL)
Best of 5 games
Tonight’s starters: Nick Neidert (CLI) vs. Jake Woodford (PEO)
Prospects: Alex Jackson (CLI), Magneuris Sierra (PEO), Woodford (PEO)
Clinton had the biggest turnaround of any minor league team this year, adding nearly 40 games to their 2015 win total. The pitching staff led the charge, as the Lumberkings tossed *19* shutouts on the year to pace the MWL. That said, like any minor league team, they’ve seen a lot of turnover, so guys like Zack Littell and Art Warren aren’t around anymore. They haven’t missed much, though, as tonight’s starter Nick Neidert, the M’s first selection in the 2015 draft, has filled the breach well. A few picks before Neidert, the Cardinals took Jake Woodford, and he’s pitched well too, currently ranking as the Cards #13 prospect.
The big position player prospects in this series are a couple of outfielders: underachieving but incredibly talented Alex Jackson, who put together a decent campaign but still struggles to make contact at times, and Magneuris Sierra, a toolshed CF prospect for the Peoria Chiefs. Jackson and Sierra are both just 20, are both top 10 prospects, but have very different games. Jackson’s power is now his best tool, while Sierra’s more of a speedster with gap power. Sierra’s average was over .300, but without a lot of pop, his OPS ends up pretty similar to Jackson’s low-AVE., high SLG. approach.
Both teams excelled in the season’s first half, with Peoria winning the division by a nose over Clinton. But Clinton took off in the 2nd half while Peoria faded a bit, hurt by promotions to top players like 2B Dylan Tice.