In an otherwise poor minor league season for the organization, the Lynchburg Hillcats pulled off a big upset, winning the Carolina League championship despite a 72-68 season record. They defeated the Winston-Salem Dash, the team with the best winning percentage of any team in professional baseball.
Nick Ahmed was the catalyst on offense, as the shortstop had an average slashline and 40 steals. He isn’t the smoothest player, and I see him ending up similar to Tyler Pastornicky, a marginal shortstop and bat with some speed. At second base, Tommy La Stella used his 1.5:1 BB/K ratio to a .302/.386/.460 line. His defense is Dan Uggla-esque, so he may end up as a corner outfielder. Both players were 2011 draftees, so the quick development is good to see.
First baseman Chris Garcia could not maintain last year’s power, so his high-walk approach is unlikely to make it to the majors. Adam Milligan and Braeden Schlehuber were another couple 24-year-olds who had decent years, but don’t have the plate discipline to go all the way.
The two 20-year-old prospects again had disappointing seasons. Edward Salcedo played the full season at third base, making 42 errors and had a 1:4 BB/K ratio, resulting in a below-average line. His major problems on offense are too many whiffs and the inability to square up the ball. His power is developing, but I’m seeing another Jose Oliva, hopefully without the tragedy. Matt Lipka made his move to center field before a hamstring injury ended his season. His BABIP jumped a bit, but his power is still not enough to make a jump to AA. For each of these guys, they are at an advanced level for their age, but they have deficiencies that may derail their careers.
The starting staff was the strength of the team, as all five starters had an ERA and FIP below 4.00. J.R. Graham was the leader with a 2.63 ERA, getting a ton of groundballs and not walking anyone, much like Zeke Spruill. Gus Schlosser was the ace in the playoffs, using a more balanced approach. Aaron Northcraft and Cody Martin struck out a ton of hitters while limiting walks, but higher BABIPs resulted in higher ERAs. Dimaster Delgado was the weak link of the five, though a 3.92 ERA and 3.76 FIP is not disappointing by any means. All of them are 22 or 23 years old, with all of them having a chance at the majors in the next 2-3 years.
Juan Jaime assumed the closer’s role, using his 100 MPH fastball to strike out a third of his batters faced, though a 15% walk rate shows a few kinks need to be worked out. Ryne Harper posted a sub-2.00 ERA and FIP, while Ryan Weber and Andrew Wilson were also very effective.
It is always great to see players go through pressure games to win a championship. The pitching on this team was promising, though there is no elite prospect. The expected top prospects faltered, but below-the-radar guys have stepped up to fill the gaps. This was the only team to really show overall positive progress.