Lynchburg Hillcats 72-68 (1st in Northern Division of Carolina League)
An excellent second half of the season for the Hillcats ended in disappointing fashion when they were dumped out of the playoffs 2-0 in the very first round. However, there were many positive aspects to take away from the year. In particular, the offense certainly lived up to its promise, as they scored 79 more runs than any other team, receiving terrific contributions from Bradley Zimmer, Clint Frazier, Nellie Rodriguez, Dorssys Paulino and (prior to his suspension) Luigi Rodriguez.
Let's take a quick look at the top performers.
CF Clint Frazier again started the season slowly, seemingly somewhat overshadowed by his CF running mate, Bradley Zimmer, who is nearly two years his senior. However, the 21yo was terrific over the second half, hitting .325/.422/.539 and staking a reasonable claim to be regarded as the Tribe's No.1 prospect. He may well "cross swords" with Zimmer again at Akron in the Spring.
C Eric Haase remains very much an under the radar prospect. However, a line of .247/.341/.456 for a premium position player suggests that the 22yo should perhaps be given the Akron starting catcher job next season in preference to the light-hitting (and currently injured) Tony Wolters. Haase is actually Rule 5 eligible, so the Tribe might even choose to protect him and DFA Wolters, who is actually six months older and coming off a very disappointing year.
OF Mike Papi has become one of the most enigmatic prospects in the entire system. Arguably promoted too quickly to Lynchburg, following a rookie campaign in which he walked a lot but didn't really hit at all (.181/.301./.271 at MVS/LC), the 23yo 2014 "sandwich" pick was basically pretty terrible in April and May. However, he finally got going in June and with a second half of .257/.356/.425 at last began to demonstrate some of the power that he showed in college.
OF Luigi Rodriguez was enjoying a terrific bounce-back season until he was suspended for 80 games after testing positive for Stanozolol. Given that it may possibly have been chemically assisted, it is tough to know how to assess his .293/.335/.492 power surge this year.
1B Nellie Rodriguez battered Carolina League pitchers to the tune of 17 homers in 108 games as he compiled a terrific .275/.357/.495 line. The 21yo was then promoted to Akron for the final month of the season, but struggled to find his feet as he only managed .118/.200/.269 in 25 games. No doubt he'll make the required adjustments for next season.
CF Bradey Zimmer took the league by storm in compiling a .308/.403/.493 line (with 32 steals) in 78 games. However, he was injured just prior to the Carolina League All-Star break in mid-June and never really got going once he was promoted to Akron, hitting just .219/.313/.374 in 49 games, as his BABIP fell from (an unsustainable) .388 in A+ to .273 in AA.
Outfielders Dorssys Paulino and Greg Allen were discussed in the Lake County season review.
LHP Jayson Aquino was acquired from the Pirates for cash considerations in August, having bounced around the league in the last few years. He's still only 22, but the fact that he hasn't yet established himself above Class A+ means that he is always likely to be a DFA candidate.
In any case, he made a fine early impression with the Tribe, pitching 33 innings over six starts for a 2.45 ERA/1.09 WHIP and then putting up a solid 7.1 IP in the playoffs. One thing that might count against Aquino is the fact that he struck out just 86 in 137.1 IP overall at Class A+ this season, so it wouldn't be a surprise if the Indians tried to smuggle him off the 40-man at some point in November.
RHP Justin Brantley wasn't even drafted, so the fact that the 24yo has pitched so well in his first two pro seasons is remarkable. This year he struck out 65 in 69.2 IP for a 2.84 ERA/1.05 WHIP. Competition for relieving spots at Akron is sure to be fierce, however.
RHP D.J.Brown, like Brantley, was basically unheralded — a 39th rd pick in 2012. However, he pitched well enough in his second season at A+ to earn a late season callup for five games at Akron, where if anything he was even better (.326 ERA/1.22 WHIP with 22 strikeouts in 30.1 IP). In any event, the 24yo certainly deserves to open next season in AA.
RHP Mitch Brown just didn't get going at all until July and then faded in September. However, for a ten-game stretch in-between he really looked the part, striking out 49 in 60.1 IP with an ERA of 3.14. With a potential logjam of starting pitchers at Lake County, Brown might well find himself in Akron to start next season, despite a very up and down showing in 2015.
RHP J.P. Feyereisen began his pro career by going a remarkable 31 innings without allowing a run, including a fairly lengthy spell as closer at Lake County to start the season. With his "unbeaten" record finally snapped, the 22yo was promoted to the Hillcats at the end of May, where he was used mainly in a setup role and was still very effective, posting a 2.61 ERA/1.05 WHIP over 31 IP.
RHP Trevor Frank didn't make it back from injury until late June, but after a five-game rehab stint with the AZL Indians, he certainly made up for lost time in the last couple of months of the season, striking out 17 in 17 IP while racking up a 1.59 ERA/1.14 WHIP. Given his terrific record since being drafted in the 8th rd in 2013, it would be a surprise if the 24yo didn't make it to Akron at some point next year.
LHP Rob Kaminsky was acquired in the mid-season Brandon Moss trade, but only managed two games before being shut down due to lower back tightness. He was a top prospect in the well-regarded Cardinals farm system, so it will be interesting to see how he fares in Akron next year.
RHP Dace Kime was disappointing at Lake County in 2014, but wasted no time in earning a promotion to the Hillcats after just six starts this year. However, he didn't really make much of an impression at A+, finishing with a 4.42 ERA/1.46 WHIP over 22 starts. I would imagine that the 23yo would be repeating at Lynchburg next season.
LHP Luis Lugo, like Mitch Brown, came into the year as a fairly highly touted prospect. However, also like Brown, he struggled badly in the first half of the season before finally finding his feet in the second half. Although his final 4.15 ERA/1.44 WHIP wasn't anything special, he did strike out 119 in 125.2 IP.
Given that he is eligible for the Rule 5 draft, the Tribe may need to protect Lugo by adding him to the 40-man roster, as it's certainly possible that the 21yo could be drafted as a LOOGY in December's draft (with a view tom switching him back to a starter role once the required roster qualifications are met).
RHP Michael Peoples enjoyed arguably his best full season as a professional, performing a key role in the Hillcats' rotation in pitching 139.2 innings for a solid 3.42 ERA/1.33 WHIP. However, he is already 24, and the fact that he only recorded 89 strikeouts suggests that he may not have a particularly high ceiling.
RHP Antonio Romero is an intriguing Cuban import who was making his stateside debut in 2015. The 24yo did a fine job for the Hillcats, striking out 56 in 62 IP with a 2.47 ERA/1.16 WHIP over 24 relief appearances and three starts. He also excelled in an emergency spot start in Columbus, striking out five in 4 IP for just one earned run.
SP Adam Plutko was promoted early on the season and will be discussed in our Akron review, while late-season promotions Sean Brady and David Speer were discussed in the Lake County season review.
Possible Hillcats roster for 2016
1B: Bradley/Sever (also 3B backup)
CF: Allen/Ison (also corner OF backup)
RF: Santander/L.Rodriguez (once suspension is complete)
Rotation: (some combination of) Sheffield/Baker/Peoples/Kime/Brady/Pannone/Polanco