Lake County Captains 72-68 (4th in Eastern Division of Midwest League)
For most Tribe prospects, the 16-team Midwest League represents a first taste of full-season ball. Whether they stay just for a matter of days or three years (like Anthony Santander prior to his promotion this year), it's rare for a prospect to bypass Lake County altogether (like Mark Mathias and Daniel Salters this year).
The Captains pretty much stayed even with last year's 71-66 record, and despite starting strong with a 40-30 record at the midway point of the season, they were unable to make the playoffs. The team was absolutely loaded with talent, but hardly any of it stayed in Lake County all season.
Here's a quick look at the key contributors to this year's campaign.
CF Ka'ai Tom flew too close to the sun. The talented Hawaiian's season didn't last much longer than a month before going down with a season-ending shoulder injury, but what a marvelous month it was! Tom batted .323, walked 21 times compared to 13 strikeouts and scored 20 runs in 28 games. He also was errorless in the field while picking up eight outfield assists. Unfortunately, his season was cut short and he'll hopefully be back to full strength next year.
C Francisco Mejia was clearly the star of the show in Lake County. He was repeating the year at Single-A after a decent 2015 campaign where he was a bit overwhelmed as a 19-year old, but he broke out in 2016. The highlight of Mejia's season was a modern era record 50-game hitting streak, the longest in MLB or MiLB since 1963. The switch-hitting Dominican was promoted to Lynchburg following an appearance at the Midwest League All-Star game and hit just as well there. His future is extremely bright.
2B Tyler Krieger had one hell of a debut season in the Tribe system. After missing all of 2015 with an injury, Krieger burst onto the scene with an incredible .313/.385/.427 split which saw him join Mejia as a midseason promotion to Lynchburg. Krieger is slightly further along in his development as a 22-year old draftee out of Clemson, but he has a chance to be fast-tracked through the system if he continues to tear the cover off the ball and could be a potential replacement for Jason Kipnis down the line.
OF Conor Marabell came out of nowhere as a 25th round draft pick in 2015 to lead the entire Indians organization in doubles this year with 45. He was a key cog in Lake County's high powered offense, repping a solid .311/.368/.482 batting line as a member of the Captains. Marabell was promoted to Lynchburg late in the season and is expected to start 2017 there.
SS Willi Castro is only 19, and was the youngest player on the Captains roster to begin the season. The Puerto Rican was a Midwest League All-Star and had a similar batting line in 2016 compared to 2015 with a solid but not spectacular .259/.286/.371. Castro earned a very late season promotion to High-A Lynchburg. He'll need to improve his walk rate (3.4%) and his defensive errors will need to continue trending down if he wants to be a serious major league prospect.
OF Jodd Carter was a mid-season call-up but he had a solid .276/.371/.352 line at the plate. The 20-year old will need to improve his power if he wants to be an impact outfield prospect, but the contact rate is rock solid. Of note, his strikeout and walk rates both improved dramatically after his promotion to Lake County which is a bit surprising.
OF Andrew Calica was a very late season call-up, but boy did he keep hitting. Calica only played in 10 games for Lake County, but he remained red hot, batting a scorching .359/.405/.513 at the plate. He was the only hitting prospect out of the 2016 draft class to play for Lake County and if he can continue tearing the cover off the ball, his future could be very bright.
Outfielder Nathan Lukes also had a tremendous season at Lake County before being promoted to Lynchburg, but I didn't include him because he was subsequently traded to Tampa Bay for right-handed platoon pinata Brandon Guyer.
RHP Matt Esparza was the leader of the Captains' rotation, leading the all Indians minor league pitchers in strikeouts on the year with 141, 109 of which were recorded on the LC roster. The 22-year old had an extremely consistent season, holding a remarkable 3.14 ERA/1.203 WHIP before earning a late season promotion to Lynchburg.
LHP Thomas Pannone started the 2015 season pitching mainly out of the bullpen for LC, but has truly blossomed after transitioning to starting pitching. Pannone was the first LC starting pitcher to earn a promotion to High-A Lynchburg after a stellar campaign where the 22-year old struck out 84 batters in 89.1 innings and recorded a rock solid 3.02 ERA/1.10 WHIP.
RHP Shao-Ching Chiang was the Mr Reliable, leading Lake County in innings pitched with 152.1. He didn't have overwhelming stuff, striking out just 5.4 batters per nine innings and giving up a team-leading 13 home runs, but all-in-all, he was consistent on the year, eating up innings with an average of 5.2 per start and despite the gopher balls, he still had a respectable 3.94 ERA and an excellent walk rate of 1.5/9. He'll definitely be moving up to Lynchburg next year.
RHP Brock Hartson was a lowly 21st rd pick in last year's draft, but he made a big impact with Lake County this season. He started the year as a piggy-back partner for starting pitcher Sam Hentges, but took over the starting pitching role and performed well after Hentges was forced to have season-ending Tommy John surgery. Hartson was also promoted to Lynchburg late in the year.
LHP Billy Strode was flat out dominant as a 24-year old 2015 draft pick out of Florida State, giving up just two runs in 26 innings before earning a mid-season promotion to Lynchburg.
RHP Matt Whitehouse was also dominant in long relief for Lake County, only giving up three runs in over 27 innings before earning a promotion to High-A. The 25-year old missed almost all of 2015 with an injury but appears to be back on track.
RHP Leandro Linares is a fire-throwing Cuban defector who finally learned how to throw strikes. After walking 44 batters in 44 innings in 2015, he walked just 12 in 44.2 innings this year while striking out a ridiculous 55. Linares was promoted to Lynchburg late in the year and could be one of the top sleeper relief prospects in the entire system if he can keep throwing strikes.
RHP Triston McKenzie only made six starts with Lake County but they were memorable, striking out 11 batters in his late season debut just a week before his 19th birthday. McKenzie blew away hitters with 49 strikeouts in just 34 innings pitched. He was more hittable in Lake County, but almost all runs were scored on him after the third inning as he started to tire.
Of note, starting pitching prospect Casey Shane did not have a great year, getting worse in all of his measureable statistics. Former third round pick Kieren Lovegrove's transition to the bullpen was not very successful, holding an 4.25 ERA as a late game reliever.
Possible Captains roster for 2016
C: Logan Ice
1B: Emmanuel Tapia
2B: Erlin Cerda
SS: Luke Wakamatsu
3B: Gavin Collins
LF: Todd Isaacs
RF: Jodd Carter
CF: Gabriel Mejia
Rotation: McKenzie, Aiken, Bieber, Civale, Miniard, Hillman (possibly Tully/Krauth too. McKenzie and/or Miniard could start the year at Lynchburg to whittle it down to five. This is going to be an extremely exciting rotation to watch)