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Lynchburg Hillcats 2016 Preview

The Indians' High-A affiliate will feature one of the best power hitters in the entire organization.

Max Oden/The News & Advance

Last year's Lynchburg Hillcats were loaded with top prospect talent. The combination of Bradley Zimmer, Clint Frazier, and 2015 Carolina League MVP Nellie Rodrigez carried an offense that scored 79 more runs than any other team in the Carolina League. Unfortunately for Lynchburg (but fortunate for the Cleveland Indians organization), most of that core has moved onto to Double-A. Fortunately, they are getting a few potentially great players in return.

But will it be enough for them to top their 78-62 record and avenge an a disappointing 2-0 elimination in the first round of playoffs?

Quick info

  • Class: High-A
  • Indians affiliate since: 2015
  • Home park: Calvin Falwell Field
  • 2015 W/L: 72-68
  • League: Carolina League
  • Division: Northern Division
  • Full roster

Biggest roster changes

As stated above, the core of this team has been gutted from last year. Zimmer, Rodriguez, Frazier, and Eric Haase (who had the team's fifth highest OPS last season) are all gone. Rodriguez and Frazier were one-two last season in home runs, leading the Carolina League with 17 and 16 long shots, respectively.

Mostly filling that void will be Bobby Bradley, who -- at only 19 years old -- led the entire Indians organization in home runs last year with 27. Rodriguez hitting 17 was impressive enough last year, so it will be fun to potentially watch Lynchburg hitters dominate the Carolina League home run leaderboards for two seasons in a row.

Another big addition will be Yu-Cheng Chang. The 20-year-old turned heads with an impressive campaign in the 2013's Rookie league when he slashed .346/.420/.566 and hit six home runs. Last year in Class-A ball he did not look nearly as impressive (.232/.293/.361, 9 HR), but if he can rekindle some of that rookie season magic he could be a big addition to the Hillcats roster at shortstop.

Last year's starting rotation of Mitch Brown, Luis Lugo, Michael Peoples, Dace Kime and DJ Brown were not very impressive (the entire staff finished with a collective 3.77 ERA, second-worst in the Carolina League), but everyone except Lugo and Mitch Brown has moved on, one way or another. They instead will benefit from top prospect Justus Sheffield, who will debut in Lynchburg after spending all of last season in Class-A.

Position players

With Eric Haase and Alex Monsalve no longer in Lynchburg, the catching situation is going to be very different. Combined, the two accounted for 392 at-bats from behind the plate. Now it will most likely fall on the shoulders of Sicnarf Loopstok, a fledgling prospect with a backstory as interesting as his name. Loopstok did not look great last year (.218/.294/.437, 4 HR), but the only other catching option this season will be Daniel Salters who has played only one game past Low-A in his career.

Bobby Bradley at first base will anchor a revamped -- but still potentially very good -- infield. As previously mentioned, Yu-Cheng Chang should take over shortstop duties from Ivan Castillo, although one of them could wind up at third base instead. Twenty-one-year-old Mark Mathias should take over the majority of second-base duties after a very good debut season last year in Low-A (.282/.382/.408).

With Zimmer and Frazier both moving onto Akron, the outfield is obviously going to take a big dip. Mike Papi started 2015 with an abysmal first couple months, but if he is the type of player he finished the season looking like, he could be huge this year. Dorssys Paulino quietly led the team in OPS last season in the 43 games since being called, and he should be a factor again this season in the outfield. No matter how well her performs, Paulino will probably be stuck in High-A until one of the many outfield prospects in Double-A move up the ranks.

Luigi Rodriguez will be a part of the team in the outfield at some point, but he will miss a good chunk of the season serving an 80-game suspension for PED use.

Pitching staff

If the Hillcats are going to win without last year's tremendous offense, the pitching staff is going to have to do better. Last season, they were the second-worst pitching staff across the board behind only the Frederick Keys. Justus Sheffield is the big headliner here, as he will be making his High-A debut after impressing just about everyone with a breakout 2015 season. Sheffield carried a 3.31 ERA while striking out 24.9 percent of the batters he faced and walking just 6.9 percent in 127.2 innings at Class-A. His strong season immediately put him on many top 10 prospect lists, and he could be the best player on the entire Hillcats team in 2016.

Luis Lugo, a big 6-foor-5 lefty, has maintained a strikeout rate in the 20 percent range his whole minor-league career, but his walk rate jumped to 9.5 percent last season in High-A. Both Lugo and Sheffield should be exciting to watch as they adjust to High-A batters, but the rest of the staff is filled with mostly non-prospects. Jordan Mibrath, at 24 years old, will finally make it out of Class-A after three straight seasons, but he may be demoted to a reliever in favor of Anderson Polanco, who has a much better track record.

The majority of the bullpen, including standout prospect JP Feyereisen and closer Ben Heller have moved on, leaving a mostly-new 'pen behind.

Final thoughts

The amount of talent that the Hillcats lost compared to last season is hard to replace, but Bobby Bradley and Justus Sheffield should help ease the transition. I doubt the Hillcats will have the best offense Carolina League again, but they should be in a position to compete for another shot at the playoffs.