Lake County Captains 65-55 (East Division Champions)
Lake County entered the 2021 season as the team to watch in Cleveland’s system thanks to its loaded roster full of elite international position player prospects and a pitching staff that featured five college pitchers, including three who were making their MiLB debuts. Almost everyone lived up to the hype and the Captains finished with the best record in the East Division, but did not qualify for the playoffs by two games, because the top two records in High-A belonged to the West Division.
Here’s a quick look at the key contributors for the Captains this season.
OF George Valera got to play his first full season in 2021 and he lived up to the hype, bat flipping his way into our hearts. In 63 games with Lake County, Valera slashed .256/.430/.548, dropping his strikeout rate five points and bumping his walk rate to an absolutely elite 20.9% of plate appearances. It was clear opposing pitchers didn’t want to end up on a highlight reel and Valera was willing to take the free pass, which is a great sign for his development. Valera slugged 16 home runs in Lake County and stole 10 bases, earning a late promotion to Double-A, where I expect him to begin the 2022 season.
SS Brayan Rocchio was above average for Lake County, posting a 110 wRC+ in 64 games with the club, which earned him a promotion to Double-A when Tyler Freeman went down with a season-ending shoulder injury. Impressively, Rocchio’s numbers actually improved in Double-A after making what is usually labeled the most difficult transition in MiLB. Rocchio’s strikeout rate dropped, his ISO increased and he slashed .293/.360/.505 in Akron, good for a 135 wRC+. And for those concerned it was small sample size, he played 44 games at Double-A. Rocchio proved he belonged among the top Cleveland prospects.
C Bryan Lavastida began the season in Lake County, and broke out in a big way, making great contact and getting on base with an impressive .303/.399/.467 slash over 48 games, which was good for a 136 wRC+. Lavastida’s performance was good enough to earn him a promotion to Double-A, where his numbers barely changed, slashing .291/.373/.466 with a 130 wRC+ over 29 games. His defense improved, but he has a ways to go with catching baserunners. He threw out 16, but allowed 58 stolen bases.
2B Aaron Bracho had a disappointing season by all accounts. He entered 2021 as a top 10 prospect in the system after a killer 2019 season, but over 70 games, he slashed a putrid .174/.269/.299 and hit just seven home runs. Everything was worse for Bracho in 2021, as his strikeout rate exploded to over 30% and his walk rate dropped from elite to above average at 11%, while his ISO more than cut in half. I’m not sure what went wrong with Bracho, but he needs to fix it immediately, or he’s going to be passed over by the plethora of other top middle infield prospects in the system. The one bright spot is he only committed six errors, and only three of them were at his natural position of second base.
3B Victor Nova got a big assignment in 2021, skipping Low-A entirely and jumping straight to High-A with the rest of the international prospects. Nova was slightly below average at Lake County, slashing .207/.318/.332 over 75 games. Despite that, he earned a late season promotion to Akron, where his contact rate improved, and his walk and strikeout rates didn’t change much, but he struggled to hit for extra bases.
OF Will Brennan was drafted as an advanced bat out of Kansas State in 2019, and he played like it in his full-season debut, slashing .290/.368/.441 with a 124 wRC+ over 62 games with Lake County. Brennan was the glue that helped hold the Captains offense together and Lake County struggled after he earned a promotion to Double-A, where he still managed to post an above average 107 wRC+ and actually improving his walk and strikeout ratios.
SS Jose Tena made a name for himself in 2021, spiking his power with 16 home runs and slashing .281/.331/.467, which was good for a 115 wRC+ in his first full season of baseball. The 20-year-old is Rule 5 eligible and while he didn’t earn a promotion to Double-A like Rocchio, he absolutely proved he’s ready to at least start the next season there.
Other top performers Jhonkensy Noel and Micah Pries will be discussed in the Lynchburg article tomorrow.
LHP Logan T. Allen could not have asked for a better debut in professional baseball. The 2020 second round pick got an aggressive assignment and he rose to the occasion. In nine starts with Lake County, Allen struck out 33.5% of batters he faced and walked just 6.5%, while sporting a 1.58 ERA. He did not lose a game all season, going 5-0 with Lake County, then 4-0 with Akron after a midseason promotion. Allen actually improved his walk rate after the promotion, although he was hit a bit more. He still managed an elite 2.58 ERA. Allen’s stock is skyrocketing.
RHP Tanner Burns was Cleveland’s first round pick in 2020, and he also impressed in his aggressive assignment. Burns wasn’t quite as elite as Allen, but he was still excellent, striking out 10.82 batters per nine innings and walking 3.45 per nine. He maintained a 3.57 ERA over 18 starts and 75.2 innings pitched.
RHP Xavion Curry began the season in Lynchburg, but he didn’t stay there long, absolutely humiliating opposing hitters to the tune of 13.5 strikeouts per nine innings and a 1.07 ERA and earning a promotion to Lake County after only five starts. Curry also impressed at Lake County. Over 13 starts with the Captains, he kept his strikeout rate over 10 per nine innings and walked just 1.6 per nine while maintaining a stellar 2.66 ERA. Curry was so impressive that he earned a late season promotion to Double-A as well, and even pitched the RubberDucks to victory in the team's championship-winning playing game.
RHP Mason Hickman was a fifth round pick in 2020 and he had mixed results this season, occasionally showing flashes of brilliance. Twice this season he tossed 6.0 shutout innings with nine strikeouts, but he also mixed in some ugly games, allowing six or more runs on three occasions. The strikeouts we're a plus, but Hickman also walked 3.41 batters per nine innings, which is something he's going to have to correct if he wants to become an intriguing prospect.
RHP Hunter Gaddis was a workhorse for the Captains and began the season as the opening day starter. Like Hickman, Gaddis had an up and down season with some great moments, including a pair of 10 strikeout games. He finished the season on a high note, striking out 8, 10, 9 and 9 batters in his final four starts. Gaddis whiffed 30% of opposing hitters he faced while walking 6% and finished the year with a 4.18 ERA.
Standout bullpen arms included Nic Enright. Daniel Espino will be discussed in tomorrow’s article about Lynchburg.
Possible RubberDucks roster for 2022
C: Micael Ramirez
1B: Jhonkensy Noel
2B: Aaron Bracho
3B: Angel Martinez
SS: Christian Cairo
LF: Johnathan Rodriguez/Korey Holland
CF: Petey Halpin
RF: Alexfri Planez
Util: Raynel Delgado
Rotation: (some combination of) Daniel Espino, Lenny Torres, Ethan Hankins, Josh Wolf. Gavin Williams, Doug Nikhazy, Tommy Mace.