The Akron RubberDucks 2023 season begins later today and expectations are high after a boatload of top position player and pitching prospects are expected to begin the season there.
Akron is the Double-A affiliate of the Cleveland Guardians, just two stops away from the show. This is definitely a team to watch this season.
The 2022 RubberDucks finished an impressive 79-59, a top-three record in the Eastern League. They did so based on an absolutely disgusting starting rotation that at some point featured all of Cleveland’s top 10 pitching prospects
Here’s my best guess at a hypothetical opening day lineup, assuming everyone is healthy.
- Petey Halpin, CF
- Angel Martinez, SS
- Bryan Lavastida, C
- Johnathan Rodriguez, RF
- Joe Naranjo, 1B
- Gabriel Rodriguez, 3B
- Jose Tena, 2B
- Aaron Bracho, DH
- Connor Kokx, LF
That’s not a half-bad lineup if you ask me.
CTC top 20 prospects Angel Martinez, Petey Halpin and Jose Tena are the featured heavy hitters, but Bryan Lavastida was almost a top 10 prospect entering last season, where he began the year in Cleveland and struggled with injuries and inconsistency. He’s only staying in Akron until Bo Naylor gets called up to the MLB level.
Johnathan Rodriguez experienced a power surge last season, blasting 26 home runs while former top international signing Gabriel Rodriguez had the best season of his minor league career, slashing .272/.343/.416 while spending his entire season last year in High-A Lake County. Both Joe Naranjo and Aaron Bracho repeated last season at Lake County, but only Naranjo improved, posting a career-best 120 wRC+ with 18 home runs.
Connor Kokx was slightly above average at High-A last season, as was utility man Raynel Delgado, who earned a midseason promotion to Akron but didn’t do enough once there to keep climbing.
Power-hitting corner outfielder Alexfri Planez is starting 2023 on the injured list and should join Akron once healthy.
On the pitching side of the equation, here’s my best guess at the team’s starting rotation to begin the year (Akron, Lake County, and Lynchburg ran six-man rotations in 2022 and I expect that to continue this year).
- Gavin Williams
- Ross Carver
- Joey Cantillo
- Tanner Burns
- Doug Nikhazy
- Jack Leftwich
Gavin Williams is already listed as Opening Day starter for Akron so that comes as no surprise. The No. 1 pick by Cleveland in 2021 dazzled last season in starts split across Lake County and Akron. He was one of the toughest pitchers to hit in all of MiLB and sported a filthy 1.96 ERA over 25 starts with 149 strikeouts in 115 innings pitched. He’s one of the top prospects in baseball for a reason.
For those unfamiliar with Ross Carver, he was the return in Cleveland’s offseason trade of Carlos Vargas to the Arizona Diamondbacks. He was a 20th-round pick by Arizona in 2021 but his stock rose significantly after he was promoted from Single-A to High-A and then to Double-A in his first pro season last year. He spent half his time at High-A, where he struck out 97 batters in 81 innings over 15 starts and held a 3.10 ERA.
Joey Cantillo is another elite prospect and he proved himself in limited action last season, where he had a 1.93 ERA over 14 appearances (13 starts) with Akron, striking out 87 batters in 60.2 innings. To be honest, I was surprised he’s not beginning the year at Triple-A Columbus, but that may be Cleveland being cautious due to his injury history.
Tanner Burns was a first-round competitive balance pick by Cleveland in 2020 but hasn’t pitched like it yet. Perhaps slowed by an early season injury, he had a 3.55 ERA with 92 strikeouts in 88.2 innings of work last season at Akron and he’s repeating there again this year. He also struggled with his command, walking a batter every two innings.
Doug Nikhazy, a second-round pick in 2021, showed flashes of brilliance, striking out nine or more batters five times, but he also was inconsistent, walking 79 batters which led to a way-too-high 1.49 WHIP. If he can get his walks under control, he could take a huge leap this year.
A seventh-round pick, Jack Leftwich dominated Single-A Lynchburg and continued to impress after being promoted to High-A Lake County last season, finishing with a 2.72 ERA and an elite 0.91 WHIP over 24 appearances and 15 starts.
Top pitching prospect Daniel Espino could start 2023 in Akron or Columbus when he returns to the mound this season.
For the bullpen, keep an eye on former fifth-round pick Mason Hickman, who impressed after converting to the pen from a starter. Cade Smith, Davis Sharpe, and Hunter Stanley also are relief arms worth keeping an eye on.