Following the lost season in 2020 and the sweeping changes made throughout Minor League Baseball, representatives from each of the three High-A leagues will go straight to the Finals to decide its 2021 champion with best-of-5 series, starting Tuesday.
This is a departure from past procedures, when each of the three leagues last had their own playoff series with four teams from the California, Carolina and Florida State Leagues making the playoffs. Wilmington and Winston-Salem are the only two teams from the former Class A Advanced in 2019 that still remain at the level, and neither is in a playoffs.
Eugene Emeralds (69-50, High-A West champion) vs. Spokane Indians (67-49, High-A West runner-up)
Eugene won the season series, 9-3
Game 1 at Spokane, Sept. 21 at 9:30 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Spokane, Sept. 22 at 9:30 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Eugene, Sept. 23 at 9:30 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Eugene (if necessary), Sept. 24 at 9:30 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Eugene (if necessary), Sept. 25 at 4:00 p.m. ET
(Note: All games will be played at Avista Stadium in Spokane. Eugene will be the home team for Game 3 and for Games 4 and 5, if necessary.)
A lot can happen in a month during a baseball season.
Take the playoff chase in the High-A West, for example. On Aug. 2, Spokane was 14.5 games out of the league lead while second-place Eugene trailed Everett by seven games. Exactly one month later, on Sept. 2, Spokane and Everett were tied for the lead in the standings while Eugene sat just one game back.
When the dust finally settled at the end of the regular season just 17 days later, Eugene held a half-game lead on Spokane at the top of the league while Everett sat seven games back in a third-place finish.
It was quite an interesting way to determine the participants in the new winner-take-all playoff.
“[Spokane has] done something that's pretty special this season,” Eugene manager Dennis Pelfrey said. “In my opinion, that is a testament to that organization, the coaching staff there and obviously the players. Just getting after it and playing for somebody and competing every night, which is pretty special to see. So, obviously, they're going to be a very tough opponent.”
Eugene, a Giants affiliate, will not be able to host any games at PK Park due to scheduling conflicts with the University of Oregon, with whom the club shares facilities. But they will be the home team for the remainder of the series after Game 2. Also, the last of their 12 meetings with Spokane came on July 18, still more than a week before the Indians’ dramatic turnaround in the standings.
Since Aug. 1, Spokane has had six players among the top-10 in the league in batting, including the name at the top of that list, Jack Blomgren, who hit .384 over the final 31 games of the season.
“You want to play against the best, you want to see how good you are and how you match up with the best in the world,” Pelfrey said. “And right now, in our league, in our world, Spokane is playing the best baseball.”
Spokane has also enjoyed an excellent season from Rockies’ No. 7 prospect Brenton Doyle, who finished second to Eugene’s Tyler Fitzgerald with 177 total bases. Doyle batted .279 with a .790 OPS, 16 homers and 47 RBIs in 97 games.
Aaron Schunk, the Rockies’ No. 9 prospect, has had a difficult time in his first full season, batting .223 with eight homers and 45 RBIs this season. But Hunter Stovall, a 21st-round pick in 2018, has been a pleasant surprise for Spokane and is having one of the best offensive seasons at the level.
Eugene has its own claim to a different leaderboard over that final stretch. Emeralds hurlers Kai-Wei Teng, Jake Dahlberg, Conner Nurse and Ryan Murphy have the most strikeouts in the league since Aug. 1. Teng actually led the league in strikeouts overall as well with 142, which is 23 more than the next name on the list, Spokane right-hander Chris McMahon.
But Pelfrey’s Game 1 starter, Seth Corry, has not quite found the same success this season. The Giants’ No. 11 prospect posted a 5.99 ERA in 19 starts with the Emeralds while striking out 100 over 67 ⅔ innings (13.3 K/9).
“Obviously the season hasn't gone the way that he probably wanted it to as far as the numbers and the success and all that stuff,” Pelfrey said. “But I like to talk to Seth, and I love talking to him because he's a great kid and he's a competitor.”
Corry had a month-long hiatus on the development list at the start of August and was able to go to the team’s facility in Arizona for some fine-tuning. The left-hander has been excellent since his return, with the club choosing to deploy him in short starts of no more than three innings. In those four quick starts, Corry has posted 8 ⅓ scoreless innings with 11 strikeouts and three hits allowed.
“I think you'll see a lot of pressure released from his shoulders because he understands what we're trying to accomplish along with trying to win the game in the moment,” Pelfrey said.
Whatever tactics the Giants organization used for Corry will probably also be explored for the club’s top prospect, Marco Luciano. The 20-year-old is still young for the level, and his numbers suggest he’ll likely return to the High-A West again at the start of 2022.
But the Emeralds have the No. 5 overall prospect in baseball during a playoff series, which will draw its own attention this week.
“He's just a kid. He just turned 20 years old. He's enjoying himself. He's having fun,” Pelfrey said. “He's struggling a little bit with us offensively. But those are the growing pains, but I think he understands what he's trying to accomplish, and I think we're trying to take as much pressure off of him as possible. I'm sure he does feel it a little bit. But he's great to be around, like I said, he's exciting to watch, obviously.”
Luciano was promoted from Low-A San Jose on Aug. 4 and has batted .217 with a .577 OPS in 36 games with the Emeralds.
For Pelfrey, a first-year skipper in affiliated ball after more than a decade as a player and manager in independent ball, he didn’t have to look far to point out some noteworthy performances from his team.
Ismael Munguia, the High-A West batting champion, is quite possibly the hottest hitter at any level heading into the championship series. The 22-year-old outfielder batted .485 with 20 RBIs and 20 runs scored over the last 23 games of the season.
“It's been pretty fun to watch him grow as a hitter,” Pelfrey said. “He's done some things at the plate that I've personally never seen guys be able to do with manipulating the bat and finding the barrel.”
Munguia’s ability to get on base and Fitzgerald’s power -- he and teammate Sean Roby tied for second in the league with 19 homers -- are an excellent lead for a potent offense that has one of the sport’s best prospects ready to break out at any moment. But they’ll have to do it against one of the hottest teams in the Minors.
This clash provides plenty of reason to stay up late for the West Coast games.
Bowling Green Hot Rods (82-36, High-A East champion) vs. Greensboro Grasshoppers (74-46, High-A East runner-up)
Bowling Green won the season series, 7-5
Game 1 at Greensboro, Sept. 22 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Greensboro, Sept. 23 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Bowling Green, Sept. 24 at 7:35 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Bowling Green (if necessary), Sept. 25 at 7:35 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Bowling Green (if necessary), Sept. 26 at 7:30 p.m. ET
(Note: Due to inclement weather on Sept. 21, the first two games of the series were pushed back a day.)
Bowling Green finished in a tie with a fellow Rays affiliate, Low-A Charleston, for the most wins in the Minors this season, while Greensboro boasts three Top 100 prospects on its roster.
This one should be fun.
The two teams finished with exactly 732 runs scored in the regular season but it was the Hot Rods’ pitching, complete with a league-best 3.95 ERA, which seems to have been the difference-maker this season. Bowling Green’s success on the mound is a complete team effort as the club didn’t have anybody pitch more than 88 ⅓ innings for them this season. But they’ve enjoyed the final third of seventh-ranked Rays prospect Taj Bradley’s first full season in the Minors.
The 20-year-old right-hander pitched to a 1.96 ERA in eight starts with Bowling Green after 15 stellar appearances with Charleston. Overall, Bradley has used his plus fastball-slider combo to produce a 1.83 overall ERA with 123 strikeouts in 103 ⅓ innings across the two levels.
Greensboro, without posting the best numbers, has a ton more starpower in the rotation. Quinn Priester, the Pirates’ second-ranked prospect and No. 50 overall prospect in baseball, leads a staff that also features Pittsburgh’s No 10 prospect Carmen Mlodzinski, Tahnaj Thomas (No. 13) and Michael Burrows (No. 14).
The Grasshoppers also boast plenty of big names on the other side of the ball, but that list will not include Henry Davis, the club’s top prospect and No. 1 overall pick in this year’s Draft. Davis played six games with Greensboro before suffering an oblique injury that ended his season in August.
But manager Kieran Mattison can still pencil one of the best middle-infield combinations in the Minors into the lineup this week in Nick Gonzales and Liover Peguero.
Gonzales and Peguero, the Nos. 63 and 87 prospects, respectively, both missed somewhat significant time with injuries during the regular season, but their first full season in the Minors remains a massive success. Gonzales batted .302 with a .950 OPS and 18 homers while Peguero batted .270 with 14 long balls and 45 RBIs.
Pirates No. 23 prospect Matt Fraizer and outfielder Jared Triolo are a pair of less-heralded prospects that had some of the best offensive seasons in the league this year. That duo combined for 35 homers and 128 RBIs during the regular season.
Without any top 100 prospects, Bowling Green’s offense can more than hold its own in this series. Curtis Mead, the Rays’ No. 14 prospect, is back with the club after he tore the cover off the ball in a four-game stint with Triple-A Durham. The Hot Rods had four players with at least 17 homers this season while also finishing with the highest team OPS (.817) and third most total strikeouts (1,252) in the league.
All games played in Bowling Green will be free to watch on MiLB.TV.
Quad Cities River Bandits (77-41, High-A Central champion) vs. Cedar Rapids Kernels (67-53, High-A Central runner-up)
Quad Cities won the season series, 18-6
Game 1 at Cedar Rapids, Sept. 21 at 7:35 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Cedar Rapids, Sept. 22 at 7:35 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Quad Cities, Sept. 24 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Quad Cities (if necessary), Sept. 25 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Quad Cities (if necessary), Sept. 26 at 7:30 p.m. ET
This series might be missing its biggest potential name in No. 67 overall prospect Asa Lacy (shoulder), but this should still be a very entertaining matchup.
Leading the offense for Quad Cities are Royals No. 10 prospect Nick Loftin and No. 30 Michael Massey, who both finished with a .289 batting average in the regular season. Massey leads all remaining River Bandits in just about every power category, including homers (21), RBIs (87) and slugging percentage (.531). Loftin, the No. 32 overall pick in last year’s Draft, compiled 103 hits, including 22 doubles, in his first Minor League season.
Rubendy Jaquez has been an interesting case for Quad Cities since his promotion from Low-A Columbia on Aug. 12. He’s put together a .377 average with a .905 OPS since then and has scored 15 runs and tallied 20 hits in 19 games.
Without Lacy, their staff has been anchored by another left-hander, Anthony Veneziano. The 2019 10th-rounder led the club in innings pitched (93.2) and strikeouts (127) while maintaining a 3.75 ERA. Reliever Will Klein has enjoyed a tremendous season, posting a 3.20 with 121 strikeouts in 70 ⅓ innings, which is good for an astonishing 15.48 K/9.
The Cedar Rapids staff is also without perhaps its biggest name as Twins No. 10 prospect Matt Canterino has been limited by an elbow strain to just one start since May. Louie Varland (No. 29) will start Game 1 for the Kernels after a terrific run with the club since a promotion from Low-A Fort Myers on July 13. The 23-year-old right-hander has a 2.10 ERA with 66 strikeouts over 55 ⅔ innings at the level. Sean Mooney is the scheduled Game 2 starter while Casey Legumina is listed for Game 3.
On offense, Cedar Rapids will showcase Aaron Sabato, the Twins’ No. 16 prospect and an exact prototype of the modern power hitter. Sabato has eight homers and just 19 total hits in 22 games for the Kernels, which is good for a .613 slugging percentage and 1.015 OPS. He also has a total of 149 strikeouts and 92 walks to go with his 19 homers across two levels. That’s a textbook three-true-outcomes-guy if there ever was one.
In addition to Sabato, Matt Wallner (No. 14) batted .264 with an .858 OPS and 15 homers in 66 games with Cedar Rapids this season.
The entire series will be free to watch on MiLB.TV.
Gerard Gilberto is a reporter for MiLB.com.