Craving postseason action and can't wait for October? Look no further than the Minor Leagues.
Double-A, High-A and Low-A circuits are set to begin best-of-5 playoff series Tuesday. In a change from previous years, each league will pit the teams with its two best records (regardless of division) against each other to determine its 2021 champions. The best vs. the second-best. It doesn't get much cleaner than that.
These series do more than hand out trophies, of course. They also allow us a few extra looks at some of the best prospects in baseball. (Notably, many postseason games are available for free on MiLB.TV.) Not just any looks either. These are opportunities to see how young talents handle meaningful games with something on the line. It's far from an end-all, be-all, but performance in the next week can be telling.
To celebrate this week's big slate of games at the lower levels, the following is a ranking of nine Minor League postseason series by how loaded they each are with Top 30 prospect talent. The teams in each series are ordered by their playoff seed, and each farm system's Top 30 list is linked in the parenthetical parent club.
1. Low-A West
San Jose (SF): OF Luis Matos (No. 3, MLB No. 78), LHP Kyle Harrison (No. 5), RHP Will Bednar (No. 7), C Patrick Bailey (No. 8), SS Aeverson Arteaga (No. 12), INF Luis Toribio (No. 14), LHP Nick Swiney (No. 16), RHP Prelander Berroa (No. 23), RHP Carson Ragsdale (No. 25), OF Grant McCray (No. 26), RHP Tristan Beck (No. 29)
Fresno (COL): OF Zac Veen (No. 1, MLB No. 51), C Drew Romo (No. 8), 3B Warming Bernabel (No. 23), INF Julio Carreras (No. 24), OF Robby Martin Jr. (No. 27), RHP Gavin Hollowell (No. 29), 2B/SS Eddy Diaz (No. 30)
You could view this as a battle between two exciting 19-year-old outfielders, and you wouldn’t be wrong for doing so. Veen has perhaps beaten lofty expectations as a 2020 first-rounder with a .301/.399/.501 line, 15 homers and 36 steals in his first taste of full-season ball, while Matos heads into the postseason red-hot with a .339/.449/.615 line in September. (Get this, his 10 extra-base hits in the month more than triple his strikeout total of three over 69 plate appearances.)
But like any good series, this goes beyond the big names. San Jose boasts the most Top 30 prospects of any playoff club with 11, highlighting just how young the Giants system is. It’s also worth pointing out that San Jose pitchers lead all of the Minors with 1,439 strikeouts this season, well ahead of Greenville in second at 1,315. Fresno isn’t far behind in terms of young talent with seven ranked Rockies prospects of its own.
It’s very possible the future of the NL West -- at least 40 percent of it -- is on display this week in California.
2. Double-A Northeast
Akron (CLE): OF George Valera (No. 2, MLB No. 64), C Bo Naylor (No. 6), INF Brayan Rocchio (No. 7), LHP Logan Allen (No. 10), C Bryan Lavastida (No. 13), RHP Peyton Battenfield (No. 17), OF Will Brennan (No. 29), RHP Xzavion Curry (No. 30)
Bowie (BAL): RHP Grayson Rodriguez (No. 2, MLB No. 8), SS/3B Gunnar Henderson (No. 4, MLB No. 75), SS Jordan Westburg (No. 6), LHP Drew Rom (No. 26)
Rodriguez is the shining star of the series from a prospect standpoint, and since this is only a five-game set, it’s a shame we’ll only see him one more time in 2021. The game’s top pitching prospect has been a marvel for Bowie, posting a 2.60 ERA with 121 strikeouts in 79 2/3 innings since his arrival in June. He’s joined by two impressive offensive infielders behind him in Henderson and Westburg, who could both anchor the Baysox offense after climbing three levels each in 2021.
That said, the Akron lineup is more loaded with Top 30 prospects. Valera has held his own since being promoted to the RubberDucks with a .747 OPS as a 20-year-old at Double-A, but it’s Rocchio -- he of the .293/.360/.505 line in 44 games at Double-A -- that might be the better bet to lift the Akron offense at the same age. Allen, Battenfield and Curry give the club a solid foundation in the rotation.
3. Double-A South
Mississippi (ATL): C Shea Langeliers (No. 2, MLB No. 70), SS Braden Shewmake (No. 8), LHP Jared Shuster (No. 9), RHP Spencer Strider (No. 10), RHP Freddy Tarnok (No. 12), RHP Indigo Diaz (No. 21), OF Trey Harris (No. 24), OF Justin Dean (No. 25), RHP William Woods (No. 28), INF Luke Waddell (No. 29)
Montgomery (TB): INF Xavier Edwards (No. 3, MLB No. 71), C Blake Hunt (No. 15), OF Ruben Cardenas (No. 28), C/INF Ford Proctor (No. 30)
Langeliers isn’t just the highest-ranked prospect in this series; he’s also the most productive in the Double-A South this season, having ranked among the circuit’s top four in homers (22), slugging (.498), and OPS (.836). One of the most fun matchups of the series could be his arm behind the plate -- Langeliers threw out 30 of 72 attempted basestealers for Mississippi -- against the wheels of Edwards, a 70-grade runner.
Keep an eye out for a potential Spencer Strider start as well for the M-Braves. The 2020 fourth-rounder can pump his heater into the upper-90s and fanned 39 percent of the batters he faced across three levels this summer.
4. High-A West
Eugene (SF): SS Marco Luciano (No. 1/MLB No. 5), OF Jairo Pomares (No. 9), LHP Seth Corry (No. 11), C Ricardo Genoves (No. 18), RHP Ryan Murphy (No. 21), RHP Kai-Wei Teng (No. 27), RHP Blake Rivera (No. 28), 2B/C Brett Auerbach (No. 30)
Spokane (COL): OF Brenton Doyle (No. 7), 3B Aaron Schunk (No. 9), RHP Chris McMahon (No. 10), SS Ezequiel Tovar (No. 11), LHP Helcris Olivarez (No. 14), RHP Noah Davis (No. 18), 1B Grant Lavigne (No. 19)
Luciano is the highest-ranked prospect to feature in a Minor League playoff series, so he’ll draw plenty of eyes. But it’s an open question how he’ll perform. The 20-year-old shortstop has hit just .217/.283/.295 in 36 games with the Emeralds. He did just turn 20 on Sept. 10, and his combination of hit and power tools makes him a potential impact bat any time he suits up. The Giants have seven more of their Top 30 prospects in this series, meaning 18 of the Top 30 will be playing playoff baseball at the lower levels this week.
Interestingly, this is another series against a Colorado affiliate, deepening that NL West rivalry in the Minors. While Fresno boasts Veen, one could argue this is a deeper set of Rockies prospects with four of the organization’s Top 10 on the Spokane roster.
5. High-A East
Bowling Green (TB): RHP Taj Bradley (No. 6), INF Curtis Mead (No. 14), LHP John Doxakis (No. 20), SS Alika Williams (No. 25)
Greensboro (PIT): RHP Quinn Priester (No. 2), 2B Nick Gonzales (No. 4), SS Liover Peguero (No. 5), RHP Carmen Mlodzinski (No. 10), RHP Tahnaj Thomas (No. 13), RHP Michael Burrows (No. 14)
Bowling Green (82-36) led all Minor League full-season teams in winning percentage at .695, and its offense hit the second-most homers in the Minors with 197. But this is about prospect talent first, and Greensboro is the more loaded of the two from that perspective with three Top 100 prospects and six representatives from a deep Pirates Top 30. That Top 100 contingent is a particularly fun one with Gonzales and Priester pairing up the middle and Priester (3.04 ERA, 98 strikeouts in 97 2/3 innings) a candidate to throw a gem every time he takes the hill.
Hot Rods right-hander Bradley will try to stake his own claim as the best pitcher of the series after he led full-season Minor Leaguers with a 1.83 ERA across 103 1/3 innings at Low-A and High-A. Mead is also back with Bowling Green after going 6-for-14 (.429) with a homer in a brief four-game cameo at Triple-A Durham.
6. Double-A Central
Wichita (MIN): OF/SS Austin Martin (No. 2, MLB No. 37), RHP Jordan Balazovic (No. 3, MLB No. 82), RHP Simeon Woods Richardson (No. 4), RHP Cole Sands (No. 19), RHP Chris Vallimont (No. 21), 2B Spencer Steer (No. 23)
Northwest Arkansas (KC): LHP Austin Cox (No. 13), 1B Vinnie Pasquantino (No. 18), LHP Angel Zerpa (No. 19), SS Jeison Guzmán (No. 21)
The Twins are well out of the Major League postseason, so this might be as good as it gets for Minnesota fans in 2021. That aside, it doesn’t get much better than having three of the club’s top four prospects playing meaningful baseball in September, particularly when two of them (Martin and Woods Richardson) are recent trade additions. (Woods Richardson could make a limited impact as he hasn’t thrown more than three innings in an appearance since returning from the Olympics.) There are bonus points here for Wichita competing for a title in its first season of play.
The Naturals don’t boast nearly the same prospect talent, but don’t overlook them either. Pasquantino, in particular, finished the regular season third in the Minors with 64 extra-base hits (24 homers, three triples, 37 doubles) between Double-A and High-A and has enough bat to impact a short series.
7. Low-A Southeast
Tampa (NYY): OF Jasson Dominguez (No. 2, MLB No. 17), SS Trey Sweeney (No. 7), C Antonio Gomez (No. 25), 2B Cooper Bowman (No. 30)
Bradenton (PIT): OF Hudson Head (No. 12), RHP Jared Jones (No. 15), C/OF Endy Rodriguez (No. 19), SS Maikol Escotto (No. 20), RHP Eddy Yean (No. 30)
The Martian lands in the postseason. Dominguez’s .258/.346/.398 line and 105 wRC+ leave a little to be desired for a prospect that entered 2021 with a ton of hype, but recall that this was the switch-hitting outfielder’s first stateside season at just 18. One last punishing run in a championship series could do him wonders heading into the offseason. Tampa also boasts 2021 first-rounder Sweeney, who slugged .518 over 29 games for the Tarpons during the regular season.
No huge names on the Bradenton side, but the Marauders represent another rebuilding organization in the Pirates that should be over the moon to see its two lowest full-season affiliates both qualify for a title run.
8. High-A Central
Quad Cities (KC): SS Nick Loftin (No. 10), RHP Will Klein (No. 27), 2B Michael Massey (No. 30)
Cedar Rapids (MIN): OF Matt Wallner (No. 14), 1B Aaron Sabato (No. 16), INF Yunior Severino (No. 27), RHP Louie Varland (No. 29)
Not a particularly loaded list here, but a total of seven ranked prospects keeps it from the bottom spot. Loftin got hot at the right time, hitting .373/.470/.591 with 15 extra-base hits in 29 games since Aug. 1. His season-ending .289 average was enough to win the High-A Central batting title, just merely ahead of his teammate Massey (also at .289).
Wallner and Sabato will bring thump to the Kernels. The former was one of only seven High-A Central batters to slug at least .500 over 250 or more plate appearances, while the latter hit .253/.402/.613 in 22 games for Cedar Rapids following a promotion last month.
9. Low-A East
Charleston (TB): RHP Seth Johnson (No. 16), RHP Sandy Gaston (No. 21), SS Osleivis Basabe (No. 26)
Down East (TEX): SS/2B Luisangel Acuna (No. 8), OF Aaron Zavala (No. 19), RHP Owen White (No. 29)
How’s this for a feeder system? Bowling Green finished with the best winning percentage in the Minors. Charleston -- the team below it on the Rays ladder -- was second at .683. It was a running joke between the two affiliates that the Hot Rods were stealing the best players from the RiverDogs, so it’s even more notable that Charleston was second among full-season Minor League clubs with a 3.45 team ERA. Johnson and Gaston will be two of the starters trying to keep those numbers low this series.
Acuna is the highest-ranked prospect left in Low-A East as a 19-year-old middle infielder with a strong arm and above-average speed.