Every once in a while it is worth checking in to see which team’s farm development staff is having the most fun. A minor-league affiliate’s primary goal is not to win games but to develop prospects for the parent club. When prospects play well, however, their teams do tend to win games. By this dual criteria of prospect performance and won-loss record, one could argue that the top two organizations thus far in 2016 have been the Cleveland Indians and the Philadelphia Phillies.
The Lynchburg Hillcats (45-24), winningest of Cleveland’s four full-season affiliates, already have clinched the High-A Carolina League’s Northern Division title for the first half. First baseman Bobby Bradley (whom we ranked #5 on our preseason list of Cleveland’s Top 10 fantasy prospects) leads the Carolina League with 15 HR one season after he led the Midwest League with 27 bombs--not bad for a player who turned 20 on May 29. On the pitching side, 20-year-old LHP Justus Sheffield (#6), a 2014 first-round selection, has held his own with a 4.08 ERA and 53 K in 64 IP, though he does need to cut down on the 26 BB. Meanwhile, OF Greg Allen (second in the league with 34 SB) and RHP Julian Merryweather (8-2, league-leading 1.03 ERA) have emerged. When I previewed the Carolina League back in April I picked the Hillcats to win the league title, so this team’s performance is by no means a surprise.
More surprising, perhaps, has been the success of Cleveland’s other three full-season affiliates. Combined with Lynchburg’s dominant record, the Columbus Clippers (37-32) of the Triple-A International League, the Akron RubberDucks (40-29) of the Double-A Eastern League, and the Lake County Captains (40-29) of the Low-A Midwest League give the Indians organization an impressive 162-114 mark through Saturday, June 18. Akron’s loaded roster does feature three of Cleveland’s top four fantasy prospects in OF Bradley Zimmer (#1), OF Clint Frazier (#2), and LHP Rob Kaminsky (#4). In 2015 there were reports of diminished velocity for Kaminsky, and his struggles have continued (5.20 ERA, 22:27 BB:K) this season. Zimmer (10 HR, 24 SB, .857 OPS) and Frazier (7 HR, 9 SB, .870 OPS), however, have more than compensated. Elsewhere, OF Tyler Naquin (#9) and RHP Mike Clevinger (#10) have split time between Columbus and Cleveland, with Clevinger spending most of the season in Triple-A (6-0, 2.75 ERA, 54 K in 52.1 IP).
Like the Indians, the Phillies have several good affiliates and one dominant one: the Double-A Eastern League’s Reading Fightin’ Phils (49-20), arguably the top team in all the minor leagues. Reading boasts a powerful offense, led by top prospects C Jorge Alfaro (ranked #4 on our preseason list of Philadelphia’s Top 10 fantasy prospects) and OF Roman Quinn (#7). Alfaro (.294, 6 HR) and Quinn (.288, 25 SB) have more than held their own, but the real power in the Fightin’ Phils’ attack has come from 22-year-old OF Dylan Cozens (league-leading 19 HR, 13 SB) and 23-year-old 1B Rhys Hoskins (2nd in league with 17 HR), both of whom are making strong cases for inclusion on the next organizational top-ten list. Reading has run away with the Eastern League’s Eastern Division and could be headed for a playoff showdown with the Akron RubberDucks.
For victories and a concentration of top prospects, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs (39-30) of the Triple-A International League have been the next-best team in the Phillies’ system. At Lehigh Valley we find SS J.P. Crawford (#1), OF Nick Williams (#2), and RHP Jake Thompson (#3). Promoted from Reading on May 20, Crawford has struggled with his first taste of Triple-A pitching (.190/.293/.230), but by all accounts those struggles have not affected his defense. He could be Philadelphia’s starting shortstop by season’s end. Williams (.295, 7 HR, 5 SB) has fared better, and Thompson (3.18 ERA) has righted the ship after a slow start. Both players, like Crawford, should be in the Majors before long. Elsewhere, the Clearwater Threshers (37-28) of the High-A Florida State League have the victories but lack the prospect-power outside of 2B Scott Kingery (#9) and OF Carlos Tocci (#10), whereas the Low-A South Atlantic League’s Lakewood BlueClaws (28-40) feature OF Cornelius Randolph (#5) and RHP Franklyn Kilome (#6) but have found little success on the field. All told, Philadelphia affiliates have compiled a 153-118 record.
As we inch toward the second half of the minor-league season, fantasy owners in re-draft leagues should note that the prospect most likely to help them in 2016 is probably the Phillies’ Jake Thompson, who has been on a hot streak in June and whose promotion to the Majors could come at any moment. Meanwhile, if you’re an Indians fan, you must be pretty excited about developments in Lynchburg and Akron. Finally, Indians fans and dynasty-owners alike should keep an eye on RHP Triston McKenzie (#7) and LHP Juan Hillman (#8), a pair of 2015 draftees who are about to begin their 2016 campaigns with short-season Mahoning Valley of the New York-Penn League.