The Lynchburg Hillcats were a dominant force from start to finish, winning their division both halves of the Carolina League season (40-29 1st half, 43-27 2nd half) and it was capped off by a Carolina League co-championship, as the Hillcats beat the Fredrick Keys (Baltimore) 2-1 in the series (the Carolina League championship series was cancelled due to Hurricane Irma and the Hillcats split the title with the Down East Wood Ducks). Lynchburg’s dominant season was the product of dominant pitching and some breakout hitters.
Triston McKenzie of course is the biggest name of the group and he anchored the pitching staff in both halves that saw some players promoted to Double-A Akron and a group that also got some reinforcements. McKenzie came close to doubling his inning total from a season ago (83 1/3 in 2016 and 150 in 2017) and led in all of minor league baseball in strikeouts (196). It was a heck of an end of the season for the Indians now-top prospect still in the minors. He 31 strikeouts over his final three starts (23 IP), walking just three and allowing two runs. He finished the year with a 3.46 ERA but a 3.03 FIP while being the youngest pitcher in the league and turned 20 in August. The final three dominant starts from McKenzie were a great sign to see because he finally struggled a bit for the first time in late July-early August. He allowed 13 runs in 10 innings in his last two July starts and allowed a five spot in a mid-August start. It looked like maybe he hit a wall but McKenzie pushed right through it after continued concerns about his body type and durability. Those questions were answered for another year.
McKenzie started the year with Thomas Pannone behind him in the rotation and also saw Shane Bieber and Aaron Civale join him. Pannone was promoted to Akron before being traded to Toronto for Joe Smith and Bieber also quickly flew to Akron. Matt Esparza started the year in the rotation and jumped to Akron. Brock Hartson (3.06 ERA in 23 games/19 games started) was a steadying arm along with Shao-Ching Chiang, who threw a no-hitter before he also made the late jump to Akron. Sean Brady recovered from an arm injury to make several key starts down the stretch as well. Civale went 11-2 in 107 2/3 innings and helped to form a dominant duo.
Offensively, Sicnarf Loopstok blasted 17 homers and 28 doubles for an impressive offensive season. He even appeared in the home run derby. Prospect wise, Loopstok is a little old for High-A (24), so this isn’t much to get excited about. He did however log 59 games at first base, 22 behind the plate, 16 in the outfield and 13 at third base, which at least gives him organizational value going forward. Willi Castro had a huge year offensively and is pushing himself into one of the organization’s better prospects going forward with the system’s depletion due to graduation. Ka’ai Tom and Andrew Calica had solid offensive years, especially with Calica posting an .849 OPS in the second half after a .685 first half mark.
Ben Krauth, Leandro Linares and Argenis Angulo filled in the main parts of the bullpen before promotions and made prospect names for themselves doing so. Jordan Milbrath was converted to the bullpen and also began throwing in the upper-90s with a wicked slider that also may put his name on the map as a future bullpen option. He too was promoted, which made this Hillcats co-championship even more incredible considering how good their record continued to be after the many promotions they endured both halves.
Triston McKenzie: McKenzie is now our top prospect with Francisco Mejia graduating to the bigs. Leading the minor leagues in strikeouts in a league as one of the youngest players and only being 19 for 3/4 of the season will put you on that level. He increased his innings in a big way the performance held up and then some. Next year as a 20 year old at Akron, McKenzie will become an even bigger name than he already is, especially if he continues to improve as he has.
McKenzie is an obvious here and probably the only true “star” if we’re using the term strictly. Castro was easily the team’s second best pro prospect this year. He hit .290/.337/.424 with 11 homers and 19 steals. He was also incredibly consistent, putting up mid-to-high .700 OPS’ in every month except April. He did have 25 errors so there is some question about his future at shortstop. The range and arm are plenty fine but Castro needs work with his hands a bit. At the least, he’s a middle infield switch hitter who is improving with the bat and has plenty of athleticism.
Civale at the worst has a good shot to be back end reliever if starting doesn’t work out long term. His command and good two pitch mix (91-93 mph fastball as a starter) and slider make him a good bet as a future big league arm. Gavin Collins and Calica both have potential pro futures as does Tom.
Chiang doesn’t strike a ton of hitters out but ran a 56.8% ground ball rate this year and walked just 33 in 155 1/3 innings. He may not make it but Chiang throws a 92-93 mph sinker with some other average pitches with command and keeps the ball on the ground, so it may give him a chance to be a depth starter down the line.
Tom doesn’t put up a ton of flashy numbers but he came back from a big shoulder injury a year ago and posted a .340 OBP and .418 SLG with 41 extra base hits and 23 steals in 29 chances. Tom is a smaller outfield who can play all three positions out there well with a good arm, is fast, can draw walks and has some pop. A very good skill set for a fourth outfielder.
Sam Haggerty got off to a hot start at the plate but didn’t sustain it. He also didn’t completely crash, finishing with a .355 OBP and 49 steals and caught 13 times.
Cause for Concern
I don’t think anyone on Lynchburg performed any worse than expected, at least not so much for concern. Calica’s first half wasn’t good and that was a disappointing surprise, but he righted the ship. Kieran Lovegrove finished the year with a 5.01 ERA in 38 appearances. He struck out 51 in 50 innings but also walked 25. It was on the same path as what he did in Lake County. The Indians 3rd round pick in 2012 is 23 and hasn’t really ever pitched up to his potential, at least from a numbers stand point. He’ll probably get bumped to Akron next year too and if he didn’t have desired results in High-A, AA could prove to be very tough.
Most Power: Gavin Collins
Best Bat: Willi Castro
Best Wheels: Sam Haggerty
Best Arm: Ka’ai Tom
Best Glove: Tom
Worst Glove: Sicnarf Loopstok
Best Control: Aaron Civale
Best Stuff: Triston McKenzie
Most Likely MLB Pitcher: Triston McKenzie
Most Likely MLB Hitter: Castro