The 2018 campaign for the Lynchburg Hillcats couldn’t have been more different. The first half ended with a last place finish in the Carolina League Northern Division, but the Hillcats were much improved in the second half and won the division title.
Overall, the Hillcats finished 71-66 for the year. In the first half, Lynchburg was 29-38. In the second half, the Hillcats rallied to finish 42-28.
In the playoffs, Lynchburg faced the Potomac Nationals, who won the division in the first half, in the Division Series. Lynchburg took at 2-1 series lead, but then dropped consecutive contests against the Nationals to lose the five-game series for a disappointing finish to the season.
It’s also worth noting on September 10, Lynchburg announced a two-year extension of the club’s Player Development Contract with the Cleveland Indians. The agreement will keep the Hillcats an Indians affiliate in the Carolina League through the 2020 season.
The Hillcats had players such as shortstop Ernie Clement and third baseman Nolan Jones with outstanding seasons, but both players only played a portion of their seasons in Lynchburg. Clement slashed .346/.425/.421 in 33 games for the Hillcats after he was called up from the Lake County Captains. He then was promoted to Akron to finish his season.
As one of the Indians top prospects, Jones didn’t disappoint in his limited time with Lynchburg. He slashed .298/.438/.471 in 30 games. He hit 31 for 104 with three home runs and nine doubles.
However, outfielders Trenton Brooks and Mitch Longo were mainstays for the Hillcats and played the entire season with Lynchburg. Longo slashed .275/.337 /.410 and scored a team-high 73 runs for the Hillcats in 119 games. Meanwhile, Brooks, 23 slashed a fairly similar .281/.362/.407 in 107 games, scored 47 runs and hit five home runs. Both players also clubbed 28 doubles.
Longo, 23, who is the Indians 23rd ranked prospect, also had 18 steals and eight home runs. He gets the nod as MVP as he contributed more overall to the Hillcats season.
Jones is listed as the Indians No. 2 prospect and potentially could start next season in Akron and move up to Columbus if he continues to shine. He’s got power and hit 19 home runs combined between Lake County and Lynchburg in 427 at-bats in 2018. Like many young hitters, he struck out a lot, 131 times for the season, but also drew a good share of walks with 89.
What might hold Jones back, initially, is his defense as he committed 27 errors. He could eventually be moved to first base or the outfield, if he doesn’t improve at third. But at age 20, it’s probably a lock the Indians organization will give him an opportunity to improve at third base before abandoning the position.
Sam Hentges, 22, is the Indians No. 8 listed prospect and made 23 starts for the Hillcats. In 118.1 innings, the lefty struck out 122 hitters and was 6-6 with a 3.23 ERA for Lynchburg. Hentges also was a Carolina League All-Star in 2018. He made his last start of the season on August 15 before finishing on the disabled list.
Eli Morgan, 22, is the Indians 15th ranked prospect and finished his first full season of professional baseball in 2018 after he was drafted in the eighth round by the Indians in 2017. Morgan made 19 starts for Lynchburg after beginning the season with eight starts for Lake County. In 99 innings with the Hillcats, Morgan struck out 100 hitters. He was 7-7 with a 3.91 ERA.
Closer Dalbert Siri, 23, notched 15 saves for the Hillcats in 47.2 innings of work and also struck out 71 hitters. He needs to work on his control as he issued 29 walks during his appearances. Siri was named an all-star in his respective leagues in 2017 and 2018.
Starter Zach Plesac, 23, who is the nephew of former MLB reliever Dan Plesac, spent most of the season with the Hillcats, except for four starts he made with Akron including his last start of the year for the RubberDucks on September 1. Plesac was 8-5 with a 4.04 ERA in 22 starts for Lynchburg and was 3-1 with a 2.45 ERA for Akron in four starts. He was especially good for the Hillcats in July when he was 4-0 with a 2.17 ERA in six starts pitching 37.1 innings.
Reliever Ben Krauth, 24, also had a nice year for the Hillcats logging 100 strikeouts in just 68 innings. He was 4-2 with a sparkling 1.99 ERA. Krauth was used as a multiple inning reliever and was a valuable especially when starters left the game early due to pitch counts or when keeping an eye on young player workloads. He is likely to begin next season at Akron and if he continues to pitch well could make a jump to Columbus.
Catcher Li-Jen Chu, 24, also had a nice season at the plate slashing .278/.351/.434 in 81 games with the Hillcats before he was promoted to Akron and eventually finished the season with Columbus.
Cause for Concern
Starter Tanner Tully, 23, probably didn’t have the kind of season he would have liked for the Hillcats. In 26 starts, Tully posted a 6-11 record with a 4.47 ERA. On the plus-side, he logged a team-high 147 innings and issued just 20 walks. His control is very good in terms of not issuing free passes, but Tully gave up team-highs in hits (176) and home runs (17). In 2017, he made starts at Lake County, Lynchburg, Akron and Columbus and had a better overall season combining for a 6-10 record and 3.69 ERA and 124.1 innings. But as with Lynchburg in 2018, Tully gave up 14 home runs in 2017.
First baseman Anthony Miller, who turns 24 in October, completed his second season with Lynchburg. He appeared in 74 games and had 250 ABs and struck out a whopping 101 times. Miller does have some pop in his bat with eight home runs and 16 doubles. On the plus-side, Miller does get on base at a decent clip at .363, which is a nice improvement on his .308 clip in 2017. It will be interesting to see if Miller starts at third season with Lynchburg or if he can make a jump next year to Akron.
Most Power: Nolan Jones
Best Bat: Mitch Longo
Best Wheels: Mitch Longo
Best Control: Tanner Tully
Best Stuff: Sam Hentges
Most Likely to be an MLB Pitcher: Sam Hentges
Most Likely to be an MLB Hitter: Nolan Jones