Arizona Fall League season awards

Arizona Fall League season awards

The Peoria Javelinas claimed the Arizona Fall League title on Nov. 18. Powered by league MVP and Braves top prospect, Ronald Acuna, Peoria dispatched the Mesa Solar Sox 8-2 in the season finale. For the Javelinas, this marks their sixth AFL title since the league was founded in 1992. But while the AFL recognizes a league MVP, there are no Cy Young award equivalents for the league’s best pitcher. If there were such an award, it would have most likely been a clean sweep for the Braves in the Arizona Fall League season awards in 2017.

League MVP, CF Ronald Acuna

AFL Season slash line: .325/.414/.639/1.053

Arizona Fall League season awards

Seattle prospect Eric Filia won the AFL batting title, but lost out to Ronald Acuna in the MVP race. (Photo: Baseball America)

Much has been written about the season that Ronald Acuna posted in 2017. At 19 years of age, soon to be 20 in December, Acuna has risen through the Braves system this year like a man on fire. Starting the season in Advanced-A with the Florida Fire Frogs, Acuna would reach the Braves’ Triple-A affiliate, the Gwinnett Braves, by season’s end. What’s more, his numbers got better at each level he played at this year.

The young Venezuelan native played at three levels this year, four if you include his inclusion in the AFL. And, quite frankly, it is reasonable to consider the AFL “another level” on the prospect ladder, to be fair. It is, after all, the proving ground for elite talent in MLB’s prospect pipeline. And Acuna wasn’t just good he was dominant in Arizona this fall, leading Peoria to the AFL championship.

Though Acuna didn’t lead the league in batting, on-base percentage, slugging, or even OPS for that matter, he was the league’s best player when you look at the sum of the whole. This young center fielder finished second in OPS, 12th in batting, second in slugging and sixth in on-base percentage, respectively.

This future star was a league leader though, make no mistake about it. Acuna led the AFL in home runs with seven, and total bases with 53. On top of that, he drove in 16 runs, good enough for fifth in the AFL in 2017.

There is no way this kid doesn’t break camp with the big club next spring. Acuna has absolutely nothing left to prove in the minors. He’s ready for his call to the big leagues right now.

AFL Cy Young, LHP Max Fried

AFL Season pitching line: (3-1) 1.73 ERA, 26 IP, 32 K’s, 0.88 WHIP

The AFL’s “Cy Young” award, if one were given out, would’ve been a trickier call than league MVP. Four pitchers could’ve easily walked away with this award. In no certain order, the New York Yankees’ Cody Carroll, Pittsburgh’s Mitch Keller, Philadelphia’s J.D. Hammer and Atlanta’s Max Fried all pitched well enough to be considered the best pitcher in Arizona this fall.

Arizona Fall League season awards

Max Fried was the best pitcher in the AFL in 2017. (Photo courtesy of: Reinhold Matay/USA TODAY Sports)

At the end of the day, however, only one can player can take top honors. And this year, Atlanta’s Max Fried would have to be the guy to get the nod. Over his six starts for eventual AFL champions, Peoria, Fried was as dominant as they come. The Braves’ young southpaw was second among all starting pitchers in WHIP (0.88), only bested Yankee’s prospect Justus Sheffield (0.84).

Fried was also the AFL’s strikeout champion for 2017 as well. He finished with 32 strikeouts in his 26 innings of work, good enough for an outstanding ratio of 11 K’s per nine innings. Making Fried’s case even better, he also showed good control walking only 2.77 batters per nine innings. Even though Fried wasn’t as efficient as Mitch Keller in this category (1.9 BB/per 9), he outpaced Keller’s (4.9 K/per 9).

In the cases of Hammer and Carroll, however, both pitchers were closers. This isn’t to slight these two future big leaguers, but generally it’s a rarity that a reliever will win an award for league’s best pitcher. It’s happened only nine times at baseball’s top level, with the last occurrence being Eric Gagne’s 2003 Cy Young season. While Hammer and Carroll both had outstanding seasons in Arizona, the volume of work by Fried must be the deciding factor here.

Based on his body of work, Fried is the AFL’s best pitcher of 2017.

Atlanta’s prospects ready to contribute

Both Fried and Acuna progressed along the prospect ladder in leaps this year. The Braves have moved these young men up the ladder quickly, and they have responded by showing a maturity beyond their years. There is little doubt that both players will more than likely be on the opening day roster come 2018.

It is worth noting that Fried has already made the jump to MLB in 2017. His performance in the AFL this year should solidify his place in next year’s Braves rotation. Especially when you look at his performance in his limited exposure at the major league level. While it is a very small sample, it is apparent that the lights aren’t too bright for this future staff ace.

Moving onto Acuna, now, here’s a player that has absolutely no need to take another swing in the minor leagues. The Braves’ top prospect, and fifth ranked prospect in all of MLB, has shown he’s ready for the call. When the Braves break camp next spring, Acuna should be the man roaming center field in Atlanta every day.

This young man, at 20 years old, will most likely become the youngest player in the majors in 2018 and it’s exciting to speculate how he will handle the jump to MLB. If 2017 is anything to go by, we might be talking about the NL Rookie of the Year here. He will almost certainly be a training camp favorite for the award, no doubt about it.

 

(feature photo courtesy of: sportsnewsinstant.com)

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greatest world series ever played

Greatest World Series ever played

When the first pitch of the 2017 World Series is thrown out Oct. 24 at Dodger Stadium, it will mark the 113th installment of baseball’s fall classic. Only one World Series, however, can be dubbed the greatest World Series ever played.

For the fans in Houston and Los Angeles, their focus won’t be on this series being an all-time classic. Their primary focus for the immediate future will be on winning at least four of the possible seven games that remain. Right now, the glory of a championship is first and foremost.

The rest of baseball’s fandom is just looking to be enthralled. We’re looking for hotly contested games that remain up for grabs into the final innings. We’re looking for immaculate pitching, we’re looking for clutch two-out hits and we’re looking for spectacular game saving glove work in the field. In short, we’re looking for the proverbial barn burner.

With 112 World Series already on record, there have been some wild match-ups throughout time. Perhaps no match-up has offered more excitement to baseball fans of all stripes than 1991’s World Series, pitting the Atlanta Braves against the Minnesota Twins.

Minnesotans will remember 1991 for two distinct reasons. First, on Oct. 27, 1991 they saw their Minnesota Twins lift the World Series title after seven games. Second, just four days later, the Twin Cities were buried under almost two-feet of snow from an epic Halloween blizzard.

In Atlanta though, 1991 will always be remembered with mixed emotions. The 1991 Braves improved from last place in 1990, to first in 1991. This was also the first year that a World Series was played in Atlanta since the Braves moved from Milwaukee at the end of 1965.

How they arrived

greatest world series ever played

Braves legend, Tom Glavine, tries to channel a little rally hat magic on the road in Minneapolis. (Photo courtesy of: Getty Images)

Speaking of the Braves’ remarkable turnaround, Minnesota also accomplished the same feat. They too finished the season in last place in 1990, only to become AL champions in 1991. It was the first time in MLB history that any team went from “worst to first” let alone having two teams do it in the same season.

For Minnesota, 1991 was the year of the bat. This isn’t to say they couldn’t pitch, but their offense was magnificent. They led the majors in average (.280) and on-base percentage (.344) that year. They also finished second in both slugging (.420) and OPS (.764) making them one of the toughest lineups for opposing pitchers to navigate.

Atlanta’s forte though, was undoubtedly their pitching. The Braves’ pitching was phenomenal in 1991. Tom Glavine, 1991’s NL Cy Young award winner, was the unquestioned leader of the young Atlanta staff. This Braves rotation was young, hungry and devastatingly good.

For the season, Atlanta finished third in team ERA (3.49), third in fewest hits given up and fourth in total runs surrendered. Any fan can plainly see, scratching runs across the plate against this pitching staff was no small task.

The 1991 World Series was more than just excellent pitching versus excellent hitting. This series was a classic match-up of two evenly matched ball clubs. Something had to give, because we all know there can only be one team left standing. That team left standing, in the end, would be the Minnesota Twins.

Minnesota didn’t get to the summit of baseball’s highest mountain without a fight though, and what a fight it was. Atlanta and Minnesota put together a performance for the ages. Culminating in arguably the greatest World Series ever played. This was a World Series filled with spectacular pitching, clutch hitting and wild defensive plays.

The greatest world series ever played

In the pantheon of World Series match-ups, there are several that stand out. For instance, 1960’s classic Pirates and Yankees showdown featured the only walk-off Game 7 homer ever, by the Pirate’s Bill Mazeroski. Braves versus Twins in 1991 rates right up there with the lot of them.

greatest world series ever played

Bill Mazeroski sinks the Yankees with his dramatic walk-off Game 7 World Series home run. (Photo courtesy of: ESPN)

The 1991 World Series offered something for everyone, including one of the most bizarre plays in World Series history. Of course this is referring to Kent Herbek pulling Ron Gant off the bag in the third inning of Game 2. For fans of a certain age in Atlanta, this certainly must still be a sore subject.

Watch the play here!

The Twins and Braves only played two games decided by more than a single run, Game 1 and 5. Minnesota took Game 1 by a score of 5-2 and Atlanta took Game 5, blowing away the Twins 14-5. All other games in the series were one-run affairs.

Extra innings was also a common thread that tied this series together as well. Game 6 and the pivotal Game 7 were two of the three extra inning games. Minnesota would find themselves on the winning side in both of the aforementioned games. The Twins’ only extra inning loss came on a Mark Lemke 12th inning RBI single in Game 3.

For the Twins, legendary Kirby Puckett was the man of Game 6. Puckett’s glove, and then his bat, cemented the win for Minnesota and pushed the series to Game 7.

Puckett seemed to defy the laws of physics, jumping at the wall in left-center to rob Gant of extra bases. Then, in the bottom of the 11th inning, Puckett sent a Charlie Leibrandt offering into the seats for a solo homer. His clutch hit won the game for Minnesota in walk-off fashion, making Game 7 a necessity.

Watch Puckett’s series saving homer here!

Game 7

The deciding game of the 1991 World Series pitted two excellent pitchers at opposite spectrums of their careers. For the Twins, it was 15-year veteran and 1984 World Series champion, Jack Morris. The Braves countered with a future Hall of Famer, 24-year-old, John Smoltz.

greatest world series ever played

1991 World Series MVP and Game 7 winner, Jack Morris, rushes to greet Dan Gladden at home plate. (Photo courtesy of: Pioneer Press/Jean Pieri)

All these two did was lock horns to produce one of the best pitched games in World Series history. Smoltz pitched excellent in Game 7, but wily veteran Jack Morris pitched a magical Game 7. With Morris in command of all his pitches, he put together one of the greatest World Series starts this side of Don Larsen’s perfect game in 1956. Morris went the distance, all 10 innings, to pitch a complete game shutout under immense pressure.

Jack Morris, for his part, swallowed that pressure deep down and used it to breathe fire at the Braves lineup. He gave up seven hits and walked only two hitters in his 10-inning masterpiece. On the back of Morris’ Game 7 exploits, coupled with his Game 1 win and his hard luck no-decision in Game 4, he walked away as World Series MVP.

When Gene Larkin laced a one-out single to left-center in the bottom of the 10th inning, bringing Dan Gladden in for the winning run, it was only fitting that Morris was the first player to welcome him home.

If the showdown between Los Angeles and Houston is half as good as 1991’s World Series, we are in for a treat. Play ball, boys.

 

(feature photo courtesy of: twinkietown.com)

 

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Arizona Fall League

Arizona Fall League 2017: Youngest Stars

 

The Arizona Fall League is a rite of passage for the very best of the best MLB prospects. Especially for those “kids” down on the farm.

This veritable “proving ground” for major league talent is one of the true gems of the prospect-to-pro pipeline. Every year, each of the 30 teams that make up Major League Baseball send a handful of their brightest up and comers to the desert for closer inspection versus a higher standard of opponent. So without further ado, I would like to introduce you to the youngest stars of the Arizona Fall League. You may not know them now, but you soon will!

 

Glendale Desert Dogs

Feeder Clubs: White Sox, Indians, Dodgers, Phillies, Pirates

 

Youngest Pitcher: RHP Mitch Keller, Age 21

Parent Club: Pittsburgh Pirates

2017 Finishing Level: Altoona Curve (AA)

 

Arizona Fall League

Mitch Keller has moved three levels in two seasons in the Pirates organization. (Photo courtesy of: MiLB.com)

The No. 6 RHP prospect in baseball, Mitch Keller, will be turning out for Glendale this fall in Arizona. He boasts above average control as well as three projectable major league pitches in his fastball, curveball and changeup. Keller spent most his time this season (15 games) taking the hill for the Bradenton Marauders of the Florida State League. Over 15 starts he struck out over three batters for every one that he walked. His numbers only improved after getting called up to (AA) Altoona for his final six starts. Keller uses a blistering fastball that sits low-to-mid-90s with nasty sinking action, and above average 11-5 curve to make hitters look foolish.

Promoted to (AA) Altoona to finish out the season, this 21-year-old is mature beyond his years. Judging by the caliber of his well-advanced arsenal of three plus-pitches, this kid should continue rising through the Pirates system at break neck speed. Thus far, Keller has done all that’s been asked of him at every level and he will be looking to impress again in Arizona. For 2018, Keller should be start the season with (AA) Altoona, but he may not be there long. Should this young man continue to miss an epic number of bats at (AA) level, I would expect Keller to end 2018 in (AAA). He’s getting close Pirates fans!

 

 

 

Youngest Position Player: CF Cornelius Randolph, Age 20

Parent Club: Philadelphia Phillies

2017 Finishing Level: Clearwater Thrashers (Advanced A)

 

Arizona Fall League

Randolph, age 20, will be looking to develop his fielding skills even further this fall in Arizona. (Photo courtesy of: MiLB.com)

Phillies left fielding prospect Cornelius Randolph is not the biggest of players. What Randolph lacks in size however, he makes up with a good eye at the plate working a (.338) OBP in 122 games at (Advanced A) Clearwater. Randolph is a converted infielder who worked tirelessly in 2017 to improve his fielding ability in left field. Because his focus was on improving as a defender, his batting metrics may have taken a hit, yet he still posted a respectable (.250/.338/.402) for the season.

The key to Randolph making the majors is his bat, without question. Many scouts believe his average defensive ability will be overshadowed by a bat that wants to hit, and hit a ton. Touted as the best pure high school hitter in the 2015 MLB Draft, Randolph has done little to disappoint. His 2016 was largely a throwaway season while he battled injuries that kept him from really capitalizing on an inspiring 2015. However, in his latest campaign he mashed his way to a tie for fifth most homers in the Florida State League.

Considering the tender age of the  Phillies’ No. 12 prospect, it is not likely that he will be rushed up the ladder. He could possibly open the season at (AA) Reading depending on how the Phillies see him defensively. He already has a bat good enough for the level.

 

 

Peoria Javelinas

Feeder Clubs: Braves, Red Sox, Padres, Mariners, Blue Jays

 

Youngest Pitcher: RHP Andres Munoz, Age 18

Parent Club: San Diego Padres

2017 Finishing Level: Fort Wayne TinCaps (Low A)

 

Arizona Fall League

Do not be fooled by the baby-faced Andres Munoz, he wants nothing more than to blow you away with the heater. (Photo courtesy of: MiLB.com)

Born in 1999, Munoz is easily the youngest player headed to the Arizona Fall League this October. At just 18 years of age, striking out hitters is not the issue for Munoz. No, hitting the strike zone consistently is. Blessed with electric stuff well beyond what is expect from a teenager, he has had a heck of a time reigning in his pitches and throwing consistent strikes. At 18 though, time is smiling on this young hurler.

With a clean easy motion to the plate, Munoz just needs to find his rhythm and learn to repeat his delivery time after time. Munoz has easy gas, with his fastball exploding out of his hand toward the plate with seemingly little effort. If this kid can iron out the kinks in his game, he could become a dominant pitcher in the majors sooner than later. Munoz is the youngest player on any Arizona Fall League roster in 2017 and after watching him throw you can understand why he’s there. Expect Andres to be toeing the rubber for (Low A) Fort Wayne in the Midwest League come spring 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

Youngest Position Player: CF Ronald Acuna, Age 19

Parent Club: Atlanta Braves

2017 Finishing Level: Gwinnett Braves (AAA)

 

Arizona Fall League

If you don’t yet know about Ronald Acuna, you will very soon. (Photo courtesy of: MiLB.com)

Oh, hot dog! Do I even need to talk about Acuna? I mean, really? Everyone knows this guy by now, right? Look, just the fact he’s on this list should have pitchers everywhere soiling themselves.

Ok, so considering that many of the top ten prospects have mostly graduated to the big leagues (that were ahead of Acuna), this kid should be at the top of the heap come 2018. The No. 5 prospect in all of baseball did everything in his power to make the jump to the majors in 2017. At 19 years of age and with his parent club struggling to win games, the Braves decided to halt his progression at (AAA) Gwinnett. It was a smart move, especially if you regularly attend Gwinnett Braves games. All he did there in 54 games is put up an insane (.344/.393/.548) line, sending baseballs into orbit at a regular pace.

Acuna is just latest Venezuelan to take MLB by storm, well the minors anyway. Acuna’s measurables are out of sight. This is a true 5-tool player by every sense of the word with his blazing speed, howitzer arm, and big bat. Exciting times are afoot in Hot-lanta folks! I mean, this kid did nothing but perform at each level he was at this year. What’s more is that his numbers improved at every stop along the way. Next stop for Acuna in 2018? The Show.

 

 

Scottsdale Scorpions

Feeder Clubs: Reds, Angels, Yankees, Mets, Giants

 

Youngest Pitcher: LHP Justus Sheffield, Age 21

Parent Club: New York Yankees

2017 Finishing Level: Trenton Thunder (AA)

 

Arizona Fall League

Justus Sheffield is not related to Gary Sheffield. (Photo courtesy of: MiLB.com)

The first of two LHP on the list of youngest Arizona Fall League stars, Justus Sheffield is also the No. 6 rated prospect down on the farm. Sheffield is another fireballer on this list that can reach back and grab a 96-mph comet, but will usually sit around the 92-93 mph range. Boasting a curbeball and changeup that are projectable big league pitches, the short in stature Sheffield is certainly long on talent. However, he does have work to do in Arizona. This future Yankee needs to learn to consistently get his above average repertoire over the plate for strikes. If he can master his control, the sky’s the limit for Justus.

Sheffield spent the bulk of 2017 in (AA) with the Trenton Thunder except for two rehab starts in (A) ball. In 17 starts for Trenton, the young hurler went 7-6 with a 3.18 ERA over 93.1 innings of ball. His strike out tally is fantastic at 82, and his walks, while still at 3.1 BB/9, have come down dramatically from seasons past. If Sheffield continues to progress, he should arrive in the majors before the turn of the next decade. For now though, he’ll most likely break camp as a member of the (AAA) rotation in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

 

 

 

Youngest Position Player: CF Estevan Florial, Age 19

Parent Club: New York Yankees

2017 Finishing Level: Tampa Yankees (Advanced A)

 

Arizona Fall League

Estevan Florial may strike out a ton, but he’ll happily take you yard in return. (Photo courtesy of: MiLB.com)

Florial is an intriguing 19-year-old signed from the island nation of Haiti in 2015. This kid could be the center fielder of the future for New York, and it might not be much longer before he stakes his claim to a position once held by Mantle and DiMaggio. Now, this isn’t to say Estevan Florial is in the same mold as those two legendary players, but his talent is undeniable.

At the plate Florial seemingly has all the tools to be an excellent major leaguer. He’s fast, he’s got pop, and he’s not afraid to take a walk. In his first season of Class A baseball, Florial posted a (.298/.372/.479) line across both high and lower levels. While his sample size from (Advanced A) is small at only 19 games, he sported an (.855) OPS over 91 games for (Low A) Charleston. He has some holes in his swing and does whiff a lot, but he also walks a lot (once every 8.4 AB) suggesting that, as he develops, the K’s will come down. At any rate, this young slugging center fielder is poised to start 2018 at (AA) Trenton. Only time will tell if he can grasp the strike zone better as he gets a little older.

 

 

Mesa Solar Sox

Feeder Clubs: Cubs, Tigers, Astros, Athletics, Nationals

 

Youngest Pitcher: RHP Nolan Blackwood, Age 22

Parent Club: Oakland Athletics

2017 Finishing Level: Stockton Ports (Advanced A)

 

Arizona Fall League

Nolan Blackwood shuts the light off when he leaves. (Photo courtesy of: MiLB.com)

Nolan Blackwood is a stopper. I mean, this kid can slam a door. Unlike most of the other pitchers on this list, Blackwood is one thing, a harbinger of death to your team’s chances to win. The 2016 14th round draft selection out of Memphis has a scary frame at 6-foot-5 with plenty of room left to fill it out. Oakland always seems to have a top-notch pitcher or two working their way through the farm, and Blackwood is no exception.

Blackwood spent all of 2017 in (Advanced A) ball, shutting down games for the Stockton Ports. Sure, he had a 1-5 record. Sure, he had a 3.00 ERA, but it’s what he did with the game on the line that matters most. In 20 chances to turn out the lights on the opposition, he did so successfully 19 times. As he learns more and puts on more lean muscle, his K/9 should reflect that, although his 7.58 K/9 in 2017 are nothing to sneeze at. Neither is his 1.05 WHIP. Blackwood is slated to begin 2018 at (AA) Midland, in the Texas League.

 

 

 

 

Youngest Position Player: 1B/LF Yordan Alvarez, Age 20

Parent Club: Houston Astros

2017 Finishing Level: Buies Creek Astros (Advanced A)

 

Arizona Fall League

Yordan Alvarez, monstrous young left-handed hitter with jaw dropping pop. (Photo courtesy of: MiLB.com)

Yordan Alvarez arrived in the Houston farm system via trade with the Dodgers in 2016. Alvarez is a slugger that translates to either left field or first base. While not exceptional with the leather, Alvarez does possess a very good arm in the field. He has been playing in left for much of 2017, but in the Arizona Fall League, he’s penciled in to man first base. At 6-foot-5 225 lbs. the left-handed slugger seems to be destined to play first in the majors.

Alvarez, Houston’s No. 26 ranked prospect has explosive raw power at the plate as shown by his first 32 games at the (Low A) level. Playing for the Quad Cities River Bandits, he mashed (.360/.468/.658) over 111 AB. With nothing left to prove, Houston promoted him to (Advanced A) Buies Creek where his numbers came back to earth with the step up in pitching. Despite only being 20 years old, Alvarez still managed to hack out a (.277/.329/.393) line. Not bad for a player as young as Yordan. Look for Alvarez to be back in the lineup for the Buies Creek Astros at the start of the 2018 campaign.

 

 

Salt River Rafters

Feeder Clubs: Diamondbacks, Orioles, Rockies, Marlins, Brewers

 

Youngest Pitcher: LHP Keegan Akin, Age 22

Parent Club: Baltimore Orioles

2017 Finishing Level: Frederick Keys (Advanced A)

 

Arizona Fall League

“If you blink, you will miss it.” Is what the baseball cornfield gods say about Akin’s heater. (Photo courtesy of: MiLB.com)

Keegan Akin is one half of Baltimore’s contribution to the youngest players in the Arizona Fall League. Ryan Mountcastle is the other, but more on him in just a minute.

Akin is a LHP blessed with a fastball that looks more like a vapor trail than it does a ball. The 22-year-old was a second-round pick by Baltimore in 2016 and is coming off his first full professional season at (Advanced A) Frederick. While his numbers might not jump off the page at you right away, there is still a lot to look at. First and foremost being his beastly 10 K/9 stuff. His electric fastball lit up opposing batters while his slider and changeup are both major league projectable pitches. Known for his ability to get nasty, he peppers the strike zone with ease leaving little doubts that the Orioles see him as a starting pitcher for the future.

Baltimore’s No. 8 ranked prospect is not far off getting the call to the show if he continues to improve his secondary pitches. His inability to fully harness his secondary stuff led to a 4.1 BB/9 rate, but as he learns how to pitch to better hitters his walk totals should begin to come back to earth. Orioles fans should be anxiously awaiting the arrival of this left-handed cannon. What level Akin might start at in 2018 is anyone’s guess, it could depend on how he does in the Arizona Fall League. Frederick or (AA) Bowie are his likely landing spots after camp breaks in March 2018.

 

Youngest Position Player: 2B Ryan Mountcastle, Age 20

Parent Club: Baltimore Orioles

2017 Finishing Level: Bowie Bay Sox (AA)

 

Arizona Fall League

Baltimore’s 2015 first-round pick, Ryan Mountcastle, has had a meteoric rise through the minors so far. (Photo courtesy of: MiLB.com)

Mountcastle is currently the No. 3 prospect in Baltimore’s farm system. At the moment, Baltimore is still holding out hope that this young man can overcome his below average arm strength and stick at short stop. While questions remain about Mountcastle in the field, there are little doubts in the scouting community that he will hit for both power and average at the big-league level. Ryan is a tall prospect with room left on his frame for further growth. And that is scary news for American League pitchers.

In 88 games of (Advanced A) baseball he posted an impressive (.314/.343/.542) line, while smashing 15 round trippers along the way. It was precisely this type of production that ultimately won him promotion to (AA) Bowie, finishing the season against much older competition. Though Mountcastle struggled to come to terms with Double-A pitching in his first 39 games for the Bay Sox (.222/.239/.366), he will almost certainly start 2018 there. This kid is truly one for the future. Get out there to the Arizona Fall League games and take a peek.

 

 

 

Surprise Saguaros

Feeder Clubs: Royals, Twins, Cardinals, Rays, Rangers

 

Youngest Pitcher: RHP Jordan Hicks, Age 21

Parent Club: St. Louis Cardinals

2017 Finishing Level: Springfield Cardinals (AA)

 

Arizona Fall League 2017

Hicks has eye popping velocity, and a heavy sinking action on his fastball. (Photo courtesy of: MiLB.com)

At just 21, Jordan Hicks already has a fastball that would likely leave an exit hole the size of Pluto if it hit you.On top of a fastball that sits in the lower 90’s (but can ramp up to 98 mph), this young fireballer also has an above average curveball that has a chance to be a plus pitch for him in the bigs. Jordan started 2017 with the Peoria Chiefs of the Midwest League taking the mound in 14 games and posting a healthy 8-2 record while fanning 63 batters along the way.

He has some control issues to sort out, but upon his promotion to (Advanced A) Palm Beach he saw his BB/9 shrink from (4.5) in Peoria to a respectable (2) in his first 27 innings of Florida State League ball. Though the sample is small, this youngster seems to have found another gear with his step up in competition. The Card’s No. 14 prospect posted 32 strike outs and only 21 hits in eight appearances at the (Advanced A) level. On the back of that performance the Cardinals promoted young Jordan to (AA) Springfield in August, though he didn’t log any innings due to late season injury. Expect Hicks to be a key component to Springfield’s rotation in 2018.

 

Youngest Position Player: 3B Kevin Padlo, Age 21

Parent Club: Tampa Bay Rays

2017 Finishing Level: Charlotte Stone Crabs (Advanced A)

 

Arizona Fall League

Kevin Padlo is rated as Tampa Bay’s No. 28 prospect. (photo courtesty of: MiLB.com)

Kevin was originally a fifth-round selection of the Colorado Rockies in 2014, the organization he played for in his first two minor league seasons. By January 2016 however, he found himself part of the deal that sent LF Corey Dickerson to Tampa in exchange for pitchers Jake McGee and German Marquez. Though Padlo struggled some at the plate this year posting (.215/.321/.380) across two levels of minor league ball, there is a lot to like about this young man.

While his batting average might seem low, his (.321) OBP suggests a keen eye, that with more experience should translate to a solid average and 20-homer power. At only 21 years of age, the Rays’ No. 28 prospect already possesses a defensive tool set at the hot corner you would normally expect to find on a player much older. Where he could start 2018 might depend on what he does in Arizona this fall, but as it stands now all signs point to another season in Charlotte.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(feature photo courtesy of: Colorado Rockies)

 

 

 

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MLB trade deadline: What AL contenders must do to stay in first

Baseball is back and the second half push to the playoffs begins. The MLB trade deadline comes in the second half as well and is Christmas in July for baseball fans. Strategy, money and moves galore (hopefully).

This period is a chance for teams to either sell off parts in order to rebuild or make the trades necessary to help their squad make it to the playoffs and an eventual push for the World Series. These are the moves the teams currently in first place for their respective divisions need to make to remain in first by July 31.

Boston Red Sox

If you follow baseball or this team at all, then you know their weakest position currently is at third base. Pablo Sandoval has been anything but useful or even available and has been designated for assignment. Also they traded away Travis Shaw who is having an excellent season for another first place team.

While everyone believes Todd Frazier is the best and only option available for trade, I would like to look at another in Nick Castellanos.

MLB trade deadline

Courtesy of: Bleacherreport.com

The Detroit Tigers are having a very disappointing season and will most likely be sellers during the trade deadline for the first time in a long time. They also have arguably one of the worst farm systems in baseball. Most of their top players are in Double-A ball and below which means they have a long time to wait to see if they develop.

To speed up the process of their inevitable rebuild, they could and should be looking to trade away as many players as possible.

Castellanos is only 25 and is under team control until 2020 which means Detroit could ask a decent return. So why would the Red Sox make this trade?

To start, they would get a solid everyday third baseman that could grow with the young players they are building around now like Andrew Benintendi, Mookie Betts and more. Rafael Devers is still at least one or two years away and wont be able to help them win now. It is unlikely they would have to part with him to get Castellanos as well.

Castellanos has been in the league for four full years now. You know what you are going to get out of him, whereas you never truly know with a prospect. He has experience, making playoff runs with the Tigers and still has room to grow.

The Red Sox would most likely only have to give up two of their top 25 prospects, most likely ones in the teens and below. They may also throw in a PTBNL or just an extra pitcher to sweeten the deal.

Nick Castellanos would solidify the Red Sox third base problem not only for now but also for the future. Todd Frazier on the other hand may cost only one top 25 prospect but he would also be a free agent at the end of this year and has seemed to have trouble batting for average ever since he was traded to the White Sox.

Cleveland Indians

It took the Indians awhile to catch up to the Twins, but they have taken hold of first and wont let it go for the rest of the season. This team can hit and is being led by its young superstars Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor while getting help from players like Edwin Encarnacion who struggled mightily to start the season but has figured it out.

MLB trade deadline

Photo: Sportsblog.com

Another strength of the World Series runner-ups is their bullpen. Their weakness? Outside of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and surprisingly Mike Clevinger, this team’s starters have struggled. Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar, and Josh Tomlin all have ERAs over 5.

There are many attractive options on the market for the Indians. The question will be how much are they willing to give up in order to get the starting pitching help they need?

Last year, they traded away Clint Frazier and a multitude of other prospects in order to get their stalwart setup man, Andrew Miller. That being said the Indians still have some pieces that they could trade. I highly doubt they will trade Bradley Zimmer as he is with the club now and making a solid contribution.

There are a multitude of options for the Indians to help make their second World Series run in as many years. I like Sonny Gray, but I think his asking price will be too high considering how he has pitched in the last two seasons. This leaves two options: Gerrit Cole and Johnny Cueto.

Both the Pirates and Giants respectively have been under-performing and it looks like they will have to be sellers. While Gerrit Cole is better, he and Sonny Gray have a similar problem. They are going to cost more than the Indians are willing to give.

That is why they could trade for Cueto. He has won a World Series and has been in Cy Young contention, but the Indians could get him for a bargain. He has not pitched extremely well this season and the Giants are desperate (or should be) for prospects as they have one of the worst farm systems in baseball.

The Indians could give up one top 25 prospect not named Zimmer or Mejia and two others right outside their top 25 for Cueto. He would be a great pickup and if he could find his form again, he could be a top of the rotation guy to help the Indians try to make it back to the World Series.

Houston Astros

The Astros were my World Series pick back in January and I am glad that they have yet to let me down. Their lineup can hit from 1 to 8 and Keuchel and McCullers make up an amazing top of the rotation.

MLB trade deadline

Photo: SFgiantsrumors.co

Brad Peacock is finally living up to his potential, whether he is in the bullpen or the rotation. While most are looking at the rotation, and they could improve there, Peacock may actually be a legitimate option that will help them keep their first-place standing. Also, Colin McHugh should be coming off the DL soon and can help to solidify the rotation.

The Astros are missing another reliable bullpen arm. We saw how important they were in last year’s playoffs and right now the Astros have a pretty good bullpen. But if they are going to want to make a real run, they need a great bullpen.

They won’t give up what teams gave up to get pitchers like Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman last season. Instead, they will go for options that are a small step down.

In steps another Giants player and someone who has been a crucial piece in their bullpen for a long time, George Kontos.

Kontos has a career ERA under 3 and he has been in many high-pressure situations, including helping the Giants win multiple World Series. While he is not a flashy pickup, he is a reliable one, and should be relatively cheap, as he’s still under team control until 2020.

The Astros would not have to part with any of their major prospects. They could easily throw the Giants one of their lower top 25 prospects and some cash or another lower level prospect with high potential.

Kontos would solidify the bullpen as the Astros head into October. His experience would help the younger Astros team and again he would cost a lot less than someone like Sonny Gray or David Robertson.

Conclusion

The trade deadline is an unpredictable time and has a major affect on the way the rest of the season and future seasons will play out. Look out for what first place NL teams needs to do in order to stay in first place.

 

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The End of Control?

At first, the idea that the control archetype could soon go extinct seems ludicrous. We are playing through an era that could be described as a Golden Age for slow, controlling decks. Reno and Kazakus have pushed Highlander archetypes to the dizzying heights of Tier Two for Warlock, Mage, and Priest. Control Warrior’s ability to punish hyper-aggressive Patches decks along with Miracle Rogue has seen it have solid, if inconsistent, win-rates. Even Anyfin Paladin sees a degree of high-level play. However, great changes are coming to the delicate ecosystem that is Hearthstone’s meta; and Control decks could be affected catastrophically.

The definition of a Control deck may differ, but most understandings of the archetype centre around one key concept; the idea of outlasting and outvaluing the opponent with a variety of flexible removal, especially hard removal, board clears, lifegain, and a few key late-game threats or other “win-condition” cards. While some may include pro-active cards and strategies, the overwhelming idea holding the deck together is to be fundamentally reactive. Combos and threats are either painstakingly slow to assemble (like Paladin’s Anyfin can Happen/Bluegill/Warleader strategy, or Reno Mage’s Antonidas/Alexstrasza strategy) or require the opponent to be out of resources or low on life to be effective (Control Warrior’s Grommash, or Renolock’s Jaraxxus). So what changes are coming that endanger these decks?

Let’s look at the Control decks currently competitive in Hearthstone’s post-Mean Streets metagame; Anyfin Paladin, Control Warrior, Control Shaman, Reno Mage, Reno Priest, and Renolock

No Reno, no way?

You can start to see a problem with the upcoming standard rotation by simply looking at the name of half decks. Reno Jackson is not just a powerful card; it’s a card that so utterly negates certain class’s long-game weaknesses that it created and is currently sustaining decks that simply wouldn’t make sense without it.

We see this in Warlock and Mage especially, with their incredible synergy with Lifetap and Ice Block respectively (alongside a lack of class healing). Reno Priest may potter along thanks to its great class heal options; but when Reno rotates out, what will happen to decks that can’t counter the incredible early-game damage capabilities of modern Aggro decks?

Perhaps more class or neutral healing will be released for these classes, but I’m not too hopeful. Class identity is a key part of hearthstone, and Team 5 have clarified their desire for certain classes like Mage and Warlock not to have access to the same level of efficient healing as others. Omni-present single-purpose neutrals seem to be going out of fashion as well, with no replacements for Antique Healbot on the horizon to shore up these class’s anti-aggro abilities in the long game.

So are classes like Mage and Warlock going to be pigeonholed into fast decks purely from lack of access to healing? Well, perhaps. A way to avoid this is to give thematic, interesting survivability tools that do not involve healing. Maybe a Molten-Giant-esque replacement to reinvigorate Handlock-style strategies, or more defensive Mage secrets á la Ice Barrier. Outlandish ideas like giving your Hero “Can’t be targeted by spells or hero powers” might help those classes survive burst. Whatever the solution, it’s clear that defense against reach and burn is key to the survival of controlling variations of these archetypes.

This also ties into the problem with Jade decks; as the Combo-based counters to these mid-range, continually ramping minions are largely restricted to these two classes.

Warlock’s healing options aren’t exactly stellar

The Rise of the Golems

The other huge challenge arising for Control from the upcoming rotation is the incredible power of Jade Decks against slower opponents. The long term power of these constantly-ramping and in many cases infinite threats can lead to absurd situations. For example, forcing Control Warrior to play an aggro gameplan, or Aggro Shaman out-valuing Renolock card-for-card well into the late stages of the game. Even in a meta overwhelmingly dominated by hyper-aggressive Patches decks, Jade cards are seeing a huge amount of play. There are two things that could lead to Jades becoming even more ubiquitous and even more dangerous to Control.

The first includes hints of an upcoming balance change to the early-game pirate package. In interviews and streams, both Ben Brode (Hearthstone’s Game Director) and Mike Donais (Principle Game Designer) have expressed concern for Small-Time Buccaneer in particular. This might not be a huge deal immediately, as aggressive non-pirate decks like Tempo Mage, Dragon Warrior, and Midrange Hunter could arrive to fill the piratical power vacuum. Things might change, however, once the year of the Kraken is over. Mainstays of these decks, cards like Flamewaker, Quick Shot, and Sir Finley Mrrglton (not to mention the entire Dragon package!) will leave; their replacements will struggle to be fast enough to catch up to the rapidly-growing Jades.

A Jade meta would be more forgiving on Mage and Warlock due to their plethora of game-ending combo options. But the matchup would remain unfavoured, other decks would likely be even worse off.

An Idol threat

This could have dire consequences for Paladin, Priest, and Warrior’s hopes of retaining late-game relevance. With the loss of Anyfin can happen, Paladin is left only with N’zoth as a way to convincingly end games. Paladin’s N’zoth package may be somewhat effective against Jade Druid occasionally. But it is unlikely to be fast enough to matter once Druid can drop consistent mid-game threats that Paladins struggle to remove. Meanwhile, Mid-Jade Shaman’s Hexes and Devolves ruin any chance of late-game success for Paladin. They could easily see themselves consistently out-valued in the early game, mid game, and late game!

Warrior, on the other hand, is losing almost all of its late-game options. Elise Starseeker and Justicar Trueheart were previously all Warrior needed to out-value almost any deck by simply removing all enemies and tanking up to a Golden Monkey finish. With the loss of those two key cards, Control Warrior will struggle against almost any deck in the late-game. Even now, Warrior struggles against any deck that isn’t pure aggro due to a lack of late-game options. Old mainstays like Ysera and Ragnaros sufficed in the old days, and can still sometimes steal games versus poorly opening Druids. However, against Shaman’s plethora of removals and constant board pressure, there seems no way that Control Warrior can do anything but lose incredibly slowly.

Control Shaman may survive, but with the loss of Elemental Destruction, Healing Wave, and Lava Shock, it seems unlikely that any future build will be distinguishable or superior from standard Midrange jade options. Priest will be in a similar rough spot to warrior, with simply no cards that can force a switch to a proactive strategy.

The key issue is that these classes have no late-game options that are powerful enough to out-tempo a ramped-up Jade Druid while not being countered by Hex and Devolve from the Shamans. Control Warrior, Priest and Paladin’s late game are in dire need of support if they are not to be forced into obscurity.

It’s hard to find late game strategies that aren’t countered by Shaman’s cheap Transform effects

Designing solutions

In order to prevent a steep decline in control’s viability, the next set of cards will need to ameliorate some of the weaknesses of existing control decks post-rotation; namely survivability for Mage and Warlock, and late-game power for Warrior, Paladin and Priest. They do not need to be so powerful as to make the decks perfect all-rounders, but they do need to be strong enough to give them a fighting chance against multiple archetypes (and particularly the power of Jade Golems).

Maybe hold off on giving great cards to Shaman for a few seasons though. Not to say a viable Control Shaman isn’t desirable, but in recent times they seem to be controlling the opponent’s face more than anything.

Title Image courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment and hearthstone.gamepedia.com

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Should Small-time Buccaneer get a big-time nerf?

 

The card in its current state

Small-Time Buccaneer has become arguably the most meta-warping card in the game. Warrior, Shaman and Rogue have risen on the back of its insane synergy with Patches and low-cost weapons. Meanwhile Paladin and Hunter’s lack of cheap weapons for the “pirate package” has lead to their near-extinction from the meta. This power has not gone unnoticed; in a recent IGN interview Mike Donais, principle game designer, indicated that the strength of the card was raising eyebrows at Team 5.

The card that I’m most worried about is Small-Time Buccaneer. That’d be the card I’m watching most closely.

– Mike Donais, speaking to IGN

So far, there seems to be growing community and developer desire for a rebalancing of Small-time Buccaneer to bring it in line with other one drops. But is such a change necessary? And what happens if the change makes the card unplayable, as happened with one drops like Leper Gnome?

 

Hunter is unviable without the ability to use or compete with Pirates like Small-time Buccaneer

Patching the Patches-summoner

 

The arguments for a nerf seem clear. They can be summed up as follows;

 

  • Power: The card is simply better than almost any other one drop if you have the necessary weapon synergy

 

  • Variance: While it does not explicitly contain any random effects, it massively increases the impact that your starting mulligan makes. The difference between Small-Time Buccaneer with a weapon and no Patches in hand and STB without and Patches in hand is equivalent to 5 stat points; and that’s assuming you draw it! It functions to make aggro matchups less strategic and more of a coin-flip

 

  • Aggression: Small-Time Buccaneer pushes aggro decks to become more potent than perhaps they’ve ever been. Where turn 4 or 5 lethals were previously outliers, now they can be routine against many decks. Board snowballing can happen straight from turn one and happen incredibly quickly. While the level of aggro in the meta can be a matter of taste, the lack of midrange viability outside of pirate-aggro and Reno/control is surely detrimental to those who prefer that playstyle.

 

  • Class balance: Paladin and Hunter have almost no ladder representation and few, if any, viable decks. A huge part of this is their inability to take part in or counter the swathes of Pirate decks due to their lack of early-game removal and potent, cheap weapons.

 

  • Diversity: There is no meta-viable aggressive deck that does not incorporate Small-Time Buccaneer and the Pirate package. Unless a change is implemented, it could be argued that this will crowd out other innovative aggro decks until it rotates out of Standard.

 

Are Pirates necessary to keep Jade Druid in check?

                                                                         A necess-arrrr-ry evil?

I’m not sure anyone would deny that Small-Time Buccaneer is one of the most powerful cards in the meta. However, it does have competition. Cards like Kazakus and Jade Idol, while miles slower, still have the ability to generate massive value and win games. it could be argued that Small Time Buccaneer’s power is required to prevent decks like Jade Druid and Reno Warlock, with their incredible value generation capabilities, from taking over the meta completely.

However, there are some flaws with this argument. Even greedy Renolocks can win if they draw Reno and some AOE in time. Jade Druids can hold off the aggression with a few well placed Swipes and Wraths and hide behind an Ancient of War or similar beefy taunt. While greedy control decks are indeed countered by hyper-aggressive face decks, they are arguably even harder countered by aggressive midrange. But it’s these aggressive midrange decks (in particular Midrange Hunter) that are being forced out hardest by Small-Time Buccaneer and the Pirates package. If Small-Time Buccaneer was brought down in power, then aggressive-leaning decks would likely just curve higher, play stickier minions and punish greed harder.

 

                                                                            A Smaller-time Buccaneer

 

So if we take a rebalancing as necessary, what would a weaker Small-Time Buccaneer look like? Balancing one drops is notoriously tricky. With Hearthstone’s granular nature, even a single point of stats can be the difference between ubiquity and ignominy (just ask Abusive Sergeant!) Here are a few examples of how Small-Time Buccaneer could be changed while keeping it as a decent choice for Pirate decks (if not an ever-present staple for non-pirate aggro decks)

Should only Valeera get this level of 1 drop power?

The Rogueification

 

As I and others predicted a while ago, Small-Time Buccaneer quickly became a Rogue staple. Instead of providing the aggro springboard, its reliance on an anti-tempo hero power on Turn 2 made it a board control option rather than an all-in face tool. One popular community suggestion for Small-Time Buccaneer is to restrict it to a Rogue-only class card. By making Small-Time Buccaneer a Rogue-only card, the card’s aggro potential would be massively limited. In return, perhaps Rogue class card and meme Shadow Rager could go neutral with the other Ragers.

However, this is not a perfect solution. As well as being an unprecedented way of altering a card post-release, it would also make miracle Rogue relatively strong in a time where it is already top tier, while weakening its main counters. It’s also pretty unlikely that Team 5 would alter a neutral card’s “Soul” so drastically.

 

 

 

                                          The Predictable

Hardly imaginative, but surely a likely candidate

 

One sure-fire way to reduce a card’s power is to make the good numbers smaller or the bad numbers bigger. This change simply reduces the benefit from synergy by one, making it less of a powerhouse by a significant amount. While a conditional 2/2 may seem bad compared to the 2/2 Mistress of Mixtures or Enchanted Raven, the benefit from being a Pirate cannot be discounted, considering the huge stat benefit that Patches brings.

This version would likely still see play in the exact same decks, and be just somewhat less potent. While this change may seem like an easy one, the fact that it may not shake up the meta enough to bring about significant change may be a reason to discount it. It’s worth expecting that given Team 5’s extreme infrequency in balance changes, that the changes should make a big difference.

 

 

 

 

Hits just has hard, but much less sticky

 

              The All-in

Perhaps a more divisive option would be to reduce the health of Small-Time Buccaneer to 1. No 3/1 minion for one has ever been printed (outside the cripplingly overloading Dust Devil). Reducing health would make the card far more vulnerable to pings, cheap AOE and 1 attack minions. The vulnerability would make more difference in some cases than others; Rogues, Druids and Mages would likely gain greatly from being able to hero-power it down, while Warrior and Shaman’s plethora of 1 damage options would also let them take it out with ease.

However, Hunter, Paladin, Warlock and Priest would likely still struggle, giving it a high likelihood of trading up regardless. Since Hunter and Paladin are the worst classes in the current meta, this hardly seems optimal.

 

 

 

 

 

Would this make for more tactical decision making with weaponry?

                                                                      The Situational

One of the problems with Small-Time Buccaneer is its ease of activation. Any weapon at all counts, as long as it is equipped. Making it only work with weapons with 2 or more durability would mean more tactical choices and less all-purpose power in the dream scenario (turn one Small-Time Buccaneer into turn two weapon). Warriors and Shamans would have to choose between losing Small Time Buccaneer’s buff and a weapon charge off Fiery War Axe or Jade Claws or losing the STB altogether. As well as promoting more interesting decisions, it would make early game minions in general a more potent counter to the piratical threat, as well as reducing the variance of the card by making it less polarizing between its best and worst-case scenarios.

Downsides include benefiting 3 durability weapons like Spirit claws and N’zoth’s first mate’s Rusty Hook, and the increased complexity of the card text. Like other changes, it has the potential to be not enough to dethrone the card’s dominance.

 

 

No, I’m not still upset over Warsong Commander, why do you ask?

 

The Soul of the Buccaneer
Team 5 has a history of not doing balancing by half-measures. Cards like Warsong Commander, Leper Gnome, Ancient of Lore and Molten Giant have gone from core staples to unplayable overnight. Completely reworking the mechanic to something that massively reduces the power level of the card to the point of effectively removing it from the game would not be exactly without precedent. Perhaps some would be happy to see such a change; and it would definitely have the desired effect of making the card less ubiquitous and powerful.

Though this is clearly an option, there are undoubtedly more elegant solutions out there that do not result in the effective removal of a card from the game.

 

 

 

 

 

No matter what Team 5 chooses, as long as some change does occur, the outcome is likely to be positive. Though it might not happen before the next standard rotation or perhaps even later, a bit more early-game diversity and balance is sure to be good for Hearthstone.

 

 

Thanks to hearthcards.net for the easy to use and powerful card editing tool; go check them out if you fancy making your own Small Time Buccaneers

Other images courtesy of hearthstone.gamepedia.com and Blizzard Entertainment