Bombs Away: The Minor League Edition

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Home runs are flying out of major league ballparks at an historic rate. For the first time ever, June saw 1,100 balls go out of the yard. At the All-Star break, 24 different players – led by New York’s Aaron Judge – had hit 20 or more homers this season. The Miami Marlins had three players with 20 or more. So did the Cincinnati Reds. Houston, Oakland, and Arizona all had a pair of players that have broken the plateau.

However, the pyrotechnics are less historic in the minor leagues. While the 30 MLB teams had combined to have 24 players with 20 or more taters at the break, the 120 teams that form the four tiers of the full-season leagues have combined for 62% fewer, with only nine players in the minors breaking the barrier by last Thursday.

After breaking the 20-tater line in 2014 with Stockton, where he hit 29, and last season with Nashville, where he hit an even 20, Renato Nunez is making a case to be promoted to Oakland where he can join A’s bomb squad. Nunez has primarily played third base and left field for the Sounds and has blasted two dozen homers thus far this season to lead the Pacific Coast League and full season Minor League Baseball. Nunez – who made his MLB debut last September – is likely to be called up quickly if Oakland is a seller at the trade deadline.

Reno Aces first baseman Christian Walker is second in the PCL and MiLB with 22 home runs at the break. Walker, who earned sips of coffee with Baltimore in 2014 and 2015, has always had some power, topping out with 27 taters in 2014 – 20 in AA Bowie, six in AAA Norfolk, and one big league shot with the Orioles. In 2015 and 2016, Walker spent the entire season with Baltimore’s AAA affiliate, slamming 18 in each season. However, the move to the more hitter friendly parks of the West Coast has seen Walker blossom, batting .303/.363/.600 over 86 games. Unfortunately for Walker, Reno is the AAA affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks, and they have MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt entrenched at first base.

Joining Walker at 22 bombs is Philadelphia Phillies second base prospect Scott Kingery, who has had a very productive year between AA Reading (18) and AAA Lehigh Valley (4). The 2015 second round draft pick is enjoying his best professional season, hitting a combined .312/.371/.606. Kingery isn’t just a man who hits bombs; with 20 doubles, five triples, and 23 stolen bases to his credit this season, he’s been an offensive force. With the Phillies mired in last place in the NL East, Kingery may soon get the chance to hit long balls in a third different city in Pennsylvania.

With 21 jacks, Boston’s Michael Chavis may finally be turning into the star some predicted when he was chosen as the 26th pick of the 2014 Draft. Chavis clobbered his first 17 moonshots with the High-A Salem Red Sox – and he still leads the Carolina League in home runs despite being promoted a month ago. Chavis has hit four more in his first 17 games with the AA Portland Sea Dogs, where his line of .267/.297/.500 would be the best overall line of his career… if not for the .318/.388/.641 he posted with Salem this season.

Also at 21 years old is last season’s Minor League Home Run King, Dylan Cozens. Cozens led all of the minors with 40 bombs last season and leads the International League in 2017 with his 21 roundtrippers. However the rightfielder is not having the overall season he had in 2016. Cozens is batting just .240/.315/.486 this season – his first in AAA – after putting up a line of .276/.350/.591 with 81 extra-base hits in AA Reading last year.

Reading continues to be a source of great power potential for the Phillies despite Kingery’s promotion, with third base prospect Mitch Walding pacing the Eastern League with his 20 over-the-wall balls. The 24-year-old has taken the slow road developing his power, with last season’s 13 homers between High-A Clearwater and AA Reading being the first time in five seasons that he broke into double digits. The left-handed hitting prospect is still in need of overall polish, hitting .240/.336/.543 this season for the Fightin’ Phils. However, if his doubles power (he posted 92 doubles and 26 homers in his first five seasons) has blossomed into homer power, he may make an interesting platoon partner with Maikel Franco in Philadelphia.

Emmanuel Tapia is the only player currently in Single-A who has crushed 20 long balls, doing the deed with the Lake County Captains of the Midwest League. The 21-year-old Cleveland Indians first base prospect was not expected to be this prolific in the tater count based upon his first four professional seasons, all spent in the short season leagues. Over his first 196 games, Tapia had walloped only 14 four-baggers.

The last two men on the 20-bomb list are teammates of players already mentioned: Reno Aces outfielder Oswaldo Arcia and Lehigh Valley IronPigs first baseman Rhys Hoskins.

Arcia is a known MLB quantity, having joining the Minnesota Twins at the age of 22 in 2013, where he proceeded to pound 14 balls out of the park. The next season, he had his first 20-dinger season for the Twins, but recorded a disappointing batting line of .231/.300/.452. He has since bounced around, seeing time with four separate major league clubs last season. While Arcia is crunching baseballs in Reno – to the tune of .350/.429/.696 – and the Diamondbacks could use additional power from the outfield (where seven outfielders have combined for 29 taters), Arcia’s Minnesota experience leaves him without options. Is Arizona willing to bet a 40-man roster spot on Oswaldo, who put up a combined MLB line of .203/.270/.366 in 2016?

Hoskins is no newbie to the top of the list of the homer horde, coming in second to his Reading teammate Cozens in the MiLB race last season with 38. He is second again to Cozens this year in the International League race with 20. However, unlike Cozens, who is struggling in facets other than bomb hitting, Hoskins continues to put up the same .900 OPS as he has delivered since beginning full-season ball in 2015. Hoskins has a line of .289/.385/.576 with 19 doubles and four triples to go along with his 20 quadrangulars thus far in 2017. After striking out a career high 125 times in AA last season, Hoskins has cut back to only 53 in 88 games – putting his K/BB ratio at near 1.00 (with 47 walks). Philadelphia will soon need to make a decision for their future at first base – and given Hoskins consistency in his minor league numbers, Tommy Joseph may find himself on the auction block.

We all know chicks dig the long ball. But hitting bunches of homers in the minors does not a major leaguer make. While the nine players above would like to become the next Aaron Judge or Cody Bellinger, there is a possibility that their shot in the majors never really materializes. At which point, instead of trying to out do Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and Barry Bonds… they’ll give chase to Mike Hessman, Buzz Arlett, and Crash Davis. No one ever said the grind was easy.


Follow Brandon on Twitter @cuzittt

Featured image courtesy of Kelly O’Connor

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