The MLB season is heading into the dog days of summer, but some of the minor league teams are headed into the most exciting stretches of the season. Brandon Magee tells us which teams are playoff dreaming in June.
In the beginning of June, discussions about the minor leagues often revolve around the draft, the beginning of the baseball season in the Dominican Republic, and the upcoming short-season league. However, the time for new beginnings also is the time for first-half endings in the A-Ball leagues. With a week and a half to go before the first half ends – on Sunday, June 19 – a couple of races are too close to call. In this week’s minor league report, we take a look at three divisional races that could go down to the very last day.
While no team has yet clinched a playoff spot and no lead is completely safe, the division leaders in the South Atlantic League, the Carolina League, and the Florida State League all have at least 3 1/2 game leads entering the games on Thursday night. This also holds true in the California League Northern Division. However, the Southern Division in the California League and both divisions in the Midwest League are up for grabs entering the last ten days of the the first half.
Entering Thursday’s games, the High Desert Mavericks, High-A farm team of the Texas Rangers, lead the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers, by a single game. Lurking just behind are the Lancaster JetHawks, farm club of the Houston Astros, who are 3 1/2 games behind the Mavericks.
Unfortunately, the schedule makers were unable to predict this tight race: a three-game series between Lancaster and Rancho Cucamonga next week is the only occasion remaining for the leaders to face off against one another. In fact, High Desert has three games against Inland Empire – lying in last place in the South – and four games against Stockton – bringing up the rear in the North – which could make their road to the title an easy one.
The California League playoff system, however, is not completely straightforward. Winning the first-half title earns the recipient not only a playoff spot, but a first-round bye. The CL arranges a first-round playoff battle in each division between the second-half title winners and the wild card teams, which are the best teams in each division over the entire season that do not otherwise make the playoffs. Even if High Desert is able to waltz into the division title against the dregs of the league, the Quakes and JetHawks still have much to play for in their final week.
Each of the three teams will be sending a pair of representatives to the California League/Carolina League All-Star festivities on June 21. Second baseman Travis Demeritte – who has 15 home runs and 48 runs scored – and catcher Jose Trevino will be the players from the Mavericks. Outfielder Kyle Garlick and pitcher Joshua Sborz – who has a 2.84 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP in the notoriously pitcher-unfriendly league – will represent the Quakes. The JetHawks will be sending outfielder Bobby Boyd – batting .323/.371/.491 in 38 games – and pitcher Garrett Stubbs.
Given the overloaded nature of the Midwest League, with sixteen teams divided into two divisions, a pair of representatives is sent from each division to the playoffs in each half. While one would think this would make for a boring race for the playoff participants, nothing could be farther from the truth. Entering Thursday’s game, only one team has been eliminated from playoff contention in the first half.
Midwest League: Eastern Division
The Eastern Division looks to be a fight down to the last day, with four teams within 2 1/2 games of the division title. The South Bend Cubs (appropriately, affiliates of the Chicago Cubs) currently sit atop the division with the Lake County Captains (affiliates of the Cleveland Indians) only 1/2 game behind. With the Cubs and Captains in playoff position, the Detroit Tigers affiliate West Michigan Whitecaps – who sit only 1/2 game behind the Captains – and the San Diego Padres farm-club Fort Wayne TinCaps – who are only two games back of Lake County – will make all attempts to push them off the mountain in the final week and a half.
There will be a number of big matchups in the final week of the season. The first half ends with a four-game battle in South Bend in which the two top teams, the Cubs and Lake County, duke it out for the division title and, perhaps, their playoff lives. The two teams chasing also have their own battle earlier in the week, with the TinCaps hosting the Whitecaps in a three-game series.
The Cubs will be sending six representatives to the Midwest All-Star Classic on June 21, led by Eloy Jimenez, who is hitting .316 with eight home runs for South Bend. The TinCaps will be sending five players, including pitchers Jacob Nix, Jean Cosme, and Enyel De Los Santos. Lake County will be bringing four to the festivities, with shortstop Tyler Krieger being the star attraction. The Whitecaps will contribute three, including pitcher Matt Hall and his 0.65 ERA and 65 strikeouts in ten starts.
Midwest League: Western Division
The Western Division has three contenders for the two automatic spots, but another four teams are waiting to pounce at the first sign of a slip up. The Cedar Rapid Kernels, a Minnesota Twins affiliate, lead the division by 1 1/2 games over the St. Louis Cardinals affiliated Peoria Chiefs. In third position, only 1/2 game behind the Chiefs, are the Clinton LumberKings, Seattle’s Full-Season A Ball affiliate. The Burlington Bees (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim) lie only three back of the Chiefs. The Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Milwaukee Brewers), Beloit Snappers (Oakland Athletics) and Kane County Cougars (Arizona Cardinals) all lie four or four-and-a-half games back of playoff position.
Unsurprisingly, the race has a chance for serious upheaval down the stretch. Peoria will host Cedar Rapids in a three-game set this weekend that could propel the Kernels to the division crown. The Chiefs will then go on the road to face off against the LumberKings for a three-game set, perhaps determining the second playoff team. However, the Burlington Bees are not out of the hunt, with three games against Cedar Rapid and four against Peoria to end the first half. With a battle royale going on in the division over the final ten days, it truly is a seven-team race to the finish.
The Kernels will be led into battle by second baseman Luis Arraez, batting .320/.383/.438, and one of three players from the team to make the MWL All-Star Game being held in their home ballpark. Peoria will be sending out five All-Stars in their battles this week, led by pitchers Derian Gonzalez, Ryan Helsley, and Brennan Leitao. First baseman Dalton Kelly leads four All-Star selections for the LumberKings into their final dash for a playoff spot.
As we all look forward to the start of the short-season leagues, eager to see the newest professionals debut with our favorite teams, let us not lose sight of the games going on in the present, and the prospects that have already begun their ascent. Parent clubs always try to teach by winning, by putting their prospects into playoff battle. Over the next ten days, all eyes will be on the Midwest and California Leagues as division rivals battle it out for supremacy… and a chance for a playoff spot come September.
Brandon Magee is our minor league expert; he has written about minor league travel, ranking prospects, a first round draft pick, and the MLB First-Year Player Draft.
Follow Brandon on Twitter @cuzittt.
Featured photo courtesy of Jillian Souza.