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Toolshed: Recent noteworthy MWL seasons

Bichette, Tatis, Trout battle for top spot among Midwest standouts
Fernando Tatis Jr. was one of three 20-20 players in the Midwest League during the 2010s. (Fort Wayne TinCaps)
@SamDykstraMiLB
September 15, 2020

This space started honoring the short-season leagues after their respective campaigns were delayed in June. Now, following the cancellation of all Minor League Baseball in 2020, we're turning it into an appreciation of the full-season circuits as well. So Toolshed is revisiting the 10 most notable individual seasons put together

This space started honoring the short-season leagues after their respective campaigns were delayed in June. Now, following the cancellation of all Minor League Baseball in 2020, we're turning it into an appreciation of the full-season circuits as well.

So Toolshed is revisiting the 10 most notable individual seasons put together across the 10 Triple-A, Double-A, Class A Advanced and Class A leagues from the last decade (2010-19). Previous editions covered the New York-Penn League, Northwest League, Appalachian League, Pioneer League, International League, Pacific Coast League, Eastern League, Southern League, Texas League, California League, Carolina League and Florida State League. This column focuses on the Class A Midwest League.

10. Wander Franco, Bowling Green, 2019: If the point of this column is to highlight "recent" and "noteworthy" Midwest League performances, it doesn't get much closer to either description than Franco's turn through the Class A circuit last year. The Rays assigned the 18-year-old switch-hitting shortstop to Bowling Green, and he responded by showing off what's now graded as an 80-grade hit tool. Despite being three years younger than the MWL's average player, Franco batted .318/.390/.506 with six homers and 14 steals over 62 games before being promoted to Class A Advanced Charlotte on June 25. What stood out most was his ability to do damage while making a lot of contact. Not only did Franco walk more times (30) than he struck out (20), he also had more extra-base hits (27) than K's. Overall, his 7.3 percent strikeout rate was fourth-lowest among Midwest League hitters with at least 200 plate appearances in the 2010s. Franco showed plenty offensively at such a young age that he became MLB.com's top overall prospect, an honor he's likely to hold going into 2021.

9. Alex Kirilloff, Cedar Rapids, 2018: What was meant to be the 2016 first-rounder's first full season ended before it began in 2017 when he underwent preseason Tommy John surgery, knocking him out for the year. The outfielder was back on track with his move to Cedar Rapids in 2018, showing the Twins he was worth the wait. Kirilloff hit .333/.392/.607 with 13 homers, five triples and 20 doubles over 65 games with the Kernels. He was one of only five players in the 2010s to get 200 plate appearances and slug .600 in the Midwest League, and his 176 wRC+ placed eighth in the decade among those with the same qualifications. His 38 extra-base hits led to his season-ending total of 71, which led all of the Minor Leagues, making Kirilloff one of the Minors' most productive players of 2018. In fact because of his performance coming off the major surgery, MiLB.com named him the Breakout Prospect of the Year for his work at Cedar Rapids and Class A Advanced Fort Myers. Kirilloff remains the No. 31 overall prospect and should be a big part of Minnesota's future plans, either in a corner outfield spot or at first base.

8. Noah Syndergaard, Lansing, 2012: The 2012 Lansing trio of Syndergaard, Aaron Sanchez and Justin Nicolino was as hyped as a group of Class A starting pitchers (and sometimes piggybackers) could be. Of those three, it's Syndergaard who has aged the best, and not just because of the way he has performed at the top level. The 6-foot-6 right-hander posted a 2.60 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP with 122 strikeouts and 31 walks in 103 2/3 innings with the Lugnuts that summer. His 2.36 FIP, aided by only three homers allowed that summer, was second-best among Midwest League pitchers with at least 100 innings in the decade, and his 29.0 percent K rate ranked third among the same group. That proved to be Syndergaard's last season in the Toronto system. The fireballer, who had been taken 38th overall in the 2010 Draft, was traded to the Mets in December 2012 in the R.A. Dickey deal. He is sitting out the 2020 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in March.

7. Byron Buxton, Cedar Rapids, 2013: Buxton was a serious candidate to go first overall to the Astros in the 2012 Draft. That honor instead went to Carlos Correa, causing Buxton to drop to the Twins at No. 2. In his first full season in the Minnesota system, the center fielder was a serious candidate to win both the Midwest League MVP and Prospect of the Year awards. Buxton made sure those were added to his resume. He finished with a .341/.431/.559 line with eight homers, 10 triples, 15 doubles and 32 stolen bases over 68 games with the Kernels. That was good for a 176 wRC+, Buxton's highest mark with a full-season club in his Minor League career. Award voters (along with scouts, executives and anyone else who saw Buxton in Cedar Rapids in 2013) were undoubtedly swayed by the then-19-year-old's elite defense on the grass and his 80-grade speed. The glove and run tools remain Buxton's bread and butter to this day, while his offense hasn't been quite up to the same snuff. At 26, he's still a big piece of the picture in the Twin Cities because of how loud his tools can play, as was on display seven years ago in the MWL.

6. Eloy Jiménez, South Bend, 2016: Jiménez's stock has been a roller coaster for the past few years. He entered the Majors as a highly hyped prospect in 2019 -- one who hd received a $43-million Major League contract before reaching The Show -- and then had a solid, if unspectacular rookie year before returning to big-time slugging ways this summer. But if there's a spot that roller coaster left the station in earnest, it was South Bend, where the outfielder first reached full-season ball in the Cubs system. Consider that Jiménez hit .284/.328/.418 at Class A Short Season Eugene, making him a slightly above-average hitter by Northwest League standards. He was much better in South Bend, batting .329/.369/.532 in 112 games. His in-game power hadn't quite developed into the dinger machine that he has become at higher levels, but even still, Jiménez finished with 14 homers, three triples and 40 doubles, en route to a most impressive slugging percentage at age 19. In fact, his 162 wRC+ was the highest by any qualified teenager in the decade. Jiménez won a 2016 MiLBY award as Breakout Prospect of the Year and entered 2017 as the No. 17 overall prospect, the first time he began a season in the Top 100, let alone the top 20. He was traded to the White Sox in July 2017 in the Jose Quintana deal and remains a big piece of the contending club on the South Side.

5. Oscar Taveras, Quad Cities, 2011: Taveras featured in the Texas League column as well, and this campaign -- his best offensively in the Minors -- serves as another reminder of his prodigious talent at the plate. The Cardinals outfielder moved to full-season ball after spells in the complex circuits and Rookie Advanced Appalachian League and dominated right away before turning 19 in mid-June. The left-handed slugger led the MWL for the decade (minimum 200 plate appearances) with a .386 average over 78 games with the River Bandits. He also placed among the top seven with a .444 OBP, .584 slugging percentage, 1.028 OPS and 190 wRC+. The Cardinals prospect did all of that while striking out in only 15 percent of his plate appearances. Those numbers could have been even better if he hadn't missed a month that May with a hamstring injury, though he made up for the lost at-bats in the Arizona Fall League. Taveras' impressive Class A season, fueled primarily by his hit tool, forced prospect prognosticators to sit up straight. He cracked the Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus top-100 lists for the first time the following winter, and the Cardinals saw enough from him to skip him right over Class A Advanced in 2012. Taveras became a top-three overall prospect in the game before his Major League debut in May 2014. Sadly, he died in a car accident in his native Dominican Republic that October.

4. Jon Duplantier, Kane County, 2017: Should the 2016 third-rounder out of Rice probably started the season at Class A Advanced? Probably, yes. Are we going to overlook that for the time being because of just how dominant he was for the Cougars? Also, yes. (Part of the reason for the assignment was a limited 2016 campaign due to elbow soreness.) Duplantier posted a 1.24 ERA over 72 2/3 innings, which was the best mark among Midwest League hurlers (minimum 70 innings) during the 2010s. It wasn't close either. His nearest competitor in the category was Matt Packer, who finished with a 1.60 ERA over 95 2/3 frames for Lake County seven seasons earlier. The 6-foot-4 right-hander finished with a zero in the earned runs column in nine of his first 10 appearances for Kane County and never pitched fewer than five innings in any of his 13 times he took the mound on the Class A circuit. Duplantier's other numbers may not dot MWL leaderboards for the decade, but they were nonetheless quite strong -- 0.83 WHIP, .180 average-against, 78 strikeouts, only 15 walks in 72 2/3 frames. After moving up to Class A Advanced Visalia, Duplantier finished out his first full season with a 1.39 ERA and 165 K's in 136 frames, numbers that helped him earn him a MiLBY as the Starting Pitcher of the Year. After two turns as a Top-100 prospect in 2018 and 2019, Duplantier debuted with Arizona last season and saw time in starting and relief roles. He was shut down in April with an elbow issue and has yet to see the Majors in the shortened 2020 season.

3. Mike Trout, Cedar Rapids, 2010: If the New Jersey native is truly the Millville Meteor, this is where he first entered the atmosphere of elite prospect status. His status as the 25th overall pick definitely put him on the map, don't get it wrong. Baseball America had him ranked as the No. 82 overall prospect going into his first full season while Baseball Prospectus had him higher at No. 53. But by the same time the following year, Trout jumped into the top two of both lists, in large part because of what he was able to accomplish with Cedar Rapids. After turning 18 in August, Trout posted a .454 on-base percentage over 81 games with the Kernels, a mark that stood as the highest OBP by any Midwest Leaguer batter (minimum 200 plate appearances) over the decade. He also placed among the top dozen out of 1,809 players in said pool in average (.362, sixth), OPS (.979, ninth) and wRC+ (172, 11th). All of those marks were the highest for sluggers playing in the Midwest League at age 18 or younger as well. Not yet known for his power, the Angels outfielder managed six homers in that half a season, but he also swiped 45 bases, fourth-most in the league that year despite the fact he was promoted to Class A Advanced Rancho Cucamonga on July 13. Hit for average, reach base, show impressive speed, exhibit budding power, play an impressive center field. All the pieces were there to build the best player of his generation. They were just on display at Veterans Memorial Stadium first.

2. Fernando Tatis Jr., Fort Wayne, 2017: Remember how Tatis was traded by the White Sox straight up for James Shields in June 2016 before he officially played a professional game? This was the season fans on the South Side may have started to regret that deal, if they hadn't already. Tatis batted .280/.390/.520 over 117 games with the TinCaps as a teenager. His .910 OPS was the highest among MWL qualifiers that season and was the eighth-highest by any qualified hitter over the decade. Similarly, his 154 wRC+ placed 12th in the 2010s, but he was the only 18-year-old to get enough at-bats to qualify and finish in the top 20 in the category. Tatis also finished with 21 homers and 29 steals, making him one of three 20-20 MWL players in the 2010s. (Jose Siri and Nick Franklin were the others.) Very quickly, Tatis became the face of a promising Padres system and vaulted from outside the Top 100 to No. 8 overall in MLB.com's rankings heading into the 2018 season. As the current favorite to win the NL MVP this year, the shortstop has lived up to the hype that began in earnest three years ago in Fort Wayne.

1. Bo Bichette, Lansing, 2017: You'd be forgiven for not knowing much about Bichette (a 2016 second-rounder) going into 2017, other than that his father is former Major Leaguer Dante Bichette. His accomplishments with Lansing made sure his name stood out for many more reasons. The then-19-year-old shortstop hit .384 over 70 games with the Lugnuts, giving him the second-highest average of any Midwest Leaguer with at least 200 plate appearances in the 2010s. Combined with his performance at Class A Advanced Dunedin later in the year, Bichette went on to win the 2017 Minor League batting title with a .362 mark over 110 games between the two stops. The Toronto prospect was more than just hit tool, however. His 201 wRC+ was the highest of any Midwest Leaguer under the previously mentioned perameters. He also slugged .623 (third-highest in the decade) and finished with a 1.071 OPS (second-highest), thanks to gap power that enabled him to pick up 45 extra-base hits in those 70 games. Though he had some work to do defensively, Bichette became a consensus top-20 overall prospect going into 2018, and now he has settled in as one of the best young shortstops in the game.

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.