The Gulf Coast League can sometimes fly under the radar. Held in Spring Training complexes in front of few fans, if any, it's where Draft picks get their first taste of pro ball, international signings make their stateside debut and lesser-known prospects get one more chance to show they're ready for a bigger stage in the Minors.
But in the coming days, none of that will matter. Playoff time is approaching, and there's a championship on the line for the GCL's best.
The winners of the GCL's four divisions clinch spots in the Rookie-level circuit's postseason with the semifinals lasting only one game each and the finals being a best-of-3 series. The Phillies (43-15) and Cardinals (33-21) have already clinched home games in the semis with the two best records in the GCL, while the Braves (28-28) have locked up the fourth seed.
The third seed will go to the winner of the South Division, but that has not yet been locked up. The Red Sox (31-27), who have won the last two GCL titles, lead the Twins (31-28) by a half game ahead of Thursday's final day of the regular season. The Sox have a doubleheader scheduled against the Orioles, while the Twins visit the Rays for just one game. Because of that schedule and the weather, it's possible that both teams could finish the regular season tied, which would result in a one-game playoff Friday and push back the semis to Saturday. If one team does take the division outright, the semis involving all four teams will occur Friday, weather permitting.
With all that in mind, here are five prospects to keep an eye on during this year's Gulf Coast League postseason:
Mickey Moniak, OF, GCL Phillies: First in the Draft, first in the preview. The Phillies made the Calfiornia high school outfielder the first overall pick in 2016, signed him to a $6.1 million bonus and sent him to the GCL for his pro debut -- all in June. The 18-year-old center fielder was taken that high because of his five-tool potential, and he's lived up to that hype in his first professional season. The Phillies' No. 2 prospect produced a .284/.340/.409 line with 16 extra-base hits, 28 RBIs and 10 stolen bases over 46 games. While those aren't world-beating numbers, they're impressive for a teenager coming off a full high-school slate who is supposed to be just adjusting to the pro ranks. (You can hear Moniak talk about those adjustments on this week's Minor League podcast.) Moniak's quick acclimation is a big reason why the Phillies will finish with the GCL's best record, and as a guy who has primarily hit out of the No. 2 or 3 spots in the lineup and provided some quality defense in center, he'll be a big part of whatever playoff run they can string together.
Delvin Perez, SS, GCL Cardinals: The hottest takes from day one of this year's Draft often revolved around Perez, who reportedly failed a pre-Draft test for performance-enhancing drugs. Because he wasn't officially drafted or signed yet, Major League Baseball couldn't punish him with a suspension, but the Puerto Rico native did slide to the Cardinals at No. 23 and signed for the full $2,222,500 slot bonus. Say what you will about rewarding Perez with a first-round pick and a seven-figure bonus; the 17-year-old has looked impressive in his first pro season. The right-handed-hitting shortstop owns a .294/.352/.393 line in 43 games in the GCL, and though he has yet to homer, he has stolen 12 bases in 13 attempts, thanks to his plus speed. Like Moniak, Perez also plays strong defense at a tasking position. Perez will wear a halo of doubt for a few more years until he can prove long-term that he's been clean as a pro. But for now, he's showing plenty of skills on the field and has the potential to capture a league title in his first Minor League campaign.
Kyle Muller, LHP, GCL Braves: This is a similar situation to Reds right-hander Matt Blandino in the AZL playoff preview. It's tough to predict when or if young pitchers will make an appearance at the complex level, and that's especially the case when the playoffs consist of one-game series. However, Muller last pitched Monday and tossed one perfect inning (during which he struck two batters), so he could be an option in the semis or GCL Championship Series, should the Braves make it that far. A second-round pick out of a Dallas-area prep school, the 18-year-old left-hander would be a great starting option with a 0.65 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 38 strikeouts in 27 2/3 innings. In fact, he hasn't allowed an earned run in his last 22 frames, during which he has struck out 31 batters. With a plus fastball and an above-average curve, the 6-foot-6 southpaw has the size and stuff for a promising future, and he's flashed plenty of that already in Florida.
Aaron Whitefield, OF, GCL Twins: This is where things get tricky since either the Red Sox or Twins could represent the GCL South, depending on how Thursday shakes out, so we'll feature one prospect from each team. The Twins have an interesting one in Whitefield, who otherwise doesn't feature on any top prospect lists. The Australia native was carving out a sporting career for himself in softball in his homeland Down Under, but as this story from the Australian Baseball League points out, he made the move to baseball when a member of the Reds organization suggested it. It was the Twins who eventually signed Whitefield back in May 2015, and it wasn't until this summer that he got a full run through the GCL. And by full run, we mean full run. The 19-year-old leads the league with 31 steals in 40 attempts and has performed admirably with a .308 average (sixth-best in the league) and a .750 OPS. With only nine of his 57 hits going for extra bases, Whitefield isn't one for power yet, but if he can reach base, he can wreck some havoc on the basepaths against any club the Twins might face on their road to potential GCL glory.
Lorenzo Cedrola, OF, GCL Red Sox: This would have been a perfect place to feature Jason Groome, the 12th overall pick in this year's Draft who made the first two starts of his career in the GCL last week. Instead, he got bumped up to Class A Short Season Lowell to help with its run toward the New York-Penn League postseason. In his stead, Cedrola is as worthy a featured player as you'll find on this year's GCL Red Sox roster. The 18-year-old outfielder signed for $35,000 out of Venezuela in February 2015 and hit .321/.420/.415 with 27 steals in 67 games in the Dominican Summer League last season. He's back at it with a .296/.356/.404 line in 50 GCL contests to go with a league-best 14 doubles. He also ranks among the league leaders in hits (60, tied for second), total bases (82, tied for third) and runs scored (32, tied for fourth). Cedrola has batted leadoff all season and will be leaned on to lead the Red Sox offense once again if they're going to make it a three-peat.