Head of the Class: A Advanced

Salem's Duran, Lake Elsinore's Gore stood out in first half

MacKenzie Gore hasn't allowed more than one earned run in a start since April 17. (Jerry Espinoza/MiLB.com)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | June 18, 2019 10:45 AM

With All-Star Games approaching across the Minor Leagues, members of the MiLB.com staff are looking back at some of the most notable performers from the first half of each of the four full-season levels and who could take off in the months to come. We've looked at the Class A and Double-A levels. Here, we look at players in the Class A Advanced California, Carolina and Florida State leagues.

Most exciting hitter

Red Sox OF Jarren Duran, Salem: The No. 9 Red Sox prospect moved up to Double-A Portland on June 3, and it's a testament to him that two weeks later he still sticks out as Class A Advanced's most exciting hitter of the first half. With 226 plate appearances, Duran remains listed as a Class A Advanced qualifier, and because of that, it's worth noting he still leads the level with his .387 average. In fact, his 77 hits with Salem are still third most at the level despite his having been gone for half a month. The left-handed-hitting outfielder thrives on a smooth swing and plus-plus speed -- he also stole 18 bases in 50 games -- that helps him pick up hits even with below-average power. That approach is already being challenged in the Eastern League, but for a time, Duran was one of the most electric hitters anywhere in the Minors.

Video: Salem's Duran smacks fourth knock

Most exciting pitcher

Padres LHP MacKenzie Gore, Lake Elsinore: It's a slight upset to feature any hurler from the California League in this spot, but then again, Gore hasn't been just any hurler from the California League. MLB.com's No. 4 overall prospect has lived up to the hype by leading the level with a 1.21 ERA, 0.69 WHIP, .135 average-against and 38.6 percent strikeout rate over 59 2/3 innings for Lake Elsinore. He has fanned 83 batters and walked only 14 in that span. What's more, Gore hasn't allowed more than two earned runs in any of his 12 starts this season, one year after blisters limited him to only 60 2/3 frames in 2018. The 20-year-old left-hander sports four above-average pitches, including a low-to-mid-90s fastball and plus curveball, and it's that arsenal that has helped him severely limit the damage in a notoriously hitter-friendly league. He should be on to Double-A Amarillo at some point early in the second half, if the Padres are to find him a tougher challenge soon.

Video: Storm's Gore strikes out sixth

Best team

Down East Wood Ducks (Rangers): One full-season Minor League team owns a winning percentage above .700, and that's Down East, at .714 (50-20). The Wood Ducks clinched the Carolina League Southern Division back on June 9 and went into the All-Star break with a nine-game lead over Winston-Salem. Their biggest advantage was on the mound, where they sported a Carolina League-best 2.58 ERA while no other staff did better than 3.12. They were also tops with 12 shutouts and a collective 1.18 WHIP over the first 69 games of the season. Jason Bahr (1.71) and Sal Mendez (2.21) each rank among the Carolina League's top three in ERA while No. 13 Rangers prospect Tyler Phillips was stellar (1.19 ERA, 0.90 WHIP) over six starts before moving up to Double-A Frisco. Wood Ducks hitters haven't been quite as successful, but they have been quick. Down East leads the Carolina League with 92 stolen bases, 39 of which have come from Leody Taveras (21) and Eric Jenkins (18). Taveras's solid offensive first half (.294 average, .745 OPS) should be a relief with the defensively gifted 20-year-old repeating Class A Advanced after a rough 2018.

Video: Wood Ducks' Taveras legs out triple

Second-half breakout

Twins SS Royce Lewis, Class A Advanced Fort Myers: Let's get one thing clear -- Lewis's numbers in the first half have been rough. The 2017 first overall pick is hitting just .226/.281/.325 with two homers and 11 stolen bases over 62 games in his return to the Florida State League. His most notable moment came when he did pushups at second base after a double and was later thrown at by an offended Bradenton pitching staff. However, there is plenty in the prospect profile to signify a turnaround might not be far off. MLB.com's No. 3 overall prospect has shown a plus hit tool in the past, and he is fast enough with plus-plus run capabilities to steal more hits as the season drags on. In fact, his career-low .288 BABIP should tick up eventually as his legs allow him to pick up a few more knocks. And given his history and skill set, don't bet against Lewis making the necessary adjustments to perform against FSL pitching once again.

Video: Lewis rips double for Miracle

Coming soon

Rays SS Wander FrancoThis isn't simply about wanting to see MLB.com's newest No. 1 overall prospect climb the ladder as quickly as possible. Franco has done more than enough to push his way to Class A Advanced Charlotte some point soon. The 18-year-old, switch-hitting shortstop ranks in the top 10 among Class A hitters in average (.326), OBP (.396) and OPS (.910) while hitting six homers and stealing 14 bases over 58 games at Class A Bowling Green. His batting eye might be his most advanced skill to date; his ratio of 1.6 walks-per-strikeouts is best among Class A qualifiers, and his 4.4 percent swing-and-miss rate is fourth-lowest at Class A. Those are just his overall numbers. Franco has fanned twice in 48 plate appearances this month and doesn't have multiple K's in a game since May 8. As young as he is, before long Franco will need to be challenged by more advanced arms, specifically those with stuff that could strike him out. 

Video: Bowling Green's Franco clobbers fourth homer

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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