Toolshed: Early favorites for MiLBY Awards

Midseason predictions for top hitter, pitcher, system and more

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. collected 31 extra-base hits in 53 games before suffering a knee injury. (Kevin Pataky/MiLB.com)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | June 29, 2018 10:00 AM

There have been seven Minor League All-Star Games already, and two full-season ones remain on the docket. All seven leagues that rely on first-half standings to determine postseason spots have officially moved on to their second halves. Come next Tuesday, there will be two months left on the Minor League regular-season calendar.

If this isn't the midpoint of the 2018 season, then what is?

Here at MiLB.com, we've already started level-by-level retrospectives on the first half of the 2018 campaign -- beginning with Class A and Class A Advanced -- and early next week, we'll have midseason grades for each of the 30 farm systems. Along those same lines, this edition of Toolshed shares its picks for who is in the driver's seat for each of the major MiLBY categories with half a season still to play.

Top Offensive Player: Blue Jays 3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Double-A New Hampshire -- Yes, he's injured with a strained tendon in his left knee. Yes, he's been out of action for three weeks. But choosing anyone other than MLB.com's No. 2 prospect here would be silly. In many ways, Guerrero's dominance defined the first half of the season. Despite the missed time, he still has enough at-bats to qualify for the slash-line categories, so his name can be found all over the Minor League leaderboards. He's the only qualified full-season Minor Leaguer with an average above .365, and his is at .407 through 53 games. His 1.237 OPS and 203 wRC+ are both second among the same group while his .457 OBP and .667 slugging percentage each rank third. There are 840 Minor Leaguers who have enough experience to qualify in these categories, and Guerrero ranks among the top three in all five. It would have been a marvel to see what he could have done in June had he been healthy. Perhaps he would have been tested at Triple-A Buffalo. Perhaps these numbers would have taken off even more as he got even more comfortable with New Hampshire. Maybe a Major League call would have come. No doubt about one thing, though: when Guerrero was on the field, he was making headlines.

Video: Vladimir Guerrero Jr hits a walkoff home run

Top Starting Pitcher: Orioles LHP Zac Lowther, Class A Delmarva/Class A Advanced Frederick -- Lowther displayed the pitching equivalent of Guerrero's dominance in the first half without the same elevated prospect status or, frankly, genes. The Orioles' No. 14 prospect is the only Minor League pitcher with at least 50 innings who ranks in the top five in ERA (0.96, first), FIP (2.18, third), batting average-against (.162, fourth), WHIP (0.87, fifth) and strikeout percentage (35.2, fourth). There's an argument to be made that the 22-year-old southpaw and No. 74 overall pick out of Xavier last year should have opened 2018 with Class A Advanced Frederick in the first place, but the MiLBY awards don't hold assignments against prospects. Baltimore shouldn't be afraid to get more aggressive with Lowther in the second half, but as things stand, there are plenty of bright spots to bask in from his first three months in full-season ball.

Video: Lowther punches out career-high 13 in six

Top Relief Pitcher: Rays LHP Colin Poche, Double-A Jackson/Double-A Montgomery/Triple-A Durham -- Poche was a MiLBY finalist for Top Relief Pitcher last year, and he's picked up right where he left off. In fact, he's been so dominant that he moved from the D-backs to the Rays as the player-to-be-named-later from an offseason swap involving those two clubs and the Yankees. (A video of his walk from the Jackson clubhouse to the Montgomery one after the trade when viral on Twitter.) Poche was promoted to Triple-A Durham 10 days after the deal and has put up special numbers in the International League as well. Between all three of his stops in 2018, Poche has a 0.65 ERA and a 0.65 WHIP with 78 strikeouts and nine walks over 41 2/3 innings. His 53.4 percent strikeout rate -- meaning, yes, he's fanned more than half the batters he's faced -- is tops among all Minor Leaguers with at least 30 innings this season, and his 0.56 FIP is 0.73 lower than anyone else in the same group. His splits are attractive, too -- Poche has held right-handed batters to a .121 average this season compared to .156 for left-handers. He thrives more on deception and extension than pure stuff, but there's no doubt his technique has been incredibly effective.

Breakout Prospect: Padres RHP Chris Paddack, Class A Advanced Lake Elsinore -- Paddack was ranked by MLB.com as the No. 23 prospect in the Padres system entering 2018, mostly because he was coming off Tommy John surgery and hadn't pitched in a Minor League game since July 18, 2016. Now, he's jumped into MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects at No. 99 and No. 8 among San Diego prospects. He might be ready for another jump when the rankings are updated later this summer, because no one can really touch him in the California League. Thanks to his plus-plus changeup, Paddack has struck out 44.9 percent of the batters he's faced with Lake Elsinore and has walked only 2.3 percent. Despite pitching in a hitter-friendly environment, he owns a 1.75 ERA and 0.80 WHIP through 46 1/3 innings. With five of their top seven prospects coming from the mound, the Padres weren't exactly desperate for another stellar young pitcher in the pipeline, but it's unlikely they have any complaints about the emergence of Paddack. (Quick shoutout to Nationals outfielder Juan Soto, who could have claimed this category after climbing to the Majors at just 19, but at this stage, he has almost as much Major League experience as Minor League experience in 2018.)

Video: Storm's Paddack catches Rizzo looking for 10th 'K'

Top Farm System: Los Angeles Angels -- Normally, this comes with the disclaimer that this category isn't meant to deem which farm system is the absolute best in baseball; rather, it's meant to combine prospect and team performance to decipher which system had the best season. While Angels farm clubs collectively haven't been stellar in terms of wins and losses, there's no doubt that their top prospects have been fantastic in the first half of 2018. Seven of the club's top 12 ranked prospects, according to MLB.com, have already moved up, some much earlier than expected. Not only are they being promoted, but they're also thriving at the higher levels. Jo Adell has become one of the game's best outfield prospects and is looking like a true potential five-tool star one year after he went 10th overall in the Draft. Griffin Canning has already moved up to Triple-A and has gone from a second-round pick to MLB.com's No. 94 overall prospect. Brandon Marsh gives Los Angeles another toolsy outfielder climbing quickly while first-rounders/corner infielders Matt Thaiss and Taylor Ward are looking like real offensive assets at the upper levels. A system that was once the laughingstock of baseball is now the envy of many organizations, claiming five Top 100 Prospects and many more who have improved their stock in the early months of 2018.

Video: Jo Adell goes deep

Top Team: Bowling Green Hot Rods -- This category isn't about prospects, but which team has performed the best. Case in point, Brendan McKay was Bowling Green's only Top 100 Prospect to begin the season, but he was moved up to Class A Advanced Charlotte on May 14. As things stand now, Austin Franklin, who ranks No. 13 in the Rays system, is the highest-ranked prospect on the Hot Rods roster. And yet, Bowling Green entered Thursday with the Minors' highest winning percentage among full-season clubs at .658. The Hot Rods claimed the Midwest League Eastern Division first-half title by winning the final 11 games of that portion of the schedule and finished with a 47-22 record (.681) in that half. Players like Taylor Walls, Ronaldo Hernandez and Tommy Romero may not have been household names in an impressive Tampa Bay system before this season, but collectively, they've done plenty to grab attention not only in the Midwest League but around the Minors as well.

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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