Toolshed: Most impressive lineups, staffs

Reviewing teams with best bats, arms at season's quarter mark

Jacob Faria's 34.4 percent strikeout rate leads the Triple-A International League. (Durham Bulls)

By Sam Dykstra / | May 17, 2017 1:00 PM

With most Minor League teams reaching the 35-game plateau, we're approaching the quarter pole of the 2017 season -- an important mark for a number of reasons.

First, we're starting to emerge, or perhaps we have already, from Small Sample Territory. Three dozen games is by no means definitive, but there's now some heft to weigh players' performances -- good and bad.

Second, this campaign hasn't quite entered Promotion Season either. There have been some notable exceptions, of course, in the case of players who were repeating levels or standout prospects needed to fill a hole in the Majors. But it's not usually until All-Star breaks when promotions happen en masse, meaning there's still time to see most early standouts with their season-opening clubs.

This week's Toolshed looks at which Minor League lineups and pitching staffs have been best through the first quarter of the 2017 season and bear watching for as long as they're still intact.

Best lineups

Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (Yankees): Much has been made of New York's youth movement at the Major League level, but the bats one level below haven't been disappointing either. The RailRiders lead the International League in each slash-line category at .275/.346/.435, and their .781 OPS trumps second-place Charlotte (White Sox) by nearly 30 percentage points. No. 2 prospect Clint Frazier is the biggest name, but Dustin Fowler has been the most productive top-10 prospect on the squad. First baseman Ji-Man Choi leads the team with a .968 OPS, while 2014 seventh-rounder Mark Payton places second at .911. The fact that the Yankees' highest Minor League affiliate is getting production from all over will do little to quell the enthusiasm in the Bronx.

Triple-A Reno (D-backs): There isn't a better run-producing lineup in the Minors than the one that plays in "The Biggest Little City in the World." The Aces lead the Minors with 267 runs scored over 39 games, 33 more than anyone else in the offensively inclined Pacific Coast League. Oswaldo Arcia has been the standout with a league-leading 89 total bases, a .802 slugging percentage and a 1.248 OPS, while Christian Walker and Ketel Marte rank just behind him in total bases with 87 and 86, respectively. Center fielder Rey Fuentes, who owns a .403 OBP with nine steals, provides depth as well. Reno has a home-field advantage certainly, and the team has been taking advantage.

Triple-A Colorado Springs (Brewers): Sticking in the same circuit, the Sky Sox would be right up there with the Aces in runs scored, if they hadn't played five fewer games. As it stands, they sit just behind in runs per game: 6.8 vs. 6.6 What pushes Colorado Springs onto this list has been the way its big names have lived up to the hype. Top Brewers prospect Lewis Brinson has hit .336 with a .947 OPS, while No. 10 prospect Brett Phillips has done plenty to rebuild his stock with eight homers and a 1.002 OPS. Add Garrett Cooper, Ryan Cordell and the recently promoted Eric Sogard -- all of whom have an OPS above .900 -- and Colorado Springs boasts not only one of the most prospect-laden lineups in the Minors, but also one of the most productive.

Class A Advanced Lancaster (Rockies): The JetHawks are a likely pick for this category every year because of the wonderful winds at The Hangar, but this season's squad has been truly remarkable. Lancaster has scored 251 runs in 39 games this season. (No other team in the California League has scored more than 197.) If that's not enough, consider they also have lapped the field with 83 steals, beating out second-place Rancho Cucamonga's 36. (Five of the six Cal Leaguers with more than 10 steals play for Lancaster.) Top Rockies prospect Brendan Rodgers has been an obvious standout with a .382/.400/.618 line, but don't sleep on No. 30 prospect Sam Hilliard, who leads the league with a 1.049 OPS to go with 17 extra-base hits and 13 steals. 

Class A Lansing (Blue Jays): There might not be a more feared pair of hitters in Class A than top Blue Jays prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and No. 9 prospect Bo Bichette. Bichette leads the Midwest League with a .362 average and ranks second with a 1.017 OPS, while Guerrero ranks fifth with a .908 OPS and has put up a stellar 17/20 K/BB ratio despite turning 18 in March. Utility infielder Bradley Jones has been a surprise with a .985 OPS and seven homers, so it's not hard to see how the Lugnuts lead the league with a collective .272 average, .366 OBP and .774 OPS.

Best pitching staffs

Triple-A Durham (Rays): Looking for K's? There's no better place to find them than Durham. The Bulls boast two of the top four pitchers in the Minors in strikeouts in Jacob Faria (62 in 42 1/3 innings) and Brent Honeywell (59 in 45 2/3 innings). (Note: some of Honeywell's innings are from his two starts at Double-A Montgomery to open the season.) Ryan Yarbrough gives Durham three pitchers who average at least one K per inning, and the bullpen has five hurlers who've made at least 10 appearances while still producing an ERA of 2.00 or lower. When Jose De Leon completes his rehab, there will be even more reasons for the IL South leaders to get excited.

Double-A Pensacola (Reds): Any club with a pitcher like No. 9 Reds prospect Tyler Mahle is going to make this shortlist. The 22-year-old righty threw the Southern League's first perfect game in four decades and owns a 1.42 ERA, 0.77 WHIP and .159 average-against in 50 2/3 innings. But it might come as a surprise that Austin Ross owns a lower ERA at 1.13 over 48 innings. Elsewhere in the rotation, No. 6 prospect Luis Castillo (3.07 ERA, 37 strikeotus, seven walks in 44 innings) is holding his own with impressive control in his first season as a Red, and closer Jimmy Herget has struck out 43.2 percent of the batters he's faced over 15 appearances. The Blue Wahoos lead the league with a 2.65 ERA and 1.16 WHIP. Their next closest competitors in both categories are at 3.25 and 1.20.

Class A Advanced Lake Elsinore (Padres): The Storm may play in the California League, but as a staff, they've put up numbers that would fit in most other circuits. Lake Elsinore leads the Class A Advanced league with a 3.32 ERA and 375 strikeouts over 354 2/3 innings. No. 2 Padres prospect Cal Quantrill is the name most will recognize, and he's lived up to the hype with a 3.13 ERA, 43 strikeouts and 14 walks in 37 1/3 innings in his first full season post-Tommy John surgery. But if a "Pitcher of the Quarter" award were handed out, it'd be between No. 8 prospect Eric Lauer (1.89 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 41 strikeouts in 33 1/3 innings) and No. 20 Joey Lucchesi (1.93 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 50 strikeouts in 42 innings). Add Chris Huffman, who's walked only five in 37 2/3 frames, and this is as deep a rotation as anywhere.

Class A Advanced Lynchburg (Indians): Thomas Pannone grabbed headlines for not allowing an earned run over 27 2/3 innings with the Hillcats before being promoted May 5, and Triston McKenzie took them over when he fanned 14 on May 9. The latter is still with Lynchburg and, unsurprisingly, leads the Carolina League with 52 strikeouts in 38 2/3 innings while placing fourth with a 2.56 ERA. But Shao-Ching Chiang has done just as much to help Lynchburg early with a 1.74 ERA and 0.9 BB/9 in 41 1/3 frames to begin his second full season. At 2.91 and 1.18, the Hillcats are the only Carolina League staff with an ERA under 3.00 or a WHIP below 1.20. 

Class A West Michigan (Tigers): As a staff, the Whitecaps own a 2.48 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 9.7 K/9. Those alone would be fantastic for any individual pitcher at the Class A level. The fact that they've come collectively is even more astounding. No. 29 Tigers prospect Gregory Soto was the standout early with five straight scoreless starts to begin the season before his ERA "ballooned" to 1.26 in his sixth outing last Saturday. Austin Sodders might be taking over the mantle with his 0.87 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 31 innings. No. 6 prospect Kyle Funkhouser is the most notable name, and he's handled the start to his first full season well with 49 strikeouts (third-most in the Carolina League) in 31 1/3 innings. With reliever Bryan Garcia (No. 28) the only other ranked arm, this West Michigan staff is beating expectations left and right.

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for 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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