Toolshed: Teams taking spotlight early on

Aviators, Woodpeckers among clubs making noise in first month

As the club's starting catcher, Tres Barrera has been involved in many aspects of Harrisburg's hot start. (Andy Grosh/MiLB.com)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | April 24, 2019 1:00 PM

Prospect coverage tends to stay laser-focused on individual analysis. But what of the collective?

With nearly three weeks of games in the books, several Minor League clubs are generating headlines for the way their bats, arms or entire rosters are coming together, and Toolshed has taken notice. Below are the lineups, pitching staffs and overall team performances worthy of attention -- teams surely worth keeping an eye on as the season rolls on.

Hitting

El Paso Chihuahuas (Triple-A Padres) -- Much has been made about the switch this season to allow the International and Pacific Coast Leagues to use Major League baseballs. The result? Offense is up across the board in both Triple-A circuits. IL batters are averaging 1.2 home runs per nine innings, up from 0.8 a year ago, while PCL batters have upped their HR/9 rate from 1.0 to 1.4. So, Triple-A is the place to see runs, runs and more runs to begin 2019. But even here, El Paso still stands out. As a team, the Chihuahuas are hitting .313/.385/.555. Their .941 collective OPS is highest in the Minors with only Albuquerque (.925) and Las Vegas (.915) the only other clubs sitting above .900. (Not surprisingly, El Paso also leads the Minors with 40 homers in 19 games.) Infield prospect Ty France has been the standout by far with a .423/.500/.885 line, nine homers and 17 extra-base hits; his 69 total bases are 15 more than anyone else in the PCL. But Jose Pirela (.700 slugging, 1.157 OPS), Alex Dickerson (1.013 OPS), Josh Naylor (five homers, .920 OPS) have done plenty to contribute to the most dangerous lineup in Minor League Baseball so far. No. 3 Padres prospect Luis Urias has been up and down this season but adds plenty of hit tool to the top of the El Paso order when in the PCL. The league should be happy San Diego pushed Fernando Tatis Jr. to the Majors to open 2019; imagine how much more bite these Chihuahuas would have otherwise.

Video: Naylor and France go back-to-back again for El Paso

Tulsa Drillers (Dodgers, Double-A) -- The Drillers were mentioned frequently as having one of the most exciting roster constructions heading into this season, and their hitters have backed that up by almost lapping in the field in many offensive categories. Tulsa leads Double-A in all three slash-line categories (.296/.362/.485), and its collective .848 OPS is 88 points higher than Corpus Christi in second (.760). Only Erie (5.9) has averaged more runs per game at the level than Tulsa's 5.6. No. 66 overall prospect Gavin Lux has carried his breakout 2018 into this season by hitting .333/.377/.596 with seven extra-base hits in 13 games, but the standout has to be No. 19 Dodgers prospect Omar Estevez, who leads the Texas League with a .429 average and 1.122 OPS through 16 games. Top prospect Keibert Ruiz hasn't quite taken off just yet in his return to the Drillers, but he's making plenty of contact with two strikeouts in 58 plate appearances, so a turnaround could be coming in short order.

Video: Lux's fourth hit is a two-run triple for Tulsa

Fayetteville Woodpeckers (Astros, Class A Advanced) -- How about this for a welcome party? After two years in Buies Creek, the Astros affiliate moved into Fayetteville this spring and have celebrated with arguably the best offense at their level. Their 109 runs scored over 19 games are the most among Class A Advanced clubs -- yes, even those in the California League -- and their collective .774 OPS is only equaled by that of Lancaster, which plays in one of the Minors' most hitter-friendly environments. Seth Beer was taken in the first round out of Clemson for his bat-first profile, and he's showed it off by hitting .343/.408/.537 with three homers and 18 RBIs in his first 17 games as a Woodpecker. Colton Shaver -- a 39th-round pick out of BYU in 2017 -- isn't nearly as well-known but is off to the more productive start with a .955 OPS, nine extra-base hits and an enticing 11/11 K/BB ratio over 15 games. With "The Luis Robert Show" on the shelf temporarily in Winston-Salem, Fayetteville's bats are becoming the main attraction in the Carolina League.

Pitching

Pensacola Blue Wahoos (Twins, Double-A) -- Prefer zeros to gaudy numbers on the scoreboard? Be sure to watch the Blue Wahoos in their first year as a Twins affiliate. At 1.87, the Pensacola pitching staff has the best team ERA in the Minors and is one of only two clubs below 2.00 among all four full-season levels. (Kane County is the other at 1.89.) The next-closest Southern League staff (Montgomery) has a 3.19 ERA. Wahoos pitchers also lead Double-A with 200 strikeouts over 163 2/3 innings -- making them the only staff at the top two levels to eclipse the 200-K mark. No. 64 overall prospect Brusdar Graterol is the big name here, and he's handled an aggressive assignment at 20 years old by flying out of the gate with a 2.01 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 24 strikeouts in 22 1/3 innings. Yet he might be the third most effective Pensacola starter so far -- next to Griffin Jax (0.54 ERA in three starts) and Tony Santillan (1.84 ERA, 21 strikeouts in 14 2/3 innings). A lot of attention in the Twins system goes toward the bats of Royce Lewis and Alex Kirilloff, but these arms are commanding plenty of attention as well.

Video: Pensacola's Graterol strikes out eighth

Indianapolis Indians (Pirates, Triple-A) -- If we're going to talk about Triple-A offenses taking off, let's also give credit to Triple-A pitching staffs doing the best job at keeping the ball in the yard. Indianapolis pitchers have allowed only seven homers over 154 2/3 innings this season. No other Triple-A team has allowed fewer than 13, and four clubs at the level have given up four times that amount. As a staff, the Tribe ranks second in Triple-A with a 3.55 team ERA and fifth with a .240 average-against. Top Pirates prospect Mitch Keller is the big name to know here, and he's showing some Major League readiness with a 2.70 ERA, 22 strikeouts and one homer allowed in 20 innings, though he's atypically struggled with control (13 walks). JT Brubaker is also trying to force his way into the conversation with a 1.69 ERA, 15 K's and three walks in 16 innings to open his fifth Minor League season. All of this comes with a caveat. Indy's Victory Field is one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in Triple-A, especially when it comes to homers, and Indianapolis has opened with 10 of its first 17 games at home. What happens when they have to use the new ball in more road parks? It should be interesting to find out.

Video: Indians' Keller records eighth strikeout

Overall

Harrisburg Senators (Nationals, Double-A) -- There's no hotter team in affiliated baseball than the Senators. Entering Wednesday, Harrisburg has won seven straight games and owns the Minors' best record at 16-2. (They're already 6 1/2 games ahead of second-place Erie in the Eastern League Western Division standings and are one of two teams with a winning percentage above .800 at .889.) No. 20 Nats prospect Tres Barrera leads the offense with a .400/.449/.600 line in his 12 games, and as the club's primary catcher, he's worked with fellow prospects Wil Crowe (1.16 ERA, 21 strikeouts, three walks in 23 innings), Ben Braymer (2.12 ERA, 0.82 WHIP in 17 innings) and Sterling Sharp (3.71 ERA, 1.24 WHIP in 17 innings) to develop an exciting Harrisburg rotation. What's also interesting about this club is its unique place within the Washington system. The Nationals were forced to move their Triple-A affiliate to Fresno this season, keeping some of their more Major League-ready players closer to home in Harrisburg. That paid dividends on April 6 when Erick Fedde and Aaron Barrett -- two pitchers with ample Major League experience -- joined with Jordan Mills to throw the first Minor League no-hitter of the season. It's a little like using ringers, but the group is an interesting mix of youth and experience. No. 71 overall prospect Luis Garcia is yet to get going statistically (.231/.239/.246) as an 18-year-old in Double-A, but when he does, this group could hit another level.

Video: Barrett finishes no-hitter for Harrisburg

Delmarva Shorebirds (Orioles, Class A) -- Remember that stat about there being two Minor League teams with a winning percentage above .800? The other is Delmarva (14-2, .875). That should come as good news to Orioles fans. Interestingly, this is also the only Baltimore affiliate without a Top-100 prospect entering the season. Grayson Rodriguez -- the 11th overall pick in last year's Draft -- has been the easy standout with a 0.54 ERA and 28 strikeouts over his first three starts (16 2/3 innings) in Delmarva, and 2018 third-rounder Blaine Knight has joined him with a 1.15 ERA, 0.64 WHIP and 18 K's in his first 15 2/3 frames. The arms are definitely ahead of the bats here, but fellow 2018 pick Robert Neustrom (.298/.423/.509, 12 walks, nine strikeouts) and No. 14 O's prospect Adam Hall (.316 average, .435 OBP) are doing enough to anchor the offense. There's a theme here of sending college players to Class A and seeing them dominate, so it'll be interesting to see how Delmarva performs should those guys head to Frederick in short order. But there's no doubt Baltimore is building a foundation of success early on at the lowest rung of its ladder when it's most needed.

Video: Neustrom scales wall to nab HR

Las Vegas Aviators (A's, Triple-A) -- The newly minted Aviators were even more interesting last week when they opened their first season as an A's affiliate by winning 13 of their first 15 games. After some cooling off, they still own the best record in Triple-A at 15-4. That's without Jesus Luzardo, who's missed time with a left shoulder strain. That's also without A.J. Puk, still on his way back from 2018 Tommy John surgery. Instead of those two, No. 42 overall prospect Sean Murphy has shouldered the burden of being the big name in Vegas and responded by hitting .364/.453/.509 through 14 games. Meanwhile, Jorge Mateo looks interesting again with a .414 average, .980 OPS, 10 extra-base hits and seven steals in 17 games, and Seth Brown has stolen some headlines with seven homers in 16 contests -- three of which came in the same game on April 15. Without Luzardo and Puk, the Vegas rotation is mostly filled with post-prospect types, led by Daniel Mengden and his 3.00 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 28 K's in 24 innings. Without the big names, this may not have been expected from Las Vegas, but you'll hear no complaints from Sin City or the Bay Area.

Video: Brown slugs his third home run of the game

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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