Toolshed: Teams to watch during playoff hunt

As MiLB division races heat up, top prospects will take on big roles

Rockies prospect Ryan McMahon ranks second among all Minor Leaguers with 59 extra-base hits this season. (Jim Redman/MiLB.com)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | August 9, 2017 12:25 PM ET

Everyone knows the Cubs, Brewers, Cardinals and Pirates are locked in a heated battle for National League Central supremacy, while the Red Sox and Yankees are up to their old tricks in the American League East. It's also commonly known in baseball circles that the Dodgers, Astros and Nationals have their respective divisions all but in the bag as their rivals set their sights on the Wild Card.

But what of the Minor Leagues?

Only one month remains on MiLB's regular-season schedule, meaning August will be filled with division races up and down every level. While the Minors are primarily focused on player development -- and rightfully so -- suiting up for important games down the stretch can only be beneficial to a player's growth. So even if the division standings of, say, the Florida State League North second-half race aren't top of mind, those involved are working hard to extend their 2017 campaigns into the postseason.

Below are teams and prospects to watch in each of the 10 full-season circuits as the Minor Leagues make their final turn toward the playoffs.

International League: Indianapolis Indians -- The Indians sit 2 1/2 games ahead of Columbus -- winners of three straight IL West Division titles -- with only a couple weeks left to play. The good news for the leaders is that they're likely to get top Pirates prospect Austin Meadows (hamstring) back from the disabled list when he returns from his rehab assignment at Class A Short Season West Virginia. No one quite knows what to expect from the 22-year-old outfielder, given that he's hit only .248 with a .671 OPS in 64 games at Triple-A this season, but his talent is undeniable and he's off to a quick start in rehab, going 8-for-16 between West Virginia and the Gulf Coast League. He'll be added back to a roster that already features fellow top-10 Pirates Kevin Newman, Steven Brault and Nick Kingham. Brault, in particular, gives Indianapolis a leg up when it comes to pitching with his IL-best 2.06 ERA over 113 1/3 innings.

Pacific Coast League: Albuquerque Isotopes -- The Isotopes trail Salt Lake by two games in the PCL Pacific Southern Division, while El Paso sits only three games back of the leaders, making this the most crowded race in either Triple-A circuit. But there's no doubt Albuquerque has the talent to close the gap. Start with No. 64 overall prospect Ryan McMahon. Since his Triple-A debut on June 1, the 22-year-old infielder owns a .370/.405/.626 line with 13 homers, one triple and 21 doubles over 58 games, making him one of the most consistently hot hitters at the Minors' highest level. He's got some protection in the lineup with No. 9 Rockies prospect Tom Murphy (.255/.300/.431) and No. 13 Jordan Patterson (22 homers, .897 OPS). Pitching in Albuquerque can be rough, but the 'Topes have some capable arms, and it'll be interesting to see if recently promoted No. 10 Rockies prospect Yency Almonte (5.82 ERA in three starts) can find the effectiveness he showed at Double-A Hartford, where he posted a 2.00 ERA in 14 outings.

Eastern League: Akron RubberDucks -- The EL Western Division has four teams within three games of each other (Bowie, Altoona, Akron, Erie), so it'll likely be a while before anything is settled. It's tempting to feature Bowie's powerful duo of Ryan Mountcastle and Austin Hays here, but the RubberDucks have too many notable names to be overlooked. Top Indians prospect Francisco Mejia is the obvious standout of the bunch, and with a .314/.365/.523 line and career-high 12 homers, there's no doubt he's lived up to the extra hype in 2017. The only question is whether the Indians will keep him in Akron long enough to help for a potential playoff run. If not, Akron still has some boppers in No. 3 Indians prospect Bobby Bradley (19 homers) and No. 4 Yu-Cheng Chang (20 homers) and plenty of speed at the top in No. 8 Greg Allen (17 steals). For a top arm, look no further than No. 12 Shane Bieber. The 2016 fourth-rounder has climbed three levels in his first full season with some solid numbers, but what really stands out is his control. He's walked only seven batters in 136 innings for a 1.3 percent walk rate that is lowest among all Minor Leaguers with at least 100 frames.

Video: Akron's Mejia mashes homer to right

Southern League: Biloxi Shuckers -- Like its EL counterpart, the Southern League South Division second-half race is tight with four of the five teams packed within a two-game margin. The difference-maker could very well be starting pitching, and the Shuckers happen to have two of the most promising hurlers in the Brewers' farm system: No. 3 prospect Luis Ortiz and No. 7 Corbin Burnes. Burnes has been a true standout in all Minors this season, ranking third among full-season arms with a 1.58 ERA in 119 1/3 innings between two levels and second with a 0.88 WHIP. Ortiz has the more standout stuff, though, with a plus fastball and slider and has held his own with a 3.57 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 80 2/3 innings. There isn't a lot to discuss in terms of position player prospects on the Shuckers, but there remains the possibility of promotion from Class A Advanced Carolina. In fact, No. 18 Jake Gatewood was just bumped up to Double-A after leading the Carolina League with 36 doubles -- and there's more where he came from.

Texas League: San Antonio Missions -- Unlike every other team on this list, the Padres' Double-A affiliate is sitting pretty with a six-game lead over Corpus Christi in the South Division second-half race. However, its magic number is 21, so this is far from over. Playoff race or not, the Missions have one of Double-A's most loaded rosters with seven of the Padres' top 15 prospects in a fairly loaded system. The rotation should be the envy of most other clubs at the level with No. 43 overall prospect Cal Quantrill leading the line, followed by No. 8 Padres prospect Eric Lauer, No. 9 Joey Lucchesi and No. 15 Jacob Nix. Lucchesi, in particular, has taken no time adjusting to the Texas League with a 2.08 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 34 2/3 innings. But there are bats here as well, led by No. 55 overall prospect Luis Urias, who leads the Texas League with a .411 on-base percentage despite being only 20 years old. Fellow 20-year-old Josh Naylor is still adjusting following his July 11 promotion from Class A Advanced Lake Elsinore, but he can provide some power from the middle of the Missions lineup. A collapse down the stretch is tough to see from this bunch.

California League: Modesto Nuts -- This pick is the result of just one player -- No. 47 overall prospect Kyle Lewis. Taken 11th overall last year, the top Mariners prospect has had an up-and-down first full season. He missed the start of the season following a torn ACL that cut his 2016 campaign short and returned to Modesto in June, only to feel soreness in the same knee and miss another month. He's been back since July 20 and taking off with the Nuts, hitting .316/.381/.596 with five homers and two steals in 15 games. Modesto owned the North Division lead but has gone 2-8 in its last 10 games to fall two games behind Visalia and one behind San Jose in the race for the second-half title. The good news is that the Nuts punched their Cal League playoff ticket with a first-half division crown, and having a healthy Lewis in the postseason should be a boon. But it'll be interesting to see if the 22-year-old can do enough down the stretch to impact a division title.

Carolina League: Lynchburg Hillcats -- Any team with No. 24 overall prospect Triston McKenzie on its roster is worthy of attention, and it just so happens his club holds a 1 1/2 game lead over Salem in the Carolina League Northern Division second-half race. (The Hillcats took the first-half title, so their place in the postseason is already secure.) The 20-year-old right-hander ranks seventh in the Minors with 142 strikeouts over 113 2/3 innings with the Hillcats and sports a 3.64 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and .196 average-against. Though he's struggled of late with 13 earned runs allowed in his last two starts, any outing can see McKenzie hit double-digit K's -- as he's done on four different occasions in 2017. Behind him, No. 11 Indians prospect Aaron Civale is much like former teammate Bieber in that he's shown incredible control with 13 walks in 136 2/3 innings, and he's been better at Lynchburg (2.82 ERA in 79 2/3 innings) than he was at Class A Lake County (4.58 ERA in 57 innings). The lineup is less noteworthy but features plus runner/No. 10 Indians prospect Willi Castro (.292 average, 14 steals) and Sicnarf Loopstok, who ranks fourth in the league with an .830 OPS.

Florida State League: Dunedin Blue Jays -- You'd be hard-pressed to find a Class A Advanced club with more second-half interest than the one in Dunedin. The Blue Jays added No. 6 overall prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and No. 30 Bo Bichette -- both still teenagers -- from Class A Lansing, and neither has disappointed. Guerrero is hitting .298/.434/.393 with six extra-base hits, 20 walks and 15 strikeouts in 24 games, while Bichette owns a .349/.402/.443 line with eight extra-base hits in his 25 contests. Bichette's race to hold onto the Minor League batting title -- he's at .374, including his time in Lansing -- will be one to watch as Dunedin tries to close a 2 1/2 deficit from first-half champ Tampa in the FSL North Division. That pair is not alone, either. No. 9 Blue Jays prospect Max Pentecost (.276/.332/.434) is on the cusp on a strong finish to his healthiest and most productive season yet as a professional, and No. 19 Jordan Romano is locked in a battle to lead the league in strikeouts. He currently ranks third with 119 in 114 2/3 innings.

Midwest League: West Michigan Whitecaps -- The Whitecaps were the Midwest League's best team in the first half, finishing with a 45-22 record (.672 winning percentage), 5 1/2 games ahead of Dayton. Somehow, they've been even better in the second half with a 32-12 record (.727 winning percentage) that puts them 2 1/2 games up on Fort Wayne with about a month to play. Their .694 winning percentage for the season is easily the best among the 120 full-season clubs. But here's the thing -- they've added even more talent in recent weeks. Top Tigers prospect Matt Manning made his Class A debut Monday, though he did allow four earned runs in 1 2/3 innings, and No. 8 Tigers prospect Isaac Paredes has been on fire since coming over in a deadline deal with the Cubs, going 15-for-37 (.405) with four homers in 10 games. Add in No. 10 Derek Hill, who can be a human highlight reel in center field, and there's a lot to like about West Michigan beyond its quest for a division sweep.

Video: West Michigan's Hill makes great play

South Atlantic League: Hagerstown Suns -- The Suns are locked in a tie in the Sally League Northern Division with Hickory, and neither team won the first-half title. The Suns might be the more intriguing team to watch not for who is on the roster right now but rather who is coming. No. 4 Nationals prospect Carter Kieboom is rehabbing with Class A Short Season Auburn from a hamstring injury that knocked him out in May -- he was hitting .333 with six homers and a .984 OPS in 29 games for the Suns. If all goes well, he should rejoin the club shortly. No. 42 overall prospect Juan Soto is further away, having undergone surgery to remove a hamate bone in his right hand in late July, but the Nationals told MASNSports.com's Byron Kerr that he could be back in a few weeks. Adding both of their bats would be a boon to the middle of the Suns' lineup, especially after the promotion of Daniel Johnson two weeks ago. 

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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