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AZL playoff preview: Names to know

2016 Draft picks, young international prospects set sights on title
August 30, 2016

It may still be August, but down in the Grand Canyon State, it's already playoff time.

The Rookie-level Arizona League playoffs open Tuesday and may be the most ruthless in the Minors as each series in the first two rounds consists of only one game, leading to a best-of-3 finals.

First- and second-half East, Central and West Division winners qualify for the AZL postseason with the top two teams earning first-round byes. This year, the Reds and Royals, who each finished 31-24, have automatically qualified for the semis, leaving the Cubs, Angels, Indians and Mariners to battle in the first round. (Oddly, the Dodgers finished with the league's best record at 33-22 but missed the playoffs after winning neither the first- nor second-half titles in the Central.)

Here are five players to keep an eye on during the upcoming Arizona League playoffs:

Will Benson, OF, AZL Indians: As the No. 14 overall selection in June, Benson was the highest of this year's Draft picks to spend the entire season in the AZL, and he very much performed to expectations at the Tribe's Spring Training facility. The 18-year-old is known as an outfielder with impressive power and solid run and fielding tools but with concerns about his ability to make contact. True to form, he led the AZL with six homers and 10 steals, while his .221 isolated slugging percentage was third in the circuit. However, he also batted .209 and struck out in 32.2 percent of his plate appearances, the fifth-highest strikeout rate in the league. Cleveland will work to iron out those issues in his first Spring Training and full season next year. For now, Benson's ability to run into a ball and run into an extra base could have a major impact on the Tribe's playoff chances in the AZL, though in a one-game scenario it's just as possible that he pulls an 0-for with multiple punchouts, making him not only a raw prospect but also an intriguing playoff wild card.

Khalil Lee, OF, AZL Royals: As a third-round pick in June, Lee may not have the Draft status of Benson, but he's already considered the Royals' No. 18 prospect and has backed that up with an impressive pro debut. An 18-year-old who has played all three outfield spots this summer, he ranked among the AZL leaders in total bases (88, first), walks (33, second), OBP (.396, second), slugging percentage (.484, fifth) and OPS (.880, fifth). Lee is considered average across the board with only his arm receiving a plus grade, but he's put that skill to good use in his first taste of pro ball. As the No. 3 hitter in the Royals lineup, he'll be leaned on to drive in runs and keep the carousel moving if the Royals are going to advance to the AZL Finals and win it all.

Isaac Paredes, SS, AZL Cubs: There are so many prospects and impressive Major Leaguers playing the infield for the Cubs that you may not know much about Paredes, but the 17-year-old has done plenty to deserve some attention in his first stateside season. The Mexico native was signed for $800,000 last year -- tied for the 28th-highest signing bonus of the 2015 international cycle -- and has hit the ground running as a pro. Paredes owned a .305/.359/.443 line with one homer, three triples, 14 doubles and 26 RBIs in 47 games during the AZL regular season. He batted primarily out of the third spot in the lineup and stuck at shortstop all year, meaning the Cubs are already asking a lot out of the teenager. He'll be leaned on again if they're going to have any kind of playoff push.

Chris Torres, SS, AZL Mariners: Ranked as the Mariners' No. 12 prospect, Torres made the move from the Dominican Summer League in 2015 to the AZL this summer and has done little to hurt his stock. The 18-year-old, who signed for $375,000 in 2014, hit .257/.337/.359 with three triples, nine doubles and 12 steals in 44 regular-season contests in Arizona. What's more, his best tools may be on the defensive side, where he's considered to have a plus arm and good range at the shortstop position. Even if Torres' performance doesn't show up in the playoff box score, don't assume he didn't do something to positively affect the outcome for the M's.

Matt Blandino, RHP, AZL Reds: Though pitching plans at the complex levels are hard to foresee, Blandino, a 19th-round pick out of Felician University in New Jersey, has routinely gotten the ball once every six days and last pitched Aug. 25, making him a prime candidate to start for the Reds in the AZL semifinals. More of a finesse type of pitcher given his reliance on breaking balls, the 21-year-old right-hander has gotten off to a strong start with a 2.30 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 30 strikeouts and only three walks in 31 1/3 innings down in Arizona. That level of control has been particularly impressive as his 0.9 BB/9 ranks fourth among AZL pitchers with at least 30 frames, while his 2.91 FIP ranks seventh among the 70 pitchers that fit the same standards. When your team is in an elimination game, you want a pitcher who won't beat himself, and Blandino has been that type of hurler so far.

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.