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Toolshed: Recent noteworthy IL seasons

Top prospects Acuña, Moore, Guerrero dominated Triple-A loop
Ronald Acuña Jr. had all eyes on him when he reached Triple-A Gwinnett in 2017. (Laura Wolff/Charlotte Knights)
@SamDykstraMiLB
July 14, 2020

This space started honoring the short-season leagues after their respective campaigns were delayed in June. Now following the cancellation of all Minor League Baseball in 2020, we're turning it into an appreciation of the full-season circuits as well. In the coming weeks, Toolshed is revisiting the 10 most notable individual

This space started honoring the short-season leagues after their respective campaigns were delayed in June. Now following the cancellation of all Minor League Baseball in 2020, we're turning it into an appreciation of the full-season circuits as well.

In the coming weeks, Toolshed is revisiting the 10 most notable individual seasons put together across the 10 Triple-A, Double-A, Class A Advanced and Class A leagues from the last decade (2010-19). Previous editions covered the New York-Penn League, Northwest League, Appalachian League and Pioneer League. This column focuses on the Triple-A International League.

10. Billy Hamilton, Louisville, 2013: Seventy-five steals. That's all you need to know. No one else in the International League swiped more than 48 bags in a single season during the 2010s. Sure, the rest of Hamilton's stat sheet (.256/.308/.343) leaves something to be desired, and 75 is a big drop from his 155 the previous season. But Triple-A allowed another opportunity for Hamilton to run roughshod over Minor League defenses, and he certainly took advantage. Only Vince Coleman (101) stole more bases in a season in Louisville history.

9. Chris Colabello, Rochester, 2013: The story was a fun one. Colabello went undrafted out of Division II Assumption College and spent seven seasons playing in independent ball -- shoutout to the Worcester Tornadoes -- when the Twins signed him in February 2012. Following a productive season at Double-A New Britain, Colabello climbed to within one step of the Majors to begin 2013 and put together arguably the best offensive season by an International League batter in the 2010s. His 196 wRC+ was the highest single-season mark by an IL qualifier in that time frame. In fact, he was the only qualified batter with a wRC+ above 180, thanks to a .352/.427/.639 slash line over 89 games. His 24 homers ranked sixth in the league, despite the fact he was the only one in the top 10 who appeared in fewer than 100 games, and his 1.066 OPS sat atop the IL leaderboard by 212 points. It's worth noting Colabello did all of this at age 29, when he was two years older than the league average and despite the face he was bouncing between Rochester and Minnesota for much of the 2013 season. Still, those qualifiers didn't keep him from winning the 2013 IL MVP and Rookie of the Year Award, and if it wasn't for his production with the Red Wings, the first baseman wouldn't have become one of the indy ball success stories of the millennium.

8. Rhys Hoskins, Lehigh Valley, 2017: In 2016, Hoskins was locked in a yearlong battle with teammate Dylan Cozens for the Minor League lead in home runs. Cozens won the battle, 40-38, but both still faced questions about how their power could transfer away from the hitters' haven that is Double-A Reading. Hoskins -- a 2014 fifth-rounder out of Sacramento State -- did plenty to answer those questions during his only season in Lehigh Valley. The right-handed slugger claimed 2017 IL MVP honors after he led the circuit in slugging (.581), OPS (.966) and RBIs (91). His 29 long balls in 115 games placed third and his .385 OBP was second-best. Expand things out, and that .966 OPS placed fifth among IL qualifiers for the decade while his 166 wRC+ was even better at fourth. After that, there was no doubt about it. Hoskins' power could play anywhere, and it did later in the summer when he set a Major League record with 18 homers in his first 34 games for the Phillies.

7. Michael Kopech, Charlotte, 2018: Kopech's triple-digit heater remains legendary in prospect circles, and it (along with a plus slider) was on full display two years ago. In fact, if anyone needed a strikeout from an IL starter this past decade, Kopech was the man to get it. (His name does start with K after all.) The White Sox right-hander's 170 strikeouts in 126 1/3 innings were the highest single-season total by an IL hurler during the 2010s, and -- no surprise -- his 31.3 percent K rate was also tops among 276 total qualifiers. His 3.70 ERA and 1.27 WHIP are a little more pedestrian but were at least somewhat impacted by playing in Charlotte, where he allowed seven of his nine homers on the season. Control woes also played their part. But in terms of putting three strikes past hitters on a consistent basis, you'd be hard-pressed to find an IL pitcher better at it than Kopech.

6. Mookie Betts, Pawtucket, 2014: Betts -- now a top-five player in baseball -- was a fifth-round pick in 2011. Entering 2014, he had ascended to the No. 62 spot in MLB.com's prospect rankings, and even that seemed like an incredible climb at the time. But Betts truly solidified his status as one of the game's best young talents in 2014, and that included his 45-game stint with the PawSox. The right-handed slugger hit .335/.417/.503 with five homers and 11 steals and produced a near-even 30/26 K/BB ratio over 211 plate appearances. What made his time with Pawtucket even more notable was the fact that it marked the first instance in which Betts became a full-time outfielder. He had gotten some time on the grass earlier at Double-A Portland, but as he closed in on Boston, the Red Sox wanted to get him out of Dustin Pedroia's shadow at second base. The move fit Betts like a glove, and even though he was primarily a center fielder in those days, his time at the new position laid the groundwork for (as of now) four Gold Glove awards.

5. Tyler Glasnow, Indianapolis, 2016: Fun fact: Glasnow is the only International League pitcher to throw at least 200 innings during the decade and maintain an ERA below 2.00 (1.93 to be exact). That's over parts of four seasons, though, and the point of this exercise is to pick just one. It's not quite selecting between Pedro Martinez's 1999 and 2000 campaigns, but it's close. The nod here goes to 2016 because it's what pushed the 6-foot-8 right-hander to the Majors first. Glasnow managed just a 1.87 ERA that campaign and struck out 133 batters in 110 2/3 innings. His 30.4 percent K rate was second-highest among IL pitchers with at least 100 innings in a season last decade, while his .173 average-against was lowest among the same group. As was the case during his entire time as a prospect, control was an issue for Glasnow -- he walked 14.2 percent of the batters he faced that season -- and that was highlighted by back-to-back starts on June 17 and 22 in which he didn't give up any hits but combined to allow 11 free passes in 13 innings. Glasnow debuted for the Pirates that July, and despite possessing a plus heater and hammer curve, he was much more hittable in The Show. He moved to the bullpen in 2018, was traded to the Rays that season, returned to the rotation and seemed to find his groove again before dealing with a forearm injury.

4. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Buffalo, 2018: Guerrero's Bisons stint in 2018 was short -- only 30 games -- but it had to be included. It was perhaps the most closely followed turn in the IL in the 2010s, and its closest competitor for that title might have been Bryce Harper's 21-game run with Syracuse in 2012. Guerrero joined Buffalo on July 31 after hitting .401 in his previous 65 games, mostly at Double-A New Hampshire with rehab stints at Class A Advanced Dunedin and the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League mixed in. With about five weeks left in the season, this was a real race for .400. Guerrero missed the mark, in part because he was still a teenager playing the upper reaches of the Minors and also because hitting .400 is incredibly hard. He put together a strong .336/.414/.564 line with six homers, 10 strikeouts and 15 walks during his 30-game IL campaign, numbers that solidified his place as the game's top overall prospect. They also caused his season average to drop to .381. Still, the whole Vlad Jr. experience was on display. Good strike-zone control. Promising power. Lots of hits. Guerrero returned to Triple-A for only nine games in spring 2019 and became one of the Majors' most exciting young offensive talents upon his late-April debut.

3. Eloy Jiménez, Charlotte, 2018: Jimenez was already one of the bona fide best overall hitting prospects in the game before he donned a Knights uniform. He posted OPSes above .900 in 2016 and 2017 and became a major piece acquired by the White Sox from the Cubs in the Jose Quintana trade in July of the latter year. He continued that pace by hitting .317/.368/.556 with 10 homers in 53 games at Double-A Birmingham in the first half of 2018 and was promoted to Charlotte on June 21. What followed was arguably Jimenez's most dominant run with a Minor League club. Jimenez batted .355/.399/.597 with 12 taters in 55 games for Charlotte. Only Michael Reed (.363) hit for a higher average among IL batters with at least 200 plate appearances in a single season in this time period, and Jimenez's 179 wRC+ was higher than all but his 200 for Class A Advanced Winston-Salem the year before, which came in 106 fewer plate appearances. IL diehards might be looking to point out that the outfielder achieved all this while calling the league's most hitter-friendly stadium home, but what makes this even more incredible is how even Jimenez's home (.344/.410/.576) and road (.372/.382/.628) splits were in 2018. Jimenez debuted for Chicago's American League club in March 2019 after signing a Major League deal in the offseason, and there's no doubt he pressed the issue of his readiness for The Show with this turn in Charlotte. The former top White Sox prospect remains a big part of the future on the South Side.

2. Matt Moore, Durham, 2011: If you can fathom it, Moore had a legitimate claim to the No. 1 prospect spot heading into the 2012 season at a time when Mike Trout and Bryce Harper both still held rookie eligibility. In fact, Moore was the No. 1 prospect in the eyes of MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus and placed No. 2 behind only Harper in _Baseball America_'s rankings. One big reason for that was the left-hander's monster performance at the Minors' top level in 2011. Moore made his Triple-A debut on July 22, and five days later, he struck out 13 over eight scoreless innings against Gwinnett. That was just a taste of the dominance to come. The 2007 eighth-rounder, who sported plus grades on his fastball, curveball and changeup at the time, finished with a paltry 1.37 ERA and 0.97 WHIP over his seven Bulls starts. He struck out 79 and walked only 18 over 52 2/3 frames. His 38.7 percent K rate was second-best among the 1,325 pitchers with at least 50 innings in a single IL season last decade. Moore's elite numbers forced the Rays to call the then-22-year-old up for his Major League debut in September, and he even featured in a pair of postseason games as well. Moore never reached his ceiling in the Majors with stints with the Rays, Giants, Rangers and Tigers before moving to Japan this past offseason. But with the way he shoved in the IL, it's tough to blame anyone who saw big things on his horizon in 2011.

1. Ronald Acuña Jr., Gwinnett, 2017: The 19-year-old outfielder was well on the fast track by the time he moved up to Gwinnett on July 13, 2017. The Braves were high on him in the spring and saw him show real five-tool potential at Class A Advanced Florida and Double-A Mississippi, necessitating an additional push. It wouldn't have hurt Acuña's profile if he had been just an OK player at the Minors' top level when he was the same age as most American college freshmen. Of course, that isn't what happened. Acuña's numbers actually improved with Gwinnett. He hit .344/.393/.548 with nine homers and 11 steals over his 54 games with the Braves' highest affiliate. His .940 OPS was the highest of his career, and indeed, the only one he posted above .900 at any other Minor League level. Acuña finished up with 21 long balls and 44 steals across all three levels. He returned to Gwinnett for a brief spell the following season, only to take the Majors by storm with a 2018 NL Rookie of the Year campaign. Whenever baseball returns to a normal 162-game schedule, the Braves outfielder could be the first 40-40 member since Alfonso Soriano in 2006.

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