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Toolshed: Recent noteworthy SL seasons

Goldschmidt's final MiLB season, plenty of Cubs feature on list
Paul Goldschmidt's 1.061 OPS was the highest-single season mark by a Southern League qualifier last decade. (Tony Farlow/Four Seam Images)
@SamDykstraMiLB
August 11, 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. So Toolshed is revisiting the 10 most notable individual seasons put together

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.

So 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, Pioneer League, International League, Pacific Coast League and Eastern League. This column focuses on the Double-A Southern League.

10. Marcus Semien, Birmingham, 2013: Semien finished third in American League MVP voting last season, meaning his only major individual award remains the SL MVP award he won in 2013. That came as the result of a notable breakout, considering Semien entered that year as an inconsistent offensive performer who many believed wouldn't hit for much power. He responded by batting .290/.420/.483 with 15 homers and 20 stolen bases over 105 games with the Barons. There were 16 Southern Leaguers to join the 15-15 club in the 2010s, but Semien was the only one to do so while walking more times (84) than he struck out (66). Furthering the Cal product's MVP case was the fact that he did this while playing second base, shortstop and third in almost equal measure for the Barons. In fact even though he was MVP, he had to make the SL end-of-season All-Star team as a utility player. Semien moved up to Triple-A Charlotte for August and proceeded to Chicago in time for September roster expansion. He was traded to the A's in December 2014 as part of a six-player that sent Jeff Samardzija the other way.

9. Brandon Woodruff, Biloxi, 2016: Want a breakout story? Woodruff provided a great one in 2016. An 11th-round pick out of Mississippi State (where he was primarily a reliever) in 2014, the 6-foot-4 right-hander established himself as a starter at Class A Advanced Brevard County in his first full season and then took things to the next level in 2016. After a brief return to the Florida State League, Woodruff dominated with Biloxi, posting a 3.01 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP with 124 strikeouts in 113 1/3 innings. His punchout rate alone jumped from 15.5 percent in 2015 to 27.1 in Double-A, where he should have been challenged by tougher hitters. Woodruff's 2.49 ended up being the second-best mark among SL qualifiers in the decade behind only Kyle Hendricks' 2.36 in 2013. As a result, he jumped into the Brewers' top 30 for the first time at the end of the season and later into the Top 100 for the first time in 2017. This is his third season as a mainstay in the Milwaukee rotation, and he's continued his development to the point at which he can legitimately claim to be the club's ace at age 27.

8. Archie Bradley, Mobile, 2013: Expectations were high for Bradley as the seventh overall pick in the 2011 Draft, and those hopes were only heightened when he was promoted to Double-A after putting up a 1.26 ERA over five starts in the California League in 2013. The 6-foot-4 right-hander kept the video-game numbers coming in the Southern League. His 1.97 ERA for Mobile was the second-best by an SL qualifier in the 2010s, and he also struck out 119 over 123 2/3 innings. There were some signs that Bradley's dominance might not be replicated at higher levels; for starters, he walked 11.7 percent of the batters he faced and managed a much more mediocre 1.23 WHIP (as compared to his ERA). Still, it was clear that Bradley's stuff could play against upper-level bats and his early promise was no mirage. He opened the following season as MLB.com's No. 5 overall prospect. The control woes eventually moved the Oklahoma native to Arizona's bullpen, where he's been since 2017.

7. Max Kepler, Chattanooga, 2015: The circuit's 2015 Most Outstanding Player pick has aged well. Kepler has become a core member of a Twins club that set the Major League home runs in 2019. (He hit 36 of them.) Four years earlier, the Germany native was the SL's most productive hitter, leading the league in OBP (.416), slugging (.531) and OPS (.947) and finishing second in average (.322). What's more, he struck out 63 times and walked 67 times, giving him the always-fun BB/K ratio above 1.0. The power came later for the left-handed slugger as he hit only nine homers, but did show plenty of pop to the gaps with 32 doubles and 13 triples. His 167 wRC+ held up as the fifth-best mark among SL qualifiers in the decade. Those results vaulted Kepler into the Top-100 ranks for the first time as MLB.com slated him at No. 44 going into the 2016 campaign, and could be backed up with a few more Major League seasons like Kepler's 2019.

6. Javier Báez, Tennessee, 2013: To watch Báez with the Smokies was to watch one of the decade's most electric shortstop prospects at arguably the peak of his Minor League powers. The 2011 first-rounder joined Tennessee on July 6 and wasted no time homering in his first Double-A at-bat in a sign of things to come. Báez slugged .638 over 240 plate appearances the rest of the way; no other SL shortstop with at least 200 plate appearances posted a number within 100 points of that in the 2010s. He put up such a high number in part because he clubbed 20 long balls over 54 games. In fact, almost one-third (20 of 64) of his hits left the yard entirely. Strikeouts were an issue -- the Cubs prospect fanned in 28.7 percent of his plate appearances -- but the impressive pop and elite defense were enough to paper over the issues. Báez used his special 2013 season to enter the following season as the No. 7 overall prospect, and after helping the club win the 2016 World Series, he remains a big piece of Chicago's contention plans.

5. Kyle Hendricks, Tennessee, 2013: Hendricks was the third most prominent name in a three-player trade at the July 2012 deadline when he moved to the Cubs alongside third-base prospect Christian Villanueva for Major League starter Ryan Dempster. Following five Class A Advanced appearances after the trade, Hendricks really started to show Chicago signs of his future self when he opened 2013 with Double-A Tennessee. The 2011 eighth-rounder out of Dartmouth showed what would become his trademark control by walking only 26 while fanning 101 in 126 1/3 innings with the Smokies. His 1.85 ERA and 2.36 FIP were best by a Southern League qualifier in the 2010s while his 1.05 WHIP placed sixth among that group of 220. Hendricks moved up to Triple-A Iowa in August and started appearing in Cubs top-20 prospect rankings the following offseason for the first time. He debuted in the Majors in July 2014 and has yet to post an ERA above 3.95 over seven seasons at the top level.

4. Giancarlo Stanton, Jacksonville, 2010: Seeing a young Stanton in this burgeoning age of Minor League video would have been an absolute treat. (His 500-foot blast on May 6, 2010 alone would have inspired plenty of gifs.) Instead, let his placement on this list serve as a reminder of what propelled the right-handed slugger to the Majors in 2010. Stanton entered that season as _Baseball America_'s No. 3 overall prospect and somehow exceeded expectations. His .729 slugging percentage and 1.171 OPS were the highest single-season marks by any Southern Leaguer with at least 200 plate appearances last decade. His 220 wRC+ and .442 OBP placed second and third respectively in the same group. He belted 21 homers, which tied for second-most in the SL that season despite the fact they came in only 53 games. On April 25 and 26, he clubbed five of them over 10 plate appearances. It was 80-grade power on display daily with the Suns. By June 10, the then-Florida Marlins had seen enough and called Stanton straight up to the Majors. He managed 22 more homers with the big club, finishing with 43 between both stops -- his career high for a single season until he clubbed a Major League-best 59 in 2017 with the Fish.

3. Danny Hultzen, Jackson, 2012: Prospect-heads from the first half of the decade will remember how much promise Hultzen originally brought to the Mariners system. Seattle selected the left-hander with the second overall pick in 2011 out of the University of Virginia -- ahead of Francisco Lindor, Anthony Rendon, Javier Báez and every other 2011 pick not named Gerrit Cole -- and he entered the 2012 season as the No. 16 overall prospect. Hultzen didn't pitch in the pros in his Draft year, making his move to the Generals his Minor League debut, and he didn't disappoint on the bump. The 6-foot-3 hurler posted a 1.19 ERA over 75 1/3 innings in the Southern League, the lowest mark by far of any pitcher to get at least 70 frames during the 2010s. That even accounts for a rough five-run outing in his first Jackson start on April 8. Hultzen sported a 0.63 ERA over a 12-start run and was promoted to Triple-A. He finished with a .149 average-against (also best in the decade) and 0.93 WHIP while fanning 79. Hultzen's numbers jumped with Tacoma (5.92 ERA, 1.89 WHIP), though some of that was hand-waved away because of the offensive environment of the Pacific Coast League. However, he never reached his considerable ceiling due to multiple shoulder injuries and never made the Majors with the Mariners. In a feel-good story, he did finally debut at the top level with the Cubs last September and is working out at Chicago's alternate site in South Bend as a non-roster invitee.

2. Kris Bryant, Tennessee, 2014: The Cubs may have looked a little aggressive with Bryant by sending him straight to Double-A to begin his first full season. By the end of April, it looked like they may have actually been a bit passive. The 2013 second overall pick never slugged lower than .500 during his time with Tennessee and finished with a .355/.458/.702 line before his promotion to Triple-A Iowa on June 18. In that slash line stands the third-best average, best OBP and second-best slugging percentage among SL batters with at least 200 plate appearances. Because of the way the league played in 2014, his 220 wRC+ was actually best in that group, beating out Stanton's 204. Bryant hit 22 homers in his 68 games with the Smokies, and that total contributed to the 43 that enabled him to claim the 2014 Joe Bauman Home Run Award as the Minor League leader in the category. Those 22 blasts also finished second on the SL leaderboard; no one else who played fewer than 70 games hit more than 13. Bryant's power and overall bat made him arguably the best third-base prospect of the decade, and those tools were never on better display than they were with Tennessee six years ago.

1. Paul Goldschmidt, Mobile, 2011: This would be an iconic performance for stats alone. Nine years later, Goldschmidt's 2011 season still stands up as the most dominant SL offensive run of the decade and arguably even the entire league's history dating back to 1964. His .626 slugging percentage and 1.061 OPS over 103 games with the BayBears are not only tops among SL qualifiers in the 2010s, but the best since the league started keeping track of both stats in 2005. His .435 OBP and .320 isolated slugging percentage are also tops for the 10-year period. He hit 30 home runs -- making him one of only three SL sluggers to reach at least that total in the 2010s -- and also swiped nine bases. Perhaps more importantly than the numbers, this was the year the then-23-year-old answered all the "Yeah, but" stammers. Goldschmidt was never a Top-100 prospect after he was selected in the eighth round of the 2009 Draft out of Texas State, where he set the school record for homers. He led the Pioneer and California leagues in dingers as well in 2009 and 2010 respectively, but still didn't climb because of the "Yeah, but he's a right-handed-hitting first baseman coming out of college" lines. The 2011 campaign with Mobile settled that argument. Goldschmidt wasn't a one-note slugger who could dominate the lower leagues. His pop and overall ability could play anywhere. The D-backs rewarded him with a jump straight to the Majors that August, and he hasn't played a single Minor League game since.

Other notables: Michael Kopech posted a 2.87 ERA and fanned 31.8 percent of the batters he faced for Birmingham in 2017. ... Josh Hader had a 0.95 ERA and a 2.14 FIP while striking out 73 in 57 innings for Biloxi in 2016. The left-hander would have made the cut if he had carried those numbers a little longer in the SL (i.e., not have been promoted to Triple-A Colorado Springs so quickly). ... Yasiel Puig hit .313/.383/.599 in 40 games for Chattanooga in 2013 and was promoted straight to the Dodgers in early June. ... Orlando Arcia was MiLB.com's Breakout Prospect of the Year in 2015, the same season Biloxi opened with 54 games on the road due to stadium delays.

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