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Toolshed: Recent noteworthy Pioneer seasons

Major League regulars, current prospects highlighted Rookie circuit
Jeremiah Jackson has hit 30 home runs so far in his career. Of those, 23 came last season with Orem. (Bobby Stevens/MiLB.com)
@SamDykstraMiLB
July 7, 2020

Short-season campaigns across the Minor Leagues were scheduled to begin last month. Like all other leagues in the Minors, those seasons were officially canceled last week. But that doesn't mean we can't celebrate the short-season leagues right now anyway. The New York-Penn, Northwest, Appalachian and Pioneer leagues represent the first

Short-season campaigns across the Minor Leagues were scheduled to begin last month. Like all other leagues in the Minors, those seasons were officially canceled last week.

But that doesn't mean we can't celebrate the short-season leagues right now anyway. The New York-Penn, Northwest, Appalachian and Pioneer leagues represent the first steps for many professional baseball players, or in some cases offer those hitters and pitchers chances to show their skills away from the complexes in Arizona, Florida and the Dominican Republic.

Toolshed is revisiting the 10 most notable individual seasons put together across the four non-complex Class A Short Season and Rookie Advanced leagues from the last decade (2010-19). Previous editions covered the New York-Penn League, Northwest League and Appalachian League. This column focuses on the Rookie Advanced Pioneer League.

10. Albert Campos, Casper, 2010: In 2010, Pioneer League teams averaged 5.6 runs per game. In 2019, that was down a few ticks to 5.3. The takeaway should be that this particular Rookie Advanced circuit long has been a hitters' league, and it should stand out even more when a pitcher does really well. Campos was as good as any Pioneer League hurler in the decade at limiting opposing runs. His 2.05 ERA over 88 innings in 2010 ended up being the best of any qualified pitcher on the circuit during the 2010s. The Venezuelan right-hander found his level of success by filling up the zone with regularity and walking only 4.9 percent of the batters he faced, leading to a similarly strong 1.10 WHIP. His stuff couldn't crack it much beyond this level, however. He posted a 5.19 ERA over 15 starts for Class A Asheville the following season and was released in April 2012. Still, the whole point of this column is to remember some Pioneer League guys, and Campos deserves his time in the sun, as do the Casper Ghosts, who became the Grand Junction Rockies during the 2012 season.

9. Isan Díaz, Missoula, 2015: The Pioneer League is a perfect place for a player like Diaz to take off at the start of his career. Diaz was slotted 150th in MLB.com's 2014 Draft rankings coming out of Central High School in Springfield, Massachusetts, but went much higher at 70th overall to Arizona. The left-handed-hitting slugger struggled in the Rookie-level Arizona League in his Draft year, leading the D-backs to hold him back for Missoula in what would have been his first full season. Diaz responded loudly, batting .360/.436/.640 with 13 homers, six triples and 25 doubles over 68 games. His 44 extra-base hits, .640 slugging percentage and 1.076 OPS were all tops in the league that year -- no small feat for a 5-foot-11 middle infielder -- and his stock soared. Diaz was one of the main prospects that netted Arizona Jean Segura in a trade with Milwaukee in January 2016, became a Top-100 prospect before the 2017 season and was in another prospect blockbuster between the Marlins and Brewers in January 2018. He made his Major League debut for Miami last August and should be the club's starting second baseman when play resumes later this month.

8. Joc Pederson, Ogden, 2011: Should a player lose points for doing well after a promotion? We won't deduct too many here, especially since the player was still age-appropriate for the level. Pederson was an 11th-round pick in 2010 and signed for $600,000 after the Dodgers were able to lure him away from a USC commitment. Despite his Draft status, Pederson opened his first full season with Class A Great Lakes in May, only to hit .160 in 16 games. The Dodgers moved the then-19-year-old outfielder to Ogden for Pioneer League Opening Day and saw him flourish quickly, belting two doubles in his Raptors debut after failing to pick up any extra-base hits with the Loons. Pederson continued to take off and finished with a .353/.429/.568 line, 11 homers and 24 stolen bases over 68 games at the Rookie Advanced level. He was one of only two players in the decade to have at least 30 extra-base hits and 20 stolen bases in a single season, Aristides Aquino being the other for Billings in 2014. Pederson jumped right over Great Lakes in 2012 and succeeded enough at Class A Advanced Rancho Cucamonga to become a Top-100 prospect ahead of the 2013 season. He is coming off a career-high 36-homer season and should remain a key part of a crowded Dodgers outfield in the abbreviated 2020 campaign to come.

7. David Dahl, Grand Junction, 2012: The Rockies grabbed Dahl with the 10th overall pick out of an Alabama high school in 2012, and the outfielder quickly made his new organization look good. Dahl's 106 hits over 67 games ended up being the highest single-season total for any Pioneer League batter in the 2010s, and his .379 average placed fifth among all qualifiers during the decade. He produced a .379/.423/.625 line with 41 extra-base hits and 12 stolen bases in that first summer. With that pro success coming so quickly, Dahl entered the 2013 season as MLB.com's No. 59 overall prospect, starting a run of four straight seasons with Top-100 status. Injuries have kept the left-handed slugger from really solidifying himself with the Rockies since his 2016 debut, but the 2019 season marked the first time he hit triple digits in games played at the top level. He is expected to be Colorado's Opening Day center fielder this season.

6. Brenton Doyle, Grand Junction, 2019: The wRC+ statistic in the Minors is adjusted for yearly league factors, not park factors, so take this with a grain of salt for a player at considerable altitude in Grand Junction. But it's notable all the same, and that's the point of this column. Of the 483 qualified hitters in the Pioneer League over the past decade, Doyle produced the highest wRC+ at 185, two points above Adam Eaton. To put that into further context, record tier Jeremiah Jackson had a 133 wRC+ the same season. Doyle sprinted to that mark with an amazing finishing kick, hitting .439/.529/.704 over 29 games from Aug. 1, and ended up leading the league in average (.385), OBP (.477) and OPS (1.088). Because of Doyle's late push to the top of the leaderboards, he actually missed out on Pioneer League MVP honors, losing to teammate Colin Simpson (18 homers, 1.050 OPS) because the awards were handed out before the season ended. But Doyle's overall season won't go overlooked in this space, and it puts the 2019 fourth-rounder out of Division II Shepherd College on a much more interesting trajectory to begin his career.

5. Alec Hansen, Great Falls, 2016: Hansen's outlook was certainly choppy leading up to his Draft year, and it's certainly been choppy over the ensuing few seasons. But after his brief trip to the Pioneer League in 2016, there was no question where he was trending. The 6-foot-7 right-hander had shown killer stuff at Oklahoma, but major control concerns caused him to lose a rotation spot for a time and drop to the second round of the 2016 Draft. The White Sox eased him in with a move to Great Falls in mid-July, and Hansen responded by racking up K after K. Hansen struck out 59 batters in 36 2/3 innings. Put another way, he fanned 44.4 percent of the batters he faced, the highest rate of any Pioneer League pitcher with a minimum of 35 innings. He also posted minuscule numbers elsewhere like a 1.23 ERA, 0.65 WHIP and .102 average-against -- all aided by a late August run of four straight starts (totaling 22 innings) in which Hansen didn't allow an earned run and only gave up five hits total before he was promoted to Class A Kannapolis. After another K-heavy season in 2017, Hansen jumped into the Top-100 ranks but 2018 forearm soreness, control concerns and a move to the bullpen have grounded his prospect status. The right-hander went unprotected and unpicked in last year's Rule 5 Draft.

4. Tony Cingrani, Billings, 2011: The 6-foot-4 left-hander pitched mostly out of the bullpen in his final season with Rice in 2011, so the Reds sent their third-rounder that year to Billings to lengthen him out a bit. A bit unfair to Pioneer League hitters? Maybe. But even among the glut of college pitchers who head to the Rookie Advanced circuit each year, arguably no pitcher was more dominant in the Pioneer League than Cingrani in 2011. Among the 278 hurlers to throw at least 50 innings in a single season, Cingrani was tops with a 1.83 FIP, 0.80 WHIP, 41.9 percent strikeout rate and 13.3 K/BB ratio. His 1.75 ERA also placed second among that group, and in a league known for its offense, he gave up only one home run over 51 1/3 frames. As if that's not enough, Cingrani allowed didn't allow more than an earned run in 11 of his 13 outings with the Mustangs. The southpaw's time in the Minors didn't last long. He debuted with Cincinnati in September 2012 and pitched out of the Reds and Dodgers bullpens before electing free agency in October following shoulder surgery.

3. Billy Hamilton, Billings, 2010: News flash: Billy Hamilton was really good at stealing bases. The 2009 second-rounder has made an entire career out of exhibiting his 80-grade speed, and most notably put it to good use in 2012 when he stole a Minor League-record 155 bases. Two years before that, he gave the Pioneer League and the Reds a taste of what was to come. Hamilton set a Billings record with 48 steals in 57 attempts over only 69 games with the Mustangs. No other Pioneer League speedster swiped more than 34 bags that season or 44 during an individual campaign over the entire decade. The switch-hitter tacked on a .318/.383/.456 line and 25 extra-base hits (10 of which were triples) for good measure to grab end-of-season All-Star honors. He wouldn't steal fewer than 45 bases again until he swiped 34 for the Reds in 2018.

2. Jeremiah Jackson, Orem, 2019: The Pioneer League has roots all the way back to 1939. Jackson's campaign with the Owlz was right there with the most powerful of those six decades. The No. 4 Angels prospect tied the Pioneer League record with 23 homers over 65 games. He was especially productive in August, when he slugged .784 and hit nine of those long balls over just 19 games, and that run gave him five chances in September to top Gregory Morrison's total of 23 with Medicine Hat from 1997. Alas, he didn't break the mark, but a tied record is good all the same. For more context: only two Pioneer League hitters eclipsed the 20-homer mark in the 2010s and neither hit more than 20 exactly in a single season. Jackson's pop will make him one to follow in the Los Angeles system whenever he's able to play in a competitive environment again.

1. Adam Eaton, Missoula, 2010: Despite being a .340 hitter with a career 1.027 OPS during his time at the University of Miami (Ohio), Eaton still fell all the way to the 19th round (571st overall) in the 2010 Draft, in part because of concerns of his 5-foot-9 height. The diminutive outfielder didn't need much time to show his bat could play at the next level too, and that first 2010 campaign with the then-Osprey ended up holding up very well over a decade in which offense increased across much of professional baseball. Eaton's .500 on-base percentage was the highest single-season mark among Pioneer League qualifiers, while his 183 wRC+ placed second, his .385 average third and his 1.075 OPS fifth. Eaton collected 28 extra-base hits and swiped 20 bases over 68 games with Missoula that summer, making him one of only six Pioneer League players all decade to reach 25 and 20 in those respective categories. The left-handed slugger was hitting .400 as late as Aug. 6 before settling for an average 15 points lower. Eaton eventually parlayed his talent into Top-100 status, though it took an Pacific Coast League MVP season to make that happen. He has played eight Major League seasons with the D-backs, White Sox and Nationals. Most recently, he went 8-for-25 (.320) with two homers in last year's World Series for the eventual champs.

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