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The First Annual VEB Minor League Awards

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Maybe the first time we’ve done awards here? Not really sure. Lots of people have written lots of stuff. But here they are this year!

St Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Ah, September. A chill in the air – actually, no, that’s not right; it’s going to be 91 here today. Um, colours blooming on all the trees? Nope, not yet. And if we go straight from summer to winter again the way we have a couple times recently, we may not get much anyway.

Okay, fine. No autumn stuff just yet. Still, given that today is the eighth of September, the minor league season has been all wrapped up and tied with a bow. The Arizona Fall League will be beginning soon, earlier than ever before, as clubs have agreed to start it up almost immediately following the conclusion of the regular milb season, rather than having players take multiple weeks off then try to ramp back up to play again.

With that in mind, it’s time to look back on the season that was, and to aid with that I’m going to do something I’ve never really done before: hand out minor league awards. So let’s jump right into it, shall we?

Team of the Year – Johnson City Cardinals

They were the only club in the Cards’ entire minor league system to actually make postseason play this year. It was a strange season on the farm in general, as clubs expected to be awesome – Memphis, especially – underachieved for one reason or another. (The one reason being that the pitching tended to implode here and there, the other reason being, um, see reason one.)

By those standards, the JC Cardinals stand out as the high achievers of the group this year, as they not only made it into postseason play, but captured the Appalachian League championship by beating the Royals’ Burlington affiliate in a best of three series. (Yes, minor league playoffs are fairly informal affairs.) So congratulations to Johnson City, starring Jhon Torres and Malcom Nunez and Walker Robbins (the pitcher, not the hitter), and Mateo Gil and Trejyn Fletcher.

Relief Pitcher of the Year – Junior Fernandez, RHP

Coming into this season, Junior Fernandez was best described as enigmatic. Always possessed of premium stuff, Fernandez had never really seen the kind of results one would expect to go along with that stuff. What exactly changed in 2019 is tough to really pinpoint, but if I had to give it my best shot at analysis I would say his breaking ball, a hard cutter, improved just enough that hitters could no longer sit on the four-seamer in the zone or changeup down and out of it. Hitting gains tend to be incremental and linear, pitching gains tend to work on the threshold model. He started getting the changeup in the zone just a touch more, and the cutter improved just enough hitters had to pay attention to it, and suddenly things tipped over the edge for Fernandez.

He appeared at four levels in 2019, including St. Louis, running through Palm Beach, Springfield, and Memphis along the way. His ERAs by level, beginning from High A: 1.54, 1.55, 1.48, 2.45. It’s been less than eight total innings at the major league level so far, but Fernandez has struck out over 30% of the hitters he’s faced. The walks will definitely have to come down going forward, but we are talking about a tiny sample, and the mere fact Fernandez came so far, so fast this year nets him this award pretty easily.

Starting Pitcher of the Year – Angel Rondon, RHP

I’ll be honest: this was a really tough award to pick. There were so few really notably good starting pitching performances in the minors this year that I struggled to parse one out. However, there was one pitcher who really broke out in a big way, and that’s Angel Rondon.

Still relatively new to pitching, Rondon began the season at High A Palm Beach and dominated there, rolling up a 26.3% strikeout rate on his way to a 2.20 ERA. After just 45 innings at that level the organisation decided it had seen enough, and Rondon was jumped up to Springfield. Double A is always seen as the separator, the jump in the minors that culls the performers from the real prospects, and Rondon handled the jump with aplomb. He threw 115 innings in the Texas League, and more than held his own with a 3.21 ERA and 3.97 FIP. Both those numbers grow more impressive in the context of a few other numbers, notably 21, as in his age, and 2016, the first year he actually began pitching full-time professionally. Rondon will still need refinement; right now his stuff is good enough to stay away from barrels, but not always sharp enough to miss bats entirely. His control is usually good, but sometimes wanders as well. Still, he will pitch all of 2020 as a 22 year old, and will likely return to Springfield to begin the season, with a Triple A promotion easily within sight.

The Turned-it-Around Award – Jhon Torres, OF

Jhon Torres made an incredible impression when he first got into the Cardinals’ system last year, coming over in the Oscar Mercado deal. As in, a 225 wRC+ in 75 plate appearances to close out the season first impression.

Against that backdrop, Torres was challenged with an assignment to Peoria to start the year, his first try at full-season ball. It...did not go well. He came to the plate in Peoria 75 times – coincidentally the same number of PAs which got everyone so excited last year – and posted a wRC+ of 36. No, that’s not a typo. He struck out nearly 40% of the time and hit for exactly no power whatsoever. It was a resounding thud of a landing, and suddenly Torres looked like possible Pyrite rather than gold.

Well, this is the turned-it-around award, rather than the just-had-a-bad-season award, so obviously there is a second part to this story arc. That second part came after Torres was bumped down to Johnson City, the Cards’ lower short-season affiliate, and it was a very nice redemption arc indeed. Over 133 plate appearances, Torres put up a 149 wRC+, driven by a 14.3% walk rate, .366 BABIP, and .241 ISO. The strikeout rate was still worryingly high, 27.1%, which was somewhat surprising given Torres hadn’t really shown a proclivity for whiffing before this season, but the patience and ability to drive the ball with authority were on full display throughout his time in the Smokey Mountains.

I’m sure Torres will be pushed to Peoria again next year to begin the season, and let’s hope he’s more ready at 20 than he was at 19.

Next Year’s Breakout Award – Mateo Gil, SS

This is more prediction than proper award, admittedly, but I still want it in here, and Gil is my guy. This was his first full season in the minors, and while Gil didn’t exactly light the Appy League on fire – 106 wRC+ in 225 trips to the plate – he did very well for himself in holding his own as an eighteen year old for most of the season. There’s some swing and miss in his game that will need to be worked on moving forward, but Gil showed some really intriguing power potential as a middle infielder in a fairly tough offensive environment. I think he gets challenged with a Peoria assignment to open 2020, and I have a feeling he takes off next year and is a name we’re all paying attention to.

Next Year’s Breakout First Runer Up – Luken Baker, 1B

Baker did well enough this season in his first full milb campaign, playing all year at High A Palm Beach and collecting nearly 500 plate appearances there. The Florida State League is a brutal place to hit, and Baker saw his power numbers struggle to evince themselves all season, but he still put up an above-average line as a 22 year old in High A ball (115 wRC+). His plate discipline numbers were strong, and particularly later in the year he began coming around and hitting very well. Next year he should move up to Double A and the much friendlier hitting environs of the Texas League (Double A is moving to the MLB ball next year also, I believe, so....), and I think his numbers are going to take off in a huge way.

Next Year’s Breakout Second Runner Up – Justin Williams, OF

This one might be more hope than analysis, but after missing most of the season following a television-punching incident, Williams sucked at Double A, then was bumped back up to Triple A. That’s when everything changed.

In 119 plate appearances at Memphis, Williams put up a 152 wRC+. Admittedly, much of that production was driven by an elevated .439 BABIP, but he also clobbered seven home runs over that span and walked at a 13.4% clip, an unprecedented number in his history. I watched a lot of those games, and the fact is Justin Williams was patient, poised, and hit the everloving shit out of the ball for a couple months straight. He struck out more than is optimal and still hits the ball on the ground too much, but the quality of contact and the discipline to wait for his pitch was something to behold.

And finally...

Player of the Year – Dylan Carlson, OF, and Randy Arozarena, OF

What can I say? I just couldn’t decide. Carlson is probably the easier pick here, following a season in which he blasted the Texas League for a 142 wRC+ in nearly 500 plate appearances, then moved up to Memphis toward the end of the season and absolutely decimated Pacific Coast League pitching for about a month. Pitchers in Triple A challenged Carlson out of the gate, and he proved that strategy to be a poor one, bombing PCL hurlers for a 161 wRC+ driven by a .319 ISO and .429 BABIP. If you threw Dylan Carlson a strike in Memphis this year, he hit it, and hit it hard. He’ll head off the Arizona Fall League soon, and we can see what sort of numbers he puts up against the best competition the minors have to offer. Oh, and he’s still just 20, as unbelievable as that is at this point.

However, as much as I love Dylan Carlson and what he did this season, I cannot in good conscience ignore the year Randy Arozarena had. One of my favourite prospects in the system pretty much out of the gate after he signed a couple years ago, prior to this season Arozarena had shown all the parts of a star-level game, but never at the same time. When he showed good plate discipline, the power wasn’t there. When he showed power, he hacked in order to get there. He was fast but not always smart on the bases. His glove looks good, but maybe not in center. It was always some really good things, but not everything all at once.

Well, in 2019 it was everything all at once.

Arozarena played at Double A and Triple A this year, and posted wRC+ figures of 162 and 151, respectively. He ran very high BABIPs, yes, but again, I watched those games, and this wasn’t luck. This was line drives. This was Mookie Betts lite. This was a guy just barreling everything that came his way. Above-average contact rates, above-average power (though admittedly not of the home run variety very often), and solid plate discipline numbers. Plus or even plus-plus defense in the corners, above-average defense in center to my eye. I still find it concerning, and a bit confusing, how low Arozarena’s success rate is when it comes to stealing bases, but he has 60+ speed, and should be a positive taking extra bases and the like even if he isn’t a great basestealer. In other words, Randy Arozarena can literally do at least a little bit of everything on the baseball field, and usually a little more than a little bit. He made his major league debut just recently, has only come to the plate about a dozen times, and has been fine. Spring training 2020 is going to be a very exciting time for those of us on the Arozarena bandwagon, as he should get a chance to compete for a spot in what could be a very open outfield competition. Long term I think he slots into left field as a defensive whiz and above-average hitter, and the only question is whether he or Tyler O’Neill ends up the player who grabs hold of a starting job somewhere.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the minor league awards for this year. I hope you enjoyed them; I’m writing this in a bit of a hurry from the Munger-Moss historic motel in beautiful Lebanon, Missouri, where the sink and tub are both an amazing shade of midcentury blue enamel, and all the countertops are white formica with glittering gold sparkles. You may or may not know enough about me to understand how happy these things make me, but I assure you they do.

Have a lovely Sunday, everyone.

And finally, RIP Chris Duncan. I can’t decide if I want to write about his untimely death or not, but even if I don’t, I will always always remember him hitting a dramatic homer of a Met LOOGY in the 2006 NLCS if nothing else. He was a Cardinal, and part of a magical moment.