August 11, 2010

Minor League Pennant Races Take Shape

Most of us in major league cities think about the minor leagues only in terms of player development. Rest assured that the players, managers and coaching staff in the minors don't think this way. These guys want to win championships no matter what the level. There's a reason every league holds playoffs and crowns a champion; this is what guys have been playing for all season.

From a player development standpoint, a championship run gets guys appearances in more of a pressure environment and helps players to develop an expectation of winning which will be helpful later in their career. And honestly, who among us hasn't sent down their star major leaguers in MVP Baseball 2005 to the Eastern League to win a coveted AA championship, only to find that ending a season in AA makes them retire?

Minor league seasons end on Labor Day so we can judge by now which teams are in or out of a pennant race. Here's a rundown on the top three teams' chances and their best performers this year.

AAA Indianapolis Indians
The Indians are 59-59, third in the International League's four-team Western Division. They're 7.5 games back of wild card leader Louisville (Reds) and would have to pass three other teams as well. They're also nine games behind Columbus (Indians) in the division and would have to pass both Columbus and Louisville to finish first. With 26 games to go the playoffs are looking highly unlikely.

There's not much to see here on the pitching side, but Indianapolis has had a good hitting club all year. Brandon Moss (.272/.335/.481) leads the I-Tribe in almost every offensive category. Akinori Iwamura (.275/.422/.412) has hit well in Indy, so well that I predict a pinch hitting role in September. Erik Kratz (.297/.397/.547) is the regular catcher again and John Bowker (.500/.538/.792) has been on fire in his seven games.

AA Altoona Curve
The Curve is 66-49 and in first place in the Eastern League's Western Division. They're three games ahead of Bowie (Orioles), but the top two teams in each division make the playoffs so the key number is the 5.5 games by which they lead Harrisburg (Nationals). With 28 games to go nothing is assured, but this is mostly the same group that won the Carolina League last year so they are playoff tough. The EL playoffs start September 8 and consist of two best-of-five series.

The Curve has a strong pitching staff led by Rudy Owens (9-6, 2.74) and Justin Wilson (9-6, 3.35). Jeff Locke (1-1, 3.54) has done well since his call up from Bradenton. On the offensive side, outfielder Matt Hague (.300/.381/.454) has been solid all year and should get to 90 runs and RBI. Catcher Hector Giminez (.311/.396/.548) leads the team with 14 home runs and new outfielder Andrew Lambo (.406/.472/.594) has obviously been great in his first eight games.

A Bradenton Marauders
In their first season the Marauders are 61-51, 22-20 in the second half, and in second place in the Florida State League's South Division. Under the primitive first half/second half system Bradenton can clinch the playoffs by overcoming their one game deficit to Palm Beach (Cardinals). It would be quite impressive if they do so because Bradenton should have had their hopes dashed by their huge number of injuries. The FSL plays a best-of-three semifinal round followed by a best-of-five final series.

The Maurauders lost most of their bats to injury in midsummer, but should get shortstop Brock Holt (.351/.410/.438) back this month to provide a big lift down the stretch. Third baseman Jeremy Farrell (.289/.357/.500) just turned yesterday and outfielder Starling Marte (.292/.394/.383) returned a week ago. Catcher Eric Fryer (.287/.384/.495) has played well in Tony Sanchez's absence. Even without Sanchez, Bradenton will have easily the best lineup in the pitcher-dominated FSL once Holt returns. With Locke and Bryan Morris promoted to Altoona, Nathan Adcock (8-7, 3.70) leads the starting staff and Noah Krol (27 saves) anchors the bullpen.

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