Tonight, the Florida State League playoffs will begin. For the third time in five years, the Charlotte Stone Crabs will be playing for the FSL title. After consecutive seasons falling short, they'll try and improve on their first two playoff appearances, both of which resulted in championship losses to the Tampa Yankees.
Durham's postseason chase begins tomorrow. They finished with the best record in the International League, and this is their sixth playoff appearance in the last seven years, their only absence being last season's poor year. They won the International League championship in one of those seasons, 2009, when they also went on to win the one game Triple-A Championship against the Pacific Coast League champion.
Bowling Green will also begin their playoffs tomorrow. It's their third straight season with a playoff berth, in part due to their good play, and also because literally half the teams in the Midwest League make the playoffs. Although this is their third year in the playoffs, they have yet to win a postseason game. Without pitching probables and a lot of information available, here are previews for each team's road to the playoffs.
Florida State League semifinals (best of three): Charlotte Stone Crabs v. Fort Myers Miracle (all probables guessed by me)
Game one 9/3: Charlotte v. Fort Myers 6:30 PM (Felipe Rivero v. Matt Summers)
Game two 9/4: Charlotte @ Fort Myers 7:05 PM (Dylan Floro v. Jason Wheeler)
Game three (if necessary) 9/5: Charlotte @ Fort Myers 7:05 PM (Jesse Hahn v. Taylor Rogers)
Charlotte lost season series 11-6
The Miracle finished the season with the best record in the Southern division, but it was a tale of two halves. They started the season with 12 consecutive wins and finished the first half with a 45-22 record. They were a .500 team in the second half. The season series between the two teams was similar. Charlotte was just 2-10 against the Miracle in the first half but had a much better showing in the second half with a 4-1 record.
Fort Myers had the league's best offense, leading the league in runs, home runs, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS. They also stole about one base per game at 71% efficiency. They piled up a large percentage of these numbers in the first half before slugger Miguel Sano and productive bat Eddie Rosario were promoted to Double-A. That's not to say they're punchless now; top prospect Byron Buxton was added to the roster in June, and he's coming into the playoffs hot with an OBP over .500 in August.
Their pitching staff doesn't have the same star power as the lineup did and still does, but it was one of the better ones in the league. They were second in ERA, fourth in WHIP and had one of the league's better walk rates. One interesting wrinkle in their staff is the presence of Luke Bard, a first round pick from last year's draft. He only has 12.1 innings pitched this year because of a shoulder injury, but he has difference-making stuff. Their closer Zack Jones struck out nearly 36% of batters he faced this year, but he walked plenty too.
The matchup in the north pits the Dunedin Blue Jays against the Daytona Cubs. This figures to go to Daytona who finished with the best record in the league while Dunedin finished with the worst second half record in the league. Their pitching staff is just okay, led by former Rays draft pick Pierce Johnson and deadline acquisition C.J. Edwards, but their offense is just behind the Miracle's in most categories. They're powered by a pair of infielders even without Javier Baez: number two overall pick Kris Bryant and DRaysBay comment section favorite Dan Vogelbach. The championship series will be a best of five.
International League semifinals (best of five): Durham Bulls v. Indianapolis Indians (many probables guessed by me)
Game one 9/4: Durham v. Indianapolis 7:05 PM (Jake Odorizzi v. Brandon Cumpton)
Game two 9/5: Durham v. Indianapolis 7:05 PM (J.D. Martin v. Andy Oliver)
Game three 9/6: Durham @ Indianapolis 7:05 PM (Mike Montgomery v. Casey Sadler)
Game four (if necessary) 9/7: Durham @ Indianapolis 7:05 PM (Merrill Kelly v. Doug Mathis)
Game five (if necessary) 9/8: Durham @ Indianapolis 7:05 PM (Matt Buschmann v. Jameson Taillon)
Durham won season series 5-3
All eight of those games took place in a 13 day span in June. They first split a four game series in Indianapolis, and the Bulls would later win three of four at home, where they owned a 48-24 record in 2013. The Indians only played .500 ball over the last month of the season, but they still cruised to a division title thanks to the large cushion they opened up earlier.
The Indianapolis offense was generally middle of the pack, finishing sixth in runs in seven in OPS (out of 14). They did excel in a couple areas though: reaching base and using their speed. They were among the league leaders in walks, and they led the league in steals. The speed manifested itself in their league-leading doubles total as well. The source of a lot of the steals, Felix Pie, Josh Harrison and Alex Presley, have departed, but two other big stealers, Darren Ford and Chase d'Arnaud, remain. A late addition to the roster was top prospect Gregory Polanco. He started the season in the FSL, but he keeps proving himself to the Pittsburgh organization. They'll also have to deal with former Bull and International League MVP Russ Canzler.
The Indians pitching staff was right behind Durham this year, finishing second in ERA and WHIP. Three of their six starters that made double digit starts this season are now in the majors though: Kris Johnson, Stolmy Pimentel, and probably most importantly, Gerrit Cole. They didn't lose much prospect power though because Jameson Taillon was promoted later in the season, and he was solid, posting a 3.89 ERA and 1.27 WHIP in 37 innings. Out of the bullpen, Durham will have to contend with former Bull Ryan Reid who made his ML debut with Pittsburgh this year.
The other semi-final features the Pawtucket Red Sox and wild card winner Rochester Red Wings. Both teams tended to win games with their bats and not their arms, but Pawtucket lost a couple key infielders in Xander Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks. Their rotation can actually pose some challenges. They feature two prospects, Allen Webster and Anthony Ranaudo, and a pair of knuckleballers in Charlie Haeger and Steven Wright. For Rochester, Aaron Hicks' struggles in the majors carried over to the minors when he was finally optioned recently. The championship will be a best of five series, and the winner will advance to the one game AAA Championship against the PCL champion.
Midwest League quarterfinals (best of three): Bowling Green Hot Rods v. Fort Wayne TinCaps (all probables guessed by me)
Game one 9/4: Bowling Green v. Fort Wayne 8:05 PM (Jeff Ames v. Bryan Rodriguez)
Game two 9/5: Bowling Green @ Fort Wayne 7:05 PM (Jordan Harrison v. Matthew Shepherd)
Game three (if necessary) 9/6: Bowling Green @ Fort Wayne 7:05 PM (Blake Snell v. Max Fried)
Bowling Green won season series 10-5
Fort Wayne won the first half division wild card, and apparently that earns them homefield advantage in this quick series. They finished a few games ahead of Bowling Green then, but when the Hot Rods earned the best overall record in the division, they cleared Fort Wayne by 10 games. The TinCaps were a last place team in the second half.
The TinCaps lineup was about league average in most categories. Out of 16 teams, they were fifth in runs and seventh in OPS. They owned one of the league's best batting averages, but they're a low on-base team which they need to take advantage of their speed. They were third in the league in steals but about 60 behind the league leaders, Bowling Green. Outfielder Mallex Smith was the only Padres top 30 prospect on the roster this season, and he edged Andrew Toles for the league lead in steals. He hasn't been that great in his debut, but a potential impact bat in the system is first rounder Hunter Renfroe.
Despite the presence of some top talent, their pitching staff was pretty average too. Max Fried headlines the rotation, and Zach Eflin and Walker Weickel were two other high picks from last year's draft. They're joined by Joe Ross in his second season in the Midwest League. Overall as a staff, they were right around the league averages in ERA and WHIP, but if the Hot Rods stay patient, they'll be able to take advantage of a major weakness. The TinCaps were second in the league in walks issued.
If Bowling Green advances to the semifinals, they'll play another three game series against the winner of the Great Lakes v. South Bend series. The Loons finished below .500 overall, but they were a much better second half team than first. They were able to do that thanks to a very good pitching staff, although it no longer includes Julio Urias. The Silver Hawks were a pretty balanced team, both in terms of first and second half performance and strength of batting and pitching. First rounder Braden Shipley is in their rotation. Brandon Drury, acquired in the Justin Upton trade, broke out this year.