Today, for the first time in twelve years, the Lexington Legends are playing postseason baseball.
They face off against the Rome Braves (71-62 overall, 40-29 in the first half), the first-half champion of the Southern Division in the South Atlantic League. The Legends (76-60 overall, 39-29 in the second half) finished the year as the Southern Division second-half champs, clinching in the first game of a four-game series at Greenville to end the regular season.
Both the Legends and the Braves are young teams, with the average age of each team’s batters under 21 years old. The Legends finished first in the league in runs scored (682; 4.98 R/G), fourth in hits (1151), second in homers (137), first in steals (164), third in team average (.258), and second in OPS (.733). Rome finished seventh in runs scored (578), third in hits (1176), sixth in homers (89), eleventh in steals (78), third in team average (.258; tied with Lexington), and fifth in OPS (.699).
Lexington’s pitchers finished seventh in team ERA (3.62), sixth in hits allowed (1119), second in most HR allowed (129), eleventh in fewest BB allowed (349), and sixth in strikeouts (1147). Overall, Rome finished in ninth in team ERA (3.74), seventh in hits allowed (1085), eighth in HR allowed (86), first in fewest walks allowed (422), and seventh in strikeouts (1143).
By now, the overall talent level on this Lexington roster is no secret, and they took on even more prospects in the last couple of months of the season. Their pitching staff received a significant boost. The loss of RHP Carlos Hernandez (6-5, 3.29 ERA in 79 1/3 IP, 82 K, 3.57 K/BB ratio) might have been felt more acutely had the Legends not added pitchers like LHP Daniel Lynch (5-1, 1.58 ERA in 40 IP, 47 K, 6 BB), RHP Jackson Kowar (3.42 ERA in 26 1/3 IP, 12 BB, 22 K), and LHP JC Cloney (2.73 ERA in 29 2/3 IP, 9 BB, 18 K) was like adding nitrous to an engine that was slowly, but consistently, revving faster as the season came to a close.
Starting Game One will be RHP and 2018 1st-round pick Jackson Kowar, who has made nine short appearances for the Legends this year. Over 26 1/3 innings, Kowar racked up 22 strikeouts against 12 walks. His 19 hits allowed, even over this short sample size, is evidence of his ability to command a plus fastball in the low-to-mid 90s along with a plus change-up in the low-80s that shows good tail and sink, and is delivered with precisely the same arm speed, slot, and release as his fastball when it’s at its best. He mixes in a slurvy breaking ball that is solid enough for a third pitch, but his command with it is still somewhat inconsistent. The Royals have kept his time on the mound short as a precautionary measure against overwork, so a four-inning start is a definite possibility.
He will face off against RHP Alan Rangel (4.09 ERA, 125 1/3 IP, 31 BB, 105 K), who posted a sterling 2.12 ERA in six starts over the month of August, but got knocked around in away games (3.14 ERA at home, 5.05 ERA on the road), and gave up six runs (five earned) and two homers over five innings in his only appearance at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. Perhaps also of note, he allowed a .810 OPS vs. RHH, while lefties had a tougher time (.668 over 57 PA).
RHP Tad Ratliff (1.68 ERA, 48 1/3 IP, 53 K, 10 BB, 10 SV) has been outstanding out of the pen, this year, and is the de facto closer. RHP Janser Lara (3.41 ERA, 23 appearances, 8 starts, 66 IP, 28 BB, 75 K) has steadily improved over the last few months, and can give the Legends a long stint in relief or start the game, though he has been outstanding as a reliever (1.98 ERA in 36 1/3 relief innings; 5.91 ERA in 35 innings as a starter). He brings a fastball that sits 94-95 and a tight slider around 83-84 with good tilt. Lara struck out 25 batters in 18 relief innings in August, so he ended on a high note. 2017’s 26th-round selection RHP Garrett Suchey (1.36 ERA in 21 appearances, 33 IP, 4 BB, 30 K) was a lock-down arm in his professional debut season. A 15th-round pick last year, LHP Robert Garcia (13 appearances, 24 IP, 31 K, 11 BB) and RHP Daniel Duarte (6 appearances, 11 2/3 IP, 11 K, 5 BB) show early signs of promise.
This is a quick look at some of the key batters heading into the first round of the SAL Playoffs.
1B Nick Pratto (.280 BA, .786 OPS 33 2B, 14 HR, 62 RBI, 22 SB in 127 games) is still a month away from his 20th birthday. That alone says a lot about Pratto’s talent. While he hit the wall in June (.225 BA, .589 OPS in 25 games), he slowly picked up steam in July (.258, .717 OPS in 25 games) and caught fire in August (.358, 1.005 OPS, 20 RBI in 28 games). The steals were a little surprise, but he runs well enough, especially for his position.
C MJ Melendez made a lot of noise this year, becoming the single-season leader in home runs for teen-aged Class-A catchers. Sounds like a lot to say, but 19-year-old catchers don’t typically push 20 homers in their full-season debut. Melendez finished with 26 doubles, nine triples, and 19 homers, driving in 73 runs (.251 BA, .814 OPS in 111 games). In 73 games behind the dish, he threw out 42 percent of base thieves, a dramatic increase from 2017’s 26 percent, though last year he made only thirty appearances at catcher. While he did commit 13 errors (w/ 8 passed balls), there’s no reason for concern there; Melendez’s calling card is his agility, arm strength and glove work, and his defense will improve over time. He’s highly athletic, moves very well (not only for his position), and is an above-average base-runner. By all appearances, Melendez is a safe bet to make it to Kauffman, perhaps by 2021.
OF Brewer Hicklen (.307, 18 doubles, 17 HR, 65 RBI, 29 SB in 82 games at Lexington) returned to the Legends after a 22-game stint in High-A Wilmington that didn’t pan out for him (.211, .573 OPS in 22 games), and the timing could not have been better. With RF Seuly Matias going to the DL because of a thumb laceration, incurred while moving his bags from the baggage compartment on the team bus, the team was going to need that boost to the offense. Hicklen does a lot of things well; he covers lots of ground in the outfield with sure-handed glove work (71 games in OF, 2 errors, 1.87 RF/9), he squares up the ball frequently and has shown a great deal of pop (18 doubles, 3 triples, 17 homers), and he steals bags fearlessly. It seemed that, once he swiped second, he was almost a lock to try for (likely successfully) third immediately afterward. Isbel was a similar runner, in terms of style and aggression. Hicklen also brings added energy to this lineup, though it’s not as if they lack for it. At 22 years old, with his current tool profile, it’s safe to say that his performance at Wilmington is no concern.
SS Cristian Perez (.278, 14 doubles, 37 RBI, 10 SB) isn’t a power bat, but makes a lot of contact and shows a very good eye at the plate. Perez has struck out a total of 94 times over his 194 career games (784 PA), only 43 this year, and while he isn’t likely to walk much (53 BB, career; 11 in 2018), he doesn’t need to. He puts the ball in play with regularity, and aside from a .221 BA/.566 OPS in 24 games in July, Perez has been one of them more consistent hitters on this team. A .348 BA/.756 OPS in June certainly made an impression, during which he struck out only six times in 91 plate appearances. Yet another nineteen-year-old player on this Legends roster, Perez had little difficulty adjusting to Class-A competition. A .252 average vs. RHP (.354 in 92 PA vs. LHP) is acceptable, and should improve in 2019. Making 14 appearances at third base after the loss of Dennicher Carrasco, Perez sometimes struggled with the throw to first, but he also made some low throws from short (10 errors in 69 games at SS, 3 errors in 14 games at 3B). Second base may be in his future, though he could certainly gain arm strength over the next year or two.
Speaking of second base, Ricky Aracena (.261 BA, 10 doubles, 40 RBI, 17 steals in 95 games) is slowly building on the promise that led some international scouts to label him the next Rafael Furcal. With almost no present power of which to speak, Aracena’s value lies primarily in his glove. Coming into 2018, he already had 30 games at short with Lexington, and has been learning second base on the fly since SS Jeison Guzman has been getting the bulk of the time at Aracena’s old position. He is taking reasonably well to the keystone (94 games at 2B, 16 errors, 4.21 RF/9), and has the quickness and footwork to settle in permanently. Listed at 5’8”, which may be generous, there is still room for added strength.
CF Kyle Isbel made his Class-A debut on July 19th and promptly made his presence known. Isbel batted .342 (.984 OPS) over 10 July games, with five extra-base hits and six steals. He also struck out only four times in his 44 plate appearances. August was more of the same, with a dip in Isbel’s average (.286) and OPS (.750), but he tacked on nine doubles, two homers, ten RBI and six more steals. His strikeouts spiked (36 in 121 PA), even though his pitch selection appeared to be advanced for Low-A. Also intriguing was his lack of a platoon split vs. LHP (.354 between Idaho Falls and Lexington in 89 PA, .314 in 204 PA vs. RHP). He demolished rookie-league pitching to the tune of a 1.063 OPS in 119 PA over 25 games.
UT Manny Olloque made his return to Lexington after starting the year in Triple-A Omaha (.544 OPS in 9 games), then heading to the Pioneer League and the Idaho Falls Chukars, where he performed well enough (.317 BA, 1.006 OPS in 11 games). Olloque’s power seems to have improved since last year, as he popped 21 XBH in 48 games with the Legends. The BB/K ratio is atrocious (7 BB, 67 K), but he did seem more comfortable at the plate this year. He definitely slowed down in August, with his OPS dropping 181 points from July (.690 in August, .871 in July), but he finished on the upswing, tallying a .787 OPS in his final 10 games (3 XBH, 10 RBI).
C Sebastian Rivero (.258, 16 doubles, 7 HR, 34 RBI, .692 OPS in 77 games) had a June to forget (.167 BA, .406 OPS in 17 games), but ranged in OPS between .597 (August) and .898 (July) the rest of the year. In 60 appearances behind the plate, Rivero threw out 35% of base-runners, and made only five errors in that time-span (8 passed balls). He took well to the backup role, but certainly could progress further than that in the coming years.
This is bound to be an exciting series. Lexington hasn’t seen playoff baseball in a very long time, and the team is running half a dozen promotions for this series opener, so the place will likely be packed to the gills. More to come after the completion of Game One.