The Cleveland Indians may have had a disappointing early exit in the postseason a year ago, but their Class A Advanced affiliate, the Lynchburg Hillcats, did something the big league club has not been able to do for the past 69 years – win a championship. Sorry for the reminder, Tribe fans.
Led by top Cleveland Indians prospect Triston McKenzie, the Hillcats finished the regular season with an impeccable 87-52 record, before defeating the Frederick Keys in a postseason series to win a share of the Mills Cup, otherwise known as the Carolina League Championship.
Now, with McKenzie and other key players headed for greener pastures, the Hillcats will look to find continued success by pairing its remaining champions with new talent in 2018.
As the Hillcats prepare to open their season, let’s take a look at a few of the keys for success for the 2018 campaign.
Loaded Lynchburg outfield
Longo, the 422nd overall pick out of Ohio University in the 2016 draft, ripped an incredible .376/.448/.541 in 252 plate appearances in 2017. Although a majority (232) of the appearances came in Lake County, Longo’s left-handed bat was a key cog in the Lynchburg postseason lineup.
The former Bobcat from Mayfield Heights was penciled in as the team’s designated hitter at times in the playoffs, but saw time at all three outfield positions with Lake County, with a majority of his starts coming in right field.
With an incredible .416 BABIP in Lake County, according to Fangraphs, one can expect to see Longo’s batting average take a dip in 2018. However, with plus stealing capabilities (Longo stole 20 bases while only being caught once) and a high contact rate (15.1 K%), the 23-year-old has the capability to contribute to the offensive attack in various ways.
Also in the outfield will be the highly thought of Conner Capel, a 5th round pick of the Tribe in 2016. In his first full season with the Captains, the 20-year-old cranked out 49 extra base hits in 492 plate appearances, including a team-high 22 home runs. A year prior, Capel had failed to even hit a single home run in 153 plate appearances in 2016 rookie ball. A reason for this dramatic boost lies in his resurgent fly ball percentage, rising from 26.1% in 2016 to 43.8% in 2017.
The promising player from Katy, Texas also had 11 assists from the outfield. While Capel had some struggles on the base-paths, being caught stealing 10 times in 25 attempts, Tribe fans and Lynchburg supporters alike should be excited about Capel’s rapidly improving bat.
Who will step up as the team’s ace?
Although McKenzie is starting the season on Lynchburg’s 10-day DL, the right-hander will likely be given the opportunity to pitch in Double-A Akron when fully healthy. Without McKenzie on staff, left behind is a group of pitchers that show promise, but all with some drawbacks to their young game. While no pitcher may ultimately be as dominant as McKenzie was a year ago, a player to watch as a potential breakout candidate is the 21 year old southpaw Sam Hentges.
After being drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the 4th round of the 2014 Draft, Hentges dominated the Arizona rookie league over the parts of two seasons, allowing just 18 earned runs in 62 1/3 innings (2.61 ERA). The rookie also saw a 9.96 K/9 rate, striking out 69 batters over those frames.
A promotion to Lake County came in 2016, but the lefty battled a .375 BABIP and a 37% ground ball rate, which led to a 6.23 ERA in 60 1/3 innings before being shut down for surgery. However, Hentges did feature a 10.89 K/9 rate during this span, a team best amongst pitchers with at least 60 innings pitched.
The former 4th round pick made eleven shortened starts in both rookie ball and short season Mahoning Valley last season while returning from Tommy John surgery. In 17 innings with the Scrappers, Hentges struck out an impressive 23 batters and only surrendered four earned runs. While Hentges’ low ground ball percentage would be a concern in the big leagues, his ability to miss bats may be a great sign of things to come for the southpaw.
Catching tandem to make Hillcats debuts
Ice, the 72nd overall pick in the 2016 Draft by the Cleveland Indians, provides the Hillcats with a strong offensive and defensive presence. After winning the PAC-12 Defensive Player of the Year his senior season at Oregon State, the 22 year old has continued to impress behind the dish within the organization, making only eight errors in over 1,000 innings caught.
While Ice saw a sizable dip in his caught stealing percentage (36% to 25%) in 2017 while playing the entire season for Lake County, he began to find himself as a professional hitter. The former Beaver hit a sizable 11 home runs and 10 doubles in 316 at-bats. The catcher also had an impressive 11.4% BB rate, to raise his on-base percentage to .320 despite a .220 average and an unlucky .258 BABIP. Ice’s line drive percentage of 21.6% was 4th best on the team amongst players with 100 plate appearances, however.
Ice’s fellow teammate Li-Jen Chu played 123 games to Ice’s 93 in Lake County, but saw 29 less starts behind the dish. Like Ice, Chu struggled to throw out baserunners (18.4 CS%), but thrived with the stick. Entering the season with only seven professional home runs in 346 PA’s, the 24 year old catcher belted 17 home runs while collecting 22 doubles. Chu once again figures to split time with Ice behind the dish in Lynchburg, while acting as the team’s designated hitter in a majority of contests.
Lynchburg’s Season Opener
The Hillcats open their season tonight, April 5, as they host the Down East Wood Ducks at 7:05 ET.
If all goes well it should be an exciting 2018 season for the Lynchburg Hillcats.