Minor league teams are wrapping up their seasons now, and the playoffs are about to get started. The Cubs are definitely sending two teams to the playoffs, and very possibly a third one.
Iowa, Kane County, and Arizona are out. Tennessee and Daytona are in, and Boise gets in under most scenarios. Those are three very good teams that have quite a few very good prospects on them, but can they win a title? After we survey the system for the final time this season, we will take a look at the postseason prospects for each of those three teams.
Iowa Cubs : 65-77
That unlikely sweep of Omaha gave the Cubs a chance, but they promptly squandered that chance by dropping a couple of games in Nashville. Iowa will not make the playoffs and will finish at least ten games under .500.
Tennessee Smokies : 41-26
Not only has Tennessee won the second half title, they have also won five in a row and hold the best second half record in the Southern League.
Daytona Cubs : 39-20
Daytona rides into the playoffs with the best second half winning percentage in the Florida State League by a wide margin. One stat that stands out – these Cubs are a remarkable 22-8 when playing at home in the second half. Remember, they played most of the second half without Baez or Soler, and were only reinforced by Bryant and Vogelbach a few weeks ago. Even without the big name prospects this team was winning.
Kane County Cougars : 23-44
Kane County struggled all season long and will finish the year solidly in the basement. The offense played well, but you can’t win in the Midwest League without strong pitching and the pitching just wasn’t there for most of the season. The good news for KC fans is that team should have quite a few quality pitching prospects to open the 2014 campaign. The Cougars won’t be in the basement forever.
Boise Hawks : 20-16
Boise swept Salem-Keizer on the road to force the division into a three way tie, and now those same Volcanoes might hand the Hawks a spot in the playoffs. Quite literally the Hawks could make the postseason without winning another game.
Arizona AZL Cubs : 14-13
The Cubs finished over .500 for the second half, but still came up short of the playoffs. The front office moved players in and out of Arizona at a rapid pace all season long, but even after accounting for that I liked the talent level on this roster. The Rookie League season left Cub fans with quite a bit to be happy about.
Likelihood of winning the Southern League Championship: Very good
There are exactly two teams in the Southern League who have a team OPS over .700. One is Birmingham at .706. The other is Tennessee at .737. The Smokies are not just the best offensive club in the league, they the best offensive club in the league by a very wide margin. Keep in mind that those are season numbers, and that Javier Baez and his bloated slugging percentage has only been on the roster for the second half. Even so, the Smokies are the only team in the league to slug better than .400 as a team (.409 to be exact).
What is truly impressive is that the Smokies are posting those league leading figures despite being the second youngest offense in the league.
With an offense like that the pitching does not have to be great, and that’s good because the Smokies pitching isn’t great. They are good though. The 3.96 runs they allow per game leaves them in the middle of the pack, but that is still more than half a run per game less than the gaudy 4.50 posted by their offense. The Smokies also finish in the middle of the pack in BB/9, K/9, and team ERA.
Those numbers may be somewhat optimistic, though. For much of the season Tennessee enjoyed Kyle Hendricks and Alberto Cabrera anchoring their rotation with Zach Rosscup pitching beautifully from the bullpen. All three of those guys are in Iowa now.
Of course Eric Jokisch does have a no-hitter to his credit and has been pitching very well lately, Matt Loosen looked like he found a way to translate his Daytona dominance to Double A in his last start, and the Smokies recently got a huge lift in the form of Neil Ramirez from Texas. The pitching staff is more shaky than it would be if the Iowa three were still in town, but they have enough talent to get the job done.
The Smokies are good enough to win the championship (and I would argue should be the favorites going into the postseason), but they are beatable. A very good pitching team (like Mobile) could shut the Smokies’ offense down enough to keep the games close and force Tennessee to win it with their arms, and that could lead to close and unpredictable games.
Likelihood of winning the Florida State League Championship: Excellent
If you check the season standings the Florida State League playoffs look like we are about to see a clash of titans. By overall record the two best teams in the league are Daytona in the North division and For Myers (Minnesota’s farm system) in the South division, and no one else is all that close. The Miracle and the Cubs are No 1 and No 2 for the season in offense by Runs per Game, and third place is over half a run behind. They are No 2 and No 3 in fewest runs allowed per game by the pitching. On paper, these are clearly the two best teams heading into the playoffs.
But you can’t look at just the season numbers for minor league teams. Rosters shift all the time. A team that was great in the first half could be simply average in the second half, and the playoffs are in the second half. If we look at the second half standings, we see that For Myers is one game under .500 and just 14-20 on the road. Fort Myers today is not the same team they were in the first half (in no small part because Miguel Sano has gone to Double A), and Daytona is better than they have been all year.
As indicated by their runs per game, this is a loaded offense. They lead the league in OBP and are second in steals thanks to players like Zeke DeVoss at the top of the lineup. The are second in home runs thanks to the contributions of Baez early in the year, Kris Bryant late in the year, and Dustin Geiger all season long. Scoring runs will not be a problem.
And neither will be getting outs. Whereas Tennessee has a few questions on the mound, Daytona simply doesn’t. In a short series Pierce Johnson, C.J. Edwards, Corey Black, and Ivan Pineyro might be the nastiest string of starters in the league. And the bullpen has been every bit as good lately. This is easily the best pitching staff Daytona has seen all season (except perhaps the stretch when Matt Loosen was here with the others).
Pair that top notch pitching staff with a top notch offense and we have the makings of a championship team. That is not to say that the going will be easy. Their first round opponent (Dunedin, Blue Jays system) has been awful in the second half, but they did opt to play games 2 and 3 of the three game set at home. Road wins are even harder to get in the playoffs, so Daytona does have their work cut out for them.
And if the depleted Fort Myers team does not emerge from the other side of the bracket, it will be the Charlotte Stone Crabs of the Tampa system. That is a good club and they should have home field advantage. Even so, I don’t think Charlotte’s pitching can measure up to what the Cubs can put on the mound, and I will stack that Daytona lineup against anything in the league.
The Cubs should be the team to beat entering this tournament. Even if they have to do it on the road, I think the title is theirs for the taking.
Let’s leave the playoff projections aside and just talk about how Boise might get into the playoffs.
Right now the Hawks trail Salem-Keizer by two games and Hillsboro by one game with two games to play. Salem-Keizer is already in the playoffs by virtue of winning the first half. If they win the second half, then the team with the second best overall record will pick up the second spot in the playoffs. Also, Boise holds the tiebreaker against Hillsboro no matter happens in these next two games. So, add it all up, and the Hawks will make the playoffs if:
- Salem-Keizer wins out. Boise has the second best record in the division by a wide margin. If S-K wins their last two games, Boise is in the playoffs by virtue of that record no matter what happens in Boise’s last two games.
- Boise wins one game. If the Hawks beat Hillsboro once, the best Hillsboro can do is tie with S-K for first place. S-K owns that tiebreaker, so S-K would win the division. That puts us back in the first scenario and Boise would make the playoffs as a result of their season record.
The only way Boise can miss the playoffs is if Salem-Keizer loses their last two games against Eugene, the worst team in the division, and Hillsboro completes a sweep of the Hawks in Boise. Neither of those are likely, but stranger things have happened. More likely, I think, is that the Hawks will end the day today as the third Cubs farm team to make the playoffs.