The Double-A and Triple-A Championships Preview

Your favorite major league team might not be in a playoff race right now, but that doesn’t mean you can’t root for a team in the postseason. And you don’t have to wait until October, either. There is a good chance you can find a minor league playoff series that includes a local team or a team affiliated with a major league organization of interest. Most championship series begin this week and conclude by next weekend. Today, I will briefly review this week’s playoff contests in the upper minor leagues and point out some participating prospects that may reach the big leagues within the next two years.

MiLB.com has the most complete playoff coverage. You can listen to live or archived playoff games for free via MiLB gameday audio.

International League

The Toledo Mud Hens (Detroit Tigers Triple-A affiliate) will get a chance to defend their 2005 championship during this week’s Governors’ Cup Finals. Toledo defeated a more prospect-rich Charlotte Knights team (Chicago White Sox Triple-A affiliate) on a 10th inning home run by pinch hitter David Espinosa on Saturday night.

On the same day, the Rochester Red Wings (Minnesota Twins Triple-A affiliate) clinched a spot in the International League finals with some clutch pitching performances from a pair of young southpaws. Francisco Liriano was nearly perfect over three innings in his rehab start, and Glen Perkins finished the game with six innings of one-hit ball.

Prospects to Watch

The Twins don’t have many real prospects that can hit, and several of their advanced pitching prospects have been promoted to Minnesota this year. Glen Perkins, a first-round pick from the 2004 draft, spent most of this season in the Eastern League, and pitched better than his 4-11 record indicates. He could start turning heads with another strong playoff start versus Triple-A hitters.

Toledo’s Ryan Raburn is 25 years old and doesn’t do much with his glove, but he can hit lefites well enough to be a useful role player on a big league bench some day. Eulogio De La Cruz throws as hard as anybody in the Tigers system, and has been very effective since returning to a starting role in late July.

Prediction

The Rochester Red Wings will win it in five games. They have a secret weapon: Kevin Slowey.

Pacific Coast League

The Tucson Sidewinders (Arizona Diamondbacks Triple-A affiliate) defeated the Salt Lake Bees (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Triple-A affiliate) in four games last week. The team’s top starting pitchers won two pitching duels early last week, before Tucson’s formidable offense out-slugged the Bees in the final game of the series. The Round Rock Express (Houston Astros Triple-A affiliate) advanced to the finals despite being shut out twice in their best-of-five first round series.

Prospects to Watch

The Diamondbacks have promoted a number of their top prospects to the parent club this season, but their system is deep enough to support a solid playoff roster. Dustin Nippert was inconsistent this year, but he’s been good lately. Micah Owings went 10-0 with Tucson during the second half of the season and only allowed one run over six innings in the first game of Tucson’s playoff run. He’s also one of the best hitting pitchers in baseball. Alberto Callaspo looks like a candidate to replace Orlando Hudson at second base in a few years now that he’s left the Angels organization and learned to get on base at a reasonable rate. It only took Chris Carter two years to slug his way through the minor leagues; the former 17th round pick out of Stanford hit .301/.395/.483 with Tucson this year and could contend for playing time at the major league level as soon as next year.

Round Rock’s most notable prospect may be 23-year-old pitcher Matt Albers. Albers has always had impressive stuff on the mound, but this is the first time he has posted eye-catching numbers. Albers’ 10-2 record and 2.17 ERA with Corpus Christi might be misleading because his strikeout and walk rates were not overwhelming, but he did keep the ball on the ground and only surrendered six home runs over 141 innings during the regular season.

Prediction

The Tucson Sidewinders will win this series by Thursday. They had the best record in the Pacific Coast League for a reason.

Eastern League

The Red Sox’ Double-A affiliate, the Portland Sea Dogs, clinched a series victory over the Yankees’ Double-A affiliate with a 10th inning home run by Brandon Moss on Saturday night. The Sea Dogs prevailed in a series that featured the Yankees’ two top pitching prospects, Philip Hughes and Tyler Clippard.

The Akron Aeros (Cleveland Indians Double-A affiliate) won their first two games against the Altoona Curve (Pittsburgh Pirates Double-A affiliate), but they were not able to clinch a spot in the finals until yesterday’s final game of the series.

Prospects to Watch

The middle of the Sea Dogs lineup will include three players who could help the Red Sox before 2008. Jacoby Ellsbury is a gifted centerfielder who has been hitting for more power as the season progresses. George Kottaras, the catcher acquired for David Wells two weeks ago, already has a double, home run, and four walks in just three games since joining the club. Brandon Moss, a 22-year-old outfielder, has been making contact more often since his disappointing 2005 season in Portland, and should join Ellsbury in Pawtucket’s outfield next year.

Akron’s center fielder, Trevor Crowe, is a similar type of hitter to Ellsbury. The Indians are toying with the idea of moving Crowe to second base because the organization has other plans for center field, but Crowe has moved back to his more familiar position in the outfield for the playoff run.

Akron’s pitching staff will be led by Adam Miller. Miller established himself as Cleveland’s top pitching prospect in the minor leagues after striking out 157 batters in 153 innings for Akron this year.

Prediction

Akron will win the series in four games. Portland is well-rested and coming off an exciting series, but their over-achieving pitching staff probably won’t be able to contain the Aeros’ league-leading offense.

Southern League

The Huntsville Stars (Milwaukee Brewers Double-A affiliate) take on the Montgomery Biscuits (Tampa Bay Devil Rays Double-A affiliate) in tomorrow’s opening night of the Southern League finals. Huntsville rebounded from an abysmal start to the season to finish with their division’s best record in the second half. Both the Stars and Biscuits enjoyed three strong performances by their starting pitchers and swept their competition in the first round of the playoffs. Evan Longoria hit a walk-off homer to conclude Montgomery’s dominant series last week.

Prospects to Watch

Huntsville will start a trio of pitchers who are all capable of reaching Milwaukee within the next two years. The 20-year-old Yovani Gallardo has emerged as one of baseball’s best young pitching prospects this year. He struck out 10 batters in six innings to earn a win during last week’s playoff series. Southpaw Manny Parra has performed well since taking time off for shoulder surgery. Corey Thurman is not a traditional prospect because of his advanced age, but he worked his way back from career-threatening rotator cuff surgery last year and posted a 2.96 ERA for Huntsville this year.

Montgomery looks equally well-stocked with future major league talent. Mitch Talbot has pitched well since coming to the Tampa Bay organization as part of the deal that sent Aubrey Huff to Houston. Talbot struck out 14 batters in a complete game shutout to help Montgomery win its last playoff series. Andy Sonnanstine might be one of the most underrated pitching prospects in baseball since he learned to throw a change up; he is durable and his command is impeccable. Evan Longoria, the first position player selected in this year’s draft, is hitting like a guy who wants B.J. Upton‘s job in 2008. Reid Brignac, a 20-year-old shortstop, earned a late season promotion to Montgomery and hit 24 home runs in the California and Southern leagues.

Prediction

Huntsville has more pitching depth, so they will win it in five games. This could be a very entertaining series.

Texas League

The two best teams in the Texas League, the Wichita Wranglers (Kansas City Royals Double-A affiliate) and Corpus Christi Hooks (Houston Astros Double-A affiliate), will play Game One of the Texas League finals tonight.

Prospects to Watch

The first overall pick of this year’s draft, Luke Hochevar, took a no-hitter into the sixth inning of his most recent start for the Wranglers. Zach Greinke has pitched well during the past month and appears ready to complete his big league comeback next year. Wichita’s offense is led by two of the best young hitters in the minor leagues, Billy Butler and Alex Gordon. Outfielders Mitch Maier and Chris Lubanski won’t ever be stars, but they are both having fine seasons and could be useful role players with the Royals in a few years.

Hunter Pence proved his doubters wrong by slugging 28 home runs and driving in 95 runs this year. Troy Patton has not been dominant since his promotion to the Texas League two months ago, but he might be the best pitching prospect in the system now that Jason Hirsh is in the National League. Juan Gutierrez is quietly having an excellent season since making the leap from the South Atlantic League to the Texas League.

Prediction

The Wichita Wranglers will win it in three games. There is just too much talent on this team. Royals fans should pay special attention to this series; this is the organization’s new core group of players.

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