Who have been the best players in the Midwest League so far this season? I recently posed that question to some of the circuit’s broadcasters, with an important qualifier: I requested that they base their selections on what they’ve seen with their own eyes, and not on players’ reputations. I also asked for snapshot observations on each player named, which the respondents graciously took the time to provide.
As noted in last season’s survey, the Midwest League comprises two divisions, with an unbalanced schedule. Couple that with the fact that this is a midseason look, and the respondents will have seen some players more than others (or not at all). For that reason, notable prospects may not appear on a particular list.
Six broadcasters participated — four from the Eastern Division and two from the Western Division. Their respective lists were put together within the past couple of weeks.
Nathan Baliva, Peoria Chiefs (Cardinals)
1. Wander Franco: A generational talent. Hitting and fielding. Sadly we only got to see him for one series with the Midwest League crossover schedules, but you could tell he was special, with baseball instincts and natural ability. Hits the ball hard and has everything you could want. Will be fun to watch him go up the ladder.
2. Alek Thomas: This kid has crushed us all season. Had a series in early July where he was 9-for-10 and very nearly had cycles on back-to-back days. Hit the ball all over Dozer Park with power, using all fields and [showing] his speed. No matter what was tried, we couldn’t get him out that series.
3. Brice Turang: We saw him early and then again at the end of May/early June, and you could see the improvement as he got used to the Midwest League. That’s a lot of what you’re looking for with the high school kids at this level. He showed a lot of maturity. Can hit and field, and never gives away at-bats.
4. Jose Soriano: The best pitcher to face us this season, with great stuff and a nice mix of fastball and off-speed against our lineup. Really mixed things up against righties and lefties. Athletic kid, and his entire delivery looks free and easy. Had an explosive four-seamer against us, and his curveball was really sharp.
5. Bo Naylor: We just saw him last week, and while his average may be down, he was hitting the ball hard and to all fields against us. Had a long home run, a double off the wall, and a walk-off opposite-field single. Called a good game behind the plate. For a teenager, he was very impressive all around at catcher.
I didn’t rank our own Nolan Gorman since I saw him every day and there’s bias there, but I would have him top three for sure — especially with his maturity and growth this season. That power is incredible, and I look forward to watching the jump he makes in Springfield, like Dylan Carlson did this year.
We didn’t see some of the top hitters in the league, like Will Benson, Xavier Edwards, Nico Hulsizer, or Tyler Freeman. We also saw Bowling Green before Matthew Liberatore joined them.
Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, Lansing Lugnuts (Blue Jays)
1. Wander Franco: A remarkable offensive force whom the Lugnuts pitchers started treating like he was Babe Ruth, and for good reason. Make a mistake in the zone and he punishes it.
2/3. Matthew Liberatore: Do you like a dominant lefty…
2/3. Shane Baz – … or a dominant right-hander? Bowling Green had both, and it’s a coin flip to figure out who to put first. They’re both talented arms.
4. Alek Thomas: It’s difficult for me, as a non-scout, to judge position players who I only see for three games, which is why my list is Eastern Division heavy, but Thomas stood out, showing power, plate discipline, and fine defensive ability.
5. Jordan Groshans: A highly skilled offensive player with a balanced approach, early pitch recognition, and power to all fields.
Honorable Mentions: Tucupita Marcano and Xavier Edwards: two peas in a pod as speedy contact-hitting middle infielders; Alejandro Kirk and Gabriel Moreno, two sound defensive catchers with impact bats; Niko Hulsizer and Will Benson, pure power.
Andrew Luftglass, Lake County Captains (Indians)
1. Wander Franco: This feels like a slam dunk No. 1. We saw Franco play nine games and my only wish is that we got to see more of baseball’s top prospect. Even when he didn’t produce, he was spraying line drives to all fields from both sides of the plate, with no obvious deficiencies from either side. He makes obscene contact (4.5% swinging strike percentage) and looks like he can barrel any pitch. His hands are so quick. Wander Franco is a ton of fun.
2. Tyler Freeman: I was excited to watch Tyler when this season began because it’s increasingly rare to find a guy with his contact skills. He certainly didn’t disappoint in that regard, posting a minuscule 5.2% swinging strike percentage and a 10.3% strikeout percentage. The one thing his game seemed to lack coming into 2019 was discipline. Tyler could put the bat on the ball, but didn’t walk. He worked this past offseason on drawing more walks and it paid off. Tyler increased his walk percentage from 2.7% to 6.6%. I completely understand the questions evaluators have posed about his ability to play shortstop, but even if he’s a second baseman that approach and line drive swing bode well for his future.
3. Will Benson: I had the pleasure of watching Will for a year and a half. His power is evident, but the people who watch him for the first time are most surprised by his speed. He’s an astute baserunner who swipes more bases than you’d expect from a guy who is 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds. The power-speed combo is fun to watch and came through more in games this year because of an improved approach (he already has 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases between the Midwest League and Carolina League). The best single plate appearance that encapsulated Will’s approach came during his four home run game in April. In his third at-bat, he fouled off six straight pitches before hitting a grand slam to dead center on the 10th pitch of the at-bat.
4. Joey Cantillo: I have a hard time putting pitchers on this list because we usually don’t see them enough to get a good read on a guy’s ability or stuff. That being said, I had more fun watching Cantillo than I had watching any other Midwest League pitcher this year. He has great command and pitches with a lot of confidence, especially for a 19-year-old. Plus, his changeup is exceptional. Note: A hat-tip to Lance Brozdowski for this great article on the changeup, which included how Cantillo developed his change. I happened to read it right before watching Cantillo and it greatly enhanced my viewing experience.
5. Griffin Conine: If I had to pick a guy in the Midwest League who would scare me the most (on a visceral level) if I were a pitcher, I’d probably pick Conine. While he has a lot of swing-and-miss, and doesn’t walk much, he can clearly mash and doesn’t get cheated. I feel like he can send any pitch out and he swings like he wants to.
Tom Nichols, Dayton Dragons (Reds)
1. Nolan Gorman: We saw him early and he looked like a blue-chipper despite being one of the youngest players in the league.
2. Griffin Conine: Very dangerous hitter; will need to cut down on the strikeouts.
3. Will Benson: Best pure power prospect in the league and a different player than what we saw in 2018. Still, the strikeouts are a big concern.
4. Brennen Davis: Big, strong, and fast. Looks like a future star.
5. Michael Siani: Best defensive player I have seen this season. Bat is coming along for a high school draft pick from a cold-weather state.
Note: Did not see enough of Wander Franco to develop an opinion. Among pitchers, have not seen Joey Cantillo of Fort Wayne, who has the best numbers in the league. Impressed by Andrew Jackson of Great Lakes. Brailyn Marquez of South Bend stood out and looked great in one outing, but not as good in the next one.
Erik Oas, Clinton LumberKings (Marlins)
1. Brice Turang: Brice was unstoppable when we faced the Timber Rattlers. Consistently getting on base with singles to all fields. The power that was flexed by Brice played off his impressive speed and aggressive style on the base paths showing why the Milwaukee Brewers took him in the first round of the 2018 draft.
2. David Fry: Fry had eye popping numbers in the Midwest League, in particular when it came to doubles — the guy had 27 through the first half. Fry was older than most in the league, 23, but used his time in the league to punish LumberKings pitching. He prayed on breaking balls, and over 10 games against Clinton, he slugged three home runs with five doubles for a slugging percentage of .625.
3. Will Banfied: Banfield is the best defensive catcher I have seen since going into minor league baseball. Zero contest. His cannon for an arm behind the plate is just fun to watch — unless you are on the receiving end. He’s throwing out close to 60% of the would-be base stealers. His offense still needs work, but he has pull power and at 19, this will only continue to develop.
4. Jerar Encarnacion: Gone from the LumberKings now, Jerar, simply put, needs to be on prospect watch lists. He had one of the best outfield arms in the league, to go with consistent average, power, and surprising speed for his size. He was discovered by a scout while playing on the streets in his native Dominican Republic. Sometimes he was a victim of his own success and would expand his zone thinking he could hit anything, thus chasing out of the zone.
5. Wander Franco: The top prospect in the league showed all the flashes that scouts have raved about over just the the three games we saw him in Bowling Green. A fast switch hitting middle infielder, Franco’s plate discipline is what was highlighted, and far more advanced than most at his age.
6. Kyle Leahy: Not likely to be found on many prospect lists. Leahy dominated Clinton just about every time they faced him, and thus I have placed him on this list. He worked eight shutout innings, struck out 10 in another outing, and worked a combined 25 innings against the LumberKings while walking just one batter.
7. Alvaro Sejias: A more highly thought of prospect than Leahy, we’ve seen Seijas for two seasons and his development in that short time is obvious to all. He works with an impressive slider and hard fastball. Both times Clinton faced him this year, he struck out nine batters, mostly built on the wipeout slider to right-handed batters.
8. Alek Thomas: Alek can hit, pure and simple. Although knocked at times for a smaller than usual frame (5-foot-11, 175), he’s fast, aggressive, and has surprising power. He hit eight home runs in the league. His speed is displayed while on the bases, [but he] has not yet figured out how to use it for stolen bases.
9. Austin Hansen: While he is no longer in the league at the time of this writing, Austin’s reputation in the Midwest League still lives on. He posted a 0.83 ERA over 30.2 innings and nine appearances. The LumberKings were on the receiving end of his dominance on April 9 when he shut them out over five innings while striking out 11 batters at NelsonCorp Field.
10. Nolan Gorman: They say that power is the last tool to develop; Nolan Gorman does not see things that way. He’s just 19 years old and is already out of the league and in High-A. We saw him for a brief period in 2018, and over 92 games in the league he hit 16 home runs. I also found Gorman’s defense at third to be steady, and not bad given his young age.
Brad Tunney, Great Lakes Loons (Dodgers)
1. Wander Franco: Got on base at least twice in all five games he played against the Loons. The speed is made apparent every time he gets on base. One of those guys like Vlad Guerrero Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr., or Eloy Jimenez where he just looked different than everyone else on a Midwest League field. Our staff found him nearly impossible to strike out.
2. Miguel Vargas: Spent 70 games with the Loons and got noticeably better week-to-week and month-to-month. Teenagers aren’t supposed to hit .300-plus in the Midwest League with the cold April and May built-in, and Vargas hit .325. Impressive strike-zone awareness that rarely left him caught looking. Had the most jaw-dropping two-day stretch maybe for any guy in the league this year when he went 8-for-11 with four home runs, a triple, a double, eight RBIs, and eight runs scored in his final two days in Great Lakes. Was a treat to watch every day.
3. Matthew Liberatore: Teenage lefty with consistent mid-90s heat. Loons saw him at his best in late June. Fastball/curveball combo was the best 1-2 punch I’ve seen this year. Showed command of both pitches in all situations and counts.
4/5. Xavier Edwards/Joey Cantillo: Edwards got on base 13 times in a four-game series against the Loons in mid-late May. A menace on the bases. The Loons managed to figure him out though… he only got on base five times in their last six meetings. Cantillo, I was not at the game where he gave the Loons 10 Ks in six two-hit innings. He is clearly a stud and carries himself around the ballpark as well as any 19-year-old I’ve come in contact with.
6. Will Benson: I don’t think there’s been a more intimidating hitter in the league this year. Yes, he was repeating the level, but at 20, 21 years old he did a little bit of everything. Tough for a guy to be a threat to hit a bomb in every at-bat and also be a threat to steal every time he’s on base. That’s Benson. He also made numerous diving catches in the outfield that left us wondering how at 6-foot-5, 225 can move like he does.
Honorable Mentions: Josiah Gray – should have never started at Low-A. Niko Hulsizer – 22-year-old who was the best hitter statistically for two months in the first half. Aaron Ashby. Efrain Contreras. Tyler Freeman. Ulrich Bojarski.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.