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 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 year-end survey, the Midwest League comprised 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, three from the Eastern Division and three from the Western Division. Their respective lists were put together within the past month.
Nathan Baliva, Peoria Chiefs (Cardinals)
1. Royce Lewis: Smooth in the field when we saw him in April. Hit the ball hard and to all fields. Consistent and you can see why he went 1-1.
2. Hunter Greene: So raw but so much fun to watch. His first 20-some pitches, and 45 of the first 46, were fastballs against us, so he wasn’t working on offspeed stuff that game — but when the fastballs were all 97-101, it was fun to watch the radar gun. He threw strikes — no walks, two hits, five Ks in four innings against us — and seems to have figured things out after a rough start. Will be fun to watch how he grows.
3. Alex Kirilloff: At least we aren’t the only team he crushes. What he has done coming off injury is awesome and very impressive after missing a full season of development at his age.
4. Cristian Javier: This guy just carves us up. Great command/control. Velocity is there and his offspeed stuff is strong against us.
5. Jhoan Duran: I really liked what he did against us both times we saw him. Moved around the zone, pitched to contact, and used his pitch count efficiently. Had no-hit stuff the first time and pitched deeper the second time we saw him.
Note: We didn’t see Brendan McKay pitch, and he was 1-for-6 against us, so I didn’t include him. We knocked around Matt Manning and Brendon Little and haven’t seen Lansing, Ft. Wayne, Lake County, or Great Lakes. My next two would be Jazz Chisholm from Kane County and Drew Strotman from Bowling Green.
Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, Lansing Lugnuts (Blue Jays)
1. Kevin Smith: A true Midwest League superstar. He played shortstop and third base and played them well, hit, hit for power to all fields, stole bases, and utterly dominated once the calendar turned to May. He was clearly the best player on the field, and it was a pleasure to watch him.
2/3. Hunter Greene/MacKenzie Gore: Putting these two together because we saw them both pitch brief stints in April. Greene fared poorly while Gore did not make much of an impression. Then we saw them again on the current road trip, Greene for five innings and Gore for two, and it was clear that they’re each special pitchers. Greene’s breaking ball was the best outpitch I’ve seen this year, while Gore overpowered with his fastball.
4. Luis Patiño: Speaking of special arms, here’s an 18-year-old who throws mid- to upper 90s with fun secondary stuff. He was highly impressive in two different outings.
5. Vidal Brujan: A pure dynamo at the top of the Bowling Green lineup, the best leadoff hitter in the league.
Honorable Mention: Lazaro Armenteros, Javier Assad, Jazz Chisholm, Moises Gomez, Chavez Young. (I haven’t yet seen Brendan McKay, Alex Kirilloff, and Royce Lewis, among others.)
Update: I was blown away by the All-Star Game performances of Royce Lewis, Alex Kirilloff and Ronaldo Hernandez.
Andrew Luftglass, Lake County Captains (Indians)
1. Ryan Noda: Noda looks like he has one of the most advanced approaches in the league. He won’t swing at a bad pitch and can make you pay on a mistake. I was surprised to see he didn’t go deep until the end of May, but he made up for that in a hurry (9 HR in June).
2. Hunter Greene: We’ve seen him three times now and I feel like he’s gotten better every time. When we saw him in April, he had the blazing fastball but not great command and was getting hit hard. By July, he was locating his fastball and using his breaking stuff a lot more. He was a guy with more of a full arsenal, rather than just a novelty flame thrower.
3. Jeisson Rosario: The Padres have sent a lot of teenagers to the Midwest League the last few years, and it’s frankly hard to pick a favorite guy from Fort Wayne because they have a lot of young guys who are fun to watch. Rosario jumps out to me because he can go get it in the outfield, has good bat-to-ball skills, and gets on base a lot, which allows his speed to impact the game on the offensive side.
4. Nolan Jones: At the plate, Jones has an uncanny ability to hit the ball with power the opposite way and an impressive approach. Even when he wasn’t hitting in the beginning of the season, he wasn’t chasing pitches and was getting on with walks. There’s some question about where he lands long term defensively, but he’s worked tirelessly at third base, and he’s made leaps and bounds of progress in the half-season I’ve seen him there.
5. Jazz Chisholm: We only saw him for a three-game series, but he’s been one of the most exciting guys to watch this season. He’s slick at shortstop and can make a flashy play. That flashiness carries over to the offensive side with lightning quick hands, surprising pop for a guy his size, and speed.
Note: We go to Peoria and Cedar Rapids coming up, and we also haven’t seen Clinton or Burlington yet.
Chris Mehring, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Brewers)
1. Alex Kirilloff: What was he even doing in this league? But, seriously, Kirilloff was so good in all aspects of the game.
2. Royce Lewis: At the halfway point of the season, Lewis was hitting .302/.455/.709 with six homers and 37 RBI. Five years ago, Carlos Correa — in the MWL as a teenage shortstop and the No. 1 overall pick — was .304/.400/.830 with four homers and 44 RBI. Not saying that Lewis is going to be Carlos Correa, but it was interesting to me how similar the numbers are.
3. Jo Adell: His hot start in the Midwest League this year was just a prelude to what he is doing in the California League right now.
4. Elehuris Montero: So young. So much power.
5. Kevin Smith: He played just two games against Wisconsin this season and – in some pretty crummy weather – went 6-for-10 with two doubles, a triple, and three RBI. Smith is a special offensive player.
Tom Nichols, Dayton Dragons (Reds)
1. Kevin Smith: Best player in the league this season. Impact player defensively at shortstop, and we could not get him out.
2. Alex Kirilloff: We had a limited look at him over three straight days but everything off his bat was a rocket.
3. Hunter Greene: Best arm to come through the Midwest League in the last 10 years. Has a long way to go, but you can’t teach 101 mph by a starter.
4. Royce Lewis: Athletic, toolsy player with a very high upside.
5. Ronaldo Hernandez: You don’t see many catchers who are this dangerous as a hitter. Elite prospect if his defense develops as they hope it does.
Eric Oas, Clinton LumberKings (Mariners)
1. Alex Kirilloff: In our many meeting with the Kernels this season, Kirilloff has been a guy you hope you can keep in the ballpark and consider every one of his hits that stay in play a victory. He has a natural nose for driving in runs, and his approach seems to adjust to situations, shortening up when a single will drive in a run and benefit the team as much as an extra base hit. He is the only player I’ve seen this year given an intentional walk out of respect, walking him with no one on, and not just because first base is open and a double play is being set up.
2. Matt Manning: This Tigers top prospect lived up to the hype when we ran into him in West Michigan on May 9th. A very young righty, he kept LumberKings batters off-balance with a low-90s fastball that occasional hit 97 and 98 (on the gun in West Michigan). Still, the pitch that produced the most frustration was his curveball. Three of his eight strikeouts he recorded came looking, all on curveballs. When batters did see the pitch, they rolled it over, producing several ground-ball outs and leading to two double plays.
3. Vidal Brujan: Brujan may be the best leadoff man in the Midwest League this season. In his three games in Clinton this season, he was consistently getting on the base. While he drew four walks over his three games at Ashford University Field, at times he could get a little too aggressive at the plate. Still, all Brujan has to do is get on base and let his athleticism and phenomenal instincts take over, leading to high stolen-base totals. His speed and ability to hit the ball anywhere makes him one of the toughest batters we have come across.
4. Yariel Gonzalez: Gonzalez is not on many top-prospect lists for the St. Louis Cardinals, yet in our meetings with the Peoria Chiefs he seems deserving. He commands the strike zone well in our meetings and was more likely to walk then strikeout. Because he can drive the ball to any field, his walks come with a relatively high batting average and, at the time of writing this, has been a steady .300 hitter for all but nine days out of the season this year. Gonzalez can be a liability on the basepaths and is a slow runner, leaving him susceptible to bounce into double plays. The lack of speed does come with some power, and his home run against the LumberKings on May 13th was no cheapy, traveling an estimated 370 feet.
5. Austin Beck: The sixth overall pick in the 2017 draft, Beck is far more advanced then age would let you think (19). He hits the ball to all fields, which capitalizes on his greatest strength: his athleticism. He plays a solid center field and has shown, in our meetings, an intelligence with his throws that does not lead to easy bases for the opposition. Having been the team he hit his one home run against this season, the power seems like it will come. So far the power has been the last thing to arrive for Beck, and this is evidenced by a slugging percentage of .368 going into the second-to-last game of the first half.
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.