It was a tough end of the year for the Hillcats as pitching kind of ran dry with young players gassed at the season’s finish line on each end of the ball.
The Hillcats didn’t make the postseason mostly because they lost their two best pitchers to promotions early (Daniel Espino and Xzavion Curry) and had to ride the ups and downs of young position players. INF Angel Martinez and Jhonkensy Noel carried them early. Andres Melendez and Alexfri Planez both had a few hot stretches but also plenty of cold ones. Gabriel Rodriguez struggled most of the season and pitchers that stuck around like Lenny Torres Jr and Josh Wolf flashed big potential some nights but went through growing pains of their first full season pitching. For Torres and Wolf, both came through it healthy, which is most important given their ages and Torres coming off of Tommy John. The bullpen produced arms to watch like Cade Smith, Zach Hart and swingman Jaime Arias-Bautista. OF Petey Halpin and Jorge Burgos also made the second half worth watching from an offensive standpoint.
So let’s get to the yearly IBI awards from Lynchburg’s first season as the Low-A affiliate for Cleveland.
9/16 at Fredricksburg Ppd, rain
9/17 5-2 L at Fredricksburg
9/18 L 4-2 at Fredricksbug – Game 1; L 4-3 at Fredricksburg – Game 2
9/10 L 6-2 at Fredericksburg
Position player of the year
1B/3B Jhonkensy Noel – .340/.390/.615, 19 HR, 66 RBI
Noel spent 38 of his 70 games with the Hillcats while going through injuries to his hand thanks to a hit by pitch and an ankle injury by sliding into second. The big man lived up to the hype at each level. He hit for average and power, albeit with low walk totals. He also handled third base quite frequently. While he may not end up there long term, it got his bat in the lineup enough to hit. He is swing happy and can get out front of breaking balls, but he did reduce his frequency of chasing them out of the zone in Lake County as the season went on. His homers aren’t wall scrapers. Noel hit them hard and he hit them far – including two in Lynchburg that were both near 500 feet in one game. He has not had trouble getting to his power in game and even hitting the ball all over the field when it stays in the ballpark. Noel’s biggest issues will continue to be breaking ball recognition and the ability to keep his hands back, or lay off ones that won’t be strikes. He might start 2021 in Double-A and he will face tons of good breaking stuff, so he’s going to face that challenge soon. He’s Rule 5 eligible this winter but the odds of him being added to the 40 man roster aren’t too high as he’s only played under 40 games at High-A and is a right handed hitting first baseman only – a hard profile to carry on a roster all year.
Pitcher of the year
Daniel Espino – 20 GS (10 with Lynchburg) 91.2IP, 3.73 ERA, 152 strikeouts, 39 walks, 1.12 WHIP
From just about start to finish, Espino was dominant at both levels. He had his issues with command and homers at time, especially against his fastball, but he struck out batters at an elite rate (nearly 40%) up with the other arm considered to be the top pitching prospect in baseball, Grayson Rodriguez. He ended the season pitching 12.1 innings with no walks, no runs and 20 strikeouts. Espino routinely touched 100 and got up to 102. Many scouts were worried as an amateur that he was physically maxed out and that he wouldn’t hold his velocity this well in the pros. So far, the young and athletic Panama right hander answered all those questions and flashed ace upside. There’s still work to be done. His control is still shaky at times and needs refinement. His fastball can be hittable due to lack of deception and his curveball and changeup are both a work in progress, but it’s easy to see major potential with Espino.
(Co) Reliever(s) of the year
LHP Jaime Arias-Bautista – 87.1IP (23G-9GS) 111 strikeouts, 15 walks, 3.81 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and RHP Zach Hart – 75IP, 105 strikeouts, 45 walks, 3.35 ERA, 1.33 WHIP
Bautista filled a spot starter, piggyback, and reliever role for the Hillcats this year and did it all effectively by missing bats and throwing strikes. While typically around 91-92, Bautista is deceptive and perhaps dominated younger hitters in the league with his command, but he was an effective force nonetheless.
As for Hart, he was all over as a reliever, coming in early and late and giving a lot of innings or serving in high leverage spots. He had a few stretches this year where he was hit hard, but overall put up great numbers. Hart is more of a power arm than Bautista, at 93-95 with a rising fastball and a big hook, he has the stuff of someone to keep an eye out for out of the pen.
OF Micah Pries – 72G (45 w/Lynchburg) .296/.371/.522 12 HR, 40 RBi, 14 SB
Pries missed some time with a hamstring issue at multiple points but despite not playing since 2019 and not playing a pro game until this year, he hit the ball well at both levels and inspite of his time missed with injury. He struggled a bit more in Lake County, especially with strikeouts but still performed well for 13th rounder.
Honorable mentions: OF Jorge Buros and OF Petey Halpin
Burgos hit .325/.413/.454, HR, 16 2B, 6 SB between ACL and Lynchburg but played the majority of his games in the ACL. Still the 19 year old was impressive in making contact and hitting well from the moment he got to Lynchburg.
Halpin hit .294/.363/.425 after a very slow start midseason. While he hit just one homer, the 19 year old handled himself well in full season ball for the first time at the top of the Hillcats order, working 21 walks after being swing happy early in his full season debut. There’s a lot to look forward to in his skill set and future at Lake County in 2022.
3B Gabriel Rodriguez – 97 games .236/.288/.314 3 HR, 34 RBI, 111 strikeouts, 25 walks
Another 19 year old, Rodriguez didn’t have a huge 2021 breakout like a lot of others of Cleveland’s international classes members. He struggled to make contact, which isn’t a huge surprise, but we didn’t see the power much through it either. He’s still young and there’s still plenty of time, he just didn’t have the 2021 like many thought he would.