Early in my time following the minors, the Lakewood BlueClaws won back-to-back South Atlantic League Championships behind some of the most promising pitchers of yore. This version of the BlueClaws started almost as star-packed, with Top 100 prospects Cornelius Randolph and Franklyn Kilome leading the team into the 2016 season. Both scuffled in the early going, with Kilome imploding and Randolph missing a few months to injury. The BlueClaws saw some of their top hitters (Josh Tobias and Zach Coppola) promoted to Clearwater along the way and much like last season they lost a good chunk of their rotation to promotion as Luke Leftwich, Shane Watson, and Drew Anderson all went south to join the Threshers. Instead of crumbling, the BlueClaws went on a tear and brought back a second half championship.
The playoffs kick off on Wednesday in a best-of-three series with the first half division champions Hagerstown Suns. If they should win, the BlueClaws will advance to a best-of-five series for the championship.
Starting pitching carried the BlueClaws into the playoffs and, if they win it all, will almost certainly be what carries them through. With the three-game series, Lakewood is able to shorten their rotation to, arguably, their three best starters.
Alberto Tirado (Game 1) - 64.2 IP, 3.90 ERA, 51 H, 42 BB 102 K
Jose Taveras (Game 2) - 137.1 IP, 3.28 ERA, 116 H, 26 BB, 154 K
Franklyn Kilome (Game 3) - 114.2 IP, 3.85 ERA, 113 H, 50 BB, 130 K
Overall, that does not seem so impressive, but with their early struggles these numbers don't really reflect these three pitchers' seasons, so here are just their second half numbers:
Tirado - 54.0 IP, 2.50 ERA, 38 H, 27 BB, 85 K
Taveras - 77.2 IP, 2.32 ERA, 61 H, 14 BB, 87 K
Kilome - 61.2 IP, 2.77 ERA, 53 H, 22 BB, 82 K
That is a combined 2.51 ERA and K/9 of 11.8. The trio have the numbers and stuff to match up to the staggering stats. Tirado is a high-leverage reliever masquerading as a six-inning starter; his fastball sits 94-98 and will touch 99-100, and he matches that with a wipeout slider that is plus or better. He will occasionally try to throw a changeup, but the two-pitch mix and newfound ability to throw strikes is too much for most batters. Taveras won the league's strikeout title but can't match the others for raw stuff, although he throws in the low 90s with a decent pair of secondary pitches to go along with good control. Taveras works efficiently and can give the team as many as eight innings on a good night. Kilome has found his delivery again and is once mroe throwing a fastball that sits 93-97 with heavy sink. He also throws a power curveball in the low 80s that shows plus potential, and is starting to mix in a changeup again. There is a chance he loses his delivery again, but there is also a chance he build on his last two outings where he didn't walk a batter.
If the BlueClaws advance, they can add two of Seranthony Dominguez, Tyler Gilbert, and Harold Arauz to the rotation. While Arauz and Gilbert are more of the strike-throwing type, Dominguez represents a fourth dominant starter the BlueClaws could bring to the table, as he features a dynamic mid-90s fastball and power curveball. Lakewood could also use him out of the bullpen in the next round as yet another weapon.
The Lakewood bullpen has not been as dominant as the rotation, but it is no collective slouch, either. Edgar Garcia didn't work in the rotation, but the 19-year-old RHP has done well in the bullpen where he pounds the zone with a fastball up to 95 and a good slider. Jacob Waguespack, Zach Morris, and Sutter McLoughlin are all solid org relievers, with McLoughlin thriving in the closer's role. Ismael Cabrera throws hard, but has struggled down the stretch. If the BlueClaws need to bridge a gap to the later innings or shut down a game late, they could turn to eighth-round pick Grant Dyer. Dyer has a 2.39 ERA in Lakewood and has shown he can go up to five innings if needed; he is currently on a stretch of four appearances where he has allowed one run over 12 innings, while allowing only 8 hits, no walks, and striking out 15.
Another arm the BlueClaws could turn to more multiple innings is ninth-round pick Blake Quinn, who throws low-to-mid-90s and has struck out 45 batters in 32.1 pro innings this year. If the BlueClaws can lean on McLoughlin, Garcia, Dyer, and Quinn while using Morris against tough lefties they should be good getting games to their close.
As a whole, the hitting for Lakewood is nothing special, but it is fairly solid throughout the order. Mark Laird has been leading off since replacing Zach Coppola on the roster, and with more walks than strikeouts, his line is an attractive-looking .353/.445/.431. He does not give the BlueClaws a ton of power, but he gives them a healthy amount of baserunning presence. Down the stretch, Shawn Williams has been backing Laird with 2015 first-round pick Cornelius Randolph and SAL HR champ Jose Pujols. Randolph is still not hitting for much power, but with a .283/.364/.361 line since returning from injury, he gives the BlueClaws a one two punch of base runners at the top. Jose Pujols could singlehandedly win the playoffs for the BlueClaws with his bat since his home runs tend to come in bunches. He had a great August and September, bringing his strikeout rate from "prolific" to just "high" while walking more. However, he still struggles against RHPs and is prone to pressing and striking out heavily for weeks on end.
Grenny Cumana has stopped walking, but he puts the ball in play and can be disruptive on the bases. He also gives the BlueClaws great up-the-middle defense when paired with Emmanuel Marrero, who is more of a light-hitting, good glove shortstop. Carlos Duran has struggled greatly at the plate, but gives the BlueClaws a great glove of his own in center field. Damek Tomscha and Wilson Garcia have low power for first basemen, but they do put the ball in play at a decent rate. Deivi Grullon's calling card is his mitt and ability to handle the pitching staff, but he also hit .265 in the second half and can occasionally hit one out. A guy who could turn out to be a pleasant surprise is third baseman Jan Hernandez, who has struggled a ton, but can suddenly have it click for some massive home runs.
Overall, the offense won't be what carries the BlueClaws, but if they can get baserunners at the top coupled with, maybe, a Jose Pujols home run or two, and they can probably get enough runs to get their pitching by. If the rotation can give them five or six great innings they are going to be well-positioned to win games; if not, it will be difficult for them to scrap back against good arms.