Triple-A is supposed to be a repository of Major League cast-offs and those lacking the ability to break into the highest level of baseball. The Lehigh Valley IronPigs, for once, are better than that. They may have lost their vaunted rotation and replaced it with a combination of hangers-on and promotions, but the big names in the lineup are still there, even if there is yet unfulfilled promise. The end result of the season was that the IronPigs set a franchise record for wins and now sit ready for a five game series - with Game 1 underway as of this writing - with the rival Railriders. The IronPigs aren't flashy, but they don't have a ton of holes. That is, if the goal is purely evaluate the ability to win, not to develop prospects and future Major Leaguers. That balance may carry them to an International League championship, or it could leave them behind when other teams' stars come to play.
The opening day rotation for the IronPigs was the strength of their team, headlined by top prospects Jake Thompson, Mark Appel, and Zach Eflin. Those three were followed by serviceable starters in Adam Morgan and David Buchanan. Now, Eflin and Appel are out for the year, and Morgan and Thompson are pitching for the big league club. How do you fix those kind of holes? Turn to the tried and true methods: Steal from your little brother and get some help from the Texas Rangers. From Reading came the prospects in Ben Lively and Nick Pivetta, along with solid org starter Anthony Vasquez. From Texas came waiver claim Phil Klein, who has been one of the top IL pitchers since joining the Pigs.
For Round 1, the rotation lines up as Lively, Vasquez, Klein, Pivetta, Buchanan. Lively is a deception-based righty with a three-pitch mix and solid command. His stuff has regressed to a point where he is not overwhelming, but it works well at this level. Vasquez is much of the same thing, only with less velocity and from left side. Klein is going to be 90-95 and, at 6'7", he gets that ball on hitters in a hurry. In Texas, he was a fastball-slider-cutter reliever, but he now seems to be more of the traditional fastball-changeup-slider-curveball type of starter. Nothing in the repertoire is really impactful, but solid command coupled with the deception in his delivery have given him success. Pivetta is the power pitcher of the bunch with a fastball routinely sitting 93-96 with heavy sink and power curveball. He will throw a changeup, but it is not all there yet, and will occasionally throw a slider, as well.
David Buchanan is David Buchanan.
If the IronPigs' hitters were living up to the names on their uniforms, they would be a juggernaut. Instead, they are just merely solid. Taylor Featherston may not be a good Major Leaguer, but he can handle third base and hit for some power in Triple-A. J.P. Crawford has been slumping, but also walking enough to still get on base at a decent clip (oh, by the way, he is still a great defender at short, too). Nick Williams has been a wreck in the second half, but he is a dangerous hitter who could get hot for a series. Brock Stassi is solid in the middle of the lineup and Andrew Knapp is still a plus bat for a catcher in the International League.
Cam Perkins lacks the tools and youth to be a real prospect, but future projection doesn't matter in minor league playoffs, just the ability to hit, and he can do that well. Same goes, in a way, for Cedric Hunter and Cody Asche, who both are good pieces in a lineup here. Asche can move around defensively for this team if they want to give a different look. Jesmuel Valentin has started to find success as a guy who can work counts, hit a bit, and hit one out in a rare circumstance. That leaves Osmel Aguila, Angelo Mora, Logan Moore and the recently outrighted Darnell Sweeney on the bench.
The Pigs bullpen is full of enough talent to just dominate and simply shut down games. Jimmy Cordero, Luis Garcia, and Gregory Infante all throw gas. Garcia can be a bit wild, but he is fine at the back of the bullpen for the Pigs, and while Cordero is not the guy he was a year ago, there are flashes of that pitcher still in there while he builds himself back up.
Elvis Araujo and James Russell really should be getting Triple-A left handed batters out with regularity. Dalier Hinojosa has been serviceable in Triple-A since returning from injury, but also struggles from wildness. The best reliever in the bullpen might be my personal favorite, Joely Rodriguez, who is death on lefties but also can just make opposing hitters pound it into the ground. He has imploded enough times in the minors to give me pause in calling him The Dominant Guy they need in the playoffs, but if the IronPigs need two innings to get to the end of the game, Rodriguez is probably the guy to get them.
There are some stars on this IronPigs roster, even if they haven't all been at 100 percent this year. Some of the big bats are slumping right now, but that doesn't mean Crawford or Williams can't turn it on for two series. If those two are hitting and getting on base, the offense will score. The starting pitching is going to keep them in games, and while they aren't big time prospects, Lively and Klein have shown they are more than capable against International League hitters. The bullpen just has to avoid an implosion, which might takes some deft management.