About David Freier
Sunday, June 19, Father’s Day, marked the end of the Carolina League’s first half of play. The High-A Lynchburg Hillcats captured the Northern Division first half crown with a 45–25 record, equaling the win total of the 2009 team which went on to win the Carolina League Championship, their last season as a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate.
The 70 games played in the first half by the Hillcats are distinguished by three elements – a strong offense, top-notch pitching from the starters and the bullpen, and a true sense of team effort. No one player on the Hillcats has completely dominated the rest of the Carolina League. Instead, each night a different player steps up to deliver a strong performance that leads his team towards victory.
On the third day of May, Nick Pasquale was assigned to the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats. That day would be the first of three games cancelled over the next week as heavy rains swept through the Central Virginia area. This forced a doubleheader against the Carolina Mudcats and the loss of an off day in order to make up a game against division rival Potomac.
More importantly, it would produce an opportunity for Pasquale to move out of the bullpen and get an opportunity as a starting pitcher.
As the college baseball Super Regionals are underway to determine which eight teams get to make the trip to Omaha this year, Justus Sheffield is content that he made the right decision when he chose the Indians over Vanderbilt two years ago.
“It was tough. Vanderbilt had welcomed me in as a family member. I loved everything about it, the campus was beautiful, but I followed my heart,” said Sheffield. “I felt like I was ready to start my professional career.”
A 6’0″, 190 lb. right-handed outfielder out of Cal Poly Pomona, David Armendariz was selected in the 23rd round of the 2014 First Year Player Draft. Now in his third year as a professional, he has reached the High-A level with Lynchburg.
A cursory glance at his stats, sitting at about league average, would not usually draw further attention, but since joining the Hillcats team on May 15, he has played in 19 of the team’s 23 games. In all of these appearances he has been in right field, with the exception of two relief innings against Salem on May 19, and has used the opportunity to become a key player in the team’s continued success as they charge towards the first half title of the Carolina League’s Northern Division.
Growing up in Southern California, Armendariz was a three-sport star in baseball, basketball and football. When he reached high school, he cut back to just football and baseball, where he was principally a pitcher. From there he moved on to become a Bronco at Division II Cal Poly Pomona.
Bobby Bradley is the 19-year-old from Gulfport, Mississippi, who was selected in the third round of the 2014 draft by the Cleveland Indians. He has anchored the cleanup spot in the High-A Lynchburg lineup this season, currently leading the Carolina League in home runs with eleven, two ahead of Aderlin Rodriguez of Fredrick, a player who has already had substantial experience at the AA level and is five years older than Bradley. Bradley is also pacing the league with 43 RBI and 35 walks.
His passion for baseball began at the age of four, in T-ball, and has been growing ever since.
“I kind of had a knack for it then,” Bradley said. “I loved playing and that was pretty much all I wanted to do. I started thinking I could be a professional when I was in the tenth grade, and even more so after I had committed to LSU.”
The High-A Lynchburg Hillcats have stormed out to a 29-14 record, good for first place in the Carolina League’s Northern Division. Their strong team effort has been just one part to the stellar start for the whole Cleveland Indians farm system. Given the #1 organizational ranking in a recent MiLB article by Sam Dykstra, the top four Indians farm clubs sported a combined 98-50 record. Only the Texas Rangers organization came close with 94 wins.
The past two weeks have been indicative of their overall season. Swept in a three-game series at the rival Salem Red Sox, they lost leads in the first two games from poor bullpen performance, before moving on to Zebulon, North Carolina. The Hillcats took three out of four games from the Mudcats before returning home for a rematch with Salem. With the wickedly hot Andrew Benintendi having been promoted to AA, the Hillcats only had to concern themselves with the remaining two top prospects in the Red Sox organization in Yoan Moncada and Rafael Devers.
In the game of baseball there are two fundamental and opposing goals. On the offensive side of the game the goal is to score runs – more runs for your team means you win the game. A fairly simple calculus, in principle. Whether you are pitching or playing defense, the name of the game is to get outs.
Hidden within the bullpen of the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats is a pitcher, David Speer, who has built his career on that simple premise, getting batters out. More often than not, when he makes an appearance, outs are the likely consequence of his time on the mound.
At 6’3” and 210 lbs., Daniel Salters is the epitome of a strapping young catcher. Astute observers of the Indians farm system will recall this name from his New York-Penn League All-Star accolade in 2015. In his first professional season after being selected in the 13th round out of Dallas Baptist University he put up consistent numbers and was awarded with a trip to Aberdeen for the league’s annual All-Star gala.
“It was a really cool experience,” Salters said about his first All-Star game. “It was fun to be a part of that, with a lot of really great players. To get to go to the Orioles game and be announced on the field, then getting to play in the All-Star game was a big honor.”
This opportunity provided him with perspective on what it will take to climb the organizational ladder and someday have an opportunity to play at the Major League level.
There is no doubt that 2016 is an important year in Mike Papi’s career. The former first round pick out of the University of Virginia has been considered an advanced hitter by scouts, and was expected to move quickly up the organizational ladder based upon his extensive college experience.
His 2015 season did not live up to the promise of his college performance. With a full season of 416 at-bats, he had 34 doubles, four home runs, 45 RBI, and walked 81 times while striking out 118 times. His season batting average ended at .236. He dropped from the #5 prospect in the Cleveland organization at the start of 2015 to the #19 prospect when the 2016 season dawned.
In the prospect profile on him back in March, I wrote, “Where Papi needs to make the greatest strides in 2016 are with his bat.”
Now, just over three weeks into the season, Papi is doing just that.
In the classic episode of Seinfeld called “The Doll” (#127 for those of you who want to check it out) Elaine tries to get the signature of the least well known of the Three Tenors who will be on The Charles Grodin Show along with Jerry Seinfeld. Throughout the episode this Tenor is known only as ‘The Other Guy’.
For the 2016 edition of the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats rotation, Julian Merryweather is that Other Guy. He is slotted in the number four spot in the rotation between Luis Lugo and Sean Brady. The number one and two spots in the rotation are held down by Justus Sheffield and Mitch Brown. All three of the pitchers ahead of Merryweather are in the top 30 prospects in the Indians organization and Brady has the pedigree of having been a member of the 16 and under group of Team USA in 2010 while he was still in high school.
Selected in the fifth round of the 2014 First Year Player Draft, Merryweather began the season with 34 professional games pitched to his credit, only 16 of those coming as the starter. He was drafted out of Oklahoma Baptist University (OBU), a place he had arrived at by a circuitous route.
OBU is a Division II school with a strong record in athletics, including baseball. With no offers to play Division I baseball when he graduated from High School in Berkeley, California, he instead went to Junior College.
In a professional career that has spanned parts of three seasons and a total of 194 games Greg Allen has stolen 89 bases while being caught just 21 times. This gives him a career stolen base percentage of 81%. In his short professional career this level of excellence compares favorably with well-known speedsters in the Hall of Fame, such as Lou Brock, who had a 75% rate, and Rickey Henderson, whose stolen base rate was just over 80%.
Allen was drafted by Cleveland in the sixth round of the 2014 First Year Player Draft. He attended college at San Diego State and was among the final class of players to benefit from the tutelage of “Mr. Padre” and Aztec head coach Tony Gwynn.
“I had enough time to get close to Coach Gwynn.” said Allen, “His insight, his love and passion for the game and being successful at it and his ability to share that with the players he coached was a great experience.”
On a cool and sunny Tuesday, the pop of baseball hitting glove and the dull thwack of fungo bats returned to the Hill City from their winter hiatus. This chilly workout presaged the events of Thursday, April 7th, 2016, when their second year of affiliation with the Cleveland Indians season began for the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats.
Similar to last season, the Hillcats roster features nine of the top 30 prospects in the Indians organization as determined by Baseball America. Fourteen members of the current Lynchburg roster spent time with the club in 2015, and the new additions replace such noted prospects as Clint Frazier, Nellie Rodriguez and Bradley Zimmer, all of whom will begin the season at AA Akron.