The future was now on Sunday, even if most people missed it.
Major League Baseball has done an effective job of hiding the All-Star Futures Game, a collection of some of the best and brightest upcoming stars on the minor league stage. With a great opportunity to get the names of these young budding prospects out on a national level, the game was stashed away in the middle of the day Sunday while the big boys in the Majors wrapped up the first half of the 2017 playing schedule.
Willi Castro is no longer the youngest player on his team for the first time in his career. That honor goes to Triston McKenzie. Castro, now 20 years old, earned a preseason prospect ranking of 15 in the Cleveland Indians farm system, according to Baseball America. He started the season slow, hitting just .250 in April. Since then, he has turned up his performance and been a key hitter in the Hillcats lineup.
From the Dominican Republic, he has lived in Florida and Puerto Rico. The Indians signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2013 when he was only 16 years old. After two seasons playing in the Arizona League, first as a second baseman and then as a shortstop, he finally moved up to affiliated ball in 2015.
Shane Bieber, a 6’3” right-hander, was a fourth round selection of the Cleveland Indians in 2016. Moving quickly up the organizational ladder, he is now an anchor for the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats rotation. This season marks his fourth full year as a pitcher, making his accomplishments more impressive.
“I didn’t really become a pitcher until my freshman year in college,” said Bieber. “I wasn’t always great at it, I was something of a late bloomer.”
The third time was a charm in a different way for Lynchburg starting pitcher Shane Bieber this week. After making a third straight start and earning a third consecutive victory over the Frederick Keys on Thursday, June 22, the Hillcats right-hander took home the Carolina League’s Pitcher of the Week honors on Monday.
Making his ninth start for the Hillcats and his 14th overall this season, the 22-year-old dominated the Keys for a third outing in a row.
The 2017 season will be the first time since 1998 that the Carolina League hosts its own cavalcade of stars. The last time the Carolina League held an All-Star game featuring the Northern Division stars versus the Southern Division stars, High-A Lynchburg pitcher Triston McKenzie was not even a year old and was still living in Brooklyn, New York. The relocation of two franchises from the California League to the Carolina League during the previous off-season followed the end of the cross-country California-Carolina League All-Star contest.
The Lynchburg Hillcats are once again well represented in the Carolina League’s All-Star Game, set to pit the North and South Divisions against one another on Tuesday, June 20.
With the first half winding down, the Hillcats are still in the race for the first half crown and some of the players to put them in that position were recognized with selections to the North squad for the exhibition event next week. Three pitchers and two position players were picked to fill out the roster initially, with one more late addition giving Lynchburg six total representatives.
The strength of the 2017 High-A Lynchburg Hillcats is pitching. Right-hander Triston McKenzie, Cleveland’s third ranked prospect according to Baseball America, heads up a staff that leads the competition of the ten-team Carolina League. This overall pitching performance puts the Hillcats only two games behind Central Virginia rival Salem, with four games remaining before the All-Star break, heading into play on Thursday.
“Our starting pitching has been our strength,” said manager Tony Mansolino. “We have some guys here that have had some success in the past and continue to get better.”
Andrew Calica grew up in southern California and baseball has been a part of his life for as long as he can remember. The 6’1”, 190 lb. center fielder was selected by Cleveland in round 11 of the 2016 draft out of the University of California- Santa Barbara. This was the second time the Indians had drafted Calica, after previously selecting him the 17th round in 2012.
Rather than signing out of high school, Calica chose to attend college. Getting a redshirt his freshman year due to injury, he stayed four years at UCSB and many draft watchers considered him a solid pick, perhaps one of the strongest seniors in the 2016 draft.
“My parents always put education first,” said Calica about choosing college over an early start to a professional baseball career. “I know how important that was so I wanted to make sure that was a priority for me and UCSB was a great school, a good educational system, and a good atmosphere.”
The first thing you notice about Triston McKenzie is his size. He stands a spindly 6’5”, weighing in at only 165 lbs. When shaking hands with McKenzie you can feel the strength of his grip as his hand envelops yours. It is no wonder he has an intuitive feel for pitching that led the Indians to draft him 42nd overall in 2015.
Born in Brooklyn, New York his family moved to Royal Palm Beach, Florida, when he was young and he readily adapted to life in the south.
“I kind of like the setting down there a lot more, a slower lifestyle,” he said about growing up on the east coast of Florida.
Last season, Justin Garcia featured a flowing mane of dark blonde hair. This season, he has it cut short. Either way, he has been a reliable arm out of the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats bullpen.
Garcia was born in Rowlett, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. He attended Weatherford College for two years before the Indians selected him in the 38th round of the 2013 First Year Player Draft. He is now in his fourth season in their farm system and enjoying every minute of being a professional ballplayer.
After a couple of tough patches earlier in the month, the Lynchburg Hillcats have found that winning recipe in Carolina League play.
Winners of six of their last seven contests, the Indians’ High-A affiliate have charged back into the race in the Carolina League’s Northern Division. At 24-19, they trail the rival Salem Red Sox by three and a half games in the standings.
The Hillcats will play eleven of their next 15 games on the road, which could help them gain even more ground in the division. The ‘Cats have had a tough time at City Stadium this season, going just 11-13 on their home field, but are 13-6 on the road, a mark trailing only Salem’s 14-6 road record for best in High-A.
Observing Sam Haggerty on the field, there is a look of fierce determination, a scowl, that suggests he will do anything to defeat his opponent. As an observer of ball players you might describe him as tough, determined, or scrappy. That would be accurate, but incomplete.
The 5’11”, 175 lb. second baseman is the first High-A Lynchburg player of 2017 to win a Carolina League Player of the Week award. Originally drafted by Cleveland in the 24th round of 2015, this is Haggerty’s second full season assignment in the Tribe organization. He got into 100 games with Low-A Lake County last year, and played briefly with the Rookie level Mahoning Valley team after signing.