Summary: Equipped with an intriguing but young and inexperienced roster, the TinCaps sputtered throughout the first half of the 2017 season, posting a Midwest League worst 26-44 record. Unexpectedly, the second half was an entirely different story as a myriad of adjustments and an influx of talented arms propelled Fort Wayne to a 42-28 finish, a playoff berth and the Midwest League championship series.
The TinCaps cruised through the first two rounds of the playoffs despite a late-season promotion for the team’s premier prospect, Fernando Tatis Jr., but they were ultimately swept in the championship round by Houston’s Low-A club, the Quad Cities River Bandits.
Level: The Midwest league was established in 1947 as the Illinois State League with the TinCaps (formerly the Matoon Indians) being the lone remaining charter member. Though, the team played in four other Midwest cities before landing in Fort Wayne in 1993, adopting the moniker “Wizards” up until 2009.
The TinCaps play their home games at downtown Parkview Field, which was ranked No. 1 in the minor leagues by Stadium Journey Magazine this past January. Not only does it provide a magnificent atmosphere to transition prospects, but it’s well worth a visit if you find yourself in the area.
Low-A is the bottom rung of full-season ball, it can be difficult to gauge how meaningful a prospect’s performance is in the grand scheme of things. Some pundits focus primarily on the ability and potential demonstrated while others shift their gaze to the consistency of a performance.
As for me, I tend to agree with a more a middle of the road evaluation, relying on a couple of questions to filter through it– 1.) how old is a prospect compared to the competition; 2.) how raw or developed is the prospect heading into full-season ball; and 3.) is he making the necessary adjustments both in mechanics and in approach?
Player of the Year: SS/3B Fernando Tatis, Jr. .281/.390/.520
When acquired by the Padres in the James Shields’ trade, Tatis Jr. was viewed in the baseball world as an interesting but risky prospect best known for being the son of Fernando Tatis; however, there was a radical shift following the 2017 season as Tatis Jr. vaulted near the top of every national prospect list.
The combination of power and speed that he displayed as an 18-year old is tantalizing in of itself, but his growth at the plate as the season progressed shouldn’t be overshadowed. Over the first three months of the season, Tatis struggled with plate discipline, striking out 87 times while walking just 35 times.
I asked him in June about how he was refining his approach and he suggested that the major adjustment was developing his pitch recognition, saying, “You know, I’ve been working on my patience right now. At the beginning of the season, I was striking out a lot, but I got my confidence and know what they’re throwing.”
His growth manifested in a strong second half with a 40:37 BB/K ratio in his final two months at Fort Wayne and prompted the organization to thrust him into the playoff race with Double-A San Antonio to finish the year; skipping High-A Lake Elsinore.
He’s flashed some range at shortstop, spurring more debate about whether he can stick at the position long-term as his nearly six-foot-four frame fills out.
Pitcher of the Year: RHP/SP Michel Baez 6-2 2.45 ERA 58.2 IP 16 R 16 ER 8 BB 82 K
In his half season with Single-A Fort Wayne, the six-foot-eight right-hander dominated the Midwest League, striking out 56 batters over his first six starts. He didn’t exhibit a refined arsenal by any means, but his mid-upper 90’s fastball that plays up because of his long extension proved too much for hitters at this level to handle.
Baez will be tested in the upper level of the minors because the fastball won’t be enough alone to keep hitters off-balance the second and third times through the order; however, if he develops his secondary pitches and learns to consistently replicate his delivery, he has the raw stuff to be a front of the rotation arm. If not, his heater ensures he should have a nice fall back option as a dominant reliever.
Two Outside the MadFriars 2018 Top 20:
(1) Mason Thompson
How Acquired: 2013 MLB Draft 3rd Round
ERA W-L IP BB/K K/9 BB/9 WHIP
4.67 2-4 27 12/28 9.33 4.0 1.30
2017 Highlights: After kicking off the season in extended Spring Training, the 19-year old Texas native debuted with the TinCaps on May 24th, allowing a forgettable five runs (three earned). He faced similar struggles in his second game with the team, but by the next game, Thompson settled into a groove, striking out six and allowing only two hits over five scoreless innings. Unfortunately, biceps tendinitis would land him on the disabled list not long after.
He returned roughly a month later, struggling with command before getting shut down by injury once again.
Negatives: Since he had just had Tommy John Surgery in high school, Thompson entered the draft with health concerns and has yet to prove that he can hold up to the rigors of a full season. And unfortunately, the injuries this past season only further hinder his ability to sharpen his command.
Projections: Before the torn UCL, Thompson was garnering attention as an early first-round pick, so the natural ability is there to develop into a big league arm. His fastball projects to be plus and his secondary pitches are further ahead than a lot of 20-year olds, especially the changeup.
He has plenty of time to realize the potential, but he carries a high risk of never making it out of the lower minors.
MadFriars’ Assessment: Given his abbreviated time at Fort Wayne last year, Thompson is expected to repeat the level in the first half of 2018. The bevy of young arms below him will likely push him to Lake Elsinore at some point during the summer, provided he performs as expected.
(1) Reggie Lawson
How Acquired: 2016 MLB Draft 2rd Round
ERA W-L IP BB/K K/9 BB/9 WHIP
5.30 4-6 73 35/89 10.97 4.32 1.37
2017 Highlights: Along with the aforementioned Mason Thompson, Lawson signed with the Padres for an over the slot deal after being selected in the early rounds of the 2016 draft. His full-season debut was a bit of a mixed bag, alternating between strong starts and complete disasters; yet, he exhibited an above average ability to make hitters miss, racking up more than a strikeout per inning in 14 of his 17 starts.
Under the tutelage of TinCaps’ pitching coach Burt Hooton, Lawson focused on power pitching, hammering the zone with a low to mid 90’s fastball and wiping them out with a curveball. The latter of the two projects to be a devastating weapon as he develops the ability to utilize it deep into games.
Negatives: A very similar story unfolded in a great deal of Reggie Lawson’s starts—he’d cruise through the lineup in the first couple of innings before slowly unraveling as his control faded. The curveball would typically end up “loopy “ (for lack of a better word), and fail to entice opposing hitters, forcing him to rely on his fastball and undeveloped changeup.
Projections: At this stage in the game, it’s difficult to project what type of player he will become, but if you’re looking for a potential breakout prospect in the organization, Lawson could be precisely that. Just don’t expect him to zip through the minors because he needs substantial time to sharpen his repertoire.
MadFriars’ Assessment: It’s possible the organization begins Lawson at Lake Elsinore, and while that aggressive play fits their history with pitching prospects, they are much more likely to have Lawson begin the year with Fort Wayne, which is the ideal situation for him.
Up Next: We go out to the desert with the High-A Lake Elsinore Storm to look at the most loaded pitching staff to start 2017 and two of the more athletic outfielders in the system.