On Wednesday, the Memphis Redbirds open the Pacific Coast League playoffs against the Colorado Springs Sky Sox, the Triple-A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers. The Redbirds racked up 91 wins this season despite the fact that Paul DeJong, Harrison Bader, Luke Voit, and many other were promoted to the parent club. Here are five things to keep an eye on as Memphis attempts to cap a historically good regular season with a PCL title.
1. Dakota Hudson takes the ball in game one.
Don’t let his Triple-A stats fool you: Dakota Hudson had a really good 2017 campaign. In a season in which he was aggressively assigned to Double-A Springfield, he was named Texas League pitcher of the year and forced a promotion to Memphis. In 114 innings in Springfield, he posted a 2.53 ERA while walking only 7.1 percent of the hitters he faced. While his strikeout numbers were disappointing, he was paced by a groundball rate of 57 percent. In his final nine starts for Springfield, he was even better, allowing just a 2.03 ERA while lowering his walk rate to 5.9 percent.
He hasn’t carried that momentum with him to Memphis. His walk rate has ballooned to 9.3% and his strikeouts continued to decrease to 11.8%. He still got plenty of ground balls (57.7 GB%) and is actually giving up fewer homers in Memphis than he did in Springfield. Nevertheless, his inability to strike hitters out has hurt him. His 4.42 ERA isn’t deceiving, as his 4.57 FIP and 5.07 xFIP suggest batted-ball luck have actually benefitted him.
Triple-A struggles shouldn’t be a surprise for someone in their first full season of professional baseball. He’s done everything the organization has asked of him, actually. He’s taken the ball every five days and forced a promotion. Meanwhile, he still possesses the best slider in the organization and a fastball that can reach the upper 90’s on occasion. He’s got the stuff to dominate, even in the pitcher friendly Pacific Coast League.
2. Tyler O’Neill‘s power surge.
While the attention has been on the recent promotions of Jack Flaherty, John Gant, and Breyvic Valera, Tyler O’Neill has quietly been showing why the preseason prospect rankings were so high on him. Over 82 plate appearances covering the last three weeks, O’Neill has slashed .270/.341/.608 with eight homers. If you narrow that to the last week, he’s hitting .341/.400/.732, good for a wRC+ of 186 (which adjusts for the PCL park factors). He’s started to walk more (7.1 BB%), but I’d like to see that BB% reach 10 percent next season. Sure, his recent hot streak is a small sample size, but the playoffs are a small sample size, and a hot Tyler O’Neill could carry the Memphis offense.
3. Ryan Helsley starts in Colorado in game three.
I have no idea what to expect from Helsley in this one. He’s made one start for Memphis this season (September 1st against Colorado) and he went five innings and allowed two earned runs on seven hits. And, if Coors Field is any indication the ball will be flying and Helsley will be facing the Sky Sox for the second time in less than ten days.
On the other hand, Helsley has the stuff to be utterly dominant. His fastball slices through the bottom of the zone much the same way that Michael Wacha‘s does, and his curveball is a plus offspeed pitch in my opinion. His changeup is still a work in progress, but when he has all three working his repertoire can be dominant. In 33 2/3 innings for Springfield Helsley posted a 2.67 ERA and struck out nearly a third of the hitters he faced, showing the 2017 Florida State League Pitcher of the Year wasn’t just a byproduct of the Florida State League.
4. What roles will Magneuris Sierra, Tommy Edman, and Zac Gallen have?
Sierra, Edman, and Gallen were promoted to Memphis when Springfield was eliminated from the Texas League playoffs on Saturday. Of the three, Sierra has the clearest route to playing time. I’d guess that you’ll see an outfield of O’Neill in left, Sierra in center, and Jose Adolis Garcia in right with Nick Martini mixing in at first and DH.
Edman’s role is murkier. Aledmys Diaz remains on the Memphis roster (more on him later), and Wilfredo Tovar has been surprisingly good in the second half, hitting .291/.333/.439 since July 1st. While Tovar has had a solid season (and been at Triple-A for all of it), Edman is more of a prospect than Tovar and exposing him to a playoff atmosphere might be more beneficial to the organization long-term than it is to the 2017 Memphis Redbirds.
Finally, Zac Gallen. He looks much more like a starter to me than teammate Ryan Helsley but was not given the ball for any of the first three games. In any case, Memphis will need another starter in the series and Gallen could fill that role. On the other hand, the decision to promote Alcantara to St. Louis and not to promote Gomber leaves Gallen the only real prospect that could fill a bullpen role.
5. Don’t forget about Aledmys Diaz.
It seems like forever ago that Aledmys Diaz was the starting shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals, doesn’t it? Diaz hasn’t done great at Memphis, and his recent numbers aren’t something to get super excited about. Over the last month, he’s hit .255/.328/.392 in an extremely pitcher friendly league. On the other hand, he’s been in a major league pennant chase (even if it didn’t end particularly well), so the PCL playoffs shouldn’t phase him. I would expect him to start most of the games, even if he might bounce around the field defensively.
Thanks for reading!