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Midland RockHounds 2016 season review: The championship three-peat

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Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Now that the Oakland A’s 2016 season is over, it’s time for a look back. There’s a long offseason ahead and plenty of dreary winter days for dreaming on the future, but first we need to digest all that has happened over the last six months. So far, we’ve looked at:

Next up are the Double-A Midland RockHounds, who play in the eight-team Texas League. The Hounds opened the year with a strong roster featuring two of the team’s very best prospects, and they did not disappoint -- for the third straight year, Midland (78-62) won the league championship, making them the first team to pull off a three-peat in the Texas League since 1925.

The offense was the best in the league. The pitching staff posted the lowest ERA in the league. The Hounds dominated in every way from all angles from start* to finish, and even as their best players were promoted up to higher levels they had new heroes emerge time and time again. The playoff roster bore little resemblance to the group that got them there, but it just didn’t matter. For three straight years, whoever has put on a Midland uniform has gotten the job done when needed.

* They actually had a losing record in the first half of the season, but just go with it.

Here’s a closer look at the season.

Top prospects

Hitters

Name Pos PAs Avg/OBP/SLG HR BB% K% wRC+
Ryon Healy 1B 164 .338/.409/.628 8 11.0% 21.3% 194
Matt Chapman 3B 504 .244/.335/.521 29 11.7% 29.2% 141
Jaycob Brugman OF 176 .261/.335/.439 5 9.1% 18.8% 123
Franklin Barreto SS 507 .281/.340/.413 10 7.1% 17.8% 117
Tyler Marincov OF 423 .267/.340/.404 10 9.5% 21.5% 115
J.P. Sportman OF 515 .267/.309/.379 5 5.0% 15.9% 96
Yairo Munoz SS 413 .240/.286/.367 9 5.6% 18.4% 87

Healy and Brugman were repeating Double-A after solid 2015 campaigns, and both started out so hot that they were in Triple-A before the end of May.

That left Chapman as the central figure in the lineup, and he responded with an enormous year — his 29 HR led the league — that earned him MVP honors. Marincov arrived in late May to provide another strong bat, and Barreto worked past a slow first half (93 wRC+) to put up a monster second half (165) while adding 30 steals. Chapman and Barreto got the call to Triple-A for the final couple weeks of the season.

Munoz missed the beginning of the year with some lingering lower-body injuries and never really got going all summer.

A few other names:

  • 26-year-old 1B Viosergy Rosa provided some steady production, posting a 118 wRC+ and serving as a postseason hero.
  • The team had a strong catching platoon, with 26-year-old lefty Beau Taylor (129 wRC+) on the heavy side and 23-year-old righty Andy Paz (137 wRC+) on the light side.
  • A few guys came up from Stockton at the end of the year and got into a handful of regular season games: SS Richie Martin (5-for-15), 2B Max Schrock (9-for-23, 0 Ks), and OF James Harris (8-for-37).

Pitchers

Name R/L Games ERA IP K BB HR FIP
Daniel Mengden R 4 0.78 23 28 12 0 2.31
Dylan Covey R 6 1.84 29⅓ 26 17 2 4.14
Corey Walter R 29 2.15 100⅓ 54 15 2 2.96
Daniel Gossett R 16 2.49 94 94 25 4 2.57
Heath Fillmyer R 8 2.54 39 29 8 3 3.31
Joel Seddon R 27 4.40 143⅓ 75 48 13 4.49
Raul Alcantara R 17 4.80 90 73 27 11 4.15
... Bullpen ...
Kyle Finnegan R 30 2.14 42 41 20 3 3.66
Bobby Wahl R 33 2.21 40⅔ 48 17 3 3.11
Trey Cochran-Gill R 42 3.07 73⅓ 58 25 6 3.93
Sam Bragg R 36 4.29 65 68 19 9 3.86

It only took four dominant starts for Mengden to move up to Triple-A. Covey departed early as well, but unfortunately his reason was an oblique injury that ended up costing him the rest of the year.

Gossett arrived soon afterward and assumed the role of ace for the rest of the summer; his performance earned him a couple games in Triple-A at the end of the year. Alcantara’s numbers don’t look like much, but he caught fire after moving up to Triple-A and eventually made his MLB debut.

Not everyone in Midland was just passing through, however. Seddon was a consistent presence, though his performance was anything but -- his ERA was 7.48 in mid-June but he finished the year with a 1.84 mark in his final 13 starts (average six innings per). Walter, meanwhile, moved between the rotation and pen but simply put up zeroes in whatever role he was in on any given day (16 starts, 13 relief). He had 10 scoreless outings of at least four innings (and two more in the playoffs).

Wahl served as an excellent closer and most importantly stayed healthy, though he did finally hit the DL at the very end of the season after moving up to Triple-A. The team experimented with Bragg as a starter, with disastrous results, and if you remove his first two horrendous (and non-informative, out-of-role) outings then his numbers look like this: 2.52 ERA, 60⅔ ip, 67 Ks, 14 BB, 4 HR.

A few other names:

  • RHP Ben Bracewell posted a 2.14 ERA in a similar role to Walter, as a low-strikeout swingman. However, he’s a bit older (just turned 26) and much more of his work came in relief, so I guess the line between being on and off my radar is somewhere between Walter and Bracewell.
  • RHP James Naile made a pair of midseason emergency starts, and then also came up at the end of the year for one more game (overall: 4.76 ERA in 17 ip). He also pitched in the playoffs, which we’ll get to in a moment.
  • RHP Kyle Friedrichs came up at the end of the year and pitched one game out of the pen (2 ip, 2 runs). He also made one huge appearance in the playoffs.
  • LHP Cody Stull came up for one game (2 ip, 0 runs) after a big year in Stockton’s pen.

Championship run

After running away with the second-half division title (45-25), the Hounds needed to win two best-of-5 series to bring home their third straight championship. They’d previously won in 2014 (with a just-drafted Chapman as a surprise hero), and again in 2015 (with MVP Chad Pinder, plus Brugman and Renato Nunez going ham in the playoffs), and this was a chance to make some league history.

There was one potential problem: Their two best hitters (Chapman, Barreto), ace (Gossett), and closer (Wahl) had all been called up to Triple-A after great years, and their next-best starter (Fillmyer) hit the DL in the final week as well, so the RockHounds were without the core of their squad. Fortunately, help arrived from Stockton: infielders Martin and Schrock, and pitchers Naile, Friedrichs, and Stull came up to fill the holes. And somehow, it worked.

For the second straight year, Midland faced Corpus Christi (Astros) in the Divisional Round, and for the second straight year they beat them in four games. The deja vu continued when the drew a re-match in the Championship Round as well, facing Northwest Arkansas (Royals) for the second year in a row. It took them four games this time after a sweep last year, but the result was the same: The RockHounds were Texas League champions.

The team’s best hitters in the playoffs were Marincov and Munoz, but the offense was a true team effort with contributions all around. Even newcomers Martin and Schrock chipped in. The veteran Rosa added a pair of homers, and one of them was easily the biggest hit of the whole postseason -- a come-from-behind walk-off grand slam in the pivotal Game 3 of the Divisional Round, putting Midland ahead in the series instead of behind.

The starting pitching was excellent throughout the playoffs, with Seddon and Walter going scoreless in three of their four total starts. But the real heroes were the 2015 draft picks: Friedrichs threw 5⅓ scoreless of long relief to set the scene in the Rosa Slam game, and Naile started the final game of the Championship Round and tossed six scoreless. The bullpen struggled, but it wasn’t enough to sink these Hounds.

In a bittersweet distinction, catcher Beau Taylor is the one player who was present for all three of Midland’s championship runs. Here’s hoping he can celebrate by moving up to Triple-A next year!

CPL review

There were some high-profile prospects on this team. Let’s take a look through the CPL. (I’m leaving out Richie Martin, who only played five games at the end of the year.)

2. Franklin Barreto, SS: It took him half a season to figure out Double-A at age 20, but he got there. Then he kept on hitting for the last few games of Nashville’s season, and he raked in the Triple-A playoffs. He even cleaned up his defense a bit, cutting his errors in half from last season. Oakland’s top position player prospect had a productive year and is now close enough to the bigs that he could debut in 2017.

4. Matt Chapman, 3B: He led the A’s in homers during spring training. He led the Texas League in homers during the regular season. He was an All-Star and the MVP. He plays elite defense at third base. He stayed healthy all year. His high strikeout rate still gives one cause for concern, but otherwise this year couldn’t have gone better for Chapman. He cracked the midseason Top 100 list on MLB Pipeline and is currently No. 94. He’ll almost certainly reach Oakland next year, and it’s probably not out of the question that he could break camp with the team if he has another huge spring.

7. Yairo Munoz, SS: As mentioned above, it was a lost year for Munoz, at least on the stat sheet. On the bright side, he was playing in Double-A at age 21 — he’s actually one month younger than Richie Martin. His season held some parallels to Martin’s, as well, just one level higher — delayed start due to injury, never really got going, then finished on a high note (big playoff performance by Munoz).

14. Raul Alcantara, RHP: He really wasn’t that great in Midland, with almost as many disasters (4) as quality starts (5). But the A’s moved him up anyway and for some reason he clicked in Nashville, which led to an MLB trial. He got shelled in the bigs, but at least he got his feet wet. In mid-July it was fair to wonder if he’d fall off the CPL completely, but his late resurgence should keep him on there this winter.

15. Daniel Mengden, RHP: Absolute fire. We’ll talk more about him in the Nashville review.

20. Ryon Healy, 1B: See Mengden.

21. Jaycob Brugman, OF: See Healy.

23. Dylan Covey, RHP: The only prospect on the entire CPL who truly lost his season to injury. And it wasn’t even an arm injury, just an oblique. (“Just an oblique,” he said, knowing full well how much that injury sucks. But you know what I mean.)

25. Heath Fillmyer, RHP
27. Daniel Gossett, RHP: We already discussed them in the Stockton review, and it’s awesome just that they made it to Midland at all. It’s downright unreal how well they did once they got there.

29. Bobby Wahl, RHP: The reliever’s last couple seasons had been defined by injury, but he finally stayed healthy and showed his stuff. The strikeouts were high, the hits and homers were low, and between Double-A and Triple-A he converted 14 saves in 15 tries (plus one blown tie). He did land on the DL in the final week of the season, but in the meantime he proved that his ceiling as a late-inning power reliever remains intact.

The cool part isn’t that the Hounds graduated eight key prospects to Triple-A throughout the year. It’s that the Oakland’s Double-A team sent three prospects all the way to the majors, with two of them getting substantial playing time and one of them excelling.

I don’t know where else to mention manager Ryan Christenson, who’s led Midland’s last two championship runs, so now seems like a good time. Perhaps the former A’s outfielder can end up in a big league dugout someday?

Conclusion

Forget Oakland’s bummer of a season and just enjoy Midland’s instead. Almost everything came up roses, and it all ended in a ring. (Do they get actual rings in the minors? Plastic ones at least?) The A’s have spent a couple years restocking their farm, and it has worked. Most of the Hounds’ top prospects had great years, and the upper minors are now full of exciting names that should show up on the 2017 and 2018 rosters. The only question remaining is: Can Midland make it four in a row next year?