Part of the Jackson Generals’ run to the 2016 Southern League title–their first in over a decade–was consistency in the infield. Second baseman Tim Lopes and shortstop Benji Gonzalez each amassed more than 500 at-bats last season, injecting some critical stability into the Jackson lineup. Between the two of them, Lopes and Gonzalez scored 152 runs, 24% of Jackson’s season total. They were key cogs in the trophy-hoisting Jackson machine.
You won’t see Lopes and Gonzalez this season. They’re not here, nor are any of their Seattle Mariners-affiliated teammates and coaches. But identifying lineup-stabilizing anchors is no less important in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ organization, and they’re sending Jackson the players to prove it.
IN THE FIELD
Domingo Leyba and Dawel Lugo, Arizona’s two best infield prospects, will play alongside each other for the second consecutive season. Both natives of the Domincan Republic, Leyba and Lugo had parallel success last year in the time they split between Class A-Advanced Visalia and Double-A Mobile. The pair combined for 154 runs in 2016, and according to Baseball America’s Prospect Handbook, increased discretion was a catalyst in both players’ success. Leyba’s walk total nearly doubled from the previous season, while Lugo dropped his strikeout rate more than six percentage points from the year before.
There’s a common word used by multiple outlets to describe both the 21-year-old Leyba and the 22-year-old Lugo: “everyday,” as in “on the path to being an everyday major leaguer.” Leyba is the better defender of the two and can play both middle infield positions, but Lugo has a better arm and therefore remains slated to hold down third base and occasionally moonlight at shortstop.
The non-Paul-Goldschmidt infield positions are an area of depth at the top of the Diamondbacks’ organization, so it could prove difficult for either Lugo or Leyba to climb the ladder to Triple-A this season. That said, both were added to Arizona’s 40-man roster during the winter, thereby protecting them from being poached by other MLB teams. In addition, the voices coaching Lugo and Leyba will remain familiar. Both new Jackson manager J.R. House (Visalia’s 2016 skipper) and hitting coach Jason Camilli (same post in Mobile last year) worked with the infield duo at different stops last season. With a full year at Double-A awaiting Lugo and Leyba, House and Camilli can deepen their contributions to the prospects’ development.
ON THE MOUND
In contrast to House and Camilli, Generals pitching coach Doug Drabek will look with fresh eyes at the two arms likely lead Jackson’s 2017 rotation. Right-hander Brad Keller and lefty Alex Young spent all of last year at lower affiliates, but the results were probably strong enough to warrant the twosome’s promotion to Jackson to begin this season.
Keller, the D-backs’ No. 2 righty prospect, turned in his second straight campaign with more than 130 innings pitched. The key for the Flowery Branch, Ga. native was a well-located fastball that seldom betrayed him at Visalia (26 walks, second-fewest of any qualified starter). Keller’s affinity for coaxing hitters into ground balls also helped him navigate the bat-friendly California League with an ERA under 4.50. At 21, Keller has a lot of innings still to be thrown before he’s ready for a role in a major-league rotation, but that’s the hope in a forward-looking D-backs front office.
While Keller began 2016 in Visalia, Young had to grind a bit harder to make it to House’s dugout. A 2015 draft pick out of TCU, Young weathered a forearm sprain in the early part of 2016 to divvy up 118.2 innings between Class A Kane County and Visalia. The Diamondbacks’ No. 2 southpaw prospect made up for lost time by riding a dizzyingly good breaking ball to a mid-season promotion. Last August, Young used a mere 88 pitches to complete a nine-inning game, but to meet organizational expectations similar to Keller’s, Baseball America cites Young’s need for more consistent command as a point of emphasis.
Beyond the walls of The Ballpark at Jackson, many other D-backs prospects will lace up their spikes with lofty goals for 140 games or more. MLB.com and Baseball America update yearly team-by-team rankings of high-potential prospects, and I encourage you to poke through those and other resources (as I have in writing this piece) to learn more about farm system. Opening Night in Jackson happens April 6th at 6:05pm against Birmingham.