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Minor League Essay: Lakewood BlueClaws at Greensboro Grasshoppers

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2019 South Atlantic League Travel: June 2, 2019 Game—Lakewood BlueClaws versus Greensboro Grasshoppers at First National Bank Field, Greensboro, NC

On June 2nd I attended a Greensboro Grasshoppers home game at First National Bank Field in Greensboro, NC. Since 2009, the Pittsburgh Pirates hosted their full-season A class affiliate in the South Atlantic League, the West Virginia Power, in Charleston, West Virginia. However, during the 2018 offseason they relocated that team to Greensboro, NC as the Greensboro Grasshoppers. Therefore, 2019 is the inaugural season for Pittsburgh’s Grasshoppers team playing at First National Bank Field.

That day Greensboro played the Lakewood BlueClaws—the Philadelphia Phillies A class team in the South Atlantic League. It was the final game of a 4 game series between the Grasshoppers and BlueClaws. Greensboro is off to a great start to their 2019 season. They entered the game with a 36W:18L record and in second place 6.0 games behind the Northern Division leading Delmarva Shorebirds (Baltimore Orioles). On the other hand, Lakewood (18W:36L) was in the cellar (8th place) in the Northern Division. The Grasshoppers had won games 1 and 3, while the BlueClaws took game 2.

2019 Pittsburgh Pirates MLB Top 30 Prospects/Greensboro Grasshoppers Team Leaders

Four players that are ranked as MLB top 30 prospects of the Pittsburgh Pirates are members of the Greensboro Grasshoppers current roster. The table in Figure 2 lists each of those players, their ranking on the date of the game, position and whether they throw right or left handed, bat from the right or left side of the plate or switch hit, and the team or teams for which they played during the 2018 season and the class and league of that team.

A look at the table shows that the list includes one pitcher and three field players. Steven Jennings, who is ranked number 12 among Pittsburgh’s MLB Top 30 Prospects, is a starting pitcher. He was a second round pick of the Pirates in the June 2017 First Year Player Draft and as shown in the table pitched for the Bristol Pirates in the Appalachian League (Rookie class) in 2018.

On the other hand, shortstop Ji-Hwan Bae (#15 prospect), center fielder Lolo Sanchez (#16), and second baseman Rodolfo Castro (#29) are International players from South Korea, the Dominican Republic and Dominican Republic, respectively. Rodolfo Castro is playing his 4th season of pro baseball in Pittsburgh’s Minor League system; and his second with their SAL team. Castro is listed as a second baseman, but has been splitting his time between that position and shortstop. Entering the game, he ranked #1 on the team in doubles. In this game versus the BlueClaws, Castro was the Grasshoppers designated hitter and hit in the cleanup slot in their batting order.

Mason Martin at the plate in the BlueClaws/Grasshoppers game

At this point in the first half of the SAL season, the Greensboro Grasshoppers offense is led by first baseman Mason Martin. Martin is a middle of the order power hitter and typically hits in the cleanup slots in Greensboro’s batting order. However, on this day, he hit in the 3 hole in their starting lineup. The photo in Figure 3 shows him taking a cut at a pitch in the game versus Lakewood.

Martin, who is just 19 years old, was selected and signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates out of high school in the 2017 First Year Player Draft. Two thousand nineteen is his third season playing in the Pirates Minor League organization and the second in which he has appeared in games at the full-season A class level in the South Atlantic League. Entering the game, Martin ranked number 1 among all qualifying players on the team in six of the thirteen traditional offense statistic categories listed on the Grasshoppers official website: home runs, runs batted in, total bases, base on balls, slugging percentage, and on-base plus slugging percentage.

2019 Philadelphia Phillies MLB Top 30 Prospects/Lakewood BlueClaws Team Leaders

Five members of the Lakewood BlueClaws current roster are ranked as Philadelphia Phillies MLB Top 30 Prospects. The table of Figure 4 identifies each of those players and shows that three of them are pitchers and two are field players. That list includes two of Philadelphia’s top 10 prospects: right hand pitcher Francisco Morales (ranked #8) and shortstop Luis Garcia (#4).

Number 14 prospect, catcher Rafael Marchan is an International player from Venezuela and was signed by Philadelphia in July 2015 at the age of 16. He was assigned to the Lakewood BlueClaws roster for the start of the 2019 season, which is the fourth season in which he has played in the Phillies Minor League system. On opening day he was Lakewood’s starting catcher.

Marchan got off to a hot start with the bat and at the beginning of May led all qualifying players on the team in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and on-base plus slugging percentage. However, he went on the injured listed on May 2nd and missed 20 games. So he no longer has enough plate appearances to rank as a team leader in any of those four batting statistic categories. Marchan was reactivated on May 25th; is back in the BlueClaws staring lineup; and is again accumulating plate appearances. In fact, he was Lakewood’s starting catcher in this game and hit in the #2 slot in their batting order.

At this point in the season, the BlueClaws offense is driven by a number of different members of their active roster. However, entering the game shortstop Jonathan Guzman led the team in four of the traditional offense statistics categories listed on their official website. Guzman, who is from the Dominican Republic, was signed by Philadelphia as an International free agent in August 2015 at the age of 16. He is currently playing his fourth season of pro ball in the Phillies Minor League system. Guzman was assigned to Lakewood for the start of the 2019 season and was their opening day shortstop. As a table-setter in the BlueClaws lineup, he typically hits leadoff and on the date of the game ranked #1 among all the players on their active roster in: hits, runs batted in, total bases, and stolen bases. Jonathan Guzman started at short and hit in the #1 slot in Lakewood’s lineup in this game.

Greensboro Grasshoppers right hand starting pitcher Alex Manasa

This game gave me the opportunity to see a Lakewood highly ranked pitcher and one of the Grasshoppers top pitchers faced off against each other as the starters. Alex Manasa, who is a former college pitcher and was selected and signed by Pittsburgh in the 2017 draft, has been a member of Greensboro’s starting rotation since opening day. His 2019 season is off to an exceptional start. In 11 starting appearances, Manasa had posted a 6W:0L record. The photo in Figure 5 shows Alex Manasa delivering a pitch to a BlueClaws batter in the game

On the other hand, Lakewood sent right hander Francisco Morales to the hill. As identified earlier, he is ranked #8 among Philadelphia’s MLB Top 30 Prospects. Up to this point in the season, Morales has pitched both as a starter and reliever for the BlueClaws. On this day, he was making his sixth start of the season. However, it turned into a short outing for him. After retiring the Grasshoppers leadoff batter in the top of the first inning, Morales walked number 2 hitter, center fielder Fabricio Macias. He struck out the next batter to record a second out, but then walked the next three hitters he faced to force in the first run of the game. Macias scored when Morales walked #6 hitter, Michael Gretler (3B), who got the RBI. That was the last batter he faced. Morales was removed from the game after recording just two out.

The reliever, Gilmael Troya, shut down the rally, but then got himself into trouble in the bottom of the second. To start the 2nd, Grasshoppers catcher and #8 hitter Zac Susi led off. He greeted Troya by hitting a double. Troya struck out the next batter, but then walked the next three Greensboro hitters he faced to force in a second run. Susi scored on a walk to #3 hitter, first baseman Mason Martin.

That bought cleanup hitter and Pirates #29 prospect Rodolfo Castro (DH) to the plate. Castro flied out to center and on that play the Grasshoppers #1 hitter Kyle Mottice (2B) raced home with run 2 of the inning. However, the side was retired when the runner from second also tried to score on Castro’s fly ball, but was thrown out at the plate. At the end of 2 innings of play, Lakewood pitching had enabled Greensboro to break out to a 3 run to 0 lead on just 1 hit.

Malvin Matos being congratulated for his home run after crossing the plate.

On the other hand, Alex Manasa limited Lakewood’s offense to just 2 base runners during the first three innings—one on a walk in the top of the first and the other on a single in the top of the third. But, then in the 4th Manasa hit the BlueClaws leadoff batter, catcher and #2 hitter Rafael Marchan (Philadelphia’s #14 prospect). He retired the next two batters and appeared to be poised to record another scoreless inning. But, then number 5 hitter Malvin Matos (RF) lined a home run over the left center field wall to put the BlueClaws on the scoreboard. Lakewood was still down, but had closed the gap to 3-2. The photo in Figure 6 shows Matos being congratulated by Rafael Marchan, who had crossed the plate before him.

That score held through the end of the 5th inning. Manasa faced the top of the Lakewood BlueClaws batting order in the top of the sixth. He retired the leadoff batter, but then gave up a double to number 2 hitter Rafael Marchan. Manasa struck out the next batter and again appeared to be ready to shut down the rally. BlueClaws cleanup hitter Luke Miller came to the plate with 2 outs and a runner in scoring position on second base. However, Miller singled to drive in Marchan with the game tying run. On the play, Miller tried to advance to second, but was thrown out to retire the side. So, entering the bottom of the 6th the game was now tied 3-all.

Alex Manasa did not return to the mound for the top of the 7th. Instead, he was replaced by right hand reliever Will Gardner. In baseball, a quality start is a statistic for a starting pitcher defined as a game in which the pitcher completes at least six innings and permits no more than three earned runs. Manasa had thrown a quality start. His overall stats for the day were 6 innings pitched, 3 runs (all earned), 4 hits, 1 base on ball, 1 hit batsman, and 7 strikeouts.

In the top of the 7th, Gardner struggled a little and Lakewood loaded the bases on him with two down. But he succeeded in striking out the BlueClaws top hitter, leadoff batter Jonathan Guzman, to shut down the rally and retire the side.

In the bottom of the 7th, the Greensboro Grasshoppers staged a game winning rally. BlueClaws reliever Victor Santos, who entered the game in the 4th inning, retired the first two batters he faced. That brought the leader of the Grasshoppers offense, first baseman Mason Martin to the plate. Martin doubled and then advanced to third base on a wild pitch. The next batter was Pirates #29 prospect, cleanup hitter Rodolfo Castro. He singled to right to drive in Martin to put the Grasshoppers on top 4 runs to 3.

Rodolfo Castro’s RBI single turned out to be the game winning hit. Gardner pitched a 1, 2, 3 8th inning and then turned the game over to lefty reliever Braeden Ogle for the close. Ogle allowed one hit in the top of the 9th, but then retired the side to secure a Greensboro Grasshoppers 4 run to 3 victory. Will Gardner got the win to run his record to 2W:0L and Ogle recorded his 3rd save of the season.

Grasshoppers cleanup hitter Rodolfo Castro.

On this day, cleanup hitter Rodolfo Castro, who was Greensboro’s designated hitter, led the Grasshoppers offense. He went 1 for 2, walked in another trip to the plate, and drove in two of their 4 run. In fact, as highlighted earlier he singled to drive in Mason Martin with the game winning run. The photo above shows the swing on which he hit the game winning single.

Walter Triebel spent 15 years as an adjunct faculty member at Fairleigh Dickinson University. He has had an extensive career in business and as a textbook and reference book author. Triebel’s “Road-Tripping the South Atlantic League: A Guide to the Teams, Ballparks and Cities“ was published by McFarland in 2016. It’s available for purchase on their website as well as Amazon.