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Southern League Championship Observations

The Chattanooga Lookouts and Biloxi Shuckers squared off in a win-or-go-home, sudden death, Game 5 of the Southern League Finals. Here's what I stood out to me.

Twins 1B/OF Max Kepler.
Twins 1B/OF Max Kepler.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I'm going to start this off by saying I was very, very happy to see the Southern League playoffs reach the pivotal Game 5 of the finals. Mostly for personal reasons as I knew this would be my only opportunity to see any Minor League playoff baseball due to work/proximity. I really got lucky on this one and I can pass that along to the loyal Minor League Ball readers.

Each line-up had a fair amount of legitimate prospects scattered around. Biloxi had their stud SS Orlando Arcia hitting third with RF Michael Reed in the clean up spot, and CF Brett Phillips batting fifth. Arcia, the now 21 year old Venezuelan native hit .307 with an .800 OPS while Phillips finished the year with an OPS of .901 across three leagues and two organizations. Reed also carried an .801 OPS throughout the regular season. Starting for the Shuckers was RHP Jorge Lopez who had dominated the Southern League pretty thoroughly with a 2.26 ERA over 143.1 IP en route to Southern League Pitcher of the Year honors. The 22 year old Puerto Rican native posted an 8.6 K/9 to go with a 3.3 BB/9 but allowed the opposition to hit just .203 against him.

On the flip side, Chattanooga had their own highly rated SS in Jorge Polanco in the two hole, with Southern League MVP 1B Max Kepler hitting third, RF Travis Harrison cleaning up, and Southern League HR King DH Adam Brett Walker II batting fifth. It is certainly a formidable heart of the order with Polanco setting the table with a .289 average, Kepler sporting a .947 OPS, Harrison getting on base at a .361 clip, and Walker mashing 31 home runs. RHP DJ Baxendale took the ball for the Lookouts with a 3.80 ERA and 7-5 record entering postseason play. Baxendale struck out seven and walked three batters per nine innings in the regular season with a 2.3 K/BB ratio and .267 opponents batting average.

Here are some of the notes I made as the game progressed.

It didn't take long to realize that Shuckers starter Jorge Lopez just did not have his command with him as he routinely left the ball over the heart of the plate. There were many long, loud foul balls in the first and a number were just missed and hit directly back to the screen. One even knocked my beer into my lap (not even kidding, it was delicious and taken from me far too soon). He only lasted three innings, allowing three runs on five hits and a pair of walks, also taking the loss. His fastball ranged from 89-94 mph and featured good downhill plane from a bit of an unorthodox delivery. He showed good composure on the mound despite not having his best stuff in a crucial game. The breaking ball was in the low 80's, as was his change up, but neither stood out as more than average. I would have liked to have seen him on a better day as this wasn't the best first impression, but he's certainly put himself on the prospect map with his impressive season. John recently profiled Lopez in the "Prospect on the Rise" series and is definitely worth a look. In my opinion, Lopez has the package to be a starting pitcher in the big leagues, likely as a #4 or #5 starter. You could dream on a future as a mid-rotation guy as John suggests and you wouldn't get an argument from me.

Biloxi CF Brett Phillips unleashed a rocket to third base in the first, showing off his strong arm to the Lookouts. He would also overthrow the catcher on a play at the plate later in the game. While the arm is definitely an asset, he does need to work on throwing the ball more on a line. Some of this may be able to be chalked up as nerves, being the deciding game for the title and all. Phillips also showed good reads on balls to the gaps and positioned himself well to get behind throws. He also impressed me with his closing speed while chasing down flies. Phillips finished the game with a double, single, and two fly outs. His double was a true "hustle double" in every sense of the phrase. It was a soft line drive into the right-center gap that Phillips was able to turn into a two-bagger. For just about every other player on the field, it would have been a single, but the guy's middle name is Maverick for a reason as he didn't think twice about stopping at first. He even finished it off with a nice Pete Rose-esque head first dive that he started about 15 feet from the bag. I mean, he was parallel to the ground about three and a half feet off the ground before slamming to the ground and skidding right into the bag. I see very clearly why Phillips has been given a "gamer" tag by other evaluators. I think Phillips will become a very good major league player and will be the starting center fielder for Milwaukee. A mid-2016 debut isn't out of the question and Phillips has the combination of tools, skills, and makeup to succeed for a long time.

Chattanooga 1B Max Kepler went VERY deep to right on a 91 mph fastball in the third inning, depositing the pitch over the right field bleachers and out of AT&T Field. The ball was clocked at 111 mph off the bat and was estimated to have gone 430 feet (that is, if it actually landed). The swing was so smooth and effortless, and the sound off the bat was different than anything else I heard that night. It was an impressive shot that got out in a hurry, and would end up being the only hit of the game for Kepler as he walked twice and struck out in his other three trips to the dish. He showed good patience at the plate and a good idea of the strike zone, not chasing anything out of the zone. After the game, Kepler received the call to Minnesota to cap off a pretty insane 24 hours. He might be finally putting it all together, and will likely start the 2016 season with AAA Rochester. It's hard to tell where Kepler will wind up defensively in the grand scheme of things for the Twinkies, but his bat is something special. I could definitely see a few .300 seasons out of him and agree with John's take as a high average and on base guy with developing power.

DJ Baxendale showed himself to be a fiery competitor on the mound for the Lookouts. The right hander wasn't afraid to attack hitters with a below average heater that scraped 90 mph. His cross-fire delivery adds some deception, but he needs to work on getting more on-line to the plate. He missed to the armside very often in the game with his foot pointing directly at the batter instead of the catcher. Baxendale showed a solid 74-79 mph curve that he was able to use to steal a strike early and put hitters away in the dirt. He also mixed in below avg 79-80 mph change up that wasn't anything special and a clear third offering. I can't see Baxendale as anything more than a minor league depth piece.