Minor League Baseball! After the 2020 Minor League season was canceled due to COVID-19, baseball returned to the Minors in 2021, albeit under a different structure.
Low-A went from two leagues (Midwest and South Atlantic) to three (East, Southeast, West), and the representatives from each will go straight to the Finals to decide its champion with best-of-5 series, starting Tuesday. This is a departure from 2019, when eight Midwest League teams and four South Atlantic League teams made the playoffs.
Tampa Tarpons (73-43, Low-A Southeast West Division champion) vs. Bradenton Marauders (71-48, Low-A Southeast West Division runner-up)
Bradenton won the season series, 7-5
Game 1 at Bradenton, Sept. 21 at 6:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Bradenton, Sept. 22 at 6:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Tampa, Sept. 24 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Tampa (if necessary), Sept. 25 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Tampa (if necessary), Sept. 26 at 6:30 p.m. ET
The matchup in the Southeast has been decided for a while; second-place Bradenton finished 8.5 games ahead of third-place Fort Myers, while Tampa ended the season 3.5 games ahead of Bradenton and 12 ahead of Fort Myers. The Marauders started the season 9-9 before winning nine straight, which proved to be a springboard to their overall success in 2021.
"Coming out of the gate we were just trying to figure out who we are; there hadn’t been real games that counted in a whole year," said Bradenton manager Jonathan Johnston. "We got together [after a 20-7 loss against Lakeland on May 23] and addressed the standard of how we were going to go about this thing, and these guys responded. We have guys who haven’t been through a full season…and it’s a really tough experience for them, and I think they’re handling it so well. They’re learning and getting tougher as the year goes on."
Despite finishing behind Tampa in the standings, Bradenton won seven of its 12 regular-season matchups, eight of which were decided by three or fewer runs. The Marauders outscored the Tarpons, 77-59, in a season series that included several high-scoring games. The clubs combined to score 13 runs six times and 10 runs eight different occasions.
"Tampa can swing it, they have some thump in their lineup," Johnston said. "We’re gonna have to pitch; our guys on the bump have electric stuff but have really learned how to pitch and get decent hitters out. We’re gonna have to lean on our pitching staff to do a tremendous job in this series to have a chance to beat Tampa."
The staff's electric stuff was a major reason Bradenton led the Low-A Southeast with 1,288 whiffs in 119 games Four pitchers -- right-handers Adrian Florencio, Luis Ortiz, Logan Hoffman and Pirates No. 15 prospect Jared Jones -- exceeded 100 strikeouts. That propensity for swings and misses will play a key role in stopping a Tampa offense that averaged 6.6 runs per game in the regular season. Bradenton's 5.7 runs per game ranked second in the league though, as the offenses ultimately propelled both teams into the playoffs.
"Definitely confident in our pitching and our ability to create offense," Johnston said. "Those are our two main strengths, and if we continue to do those things, we should have a shot."
Leading the way offensively for Bradenton is leadoff man Jackson Glenn, the Pirates' 2021 fifth-round pick out of Dallas Baptist who joined the club in mid-August and batted .337/.452/.475 while scoring 22 runs in 28 games. Catcher Abrahan Gutierrez (.919 OPS in 22 games with Bradenton) returned from injury last week and adds another potent bat to the lineup. His return has freed up Pirates No. 19 prospect Endy Rodriguez (.892 OPS) to play other positions in addition to the 54 he's amassed behind the plate. The 21-year-old has also appeared in 18 games at first base and four in left field.
"Jackson ... he comes in and not only is a big boost as a guy in the leadoff spot, but also an example of how we’re taking a team approach into the game," Johnston said. "Abrahan always brings professional at-bats. He just adds more length to our lineup with quality at-bats. I can’t say enough about Endy. He brings energy, he’s a got a passion for the game. He’s been a sparkplug for us all year, and he’s learned how to be consistent over the entire season."
For Tampa, MLB.com's 17th overall prospect Jasson Dominguez is the headliner. The 18-year-old held his own near the top of the Tarpons' lineup, batting .258/.346/.398 with five home runs and seven stolen bases in 49 games. Shortstop Trey Sweeney, the No. 7 Yankees prospect, batted .245/.357/.518 since being added to the team in early August with six home runs and 26 runs scored out of the leadoff spot, directly in front of Dominguez.
Tampa's pitching staff has lost several players to promotions, which leaves the rotation uncertain heading into the playoffs. No Tarpons starter has pitched into the fifth inning since Blas Castano on Sept. 11, and he appears to be the rotation's top option in the playoffs with a 4.23 ERA over eight appearances -- seven starts -- since joining the team in late July.
All games played in Bradenton will be free to watch on MiLB.TV.
Charleston RiverDogs (82-38, Low-A East South Division champion) vs. Down East Wood Ducks (72-48 Low-A East Central Division champion)
Down East won the season series, 8-4
Game 1 at Down East, Sept. 21 at 7:00 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Down East, Sept. 22 at 7:00 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Charleston, Sept. 24 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Charleston (if necessary), Sept. 25 at 6:05 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Charleston (if necessary), Sept. 26 at 5:05 p.m. ET
Down East entered its final series one game behind Salem in the standings with four to play against Charleston, who finished 12 games ahead of them in the Low-A East standings. The Wood Ducks won three of four while the Red Sox dropped three of their last four games which allowed them to sneak into the playoffs and a date with the RiverDogs.
Rangers No. 8 prospect Luisangel Acuna struggled in Down East's first six-game series against Charleston in May, a month in which he hit .165/.280/.291. But the 19-year-old middle infielder finished the season strong, including going 7-for-22 with two homers and five RBIs in the final six games against the RiverDogs to help his team reach the playoffs. The hot streak brought his final slash line up to .266/.345/.404 with a team-leading 12 home runs and 74 RBIs, primarily as the No. 2 hitter.
Cleanup man and first baseman Cristian Inoa ranked second on the team with 11 homers and a .292 batting average, while 2021 second-round pick Aaron Zavala was productive after joining the team in September. The 21-year-old batted .293/.419/.400 in 22 games sandwiched between Acuna and Inoa in the batting order.
On the mound, 29th-ranked Rangers prospect Owen White struck out 54 batters in 33 1/3 innings this season with s a 2.93 ERA since returning from a fractured hand Aug. 10. Mason Englert led the team with six wins and 90 strikeouts while Gavin Collyer's 3.33 ERA was just below White's for the second-best mark on the team.
Despite their struggles against the Wood Ducks, the RiverDogs boast the league's top pitching staff (3.45 ERA, 1,269 strikeouts and 15 shutouts) and its highest OPS (.799), batting average (.267) and homer total (129). Outfielder Diego Infante paced the regulars with a .296/.393/.507 batting line, 16 home runs and a league-best 80 RBIs. The loss of Rays No. 11 prospect Heriberto Hernandez, who was placed on the 60-day injured list in August, removed a potent bat (12 homers, 44 RBIs in 73 games) from the lineup.
While right-hander and eighth-ranked Rays prospect Cole Wilcox (2.03 ERA, 52 strikeouts in 44 1/3 innings) is out for the season, the RiverDogs still have No. 16 prospect Seth Johnson to anchor the rotation. The 23-year-old pitched to a 2.88 ERA and struck out 115 batters in 23 appearances, including 16 starts. No. 21 prospect Sandy Gaston also enjoyed a productive seven-start run with Charleston after his promotion from the Florida Complex League, going 2-1 with a 3.86 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 30 1/3 innings.
All games played in Charleston will be free to watch on MiLB.TV.
Fresno Grizzlies (74-41, Low-A West North Division champion) vs. San Jose Giants (76-44, Low-A West North Division runner-up)
Fresno won the season series, 16-14
Game 1 at Fresno, Sept. 21 at 9:50 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Fresno, Sept. 22 at 9:50 p.m. ET
Game 3 at San Jose, Sept. 24 at 9:30 p.m. ET
Game 4 at San Jose (if necessary), Sept. 25 at 9:30 p.m. ET
Game 5 at San Jose (if necessary), Sept. 26 at 9:30 p.m. ET
Much like Tampa and Bradenton, Fresno and San Jose cruised into the playoffs, with San Jose finishing nine games in front of Rancho Cucamonga in the eight-team Low-A West. The Giants come into this series with momentum, having won nine of its last 11 games, including four of six in the final series against the Grizzlies. Meanwhile, Fresno had most of its penultimate series with Modesto canceled due to COVID-19 and hasn't played anybody outside of San Jose since Sept. 7.
This series is a matchup between the top two pitching teams in the league, with both posting sub-4.00 ERAs in a circuit where no other team was under 4.66. The hitting advantage lies with San Jose, however, which scored 5.88 runs per game compared to 5.52 for Fresno.
With Giants top prospect Marco Luciano promoted to High-A Eugene, third-ranked prospect Luis Matos is the biggest bat in the lineup. The 19-year-old outfielder slugged 15 home runs and drove in a league-leading 86 runs in 109 games while batting .313/.358/.520. Catcher and No. 8 prospect Patrick Bailey enjoyed as strong 47-game run with San Jose, batting .322/.415/.531 with seven long balls and 24 RBIs.
San Jose's pitching staff is led by left-hander fifth-ranked Kyle Harrison and right-hander No. 7 Will Bednar, the latter joining the team to make four short starts in September, where he posted a 1.29 ERA. Harrison went 4-3 this season with a 3.19 ERA and finished second in the league with 157 strikeouts in 98 2/3 innings.
Fresno is led by MLB.com's No. 51 overall prospect, outfielder Zac Veen. The ninth overall pick in the 2020 Draft had to wait a year to make his Minor League debut, but he's done so in style with a .301/.399/.501 batting line, 15 home runs, 83 runs scored, 75 RBIs and 36 stolen bases in 106 games for the Grizzlies. Rockies No. 8 prospect Drew Romo is an impact player both behind and at the plate, batting .314/.345/.439 with six homers, 47 RBIs and 23 stolen bases while playing plus defense.
Without left-hander Sam Weatherly, the Rockies No. 16 prospect who still leads the team with 96 strikeouts despite not having pitched since July due to injury, left-hander Breiling Eusebio and right-hander Tony Locey are the top starting pitchers. Eusebio was 5-0 with a 3.19 ERA and 64 strikeouts in 59 1/3 innings while Locey went 2-0 with a 3.16 ERA and 57 whiffs in 42 2/3 innings since moving into the rotation July 20.
The entire series will be free to watch on MiLB.TV.
Chris Tripodi is a coordinator for MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @christripodi.