The regular season portion of Minor League Baseball ended on Monday, and what better time to look at the best of the best in the Dodgers’ minor-league system.
The organization has already done so, naming Brock Stewart and Edwin Rios its minor-league pitcher and player of the year. They were fine choices, and I agree with one of them. But, I went a different direction with the hitter.
Hitter of the Year
1B/OF Cody Bellinger
Some wondered if Bellinger’s power was real. After all, 30 home runs (plus three more in the postseason) isn’t exactly a difficult feat for some players in the California League. But, Bellinger showed in 2016 that his power was not a fluke and is very real. Oh, and he’s my Dodger MiLB Player of the Year for a second consecutive season.
He made quite an impression in Spring Training by hitting .393/.541/.679 in the month of March. At 20 years old, everyone knew he wasn’t going to make the MLB team just yet, and he was assigned to Double-A Tulsa and was scratched in the Opening Day lineup with a hip issue. No big deal, right? Well, it ended up costing him a month of the season, as Bellinger didn’t make his 2016 debut until April 30 — the Drillers’ 21st game. It was a slow start for him, as he hit just .108/.250/.108 in his first 11 Double-A games, but he got on track after that and showed why he might be the best first base prospect in the minor leagues.
Bellinger continued to sting the ball as the season progressed, but much like 2015, he turned it on late in the season. In August, he hit .287/.365/.594 after cruising along through the season’s middle months with respectable numbers. He got a late-season promotion to Oklahoma City, where he went 5-for-11 with three home runs in three games (two starts). The most impressive thing about his campaign was the fact he reduced his strikeout rate to 19.7 percent after having it at 27.6 percent last season. He also increased his walk rate by 3 percent to 12.6%. If he can replicate (or come close to) those numbers in the majors, he will be quite a valuable player.
He also continued to moonlight in the outfield, making 34 appearances (26 starts) there, including 13 appearances (11 starts) in center field.
Pitcher of the Year
*Minor-league stats only.
Stewart’s 2015 was solid, but he did get roughed up a bit in the Cal League. I ranked him at No. 61 coming into the season and said he’d be a guy to “keep an eye on,” but even I didn’t expect him to basically be the minor-league version of Clayton Kershaw. It sounds hyperbolic, but he actually was that good (especially with Tulsa).
He began the year with Rancho Cucamonga and it took just 11 innings for the 24-year-old to earn a promotion Double-A. With Tulsa, he took off, as he pitched to a 1.12 ERA, allowed a .188 opponents’ batting average and struck out nearly 29 percent of the hitters he faced. That performance landed him in Triple-A with the OKC Dodgers. There, he made just three starts (2.89 ERA, .205 opp BA, 36.0 K%) before his services were needed in the majors. While his MLB stint wasn’t great (though, he was really good against the Cubs), it was valuable experience for him. He bounced up and down with Triple-A and the Dodgers before going to Tulsa to close the season. With OKC, he looked a little more human by posting a 2.49 ERA in 50 2/3 innings, but the most impressive part about his season might be the command/control he exhibited in the minors. He walked just 19 hitters the entire season, which bodes well for his future.
While there were some other strong performances by Dodger minor-league pitchers, Stewart’s performance topped them all due to the whirlwind rise.
Coming up next week, my All-Prospect team. That should be reasonably fun.