In 2015, the Clinton LumberKings ended their season with a 46-93 record. The team lost twice as many games as they won, basically, at one point losing fifteen in a row. They finished dead last in the Midwest League. Changes had to be made, and they were. Only a few players earned promotions to Bakersfield or higher, and some players were demoted. Luis Caballero, a prospect whose bat never really developed, was converted to a coaching position. Most importantly, manager Scott Steinmann was replaced with Mitch Canham, a first-year coach with strong ties to the Northwest. Under Canham, the LumberKings--many of the same players who played on that .330 2015 team--won a franchise-record 85 games. The LumberKings charged into 2016, winning 14 of their first 23 in April. After Bowling Green took the first three games of the series and handed the LumberKings their first consecutive losses of the month, Clinton responded by winning the final game of the series before sweeping Dayton to end the month. They would end the first half of their season in second place in the division, narrowly missing out on a first-half title to the Peoria Chiefs. The LumberKings played even better baseball in the second half of their season, thanks in part to the arrival of two top pitching prospects, Nick Neidert and Luiz Gohara, as well as outfielder Alex Jackson. The ‘Kings were royal in July, winning 18 of their 28 games, and then went on a tear in August, winning 20 games, at one point winning eighteen of their past nineteen games and ripping off an eight-game win streak. During that time, the team had a no-hitter, a dramatic walkoff win, and a series sweep where they outscored their opponents 22-10. The LumberKings ended the 2016 regular season atop the Midwest League Western Division, with a record of 47-23.
The LumberKings began the playoffs facing the Peoria Chiefs, the same team that captured the first half title. This time, the revamped LumberKings would be victorious, with Nick Neidert opening the series with a seven-inning shutout, followed by six shutout innings from teammate Luiz Gohara. The Chiefs battled back in that game in a bid to extend their season, but left fielder Luis Liberato gunned down a runner at home to end the game in the ninth inning in a thrilling victory.
In the next round, Clinton fell behind the Cedar Rapids Kernels in a 3-9 loss in Game One, but rebounded in Game Two thanks to a strong pitching performance from Kevin Gadea, who pitched six innings of one-run ball, facing the minimum over five of his six innings. He was helped out by his defense, who turned two double plays and caught a batter stealing, and his offense, who put up six runs to give the LumberKings an easy 6-1 victory. The decisive game of this series was a thriller. Clinton put up Neidert, who pitched seven shutout innings, allowing three hits while striking out nine and issuing no walks. Again, Clinton’s pitching got a lift from excellent defensive play by shortstop Rayder Ascanio, in particular. The Kings weren’t able to get anything going offensively against Cedar Rapids’ pitching, however, and the game went to extras, tied 0-0, setting up a walkoff single from unheralded prospect Ricky Eusebio that scored a speedy Logan Taylor from second.
The LumberKings opened the Midwest League Championship series with a dramatic 16-6 win over the Great Lakes Loons, but unfortunately seemed to use up all their offense in that one game. The LumberKings would be shut out in their next two games, and faced a must-win situation in Game Four. Clinton would again turn to Neidert, but the ace didn’t have his best stuff, surrendering four runs in just 3.2 innings. The LumberKings’ bats would rally back to get within a run, but would end up falling just short, losing 8-9. Although they narrowly missed out on being crowned champions, 2016 was a record-setting year in Clinton, the kind of season people will reference for years to come.
Top Performers, Position Players:
Chris Mariscal: Mariscal had a solid year at Clinton in 2015, and he was solid again in 2016, putting up almost identical K/BB numbers. This year, however, Mariscal showed improved pop, hitting ten more doubles in ten less games than in 2015. While he’s often solid, if unspectacular, Mariscal did have a career game in that 16-6 win to open the MLCS, going 3-3 with a single, double, and a triple, as well as two walks. With Jackson’s Tim Lopes being inexplicably handed to Toronto for an ambidextrous oven mitt, Mariscal is a shoo-in for AA next year.
Alex Jackson: Is there any prospect in the system more fraught than Alex Jackson? After being sent down from Clinton in 2015 after a poor performance in the plate, Jackson got some extra time at extended spring training. He was also a participant in Dipoto’s first annual Hitting Summit, and while you’d like to see the strikeouts come down more, it appears that Jackson might finally be on the right track.
Dalton Kelly: Kelly’s strong 2016 was recognized by the Mariners when they presented him with the first-annual Edgar Martinez Productive Team Plate Appearance Award at Safeco (I was there! I saw him! He was so tiny and cute!) Permit me to quote myself:
This year for the LumberKings, Kelly posted an OBP of .384, good for eighth-best in the Southern League, while hitting .293 and slugging .416. He had a double-digit walk rate (11%) while keeping his strikeouts in check (20% K rate) and proved to be a threat on the base paths as well, snagging 21 stolen bases. Kelly always seemed to deliver in the clutch, most notably in a late-season game when he came up in the ninth inning with two outs and the bases loaded and delivered a screaming RBI double to give the LumberKings the lead and eventually a tough road win.
It’s hard to compare Kelly’s 2016 performance to a short appearance in the AZL last year, but it’s worth pointing out how dramatically Kelly’s numbers improved against tougher pitching. He dropped his K% by almost 8% while maintaining a high walk rate and bolstered his slugging from .333 to .416. And, bonus: he’s a lefty first baseman.
Logan Taylor: Taylor could have given Dalton Kelly a run for the PTPA award with his crazy-high walk rate, and like Kelly, was also named a first-half Midwest League All-Star. Although he plays mostly at 3B, he can play all over the diamond. And he’s Braden Bishop’s favorite prospect, and Braden Bishop is my favorite prospect, so by the transitive property I guess he’s my favorite now too?
Top Pitching Performances:
I did my best to pick my favorite four of the group this year, but it honestly felt like every single player the LumberKings sent to the mound this year had some sort of stretch of sheer dominance.
Luiz Gohara: Gohara turned all that gooey potential into results this season, finally exhibiting the amount of command necessary to consistently put hitters away. Add in some extra zip on his fastball and a little more life on the breaking ball and you have yourself a wonderful pitching prospect. He finished 25th in the Midwest League in FIP (min: 50 IP).
Nick Neidert: Neidert got his first taste of full-season ball in 2016 and he performed admirably, flashing the cool command and fastball that had him go early in the 2015 draft. He wasn’t quite as much of a ground-ball wizard in his second year of pro baseball, but his ability to limit hard contact and hit his spots carried him to success.
Matt Walker: Walker was never talked about enough despite his never-ending success in Clinton in 2016. The 36th-round selection out of Weatherford College in 2015 had a tremendous full-season debut, striking out 65 in 57.2 IP and turning into the most reliable arm in a bullpen full of them. He also got to close out a combined no-hitter at one point this year. Not a bad season for the recently-turned 22-year-old.
Kevin Gadea: Gadea quietly put together one of the best seasons in the organization this year, posting a 2.81 FIP across 18.1 IP for the AZL Mariners before hopping up to Clinton, where all he did was post a 12.87 K/9 and 2.54 FIP in 50.1 IP. I’ve loved everything I’ve heard about Gadea; he’s not your typical pitcher, as he prefers to pound the strike zone with a variety of changeups and curveballs to set up his mid-90s fastball as his put away pitch. His ability to throw absolutely everything for strikes is encouraging and will serve him well moving forward. He could really put himself on the map in 2017.
Some honorable mentions: Joey Strain, Pablo Lopez, Ronald Dominguez, Pedro Vasquez, Darin Gillies, and Zack Littell, who I omitted because he will be included in the Bakersfield Blaze portion of these season reviews.
Joe Pistorese - LHP: After serving a long suspension, Pistorese picked up right where he left off, twirling brilliant outing after brilliant outing for Clinton. This ultimately led to a promotion to High-A Bakersfield, where he put up pretty strikeout and walk-rates, but struggled with the long ball. It looks like the Mariners have already made the decision to make Pistorese a full-time reliever, meaning he’ll be tasked with getting the most out of his low-90s fastball and improving curveball. The upside isn’t massive, but there’s some potential there for Pistorese to be a fairly effective reliever for the Mariners in the future.
Rayder Ascanio - SS: Ascanio’s selling point will always strictly be his glove, so him flashing any sort of offensive prowess would be a massive positive for the Mariners. 2016 was a pleasant year for him in that regard, as he managed to run a 10.2% walk-rate, helping him to a .334 OBP. And while 2016 did represent a year of demotion for him after spending most of 2015 with High-A Bakersfield, I’m willing to let it slide on the grounds that the old regime inexplicably bumped him up from rookie league to High-A with just a few games in Clinton in between last season.
Most Improved LumberKing:
I spent virtually all day debating whether to give this award to Gohara or Jackson and after much consideration, I’ve decided to award it to...
/cracks open envelope
/smiles at crowd
/pulls out second, identical award
BOTH OF THEM! Look, it’s my post and I can do whatever the hell I want, so you’re all just going to have to live with it. Both players have always had big potential, but they both also had god awful seasons a year ago, statistically. Jackson looked thoroughly overwhelmed against Midwest League pitching, posting a 37 wRC+ in 121 plate appearances before receiving a demotion. Gohara struggled mightily with his command and put up subpar peripherals in both Clinton and Everett.
That all changed this year, as Gohara anchored the staff down the stretch with a mid-90s fastball and exploding breaking stuff while Jackson put himself back on the prospect map with a solid showing (120 wRC+) in his second go-round with Clinton. Even more importantly, both players did this despite being significantly younger than the league average for age (Jackson at -1.5, Gohara at -2.8).
Next Year’s Outlook:
The LumberKings should be set up for another pleasant year next year, with several players from the championship-winning AZL Mariners and the Northwest League runner-up Everett AquaSox coming up. There are also a few players who figure to repeat the level. It’s far too early to be doing this, but if I had to take a stab at the opening day lineup, it’d look something like this:
C - Jason Goldstein
1B - Kristian Brito
2B - Donnie Walton
3B - Nick Zammarelli/Joe Rizzo
SS - Bryson Brigman
OF - David Greer
OF - Augustus Craig
OF - DeAires Moses/Dimas Ojeda
P - Neidert/Miller/Newsome/Wells/Festa/Lopez