As the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Low-A affiliate, the Great Lakes Loons are usually the first full-season stop for many of the organization’s top prospects. Clayton Kershaw pitched for them in 2007, Joc Pederson was a Loon in 2011 and both Corey Seager and Julio Urias played with Great Lakes in 2013.
Last year, top prospects Yadier Alvarez and Walker Buehler helped lead the Loons to their first ever Midwest League championship. This season, the team will have plenty of talent to help them fight for a repeat performance.
The Loons open the 2017 season on Thursday, with a matchup against Lansing at Dow Diamond.
The Midwest League is a tough place to hit. Playing in Michigan in April and May doesn’t help, either. The Loons averaged just 3.84 runs per game last season with a collective .660 on-base plus slugging percentage. Edwin Rios had the highest OPS of any Loons player who logged over 100 at-bats with a .792 mark. Who could step up and lead the offense?
The top prospect is my estimation Keibert Ruiz. The 18-year-old Venezuelan catcher hit extremely well last season, with a .939 OPS between the two rookie level affiliates. A switch-hitter, his contact-oriented approach should serve him well with the Loons, as Ruiz looks to bat .300 for the third season in a row.
Slightly further down the list is Brendon Davis, who actually spent all of last season with the Loons. He hit just .241/.295/.334 in 109 games, but he’s still only 19 and should improve in his second stint with the team.
Two of the bigger surprises on the roster are infielder Oneil Cruz and outfielder Carlos Rincon. Cruz, who signed in 2015 for $950,000, hit well in the Dominican Summer League during his pro debut last year.
In 55 games, Cruz batted .294/.367/.444 with 18 doubles and 11 stolen bases. He’s stood out during Instructional League and Spring Training, both metaphorically and physically (he’s grown substantially since signing and could be as tall as 6’8 now). He’s just 18-years-old.
Carlos Rincon hit even better in the DSL, batting .364 with six home runs in 26 games before earning a promotion to the Arizona League. Stateside, he batted .301 with seven more homers in another 26 games. He won’t turn 20 until October.
Another notable hitter is former University of Oklahoma quarterback Cody Thomas, who belted 19 home runs in 59 games in his pro debut last season between Ogden and the AZL. Thomas is somewhat raw for a 22-year-old, having only committed to baseball full time a year ago, but has promising tools in his power and arm strength.
The rotation will be led by Jordan Sheffield, last year’s compensatory first round pick. The right-hander made seven starts for the Loons last year, posting a 4.09 ERA while striking out 13 batters in 10 innings.
Another returning member of the rotation figures to be Imani Abdullah, though he was not included on the Loons’ Opening Day roster. The 11th-rounder from 2015 pitched well enough to warrant a promotion, with a 3.61 ERA in 16 starts, but there’s no need to rush Abdullah as he won’t turn 20 until April 20th.
Dustin May was last year’s third-round pick and pitched well for the AZL club, posting a 34 to four strikeout-to-walk ratio to go along with a 3.86 ERA in 30.1 innings. The 19-year-old righty also has outstanding hair.
Another young right-hander from last year’s draft class, A.J. Alexy, joins the pitching staff, though it’s unclear if he’ll start the season in the rotation. Alexy had a heavy workload his senior year of high school and the organization may want to limit his innings. He pitched just 13.2 innings last season after he signed.
A pair of southpaws will compete for rotation spots in Devin Smeltzer and Leonardo Crawford. Smeltzer, who made 11 relief appearances for the AZL club, and Crawford, who pitched in six games for Great Lakes last season, should both long plenty of innings for the Loons in 2017.
Some relievers of note: Jose Santos served as the Loons’ closer for part of the 2016 season and will likely do so again this year. Last year’s ninth-round draft pick, Tony Gonsolin, returns to Great Lakes after making nine appearances for the Loons in 2016.
LF: Saige Jenco
SS: Brendon Davis
CF: Cody Thomas
RF: Carlos Rincon
3B: Oneil Cruz
2B: Zach McKinstry
1B: Luis Paz
DH: Gersel Pitre
Jordan Sheffield, Devin Smeltzer, Dustin May, Leonardo Crawford, A.J. Alexy (tandem/piggyback starter), Jose Santos (closer)