Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A 10-player guide to the 2014 Midwest League

The Lake County Captains and Lansing Lugnuts open the season April 4 at Classic Park. The Midwest League's other 14 teams begin play April 3.

Blame the late start on Lansing's exhibition game against Michigan State. It wouldn't be the first time in the last six months a group from Lansing, Mich., interrupted an Ohio team's plans.

When the season finally does start in Lake County, here are 10 Midwest League players worth tracking. Because we're discussing Minor League Baseball, all team assignments are subject to immediate change.

Aaron Blair (RHP, South Bend): The Silver Hawks won the Eastern Division last season and they could be looking at a repeat if their staff includes others with Blair's imposing dimensions: 6-foot-5, 230 pounds. The Diamondbacks used a 2013 supplemental first-round draft pick on Blair. Tight ends who command a fastball and drop another pitch or two into the zone don't last long in the baseball draft. 

D.J. Davis (OF, Lansing): It seems like the Captains and Lugnuts play 39 times each season, meaning prospect junkies who watch games at Classic Park will see plenty of Davis, the Blue Jays' 2012 first-round draft pick. Davis, 19, hasn't compiled gaudy numbers, but he's an elite athlete primed for a breakout season. If you miss this weekend's series, don't fret. Davis and the Lugnuts return in July.

Edwin Diaz (RHP, Clinton): Here's how a perfect career path looks. The Mariners drafted Diaz in third round and signed him for $300,000 in 2012. Diaz started 13 games in the rookie Appalachian League, won five of them, posted a 1.43 ERA, struck out 79 in 69 innings (and walked just 18) and ended the summer as one of short-season baseball's top prospects in 2013. Next step for the 20-year-old Diaz is full-season baseball.

Philip Ervin (OF, Dayton): The Dragons are a big hit in Dayton and the Reds selected Ervin in the first round of last year's draft. This could make him the second most popular man in town behind Dayton basketball coach Archie Miller. Ervin, 23, received a small sampling of Dragonmania last year. He must like it. He hit .349 in 12 games.

Carson Kelly (C, Peoria): Kelly, a 2012 second-round draft pick, played for the State College Spikes last season, a franchise this assistant sports editor might know something about. Our State College friends tell us Kelly can play. To their surprise, he's catching this season after spending 2013 at third base. Wherever the Cardinals tell Kelly, 19, to work, he should be fine. He hit .277 in the New York-Penn League last season. 

Kohl Stewart (RHP, Cedar Rapids): The Twins are loaded with high-level prospects, a category Stewart falls into. A 2013 first-round draft pick, Stewart passed for 8,803 yards and 87 touchdowns, but surrendered a chance to replace Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M. The reason? The Twins offered him a $4,544,400 signing bonus. It's not Johnny Football money, but it beats a Single-A per diem.

Dorssys Paulino (INF, Lake County): No, we didn't cut and paste from last year's list. The Indians are returning Paulino to Lake County for more seasoning. Only 19, Paulino struggled in the first half of 2013 before displaying promise in the second half. The second-half version of Paulino could anchor what should be an improved Lake County team in 2014.

Stryker Trahan (OF, South Bend): Best name on any Midwest League roster. Might be the best power hitter in the league, too. Trahan, 19, cracked 10 homers in 59 games at Missoula (Mont.) to lead the Pioneer League in homers last season. Multiple Pioneer League ballparks sit at altitude, which leads to a 2014 question: Can Stryker slug on flat ground?  

Ben Verlander (OF, West Michigan): Another Verlander in the Tigers' organization. This one doesn't throw 98 mph or make $20 million per year. The Tigers selected "Little Verlander" in the 14th round of last year's draft. Like older brother Justin, Ben played at Old Dominion. Unlike Justin, he will spend 2014 absorbing ribbing from Midwest League fans looking for somebody with a familiar name to heckle.

Semi-retired minor league baseball writer note:  Clint Frazier, the Indians' 2013 first-round draft pick, would be on this list if it weren't for a hamstring injury. Taking it easy with Frazier is a smart move. Chilly Eastlake air and ailing $3.5 million baseball investments don't mix.

-- Guy Cipriano | @newsheraldguy

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