Northwest Arkansas Naturals (69-70 overall in 2015, 1st half TL North champions, swept in TL Champ. Series)
It was a tale of two halves for the Naturals in 2015.
With Fuenmayor and Franco helping charge the offense they were 10 games over .500 in the first half en route to a Texas League North division title. Post-Balbino, they were 11 games under .500 in the second half.
Despite that, they rolled past the intrastate rival Arkansas Travelers into the Texas League Championship Series, where they were swept by Midland. This year’s crew of Naturals features top organizational prospect SS Raul Mondesi and one-time #5 overall pick OF Bubba Starling.
Mondesi, who turns 21 on July 27, is getting another try at AA after a back injury threw off his 2015 season at the start and he only played in 81 games. He struggled to a .651 OPS (only a .279 OBP) in 304 ABs and committed 15 errors in the field, but did so as the youngest player in the league. Despite the errors, Mondesi’s glove was one positive taken away from 2015, showing off his accelerated range, quick hands, and cannon for an arm.
Meanwhile, Starling raked for an OPS of over 1.000 in a short stint in Wilmington in 2015, before being promoted to NW Arkansas. There, he played 91 games of solid error-less defense in the outfield and hit for a .744 OPS with 10 HR in his first stint in the Texas League. He is arguably the most major-league ready prospect in the Royals system, with his advanced defense, but his bat will need to catch up. This season will be huge for him, as he is already entering his age-23 season.
The other big name in Springdale is 3B Hunter Dozier, who will make his third try at AA after a partial 2014 season and full 2015, where he had only 39 extra-base hits alongside 151 strikeouts in 475 AB (.631 OPS in 128 games).
The NWA position players include five graduates from the 2015 Blue Rocks — 2011 2nd rounder C Cam Gallagher, who spent the last two seasons in high-A ball and is entering his age-23 season. 2B Jack Lopez makes the move from shortstop after hitting for a career-best (although meager) .619 OPS in his 3rd season for the Rocks in 2015. 3B Mauricio Ramos moves to AA after hitting for a .685 OPS in Wilmington in 2015.
OF Logan Moon, a native of Blue Springs, MO, starts his third pro season in the Texas League after also hitting for a .619 OPS last year in Wilmington, while OF Carlos Garcia makes the move from the infield in 2016 after bouncing through two levels in 2015 (.683 OPS in Lexington, .716 OPS in Wilmington).
The rest of the Naturals’ offense includes C Zane Evans (.665 OPS in NWA in 2015), 1B Frank Schwindel (.548 OPS in NWA in 2015), IF Ramon Torres (.740 OPS in NWA in 2015), and AAA demotee UT Orlando Calixte (.626 OPS in Omaha in 2015).
Several promising young pitchers will start 2016 in Arvest Ballpark.
Righty Christian Binford struggled in 2015 between Omaha and NW Arkansas, with a combined 5.22 ERA (5.03 in AA) and 1.57 WHIP (1.54 in AA). Righty Alec Mills stood out in Wilmington in 2015 with 21 starts of 3.02 ERA ball and an outstanding 111 K to only 14 BB in 113 1/3 IP.
6-6 lefty Eric Skoglund was a 3rd round pick in 2014 and had a nice 2015 with a 3.52 ERA over 15 starts and 84 1/3 IP. He comes in as the Royals 28th best prospect, according to MLB.com. Lefty Matt Strahm, who comes in at 10 on that same MLB ranking, split time between low and high class-A ball in 2015. He posted great peripherals with a 0.99 WHIP, .194 BAA, 83 K and 19 BB in 15 games (11 starts). His 2.78 ERA over 68 IP helped to stamp his name as a legitimate prospect, but his advanced age for his league (24-years old) may end up being an issue.
Righty Jake Junis should also be a big part of the NWA rotation after having a solid 2015 in high-A (3.64 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 123 K/29 BB in 155 2/3 IP). Closer Estarlin Cordero went 11-for-13 in save opportunities for the Rocks in 2015 as well as posting a 2.33 ERA and 1.15 WHIP over 54 IP, with a 2/1 K/BB ration.
The Naturals take their promising rotation to the field Thursday with the first of 3 home games against Frisco (AA Texas).
Next: Wilmington Blue Rocks