Texas League Playoff Preview

Texas League Division Series

Frisco RoughRiders (74-63) vs. San Diego-affiliated San Antonio Missions (68-68)
Season Run Differential: Frisco +80, San Antonio +15
Last 20 Games: Frisco 11-9, San Antonio 6-14
Season Series: Frisco 15-9

How They Got Here
In the season’s first half, Frisco raced to a 9-1 start (including a six-game sweep of the Missions) and led the division for most of the way before fading down the stretch. In the second half, Frisco and Midland were tied with 17 to play, after which the Riders went 10-7 while the RockHounds did the opposite.

The Missions stumbled to a 2-11 record but were 36-20 the rest of the first half to overtake the Riders and claim the first-half division crown. The Missions had the division’s worst second half record (30-39), capped by a 9-18 finish.

Frisco is in the postseason for the first time since 2014. The Riders won their only title in 2004, aided by Ian Kinsler, Jason Botts, Chris Young, and Kam Loe, among others. Six additional visits since then have fallen short. Frisco lost the championship in 2008 to an under-.500 Arkansas squad despite Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz starting four of the five games.

San Antonio’s much longer history includes five league titles during the 2000s but none since 2013. The Mission briefly switched to the AAA Pacific Coast League as a Milwaukee affiliate before returning to AA in 2021 after the Great Purge.

The teams haven’t met in the postseason since 2011. An outstanding San Antonio squad (94-46) won that series 3-1 and the championship. I saw ex-Ranger Joe Wieland duel Robby Ross in the opener.

Top 30 Prospects on Active Roster per MLB.com / Baseball America
2 / 4.  RHP Jack Leiter
3 / 1.  OF Evan Carter
5 / 9.  IF Justin Foscue
7 / 6.  IF Luisangel Acuna
11 / 12. OF Aaron Zavala
14 / 14. LHP Antoine Kelly
17 / nr.  RHP Ricky Vanasco
20 / nr.  IF Thomas Saggese
22 / nr.  IF Jonathan Ornelas
24 / nr.  LHP Avery Weems
29 / 29. RHP Marc Church (on development list)
30 / nr. RHP Mason Englert

San Antonio:
11 / 14. LHP Noel Vela
13 / 23. LHP Jackson Wolf
14 / 18. OF Joshua Mears
18 / 24. OF Tirso Ornelas
23 / 28. RHP Kevin Kopps
24 / 20. RHP Alek Jacob

An embarrassment of riches for Frisco. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that many ranked prospects on one playoff roster.

Offense / Position Players
Frisco Offense: +4% runs scored, .265/.350/.439, 107 OPS+, 102 wRC+
San Antonio Offense: +4% runs scored, .266/.356/.397, 103 OPS+, 103 wRC+

C Scott Kapers / David Garcia
1B Trevor Hauver
2B Justin Foscue
3B Jonathan Ornelas
SS Luisangel Acuna
LF Kellen Strahm
CF Evan Carter
RF Aaron Zavala
Also IF Thomas Saggese, OF Josh Stowers, IF Frainyer Chavez

Several of Frisco’s best hitters have departed (Duran, Crim, Harris, Martinez), but Frisco’s offense is perhaps in its best shape all season. The Riders bashed their way to a division title by averaging 8.6 runs per game in the final three weeks. For the season, Frisco rated well above average in power but didn’t walk much. The current bunch has improved patience (mainly in the form of Zavala and Hauver) and slightly diminished power.

Catcher is the only weak spot, but Kapers can get a hold of a pitch, too. Other than that position and Luisangel Acuna (.224/.302/.349), who’s quieted since advancing from Hickory, the “worst” hitter statistically is Jonathan Ornelas at .299/.360/.425. That’s mighty impressive. One might have expected newcomers Evan Carter and Thomas Saggese to struggle, but they both had tremendous debut weeks.

Hauver didn’t start playing first until very recently, but I’d be inclined to keep him there under these circumstances. He’s the weakest defender, and Frisco lacks a natural 1B after Crim’s promotion.

San Antonio:
C Webster Rivas
1B Yorman Rodriguez (also C)
2B Domingo Leyba
3B Kelvin Melean
SS Connor Hollis
LF Tirso Ornelas
CF Josh Mears
RF Ripken Reyes
Also C/IF Juan Fernandez, C Tyler Malone, OF Jorge Ona, UT Ethan Skendler

San Antonio hit 23 fewer homers than any other team and was the league’s weakest power source, even after adjusting for its difficult park. The Missions were best in OBP relative to park, however. Singles, walks, steals, and even sacrifices feature in the attack.

27-year-old Connor Hollis is an on-base machine (.432 this season, career .406) and best base-stealing threat. Others above .350 are Ornelas, Reyes, Leyba (26, ex-Ranger, some MLB experience), and Rivas (a grizzled 31 and another MLB vet). None of these guys strike out much, either. The Missions will put the ball in play, so Frisco will rely on its defense and luck more than usual. Above-average power comes from 2019 2nd-rounder Joshua Mears, OF/DH Jorge Ona, and 1B Yorman Rodriguez.

Pitching / Possible Rotation
Frisco: 6% better than avg. in runs allowed, .247/.337/.400 oppo line, 93 OPS+, 12% BB/HBP, 24% SO)
San Antonio: 2% below avg. in runs allowed, .259/.351/.405, 103 OPS+, 13% BB/HBP, 22% SO)

1: Jack Leiter (5.54 ERA, .247/.359/.381 opposing line, 13% BB/HBP rate, 26% SO rate)
2: Cody Bradford (5.01 ERA, .248/.304/.427, 7% BB/HBP, 25% SO)
3: Mason Englert (4.11 ERA, .237/.308/.356, 8% BB/HBP, 31% SO)

For the season, Frisco’s pitching and defense graded out slightly higher than the offense, but the current situation is reversed. How offense-dependent were the Riders? In their 10-7 stretch to clinch the division, they allowed an average of 6.6 runs per game overall and 5.0 when they won.

Jack Leiter’s a great prospect, but he wasn’t a great pitcher in 2022. Odds of him running into a bad inning are high; the key will be stranding those excess baserunners. Bradford pitched much better down the stretch and is the ideal choice for what will be an elimination game for either Frisco or San Antonio. Englert has only three AA starts but acquitted himself nicely and seems up to the task.

The bullpen… ah, the bullpen. Gone are Grant Anderson, Lucas Jacobsen, Chase Lee, and Fern Ozuna (plus Tim Brennan, a potentially crucial absence, Zak Kent, Cole Ragans, and Owen White). Closer Nick Starr has a modest 20% K rate but has pitched comfortably and successfully in the role. Likewise, Nordlin has been competent as a swingman, and since he’s not starting, I’m hopeful he can pitch in Games 1 and 3 (if needed). Avery Weems can be as good as anyone (and might draw an early start if Frisco advances), but he’s worryingly homer-prone. The rest have a combined 5.96 ERA and 15% BB/HBP rate. Everybody has an issue, be it walks, homers, or not many strikeouts.
San Antonio:
1: Thomas Eshelman (4.58 ERA, .306/.329/.442, 3% BB/HBP, 13% SO)
2: Nolan Watson (5.84 ERA,  .276/.378/.416, 11% BB/HBP, 22% SO)
3: Henry Henry (5.20 ERA, .276/.390/.381, 15% BB/HBP, 22% SO)

San Antonio’s rotation after Game 1 is a guess based on schedule, including Watson being held out on Sunday. Frankly, it’s not much to speak of, and alternatives who might be ready for Games 2 and 3 aren’t any better. Watson was 2015’s 33rd-overall pick by the Royals but hasn’t surpassed AA. Henry Henry seems to be able to suppress power when he’s not walking people. Eshelman has acquired 98 MLB innings with superior command of soft stuff.

The bullpen is a mixed bag. Alek Jacob (1.83 ERA, 30% SO) Fred Schlichtholz (2.04 ERA, 28% SO), and Jordan Guerrero (few innings in 2022 but a decent track record) are the best relievers. Closer Lake Bachar has been okay more often than not, but he’s prone to homers.

Frisco was a little easier to run on but bested the Missions in terms of expected double plays, outs on balls in play, and errors.

Park Factors
Frisco – 1.00
San Antonio – 0.93

The Wolff is tough on power. The Missions and their opponents combined for 79 homers in San Antonio and 153 in other parks.

Advantages / Outlook
Offense – Frisco
Pitching – Even
Defense – Frisco

It doesn’t always work out as such, but on paper we appear to be in for a high-scoring series. Both sides have solid offenses and problems in their rotations and pens. I do think the Riders are the better team, but not by a huge amount, and in a best-of-three, it’s hard to see them as more than a 55/45 favorite. Don’t bet your retirement on either side, even if you’re getting odds.

Most Recent Texas-Affiliated Championship Teams
AAA: 1996 Oklahoma City 89ers
AA: 2004 Frisco RoughRiders
Hi-A: 2017 Down East Wood Ducks (co-champion)
Lo-A: 2015 Hickory Crawdads
Short-A: 2008 Spokane Indians
Rookie: 2019 Rangers
DSL: 2014 Rangers