Texas League Finals Preview

Frisco RoughRiders (74-63) vs. Minnesota-affiliated Wichita Wind Surge (78-59)
Season Run Differential: Frisco +80, Wichita +102
Last 20 Games + Playoffs: Frisco 13-9, Wichita 14-8
Season Series: Tied 6-6

How They Got Here
Frisco won the second-half title with a late run after fading in the first half. In the opening playoff series against San Antonio, Frisco swept the San Antonio Mission by scores of 7-3 and 5-2.  

Wichita’s first-half fate was similar. The Surge were 32-21 and led the northern division by 2.5 games on June 10 but lost 12 of 15 to close the half. Mired at 5-7 to start the second half and 40-40 overall, Wichita closed on a 38-19 tear to grab the second-half title with ease and the league’s best record. Wichita also swept its division foe Tulsa by scores of 11-1 and 17-1.

Frisco’s first postseason trip since 2014 now includes the first title series since 2012. That group included OFs Engel Beltre, Jared Hoying, and Ryan Strausborger, plus IF Leury Garcia. Series starters were Wilfredo Boscan, Cody Buckel, Barrett Loux, and Nick Tepesch. They fell to Springfield 3-1. The Riders won their only title in 2004.

Wichita’s history is short but interesting. The team moved from New Orleans in 2020 into a new stadium  as the AAA affiliate of the Marlins. Covid forced the cancellation of the 2020 season and claimed the life of team owner Lou Schwechheimer. MLB dropped Wichita to AA during the next winter’s minor league reorganization. Now with the Twins, Wichita reached the 2021 championship series with the league’s best record (69-51) but fell to NW Arkansas in five games.  

The two teams didn’t meet in 2021 and split twelve games this season.

Top 30 Prospects on Active Roster per MLB.com / Baseball America
2 / 4.  RHP Jack Leiter
3 / 1.  OF Evan Carter
4 / 5. RHP Owen White
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
30 / nr. RHP Mason Englert

1 / 1. SS Brooks Lee
12 / 11. OF Austin Martin
14 / 10. IF Edouard Julien
25 / 20. RHP Blayne Enlow
27 / nr. RHP Casey Legumina
28 / 30. RHP Steven Cruz

Frisco’s ranked prospect list was already the most impressive I’d ever seen, and that was before Owen White was activated.

The big name for Wichita is SS Brooks Lee, picked eight overall in this year’s draft and promoted to AA after the high-A season ended. Lee batted .289/.395/.454 at high-A Cedar Rapids. Martin was selected fifth overall the year before, then traded from the Jays with others for Jose Berrios. An older teammate of Leiter and Rocker in college and extraordinary contact hitter, Martin was a consensus top-100 prospect the last two springs but has fallen in the rankings thanks to a second straight ordinary and worrying performance.

Offense / Frisco Position Players
Frisco Offense: +3% runs scored, .265/.350/.439, 105 OPS+, 102 wRC+
Wichita Offense: -7% runs scored, .261/.356/.427, 98 OPS+, 97 wRC+

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

Frisco’s offense is uncommonly stacked despite losing several key performers to promotion or injury. The Riders averaged 8.6 runs per game in September and batted .292/.425/.477 in the San Antonio series.

The positional choices against San Antonio held some intrigue. Justin Foscue DH’ed both games in favor of Luisangel Acuna at second and Thomas Saggese at third. Trevor Hauver did start at first as I expected, but only once, while Frainyer Chavez drew the other start. Scott Kapers and David Garcia split duties.

C Jair Camargo
1B Alex Isola
2B Edouard Julien
3B Yunior Severino
SS Aaron Martin
LF Anthony Prato
CF DaShawn Keirsey
RF Leobaldo Cabrera
DH Brooks Lee
Also C Kyle Schmidt, IF Seth Gray, IF Will Holland

Wichita trotted out the same lineup in both nights of its semifinal series. The Surge scored 28 runs, hit eight homers, and slugged .743 against Tulsa. Scary. But also atypical.

Wichita was seventh of ten teams in runs scored but worst after adjusting for its mildly hitter-friendly park. The underlying stats aren’t nearly as bad, however, at or very near the league averages. Wichita’s OPS was 24 points above the league median with nobody on but 28 points below with runners in scoring position. (The Riders and Surge had nearly same number of walks and singles in RISP situations, but Frisco had an additional 32 extra base hits. That’s a lot!) I’d chalk that to variance rather than skill or, God forbid, mental fortitude.

2B Edouard Julien is the best combination of OBP and power. Julien batted .300/.441/.490 with a 20% BB/HBP rate and 39 extra-base hits. 1B Alex Isola (.286/.377/.471, 10 HR in 58 games) is the other all-around type. Catcher Jair Camargo (.239/.306/.472) has the best homer rate with 12 in 46 games, and Yair Severino (.273/.338/.497) isn’t far behind, but both are more strikeout-prone and less inclined to walk.

DaShawn Keirsey is the prominent base thief (42 in 121 games), followed by Austin Martin (34 in 90 games), and then Julien and Anthony Prado to lesser extents. Frisco won’t have to deal with Wichita’s best hitter, Matt Wallner, who jumped to AAA St. Paul ten days ago. The 2019 39th-overall pick batted .299/.436/.597 with 21 homers in 78 games.

On the whole, I’d say Wichita’s offense isn’t good but closer to average than its worst-in-league run production would suggest.  

Pitching / Possible Rotation
Frisco: 8% better than avg. in runs allowed, .247/.337/.400 oppo line, 92 OPS+, 12% BB/HBP, 24% SO)
Wichita : 20% above avg. in runs allowed, .247/.334/.384 oppo line, 82 OPS+, 12% BB/HBP, 25% SO)

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

Like Wichita, Frisco hasn’t announced starters past Game 1. I’ve listed the two semifinal starters, both of whom could appear on normal rest because of all the off-days. Seth Nordlin is another solid choice, but like the semifinals, the team may be better served with him available to pitch twice in relief. Other options are Antoine Kelly (very walk-prone, moved to relief late in season), Avery Weems (talented but highly erratic), and Ricky Vanasco (new to AA like Englert and less steady). I’m assuming Owen White will be limited to relief.

The bullpen that I politely maligned in the semifinal preview saved Game 1, holding San Antonio scoreless for five innings as the offense mounted a comeback. Nick Starr will handle closing duties without worry, and Nordlin is reliable. Having White back helps, even if he’s limited to one or two one-inning bursts.

1: Kody Funderburk (2.94 ERA, .244/.328/.357, 11% BB/HBP, 22% SO)
2: Cody Laweryson (1.06 ERA, .197/.255/.264, 7% BB/HBP, 31% SO)
3: Brent Headrick (4.81 ERA, .273/.319/.512, 6% BB/HBP, 32% SO)

I’m guessing after Game 1. Laweryson was part of the September rotation and threw three relief innings in the semifinals. Headrick started the first game in the semis. If I’m wrong about someone, the likely substitute is semifinal Game 1 starter Daniel Gossett (2.24 ERA), who had 115 MLB innings with the Athletics in 2017-2018. Despite the lack of ranked prospects, the group is strong. Headrick is the hardest thrower (mid-90s) and is better than his line, which is permanently scarred by a seven-run, five-homer outing to begin his term in AA. He and Laweryson are fly-prone, while Funderburk and Gossett deliver more grounders. Laweryson is easily the most entertaining, fearlessly pounding the upper half of the zone with a spasmodically delivered 89-91 fastball and mixing in an upper-70s slider and change with plenty of unpredictable movement.

Casey Legumina abruptly shifted from starter to 9th-inning man a month ago. In his current role, he’s saved three games and posted a 2.55 ERA with an opposing line of .229/.290/.357 and a 34% strikeout rate. Alex Phillips is another successful late-inning reliever, while Blayne Enlow has struggled with a 6.06 ERA and plenty of hits since switching to relief. The middle portion of the pen is walk-prone but passable in other respects.

Like most teams, Wichita has lost several strong contributors along the way, but the remaining staff is still quite good, and vastly better than San Antonio’s collection.

Even accounting for the pitching staff’s fly tendencies, Wichita is poor at turning double plays compared to the Riders. Wild pitches and passed balls are also a problem for the Surge. In other respects, Frisco rates nearly equal or better.

Park Factors
Frisco – 1.00
Wichita – 1.04

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

A tough call, as always compounded by the random nature of the best-of-three and my asymmetric knowledge of the two teams. One pitcher having an exceptionally good or bad day can determine the champion. If Leiter starts Tuesday, he’ll be on the mound with either Frisco or Wichita facing elimination.

Wichita is certainly better than San Antonio, especially its arms, and  is 41-19 in the last 60 games. The Surge also have home field advantage, although that doesn’t include starting the series at home. These are the league’s two best teams, and either is a worthy champion.

This is genuinely a coin flip to me, so I’ll put my imaginary $100 on the Riders and hope for the best.

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