Playoff Preview: Down East vs. Carolina

Carolina League Division Series (best-of-three)Down East Wood Ducks (66-61) vs. Milwaukee-affiliated Carolian Mudcats (72-55)

Season Run Differential: Down East +32, Carolina +88
Last 20 Games: Down East 6-14, Carolina 11-9
Season Series: Carolina 13-9

How They Got Here
Down East and Carolina battled for the first-half title, always within two games of one another until a fateful week in June in which Down East won five of six at Delmarva while Carolina was swept at home by Fayetteville. After the 39-24 first half, the Woodies were 29-37 in the second. I believe the Woodies’ second-half record of 29-37 is the worst by any playoff-bound Texas affiliate since 2007, when the low-A Clinton LumberKings finished 29-41 after a 41-26 start. 

The Mudcats would not be denied in the second half, finishing 39-25 with a four-game lead. I wasn’t paying too close of attention, but I believe they were never in serious trouble once they opened up the lead.

Down East has made the postseason in four of six seasons since joining the Carolina League in 2017. In their inaugural season, the Wood Ducks nabbed a playoff spot on the season’s final day despite a 62-77 record and won a hurricane-abbreviated high-A co-championship. In 2019, an 87-52 squad, one of the best of Texas’s minor league history, fell in the opening round to Houston’s affiliate. In the 2021 low-A finals, the Woodies took a ’27-Yankees-esque Charleston (82-38, +263 run differential) to a deciding fifth game before succumbing.

Carolina hasn’t reached the postseason since 2008 as a member of the AA Southern League, which is astonishing. Irrespective of the parent club or situation, minor league teams tend to put together a solid-enough half-season to reach the playoffs every few years. (Even the Bakersfield Blaze, every parent club’s grudging afterthought, never went more than eight years without a playoff appearance in the 1990-to-present modern era.)
Top 30 Prospects on Active Roster per / Baseball America
Down East:
4 / 9. RHP Brock Porter
7 / 8. OF Anthony Gutierrez (hurt?)
12 / 13. OF Yeison Morrobel (hurt)
18 / 15. IF Gleider Figuereo
20 / 18. IF Echedry Vargas (hurt)
24 / 24. 1B/OF Marcos Torres
30 / 21. IF Danyer Cueva
NR / 30. RHP Joseph Montalvo

12 / 21. IF Daniel Guilarte
18 / 22. RHP Logan Henderson
19 / 23. OF Dylan O’Rae
21 / 27. IF Jadher Areinamo
22 / 16. IF Luke Adams
24 / NR. IF Juan Baez
30 / NR. OF Jace Avina
NR / 30. RHP Patricio Aquino

Offense / Position Players
Down East Offense: 4% below average runs scored, .226/.317/.336, 94 OPS+, 94 wRC+
Carolina Offense: 3% above average runs scored, .250/.348/.363, 104 OPS+, 104 wRC+

Down East:
C Ian Moller / Konnor Piotto
1B Anthony Calarco / Marcos Torres
2B Devin Hurdle
3B Glider Figuereo
SS Danyer Cueva
LF Miguel Villarroel
CF Jojo Blackmon
RF Quincy Scott
Also OF Wady Mendez, OF Tommy Specht

Over the last few weeks I’ve tried not to belabor Down East’s second-half malaise. Now, it’s labor time.

The season-long stats for Down East are lying shamelessly. Gone are Abi Ortiz, Cam Cauley, Yosy Galan, and Tucker Mitchell, drivers of a strong first-half attack. Also missing after what appeared to be a hand injury from sliding into second base is Anthony Gutierrez (.259/.326/.338, 97 OPS+). In the second half, Down East batted .216/.305/.297 (79 OPS+) and scored 3.7 runs per game, 17% below average. The aggregate line among players presumed healthy is an even lower .214/.302/.285 (74 OPS+). Only Jojo Blackmon (.254/.371/.393) and 2023 pick Quincy Scott (.376/.444/.412) were above average. The rest batted a collective .196/.282/.261. In the second half, Down East was last in runs, hits, doubles, and homers (just 22), and next-to-worst in walks and strikeouts.

C Jose Sibarian / Blayberg Diaz
1B Jesus Chirinos / Tayden Hall
2B Jadher Areinamo
3B Luke Adams
SS Gregory Barrios / Daniel Guilarte
LF Jace Avina
CF Dylan O’Rae
RF Kay-Lan Nicasia

Comparatively, Carolina has lost little to promotions or injuries. The offense had a 110 OPS+ in the second half, and seven of nine likely starters were above average. They aren’t great and more oriented to doubles than homers, but they lack glaring weaknesses.

Power sources are OF Jace Avina (.233/.372/.442, 14 HR), Luke Adams (.233/.400/.401, 11 HR), Jose Sibarian (.278/.358/.481, 9 HR), Jesus Chirinos (.291/.438/.460, 7 HR). As you can see from the OBPs, all three can also take a pitch.

Pitching / Possible Rotation
Down East: 9% better than avg. runs allowed, .218/.309/.327 oppo line, 89 OPS+, 12% BB/HBP, 27% SO
Carolina: 11% better than avg. runs allowed, .229/.332/.341, 93 OPS+, 14% BB/HBP, 26% SO

Down East:
1. Brock Porter (2.47 ERA, .160/.304/.202, 17% BB/HBP, 32% SO)
2: Joseph Montalvo? (2.83 ERA, .211/.300/.331, 11% BB/HBP, 27% SO)
3: So many choices

Porter is one of the league’s best pitchers when his control is under control. When not, his appearances can get out of hand. I don’t know who’s starting after him, but Montalvo seems the obvious choice, and while not as dazzling as Porter, he’s less likely to have a messy day. The Woodies have used a quasi-tandem system much of the year, and choices abound for Game 3 if needed: Dylan MacLean, DJ McCarty, Leandro Lopez, Bryan Chi, Luis Ramirez, Bryan Mendoza, perhaps some others.

Adrian Rodriguez is Down East’s save leader at nine, but he comes in with a 5.08 ERA, more walks pus HBP than strikeouts, and a .392 opposing OBP. He’s also allowed multiple runs in four of his last five outings, and I wonder if management might look elsewhere in a tight situation. The only others on the roster with a save during the second half are 2023 12th-rounder Paul Bonzagni and Alberto Mota. Skylar Hales would have been a closing option, but he was promoted to Hickory today. All of the Game 3 starting options I mentioned could also relieve, potentially in critical situations. It’s an effective if not flashy group.

1: Logan Henderson (2.75 ERA, .185/.259/.322, 9% BB/HBP, 35% SO)
2: Patricio Aquino (2.75 ERA, .244/.325/.351, 11% BB/HBP, 23% SO)
3: Will Rudy (3.46 ERA, .257/.328/.406, 10% BB/HBP, 21% SO)

Carolina suppressed runs slightly better than Down East on the whole, but they’ve lost some players, and apparently the defense played an outsized role. Tonight’s starter Logan Henderson is the standout, Carolina’s best combination of control and strikeouts. The Mudcats haven’t announced beyond the opener and were rained out the last two days, so I picked who I liked for the other games. Both have adequate control and aren’t especially easy to hit, although Rudy will give up his fair share of extra-base hits.

Closer Yerlin Rodriguez has 11 saves but is far from indomitable (.248/.382/.326, 18% BB/HBP rate), and on the whole the pen is ordinary in terms of strikeouts and control.

Carolina committed 29 fewer errors than any other team and 57 fewer than average. To be honest, my first thought was generous scorekeeping, but the Mudcats also excel at turned balls in play into outs, turning double plays, holding and catching runners, etc. They’re the best in the league. Down East might be second best, not in Carolina’s class but solid in all respects except slight error-proneness.

Park Factors
Down East – 0.97
Carolina – 1.04

Kinston’s Grainger Stadium is a low-run park in a low-run league. Five County Stadium in Zebulon favors the offense.

Advantages / Outlook
Offense – Carolina by a wide margin
Pitching – Down East
Defense – Carolina

With the caveat that anything can happen in a short series, the matchup strongly favors Carolina, and if you had to put $100 on the winner at even odds, you’d pick the Mudcats.