Playoff Preview: Down East vs. Charleston

Carolina League Championship Series (best-of-three)
Down East Wood Ducks (66-61) vs.
Tampa Bay-affiliated Charleston Riverdogs (66-65)
Season Run Differential: Down East +32, Charleston +17
Last 20 Games: Down East 7-13, Charleston 10-10
Season Series: Charleston 7-2

How They Got Here
Down East won the first-half division title with a 37-24 record. A good number of players moved on to high-A Hickory in early summer, and the Woodies would slump to 29-37. Down East won an taut three-game division series against 72-55 Carolina; all games were decided by one run, and two went to extras.

The RiverDogs had the league’s worst first-half record (27-39) but slowly improving after a poor start, and they ran off a stretch of 31 wins in 44 games en route to a 39-26 second-half mark and a three=game advantage over Myrtle Beach, which also win the first half. Charleston then knocked off the league-best Pelicans (75-55) in three.

The teams also met in the 2021 finals, when only two teams reached the playoffs. Charleston was the class of the league but needed all five games to vanquish the Wood Ducks. Charleston also won last year’s championship. Down East won a co-championship in a hurricane-shortened 2017.
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
4 / 8. IF Xavier Isaac
5 / 5. IF Brayden Taylor
9 / 18. OF Colton Ledbetter
15 / 17. RHP Santiago Suarez
17 / 12. RHP Marcus Johnson
18 / 14. RHP Trevor Martin
24 / 23. IF Carlos Colmenarez
26 / 22. 1/O Tre’ Morgan (hurt)

Offense / Position Players
Down East Offense: 3% below average runs scored, .226/.317/.336, 94 OPS+, 94 wRC+
Charleston Offense: 2% below average runs scored, .240/.332/.359, 103 OPS+, 101 wRC+

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

Check the division series for a deeper examination of Down East’s second-half misfortune at the plate. Short version: they were bad, exceptionally so after 1-2 hitters Scott and Blackmon.

The Woodies didn’t hit well overall against Carolina (.217/.288/.274, five extra-base hits but no homers) but did in the crunch, recovering from deficits in all three games. From an observer’s perspective, counting on continuation of that success is dubious, but perhaps the series was a morale boost for the hitters.  

C Bryan Broeker / Raudells Martinez
1B Xavier Isaac
2B Cooper Kinney
3B Braden Taylor
SS Ryan Spikes
LF Cristopher Barete
CF Colton Ledbetter
RF Jhon Diaz
Also IF Odalys Peguero, IF Carlos Colmenarez,

The nine most commonly used hitters in the playoffs had an average regular-season line of .236/.329/.374. It’s a decent if unexceptional bunch on the whole, although it did score 18 in the deciding game of the division series. In the second half, they haven’t hit for a high average but have bettered Down East in terms of walks and power.   

Much of said power comes from newcomer Braden Taylor, who hit five homers and slugged .512 in 22 games. Taylor also had a monster playoff series (.417/.533/.917) Xavier Isaac follows with 10 homers and .266/.380/.462 line in 90 games. Beyond them, no playoff starter slugged .400 in the regular season. Chandler Simpson (81 SB) took one-third of the team’s stolen bases with him to Bowling Green. Barete and Spikes can run, but neither excels at reaching base.

Pitching / Possible Rotation
Down East: 9% better than avg. runs allowed, .218/.309/.327 oppo line, 89 OPS+, 12% BB/HBP, 27% SO
Charleston: 5% better than avg. runs allowed, .237/.324/.363, 103 OPS+, 12% BB/HBP, 26% SO

Down East:
1: Brayan Mendoza (3.60 ERA, .228/.322/.321 oppo line, 13% BB/HBP, 22% SO)
2. Brock Porter (2.47 ERA, .160/.304/.202, 17% BB/HBP, 32% SO)
3: Joseph Montalvo? (2.83 ERA, .211/.300/.331, 11% BB/HBP, 27% SO)

Pitcher usage generally matched my division series preview, I’m pleased to say. Porter and Montalvo started as expected, and four potential starters tossed two or more innings in the finale. Adrian Rodriguez, who had a rough second half, never appeared with a game on the line despite leading the team in saves.

Instead of Rodriguez, 2023 picks Paul Bonzagni and Izack Tiger took the mound in the 9th or later. Alberto Mota also entered in some stressful situations, although he did surrender a homer in Game 3.

19-year-old Bryan Mendoza will throw the first pitch of the series. Mendoza was a little more walk-prone down the stretch and topped out at 73 pitches, so expect one or two other pitchers who usually start to contribute today. Porter will start Game 2, and Game 3 is TBD. I listed Joseph Montalvo, who started the middle game of the division series.

Both Porter and Montalvo pitched capably last week, and Down East has plenty of additional starters and relievers who offer a good chance at multiple quality innings. To repeat myself: effective if not flashy.

1: Jonny Cuevas (4.93 ERA, .281/.348/.435, 10% BB/HBP, 17 % SO)
2: Trevor Martin (3.52 ERA, .185/.227/.305/.370, 10% BB/HBP, 29% SO)
3: Marcus Johnson (3.74 ERA, .258/.292/.413, 5% BB/HBP, 21% SO)

Charleston had the league’s best second-half run prevention by far, 3.8 runs per game or 19% better than average. The opposing OPS+ was a good-but-not-amazing 95, however, and no team stranded a higher percentage of runners, so some of that dominance has an element of luck.

The well-rested Cuevas will open for Charleston. He had a better second half than the stats listed above. Martin and Johnson pitched the first two games of the prior series. Santiago Suarez and Jake Christenson were solid starters who are likely to appear in long relief.   

The bullpen is deeper than Carolina, led by save leader Drew Sommers (2.72 ERA, 35% SO) and Gerlin Rosario (1.96 ERA, 33% SO), who pitched three scoreless innings in Charleston’s series-opening one-run win. Cade Halemanu and Jack Hartman had nice second halves.

I mentioned in the division preview that Down East might have the league’s second-best defense after Carolina. Charleston is modestly above average, less adept at converting balls in play into outs.

Park Factors
Down East – 0.97
Charleston – 1.00 (but not homer-friendly)

Advantages / Outlook
Offense – Charleston
Pitching – Down East, small margin
Defense – Down East, small margin

If you think a handicapping MLB playoff series is a fool’s errand, try the minors. The teams are closely matched, and all I can predict with even the slightest confidence is a likelihood of close, low-scoring games. As with the division series, Down East is dealing with a team that played much better in the second half. A third consecutive championship for the RiverDogs would be selfish on their part, so let’s go with the Wood Ducks.