Double-A NW Arkansas was one of the worst teams in Minor League Baseball in the first half (just 25 wins), but rebounded in the second half to contend for a playoff spot. One of the KC Royals selections for Pitcher/Hitter of the Year was a big reason for the turnaround.
Right-hander Aaron Brooks began the season in the prospect-laden six-man rotation in High-A Wilmington. He was often overlooked, but proved to be a workhorse (six-plus innings in five straight starts). He was the first pitcher to be promoted to Double-A and was the Blue Rocks best starter upon his promotion following his June 1st start.
Brooks continued to be a workhorse for the Naturals after his promotion, thus being named their Pitcher of the Year. Only three times out of 16 starts did he not go at least six innings (two of those were his last starts of the season). Twice he pitched into the ninth inning. On July 24th, Brooks threw a complete game shutout while striking out five (he allowed just four hits). On August 17th, he took the loss despite allowing just two runs on six hits over 8.2 innings (with eight strikeouts). In half of his starts, he allowed three runs or less in the hitter-friendly Texas League.
What kept Brooks in just about every game was his control. He had five straight starts (three in Wilmington and two after his promotion) where he did not walk a batter. Overall in his 26 starts, he had 12 walkless games and six where he only walked one batter. He never walked more than two batters in a game. He only hit three batters all season long.
His numbers may not look great in NWA: 7-7 with a 4.17 ERA in 103.2 innings. He allowed 113 hits and 13 home runs. However, he only walked 11 compared to 67 strikeouts. But numbers do not always tell the whole story of what a player means to a team (like resting the bullpen and always giving the team a chance to win).
First baseman Matt Fields earned the Naturals Hitter of the Year award, as he was a staple in their lineup (131 games). He set the NWA single season home run record with 31 long balls, which also led the Texas League and all KC Royals affiliates. His 87 RBIs were just four shy of the league lead. Forty-nine of his 101 hits went for extra bases (17 doubles).
Fields earned June TL Player of the Month honors, as he hit .300 with six doubles, nine homers, and 25 RBIs. With the Naturals hosting the All-Star Game, he was a late addition and took home the Home Run Derby crown.
As much as I love Fields, I had to pick someone else for this award. He had Adam Dunn type numbers for the season and Dunn was never honored with an MVP award. Fields hit just .222 with 181 strikeouts, which led the TL. He hit just .162 in April, but heated up in May (.266) and June. Not sure if the HR Derby or pitching three innings in a game screwed up his swing, but he hit just .205 in the second half and just .163 with four home runs and 13 RBIs in the month of August (his lowest totals since April). That is when his team needed him most. Fields‘ struggles forced him lower in the order (down to seventh).
My choice for NWA Hitter of the Year is infielder Rey Navarro, who was promoted to Triple-A Omaha for the postseason and hit over .400 to help the Storm Chasers win the Triple-A Championship.
Navarro mostly split time in the field between second (44 games) and third base (46 games). He hit .283 with 61 runs scored and 58 RBIs (which was second on the team). His batting average ranked him seventh in the TL. He hit more doubles than Fields (21), hit four triples, and even hit 12 home runs. The homer total was his highest in a season (nine was his previous high back in 2011).
He started out slow in April (just .238), but never hit less than .263 in a month (that was July). Navarro hit .329 in the month of August when the Naturals were battling for a playoff spot. He hit three homers and had two of his triples. Overall, he drove in at least ten runs each month.
Tune in on Monday for the final installment of the Royals minor league Pitcher and Hitter of the Year analysis, as I take a look at Triple-A Omaha.