It was a good season overall for Oklahomans in the minor leagues, especially position players. Here are my picks for a minor league all-star team of players with collegiate or high school ties to Oklahoma.
First base: Yariel Gonzalez (Connors/OBU/USAO): He batted a combined .261 with 15 home runs and 72 RBIs for three teams, primarily with Double-A Springfield (Cardinals) in the Texas League.
Second base: Donnie Walton (Bishop Kelley/OSU): He was fifth in the TL with a .300 batting average, second in hits (144) and OBP (.390) to help Arkansas post the TL’s best record and earn a promotion to the majors with Seattle.
Shortstop: Ryan Vilade (Stillwater) — He was third in the Single-A California League with a .303 batting average and sixth with 71 RBIs for Visalia (Rockies).
Third base: Sheldon Neuse (OU) — He batted .317 with 27 homers and 102 RBIs for Triple-A Las Vegas before moving up to the majors with Oakland.
Outfield: Colin Simpson (OSU/Edmond Memorial) — He was the rookie-level Pioneer League’s MVP as he batted .309 with 18 homers and 49 RBIs in 56 games for Grand Junction (Rockies).
Outfield: Cody Thomas (OU) — He led the Texas League with 23 homers and was third with 76 RBIs for the Tulsa Drillers (Dodgers).
Outfield: Steele Walker (OU) — The Carolina League all-star batted a combined .284 with 10 homers and 62 RBIs for two teams, primarily with Single-A Winston-Salem (White Sox).
Catcher: Matt Whatley (ORU/Claremore) — He bounced back from injuries to play 117 games, batting .234 with 49 RBIs and a .349 OBP for Single-A Hickory. Was honored Friday at Globe Life Park as the Texas Rangers' defender of the year in the minors.
Designated hitter: Abraham Toro (Seminole State) — Primarily a third baseman, he was second in TL hitting at .306 with 16 homers and 70 RBIs for Corpus Christi and is now in the majors with Houston.
Utility: Jack Mayfield (OU) — He batted .287 with 26 homers and 79 RBIs for Triple-A Round Rock and is now with Houston.
Utility: Pete Kozma (Owasso) — The seven-year major league veteran known primarily for his defense had one of his best offensive years, as he batted .263 with seven homers and 51 RBIs for Triple-A Toledo (Tigers).
Utility: Matt Reynolds (Bishop Kelley) — He batted .295 with 16 homers and 55 RBIs and pitched twice for Triple-A Fresno (Nationals).
Utility: Tyler Saladino (ORU) — He batted .287 with 17 homers and 64 RBIs for Triple-A San Antonio (Brewers), but his season highlight was becoming the first major leaguer to hit grand slams in consecutive games since 2010.
Starting RHP: Austin Hansen (OU) — He posted a 7-3 record with a 2.11 ERA in a combined 23 games (21 starts) for Single-A Quad Cities and Fayetteville (Astros). He had 128 strikeouts in 94 innings.
Starting LHP: Taylor Varnell (ORU) — He was a combined 8-6 with a 3.24 ERA for Single-A Kannapolis and Winston-Salem (White Sox). He had 157 strikeouts in 148⅔ innings.
Reliever: Zach Jackson (Berryhill) — He went 9-0 with a 3.97 ERA and nine holds in 46 games for Triple-A Buffalo (Blue Jays).
Drillers trio in TL’s Top 20
Three Drillers were on Baseball America’s end-of-the-season Texas League Top-20 prospects list, led by infielder Gavin Lux at No. 1. Pitcher Dustin May was No. 3 and catcher Keibert Ruiz was No. 7. All finished the season at a higher level. TL MVP Dylan Carlson of Springfield was No. 2 and Toro was No. 13.
Where are they now?
Ruben Rivera, an outfielder with Tulsa in 2002 who played in the 1998 World Series, appeared in 35 games at age 45 this year for Monclova in his 15th Mexican League season. The one-time top Yankees prospect has been in pro ball since 1992. Also with Monclova this year were former Drillers Eric Young Jr., Al Alburquerque and Jordan Pacheco, and former ORU pitcher Mark Serrano. ...
Daniel Mayora, an infielder with Tulsa in 2009-10 and ’15, won the Mexican League batting title at .391 for Durango. He had 19 homers and 92 RBIs...
Ryan Casteel, who played for Tulsa in 2014, finished second in the Double-A Southern League with 21 homers and 73 RBIs for Mississippi (Braves). ...
Drew Rucinski (Union) is 9-9 with a 3.05 ERA in the Korean Baseball Organization League this season. Former Drillers infielder Jose Fernandez is second in the hitting race at .342.
The Cherokee Heritage Center in Park Hill has a new exhibit, “American Indians in Major League Baseball: The First 50 Years.” The exhibit opened Saturday and will run through March 28. Eighteen of the 28 featured players were born and raised in Oklahoma, including Jim Thorpe, Allie Reynolds, Ben Tincup and Albert Bender.
In their 43-year history, the Drillers have only suffered one playoff collapse comparable to when they saw the pennant slip away as Amarillo scored seven runs in the ninth inning for an 8-3 victory in the decisive Game 5 of the TL Championship Series on Sept. 15 at ONEOK Field.
In 1981, in the winner-take-all Game 3 of the East finals, Tulsa led 4-0 after six innings, but Jackson rallied and scored two in the ninth for a 5-4 walk-off win. The losing pitcher was Tom Henke, who went on to become one of the majors’ top relievers from 1985-95 and is in the Drillers’ Wall of Fame. In 1992, Henke had five postseason saves to help Toronto win the World Series.