For their 10th anniversary season, the Pensacola Blue Wahoos went big in a variety of ways. From being voted the best stadium for Minor League Baseball, to zany promotions, to fantastic rain delay entertainment, to fielding some of the top prospects in the Marlins’ organization, there were plenty of reasons to keep your eyes on the club and your backside in a seat at Blue Wahoos Stadium. It all culminated with an exciting successful playoff run that saw Pensacola solely hoist the Southern League championship trophy for the first time in franchise history.
The Wahoos entered their second season as a Marlins affiliate after ending their first prematurely. They made up for that missed time by extending their 2022 season. Kevin Randel returned to Pensacola as manager and brought the Wahoos to a 33-34 first half record, allowing the team to qualify for the playoffs.
While overall offensive stats weren’t the team’s strength (they were last in the Southern League in many offensive stats including batting average and OPS), the Wahoos relied on timely hitting and great pitching. Bolstered by top pitching prospects such as Eury Perez and Dax Fulton and backed up by an extremely strong bullpen consisting of Josh Simpson, Eli Villalobos, Sean Reynolds (all of whom are now on the Marlins’ 40 man Major League roster) and others, the Wahoos’ pitching staff held down a 4.49 collective ERA and were second in batting average against with a .246 marker and third in WHIP at 1.34. Their 2.83 K/BB ratio led the circuit. According to Reynolds, the group that rose to the top in Pensacola this year created a culture of winning they plan to permeate as they continue to build their careers together.
“The group that we had in Beloit early in the season we talked about it. Yeah, we’re all here to develop and get better and get out playing time, but if we’re gonna be here, we might as well win a few games,” Reynolds said. “Once you start to get most of the room if not all 25-26 guys on that same page, that we are showing up to win, that takes the stress off everyone asking what am I doing or what is going on with my swing or my defense. If all your focus is to just win the game, we’re showing up every day like it’s a brand new day and we’re gonna win tonight.”
Dax Fulton strikes out career high 13 in season saving game
With the Wahoos facing elimination in the Southern League playoffs, Dax Fulton took the ball for the fifth time in his AA career and for the first time in the postseason. He absolutely dazzled. In six innings, Fulton struck out 13, a new career high. He retired 12 straight to end his night.
After a hard-luck start to the season with the Sky Carp in which he had an ERA nearly a run higher than his FIP (4.07 vs 3.08), Fulton’s stats matched his potential against older competition and in a more hitter friendly environment in Pensacola. Living off a tight hammer curveball and a fastball that sits in the 94-96 mph range with spin rates upward of 2,600 as well as a changeup that took the next step this season all coming at hitters from a downhill plane and high arm slot, this 6’7” lefty could contribute to a major league roster as early as 2023. While he is still a bit under the radar, Dax is proving why he is one of the pitching prospects in a Marlins’ system rich in quality arms.
Wahoos score three in 9th, walk off despite not recording a hit
There are a lot of ways that baseball games can end. The Blue Wahoos and Biloxi Shuckers exhibited of the more unique ones on this date in early June.
Down two runs going into the bottom of the 9th, Pensacola scored three runs without the benefit of a hit. After a throwing error from the Biloxi shortstop allowed Troy Johnston to reach, Griffin Conine walked. From there, Biloxi’s closer plunked four straight batters. Luis Aviles Jr’s plunking loaded the bases. Ray Patrick Didder and Cobie Fletcher-Vance were then hit on back to back pitches.
In one of the more exciting series at Blue Wahoos Stadium all season, it marked the third straight time and fourth time in the six game set that Pensacola won via walk off.
The main culprit for why Biloxi closer Harold Chirino hit four straight batters and walked another may have been due to the rock he was throwing. Early in the year, the Southern League had been experimenting with pre-tacked baseballs. This series was one of the first in which the league reverted back to its regular model after the experiment was halted “for reasons unclear”. That weekend, the Wahoos averaged more than five total hit batters per game. Reasons aside, fans who attended a Wahoos game that week were treated to quite the show. And players needed ice.
Blue Wahoos win Southern League championship
After the aforementioned Fulton game, the Wahoos entered the the Southern League championship series against Tennessee with the big mo on their side. It didn’t let them down. In the final game of the series, the Wahoos ran out the Marlins’ top prospect Eury Perez, fresh back from rehab. He struck out nine in three innings of work. Cobie Fletcher-Vance starred on the offensive side of the ball. He went 2-5 and produced the biggest hit of the game, a grand slam. He matched a career high with 5 RBIs. The rule 5 pick produced for the bulk of the postseason for Pensacola, hitting .316 in six games.
Following Perez, the Wahoos’ pen consisting of Robinson Martinez, Chandler Jozwiak, Jorge Mercedes and Sean Reynolds dealt six innings of scoreless ball while striking out 10. The 19 total strikeouts by the Wahoos’ staff were a season high and a postseason record. It was also one shy of an all-time team record.
In 2017, Pensacola won its first title after they swept Marlins AA prospects with the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp in the division series. Afterwards, the championship series was canceled due to Hurricane Irma and the Wahoos along with the Chattanooga Lookouts were named co-champions. Thus this 2022 title win was the second in Wahoos’ franchise history but the first time in franchise history the team has stood alone atop the Southern League.
OF/1B Troy Johnston
85 G, .292/.360/.450, 10 HR, 31 XBH, 49 RBI, 71/32 K/BB
The Marlins’ 17th rounder from 2019 just keeps proving himself. After a breakout year in Jupiter and Beloit in 2021, Johnston’s prowess and ability to get on base at an above average level permeated in the upper minors this season. With Pensacola, Johnston slashed .292/.360/.450, marks that ranked first, second and second amongst those who played more than 30 games in Wahoos garb.
Coming into 2021, the only thing missing from Johnston’s offensive profile was the ability to hit for consistent power. He responded by hitting 15 home runs in the lower minors. That same power potential permeated with Pensacola this year as he hit another 10. After a late season call to AAA Jacksonville, he hit another four homers. Johnston’s walk rate (8.5%) shrunk amidst his call to AA, but so did his K rate (18.9%). Long story short, Johnston saw better quality stuff but was still able to select advantageously. The scientific hitter at one point in the season had a 12 game hit streak. With that streak included, he reached via a hit in 24 of 26 games.
Getting his first taste of AAA, Johnston’s hat to ball fizzled a bit as he fell into an 0-19 slump to start September with the Jumbo Shrimp. However, his patience and selectiveness persisted. With the Shrimp, Johnston had a 24/15 K/BB which proved he can still work counts to his favor at the highest level of MiLB. Johnston was rule 5 eligible at the winter meetings, but wound up going unselected. He will come back to Miami in 2023 likely with an invite to spring training and with an outside chance to make the big league roster. If not, Johnston should report back to AAA Jacksonville. With eligibility at a very thin position for Miami, first base, the avid and persistent worker who has a healthy mindset to steadily challenge himself and improve is a very real candidate to contribute to the Marlins this coming season.
C Paul McIntosh
90 G, .258/.379/.465, 13 HR, 39 XBH, 51 RBI, 75/55 K/BB
There’s just something about undrafted free agents breaking out that makes us smile. Since spring training, it was clear and evident that Paul McIntosh had the plate presence and raw strength to become a considerable name in the Marlins’ system. After catching most of the system’s top pitching prospects and some major league pitchers during camp, the West Virginia product was assigned to AA Pensacola to begin the year.
McIntosh joined the Wahoos and made an instant impact. In his first 16 games, he hit .316/.435/.544 with five homers. While his batting average normalized over the course of the rest of the season as he went through some cold stretches, his patience and power potential permeated all year long. Overall, McIntosh’s 125 wRC+ ranked third in the Marlins organization amongst full season players, earning him organizational All-Star honors. McIntosh’s weakness lies on his ability to produce consistent quality bat-to-ball contact. That said, he is one of the stronger players in the Marlins’ system. McIntosh can suffice at catcher, but his durability behind the plate (he missed the playoffs due to injury and also spent time on the IL in 2021) makes him most likely a long term first baseman. He can also slot in in the outfield. We anticipate him starting 2023 with the AAA Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp. Given the Marlins’ MLB ready depth at both catcher and first base, he could be in line for a big league call this coming season.
RHP Eury Perez
75 IP, 4.08 ERA, 3.52 FIP, 1.16 WHIP, 106/25 K/BB
Perez is the Marlins’ enigmatic consensus top prospect. He has risen to such a level after being signed as part of the 2019 international class ($200K). From the moment he was signed, Perez had fiery velo. He also had more than a blueprint of three pitches, including an advanced changeup and a curveball. In his first season pro, Perez flashed all three pitches but he also exhibited the need to repeat a bit better and learn his levers to avoid tipping.
Fast forward to 2022. After a dominant season in A Jupiter, with his levers well under control, Perez was challenged to the AA level to begin the year. There, he struggled in his first few starts but quickly acclimated to the league and to much older competitors. From May 6th through July 7th, Perez held down a 2.20 ERA while striking out 59 and walking just 9. Once again on a stringent innings limit of 110 entering the season, Perez’s arm showed signs of fatigue during his first August start and he was pulled from it after just 1.1 IP. While tests were negative and only revealed simple arm fatigue, Perez underwent a minor surgery and missed the rest of August. He returned to Pensacola on September 16th after one rehab outing in Jupiter. During Pensacola’s playoff run, he tossed 6 IP and allowed seven runs while striking out 12 and walking three.
While the end to his season isn’t exactly what he or the Marlins wanted, in Perez, the Marlins have something very special: a 6’8” righty with three plus plus pitches, good control, the ability to sit at 97, hit triple digits, shrink to the low 80s, hold his cell through his outings, command consistently, and mask his delivery well. As long as Perez can remain healthy with his innings limit removed, he has a very real future as part of the Marlins rotation and very soon. We foresee him being invited to spring training with the Marlins and starting 2023 in AAA.
LHP Josh Simpson
55.2 IP, 3.88 ERA, 3.33 FIP, 1.08 WHIP, 89/29 K/BB
Simpson is one of many quality arms that contributed to an extremely solid Pensacola bullpen in 2022 and one of a few that the Marlins have since selected to the 40 man roster. He made an immediate impression in his AA debut to begin 2022 as he tossed 18.2 scoreless innings and allowed just three total hits. Over that span, he had a 35/7 K/BB. One rough five run outing aside, Simpson recorded more than respectable numbers in a Wahoos’ uniform before his late season call to AAA.
Simpson is an averaged size lefty (6’2” 190 lb), who lives off his ability to deceive hitters via his quick pace and motion and his four plus pitches and three plus pitches. Simpson reaches up to 97 mph with his fastball (sitting 94). His cut fastball sits in the 88-90 mph range and tunnels well of the heat. Simpson’s best pitch is a tight curveball with late downward action that lies in the 80 mph range. In addition, he can also throw a usable changeup.
With good stuff, Simpson is a more than competitive southpaw whose control got better as 2022 went on. He will enter spring training with a very real chance of making the Marlins’ Opening Day roster.