The 26-year old Billy Buckner was dominant in two stints at Triple-A Reno in 2009, making 18 appearances, 16 of which were starts. Buckner finished 9-3 for the Aces, boasting a 3.32 ERA. He had a better than 2-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and earned the victory in eight of his final nine decisions.
On July 31, Buckner dealt arguably Reno's finest pitching performance, holding Tacoma to just four hits and no runs in a complete game shutout effort at Aces Ballpark. Two starts later, the Decatur, Georgia native went on the road and limited Omaha to four hits and no runs over seven innings of work in a 5-0 Aces victory.
With Arizona, Buckner was 4-6 with a 6.40 ERA in 13 starts and three relief appearances. After being recalled to the Diamondbacks from Reno for the final time, Buckner went on to collect the victory in each of his final two starts.
Buckner's selection for the award was unusual in a couple of respects. He came into the season just two major league innings shy of no longer being rookie-eligible and turned 26 in August. Also, since he spent so much time on the major league roster this season, Buckner finished fifth on the Aces with 103 innings pitched and tied for third with nine wins.
The selection confirmed an organizational understanding of how
difficult it is to pitch in Aces Ballpark, however. No other Aces starter
was able to post an ERA under 4.78, not because Reno sported an awful pitching
staff, but because the dimensions, batter's eye, and dry desert air combine to
make pitching in Reno an adventure. Away from his home ballpark, Buckner
was even better than his 3.32 ERA, going 5-3 with a 2.73 ERA in 10 starts.
This is how the organization could justify selecting Buckner over some pitchers
with better overall numbers at lower levels.
First baseman Ryan Wheeler split the 2009 season with Yakima and South Bend. The 2009 fifth-round draft pick led the Northwest League with a .461 OBP and .999 OPS. He was second with a .363 batting average and .538 slugging. He was also among the league leaders in runs, hits, doubles, and walks. He fanned just 28 times in 234 at-bats and also showed that he could run for a big guy by swiping seven bases.
Wheeler continued to hit well after his late-season promotion to South Bend. In eight regular season games, Wheeler went .345/.472/.552, with those OBP and SLG marks even surpassing the ones he hit at Yakima. South Bend manager Mark Haley, who has seen a lot of great hitters in his time and is not prone to hyperbole, called Wheeler's swing the best he had seen in the Midwest League all year. Wheeler went on to go 3-for-12 with a homer and two walks against the powerhouse Fort Wayne TinCaps pitchers in the postseason.
Far from just your average lumbering slugger at first base, Wheeler made just five errors at the position, and none after joining the Silver Hawks. He played a little third base in college, so therefore he has the arm to start double plays and make strong relay throws from the outfield. He also tripled four times over the course of the season, showing impressive wheels for someone who weighs over 220 pounds.
The selection of Wheeler is a far more conventional one than that of Buckner. Wheeler not only had an excellent season, but positioned himself ahead of the nine players Arizona selected ahead of him in this year's draft on the prospect ladder with the performance. FutureBacks.com selected Wheeler for Yakima Position Player of the Year, but went with Tony Barnette over Billy Buckner for Aces Pitcher of the Year.
FutureBacks will present its picks for Minor League Players of the Year shortly. You may view the 2008 selections here.
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