Anyone remember the Chattanooga Lookouts? It might not feel like it, but it has only been two years since the Lookouts were the Twins Double-A affiliate. They are one of the oldest franchises in minor league baseball, having played in “Nooga” since 1930. The Twins and Lookouts were only partners for four seasons (2015-18), but it was quite a memorable run as Chattanooga won two Southern League titles in that span, thanks to some current Twins.
This past Monday marked the five-year anniversary of the Lookouts claiming the championship in their first season as a Twins affiliate, and it was quite a run. Several of the players from that squad are now a key part of the core in Minneapolis while some others are still fun to look back on.
Chattanooga reached the postseason in 2015 thanks to an outstanding first two and a half months in which they went 43-25 and ran away with the first-half North division title. Max Kepler was the hero in Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs when he ripped a walk-off two-run single, and the Lookouts went on to defeat Montgomery in four games. The first-year Biloxi Shuckers had Chattanooga on the ropes in the championship series with a 2-1 lead, but the Lookouts were able to rally to win the final two games, claiming their first title in 27 years.
The headliner of the 2015 Lookouts club was Kepler, who hit .322 with 54 extra-base hits in 112 games en route to being named league MVP. He hit another gear in the championship series, launching two long balls in a Game 2 victory and another in the third inning of the clincher. Kepler received his first major league promotion after the game and the rest is history. He did spend a brief amount of time at Triple-A Rochester the next year, but was soon recalled and has not played in the minor leagues since May 31, 2016. Flash forward to now and Kepler just reached 100 home runs in the big leagues on Sunday night at Wrigley Field. Last night, he connected on a game-tying solo shot in the eighth inning and then connected on a game-winning single in the 10th to lead his team to a key victory in a pennant race.
Jorge Polanco was the primary shortstop in Chattanooga that year, starting 83 games at the position. He dazzled with the bat, putting up a .289/.346/.393 slash line. Polanco’s key playoff contributions came courtesy of a two-run homer in the division series in Montgomery and a three-hit outing in Game 4 against Biloxi, a 4-2 win that kept the Lookouts’ season alive. After a pair of brief stints in Minnesota, Polanco had taken over starting shortstop duties in the big leagues for good by the end of 2016. A three-time all-star in the minor leagues (including Chattanooga in 2015), he received his first such honor in the American League last year as part of a campaign in which he hit a stellar .295 with 22 long balls.
When fans can attend games at Target Field, they often show up sporting jerseys of three players who spent time in Chattanooga that year but were promoted before the postseason run: Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano and Jose Berrios. All three were Southern League All-Stars, with Buxton and Sano hitting .283 and .274 in Lookouts uniforms, respectively. Each of them received a midseason promotion from Double-A, with the fielders reporting to the major league team, whereas Berrios packed his bags for Rochester on July 1 after posting a 3.08 ERA and eight victories in Chattanooga.
Then there are some of the lesser-known guys at the next level, but guys who definitely stood out and made a championship run possible.
Take Levi Michael for example. He was a first-round pick by the Twins in 2011 who spent three years with the Lookouts, including 2015. Biloxi led Game 4 of the championship series 2-0 through five innings thanks in large part to some Josh Hader guy, who struck out 10 batters in his start. Chattanooga loaded the bases with one out in the sixth and Michael delivered a two-run single to tie the contest. They went on to score two more runs in the frame and ended up winning 4-2, so we are likely not looking at a five-year title anniversary without Michael’s heroics. He played the last two seasons in the Mets and Giants systems and resigned with Minnesota in January, but the cancellation of the minor league system has him selling real estate in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Another prospect who didn’t quite work out was Adam Brett Walker, but his power was something else. The former third-round pick launched 31 home runs to lead the Southern League in 2015, a remarkable feat considering how many parks on the Gulf Coast are right at sea-level, meaning a plethora of advantages for hurlers. Not only was Walker able to suit up this summer, but he won another championship, this time with the Milwaukee Milkmen of the independent American Association. Walker again flashed the power, hitting 22 long balls on the way to being named league player of the year. It was his second season with the Milkmen and third overall in the American Association. Potentially the door isn’t closed just yet on a return to affiliated ball?
On the pitching side, the effort of D.J. Baxendale for Chattanooga in the championship season is one that must not be forgotten. He was a mid-season All-Star as part of a year that saw him finish 7-5 with a respectable 3.80 ERA. In the postseason, Baxendale delivered two heroic efforts, first pitching into the eighth inning in Game 1 against Montgomery while allowing just three runs. He then took the ball in the decisive Game 5 and limited the Shuckers to four hits while not allowing a run. Perhaps the most pivotal moment of the clinching game was when Biloxi loaded the bases with no outs in the second inning, but Baxendale pulled a Houdini by striking out two batters and inducing a groundout to get out of it. He has spent the last few seasons at Triple-A and became a free agent at the end of 2019, but was unsigned at the time COVID-19 took over the world.
And then there’s the Finals MVP with quite a backstory. Jason Wheeler was a starting pitcher who was seemingly on the right track in terms of moving up the minor league system, but he hit a bump in 2015 when he limped to a 6.58 ERA in 15 starts for Rochester. Wheeler was sent to Chattanooga where he seemed to find himself, ending the regular season with a much better 3.90 mark. In his first two starts of the postseason, he allowed a combined two runs over 13 dominant innings, including a Game 2 victory at Biloxi in the championship series. Heading into Game 5, the last time Wheeler pitched in relief was 2010, his sophomore season at Loyola Marymount University. But in playoff baseball, anything is possible and often coaches tell players to be ready for the most unique of situations. That happened for Wheeler, who was called to come in from the bullpen in the sixth inning with the Lookouts leading 3-0. He delivered the performance of a lifetime, allowing one hit while tossing four scoreless frames. Wheeler was on the mound when Chattanooga claimed glory on a double-play grounder. A pitcher who was making his first relief appearance at the professional level was mobbed by his teammates after securing the final outs, and was then named Most Valuable Player of the championship series.
Quite frankly, 99.9% of Twins fans have likely not thought of the Chattanooga Lookouts in a very long time, but that is okay. Affiliation changes are a constant in minor league baseball and it can be hard to keep up. However, the 2015 Lookouts team was a special one, with individuals with all kinds of different backgrounds meshing together to deliver something special to the city.
This season was supposed to be the second for the Pensacola Blue Wahoos as the Twins Double-A affiliate, but that will need to wait until 2021. However, the Blue Wahoos have been as creative as any team in the minor leagues, transforming their ballpark into an Airbnb and a disc golf course. Yes, really!