Friday, December 2, 2016

Season 33 AL South Preview

Richmond High Rollers
Season 32: 72-90

Season 32 In A Nutshell

After decades of winning seasons, the franchise fully committed to rebuilding last year.  On offense, Kevin Hillenbrand (.290/38/92) performed valiantly.  Among the pitchers, Trever Springer signed off with a strong, if abbreviated, year.

Season 33 Preview
The new-look High Rollers said goodbye to a bunch of aging free agents this off-season, including Springer, J.D. Hardy and Alfredo Butler.  

The new faces include a bunch of rookies, a bunch of budget free agents (I always like those), and 1 moderate splurge on Manny Saitou for $5.8MM (although he might be called a bargain since he signed for only 1 year).

I like the offense they've assembled.  Buck Ward is a nice power-hitting catcher who will bounce back from a poor season. Hillenbrand and Rule V'er Bruce Klingenbeck will (I guess) share 1B/DH...not bad.  They get to pay Gary Person too much for one more year at 2B, but at least he'll deliver around an .800 OPS.  The Calles/Iglesias rookie/vet combo at 3B isn't great but it'll do.  Ross is both a + hitter and defender at SS.  Saitou's fine in LF and Bianchi will be a plus hitter (although a mess defensively) in CF.  Rookie Machado in RF is probably the worst link in the lineup, and he's far from terrible.

John Punto is the best arm on the staff...I don't know if he can throw more than about 150 innings but they'll be high quality.  It's hard to be terribly optimistic about the rest of the rotation, although Stu Wilson has strung together 4 straight pretty good seasons.  Watch for DITR Carson Furbush, who starts as a long reliever, to step up and win a rotation spot soon.  The rest of the pen, excepting Al Troncoso (and let's hope they can get a prospect for him sometime  this year), looks like a dumpster fire about to break out.

Clearly some rebuilding seasons in the works here, but this team will still win a fair share of games.

New Orleans Playoff Chokers
Season 32:  116-46, won Division, lost to Las Vegas in Round 2

Season 32 In A Nutshell

Dominated the regular season again behind Sam Stock's 2nd Cy Young and a 1000-run offense, but Stock and co. laid yet another playoff egg.  Certainly another disappointing year for New Orleans, but renaming the team the Playoff Chokers may have been a little extreme.  They are not even in the same choking league as say, the Kansas City Jayhawks.  Now there are some professional chokers.

Season 33 Preview
This is a dangerous team.  The offense is especially scary, and they added Danys Guerrero (.302/.367/.471) in LF to hit at the top of the order, along with RF Joe Wilk (.251/.305/.468, but those numbers were in SD, look for a big improvement this year.)  

The top holdovers from last year's squad which was either first or second in most of the major offensive categories are 1B Hector Cortez (.324/.399/.548), 2B Dante Kawasaki (.322/.400/.491), LF Tony Mullen (.288/.354/.611),  RF Nick Green (.304/.413/.516) and C Zoltan Keppinger (.278/.351/.553).

Rich Kohn and Wally Glover hold down short and third respectively and are also no slouches with the bat.  CF is covered by Miguel Frieri, who is too good to not bounce back from an off year.  Look for him to be closer to his career norm .850 OPS rather than last season's .650 OPS.   DH figures to be a rotation of Cortez, Mullen, Green and the new guys.  

If there is a weakness to this team, it is the defense which figures to be a little below average.  I expect them to better the 996 runs scored last season and become the first team in Hobbs to reach 1000 since the season 30 Huntington team, and they may well challenge the all time Hobbs record of 1148 set by the Las Vegas Desperados.

As usual, blanch goes for the unusual (and effective) in his pitching staff.  Last year, the team led every pitching category that matters....and that was super-reliever Sam Stock having an off year compared to the season before.

The hard part about reporting on this staff is sorting out the roles.  The only traditional starters are rookie Vic Merced and Rick Branson (career 3.06 ERA and 2 CYs).  Neither one will pitch more than 200 innings, but both will be excellent with that bullpen behind them.  Other than them, the rest of the starters are just expected to keep the game close for 4 innings or so and then hand it to the pen to win.  The most likely are Anthony Paulino (1.26/3.00) and Juan Veras (1.49/4.90, but way worse than career norms).

The bullpen is the key here though.  It seems like there are a hundred of them and each better than the last.  It starts with Stock (1.06/3.11, but do not expect to see numbers that high again) then Albert Gonzalez (1.23/3.46).  Oh yeah and they won 55 games between them!

Following them are Melvin Chang (1.45/3.06), Aurelio Duran (0.99/2.17), Benny Marquez (1.29/4.36), Fausto Rodriguez (1.25/3.33) and Jeremi Wilkerson (1.11/2.98)

Big Moves: Acquired 2-time Cy Young winner Rick Branson and lifetime .311 hitter Danys Guerrero for prospects

Monster Move: Acquired Season 30 #1 overall draft pick Vic Merced for SP's Andre Counsell and Jack Allensworth

Big Move:  Acquired OF Joe Wilk for OF Alex Diaz and MR Emil Ontiveros

Nashville Legends

Season 32:  95-67, Wild Card, lost in Round 1 to Las Vegas

Season 32 In A Nutshell 

A great season in Nashville.  Only an average-ish offense with 770 runs, the pitching stepped up big-time behind Nelson Jordan (15-8, 3.00 ERA in 192 innings), Jason Haywood  (16-11, 3.12 ERA in 204 innings) and a host of terrific relief performances (for example, closer Peter Sonnanstine saved 29 of 32 and posted an ERA of 3.59 in 67 IP).  
Season 33 Preview

Pretty quiet off-season, with only OF Hanley Welsh as a semi-significant addition.  You get the idea that new owner Bighead34 is going to take his time evaluating the team before making any serious moves.  

Once again, pitching will be their calling card.  Besides Haywood and Nelson in the rotation, they also feature Benny Rosario (15-11 1.25 and 3.94), Trevor Tanner (11-8 1.42 and 4.47) and  Thomas Kingman (14-12 1.26 and 4.19).

In the pen, Sonnanstine is ably supported by Felipe Garza (1.05/3.54), Wilkin Rios (1.22/2.59), Happy Brock (1.18/2.76) and Chad Reid (1.33/3.62).

The only question is will the offense hold up its end of the bargain?  There are certainly bright spots.  C David Simmons has come into his own the last 2 years, hitting 30 homers and identical .881 OPS.  Jamie Osborn is back at 1B with his (.294/.348/.533) bat and Oswaldo Alberro plays stellar IF defense while cranking out his (.288/.347/.455)

Speaking of defense the Dennis Barber/Andrew Holmes platoon at SS should be excellent defensively while providing decent offense as well.  Most of the other spots in the lineup look very average with the possible exception of William Chang who may put up some decent numbers now that he seems to be getting his first real chance at age 29.  Also, Jered Smith is a very interesting player.  Not a prime bat, but when did you last see a 1B steal 100 bases in a season while playing GG caliber defense?

All in all, a very good team that will challenge for a wild card, but not good enough to win a tough division.

Louisville Sluggers
Season 32:  82-80

Season 32 In A Nutshell

Nice 16-win improvement (to 85) for the Sluggers.  Their 4th-ranked (882 runs - impressive) offense got boosts from Raul Villa's monster year (.324/33/128) and low-budget contributors Wellington Calles (.314/20/71), Daryl Armstrong (.276/22/58), and Nicholas Wilkins (.276/27/75)...more on those last 2 in a minute.  The pitching struggled to a 4.90 ERA...and of course, this was addressed in spectacular fashion this off-season.

Season 33 Preview

Monster Moves:  Signed all 3 of this year's top free agents - Santos Eovaldi, Lawrence Hannity, and Bucky Champion - to max contracts.

In 3 strokes of the pen, Louisville became this year's most interesting team.  Eovaldi and Hannity bring in 450 quality innings, and should the Sluggers make the playoffs, would comprise scariest duo in the postseason.  Let's hope Sluggers' management recognizes the right role for the tragically-underused (except for Season 25) Bucky Champion - the guy who comes in and just erases 2 or 3 innings in the mid-to-late game.  In the playoffs, that will most likely mean a 2-inning closer following Eovaldi and Hannity.  In the regular season, they're going to need 50-something non-Eovaldi/Hannity wins, so plan Champion's use accordingly.

This offense might score 882 again, but I'd be surprised.  I don't understand why Louisville tossed aside Armstrong (min salary, .841 career OPS) and Wilkins (min salary, .882 OPS in his one season) in preference to Aaron Rodney ($3.53MM, .782 career OPS) at 1B and Esteban Romano ($3.37MM, .684 career OPS) at vR platoon right-fielder.  It's still a pretty potent attack with Villa, Calles, 2B Julio Mercado (.268/30/111), and 3B Wilkin Guerrero (.299/12/51). Defensive CF Bruce Aven probably gets the start, but if the offense flags, look for 4-position super-utility guy Pablo Valbuena to take over.

Division Outlook:

New Orleans all the way.  Heck they may even go a little further in the playoffs.   Louisville keeps them honest and takes a wildcard, Nashville, in turn is not far behind them and  Richmond watches from afar and dreams of the future.

Season 33 Al West Preview

Las Vegas DesperaDOS
Season 32:  88-74, won Division, reached ALCS and lost to Huntington

Season 32 In A Nutshell
Got a little older and dropped 12 wins (to 88), but still won the Division for the 13th straight season, knocked off 116-game winner New Orleans in the second round of the playoffs, and lost in the ALCS to eventual World Champ Huntington.

Season 33 Preview
All Vegas' sluggers except 1B Dayan Franco are now over 30, so the end of the line is in sight, just not this year.  Jin-Chi Itou (.297/59/158) won his 8th MVP last year and will probably contend for 4 or 5 more.  Jumbo Sanchez has lost a touch of power the last couple seasons but is still a dangerous contact hitter with 25-HR potential.  C Jedd Davis and the Beltran/O'Malley DH combo are a bit less dangerous than year past, but still dangerous.  The DesperaDOS go with strictly defense in CF and at SS, so that takes a little bite from the lineup, but it's still a top-3 offense.

For the first time in recent memory Vegas will have a rookie who can make an impact on the staff.  They've promoted Season 28's #26 overall, Duffy Miller, and he looks like he'll be in the rotation.  Lew Ellis enters his 4th (and likely last) season as the staff ace and he has been nothing short of sensational with 56 wins.  Last year's big free agent, Dillon Mays, was also terrific in his first year with 14 wins and a 3.67 ERA in 210 innings.  From there it would be a guess as to who fills what roles although Diego Gonzalez might get a shot at starting off the strength of his long-relief showing last year (2.82 ERA).

I have no idea how this staff will do...they were 3rd in AL ERA last year with 4.06 (then had a small explosion up to 4.55 in the playoffs but still got to the ALCS thanks to the hitters).  If forced to predict I'd say they'll be moderately worse than last year.

Cheyenne Huckleberries

Season 32:  62-100

Season 32 In A Nutshell

3rd year with a distinctive rebuilding aroma (and sub-65 wins).  They look like they've landed very nice prospects in those 3 drafts with SP Jeremy Tollberg (#4 last season), IF Wayne Langerhans (#2 Season 31), and another IF, Destin Harang (#16 Season 30).  With the #3  pick this year, the 'berries look like they're getting things straightened out.

Season 33 Preview
Cheyenne wisely let a bunch of aging free agents walk this off-season.  They did splurge a bit, re-signing 1B Nicky Cooke, rolling the dice on Tarrik Stockton catching lightning again, and inking reliable lefty Sean Kennedy for the back of the bullpen.  Otherwise, they took budget FA shots at pitchers Shawn McIntyre (9-11, 5.45 for Vegas) and Giomar Aceves (3.96 ERA for KC), and defensive CF Karim Valdivia.

The offense has Cooke back, Stockton in at 2B (instead of last year's .654-OPS Zumaya), and Ernest Palmer DH'ing (.296/.392/.528 in 216 AB's last year after coming in a trade for Matt Naulty).  With luck they'll crack 700 runs and have a good shot at more wins.

Last year's best starter (Scott Atchley - 3.99 ERA in 225 innings) and best reliever (Naulty - career 3.71 ERA) are gone.  I can't get very enthusiastic about the rotation of Bellinger, Martis, Roundtree, James and Guerrero; Roundtree had a couple of good seasons in relief a few years back in the extreme pitchers' park in Burlington...other than that I don't think there's a sub-4.00 ERA season in the bunch.  McIntyre might make the rotation...I think he'd be better than the 5 above but maybe not by much.  The bullpen looks more solid with Kennedy and 2nd-year man Ehire Quintana, but they're not going to have a lot of leads to protect.

No doubt the Huckleberries are headed the right way with their farm system, but watch that MWR.

Vancouver Ravens

Season 32:  73-89

Season 32 In A Nutshell

The Ravens (as Santa Cruz) had tried to compete with Vegas in Seasons 30 and 31; last year they committed more resources to the IFA market (landing a decent 1B prospect in Yamil Cairo) and went with as many of their prospects as they could bring up.  As a result they were a little less competitive, but are better positioned to challenge the DesperaDOS monoploy.

Season 33 Preview
An interesting lineup is starting to take shape.  At its heart are 3 young power hitters - LF Greg Ward (.251/39/95), RF Vic Guerrieri (.250/30/86), and C Ken Jay (.237/30/72).  All 3 are contact-challenged and strikeout prone (although Ward takes a walk with the best of them); Vancouver will need to surround these 3 with some good contact/batting eye table-setters, who they don't have yet (the team was tops in the AL in strikeouts and next-to-last in batting average in Season 32).  SS Stew Rogers is the only one who brings defense sterling enough to offset the batting flaws (and he's a Gold Glove waiting to happen).

Vancouver's pitching progress has been hampered by injuries (2 seasons straight) to Mark Cloud.  He's only pitched 135 innings in the last 2 years and they really need him healthy.  The rest of the staff is fairly undistinguished and includes 8 lefthanders - 7 with a vR less than 70 (get ready to face a bunch of right-handed hitters).

This looks like another rebuilding year where the young sluggers will keep them fairly competitive, but that staff is going to give up some ugly blowouts.

San Diego Surf Sharks

Season 32:  69-93

Season 32 In A Nutshell
Dropped 15 wins from Season 31's 84, and it's time to re-evaluate the program in San Diego.  The pitching performance looked OK on the surface - the team ERA of 4.43 was 8th.  But the ballpark masked an utterly uncompetitive staff - 5.28 ERA in road games (15th). Coupled with an anemic offense (606 runs - last by far), that dashed Season 31's hopes quickly.

Season 33 Preview

Big Move:  acquired OF Alex Diaz and MR Esmil Ontiveros for OF Joe Wilk

Management finally decided Joe Wilk was a misfit in the monster ballpark, although the selection of an also-seemingly-miscast Alex Diaz as part of the return was curious (a younger, much more contact-oriented OF was available).  While there are a few position players with great contact (C Moe Morgan) or batting eye skills (2B Russ Dye), the focus still seems to  be on power (DH Ozuna, LF Lunar, CF Chase, RF Diaz).  Runs are going to be a struggle again.

The pitching has a much better chance to improve.  Eli Izquierdo has been pretty good, but seemingly has the talent to be better, especially in that flyball-deadening park (interestingly enough, he was only a little better at home than on the road last year).  Bernie Gonzalez also looks like he'd be better than he's showed the last couple seasons (and he has been before).  Luther Roosevelt showed last year (13-9, 2.61) what a pitcher with moderate ratings can do in San Diego if they get a little lucky (it didn't hurt that he managed a 3.32 ERA on the road).  

It'll be interesting to see how the Pads use the newly-acquired Emil Ontiveros.  Even as a soft-toss flyball pitcher in a smallish stadium, he wasn't strictly a mopup man on New Orleans' league-leading staff.  He certainly has a resilient arm...maybe the spacious outfield is just what he needs to take advantage of it.

I think we'll see a pitching rebound in San Diego...sure would like to see them pair that with a lineup full of speedy, 90 contact-and-batting-eye guys.

Division Outlook
This division will be a lot more interesting in a couple of seasons, when Vegas really does get old and the rebuilding programs start producing more ML talent.  For this year, it's Vegas again, with Vancouver 2nd

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Season 33 NL North Preview

Chicago Orphans

Season 32: 92-70, Wild Card, lost in Round 1 to New York (now Syracuse)

Season 32 In A Nutshell

For the third straight season the Orphans finished second in the division, but they did manage to narrow the gap in what has become a two-team race. The Orphans sent more hitters to the plate in S32 than any other team in the league, and their lineup posted some impressive statistics – first in hits with 1,647; tied for second in batting average at .282; fourth in runs scored with 871; and 11th in home runs with 217. Those statistics, which were all improvements from S31, helped propel the Orphans into postseason play as the NL wildcard team. 

Season 33 Preview

Offense is the name of the game for this franchise, and the Orphans should be a formidable offensive force once again in S33. The lineup, which returns intact, features four .300-plus hitters in CF Yoslan Goya (.340, 26 HR), SS Bobby Michaels (.329, 12), 2B Herm Stein (.315, 20) and 1B David James (.304, 38). Everyone in the starting lineup had 12 or more homeruns.

The Orphans bolstered their reserves with the addition of free agent C Ismael Vidal, who hit .277 and had 25 HRs last season for New Orleans. He’ll combine with young outfielder in waiting Jose Pineda (.260, 15) to give Chicago some additional power options off the bench.

With such an offensive juggernaut, it’s easy to overlook the Orphans pitching staff, which combined for an ERA of 4.12, which ranked 12th overall. Not bad for a team built on offense.

The rotation features four pitchers who logged 175-plus innings of work each. Three of them are under 29 years of age, including staff ace Cliff Floyd (4.21 in 205 IP), Corey Booker (4.62, 175) and Ivan Roark (5.22, 193). Shannon Rivera (3.16, 180) at 31 is the grizzled veteran of the starting corps, and another youngster, 28-year-old Kazuhiro Lee (3.60, 153) rounds out the rotation.

By contrast, the bullpen features an experienced group of relievers in their 30s, but the star is 23-year-old long reliever Kirk Marks (3.86). Marks’ 124 innings pitched was the heaviest workload of all the relievers – more than double that of any of the relievers returning. Collectively, the bullpen had a 3.90 ERA.

The addition of closer Alex Almanzar (3.40, 56 IP, 16 saves) from Boston gives the Orphans a nice upgrade for former closer Yamil Ozuna, who left for Charlotte via free agency.

By electing to virtually stand pat during the postseason, the Orphans are banking on their lineup to put up enough offense to lift them past nemesis Buffalo in the division title race. But four members of that vaulted offense range in age from 32 to 36, so time is of essence for cretins’ aging squad.

Toledo EliteDucks
Season 32:  78-84

Season 32 In A Nutshell

After coming within a game of nudging the Chicago Orphans out of second place in S31, the fortunes of the EliteDucks crumbled last season. It was a wholesale regression. The Ducks scored 101 runs less in S32, hit 38 fewer home runs, and for the second season in a row they led the league in strikeouts with 1,203. The pitching staff saw its ERA mushroom, jumping from 3.56, which was the second best in the league in S31, to 4.23, and the mound crew gave up 38 more home runs.

Season 33 Preview

The EliteDucks packed their bags in the offseason and moved to the more pitching friendly confines of Toledo’s Fifth Third Field in hopes that will be the elixir that brings back the magic for their aging pitching staff. Four of the Ducks starters and two relievers are over 32 years old, which also happens to the average age of the entire returning staff.

Despite their advancing age, those six elderly statesmen turned in solid performances during the dismal Season 32. All four starters compiled ERA’s under 4.00 – Javier Gutierrez, 35, was 3.99 in 189 IP; Dustin McGee, 36, finished 3.91 in 182 IP; Ivan Amezaga, 35, was 3.96 for 179 IP; and Ned Shields, 36, was 3.61 for his 117 innings. In the bullpen, the only two relievers with ERAs less than 5.00 were 38-year-old Kurt Marte (2.43, 59 IP) and 33-year-old Parker Walker (2.25, 84 IP).

The Ducks will need similar performances from their aging stars if they hope to have any chance at improving on last year’s 78 wins. They’ll also need improvement from the three younger pitchers that returned – SP Mark Cromer, 26, (4.60, 170 IP), and relievers Ralph Lewis, 27, (5.09, 94) and Kennie Hardy, 29, (5.30, 71).

Toledo lost three pitchers to free agency but made no moves during the offseason, so just days away from the start of a new season, jdrake’s pitching staff totals just 9 players.

The offense will be led by LF Josh Garcia, whose .293 average and 40 home runs paced the EliteDucks last season. Three other returning Ducks had 19 or more home runs – 3B Ross Greene with 26, RF Donnie K’aaihue with 20, and 1B Pedro Ortiz with 19. Greene’s batting average fell 45 points to .216, and that coupled with the light hitting tandem of SS Don Maeda (.222) and CF Jim Rogers (.234) and a bench that featured four players whose BA’s were under.250 were major reasons the Ducks’ offense underperformed last season.

The offensive challenges could continue in S32. Power-hitting C Eduardo Franco (.252, 23 HR) left for free agency, and both of the reserve catchers are gone as well.

The Ducks did sign two aging free agents in the offseason – 34-year-old 1B Tony Jones, who hit .257 with 12 homeruns in 187 AB for New York, and 39-year-old infielder Rip Baker, who spent all of S32 in HiA. Neither has any catching experience.

The EliteDucks need more than a new ballpark and fan base to be a factor in the AL North division chase this season. The starting rotation is solid, but advanced age will soon be a factor the Ducks must contend with. The bullpen is undermanned heading into the season, and the four reserves that will back up the starting lineup are 34 to 39 years old. To be considered a serious contender, jdrake needs to make some last-minute moves to get the depth this team will need to return to competitiveness.

Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalobuffalo
Season 32: 99-63, Won Division, lost in Round 2 to Salem

Season 32 In A Nutshell

The BuffaloX4 won their third straight division title in S32, and pitching was the difference. Buffalo had the best pitching in the league last season with a 3.45 ERA, which was more than a third of a run less than the previous season. That improvement was enough to offset a stumbling offense that scored 59 less runs, hit 11 fewer homeruns, and struck out 46 more times than the season prior.

Season 33 Preview

If Buffalo earns a fourth straight division title, it will be pitching that gets it there. All five of the starters return, and three of them logged more than 200 IP. The staff ace is 34-year-old Steve Davis (3.50, 216 IP) but rising young star Sam Gentry (3.58, 211) is poised to take over the reins should Davis falter. Rounding out the rotation are Robinzon Megias (3.48, 202), Vladimir Abreu (4.27, 129) and 24-year-old Omar James (4.08, 163).

Two members of Buffalo’s stellar bullpen are gone to free agency (Vicente Prieto and Dioner Duran), but there’s still plenty of talent left to keep opponents at bay late in the game. Long reliever Jaret Paquette had a stellar 1.70 ERA in 85 IP. Glenn Coste (3.63, 119) and Dan Dixon (2.97, 100) were effective in their setup roles. And youngsters Buddy Wells (3.19, 62) and Jhoulys Colon (3.09, 32) had solid years.

The Buffalo live and die with the long ball. All eight starters had 17 or more home runs, and the team’s 261 dingers ranked third in the league. Four starters hit 30 or more home runs – 3B Esmailyn Reynoso and LF Carlos Valdivia each had 40; CF Charlie Moreno had 37; and 2B Jair Costilla had 30. 

But the long ball strategy has its challenges – a rising strikeout rate and a team batting average that dipped to .253 last season, which ranked 27th overall. A continuation of those two trends could be a silent predictor of this year’s finish.

There were no postseason moves made by Buffalo, but cyben5150 should look to pad his team’s bench by adding a couple of players before the season’s first pitch is thrown.

Iowa City Hawkeyes
Season 32: 56-106

Season 32 In A Nutshell

The Hawkeyes have been the whipping boy of the NL North for the past five season, finishing dead last each season while averaging 57 wins per season. Season 32 was exactly that – an average effort, albeit a noticeable improvement from the 43-win effort in S31. A better offense gets credit for the reversion back to norm. The team scored 171 more runs last season and slapped 214 homers, more than double the number of round-trippers the season before.

Season 33 Preview

The Hawkeyes will play in their third different ballpark in as many seasons. The move to the pitcher friendly confines of Principal Park in Iowa City will hopefully benefit a pitching staff that had one of the worst ERAs (5.80) in the league. The Hawkeyes’ top four pitchers all had ERAs north of 5.75, and only one member of the bullpen had an ERA under 5.40. Only one of the team’s pitchers worked more than 150 innings last season – 27-year-old Fritz Wells (6.59, 198 IP).

Five of those pitchers left via free agency in the offseason, but the Hawkeyes failed to take advantage of the exodus and they picked up just one reliever – Yeico Ortiz (4.83 in 78 IP) from Vancouver. So the big question mark entering the season is how all those plus-5.00 ERA pitchers will fare in a pitcher’s park. Slashtc has his fingers crossed the move will help slice into the team’s inflated ERA.

Last year’s offensive improvement was driven by the team’s top four hitters – 1B Juan Aramboles, who bombed 56 home runs while hitting .310; catcher Calvin Uribe (.310, 22 HR), RF Left Hubbard (.338, 12) and LF Rafael Vincente (.311, 12). Vincente and 3B Kennie Levrault (.241, 26 HR) left for free agency, but slashtc signed former New York 3B Harry Estrada (.258, 20 HR) to help fill the hitting void.

Vincente’s outfield spot is up for grabs with the most likely candidate being reserve Danys De La Vega (.294, 14 in 326 AB) or Didi Carrasco, who has been activated from the disabled list. One of those two will join free agent Marcus Martin (.285, 7), and Rule 5 pickup Julian Fernandez (.285, 13 in AA for Nashville) as the best options off the bench.

Iowa City’s chances for another “average” season will boil down to how well the Hawkeyes pitchers adapt to their new home stadium. If that transition doesn’t produce an overall reduction of at least one run in the team’s ERA, it could be another disappointing doormat season for the Hawkeyes


BuffaloX4 has to be the odds-on favorite to capture its fourth straight division championship, but that prediction comes with a couple of qualifiers: The Buffalo should win 1) IF their aging pitching staff can avoid injuries and show no signs of diminishing skills, and 2) IF the “Count Them Taters” offense can stop whiffing long enough to deposit enough baseballs into the outfield seats to support those elderly gentlemen on the mound. But should those IFs not materialize, the Orphans will be eagerly waiting to mount a challenge that could lift Chicago to its first division title since S29.

-- editor21

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Season 33 NL South Preview

San Juan Padres

Season 32: 71-91

Season 32 In A Nutshell
A couple of disappointing 71-91's since the 2 straight titles (Seasons 29 & 30). The offense fizzled again with 649 runs, although the pitching was at least competitive.  Orlando Mendoza and Brandon Clarkson won the NL Gold Gloves at SS and 3B.

Season 33 Preview
The Padres have done a good job of bringing up their young talent, but there's just not enough lineup punch for them to compete. They had just 2 players post .800+ OPS's last year -- 1B Matty Campos with .811 and rookie OF Roberto Almora with .869 (just 215 AB's). Their hits leader -- LF Aaron Rodney with 176 -- departed in FA for Louisville. Their one potential hitting star -- 3B Branden Clarkson -- slumped to .247, so we expect him to be better. RF Bip Thornton had some injuries and missed a lot of games last year -- he could be much better. Almora will take over in LF and could make Padres fans forget Rodney. Campos at 1B can still hit. But they've got 4 pretty soft spots in the lineup.

The pitching has been pretty close to league-average the last 2 seasons. The low-DUR Preston Granderson has their best quality arm, but is limited to maybe 120-125 innings max. Nolan Rogers has been pretty good, and I think he could throw more innings than they've asked recently. Bautista and Duran both seem like the kind of SP's that could have the occasional decent season, although only Duran has. I like Daniel Howard as potentially their best overrall starter ... let's see if he can put it together this year.  

Among their relievers, only Donald Helling (4.52 ERA in 63 IP as a rookie) and closer Dingo Cummings have much potential. I'd like to see Season 30's first rounder, Ezequiel Escobar (#20 overall), added to this group soon (or the starters for that matter).

I hope I'm surprised at season's end but it looks like a long year in San Juan.

Austin Massachusetts
Season 32:  88-74, Won Division, lost to Salem in Round 1

Season 32 In A Nutshell
Surged into contention with a youthful roster, winning the South and taking eventual NL Champ Salem to 5 games in Round 1 of the playoffs. Helped by the move to Austin, the pitching jumped to the top half of the league -- Juan Martinez enjoyed one of his best seasons (14-6, 2.90) and Torey Izquierido won 18 and made the All-Star team. 1B Trace Clark had his third straight monster season (.270/48/136) and the offense jumped to #2 (862 runs).

Season 33 Preview

Monster Move:  Acquired Season 27 Cy Young winner Derrick Dawkins for 2 prospects.

With respect to Louisville and its big-ass free agent wallet, Austin now has the best and deepest rotation in Hobbs. Dawkins and Juan Martinez (14-6, 2.90) are legit aces; Willie Tepera (Season 26 #6 overall) and Willie Matos (Season 28 #2 overall) are near-aces; and Izquierido (S28 IFA, $12.1MM) would be no worse than a #2 or #3 for almost anyone. Should any of those falter, they can turn to Hernan Ramos or Cy Kneper. They may not need much of a bullpen, but they've assembled an excellent short-relief trio in Hong-Jin Baek, Livan Maduro and Humberto Palmeiro.

The knock on Trace Clark as he was coming up was that he couldn't hit righthanders; after OPS's against righties of 1.098, 1.075 and .956 in his first 3 seasons, I think he's dispelled that one. Clark now looks like a sure bet for 45+ HR's and 110+ BB's every year. He joins John Small (.326/25/100, 46 doubles) and P.T. Feliz (.273/23/86) in the heart of the order.

With a .982 fielding % and 26/72 on +/- plays, Austin needed to fix its defense, and did. Paco Lecuona will be a real SS playing SS, letting Dave Bush move back to his natural 3B and Small back to RF -- defensive problems solved.  

So, this was an 88-win team that added an ace, created a bullpen, and fixed its defensive woes in one offseason. One of the favorites to reach the WS.  

Charlotte Steam
Season 32: 56-106

Season 32 In A Nutshell
Management swung a series of surrender trades in the preseason and endured a near-brush with the MWR with 56 wins. But they set the future up well by acquiring big-time prospects like Fautino Castillo, Jenry Zumaya, Pep Walsh and Vic Merced.

Season 33 Preview
Big Move:  Acquired CF Harry Johnson for 2 pitching prospects.

Monster Move: Acquired SP's Andre Counsell and Jack Allensworth for Season 30 #1 pick Vic Merced.

Charlotte is trying to engineer a 1-year turnaround, and I think they might pull it off. They've basically taken every prospect they rounded up through trade, draft or IFA the last couple of seasons and promoted them all to the majors ... so it's a really young, still improving team but there's a lot of talent.

The bulk of their offense will come from their outfielders -- 1B Pep Walsh and 2B Fautino Castillo. They're a little overloaded at COF with Octavio Trevino, Jenry Zumaya, Dallas Servet and Gustavo Trevino, but I think they can find AB's for them all or, even better, trade one for another pitcher. CF Harry Johnson may be the key component ... he's getting pretty long in the tooth to be talking about his "potential." But here we still are, talking about what he might do.

Lead starters Jack Allensworth and Andre Counsel have mostly good records in their previous stops; beyond that the staff is a mystery. Likely 3 and 4 starters Rubby Franco and J.B. Mayne have been wildly up-and-down their whole careers. The rest of the staff is mostly unproven rookies with some promise (Jamie Bryant, Freddie Martin and Julian Amaro) and former stars on the decline (Mark Martin, Yamil Ozuna and Sammy Eithier).

Who knows what these guys will do? My best guess is that the offense will be pretty good, and the pitching won't be terrible but will have its issues. But it could be the opposite. In any event, they're young, still improving, cheap ($43MM total payroll) and way better than last year.

Texas Choades
Season 32:  85-77

Season 32 In A Nutshell
Battled Austin all season and nearly closed the gap in the last week. Finished with 85 wins -- most in 5 years -- behind 3 All-Star pitching peformances (Quentin McGowan 15-9 3.65, Albert Chavez 2.15 ERA in 88 IP, and Matt Naulty 17 saves, 2.04) and Tarrik Stockton's career-reigniting .306 BA, 11 RBI and 82 extra basehits.

Season 33 Preview
Pretty active offseason for the Choades with Stockton jumping to Cheyenne and FA's Willie Palmeiro (1B), Hugh Moorehouse (C), John Reed (RP), Alan Hill (3B) and Don Loretta (SS) signing on.

We expect Palmeiro to play one of the COF spots (with Dave Rowe most likely the starter at the other) and replace most of Stockton's lost production. Bob Tucker, of course, is at 1B, gunning for career HR #500 sometime late this season, and John Shigetoshi lines up in CF for his 6th season in Texas. The other positions lean toward defense with Patrick Bordick at 2B (career OPS .727), Don Loretta at SS (career OPS .624), Hill at 3B (career OPS .720) and Ceaser Olivares catching (career OPS .771).

Joe Johnson (10-10, 3.98) didn't have a great year in Season 32.  If he can revert to career norms, AND Texas gets 3 more All-Star pitching performances ... they might have enough pitching to keep up with Austin. Big "if's" though: McGowan, Naulty and Chavez were all way better than their career norms last year, and it's hard to envision any of their other pitchers popping out an All-Star campaign. Maybe the ever-disappointing Jim Hinchliffe could ...he does have a couple of minor-league All-Star appearances. It's more likely that Johnson has a great year and finds himself trying to carry the staff (with Naulty's late-inning help).

Division Outlook
Austin has been building for a long time; with the big Dawkins trade it looks like they've finally committed to go for it.  I think they win the South handily.  The tougher question is whether the South can muster a 2nd playoff team.  It took 92 to make the 2nd Wild Card last year - that would be a 7-game improvement for Texas and a 36-game improvement for Charlotte.  Don't know if the Steam will hit that number, but they'll be Hobbs' most-improved team and will finish an interesting, albeit perhaps distant, second.