Thursday, March 2, 2017

Season 34 AL North Preview

Kansas  City Jayhawks
Season 33: 84-78

Season 33 In A Nutshell
The Jayhawks have slowly whittled away at Philadelphia's divisional lead the past three seasons -- cutting the advantage from 11 games in S31 to 8 in S32 to 6 last season. Despite winning three less games last year, they managed to nudge closer simply because Philadelphia won five less games. But you have to give the Jayhawks credit, they managed 84 wins despite a makeshift starting rotation that featured just three starters, three long relievers, a promoted prospect, and a late trade addition -- none of whom logged more than 97 innings. For the second season in a row, the bullpen played a significant role, finishing with 52 saves, which was second in the league to (you guessed it) Philadelphia. The Jayhawks needed all the pitching help they could get as the offense scored 49 fewer runs while putting up a .261 team batting average that was less than the .271 clip of the previous season.

Big Offseason Moves
Kansas City made no major moves in the offseason, but added a couple of pitchers and a utility infielder. One of the free agent signees -- Vicente Prieto (117 IP, 4.83 ERA for Louisville) will join the list of long relievers that do swing duty for the Jayhawks. Set-up man Yeico Ortiz (98 IP, 3.49 ERA for Iowa) could become an integral cog for the oft-used relief corps. A trade with New Orleans brings in SS Dave Leonard, who played in AAA last season but the three previous seasons hit in the .250s while sporting a .981 fielding percentage. He could push starter Matt Redmond for playing time if Redmond can't shake off his sophomore hitting jinx (.206 BA).

Season 34 Outlook
Starting pitching continues to be the question mark for the Jayhawks. KC lost two of last season's three main starters -- Tomas Estrada (136 IP, 3.37) to free agency, and Khalil McKenry (125, 3.96), who was traded to Salem late in S32. Pascual Cordero (128, 5.26) returns, but the staff ace duties will likely fall to Don Bagley, who was a late-season trade acquisition from Trenton. Bagley compiled a solid 3.55 ERA in 200 IP and 34 starts between the two clubs he pitched for in S32. Free agent Prieto is a good bet to join the rotation as well. But of the five other spot starters to see action in S32, only two remain -- Olmedo Silva (67 IP, 5.67) and Dave Waters (94, 5.53). That means the bullpen will be called upon a lot in S33. The seven returning veterans combined for a 3.46 ERA in 474 innings of work. Ortiz adds another trustworthy arm to the group.

If the Jayhawks hope to end the dominance of Philadelphia in the AL North, they'll need the offense to soar to new levels in S32. They have the nucleus to match or better the .266 team batting average of a year ago.

RF Hugh Pierre (.347, 48 HR) and 2B Miguel Ramirez (.307, 23 HR) should lead the charge once again. S32's surprise was OF/3B Jensen Helms, who in his first year up from AAA hit .297 with 23 HRs in 397 ABs. Two other youngsters penciled into the lineup are 3B Beamer Summers, who hit .266 with 15 HRs, and 1B Adys Bethancourt (.293 with 24 HRs). 

Improved seasons from CF Matt Buddie (who's average dropped to .257 from .297); C Jackson Parris (.249 from .259); SS Matt Redmond (.206 compared to .225 in S32); and utility man Julio Villafuerte (.171 and 14 HRs compared to .250, 42 the prior season) would boost the chances for a title run. 

Burlington Bodacious
Season 33: 63-99

Season 33 In A Nutshell
Burlington's fortunes took a decided turn for the worse in S32 as the Bodacious suffered through a 19-game season-ending losing streak. That wiped away any chance for downboy to finish the first year of his ownership with an improved overall record. Instead, the Bodacious dropped eight games from the win column, and slid back into last place in the division standings, the worst performance for the franchise in 10 seasons.

Big Offseason Moves
The Bodacious stayed out of the free agency market during the offseason, but claimed four players in the Rule 5 draft, which was the same strategy downboy used last season. All four could be on the opening day roster. The best of the lot is contact hitting corner outfielder Hugh Munson, who was picked up from Nashville.

Season 34 Outlook
The Bodacious could be in for another long season. The retooled offense was one of the worst in the league in S32 -- finishing 31st in batting average at .239; 31st in runs scored with 599; 27th in homeruns with 158, all while piling up a dubious 1,128 strikeouts, sixth worst in the league. They also stole 55 fewer bases.

1B Peter Wall (.263, 19 HRs, team-leading 66 RBI) and RF Edgardo Mercedes (.265, 14 HRs, 46 RBI) were the only two returning starters to finish with batting averages above .250. The second-best power source on the team, rookie Buzz Bunning (20 HRs), has been demoted to AAA, leaving 2B Stan Magadan (.242, 21 HRs) and Wall as the best long-ball options.

It doesn't get much better on the mound for the Bodacious. Only three proven starters return -- Ruben Martinez (252 IP, 5.01 ERA), youngster Aroldis Urbina (243, 5.25), and Carlos Tavarez (180, 2.94), who is 37 this season. Alex Daniels started 24 games for Burlington last season, but he compiled just 94 innings of work -- less than 4 per outing.

The bright spots of the pitching staff are relievers Dillon Donatello (56 IP, 2.26 ERA), and Trey Reid (96, 4.20). Two other S32 relievers who had ERAs under 4.50 filed for free agency -- David Almora (69, 4.06) and Alvin Timlin (50, 3.44) and a third -- Henderson Farrell (91, 4.47) -- was released. Their departures leave the Bodacious with just 10 total pitchers on the roster heading into the season.

Philadelphia Erffdogs
Season 33: 90-72; Won Division; advanced to Division Series and lost to New Orleans

Season 33 In A Nutshell
A rock-solid bullpen and a steady starting rotation lifted the Erffdogs to their third straight division title in S33. Led by 22-year-old rookie set-up man Bralin Kohn (160 IP, 2.76 ERA), the bullpen combined for a collective ERA of under 3.75, and had a league-leading 53 saves. The 625-plus innings of work by relievers enabled Philadelphia to utilize a four-man starting rotation for the entire season. And for the second season in a row, three of the starters -- Doug Holt, Alex Quixote and 33-year-old veteran Happy Blue -- improved their ERAs.  

Big Offseason Moves
The Erffdogs were busy in the preseason, acquiring three players via trades, picking up one free agent, and promoting two AAA players. The trade acquisitions include reliever Carlos Johnson (65 IP, 5.65) from Columbus; 2B Trace Federowicz (.253, 18 HR) from Montreal; and prospect LF Nicholas Wilkins (.325/40 HRs in AAA) from Charlotte. The free agent signee is former Toledo reliever Ivan Belisario (47 IP, 3.66). In-system prospects Ordomar Estrada (114 IP, 2.99) and C Tony Penny (.308, 6 HR) were promoted from AAA, and both could vie for playing time.

Season 34 Outlook
For two seasons the fortunes of the Errfdogs have hinged largely on the success of their pitching -- especially the bullpen. They will need that mound consistency to continue in S34 if they hope to claim their fourth straight division title.

The pitching staff trimmed its ERA from 4.19 in S32 to 3.90 last season, which was the sixth-lowest ERA in the league. Starters Doug Holt (206 IP, 3.50) and Alex Quixote (202, 3.44) anchor the four-man rotation that also features Glenn Bako (185, 4.97) and 34-year-old Happy Blue, whose 181 IP, 4.43 ERA season certainly left management smiling.

But the real stars are the relievers who averaged about 4 innings of work per game. The pen got an unexpected boost from rookie Bralin Kohn, whose 160 innings of work topped all relievers, and his 2.76 ERA was better than everyone except veteran closer Yardano Valdes (41 saves), whose 2.24 ERA in 64 innings was slightly up from the previous year. Young star Che-Hsuan Woo suffered no sophomore jinx (3.61) despite increasing his workload by 21 innings. At 38, Rick Roberts remained a major contributor, hurling 84 innings for a respectable 4.06 ERA. And free agent pickup Norberto Lecuona was a stellar addition (84 IP, 4.16).

The addition of free agent relievers Ivan Belisario (47 IP, 3.66 for Toledo) and Carlos Johnson (65 IP, 5.65 for Columbus) could signal that 23-year-old Cesar Benavente will get more starts this year.

Philadelphia's offense lost a bit of its punch in S33 as the team average dropped from .271 to .261, and the lineup scored 49 fewer runs. But one key measure to the team's success was a lower strikeout rate -- 35 fewer whiffs in S32.

The most notable offensive drop-offs were from 1B Yamil Ibanez, whose average dropped 29 points to .290 with 7 less homers; CF Gene Cummings, who had 9 less homers and hit .256 compared to .279 in S32; and LF Lefty Simon, whose average slid 66 points from .317 to .251.

The thing to keep in mind with this offense is the age of most of the starters. Seven of the 11 players who had 300-plus ABs are under the age of 29. That includes DH Dario Stults, who clubbed 49 HRs and hit .289 last season.

One other youngster could have an impact this season. Tony Penny, 26 (.308 in AAA) could pressure veteran C Esmerling Tabaka for playing time, especially against right-handers.

Montreal Shamrocks
Season 33:  67-95

Season 33 In A Nutshell
The Shamrocks' transition slowed in S33 but they still managed to win 3 more games than they did in S32. JMercer managed to cobble together a decent lineup despite losing three key starters to trades and free agency prior to S32's first pitch. The pitching improved incrementally, reducing opponents' OAV from .284 to .272 and slicing the team ERA to 5.04 from 5.45. That coupled with Burlington's late season collapse was enough to lift the Shamrocks out of last place in the division, a position they had settled into for four consecutive seasons.

Big Offseason Moves
The Shamrocks lost 2B Trace Federowicz and C Carlos Polanco, but managed to sign free agent Cesar Olivares (177 AB, .266), C from Texas. Long reliever Aroldis Guerrero (2.41 ERA in 60 IP at AAA) was picked up from New Orleans in the Rule 5 draft, and in-house AAA prospects Tito McDade and Tony Gao were promoted.

Season 34 Outlook
Offensively, the Shamrocks should continue to improve. Veterans DH Victor Ramirez (.262, 29 HRs), 1B/LF Terrell Young (.304, 28), CF Terry Sears (.283, 20), and 3B Josh Gates (.267, 11) return to anchor the lineup. Second year players Dillon Crosby and Peter Dorsey will battle for the 2B job vacated by Federowicz. New addition Olivares and holdover Jack Saunders will likely platoon at catcher. Light-hitting Yorvit Ortiz provides defensive stability at SS. Reserves Fautino Mercedes (.291 in 227 ABs) and Chad Buller (.265 in 279 ABS) will vie for playing time in RF. 

The key to further improvement this season is the starting pitching. Heading into the season, the Shamrocks' roster lists four starters -- veteran Vin Gonzalez (191 IP, 5.22 ERA), Phillip Nunnally (168, 3.80 in his rookie season), Juan Marichal (147, 6.05) and J.R. George (120, 6.23). All but Nunnally need to lower the number of runs they are giving up to give the offense a fighting chance to keep the Shamrocks in more games.

Four members of the 7-man bullpen also sported ERA's north of 5.00 last season, including the two called on most frequently -- Elmer Randolph (109 IP, 5.60) and Gregory Starling (99, 5.16).

Division Prediction
For the fifth straight season, this should be a two-team race for the division title. On paper, Philadelphia has the upper hand and should win its fourth consecutive title. The Erffdogs continue to have the top pitching in the division, and just enough offense to keep them slightly out of the reach of the Jayhawks. If Kansas City's platoon pitching strategy holds up for another season, the Jayhawks should easily outdistance Montreal, even if the Shamrocks manage to improve their overall record for the third year in a row. Unfortunately, the chances of any type of "Bodacious" finish for Burlington is slim at best.
1. Philadelphia
2. Kansas City
3. Montreal
4. Burlington

 -- editor21

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