PBL 2016 Season in Review: Silver City Outlaws

Last season, the Silver City Outlaws were one of the Patriot League’s biggest disappointments; tabbed as a championship favorite, they burned out after a hot start, and a harrowing second-half collapse left them 10 games under the .500 mark.  In the memorable words of manager John Jarha, “the whole lineup collectively popped a squat on the stat sheet – and our record.”

This season was a different story; the offense showed improvement, the pitching remained strong, and the Outlaws cruised to a second-place finish in the West, then upset the California Sharks in the Western Division Series before losing the championship to the Knoxville Smokies in six games.

“Here I was scared we’d be eatin’ Cheetos in the basement by July,” said Jarha, “but these fellas staked our claim as the Best in the West and damn near brought it all home.”

What was the key to Silver City’s hitting revival?  They learned to work with their park.  The hot temperatures and high elevation of The Corral make it a launching pad, and the Outlaws’ hitters took advantage, clubbing a league-leading 273 homers.  RF Nathaniel Wason led the way (and led the league) with 55 round-trippers, but he was joined by big boppers like CF Javier Cardona (41 homers), SS Danny Taylor (37), 3B Rusty Brewmaker (34), and 1B Muzz Elliott (29).  Those blasts helped lift Silver City to an .824 team OPS, third-best in the league.  “These boys showed a lotta grit, lotta fight,” said Jarha of his hitters.

The rotation, which was the Outlaws’ strength last season, remained stout despite the loss of Juan Carlos Lopez and Linus Pauling in the expansion draft.  Lefties Pedro Rodriguez (15-7, 3.69 ERA, .708 OPS against) and Rob Tildon (13-10, 3.87, .667) provided a potent 1-2 punch at the top, and teenager David Otto proved an ideal midseason reinforcement, going 10-2 with a 3.99 ERA.

The bullpen was arguably even more impressive, with righty Emilio Abbas (5-4, 4 saves, 2.63 ERA), rookie Tim Simmons (4-1, 7 SV, 3.76), and lefty Cliff Humphrey (1-3, 3.00) providing a bridge at the back end to closer Go Matsumoto, who struggled at times but converted 28 of 34 save chances.

The team’s overall excellence left Jarha “gushin’ all over [his] guys like a moon-eyed lil’ school girl.”

However, the skipper was clear enough to see some chinks in his team’s armor.  Most notably, Jarha cited “that giant [expletive] black hole in left field.”  Brant “Poison” Ivey manned the position in 2015, but his questionable glove work prompted Jarha to move him to the DH slot.  Instead, Jarha tried a platoon of Marlon Hintz and Tex Whittier, “a pair of guys who showed me they could hit the ball last year.”  They were unable to repeat that performance in 2016.  Hintz hit a mere .234 and struck out in nearly a third of his at-bats, while Whittier hit .209 with no power.  “I don’t know what happened in the offseason—too many donuts, maybe somebody’s chakras got outta whack or somethin’,” said Jarha.  “But let’s just say I was disappointed.  Real disappointed.”

In addition to the left-field issue, Silver City struggled at the back end of the rotation.  Rookie Kevin Jennings (10-10, 4.73) and veteran Cloyce “Hoss” Benson (12-8, 4.79) both struggled with inconsistency, while Matthew Frederick (3-6, 5.36) underwhelmed before suffering a mid-season injury and never making it back to the majors.  If none of those three can improve, much of the Outlaws’ fate will be riding on Otto’s slender shoulders.

Looking ahead to 2017, Jarha made no secret of his expectations: “What else?  We gotta get back to the series and win the damn thing this time!”  The manager acknowledged that his team won’t have an easy road back to the Series; California figures to be strong, Milwaukee is likely to bounce back, and Salt Lake and Kalamazoo should be interesting with another year of experience under their belts.  But Silver City has strong top-end starters, a solid crop of firemen, and a hard-hitting lineup.  There’s no reason to believe that the Outlaws won’t be back in the mix next year.  “Ol’ Snuffy better sleep tight with that trophy,” said Jarha, “‘cuz it’ll be westbound and down, I’ll tell you that.”

PBL 2016 Season in Review: Salt Lake Samurai

Coming into 2016 off of a dismal 45-105 showing, the Salt Lake Samurai had only one direction to go: up.  “The advantage to having a year like we had [in 2015],” said manager Johnny Dugan, “is that you can only get better.”

Get better they did, improving by 19 games over their 2015 performance.  Unfortunately, that only got them to 64-98, which tied them with Kalamazoo for fourth in the division. “Well, we weren’t dead last this year,” said Salt Lake owner/GM Sarah Buehler, “but we did expect to be above the two new teams, so it was disappointing that we tied with the Kazoos.”

Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of new faces in the clubhouse after last year’s fiasco, and a number of the young players struggled.  One who didn’t was CF Daniel Slover, the #1 pick in the draft.  Slover more than lived up to his billing, hitting .355 with 20 homers, 121 runs scored, and a 1.001 OPS.  “Some guys, their first shot in the big time, they get spooked by the spotlight,” said Dugan.  “Not Danny.  He stepped right in with the confidence of a 10-year veteran.”

Another rookie, closer Nick Crusoe, proved a surprisingly reliable back-end option.  He posted a 3.18 ERA and a .640 OPS against while converting 18 of 21 save chances.  “In this league, good firemen are hard to find,” said Dugan.  “And with Nick, we’ve got a grade-A back-end guy.”

Salt Lake also benefited from bounce-back seasons from familiar faces.  Ace Toshiie Maeda, who struggled with homesickness and poor self-confidence last season while staggering to a 7-17 record.  This year he looked like a different pitcher, twirling a 14-9 record with a 3.15 ERA while holding hitters to a .685 OPS.  “We got to see the real Toshiie this year, and what a treat,” said Dugan.  Reliever Dean Gamble, who was a disaster in the closer role last year, looked great as a setup man this year, pitching to a 3.66 ERA while allowing only 7 walks in 64 innings.  LF Chip Sparks took a step forward this season, hitting .317 and belting a team-leading 45 doubles and 111 RBI.

But not everything was rosy.  The lineup was full of slap hitters with no power (2B Tyler Stark, SS Mori Motonari, 3B Clint Wines) and slow, one-dimensional sluggers with low averages and a ton of strikeouts (RF Romeo Martinez, 1B Dwayne Parillo, DH Neal Thomas).  Then there was C Gilbert Godinez, unquestionably the worst regular player in the league this season.  The young backstop caught every game while hitting only .160 with a ghastly .443 OPS and more strikeouts (188) than total bases (143).  The catcher position has been a perennial problem for the Samurai, and Godinez is clearly not the answer.

The sad story continued with the pitching staff.  Apart from Maeda, no other Salt Lake starter finished with an ERA below 4.82.  Lefty Grant Fore, expected to be the team’s #2 starter, came unraveled as the season went on; he finished with an 8-11 record and a 5.86 ERA.  Righty Lucas Henderson (7-19, 6.41) and southpaw Jonathan Fernandez (7-17, 6.81) probably should have been released, instead of receiving 54 starts between them.  Young right-hander Miguel Bautista, who looked like a ray of hope in 2015, regressed in 2016, putting up a 5.64 ERA and allowing a .937 OPS.

Buehler summed up the situation aptly by saying, “All in all, I’m not overly surprised at our position in the standings.”

What does the future hold?  For Dugan, the perpetual optimist, things look sunny ahead.  “Hey, we got 20 games better this year,” the manager said.  “Do that again next year, and we’re contenders!”  To do that, though, they’ll need a lineup with more balance and better back-end starters.  On the hill, look to youngsters Tony Martin and Kevin Nelson; if they can take a step up, the Samurai could make things interesting.  At the plate, if rookies Stark and Wines can add a little pop, the offense gets a lot more dangerous.

Both Buehler and Dugan saw hope in Salt Lake’s finish, as they won their final eight games in a row.  The owner said she was “pretty impressed at how much we rallied in our final ten games” and that the Samurai finished with the division’s best winning streak (Orlando won their last nine in a row).  Dugan said the streak was “proof that our boys never stopped fighting.  As a manger, that really makes you feel good.”

Looking toward 2017, Buehler says her goal is to “continue to be a better team.”  She noted that with improved play, “we will gain more fans, and we do all this for the love of the game.  Right?”

PBL 2016 Season in Review: Orlando Calrissians

No team in the Patriot League saw a bigger turnaround in 2016 than the Orlando Calrissians.  In 2015, the Calrissians finished a dismal season 40 games below the .500 mark and dead last in the East, 17 games behind their nearest competitor.  The team’s batting numbers were second-worst in the league, and they were dead-last in most pitching categories.  Manager Logan Bothan and the coaching staff were reportedly “on a short leash.”

This season, things were completely different.  Thanks to a season-ending nine-game winning streak, Orlando finished 81-69, only four games out of a playoff spot and 26 wins better than their 2015 total.  They boosted their OPS by 50 points and scored 85 more runs than the season before, while shaving nearly a full run off their team ERA.  Instead of being fired, Bothan is a Manager of the Year candidate.

“It felt great not to be in the cellar of the league all year for once,” said Calrissians owner/GM Brian Aufmuth.

In the space of a year, Orlando has gone from an organization in disarray to a dark-horse contender.  So what fueled the turnaround?  And is the team more likely to take another step forward next season, or to regress?

The Calrissians’ improvement started with a transformed approach at the plate.  In Aufmuth’s words, “our bats woke up this season.”  Last year, Orlando’s offense was an exercise in futility, as the team frequently found itself flailing at the plate.  This year, it turned into the Gong Show at Bespin.  LF Ryan Lebow, a top Rookie of the Year candidate, led the way with a .290 average with 44 homers and a 1.049 OPS.  1B Malcolm Bryant, virtually stolen from Knoxville in a one-sided deal, hit the ball at a .274 clip with 23 dingers.  Those two frequently set the table for DH Magnus Larson (51 longballs) and RF Bart Law (46), who evoked memories of Canseco and McGwire on the old Oakland “Bash Brothers” back in the ‘80s.

“Every time I went deep, I was expected somebody would be in the dugout waiting to make me pee in a cup,” quipped Larson.

The Calrissians’ propensity for big flies elevated what was otherwise a fairly pedestrian offense (their .253 team average was tied with New Orleans for ninth in the league, while their .766 OPS was seventh).  As a testament to the lineup’s one-dimensional nature, Orlando was the only team with more homers (263) than doubles (183).  “A lot of times, we were just sitting around waiting for lightning to strike,” admitted Bothan.

On the hill, pitching coach John Smoltz’s teachings finally took root, as Orlando’s numbers improved from awful to solid.  Ace Nathan Nunb, one of the few bright spots last season, got even better this year, going 16-6 with a 3.08 ERA and a .627 OPS allowed.  Journeyman righty Charles McNally, who looked washed up in 2015, revived his career at age 37, going 16-12 with a 4.61 ERA.  Smoltz saw something in lefty Ruben Quesara, who floundered last year, and made him the career.  Quesara rewarded him with a brilliant year, converting 35 saves with a 3.22 ERA.  Rookie Mike Garcia made a solid debut, going 9-8 with a 4.24 ERA and providing some much-needed stability in the rotation.

Can the Calrissians continue their upward trend in 2017?  Aufmuth expects that they can: “We’ve got to win more games,” said the owner.  “Plain and simple.”  However, there are some warning signs to suggest a possible step in the other direction.

Despite finishing 12 games over .500, Orlando was actually outscored for the season, 739-733.  The offense is in dire need of greater balance, with too many sluggers and not enough high-average hitters.  The lineup has continuing holes at catcher, third base, and center field.  The pitching staff, meanwhile, lacks depth.  McNally and Quesara seem like prime candidates for regression.  The back end of the rotation is a mess; youngsters Jimmy Barlow (9-14, 5.34) and Oliver Jones (6-10, 5.99) both struggled badly.  The bullpen needs a better bridge to their closer; lefty Erik Geis (4.36 ERA in 27 appearances) has struggled to stay healthy, while ex-closer Caddington Smith (11-11, 4.78 in 69 appearances) was badly overworked.  Aufmuth would be smart to consider dealing one of his big sluggers for another pitching arm or two.

Those caveats aside, there’s cause for hope at Bespin, which was in desperately short supply the season before.  When Aufmuth says that “we need to be competing for a playoff spot late in the season,” it seems like a reasonable expectation rather than a pipe dream.  For the fans in Central Florida, that’s cause for celebration in itself.

PBL 2016 Season in Review: New Orleans Sazeracs

They say it’s important to savor the small victories in life.  The victories don’t come much smaller than the moderately prestigious Expansion World Cup, an award announced by the league at midseason and given to the expansion team that finished with the best record.  The EWC was a celebration of mediocrity, a recognition of the best of the worst.  Philosophers, psychologists, and cultural commentators have argued about whether the EWC is symptomatic of a namby-pamby society in which everyone needs to receive a participation trophy, or a needed ray of hope for a group of teams that had no chance to contend.

The New Orleans Sazeracs have no time for these grand worldly debates.  They’re just happy that the EWC is theirs, 66-84 record and all.

“I never thought I could be so moved by a worthless trophy signifying a dubious accomplishment,” said Sazeracs ace Matthew Erickson.  “But it’s beautiful.  It’s so beautiful.”

New Orleans owner/GM Jeff Wiggins was also pleased with his team’s performance and the honor it received.  “I would say that my team met me expectations at the start of the year,” said Wiggins, “and then went on to beat them thanks to winning the moderately prestigious EWC.”  He added that his team’s EWC win was the biggest surprise of the season, “largely due to it not existing when the year began.”

The backbone of the Sazeracs’ modest success was their pitching staff, at least once manager George Knox broke up a clique of hard-partying hurlers on the squad.  In particular, the unheralded starting rotation turned in a strong performance.  Coming into the season, New Orleans’ starting staff was populated with no-name journeymen and rookies of questionable pedigree; few expected the unit to display much upside.  But the rotation surprised, and led the club’s charge to the EWC.

Right-hander Darius Tice (12-12, 3.81 ERA, .691 OPS against) led the way with his potent fastball.  First-year players Phil O’Quinn (11-12, 4.02, .701 OPS allowed) and Erickson (12-14, 4.53) also provided steady performances.  The fifth starter slot was a problem until New Orleans acquired lefty Yu Chen in midseason.  After flopping in Knoxville and Jackson, Chen seemed reborn in the Big Easy, going 5-4 with a 4.09 ERA.  If these results prove to be repeatable, the Sazeracs could have a big leg up on contending in the future.

While New Orleans’ starting pitching proved to be a pleasant surprise, their offense turned out to be unexpectedly disappointing.  Knox’s hitters produced only 609 runs, dead last in the league.  Their punchless attack struggled to make contact (their .253 team average was tied with Orlando for ninth in the PBL) and displayed virtually no power (their 140 homers tied with Jackson for the league’s worst figure, and their .722 OPS was tenth).  Although they were fast (leading the league with 214 stolen bases), they couldn’t get on enough to make use of their speed.  Knox memorably described the New Orleans offense as “a clogged toilet.”

The Sazeracs had a number of weak spots in their lineup, but Wiggins accurately identified third base as the biggest hole.  Lautaro Perez (.210, .680 OPS, 61 Ks in 200 ABs) and John Jensen (.194, .560 OPS) flopped at the position.  Knox turned to Tim Dyer in midseason, and he held down the position for the rest of the season with strong defense and acceptable offense.  But his numbers weren’t exactly bowling anyone over, and Wiggins identified an upgrade at the hot corner as one of his top goals for next season.

Interestingly, Wiggins also hopes to improve his team’s starting pitching, arguably its strongest area currently.  But there’s something to be said for strengthening a strength, particularly if it allows New Orleans to move up the standings by winning a lot of low-scoring games.

One might expect that next season, the Sazeracs would focus on defending their EWC title and trying to grow for the future.  But Wiggins has greater aspirations, saying that he wants “to rid the EWC from the league by making the playoffs.”  In addition, New Orleans will be active on the trade market, with Wiggins noting that “I want to make at least 4 trades with Jackson during the year, each of increasing complexity that no one understands.”

One thing’s clear: the owner has no intention of sitting still.  With some smart moves and a little bit of luck, Wiggins and the Sazeracs just might be able to let the good times roll in 2017.

PBL 2016 Season in Review: Milwaukee Bear Claws

2015 was an unquestionably successful year for the Milwaukee Bear Claws.  They waltzed their way to a league-best 98 wins, and faced little in the way of serious challenges along the way.  Then they rolled over the Knoxville Smokies to win the first Patriot League title.  It was such an impressive run that the league even decided to name their championship trophy after Bear Claws manager Poss Horton.

2016 was a different story.  In the words of owner/GM Jennifer Petitt, “We came into the season with high hopes based on last year, but things didn’t exactly work out the way we planned.”  Milwaukee was quickly left in the dust by California and Silver City, and they never climbed back into the playoff race.  They barely finished above the .500 mark at 76-74.  They went from outscoring their opponents by almost 200 runs to being outscored by 6.

“That’s baseball for you,” said Horton at his end-of-season press conference.  “One day you’re king of the hill, the next day you’re on the bottom again.  No use crying about it.”

When a seemingly dominant team wins 22 fewer games than the year before, despite the presence of expansion teams to pad their win totals, it’s only natural to ask what went wrong.  But the answer is a bit complicated.  No one thing went horribly wrong, but a number of small steps back added up to a big regression.

First, the Bear Claws were hit hard in the expansion draft.  They lost a couple of key contributors in the heart of their lineup, with both LF Arthur Mealey and 3B Ikaru Suzuki winding up in Las Vegas.  The loss of those big bats helped explain Milwaukee’s power outage this season; their 175 homers were only good for eighth in the league.  Thanks to the decline in their longball prowess, they finished seventh in runs scored despite a respectable .263 average and .767 OPS.  “Without Artie and Zuk, that took a lot of the fizz out of our soda pop,” said Horton.  “We never really managed to plug those holes all the way.”

In addition, a couple of fan favorites had rough rides this season.  RF Wally Trumbauer lost his spot in the lineup to Warren Stefani during spring training, and he limped through a miserable year as a reserve, batting only .196 in 57 games.  His lumbering enthusiasm was also much missed in the clubhouse, as his poor performance sent him into a season-long sulk.  Top starter Lou Mallory didn’t lose his place in the rotation, but he seemed out of sorts all season, stumbling to an 8-19 record and a 5.20 ERA.

“It’s a real shame that we couldn’t get Lou sorted out,” said Horton.  “But he’s too good to have that happen again next year.”

By and large, though, the story of the Bear Claws’ season wasn’t about collapses, it was just about players regressing a bit.  1B Felipe Mateo’s .283 average, 39 homers, and 1.014 OPS were all splendid… but not as good as last year’s otherworldly numbers (.325, 50 HR, 1.121 OPS).  Similarly, closer Oscar Buenaventura had a fine year, posting a 3.41 ERA and .644 OPS against while converting 33 of 42 saves… but he wasn’t as automatic as last year (8-0, 37 saves, 1.16 ERA, .437 OPS against).

It was the same story in miniature across much of the squad.  SS Red Petitt and CF DeRonde Maxwell both saw their averages dip by 20 points in 2016.  The catching tandem of Frank McGuigan and Paris Champney, solid at the dish last season, became a liability this year; Milwaukee’s backstops combined to hit .231 with little power.  Starters Benicio Torrenueva and “Stormin’” Patrick McNorman won 10 fewer games between them, while seeing their ERAs go up by half a run each.  Lefty Zack Perriman was the only starter whose numbers improved, but he struggled to stay healthy, missing a third of the season with arm trouble.

“Last year, everybody about maxed out what they could do,” said Horton.  “This year, they all got a little worse.  Problem was, nobody got better.”

Looking toward 2017, Milwaukee could really use bounce-back years from some of their stars.  If even a few players could recapture their 2015 form, it would go a long way toward fixing the Bear Claws’ troubles.  If Mallory can pull out of his tailspin and Perriman can remain intact all season, the rotation should be in fine shape.

As with many Patriot League clubs, the bullpen is a sore spot; behind Buenaventura, righty Timmy Almon (5-2, 3.96) and Olen Abernathy (3-5, 1 SV, 3.29) were the only reliable arms, and Abernathy was dealt to California at the deadline.  Milwaukee’s relievers allowed 45.5% of inherited runners to score, the worst mark in the league.

Despite the lumps that Milwaukee took this year, Petitt prefers to look on the bright side.  “Look at it this way,” she said.  “Win or lose, we still get to enjoy sun, baseball, and beer all summer long.  To the High Life!”

PBL 2016 Season in Review: Las Vegas Narwhals

Like the PBL’s other expansion teams, the Las Vegas Narwhals had a rough time of it in 2016.  Following the Narwhals through their maiden voyage felt like spending too long a night on the Strip: the bright lights and showmanship lost their charm, and fans were left feeling disoriented and hung over with nothing to show for it.  But hope springs eternal in Sin City, and there were enough positives to suggest the possibility of a brighter future.

“My team did pretty terrible, but I’m not too surprised,” said Vegas owner/GM Tricia Butler.  “I was hoping they’d do better, but there is always next year.”

The Narwhals definitely made an impression visually with their eye-catching purple-and-gold uniforms and their pleasure dome of a stadium, MGM Jackpot Field, with its built-in casino and neon foul poles and laser light shows.  Unfortunately, the team on the field was a lot less memorable.

Their offense was lackluster all around.  They were second-to-last in batting average (.251) and runs scored (626), and dead last in OPS (.712).  Despite playing half their games in a launching pad built for homers, they hit only 148 longballs, 10th in the league.

The biggest problem area was second base, where journeyman Emile Vandever and rookie Brad Green combined to put up some of the worst numbers in the league.  Collectively, they hit under .200 with little to no power and a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.  “I should have just sent them up without bats,” said manager Benjamin Banks Mahoney of his second-base tandem.  “Couldn’t have been much worse.”

On the bright side, 3B Jamar Whitworth had an unexpectedly strong season, hitting .304 with decent pop.  Their other third sacker, Ikaru Suzuki, recovered from a poor start to his .262 with and .812 OPS.  DH Andrew Zocken’s all-or-nothing swings produced 182 strikeouts, but also 36 homers and 103 RBI.  And a pair of veterans, LF Arthur Mealey and 1B Brooks Defoor, provided steady production.

On the hill, the overall picture was similarly grim.  Their 5.56 ERA and .861 OPS were second-worst in the league.  The rotations was a shambles, with righties Juan Carlos Lopez, Chuck Weaver, and Jesse Zepp combining for 75 starts, a 15-37 record, and an ERA north of 6.  The bullpen was even worse, with closer Chris Allen’s 5.63 ERA the best among regular relievers.

Optimism is harder to find on the pitching staff, but there were some bright (or less-dark) spots.  Righty Jose Oro (12-13) and lefty Nick Armstrong (8-17, 4.59 ERA) weathered their rookie seasons with grace, and show promise as a future 1-2 punch atop the rotation.  And while Allen’s numbers were inflated by a penchant for gopher balls, he still converted 80% of his save opportunities.

Can the Narwhals get better in 2017?  Absolutely, especially with a few key upgrades.  The pitching staff needs plenty of work; they could use a veteran innings-eating starter or two and several bullpen arms.  The offense is in better shape, but it could sorely benefit from a couple of big bats as well as a fix for the gaping hole at second base.  Butler says that she is “open to trading to get some new players throughout the season!”

In addition, the team would benefit from cutting back on its enjoyment of the Vegas nightlife.  Several Narwhals frequently seemed to be in rough shape on the mound and at the plate.  Without naming names, Butler admitted that “the players often get carried away in Sin City.”  Their manager was among the worst offenders; witnesses said that they frequently saw Mahoney out with his players up and down the Strip at all hours.  Perhaps if the man known as “B. Money” were willing to curtail his partying a bit, his team might be persuaded to do the same.

Unfortunately, the Narwhals seem to be a long way from hitting the jackpot with a postseason appearance, let alone a title.  But with some smart trades, fewer late nights in clubs and casinos, and continued growth from their young players, 2017 might not be a total bust.

PBL 2016 Season in Review: Knoxville Smokies

Last season, the Knoxville Smokies rolled to an Eastern Division title before losing the championship in 6 games.  Some might have considered that a successful first season.  Not Smokies manager Snuff Wallace, who said that he would only be satisfied when his team was holding a “big shiny trophy.”  This season, Wallace finally got his sought-after hardware, as Knoxville blitzed to a 100-win season and then took down the Silver City Outlaws in the Patriot Series.

“We the big dogs now!” crowed Wallace.  “Kings of the hill!  Y’all can say whatever [expletive] you want about me, but you can’t take this ring away from me.  Y’all can line up to start kissing my [expletive] now.”

Smikes owner/GM Jeremy Mills was more circumspect, but equally pleased with the outcome: “We righted the ship from last year and brought home a title for our loyal fans.”

Similar to last year, the Smokies’ success was built on its excellent pitching staff.  Knoxville led the league in ERA, OPS against, quality start percentage, and save percentage.  Their staff walked fewer men and allowed fewer homers than any other in the league.

In 2015, the Smokies’ bullpen led the way with a shutdown performance.  This year, the relievers weren’t quite as dominant (though still solid), but the rotation stepped up to compensate.  Rookie righty Scott Green, whom Mills pilfered from Carolina in a heist of a deal, went 18-6 with a 3.23 ERA.  Ace Elicio Santana was the Patriot League’s first 20-game winner, backing it up with a 3.59 ERA and a .673 OPS against.  Right-hander Jack Jacques was as consistent and unflappable as ever, going 16-8 with a 3.29 ERA and allowing a stingy .658 OPS.

And when Knoxville needed one more arm for the stretch run, they picked up lefty Randy Cannon, suffering through a lost season in Jacksonville.  He seemed reborn with the Smokies, going 6-2 with a 2.98 ERA to help hold off his old team for the division title.  Mills was particularly thrilled with what he saw out of Cannon, adding that he is “looking forward to seeing what our coaches can do with a full season from Randy Cannon, assuming we can resign him.”

Wallace described the Smokies’ starting staff as “like judging a Miss Universe contest.  Whichever one you picked, you can’t go wrong.  But instead of killer bodies, they had killer arms.”

Although the bullpen as a unit took a half-step back this year, closer Charlie Pasternak remained as automatic as ever, converting 35 of 37 save chances and posting a 2.15 ERA.  “I wish Charlie had been my lawyer during my last divorce,” said Wallace.  “My ex-wife wouldn’t have got a [expletive] nickel.”

The brilliance of Knoxville’s pitching staff bolstered a lineup that was good but not brilliant.  LF Track Johnson (.353, 50 doubles, 22 HR, .989 OPS) and RF Jackson Campo (.301, 35 doubles, 45 HR, 108 RBI, .978 OPS) were the brightest stars at the plate.  On the flip side, Knoxville’s trade for 3B Curt Figueroa turned out to be a rare flop, as the third sacker hit .226 with only 19 homers.  And 1B Eddie Battin, who was a key part of last season’s pennant drive, took a big step back this season, hitting .256 with 20 homers and striking out 145 times.

Mills acknowledged that he “felt our offense should have been more productive.”  He noted that the lineup “definitely caused concern in the Eastern Division Championship.”  In particular, he was referring to the middle three games of the series, in which the Smokies scored only five runs while dropping three straight to the Dragons in offense-friendly Tesla Field.

What to do for an encore?  Unsurprisingly, Knoxville’s deal-happy owner/GM isn’t about to rest on his laurels for 2017.  He said that he is “looking forward to free agency” and that he will be evaluating “where we can find upgrades to our existing team.”  He didn’t specify where he might be looking to upgrade, but boosting offense at the corners and adding another relief arm or two seem likely places to start.  Also, the Smokies will need to resign key free agents, starting with Cannon.

As for Wallace, his offseason plans reportedly involve “drinking all the whiskey in Tennessee and basking in the glory of my greatness.  Call me every name in the book, but don’t forget to call me champion.”

PBL 2016 Season in Review: Kalamazoo Kazoos

Are the Kalamazoo Kazoos the most boring team in the Patriot League?  When they were expanded into existence this season, they seemed likely to be a colorful bunch, given their quirky name and the fact that they hired as a manager Jacques “Zippie” DeFlute, a former musician with no baseball background.

But then the season came, and the Kazoos were… fine.  They weren’t great, but they weren’t terrible.  For much of the season, it looked like they would win the moderately prestigious Expansion World Cup, awarded to the expansion team with the best record, but the New Orleans Sazeracs passed them out in the last week of the season.  They don’t have any gaping holes, but they don’t have any big stars either.  They just… are.

Perhaps still smarting from their EWC defeat, neither DeFlute nor Kalamazoo owner/GM Will Norman had any comment on the season.  But a close look at the numbers suggests a team that has a relatively high floor and a relatively low ceiling.  In other words, next year is likely to look like this one.

Kalamazoo’s greatest strength is unquestionably its pitching.  Unlike their expansion cousins, who all struggled to assemble a viable staff in some area or another, the Kazoos were all-around competent on the mound.  Their 4.46 ERA was fifth in the league, while their .765 OPS allowed placed them sixth.  In general, Kalamazoo’s staff largely consisted of soft tossers who hit their spots and kept the ball in the yard, a strategy that served them well.

Rookie righties Zachary Barrett (8-14, 3.77 ERA, .694 OPS allowed) and Trevor Cutchall (8-10, 3.79, .698) anchored the rotation, while Steve DiPietro (2-0, 3.48, .629) won a surprise All-Star berth out of the pen.  They got bounce-back seasons from a pair of ex-California hurlers, righties Ty Shive (9-9, 3.88, .728) and Brian Goreman (4-5, 3.92, .740), who served as durable swingmen for the Kazoos.  Closer Elias Rosado (6-6, 19 save, 4.83) was serviceable, though he faded a bit in the second half.

One pitcher who didn’t fit the mold was teenage sensation Angelo Rosales.  The young righty dazzled with his velocity and raw stuff, striking out 252 in 190 1/3 innings, but struggled with inconsistency and bad cluster luck, finishing 11-12 with a 4.87 ERA.  If he, Barrett, and Cutchall can take a step forward next season, they represent Kalamazoo’s best shot at improvement.

Kalamazoo’s offense, meanwhile, was the best among the expansion clubs, but that wasn’t saying a whole lot.  They were seventh in the league in batting average (.257) and eighth in OPS (.758).  Nor were they especially fast; their 71 stolen bases were second-worst in the league.

The good news is that the Kazoos had plenty of thump in the middle of their order, with OF John Taylor (39 round-trippers), RF/DH Robby McAllister (38), and CF Damian Mash (34) all capable of crushing.  But they lacked table-setters in front of those big bats; no one on the team had a batting average over .300, and too many of those longballs were solo shots.  As a result, Kalamazoo tallied only 667 runs, ninth in the league.

If the Kazoos are going find a spark at the plate in 2017, they’d be wise to focus on adding some high-average hitters, especially on the infield.  SS Johnny Shorts (.275, 38 doubles) is solid, but the other three starting infielders posting averages below .250, nor did they have the pop to justify such low averages.  Perhaps the team might consider selling high on a pitcher like Shive or Goreman in exchange for someone who can get on base.

The good news is that, for an expansion team, Kalamazoo has a decent number of strengths; barring any unexpected collapses, they should be decent again next season.  But without some savvy or unexpected growth from their young players, they might be stuck on the mediocrity treadmill for some time.  Not the best, not the worst, just… fine.

PBL 2016 Season in Review: Jacksonville Dragons

At the end of the PBL’s inaugural season in 2015, the Jacksonville Dragons were in a bad place.  Widely expected to be a championship contender, the Dragons belly-flopped to a sub-.500 record.  Then-manager Harlan Davidson’s habit of attacking his players in comments to the media divided and demoralized the locker room.  The team’s pitching staff was abysmal; their offense, expected to be the team’s strength, was mediocre.  Arguably, the team’s best-known player was John Longroofan, the troubled lefty reliever who was banished after only 5 appearances and multiple on-field meltdowns, only to resurface with a string of wild and unfounded accusations that Jacksonville’s bullpen was in league with gamblers to throw games.

Firing Davidson and releasing Longroofan at season’s end provided some catharsis for the players, but it seemed unlikely that the Dragons could improve much this season, let alone contend for a playoff spot.  But Jacksonville stunned the baseball world in 2016, improving by 13 games and making the Eastern Division Series, which they pushed to the limit before falling to Knoxville.

“Our team is back on the right track,” said a jubilant Eric Stetson, owner/GM of the Dragons.  “We’ll be looking to build on this year’s success with renewed confidence.”

Any discussion of Jacksonville’s success this season has to begin with the 180-degree change in the clubhouse culture.  New manager Steve Califano stressed his belief in “the power of affirmation,” a marked difference from Davidson’s acerbic barbs.  He never missed an opportunity to praise his players, both publicly and privately, and the team responded.

“Having Steve in charge, the difference was night and day,” said Dragons RF Roderick Hopps.  “Last year, the clubhouse was no place to be.  The minute the game ended and we got dressed, everybody took off.  There was no team spirit, no unity.  This year, everyone felt good, we were happy to come to the ballpark.  We all had a positive attitude.  And that started with Steve.”

On the field, Jacksonville improved largely thanks to a more potent and balanced offense, bolstered by several new faces.  Last season, the Dragons’ attack was powered through three players: Hopps, 3B Jake Kapoor, and LF Rob Hartley.  This season, they got a boost from a pair of rookies: 1B Miguel Soria (.301, 44 HR, 127 RBI, .945 OPS) and DH/CF Sandy Soltero (.276, 27 HR, .851 OPS).  Toss in a strong rebound from 2B Emerson Taliaferro (.306, 51 doubles, 124 runs), and continued productivity from the Judson Teachout/Jan Esquivel catching platoon, and you had a dangerous and multi-dimensional lineup.  Although Stetson has a well-known fondness for the longball, the Dragons were only fourth in the league in homers (with 249), but third in average (.284) and second in OPS (.849).

Stetson credited hitting coach Ernie Zambrucka for the team’s resurgence at the dish.  The colorful coach instituted a serious weight training and fitness regimen, which kept the team in peak shape throughout the season.  “Players love [Zambrucka], and he inspires them to reach their full potential,” said the owner.  “Ernie has quickly proven himself to be a great coach – he knows how to balance discipline with a fun atmosphere in the locker room.”

Meanwhile, the Dragons’ pitching improved somewhat, but didn’t rise above adequate.  Ace Biggs McGee finally began pitching up to his self-proclaimed potential, running up a 12-2 record in the second half to finish 18-11 with a 3.86 ERA and a .716 OPS against.  Right-hander Kyle Palmer continued to struggle with inconsistency, but managed to rack up 204 strikeouts and 17 wins.  Perhaps the biggest surprise was rookie righty Bryce Hobbs, who came out of nowhere to post a 16-3 mark despite a pedestrian 4.16 ERA.  Stetson described Hobbs’ performance as “a pleasant and much-needed surprise.”

In the bullpen, which was a horror show last season, Jacksonville discovered a triad of reliable firemen.  Southpaw Blueberry Jackson, one of the Dragons’ few good arms in 2015, was even better this season (4-4, 2.85 ERA, .674 OPS against).  A bounce-back year from righty Razor Corridon (6-6, 3.36, .631 OPS allowed) and a strong freshman season from lefty Lance Newman (5-7, 2.77, .676) meant that the late innings at Tesla Field were far less trauma-inducing than in previous years.  Califano juggled the closer’s role between the three, and each notched 10 saves.  Califano declared himself “totally stoked” about the team’s back-end situation.

So what’s on the agenda for Jacksonville in 2017?  Stetson put it simply: “Improve our starting pitching, and take the next step by winning the Eastern Division.”  The rotation does seem like the Dragons’ best shot for improvement.  If McGee can duplicate his second-half performance over a full season, the team would have an ace who could go toe-to-toe with the league’s best.  If Palmer can possibly trade a bit of velocity for better command and consistency, he can be a quality #2 starter.  Hobbs figures to regress to the mean a bit next season, but he should at least be a reliable mid-rotation innings-eater.

The back end of the rotation needs help, though; Juan Sarmiento (5-8, 5.41) remains an enigma, his potential marred by injury and wildness, and Randy Tomblin (1-3, 6.54) flopped after coming over from Knoxville in a deadline deal.

Given that Califano is a former pitcher, and pitching coach Nick Altrock also had a sterling record in the UBL, there’s cause for hope in this area.  The manager admitted that a “major change in coaching philosophy” from the previous regime made it hard for some players to adjust; perhaps they’ll do better with another year under their belts.

But Jacksonville doesn’t need miracles from their starters; they just need them to be more than mediocre.  If they can take that step, Stetson’s division-title dreams might just come true in 2017.

PBL 2016 Season in Review: Jackson Hammerheads

In 2015, the Jackson Hammerheads slugged their way to a solid second-place finish in the East, 8 games behind Knoxville.  It was a turbulent season that saw the passing of one manager and the firing of another, but overall things seemed to be moving on an upward track.  With the playoffs expanding to four teams, a postseason invite for the Hammerheads seemed all but certain.  Whiz kid owner/GM Steven Butler boldly proclaimed that 2016 was a championship-or-bust season.  “Jackson is built to win championships,” the self-proclaimed “Sultan of Swap” declared.  “Anything short of that is a failure.”

Not only did the Heads fail to win the championship in 2016, the season turned into a nightmare that few would have foreseen.  No one imagined that Jackson would take a step backward, dropping from 83 wins to 79, and belly-flop from second to fourth in the division.  No one imagined that the season would end with another fired manager, or a team that seemed farther away from contention than ever before.  No wonder Butler described the Hammerheads’ 2016 campaign as “extremely disappointing and embarrassing.”

What went wrong?  It started at the beginning, when Jackson posted a dismal 9-17 record in April, only a half-game out of the basement in the East.  The slow start created what Butler called “a season-lasting hole to dig out of.”  That start was mirrored by a 9-16 swoon over the final month of the season that sealed Jackson’s (and manager Bob Henley’s) fate.  In between those two slumps, the Heads went 61-38, but it wasn’t enough.

One big problem for Jackson was all too familiar from 2015: a poor performance from their bullpen.  Butler was aggressive in rebuilding the relief unit this season, drafting righty Bobby Boniface and trading for left-handers Tobias Dennis, Woody Flowers, and Boss Walker.  But although the faces were different, the results were all too similar: a parade of frayed nerves and blown leads.  “It was astounding to see the staggering number of games that fell apart late no matter what deal was made or who was on the hill in relief,” said Butler.

One of the prime culprits, again, was Rick Sheen.  The bespectacled lefty was supposed to be a lockdown arm, but too much alcohol and too much nightlife seem to have ruined a promising career.  Sheen began as the Hammerheads closer, but after blowing more than half of his save opportunities, he was deposed in favor of Boniface, who was far from stellar but converted most of his chances.

The starting rotation didn’t fare much better, compiling a 4.94 ERA and a quality start percentage that was third-worst in the league.  Ace Henry Jones was perhaps the biggest disappointment, posting an 11-10 record and a 4.83 ERA.  With both the rotation and the bullpen delivering subpar performances, it’s no surprise that Jackson posted a 5.01 ERA, ninth in the league.  Even hiring Hall of Famer Randy Johnson as pitching coach in midseason couldn’t save this staff.

On the bright side, the Hammerheads’ lineup remained a slap-hitting, run-scoring machine.  Jackson lead the league in batting average and doubles while finishing second in walks and stolen bases.  The hitters exemplified Butler’s approach of “get on base and keep ‘em moving” to a tee.

Perhaps the biggest positive was the transition of Damian “Black Hammer” Deason from center field to DH.  After Deason was a wizard at the plate but a horror show in the field in 2015, the Hammerheads asked him to give up his glove.  Deason accepted the change without complaint and turned in another strong season, hitting .327 with a league-leading 65 doubles.  Butler praised Deason as “the consummate professional.”  Meanwhile, the Heads traded for Santiago Suarez, whom California had soured on after a poor rookie season.  After receiving a hero’s welcome in Jackson, Suarez bounced back, hitting at a .274 clip with 27 homers and 123 RBI while providing flawless defense in center.

With that in mind, Butler says he wants Jackson to focus on defense next season.  “Too long have the Heads favored offensive prowess at the expense of defensive efficiency,” said the whiz kid owner/GM.  “No more.”  Butler said that he plans to add some utility defensive specialists and find a manager who prioritizes defense.

Other items on Jackson’s lengthy offseason shopping lists include some help for the rotation, naming a full-time closer, adding another big bat, and possibly a change at third base, where Kim Fleitas had a disappointing season.  Surprisingly, though, Butler says he’s not looking to upgrade the bullpen.  “We still firmly believe in the core group of relievers we have on staff,” he said, identifying Dennis, Boniface, Walker, and lefty Hilton Sircy as building blocks.

Priority one, of course, is making that long-awaited postseason appearance.  To do that, they’ll need to get past the Jacksonville Dragons and Orlando Calrissians, who lapped them in 2016.  Butler praised the two Florida clubs for their improved play.  “They moved up a notch on my belt,” said the Sultan, “but rest assured that are only at notch one, and the Hammerheads have revenge in mind come 2018.”

If Jackson comes up short again, Butler says, the next change will come at the top.  “I realize I have likely been as much of a distraction as the solution over the past two seasons,” said the whiz kid.  “It’s time to put my money where my mouth is: either Jackson makes the playoffs of I relinquish my duties as GM.”  Butler added that he has full faith that his team can back up his guarantee.  “It’s time to watch the playoffs from the dugout, not a bar!  Sultan out!”