For the Jacksonville Dragons, the season began with high hopes, only to fade into sub-.500 disappointment. It was a stormy year, marked by turmoil between the manager and his players and an ongoing furor around an ex-player. But despite all the discord and disappointment, the Dragons front office and players alike both remain optimistic for next season. “We’re confident that our team can be a contender next season,” said Dragons owner/GM Eric Stetson.
From a statistical perspective, it’s hard to see the reasons behind the optimism. Jacksonville’s pitching was mediocre, but that was expected. The Dragons’ 4.92 team ERA and .781 OPS against were both good for only sixth in the league, ahead of only the last-place clubs in Salt Lake and Orlando. The rotation consisted of one true ace (Biggs McGee), three mediocre innings-eaters (Kyle Palmer, Randy Cannon, and Samir Khan) and one raw project with major control issues (Juan Sarmiento). And the bullpen was a revolving door of castoffs, fringe prospects, and fading veterans. The Dragons used more pitchers (19 in all) than any other team in the league. Underwhelming, yes, but not unexpected.
The team’s failure to hit, on the other hand, was quite unexpected. Stetson had assembled a club focused around power hitting. The results this season, though, could only be described as profoundly underwhelming. “Several of our core players had disappointing seasons,” admitted the owner. Jacksonville was only fifth in the league in batting average (.260), home runs (177), and OPS (.757). The team struggled to find consistent performers in the infield, apart from the catching tandem of Judson Teachout and Jan Esquivel. Despite being built around a love of the longball, the Dragons had no one in serious contention for the home run title. They had three solid power hitters – LF Rob Hartley (39 homers), RF Roderick Hopps (36 homers), and 1B/DH Jake Kapoor (28 homers) – but little pop elsewhere in the order. Had Jacksonville been the big-hitting club that Stetson envisioned, they might have been able to overcome their so-so pitching. Instead, they were mediocre on both sides of the ball.
Perhaps as a result of their flat performance, the Dragons had one of the most volatile clubhouses in the league. Much of the tumult centered around manager Harlan Davidson. The veteran skipper displayed a penchant for ridiculing and knocking his players to the press, a habit that created considerable clubhouse friction. “There was frequent tension in the clubhouse as a result of a clash between the manager and players who were put off by his coaching style,” said Stetson, noting that the unhappy players included “both veteran hitters as well as young pitchers.”
That tension boiled over in mid-July, when the manager ripped into many of his players by name after a particularly frustrating loss. That meltdown sparked a closed-door meeting with the players, a move that seemed to bring the club together as they reeled off a 10-game winning streak.
The team slumped again down the stretch, however, and Davidson resumed his acidic postgame remarks. That tendency to undermine players, combined with the team’s disappointing season, led Stetson to fire Davidson at the end of the season. “The Dragons’ front office regards this conflict as the main reason for the underperformance of some of our player personnel and the team as a whole,” said Stetson. The search for a replacement is ongoing.
More than Davidson and his barbs, though, the lingering memory in Jacksonville of this year will probably be colorful, ill-fated reliever John Longroofan. Though he appeared in only five game and played poorly in all of them, Longroofan left an indelible mark on the season.
The Dragons signed the 20-year-old lefty in spring training, and he rode into town on a tweetstorm urging the citizens of north Florida to “hide your daughters, cause Roofie’s coming to play!” Called up in mid-April, Longroofan posted an 0-1 record and a 22.00 ERA, along with three team fines, before earning a swift demotion. In addition to his poor performance, the lefty distinguished himself through his outlandish behavior: regularly saluting fans with upraised middle fingers, offering obscenity-filled postgame remarks, and on one occasion dropping his pants on the mound.
After his demotion, Longroofan seemed to vanish. But he resurfaced late in the season with a wild accusation that the Jacksonville bullpen was involved in a conspiracy to throw games for money. The organization vigorously denied the charges, and a league investigation found Longroofan’s accusations to be baseless. Needless to say, the young reliever’s name remains a dirty word around the Dragons.
“I have no idea what’s wrong with that guy,” said Jacksonville reliever Razor Corridon. “He’s sick in the head, that’s for sure. I don’t know what his next stop is. Probably prison.”
Given all the sturm und drang along with the team’s subpar performance, where does the optimism for next season come from? That 10-game midseason winning streak has a lot to do with it. With the team’s chances of contention all but gone, the team still found a way to band together and reel off an impressive run. Later in the year, the team made a serious run at finishing above the .500 mark. That pursuit fell short in the end, but it gave the Dragons something to shoot for in the dog days of August.
“I was really proud of the guys in here,” said Kapoor, who emerged as a clubhouse leader during the season. “We could have given in to the bickering and let ourselves go down the drain, but we kept pushing and fighting to the end. We didn’t win, but It made us closer as a team.”
The first priority for next season, of course, is finding a new manager. “We’re optimistic that with the right manager, our veterans can feel more comfortable rallying the team and will maximize their performance,” said Stetson, “and that our young pitching staff will develop into the solid group we believe they can be.”
Stetson declined to identify specific areas that the team is targeting for improvement. “The Dragons will look to add pieces to our roster to bolster some areas, but our number one priority is the search for a new manager and coaching staff,” said the owner.
Obviously, Jacksonville would welcome some offense to back up their Big Three; it’s likely that the team will pursue an on-base threat to slot in ahead of their middle-of-the-order bats. Stetson made clear that the Dragons are counting on rebounds from some of this year’s underperformers, noting that “we believe they’ll improve to their expected levels next year.” On the pitching side of the equation, the team would welcome some maturation from Sarmiento, and for one of their middle three starters (most likely Palmer) to take things up a level. The Dragons could also desperately use a couple more reliable firemen. Midseason pickup Blueberry Jackson proved to be a godsend, and youngsters Carrol Avallone and Emilio Abbas showed promise down the stretch, but a reliable veteran would be a welcome addition.
Jacksonville may need all of these things to go right and more in order to have a real shot at challenging Jackson and Knoxville next year. But in a year when so many things went wrong, the chance at a fresh start may be what the Dragons treasure most of all.