PBL Announces Award Winners

Patriot LeagueThe Patriot League today announced the winners of its first annual end-of-season awards.  The awards were voted on by the league’s owners, and are intended to recognize the top performers from the 2015 Patriot League season.

“I’m excited to see our owners taking the time to select the very best of our talented players and managers,” said Patriot League Commissioner Jeremiah Mills.  “All the votes have been counted, and we are thrilled to recognize the winners.  Our highly deserving crop of winners is a testament to the very high caliber of play in this league.  We believe that our players can compete against the best in the world.”

The list of winners can be found below.

Continue reading “PBL Announces Award Winners”

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PBL Season In Review: Silver City Outlaws

Silver City OutlawsIf you had to pick the Patriot League’s most disappointing team for the 2015 season, the Silver City Outlaws would likely be it.  Other teams finished with worse records, but none fell as far short of expectations as the Outlaws.  Widely expected to be a leading championship contender, Silver City got off to a scorching-hot 14-4 start.  From there, though, the Outlaws took a nosedive, and ultimately crashed to a 70-80 record and a flat third-place finish in the West.

To Outlaws manager John Jarha, it’s no mystery why things went wrong.  “From my perspective, the reason is pretty simple: We just didn’t swing the bats like we should have,” said Jarha.  “Our starting rotation was great, even better than I thought we’d be at the start of the season, but we didn’t give them any help.”

The numbers bear out Jarha’s argument.  The team finished with a 4.19 ERA and a .738 OPS against, both marks good enough for third place in the league.  However, Silver City’s hitters batted only .239 (only last-place Salt Lake was worse) with a .736 OPS (third worst in the league).  The Outlaws struck out an eye-popping 1014 times, the most in the league by far (no other team had more than 800).  Factor in the offense-enhancing conditions (hot temperatures and high elevation) at The Corral, and the chasm between the team’s strong pitching and dismal hitting is even more stark.

A major chunk of Silver City’s offense came from RF Nathaniel Wason, who was one of the league’s best all-around offensive players.  Wason’s 54 homers led the league, and his .667 slugging percentage was second in the league to Milwaukee’s Felipe Mateo.  The Outlaws had a few other players with decent pop (3B Rusty Brewmaker hit 29 homers, 1B Muzz Elliott 27, and CF Javier Cardona 24), but the team struggled to get runners on base ahead of those blasts.

“We had plenty of homers,” said Wason, “but far too often, they were solos.  We weren’t scoring runs in bunches the way we needed to.”

The team’s offensive struggles undermined a quality pitching staff.  Rookie lefty Pedro Rodriguez made a strong case as the league’s best pitcher, posting a 3.06 ERA that was second-best among starters and leading the league with 212 strikeouts.  Thanks to the lack of support, though, Rodriguez posted an underwhelming 12-11 record.

The rotation, anchored by Rodriguez, was Silver City’s greatest strength.  The rookie southpaw was supported by solid performances from lefty Rob Tildon (10-14, 3.88, 169 Ks) and righty Juan Carlos Lopez (12-12, 3.97).  The biggest surprise, though, came from veteran right-hander Linus Pauling.  The 31-year-old impressed the Outlaws brass by posting an 11-14 record and a 3.49 ERA, fifth-best among Patriot League starters.

“I mean, I don’t think anyone expected what Linus did in the first half—probably not even Linus!” said Jarha.  “We brought him on to shore up the back end of the rotation, and he ended up being one of our most solid starters.  He’s not a big strikeout pitcher like Pedro or Robbie, but he knows how to get hitters out, and he did everything we needed him to do and more.”

Outlaws owner Justin Rallis praised the production from his team’s two teenagers, the 19-year-old Rodriguez and the 18-year-old Brewmaker. “Pedro is a legitimate Cy Young candidate in his first season, and Rusty was just a home run and five RBI short of a 100/30/100 season,” said Rallis.  “That’s a terrific foundation of young players to help build and improve our franchise.”

Jarha was also full of praise for Brewmaker. “Rusty led the team in on-base percentage, and finished second [to Wason] in runs, home runs, RBI, and game-winners,” the manager noted.  “That’s pretty amazing for a kid who was in high school last year!”

Despite the impressive work of the two rookies and the strong rotation, however, the Outlaws finished well out of contention.  The feeble offense was the primary reason for the team’s failure, but the bullpen also played a role.  In the first half, the Silver City relief corps was a reliable unit, one that earned the affectionate nickname “Dirt Hogs” from Jarha for their low-glory, blue-collar work ethic.  In the second half, though, the former team strength became a liability.  The pen finished with a 4.96 ERA, and several relievers showed clear signs of overwork down the stretch, most notably righty Jamaal Sapp and closer Go Matsumoto.

How will the Outlaws make sure that 2016 isn’t another disappointment?  Outlaws GM Hank Stroman declined to discuss specifics, saying, “My highest priority is making sure we re-sign the players we need to win games next year.”  He did suggest that the team was actively looking to improve through both free agency and the draft.

Jarha is focused on improving the team’s hitting.  “I’ve gotta let the guys go home for a little while and see their families,” said the Outlaws manager, “but I want to get back in the cages as soon as possible.  I don’t want to be sitting here next year talking about why our team couldn’t hit the ball.”

Stroman did hint that next year’s changes might extend beyond the roster, saying, “I’ll be evaluating the performance of our entire staff to determine if we need to make a change.”  When asked if this meant Jarha or some of his coaches might be dismissed, Stroman replied, “I didn’t say that.  What I said is that it’s my job to make sure our guys have the right coaches and environment.  If that means I have to make a change in the coaching staff, I’ll make that determination at the appropriate time.” With a laugh, the GM added, “That isn’t today, though.”

Based on the owner’s comment, it’s not clear whether Jarha or his staff can rest easy this offseason.  What is clear, though, is that the Outlaws had better see some upward mobility in the standings next year, or players and coaches alike will see their feet held to the fire.

 

PBL Season in Review: Salt Lake Samurai

Salt Lake SamuraiIt’s hard to pull a lot of positives out of the Salt Lake Samurai’s debut season, in which they took nine games to post their first win and finished with a league-worst 45-105 record.  As Samurai owner/GM Sarah Buehler put it, “My expectations before the season were pretty high, but my team quickly broke my spirit and I was highly disappointed for a while.”

Salt Lake was a near-unanimous pick to finish last based on their unorthodox drafting strategy.  The team spent high picks on players like C DeAndre Turnbull and 2B Quincy Gaytan, who had excellent defensive reputations but were poor hitters.  Turnbull finished the season hitting .162 and struggled to hold off Winston Regner for the starting catcher job, while Gaytan hit .248 with a dismal .286 slugging percentage.  It comes as little surprise that the Samurai wound up with a punchless offense, hitting .238 as a team with only 112 homers and a .656 OPS, worst in the league on all counts.  They scored over 100 fewer runs than any other team in the league.  Their highest-average hitter, CF Lee Cosgrove, posted a .282 mark, which was almost 20 points higher than anyone else on the team.  Their biggest power threat was 37-year-old Neal Thomas, who hit 39 homers to offset a weak .230 average.

“No question that we need a jump-start on offense,” said Salt Lake manager Johnny Dugan.  “We couldn’t really sustain rallies because we had a hard time getting back-to-back hits.  It’s tough to go through a season like that.”

The results on the mound weren’t any prettier.  The Samurai posted a 5.34 ERA and allowed an .814 OPS; only Orlando was worse in those areas.  The staff struggled mightily with control, allowing 604 walks against only 687 strikeouts.  Only one pitcher on the Salt Lake posted an ERA below the 4.50 mark.

But it wasn’t just unusual drafting that doomed the Samurai.  Even players who were expected to be stars struggled.  The most notable examples of this were SP Toshiie Maeda and SS Mori Motonari, a pair of Japanese-league stars who were expected to be the backbone of the team both on and off the field.  “I really thought the excitement and joy of the game from our Japanese players would really rub off on the other guys,” said Buehler.

Instead, much to the surprise of both Buehler and Samurai fans, both Maeda and Motonari struggled badly with culture shock and the adjustment to a higher caliber of play.  Maeda finished the year 7-17 with a 5.13 ERA, while Motonari posted a .247 average with only 26 doubles and six homers.  Not only was their subpar performance an anchor on the team, but their very public difficulties with adjusting to America cast a pall over the clubhouse.

For Buehler, who feels that too many American players are obsessed with money and fame rather than the love of the game, this was a real blow.  “I really thought Maeda and Motonari would get them out of that mindset and just bring their love of the game back to the forefront, but that never happened,” she said.

Dugan agreed with the owner to an extent, but also sympathized with the challenges that the Japanese players faced.  “You’ve got to remember the pressure these guys were under,” said Dugan.  “A pair of kids, really, away from home for the first time.  Not only are they supposed to get adjusted to a new country, they’re supposed to be not just good players, but leaders and stars on a struggling team.  The spotlight was always on.  I could just see it weighing on them both all year.  I tried to take the pressure off of them when I could, but it was rough all around.”

Both Buehler and Dugan agreed that the Samurai improved significantly in the second half.  The owner took credit for “[making] some trades and [starting] to shift some of the stronger personalities off the team,” but she lauded Dugan for his leadership.  She said that in the second half, “under the direction of Dugan, we really started to become more of a cohesive team. I know our stats were bad, but they did improve as we got later in the season.”

Dugan agreed and saluted his players for keeping a positive attitude.  “A lot of teams, once they fall out of contention, they’re just mailing it in,” said the manager.  “Our guys never did that, and it’s a credit to them.  Instead, they banded together and just went out and played hard.  I was really proud of the fact that we didn’t give up.”  After posting a dreadful 18-60 mark in the first half, the Samurai rebounded to go 27-45 after the All-Star break.

What does the future hold for Salt Lake?  Buehler confirmed that Dugan, whose firing was heavily rumored in midseason, will return as manager.  Still, the owner hinted at significant personnel changes in the offseason.  She said that she would seek out “players who may get along better personality-wise with the team and with Dugan. Having team unity goes a long way to boost morale and win games.”

She also called for improved effort on the part of some players, without naming names.  “Some of these guys played amazing ball in college and now that they are getting paid with contracts that extend for years, they seem to be just relaxing,” Buehler said. “That’s a mistake on my part for offering some of the terms the way that I did.”

The always-upbeat Dugan is optimistic about next season.  He noted that young righty Miguel Bautista, who posted the team’s best ERA, was a good bet to join the rotation next year.  Combined with improved performances from Maeda and 20-year-old lefty Grant Fore and the steadying influence of veteran Davey Skargard, Dugan sees “the bones of a strong rotation.”

While he admits that the offense needs some more work, he believes that with bounce-back performances from Motonari and Thomas, players such as Cosgrove and DH Jamar Whitworth taking it to the next level, and a couple of well-chosen acquisitions could make for a highly functional lineup.  “We’re a lot closer than people think we are,” said the Salt Lake skipper.  “We’re going to surprise a lot of folks next year.”

PBL Season in Review: Orlando Calrissians

Orlando CalrissiansSuffice it to say that the Orlando Calrissians were surprised and displeased with their residence in the basement of the East.  When the best news that your squad  has all year is the selection of a new team song, that’s typically a bad sign.  Although Orlando’s last-place finish was predicted by many league observers, the Calrissians front office seemed genuinely stunned to be out of the running. “Our team never showed up this year,” said Calrissians owner/GM Brian Aufmuth. “Our fans and the city deserve better than they got.”

For Aufmuth, the biggest blow was the fact that his team was out of the race from almost the beginning of the season. “We expected to compete this year,” said the owner.  “Winning the whole thing we knew would be tough, but we at least expected to compete and that didn’t happen.”

It was a weak season for Orlando on both sides of the ball.  As a team, the Calrissians batted a paltry .249 with a .717 OPS and scored only 648 runs; only Salt Lake was worse in those categories.  The batting order had multiple major holes, most notably in center field and at catcher.  And as feeble as their offense was, the pitching was even worse.

Less than a month into the season, Orlando had already banished three-fifths of its opening day starting rotation.  The bullpen was no better, with less churn but more disastrous performance.  With the team’s ERA mired north of 6.00 in mid-May, the Calrissians fired pitching coach Tyler Thornton and hired Hall of Famer John Smoltz to replace him.  Smoltz’s interventions had little apparent effect, as the Calrissians finished the year with a 5.64 team ERA, allowing 914 runs and an .824 OPS.  All of those marks put Orlando dead last in the PBL.

“Obviously, this is a work in progress,” said Smoltz after the year.  “This is a long-term project.”

When asked for the reasons his team had fallen short, the owner didn’t mince words. “The lack of effort,” Aufmuth said.  “Our team has talent, but day in and day out they just didn’t give the effort needed to win in this league.”

Despite a painful and disappointing season, Aufmuth confirmed that both Smoltz and manager Logan “Lobot” Bothan will be back next season, along with the rest of the coaching staff.  “We aren’t the Cleveland Browns,” said the owner.  “We don’t fire everyone after one bad year.”  This remark may have been a veiled shot at the cross-state Dragons, who dumped their manager at the end of the season.  Aufmuth acknowledged that Bothan and the coaches are “on a short leash” but said that he wanted to give them “a chance to turn it around.”

Orlando’s hopes for a turnaround next season may rest on the development of their young roster.  The Calrissians are perhaps the youngest team in the league, with eight pitchers and seven batters age 25 or younger.  Several of those players, such as 2B Jose Buendia and RF Bart Law, are coming off of promising seasons and are likely to thrive with another year under their belts.

The biggest question marks, though, surround the pitching staff.  Apart from ace Nathan Nunb and right-hander Nate McGowan, whose 8-16 record belied a solid 4.42 ERA, it’s likely that the rotation will feature a new set of faces next year.  And the pen is likely to see significant turnover as well.  Closer Caddington Smith rebounded from a dismal first half to post solid year-end numbers (28 saves and a 3.22 ERA), and rookie southpaw Aron Filippi had a strong debut season, but no other reliever had an ERA below the 5.40 mark.

One bright spot for the fans: Aufmuth announced that ticket prices will not increase for next season.  “How can I raise season ticket prices with a product that sucks this bad?” said the owner.

Aufmuth’s goal for the Calrissians next season was expressed with his typical blunt honesty: “Score some damn runs.”  Orlando will need to score – and prevent – a lot more runs if they’re going to make an upward move in the standings next year.

PBL Season in Review: Milwaukee Bear Claws

Milwaukee Bear ClawsIt was a very happy year for the Milwaukee Bear Claws.  They claimed the Western lead in the first month of the season and never relinquished it, winning the division by a dozen games.  The Bear Claws then won the inaugural Patriot Series over the Knoxville Smokies in 6 games.  They suffered few injuries, and almost all of their players met or exceeded expectations.  Milwaukee’s High Life Field even hosted the Patriot League’s first All-Star Game, with the Claws sending 10 of their players to the game.

“No complaints about the way this season went, definitely!” said Bear Claws owner/GM Jennifer Petitt.  “Everything about this year was wildly better than my expectations.”

Petitt admitted that she never foresaw her team’s dominant performance.  “My biggest surprise this season was just how damn good we were,” the owner said.  “Going into the draft, I was just hoping to put together a team that wouldn’t be embarrassing.  After the draft, I felt like we were a solid club, a definite contender, but I didn’t take it for granted that we would take the division.  Never mind winning it all.  I wasn’t even thinking about that.”

Bear Claws manager Poss Horton had an inkling of great things at the start of the season.  “In spring training, I thought we might see something special,” said Horton.  “Our arms were looking really strong, and our bats had plenty of pop.  I felt like with hard works and a couple breaks, we could really do some damage.  And we sure did!”

Milwaukee’s pitching staff was the key to their success.  Their 3.99 team ERA was second only to Knoxville, while their .718 OPS allowed was best in the league.  The rotation was both strong and consistent; the biggest surprise was that their strongest performers were the two southpaws, Benicio Torrenueva (16-5, 3.48, .679 OPS against) and Zack Perriman (14-4, 3.89).  Righty “Stormin’” Patrick McNorman (17-9, 4.05) was arguably the league’s best fifth starter.

The starters had the luxury of handing off the ball to a rock-solid bullpen, anchored by virtually unhittable closer Oscar Buenaventura (8-0, 37 saves, 1.16 ERA, .437 OPS).  “Bunny was just silly good,” said Horton.  “He made the hitters look like fools.”  The Bear Claws also had a pair of durable and effective setup men: lefty Olen Abernathy (4-5, 6 saves, 3.96) and righty Timmy Almon (10-7, 3 saves, 3.98).  “When we had a late lead, it was almost automatic that we’d get the W,” said Horton.

That staff was backed up by a top-notch lineup.  Milwaukee’s .282 team average was second-best in the league, behind Jackson.  The offense was built around 1B Felipe Mateo, the league’s best batter and the Patriot Series MVP.  Mateo led the league in OPS (1.121) and RBI (162), and was in the top five in average (.325), doubles (40), triples (15), and homers (50).

But the Bear Claws lineup was strong from top to bottom, with SS Red Petitt (.320, 50 doubles, 134 runs) setting the table atop the order and CF DeRonde Maxwell (.310, 28 doubles) providing a spark in the ninth slot.  “There’s no letup in our lineup,” said Horton.  “You could just see the pitchers’ shoulders sagging because we had no easy outs.”

Milwaukee’s strong roster was guided by one of the league’s most admired coaching staffs.  Horton led his team with a light hand, going easy on discipline while ensuring that the Bear Claws put forth a quality effort every night.  “Poss was like a father to us, or a fun uncle,” said Mateo.  “He kept us loose and made sure we had a good time, but he always had our respect.”

The pitching staff came under the tutelage of Zane Stafford, who came to spring training hoping to make it as a player but stayed on as a highly successful coach.  The left-hander was famous for an unorthodox but effective approach; he was more likely to prescribe a couple of stiff drinks instead of an extended throwing session for a struggling pitcher.  “God, I loved it when Zane would come to the mound during a game,” said Perriman.  “Sometimes, he’d have a suggestion to fix your mechanics, and those were always good.  But a lot of times, he knew you just needed a breather.  So he’d come out and talk about some pretty girl in the stands or whether the pike were biting.  You’d start smiling and laughing, and before you knew it you’d struck out the side.”

You could count the chinks in Milwaukee’s armor on one hand.  DH Gilberto Fleitas overcame considerable adversity to make the opening roster, but proved overmatched by Patriot League pitching, batting under .100 for the season.  The Bear Claws benched him in favor of Rodolfo Raine a month into the season, eliminating the lone soft spot in their lineup.  Long relief was another weak point for the Bear Claws early on, but Chris Karnik (4-4, 4.73) and Avery Lavine (3-0, 3.57) bounced back to post respectable year-end numbers.

Given the Bear Claws’ incredible success in their maiden voyage, it comes as no surprise that the front office largely plans to stand pat in the offseason.  “Why should we mess with what’s working?” said Petitt.  “My focus for next season is on retaining as many of our awesome players as we can, and continuing to bring top-notch baseball to our fans in Milwaukee.”

One area where the Claws are likely to focus is on improving their depth.  The bench, although rarely used, put up paltry numbers in their limited appearances. Milwaukee’s rotation depth could also prove to be an Achilles’ heel if the team struggles with injury next season.  When Perriman went on the DL in late July with elbow trouble, the team was forced to plug in Karnik, who was unable to get out of the 5th inning in any of his starts.

Still, these are minor concerns at best.  The Bear Claws established themselves as the team to beat in the league.  If California or Silver City is going to knock them off in the West, or if one of the Eastern contenders is to dethrone them in the next Patriot Series, they’ll have to find a way to beat a well-balanced team with few apparent weaknesses.  “I kind of feel sorry for the other teams,” said Horton.  “I sure wouldn’t want to play us next year.”

PBL Season in Review: Knoxville Smokies

Knoxville SmokiesWas the Knoxville Smokies’ season a success?  It seems a straightforward question, but apparently, the answer depends on who you ask.

In the opinion of Smokies owner/GM Jeremy Mills, the outcome of the season met his expectations.  “I felt my team had the necessary pieces to contend for a championship,” Mills said, “and we won the division and went to the 6th game of the series.”

According to always-outspoken Knoxville manager Snuff Wallace, however, the season was a failure.  “I judge a team by one thing and one thing only,” Wallace said.  “At the end of the year, are you the guy holding the big shiny trophy?  And I ain’t got no big shiny trophy.  How can you succeed if you’re not the king of the hill?  Why the hell would you even ask that question?”

Wallace aside, most observers would agree that the Smokies had an impressive run this season.  Prior to the season, most observers considered Knoxville, at best, a co-favorite in the East with the Jackson Hammerheads and Jacksonville Dragons.  In fact, after surviving an early slump, the Smokies stormed away to win the division with ease.  And, as Mills noted, they pushed the mighty Milwaukee Bear Claws to six games in the inaugural Patriot Series.

What were the secrets to Knoxville’s success?  The first key was an outstanding, better-than-expected performance from the pitching staff.  The Smokies’ team ERA of 3.79 was the best in the Patriot League, and their .721 OPS allowed was second only to Milwaukee.  Knoxville’s hurlers recorded 811 strikeouts, the highest total in the league, while walking only 472, a figure bettered only by California.  For a staff with few big names and little preseason buzz, this was a most impressive accomplishment.

The pitching staff’s performance was anchored by a dominant, shutdown bullpen. In a season where quality relief was in short supply throughout the league, the Smokies had an abundance of top-notch relief arms.  “The bullpen as a whole performed out of its mind,” said owner Mills, who compared his relief corps to the Buck Showalter-led Baltimore Orioles, who have also gotten a lot of mileage out of less-than-household names.

Journeyman right-hander Jerry Tile emerged out of nowhere as a dominant long reliever, making 50 appearances and posting a 6-0 record with a 2.28 ERA.  Righty Rick Wilkins bounced from Silver City to Salt Lake to Knoxville during the season, but he really thrived with the Smokies, going 7-2 with a 2.67 mark.  Veteran closer Charlie Pasternak provided regular drama-free work in the 9th, notching 31 saves to go with a 2.55 ERA.

Wallace also credited the bullpen, saying, “They were all nails, so I didn’t even have to think about who to bring in.  I could just close my eyes and point.  Made me look like a genius.”

Knoxville’s top-notch pen backed up a solid rotation, although it took a while for the pieces to come into place.  Mills admitted his profound disappointment at “how far my original rotation missed the mark.”  He found an unexpected ace in lefty Elicio Santana.  The young southpaw came into the season with a reputation for being talented but inconsistent, in addition to being known as something of a flake.  He ended up being an All-Star, putting up a 17-5 record and a 3.16 ERA.

Behind Santana, though, the Smokies rotation struggled at first.  Lefty Grant Fore, expected to be the staff ace, suffered through a nightmarish season.  He went 1-3 with and 8.18 ERA before being banished to Salt Lake in a midseason trade.  Korean lefty Yu Chen also underperformed, going 1-4 with a 6.60 ERA. “Grant and Yu will be great starters in this league,” said Mills, “but circumstances dictated we make moves to reach our end goal.”

How did the Smokies front office fix their leaky rotation?  By making trades.  Mills’ passion for high-frequency trading became something of a joke in league circles, but there’s no denying that he never missed a chance to improve his team, and almost all of his trades this season worked out.

After Fore flopped, the Smokies made a deal to acquire right-hander Jack Jacques from Jacksonville.  Inserted into the rotation, Jacques went 12-10 with a 4.40 ERA and proved an excellent innings-eater with an unflappable demeanor.  Mills praised the Haitian-born hurler for “boost[ing] the rotation.”

When Chen stumbled, Knoxville swapped him to Jackson for veteran righty Sylvester Lighty.  Despite being unable to crack the rotation for the pitching-starved Hammerheads, Lighty went 8-9 with a 4.27 ERA and provided needed stability.

The Smokies’ excellent pitching complemented an above-average offense that was, once again, bolstered by bold trades.  Knoxville acquired 3B Ronnie Aceuedo before the season in a much-derided deal, but he proved a solid player, hitting .266 with 14 homers and providing excellent defense at the hot corner.  Mills said that Aceuedo, along with backup C Ricky Bossard, “carried the team during stretches during the start and middle of the season.”  1B Eddie Battin, picked up from Jackson in the Lighty deal, turned out to be a fan favorite and a leader on the field and off, putting up an astounding 1.024 OPS in Knoxville and leading the team’s frequent victory celebrations.

With the Smokies coming so far but falling short of the ultimate goal, what’s the plan for next season?  For Mills, unsurprisingly, the plan involves more trading.  He did say, though, that he would look to “tweak the squad” rather than make wholesale changes.  The front office is reportedly focused on strengthening the rotation and improving depth both on the bench and in the minors.

For Wallace, also unsurprisingly, the focus is on attitude.  “We gotta come back mad next year,” said the skipper.  “We waltzed through the regular season all right, but Milwaukee ate our lunch in the series.  If there’s anybody who’s not out to come back next season and kick [expletive], I don’t want ‘em around.  Next year is all about clawing our way to the top of the hill.  That’s it.”

PBL Season in Review: Jacksonville Dragons

Jacksonville Dragons 2For 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.

 

PBL Season in Review: Jackson Hammerheads

Jackson HammerheadsHow do you judge the season that the Jackson Hammerheads had?  On the one hand, the boys in baby blue were clearly in the upper echelon of PBL teams.  They led the Eastern division for a decent chunk of the season, and remained squarely in the race until the season’s closing weeks.  Powered by a strong contact-hitting offense, the Hammerheads scored the most runs of any team in the league.  And the pitching staff, while not up to the same standards as the offense, put up decent numbers.

On the other hand, the Hammerheads made no secret of their title-winning aspirations, and on that score they fell short.  As owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler put it, “Success is defined by winning championships. We failed. I failed.”

What thwarted Jackson’s title dreams this season?  Most observers would point to two things: one trade that went disastrously wrong, and the ongoing struggles of the bullpen.

Butler was one of the league’s most prolific wheeler-dealers, and never shied away from making a trade.  But there’s one deal he wishes he never made.  At the end of May, with the Hammerheads leading the East by 5 games, Butler made a swap with the team chasing him, the Knoxville Smokies.  Jackson sent 1B Eddie Battin and right-handed swingman Sylvester Lighty to Knoxville in exchange for DH Alex Jaramillo, lefty starter Yu Chen, and backup 1B Pete Cianciarulo.  The deal was somewhat controversial at the time, as Battin was a hugely popular figure in the Hammerheads clubhouse, while Jaramillo had a reputation as aloof and moody.  But on paper, it seemed like an even swap: Battin and Jaramillo were both sluggers having disappointing seasons, and Chen and Lighty were both decent but unexceptional hurlers.

As it turned out, though, the trade was far from even: it was a rout in favor of the Smokies.  Jaramillo landed on the DL for more than a month shortly after arriving in Jackson, and wound up continuing his subpar performance after returning (.258 average, 16 HR, 56 RBI, .781 OPS).  Chen, meanwhile, stumbled to a 4-3 record with a 5.23 ERA and was booted from the rotation down the stretch.

Battin, meanwhile, turned into Joe DiMaggio after arriving in Knoxville, hitting .324 with 23 HR, 78 RBI, and an incredible 1.024 OPS.  Lighty went 8-9 with a 4.35 ERA and became a key part of the Smokies rotation.  The trade not only weakened Jackson, opening up a huge hole at first base that they struggled to fill all season, but strengthened their top rival.  After the deal was struck, the Smokies went 62-37 and ran away with the division, while the Hammerheads floundered to a 49-50 mark.

While the Battin deal was a self-inflicted wound, Jackson’s bullpen was a festering sore that plagued the team all season.  “Our starters pitched well enough to win a majority of the time and we couldn’t hold on all too often,” said Butler. “The pen was a major disappointment, especially the closer role that was supposed to be a strength going in to the season.”

Closer Rick Sheen, the 21-year-old known as “Wild Thing,” was supposed to be a sure thing, the guy who turned late leads into victories.  It didn’t work out that way.  Sheen made headlines in spring training not for his performance, but for getting into a bar fight.  The closer rankled his manager and teammates all season with his hard-partying ways, his fondness for alcohol, and his inconsistent performance.  Sheen struggled to earn the trust of manager Lou Hayes, who yanked the lefty in and out of the closer’s role several times.  Sheen’s final numbers were decent (3-6, 27 saves in 37 chances, 3.73 ERA, .734 OPS allowed), but well short of expectations.

Sheen admitted that he “had a problem” with excessive alcohol and nightlife, but also blamed his performance on overuse.  The lefty had an eye-popping 81 appearances this year, and he complained of suffering from arm troubles down the stretch.  “My arm feels like Jell-O right now,” said Sheen.

But Sheen was hardly the biggest problem among the relief corps.  The Hammerheads had a couple reliable arms – notably lefty Hilton Sircy and righty Butch Turnbull – but the rest of the pen was full of washouts, malcontents, and basket cases.  Jackson had 23 blown saves, the worst mark in the league, and fans at Cash Carter Downs got all too accustomed to seeing early leads go up in smoke.

Ultimately, the disappointing season was overshadowed by the loss of Hayes.  The manager suffered a heart attack in August, and passed away shortly after the end of the regular season.  Interim manager Eddie Harris, who guided the team to a 13-10 mark in Hayes’ absence, was dismissed.

Apart from finding a new manager, what does the future hold for the Hammerheads?  According to the whiz-kid GM, more trades.  “Y’all know me, how I make a living,” said Butler.  “I’ll fix this team but it ain’t gonna be easy, bad bullpen.”  Clearly, the Battin fiasco didn’t kill his enthusiasm for dealing.

What are the pieces the team needs?  According to Butler, he’ll be looking to upgrade the offense as well as the pitching. “This team was built to score runs,” said the owner. “Score runs we did. Not enough.” With a wink, Butler said the team’s offseason priorities are “bolstering the bullpen, adding another solid starter, and getting on base.”

One more thing on Butler’s list: recapturing the spirit of the winning ways that put Jackson atop the division for a time early in the season. That early run we were on – epic,” said Butler. “However when we won, we had that eye of the tiger, now we gotta get it back.  And the only way to get it back is to go back to the beginning.” If they can do that, the Hammerheads might just meet Butler’s goal and “win the whole f***in’ thing.”

PBL Season in Review: California Sharks

California SharksIt was a topsy-turvy year for the Western division’s second-place team.  Before the season, most observers expected the Sharks to be a team with strong pitching and mediocre hitting.  As it happened, they wound up being extremely potent on offense, while their pitching was merely average.

“We didn’t have the team we thought we had,” said Sharks manager Eduardo Aponte, who predicted a title before the season.  “We were a strong team as we expected, but not at all in the way we expected.”

The statistics tell the story of California’s strange season.  The Sharks led the league in home runs with 200 and in OPS with an .820 mark.  SS Rubin Smyth came out of nowhere to lead the league in hitting with a .356 average, backing it up with 27-homer power.  LF Kenneth Mader hit .325 and went deep 29 times.  Eddie Nix, who began the season in a platoon DH arrangement, finished with a .336 average and 21 longballs.  The other half of that platoon, Johnie Oller, wound up leading the team in homers with 36 while bouncing between four different positions.  RF Jessie Corona led the league in triples with 25.

“I thought I’d put together a pretty good lineup, but I didn’t know it was that good,” said Sharks owner/GM Colin Mills.

With offensive numbers like that, you might figure California ran away with the title.  But although they claimed the highly prestigious Chum Bucket by winning their season series against the Jackson Hammerheads, they didn’t even win their division, thanks largely to their supposed strength: the pitching staff.  The team’s 4.36 ERA and .741 OPS against were both only good for fourth in the league.

What went wrong?  The Sharks’ rotation was solid but unspectacular.  They had a pair of starters (righty Pierre LaRue and lefty Stu Palmeiro) in the top 10 in ERA, and young righty Kevin Conner bounced back from a rough first half to post a 15-8 record and a 4.21 ERA.  The back end of the rotation was a mess, though.  Righty Deke Slater, expected to be a star for the team, stumbled to a 10-12 record with a 4.92 ERA.  Fifth starter Brian Goreman was a pleasant surprise early in the season but crumbled later on, finishing with a 7-13 record and a 5.12 ERA.

By far the Sharks’ biggest hole, though, was the bullpen.  Righty Jan Arzola was sensational, posting a 1.53 ERA in 47 appearances.  Unfortunately, he was California’s only lockdown arm.  The team was particularly lacking in long relief.  Their most durable arm, lefty Eugene Grace, was also the team’s closer, forcing Aponte to juggle him between both roles.  The Sharks also struggled to find quality left-handed setup men.  Veteran Boss Walker, acquired in a midseason trade with Salt Lake, posted a respectable 4.59 ERA.  But much-hyped rookie Luke Bond flopped, posting a 5.84 mark and missing a big chunk of time with injury.  Other flameouts included long man Ty Shive (5.63), righty Herman Moret (6.57), and expected 8th-inning man Milan Constant (8.05).

“Any time our starters couldn’t get into the 8th, I’d start chugging antacid,” admitted Mills.  “It wasn’t fun for me, and I know it wasn’t fun for our fans either.”

Despite the so-so pitching, California might still have had a shot at a title if not for the 800-pound gorilla in the room: the Milwaukee Bear Claws.  The Claws seized control of the division in early May and never looked back, romping to a 98-win season and leaving the Sharks in the dust, 12 games behind.  “Our challenge isn’t just getting better,” said Mills.  “It’s getting better enough to be better than Milwaukee.  Talk about a tall order.”

How to get better?  That’s a difficult question.  Do the Sharks try to fix the pitching staff and hope that the offense doesn’t come back to earth next season?  Or do they count on the pitching to revert to form and focus on keeping the offense elite?

“We’re keeping our options open,” said Mills.  He did say, however, that fans shouldn’t expect big changes.  “We’re not going to make moves just for the sake of making moves,” the owner cautioned.  “I believe in continuity and building from within.  That said, I know standing still isn’t going to let us catch the Bear Claws.  We’re definitely open to upgrades.”

One potential positive for the Sharks: the strong showing of their late additions.  California shook things up at the trading deadline, and in doing so unearthed several potential gems.  Right-hander Kerry Lopez, called up from the minors, posted a 2.37 ERA; he may be able to plug the team’s long relief hole, or slot into the rotation.  Veteran corner infielder Max Ortiz came in a deal with Knoxville and batted .383, bolstering a weak spot for California.  Young lefty Hal Gilreath, acquired from Jackson, made a couple promising scoreless appearances.

“I was most pleased with our reinforcements,” said Aponte.  “I very much hope we can rely on them for a return performance next season.”

But what will the Sharks do about their disappointments, like Slater and CF Santiago Suarez (who batted a paltry .236)?  Will the team seek “upgrades,” as Mills said, or will they count on those players bouncing back next season?  The answer to those questions might determine whether California breaks through next year, or if they remain an also-ran.