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.