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.
“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.