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.