Like the PBL’s other expansion teams, the Las Vegas Narwhals had a rough time of it in 2016. Following the Narwhals through their maiden voyage felt like spending too long a night on the Strip: the bright lights and showmanship lost their charm, and fans were left feeling disoriented and hung over with nothing to show for it. But hope springs eternal in Sin City, and there were enough positives to suggest the possibility of a brighter future.
“My team did pretty terrible, but I’m not too surprised,” said Vegas owner/GM Tricia Butler. “I was hoping they’d do better, but there is always next year.”
The Narwhals definitely made an impression visually with their eye-catching purple-and-gold uniforms and their pleasure dome of a stadium, MGM Jackpot Field, with its built-in casino and neon foul poles and laser light shows. Unfortunately, the team on the field was a lot less memorable.
Their offense was lackluster all around. They were second-to-last in batting average (.251) and runs scored (626), and dead last in OPS (.712). Despite playing half their games in a launching pad built for homers, they hit only 148 longballs, 10th in the league.
The biggest problem area was second base, where journeyman Emile Vandever and rookie Brad Green combined to put up some of the worst numbers in the league. Collectively, they hit under .200 with little to no power and a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. “I should have just sent them up without bats,” said manager Benjamin Banks Mahoney of his second-base tandem. “Couldn’t have been much worse.”
On the bright side, 3B Jamar Whitworth had an unexpectedly strong season, hitting .304 with decent pop. Their other third sacker, Ikaru Suzuki, recovered from a poor start to his .262 with and .812 OPS. DH Andrew Zocken’s all-or-nothing swings produced 182 strikeouts, but also 36 homers and 103 RBI. And a pair of veterans, LF Arthur Mealey and 1B Brooks Defoor, provided steady production.
On the hill, the overall picture was similarly grim. Their 5.56 ERA and .861 OPS were second-worst in the league. The rotations was a shambles, with righties Juan Carlos Lopez, Chuck Weaver, and Jesse Zepp combining for 75 starts, a 15-37 record, and an ERA north of 6. The bullpen was even worse, with closer Chris Allen’s 5.63 ERA the best among regular relievers.
Optimism is harder to find on the pitching staff, but there were some bright (or less-dark) spots. Righty Jose Oro (12-13) and lefty Nick Armstrong (8-17, 4.59 ERA) weathered their rookie seasons with grace, and show promise as a future 1-2 punch atop the rotation. And while Allen’s numbers were inflated by a penchant for gopher balls, he still converted 80% of his save opportunities.
Can the Narwhals get better in 2017? Absolutely, especially with a few key upgrades. The pitching staff needs plenty of work; they could use a veteran innings-eating starter or two and several bullpen arms. The offense is in better shape, but it could sorely benefit from a couple of big bats as well as a fix for the gaping hole at second base. Butler says that she is “open to trading to get some new players throughout the season!”
In addition, the team would benefit from cutting back on its enjoyment of the Vegas nightlife. Several Narwhals frequently seemed to be in rough shape on the mound and at the plate. Without naming names, Butler admitted that “the players often get carried away in Sin City.” Their manager was among the worst offenders; witnesses said that they frequently saw Mahoney out with his players up and down the Strip at all hours. Perhaps if the man known as “B. Money” were willing to curtail his partying a bit, his team might be persuaded to do the same.
Unfortunately, the Narwhals seem to be a long way from hitting the jackpot with a postseason appearance, let alone a title. But with some smart trades, fewer late nights in clubs and casinos, and continued growth from their young players, 2017 might not be a total bust.