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.”

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PBL Transactions, 6/15/15 – 6/21/15

The following transactions occurred in the Patriot League over the last week:

 

 

Knoxville Smokies

Knoxville Smokies: Called up 2B Danny Kurland. Demoted CF Arnold Carranza.

 

 

Salt Lake SamuraiSalt Lake Samurai: Activated C DeAndre Turnbull from the disabled list. Placed 2B Quincy Gaytan on the 15-day disabled list.  Called up 2B Gabriel Montalvo.  Demoted 1B Dwayne Parillo.

 

Silver City OutlawsSilver City Outlaws: Called up LF Marlon Hintz. Demoted DH Teddy Olivas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PBL Transactions, 6/1/15 – 6/7/15

The following transactions occurred in the Patriot League over the last week:

California Sharks

 

California Sharks: Signed free agents 1B Jamal Gerke, SS Grant Knepper, CF Conrad Mojica, SP Kerry Lopez, and RPs Osvaldo Barret and Jason Richter.

 

Jackson Hammerheads

Jackson Hammerheads: Signed free agents C Carlos Asperzol, 3B Elmo Milliner, LF Monty Walcott, DH Dexter Jester, SP Nico Library, and RF Cortez Petrik.  Waived 1B Coy Tighe. Activated 1B Pete Ciancarulo from the 15-day disabled list.  Placed DH Alex Jaramillo on the 15-day disabled list.  Called up LF Monty Walcott.

 

Jacksonville Dragons

Jacksonville Dragons: Signed free agents 1B Neal B. Thomas, CF Rondei Isua, DH Isaias Miguel, SP Juan Pascos, and RPs Lauren Gilpatrick and Jamel Janke.

 

 

Knoxville Smokies

Knoxville Smokies: Signed free agents 2B Danny Kurland, CF Arnold Carranza, DH Jerome Arch, and RPs Rodolfo Darville, Oscar Madison, and Norman Sater. Claimed 1B Coy Tighe off waivers. Called up CF Arnold Carranza. Demoted SS Lorenzo Arias and RP Edgar Provenza.

 

Milwaukee Bear Claws

Milwaukee Bear Claws: Signed free agents 2B Quirico Rodriguez, RF Bruce Rew, DH Hans Coghill, and RPs Rodolfo Elmonte, Mike Manigault, and Antonio Schieber.

 

 

Orlando Calrissians

Orlando Calrissians: Signed free agents 2B Jeffrey Matter, LF Sang LeLeux, DH Casey Helmers, SP Ali Godari, and RPs Shab Mickolas and Courtney Vanepps.  Activated CF Glen Madden from the 15-day disabled list.

 

Salt Lake Samurai

Salt Lake Samurai: Signed free agents 1B Lawrence Briski, 2B Gabriel Montalvo, SS Dario Rickard, DH Lazaro Matherne, and RPs Jose Mariata and Bryce Sereno.  Traded RPs Rick Wilkins, Oliver Jones, and Jose Mariata to Knoxville for SP Grant Fore, DH Matthew Weigel, and RP Norman Sater.  (See story here.)  Placed C DeAndre Turnbull on the 15-day disabled list.  Called up RPs Jimmy Okamura and Norman Sater.

 

Silver City Outlaws

Silver City Outlaws: Signed free agents 3B Narciso Rodriguez, CF Sebastian Melora, DH Charley Ingraham, and RPs Irving Godlewski, Duke Newlin, and Ron Wall.

 

 

 

Smokies Make Another Big Deal

Knoxville Smokies owner/GM Jeremiah Mills has a fever.  And the only prescription is more trades.  The man is constantly working the phones and sending emails, looking for ways to improve his team, looking for ways to keep things fresh, sometimes looking for deals just to satisfy his pathological need to trade.  Mills isn’t afraid to make a big deal if he thinks it will make his team better.  And once he decides he wants a player, he stops at nothing until that player is his.

Those two tendencies came together in a major trade between the Smokies and the Salt Lake Samurai.  Knoxville shipped out their former ace, Grant Fore, along with minor-leaguers Matthew Weigel and Norman Sater, to Salt Lake in exchange for relievers Oliver Jones and Rick Wilkins and prospect Jose Mariata.

“I feel like we have a strong team,” said Mills, “but there’s always room to improve.  And you never know what kind of deals are out there unless you ask.  That’s why I’m always asking.”

The Smokies are currently in hot pursuit of the Jackson Hammerheads atop the East, and one weakness that Mills has identified in his team is the bullpen.  After a promising start, the relief corps has faltered in recent weeks.  Mills is hoping that Wilkins and Jones can provide the Knoxville pen with some badly needed depth and strength.

Rick Wilkins KNX
Rick Wilkins

Wilkins, a 31-year-old righty, is on his third stop of the season.  He opened the year with the Silver City Outlaws, but landed in manager John Jarha’s doghouse after a particularly poor outing.  Last month, the Outlaws shipped him to Salt Lake in exchange for reliever Cliff Humphrey.  After feeling he never got a fair shake in Silver City, Wilkins thrived in Salt Lake.  In 11 appearances, Wilkins posted a 3.71 ERA and compiled a 12-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

“I’m thankful to the Samurai organization for giving mt the chance to prove myself,” said Wilkins.  “I was gathering dust [in Silver City], and it felt like I might wither away.  The Samurai let me do what I do best.  Every player want s to compete for a championship, and I’m glad I’ll get to do that with the Smokies.  But I’ll always remember my time here.”

The versatile, rubber-armed Wilkins could fill a number of roles in the Knoxville bullpen.  He is likely to get a number of late-inning opportunities, complementing or possibly even supplanting Sheldon Follis as the team’s primary setup man.  He may also provide some long relief, taking some of the pressure off of Jerry Tile.

Oliver Jones
Oliver Jones

Jones, a 19-year-old lefty, has less promising stats than Wilkins.  In 22 appearances with the Samurai, Jones compiled an 0-3 record and a 6.89 ERA.  He has struggled quite a bit with his control, allowing 25 walks against only 12 strikeouts.  But he started the season in promising fashion before hi numbers nosedived, and many analysts attribute his swoon to overwork.

“[The Samurai] were riding him like a rented mule,” said one scout of Jones.  “God bless the kid, he kept going out there and never complained.  But someone needed to rescue him before his arm fell off.”

The Knoxville bullpen has only one incumbent southpaw, Tobias Dennis, who has also struggled recently.  The Smokies front office hopes that the two can split opportunities and take some of the pressure off of each other.

Jose Mariata
Jose Mariata

Wilkins and Jones figure to help Knoxville compete this season.  But according to sources with the team, the real prize for Mills in this deal was Mariata.  He has coveted the 20-year-old righty from afar for some time, and it’s easy to see why.  Mariata has an arm that makes scouts drool; his fastball has been clocked at speeds up to 103 MPH.  He is an extremely raw prospect who is still learning to harness his talent, but he profiles as a future closer, according to scouts.

“He just plain throws smoke,” said one scout.  “He has Aroldis Chapman stuff, plus.  He could wind up being the best player in this deal in the long run.”

Grant Fore
Grant Fore

The key to this deal from Salt Lake’s perspective is Fore.  The 20-year-old lefty was expected to be a building block of the Smokies franchise and an anchor of their rotation, but things never clicked for him in Knoxville.  Fore compiled a 1-3 record and an 8.18 ERA in a Smokies uniform, failing to find success as a starter or a reliever.  He lost his spot in the rotation when the Smokies acquired Jack Jacques from Jacksonville, and never really found his footing after that.

“We wanted to keep Grant, but we had to make a move that would get us immediate help,” said Mills.  “Also, Fore deserved to go to an organization that could be more patient with him.”

While the pennant-contending Smokies couldn’t afford the wait to see if Fore could turn things around.  But for the rebuilding Samurai, he represents a promising gamble.  If he can regain the form he displayed as a college prospect, Fore could become the reliable starter that Salt Lake desperately needs.

“We’re really excited to have Grant on board,” said Samurai owner/GM Sarah Buehler.  “We believe he and Toshiie Maeda can be the 1-2 punch that will make us a contender for years to come.”

Matthew Weigel
Matthew Weigel

The other two pieces coming Salt Lake’s way are low-cost veterans that provide additional depth options.  The 35-year-old Weigel came to spring training with Knoxville to compete for the DH job, but was beaten out for the position by Alex Jaramillo and has spent the season in the minors.  But for the Samurai, who have struggled to generate consistent offense, Weigel has a shot to crack the lineup before the season is out.  He spent last season in Japan, where he batted .246 with 24 home runs.

Norman Sater
Norman Sater

The 37-year-old Sater, a right-handed reliever, originally signed with Silver City, but was waived during spring training.  He pitched last season in the Atlantic League, where he posted a 2-5 record with 6 saves and a 4.82 ERA.  A former fireballer who has become a finesse pitcher with age, Sater figures to take the spot formerly held by Wilkins in the Samurai bullpen.  He may also have the opportunity to start later in the season.

Some around the league have questioned why the Samurai, who should be stockpiling youth, decided to trade two very young players (Jones and Mariata) while getting only one in return (Fore).  But the Samurai front office believes that Fore has the potential to be a franchise cornerstone, while neither Jones nor Mariata figured into the organization’s long-term plans.  If either one turns out to be a future star and Fore continues to stumble, the trade could turn into a major embarrassment for Salt Lake.  But as a team that has a long way to go to be a contender, the Samurai know they’re going to have to take some chances in order to get better, and they believe Fore is a chance with taking.

As for Knoxville, they’re clearly hoping that Jones and Wilkins can help them compete in the short term.  But they’ve got to be hoping that Fore won’t turn out to be the one that got away.

PBL Transactions, 5/25/15 – 5/31/15

The following transactions occurred in the Patriot League over the last week:

Jackson Hammerheads

 

Jackson Hammerheads: Traded 1B Eddie Battin and RP Sylvester Lighty to Knoxville for DH Alex Jaramillo, SP Yu Chen, and 1B Pete Cianciarulo. (See story here.)

 

Salt Lake Samurai

 

Salt Lake Samurai: Activated RF Romeo Martinez from the 15-day disabled list. Demoted 3B Luis Poncilar.

 

 

 

 

PBL Transactions, 5/3/15 – 5/9/15

The following transactions occurred in the Patriot League over the last week:

 

Jackson Hammerheads

 

Jackson Hammerheads: Activated RF Erin Arispe from the 15-day disabled list.  Demoted 1B Vernon Mack.  Traded DH Erasmo Crofoot to Orlando for RP Hilton Sircy.  (See story here.)

 

Orlando Calrissians

 

Orlando Calrissians: Claimed SP Charles McNally off the waiver wire.  Places RP Tom Trane on the 15-day disabled list.  Called up RP Aron Filippi.  Demoted SP Steve Gardner.  Waived DH Jerome Arch.  (See story here.)

 

Salt Lake Samurai

 

Salt Lake Samurai: Placed RF Romeo Martinez on the 15-day disabled list.  Called up 3B Luis Poncilar.

 

Silver City Outlaws

 

Silver City Outlaws: Demoted OF Beau Baynes.  Called up OF Kent “Tex” Whittier.

 

Owner Backs Dugan As Rumors Swirl

Johnny Dugan
Johnny Dugan

The Salt Lake Samurai have gotten off to a disastrous start to the season, posting a 5-26 record.  According to team sources, the Samurai front office is considering making major changes, including the firing of manager Johnny Dugan and the coaching staff.  According to the rumors, if Dugan were to be fired, the team would like to replace him with 1B Neal Thomas, who would take on a player-coach role with the team.

The same team sources say that the front office feels that the 35-year-old Dugan, who is in his first managerial job, is not up to the task of leading the team.  “We’re losing game after game, and he’s running around the locker room spouting happy talk like a damn cheerleader,” the source said.  “He doesn’t know what else to do.  He’s out of ideas.  Instead of running extra practices or trying a more aggressive strategy, he’s singing ‘The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow’.  No wonder the players don’t respect him.”

Neal Thomas
Neal Thomas

The source adds that the 37-year-old Thomas, who leads the team in home runs, has impressed both the front office and his teammates with his veteran poise and his willingness to mentor struggling players.  “He gives a damn, and he’s actually trying to make the team better,” said the source.  “The rest of the season would be an audition for him to get the job full time.  It’s not like anyone else would want the helm of this sinking ship.”  The source suggests that Thomas would work with the front office to identify which players should be kept for the future and which ones should be traded or released.  “No one is safe,” the source said.

Asked about the allegations, Samurai owner Sarah Buehler denied that she was planning to make a change, and stood behind Dugan.  “We are in no way looking to let Johnny Dugan go,” said Buehler.  “I have full faith in his abilities and we just need to work out the kinks.”

Buehler also denied that the team was planning wholesale roster changes.  “This season is a learning curve and I think we have all the right pieces,” she said, “but it’s taking us some time to put the picture together.”

Dugan said that no managerial switch had been discussed with him.  “I’ve never heard anything but support from Mrs. Buehler and the front office,” he said.  He also expressed gratitude for the owner’s faith in him.  “I know that it’s hard to feel secure when you’re having a season like this,” Dugan said.  “I know we’ve got to do better, and that I’ve got a lot to learn.  But I’m glad that there’s patience here, and we have a chance to work it out.”

Thomas denied being approached about taking over the team.  “No one’s talked to me about that, and if they did, I’d say no,” said the veteran first baseman.  “I’m a player, and I’m not looking to manage yet.  Someday, sure, but only after I hang it up.  Johnny’s our manager, and I hope it stays that way.”

Several Salt Lake players volunteered that they thought Thomas would make a fine manager.  “Neal is a great teacher, and he was born to lead,” said CF Lee Cosgrove.  “Everyone in the locker room looks up to him.  But we’ve got a manager, and we like him.”

PBL Transactions, 4/26/15 – 5/2/15

The following transactions occurred in the Patriot League over the last week:

 

Jacksonville Dragons

 

Jacksonville Dragons: Claimed free agent RP Michael Youngblood.  Called up SP Tony “Packo” Harris.  Demoted RP Whitney Winslow.  Waived RP Mike Manigault.

 

Silver City Outlaws

 

Silver City Outlaws: Traded RP Rick Wilkins to Salt Lake for RP Cliff Humphrey. (See story here.)

 

Salt Lake, Silver City Swap Relievers

Cliff Humphrey
Cliff Humphrey
Rick Wilkins
Rick Wilkins

Relief pitchers appear to be the hottest commodity in the Patriot League this season, as virtually all the contenders are shuffling their bullpens in search of an edge.  The Silver City Outlaws, whose once-commanding Western Division lead has slipped, were the latest contender to fortify their relief corps, acquiring left-hander Cliff Humphrey from the Salt Lake Samurai in exchange for long reliever Rick Wilkins.

Humphrey, a 34-year-old knuckleballer, has excelled in fairly limited work with the Samurai this season.  He posted a 1.42 ERA in 6 2/3 innings for Salt Lake, one of the few bright spots in a generally grim picture.

Not only was Humphrey quite effective on the mound, he was also widely liked in the Samurai clubhouse.  He was well-known as a quick wit and a cross between assistant pitching coach and father confessor for the younger players on the team.  He is also a fairly accomplished electric guitarist, who occasionally played jam sessions in Salt Lake nightclubs and tours with a blues-rock band during the offseason.

“I’m really going to miss Cliff,” said Samurai manager Johnny Dugan.  “He’s a good pitcher, and even more important, he’s a really fun guy to be around.  I know a lot of us are sorry to see him go.”

Outlaws GM Hank Stroman was full of praise for his new acquisition.  “Once I set my mind to getting a player, I track that deal like a hound dog and don’t let up until I get him.  As soon as I saw Cliff Humphrey pitch, I knew I wasn’t gonna rest until I saw him in the cream-and-green.  I think he fits in great with our staff, and he has that veteran know-how I like.  We just got another notch on our belt.”

The 31-year-old Wilkins only appeared in one game for Silver City, in which he allowed 3 runs in two-thirds of an innings.  Sources with the team say he lost manager John Jarha’s trust after that, and he had grown increasingly vocal in his dissatisfaction with his role.  He has shown an amazing reputation for rubber-armed durability in his previous stops, posting a 2.82 ERA in 106 appearances last year in the Mexican League.

“Well, at least I should get to appear in all the games I want,” said Wilkins about his trade to Salt Lake.  “The record sucks, but I’ll treat it as an opportunity.”

PBL Transactions, 4/19/15 – 4/25/15

The following transactions occurred in the Patriot League over the last week:

California Sharks

 

California Sharks: Traded RP Lucas Henderson to Salt Lake for RP Boss Walker. Demoted RP David Watts. (See story here.)

 

Jackson Hammerheads

 

Jackson Hammerheads: Placed SP Luke Danton and RF Erin Arispe on the 15-day disabled list.  Called up DH Armando Behrens and 1B Vernon Mack.

 

Jacksonville Dragons

 

Jacksonville Dragons: Claimed free agent RP Mike Manigault.  Demoted RPs Elias Rosado and Emilio Abbas.  Waived C Carlos Asperzol.

 

Knoxville Smokies

 

Knoxville Smokies: Traded RP Ward “Blueberry” Jackson to Jacksonville for RP Jack Jacques. (See story here.)

 

Orlando Calrissians

 

Orlando Calrissians: Demoted SP Rick Tomblin. Called up SP Oscar Morton.