It’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.”