Coming into 2016 off of a dismal 45-105 showing, the Salt Lake Samurai had only one direction to go: up. “The advantage to having a year like we had [in 2015],” said manager Johnny Dugan, “is that you can only get better.”
Get better they did, improving by 19 games over their 2015 performance. Unfortunately, that only got them to 64-98, which tied them with Kalamazoo for fourth in the division. “Well, we weren’t dead last this year,” said Salt Lake owner/GM Sarah Buehler, “but we did expect to be above the two new teams, so it was disappointing that we tied with the Kazoos.”
Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of new faces in the clubhouse after last year’s fiasco, and a number of the young players struggled. One who didn’t was CF Daniel Slover, the #1 pick in the draft. Slover more than lived up to his billing, hitting .355 with 20 homers, 121 runs scored, and a 1.001 OPS. “Some guys, their first shot in the big time, they get spooked by the spotlight,” said Dugan. “Not Danny. He stepped right in with the confidence of a 10-year veteran.”
Another rookie, closer Nick Crusoe, proved a surprisingly reliable back-end option. He posted a 3.18 ERA and a .640 OPS against while converting 18 of 21 save chances. “In this league, good firemen are hard to find,” said Dugan. “And with Nick, we’ve got a grade-A back-end guy.”
Salt Lake also benefited from bounce-back seasons from familiar faces. Ace Toshiie Maeda, who struggled with homesickness and poor self-confidence last season while staggering to a 7-17 record. This year he looked like a different pitcher, twirling a 14-9 record with a 3.15 ERA while holding hitters to a .685 OPS. “We got to see the real Toshiie this year, and what a treat,” said Dugan. Reliever Dean Gamble, who was a disaster in the closer role last year, looked great as a setup man this year, pitching to a 3.66 ERA while allowing only 7 walks in 64 innings. LF Chip Sparks took a step forward this season, hitting .317 and belting a team-leading 45 doubles and 111 RBI.
But not everything was rosy. The lineup was full of slap hitters with no power (2B Tyler Stark, SS Mori Motonari, 3B Clint Wines) and slow, one-dimensional sluggers with low averages and a ton of strikeouts (RF Romeo Martinez, 1B Dwayne Parillo, DH Neal Thomas). Then there was C Gilbert Godinez, unquestionably the worst regular player in the league this season. The young backstop caught every game while hitting only .160 with a ghastly .443 OPS and more strikeouts (188) than total bases (143). The catcher position has been a perennial problem for the Samurai, and Godinez is clearly not the answer.
The sad story continued with the pitching staff. Apart from Maeda, no other Salt Lake starter finished with an ERA below 4.82. Lefty Grant Fore, expected to be the team’s #2 starter, came unraveled as the season went on; he finished with an 8-11 record and a 5.86 ERA. Righty Lucas Henderson (7-19, 6.41) and southpaw Jonathan Fernandez (7-17, 6.81) probably should have been released, instead of receiving 54 starts between them. Young right-hander Miguel Bautista, who looked like a ray of hope in 2015, regressed in 2016, putting up a 5.64 ERA and allowing a .937 OPS.
Buehler summed up the situation aptly by saying, “All in all, I’m not overly surprised at our position in the standings.”
What does the future hold? For Dugan, the perpetual optimist, things look sunny ahead. “Hey, we got 20 games better this year,” the manager said. “Do that again next year, and we’re contenders!” To do that, though, they’ll need a lineup with more balance and better back-end starters. On the hill, look to youngsters Tony Martin and Kevin Nelson; if they can take a step up, the Samurai could make things interesting. At the plate, if rookies Stark and Wines can add a little pop, the offense gets a lot more dangerous.
Both Buehler and Dugan saw hope in Salt Lake’s finish, as they won their final eight games in a row. The owner said she was “pretty impressed at how much we rallied in our final ten games” and that the Samurai finished with the division’s best winning streak (Orlando won their last nine in a row). Dugan said the streak was “proof that our boys never stopped fighting. As a manger, that really makes you feel good.”
Looking toward 2017, Buehler says her goal is to “continue to be a better team.” She noted that with improved play, “we will gain more fans, and we do all this for the love of the game. Right?”