Monday, January 16, 2017

NL East Preview: Season 24

This entry marks the sixth of a series of previews by division for the young 24th season of Upper Deck.  A run down of each team will be followed by an overall analysis of the division.  We will continue with the NL East.

In season 23, the Bow Sox featured an electric offense led by three-time All Star third baseman Rodney Bradley and the National League’s eventual Most Valuable Player, 1B Billy Ray Lane.  The team won just 83 games, though, due in part to a pitching staff that surrendered more than four and a half runs per nine innings.  Yet in spite of the team’s many All Star caliber players, Boston underwent a major makeover this offseason.

Despite the overall pitching problems, the back of the bullpen was a point of strength for Boston.  Impending free agent closer Rod Zavada saved 39 games, though his cost in free agency turned out to be prohibitive.  In a decisive move, general manager Xtrahits dealt starting catcher Davey Torres, who triple slashed .289/.399/.504, to acquire season 23 Fireman of the Year Roscoe Barkley.  Torres was then replaced by the selection of Ralph Kirby in the Rule 5 Draft.  The team also lost Bradley to free agency, but have replaced him internally with Hector Beltre.

Xtrahits also moved to sign Bob Leyritz to stabilize a disappointing rotation, as well as Francisco Abreu, Vic Arenado, and Les Hatcher to fortify a bullpen and bench that both lost players, including Alexi Mairena and Hersh Winston, who remains unsigned.

Despite a new look team, a five year extension to Lane and the promotions of 22-year old top prospect RF Jacob Swann and CF David Koh provide the underpinnings of a strong core for seasons to come.

After a long and successful run that included six World Series championships, the Charlotte Pups franchise changed hands over the offseason after three consecutive seasons of under .500 baseball.  The club’s new general manager, DWobble, moved aggressively to re-shape the team.  The Pups’ offseason certainly may qualify as the league’s busiest, particularly on the trade front.

The Pups let various players leave, including long time centerfielder Oscar Carr and type A free agent Kelly Kinsley, and traded LF David Valdes and RF Ted Park.  The club picked up several useful pieces, such as Gold Glove caliber John Crede to start at shortstop this season and offensive catcher Johan LaHair.  And while the club mostly had its aims set on the future, Rule 5 draftees Marwin Manto and Joaquin Cairo could prove to be useful complementary pieces in the future.

In reshaping the organization’s future, DWobble made several impactful moves.  The Pups acquired 25-year old Nipsey Paulsen, who will eventually slide in as the team’s everyday right fielder, as well as CF Yasiel Tapia, current ML contribution 3B Don Kelleher, relievers Ezequiel Marrero and Avisail Valenzuela, and starter Ralph Wilkerson.  Charlotte was certainly aggressive in its trade strategy, but has created a foundation conducive to a new era of success for the franchise.

Though just three seasons removed from winning the World Series, the Philadelphia Athletics featured a roughly average offense in season 23 that bogged down a top ten pitching staff and the second best defense in the league.  Bullpen issues also plagued the club, which include 21 blown saves.  Owner tommymax would work to address some of these needs, though not before relocating the club from Philly to Cincinnati, rebranding the Athletics as the blue collar Lumber Company.

Aside from the name change, the Lumber Co. is relatively similar in structure to last season’s squad - not a huge surprise after its eighth consecutive playoff appearance.  Tommymax declined the team’s end of a mutual option on closer Fausto Romero and signed a trio of relievers - Harry Clark, Mark Suzuki, and Ivan Fife - the latter two of which have thus far closed games with great success.  In one other noteworthy loss, long-time starter Alberto Maradona, who posted 64 wins over parts of six seasons with the franchise, was allowed to walk, though his innings have been replaced by the signing of long-time Old Style SP Joe Matheson.

Clearly, the bullpen issues that the club faced in season 23 have been addressed.  As for the offense, the Lumber Company parted ways with two part time players in Willie Alcantara and A.J. Cox, moving decisively to replace their roster spots with Doug Burks and Sergi Moehler.

Most notably, perhaps, is that the team gave contract extensions to season 21 Cy Young winner Tyreace Beck and SP Orlando Campos.  Beck’s deal is a three-year pact set to begin next season, while Campos’ extension takes him only through next season.  Taken together, these moves should serve to strengthen a perennial contender led by big boppers LF Ivan Romero and 1B Carlos Mota.

Last season, tedwilliams1 took over as general manager of the Knights franchise and led the club to its best record since season eight, as well as the club’s fourth World Series appearance.  The Knights had the league’s best pitching staff (3.18 ERA) and its best defense (.988 fielding percentage), but an anemic offense that triple slashed .246/.307/.377 is perhaps what prevented the team from taking the crown against eventual champs Albuquerque Arrows.

The team’s most important moves are probably those that occurred internally.  Tedwilliams1 accepted the $20 million mutual option on Heinie Swann, clearly valuing the reigning Cy Young winner’s contributions despite hit exorbitant price tag.  New York also extended CF Juan Seneca and six-time All Star LF Glen Raines, as well as CP Gil Gibson and stud SP Dummy Wyatt, among others.

However, New York was forced to deal with some losses. Relievers Mark Suzuki, Sean Fischer, and Harry Clark, all three contributors to last season’s successful bullpen, were signed away and have been replaced by several others, primarily Travis Thurman, in the midst of a career renaissance. Further, the team brought in Stuffy Stanley to add some offense to the lineup, and Willie Alcantara’s pedigree to fortify a bench that also lost Mel McMasters, one of the team’s best bench bats.

NL East Analysis

This season, the NL East may once again come down to Cincinnati and New York. The Lumber Company retooled its pitching staff and has the offensive pieces to win. Season 23 pennant winner New York also retooled its pen, while also working to fix one of the league's worst offenses. Either or both teams may need in-season trades to push them over the top, however, should their offseason moves prove inadequate in addressing their biggest needs.

Meanwhile, Boston was aggressive in its efforts to remain competitive despite losing several of the offseason’s biggest free agents. They may be in the mix for the postseason as well, though it may take a few deadline deals to turn on the heat and fully replace lost production.

As for Charlotte, the Pups had an incredibly busy offseason and, though they will likely not compete this season, DWobble has certainly built the foundation for what should be a competitive team in the seasons that come.

Friday, January 13, 2017

AL East Preview: Season 24

This entry marks the fifth of a series of previews by division for the young 24th season of Upper Deck.  A run down of each team will be followed by an overall analysis of the division.  We will continue with the AL East.

Key additions: None.

Key losses: None.

Last season, Baltimore’s formidable offense, led by future Hall of Famer Don Tamura, was a top five offense by several metrics.  That success was tempered, however, by a pitching staff that was statistically average in almost every way and a defense that committed the sixth most errors (121) in the league.

The Dry Docks clearly have a formula for success, however, as they’ve accrued six postseason berths and finished with fewer than 84 wins only twice since general manager krisr took over in season 16.  Despite a minor step back the past two seasons, Baltimore still clearly has the core to compete, with a rotation led by SPs Luis Diaz, Trevor Allen, and Emilio Cordero, a bullpen flanked by CP Tony Romero, and a lineup built around Tamura and DH Aaron King.

A promotion to prospect RF Jose Quevedo constitutes the biggest move for the team, bolstering the bench.  So while the team may find themselves active at the deadline should the East continue to be competitive - all four teams finished with at least 82 wins in season 23 - the Dry Docks are certainly in good position to compete once again.

The Swinging Hoosiers of season 23 had an above average offense, and were, in fact, one of the best contact hitting teams in the league - their .276 team batting average ranked second only to eventual World Series Champion Albuquerque.  As with the Dry Docks, though, a pitching staff was the limiting factor.  The staff was significantly below average in season 23 despite inducing 430 double plays, good for 3rd most in the league.

Aware of its needs, Indianapolis GM egide was decisive this offseason, placing a big emphasis on the pitching staff.  The team brought back starter Austin Sanders, who had spent the past two-plus seasons in Richmond, as well as signing Max Trajano to fill out the rotation.  Veteran Jose Rijo, with more than 2,000 innings under his belt, was also brought in to strengthen the front end of the pen.

Meanwhile, despite an offense that hit the ball well, the Swinging Hoosiers felt that more power was needed for this season’s lineup, addressing an area the team lacked last season.  Gregory Erdos, famed contact hitter, started at first last season in Indy, but the team declined his option and moving Carlos Ortiz from left field, gaining the expected power profile at first.  They replaced his production in left field by trading John Crede, who performed well in center last season, and another for the powerful David Valdes.  Jarrett Reese was brought in to replace Crede in center.

The team also allowed long-time DH Gary Patrick to walk, and though the fans may miss him, egide has replaced his production well in the lineup. An extension to RF Norm Knight and the promotion of 2B Aramis Perez round out a busy offseason in Indy.

Iowa City has been rebuilding for a long time, but finally tasted the fruit of those labors last season with an 88-win campaign.  Despite an offense that rated as only slightly above average, the Small Bears finish 8th in the league home runs. They were carried by a pitching staff that posted a healthy .250/.318/.401 line against.

Despite the success, however, the team missed out on the postseason, and GM rschaitkin saw room for improvement.  Through aggressive maneuvering in the trade market, the club acquired young started Steve Holden to solidify the rotation.  The team also acquired DH Rougned Sierra via trade.  In both instances, the club parted with prospects who had been acquired throughout the rebuild.

The offense lost Doug Burks, who started 93 games at shortstop in season 23, and DH Sparky McMurtry, who batted .281 with 28 home runs and 84 RBI last season.  Their production will be replaced by the savvy signing of Quinton Brohawn, as well as the aforementioned Sierra and trade acquisition Bob Axford, also acquired for prospects.

Iowa City also extended SP Rob Farr, who performed well after coming over in a trade last season and who they hope will be a key cog in the rotation for the next four to five seasons.  They also signed reliever Sean Fischer and traded for Carl Henry to replace the swing innings lost by the departure of Max Trajano.

Pittsburgh Pilots

In season 23, the Pittsburgh Pilots extended a playoff berth streak to five seasons and won its second consecutive AL East division title.  The playoff run wouldn’t last long, though, as the club fell in the playoffs’ opening round.  Though the Pilots featured a top 10 pitching staff in many regards, the bullpen surrendered a league high 28 blown saves.  Problems with the offense, who carried a subpar .324 on base percentage, were exacerbated by an average defense that had problems up the middle.

To address its needs, Pittsburgh went all in on superstar Rodney Bradley, ultimately signing him for $110 million over five seasons.  In him, the club got a player capable of protecting (or of being protected by) franchise cornerstone Chili Cornelius.  The signing did, however, tighten the Pilots’ payroll flexibility, leading to the waiver claim of Max Marmol to become the everyday second baseman, though his defensive ability also helps to fix some of the middle infield woes from a season prior.  It also precluded the re-signing of Eliezer Camacho, a productive member of the Pittsburgh outfield for three-plus seasons.

The other major need - the bullpen - was addressed by the low-risk signing of reliever Harold Lee off of a down season in Las Vegas.  The club also dealt C Phil Clifton to Sioux City for sinker baller Mario Barclay and re-signed the bullpen’s lone bright spot from a season ago, CP Albert Jimenez, who saved 39 of 44 opportunities.

In other notable moves, Pittsburgh re-signed 1B/LF Andy Stark on a one-year pact, extended Gold Glove CF Galahad Merloni through season 25, and promoted SS Tony Banks to platoon with SS Izzy Crow.  The platoon sacrifices the offensive potential offered by Stuffy Stanley, who they club let walk, in favor of a strong defense that should help a pitching staff reliant on the ground ball.

AL East Analysis

The flurry of moves that Indianapolis made this offseason open the door for them to be the division’s most improved team, which could have significant implications considering the last place team still finished with 82 wins a season ago.  Baltimore, who had possibly the quietest offseason in the league, still has the core to compete, and may find themselves buying at the deadline.

Like Indianapolis, Iowa City had a similarly busy offseason, stabilizing a team that finished only three games behind Pittsburgh for first place in the division last season.  Their focus on younger players and trades should allow this window to remain open for seasons to come.  Meanwhile, Pittsburgh made moves they hope will fortify a bullpen that ruined some of the starting five’s fun from a season ago, and added a big bat that they hope will push the team’s offense over the top.

In this division, which may end up as the most competitive of season 24, there may be no clear frontrunner, and it would not be shocking to see the division send multiple teams to the playoffs.