Sunday, July 16, 2017

AL East Preview: Season 26

This entry marks the third of a series of previews by division for the upcoming 26th 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: CF Chris Fleming

Key losses: DH Aaron King

On the strength of a top-ten pitching staff and an offense that out-slugged the average team, Baltimore won 93 games snapped a three-season playoff drought.  With that sort of success, it is not surprising that longtime general manager krisr took a rather quiet approach to the offseason.

Arbitration-eligible DH Aaron King was released in one of the most notable moves that the Dry Docks made this offseason, paving the way for future Hall of Famer Don Tamura to transition to designated hitter on a full time basis.  The club also brought in powerful center fielder Chris Fleming, though his contributions will likely be limited to a platoon scenario.

Most importantly, key Dry Docks like ace SP Luis Diaz are still under contract through at least this season, although he and a few others will need to negotiate extensions to stay in Baltimore and play with rising stars RF Charlie Anna and 2B Perry Horton, two players who may be allow Baltimore to forego a rebuild as its current core ages.

In season 25, the Swinging Hoosiers were one of the victims of playing in the best division in Upper Deck.  At 81-81, four games better than one playoff team, Indianapolis finished fourth out of four and hit the links early despite a top-five offense highlighted by RF Ron Diaz (.999 OPS in season 25).  It was the second time in three seasons that the Swinging Hoosiers finished in fourth place with a .500 record.

The good news for Swinging Hoosiers fans is that Diaz is under team control for at least the next five seasons.  The bad news is that longtime GM egide was willing to sever ties with some very familiar names, highlighted by All-Time Upper Deck Saves leader Diory Escuela and outfielder Travis Friend, who drove in 103 run just three seasons ago.  Shortstop Don Suzuki was also released before the arbitration process.

The other good news is that egide signed starter Orlando Campos to fortify a pitching staff that was in the bottom half of the league last season and took a $3.6M chance on a defensive shortstop who could prove to be more valuable than Suzuki.  And, of course that, something else nice came out of season 25 for the Swinging Hoosiers: SS Eddie Anderson, a game-changing talent out of Payton High School in Arizona.

Between seasons nine and 23, the Iowa City Small Bears recorded exactly zero seasons at or above .500.  Their last postseason appearance came a season earlier than that.  In season 24, however, the Small Bears took a huge step forward, winning 97 games - nine better than the 88 they posted in season 23 - and built off of that success in season 25 to win the AL East division for just the second time in franchise history and earning the playoffs’ top seed in the American League.

The only real priority for the club was to address its middling offense, which it did by adding slugging first baseman Malik Padden.  Elsewhere, the club needed only minor tweaks, as the Small Bears earned the third best team ERA in the league (3.31) and an above average defense.  GM rschaitkin acquired reliever Scott Koskie from Albuquerque to make up for the loss of Will Ferguson, who declined his end of a mutual option to become a free agent.  Reliever/occasional starter Carl Henry also walked.

For Iowa City, the fruits of a very long rebuild have finally borne fruit, with young talents like 2B Tex Stetter and SP Yonder Lopez indicating that the Small Bears and their recent successes are probably here to stay.

Pittsburgh Pilots

The Pilots, who had won four division titles over six seasons beginning in season 19, including three consecutively from 22-24, were unable to keep pace with the improving Baltimore and Iowa City clubs and missed out on the postseason for the first time since season 18.  The Pilots managed to demonstrate its elite defense (100 plus plays to only 15 minus plays, the highest and third lowest numbers league wide, respectively), though the offense was more-or-less average and the pitching staff took a step back from the year prior.

To address these areas, GM cshake93 started by parting ways with several aging vets, including starter Rick Roosevelt, CF Galahad Merloni, and utility man Alan Ott, who won a Gold Glove for his services in left in season 25.  Andy Stark, owner of the 515 career homers, was also let go after declining his end of a mutual option.  A trio of relievers were also let go: arb-eligible Wayne Miles and Buddy Rose, and ground ball specialist Sven Lillibridge.

Cshake93 replaced the lost offense by shipping shortstop Julio Villarreal and two of the organization’s better prospects to Boston for big bopper Alex Cortez (.884 career OPS) and by signing both Vladimir Ozuna (.240 career ISO) and jewel of the Free Agent class Ivan Romero (326 career HR).  Starter Octavio Castillo, who has quietly put together 241 career victories, joins a rotation featuring reigning Cy Young winner SP Timothy Hamilton, and Luis Mantalban joins the Pilots bullpen for the second stint of his career.

AL East Analysis

It is anybody’s guess who might ultimately win what is probably the most competitive division in Upper Deck.

Indianapolis and Pittsburgh more drastically reshaped their rosters, with both clubs cutting ties with some longtime players in favor of younger talent.  The Swinging Hoosiers addressed some needs, though not necessarily enough to make up the 15 games that separated them from the Small Bears last season.  The Pilots had a very active offseason, attempting to return to first place before a championship window closes on a core that is rapidly becoming more expensive and approaching free agency.

Conversely, despite a relatively quiet offseason, Iowa City has all the tools to defend its season 25 division title this year and beyond.  Similarly, Baltimore had a low-key offseason, the focus remaining primarily on the window of the core that took them back to the playoffs, but that may become untenable in the not-so-distant future, like Pittsburgh.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

NL North Preview: Season 26

This entry marks the second edition of a series of previews by division for the upcoming 24th season of Upper Deck.  A run down of each team will be followed by an overall analysis of the division.  Today, we continue by discussing the NL North.

In season 26, the Detroit Tigers baseball club (formerly the Chicago Old Style) will take the direction of just the second GM in franchise history after a change this offseason.  In season 25, the team had their third consecutive losing season, though 77-85 was good enough to tie for first in the NL North despite middling offense, defense, and pitching.

The Tigers’ new GM, mikesons1973, had no problem getting started quickly, and without the sentimentality of which any longtime owner might be guilty.  Future Hall of Fame first baseman and longtime Old Style Orber Gomez (709 HR over 16+ seasons) was not re-signed, as with starters Octavio Castillo (241 career wins) and Junior Leroux, a reliable starter who underwent arm surgery last season.  Defensive-minded shortstop Chico Marmol was also let go.

Mikesons1973 made some big plays to fill such big holes, however.  A couple of non-tenders, SS Chad Tatum and CF Enerio de los Santos, offer defense and offensive upgrades over the position in the previous season.  Starter Gavin Jackson was brought in on a five-year deal guaranteeing at least $32.25M, and, in another big splash, All-Star 2B Cyrus Barrett was acquired for a pair of prospects.

The Monarchs finished in third place with just 67 wins in season 25, the club’s thirteenth consecutive losing season.  Despite an offense and pitching staff that rated as only slightly below average, Kansas City fielded the league’s worst defense (.969 fielding percentage).  However, longtime GM urbanwarrior made some big plays this offseason in the hopes of cashing in on a weak division.

First, urbanwarrior participated in a blockbuster trade with the Richmond Brewers, sending workhorse starter Kareem Woodson (220+ IP in season 25), longtime 3B Paul Nakano, and starting 2B Johnnie Palmer to the Brewers for All-Star RF Shaggy Eickhoff and one of the best offensive shortstops in the league in Charlie Barry, vastly improving the club’s offensive prowess.

The club also signed starters Brett Lambert and Aneury Pascual to the rotation while also cutting ties with longtime Monarch SP Ben Thomas.  Combine the offseason’s moves with ace SP Antone Gardner and SP Mel Valentin and Kansas City’s prospects are looking much better than last seasons.

On the strength of two consecutive 77-win seasons, the Syndicate are back-to-back NL North division champions, having made the playoffs in each of the last two seasons.  That said, Syracuse has not advanced to the National League Championship Series since season 13, and Iongtime GM hatton98 made some big moves this offseason to take his club to the next level.

After letting workhorse Yorman Velasquez and reliever Livan Gutierrez walk, hatton98 made huge strides not only to replace their productivity, but to exceed it.  In separate deals, he parted with a pair of nice prospects, including 1B Wilt Schimpf, to acquire All-Star SP Carlos Beltre and elite RP Paul Stevens from Richmond and Oklahoma City, respectively.

Additionally, Syracuse added 3B Cesar Moraga, a defensively versatile player with some pop, and catcher Ted Carpenter to split time behind the dish.  And last but not least, 2B Reymond Mota was signed to a five-year extension, guaranteeing that the Silver Slugger second baseman will be a Syndicate for years to come.

In season 25, a below average offense and pitching staff doomed the Toronto franchise, then located in Dover, to a last place finish as they notched just 65 wins.  In fact, the Blue Jays club has not had a winning season since season 18, and as such are rather far along in their rebuilding efforts.

New GM ghutton9 stayed the course this offseason, cutting ties with arbitration-eligible starter Wellington Cervantes, as well as letting a trio of old, declining starters whose contributions likely scored negative WAR figures in season 25.  The most notable transactions included the signings of sometimes-starters, sometimes-relievers Geoff Berken and Dummy Power to eat innings.

The most notable players in the organization that should give the organization hope are SPs Denzel Charleston, who just notched his first big league season, and prospects Yangervis Lucano, and Joey Sappelt, both of whom were drafted highly within the past few seasons.  Also close to the bigs is prospect 2B Terry Kickham, who has All-Star potential.  Ghutton9’s first pick to continue the strong drafting efforts will be the third overall pick in this season’s draft.

NL North Analysis

Once again, the NL North was easily last season’s worst division in the league, with all four teams finishing with between 65 and 77 wins.  Despite that, the Tigers and the Syndicate, who tied atop the division in season 25, both had very aggressive offseasons, hoping to capitalize on the division’s overall weakness and take first place by storm.  Not to be outdone, however, Kansas City made some aggressive moves this offseason, as well.  Despite having more ground to make up to win the division than Detroit and Syracuse, their hugely improved offense should allow them to compete

It is anybody’s guess who might come away with the division, although Toronto would be a surprise pick to come away with it.  After the only quiet offseason in the division and a rebuild that is quite far along, the most pressing question for the Blue Jays management may be whether or not to cash in on star LF Eduardo Butera’s value by trading him in advance of this season’s deadline, thus acquiring more value for future seasons.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

AL North Preview: Season 26

This entry marks the first edition of a series of previews by division for the upcoming 26th season of Upper Deck.  A run down of each team will be followed by an overall analysis of the division.  Today, we will begin with the reigning champion New Britain Rock Cats’ AL North.

What do you get when you add together an offense, a pitching staff, and a defense that, by many metrics, rate as roughly average?  Last season, the Rock Cats put that all together and won their second World Series in just four seasons.  All of this came despite posting just 87 wins - good for seventh best in the AL and worse than two teams that did not make the postseason.

The World Series win was also somewhat surprising in the context of the 73-89 record the club posted just a season prior.  That losing season was New Britain’s first since season 16 and may have signaled a reboot for many franchises, though longtime general manager dflom2008 evidently made the right moves to right the ship.  As a result, it should be no surprise to see dflom2008 dealing again this offseason.

The club lost reliever Felipe Guillen, five-time Gold Glove shortstop Aubrey Kelly, and starters Geraldo Fernandez and Don Lo - a season 25 midseason acquisition - to free agency.  To shore up some holes, also including SP Alex Aceves, who underwent two elbow surgeries last season and whose career has been permanently altered, dflom2008 cashed in on star CF Jolbert Cabrera to Philadelphia for starter Von Boucher, rookie left fielder Rob Diaz, and a prospect.

The club also signed starters Edgard Franco and Jamie Fulchino to pick up the rest of the slack in the rotation, primarily defensive shortstops Chico Marmol and Wilkin Diaz to replace Kelly, a and defensive centerfielder with a rather light stick in Benito Ordaz.

Since a fairly steady ten-season stretch (‘13-’22) that saw the Terriers win at least 76 games nine times, and at least 86 four times, Pawtucket has descended into sixty-win territory in each of the past three seasons.  Thus, mired in a rebuild, the obvious move for longtime GM burk was to stay the course rather than make a big play or two in free agency or in the trade market.

Longtime starter Juan Prieto was allowed to walk during free agency, and arbitration eligible fellas in Huston Diaz, Julio Jose, and Eduardo Nova were released rather than earning their payday from Pawtucket.  Replacing some of those men on the roster include free agents reliever Rick Holder and catcher Benito Andujar, as well as a few Rule 5 draft picks.
Of more interest to fans of the Terriers will be the progress of the rebuild.  Young 2B Carl Clark has performed well in his limited big league duty, having made two All Star teams and won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger in just his first two seasons. Power-hitting C/DH Kendry Gandarilla has also surpassed expectations in his first ML experience.

Burk’s drafting ability and his eye for the international market have also led to several other notable prospects that are sure to turn the Terriers’ tide, including 2B Jerome Espy, RP Enerio Lecuona, SP Orlando Miro, 2B Henry Pavano, SP Juan James, and future All-Star Hong-Chih Jung.

Rochester, like Pawtucket, continues their rebuilding efforts heading into season 26.  For the fourth straight season, the club finished in the cellar, notching just 54 wins.  The club’s batting and fielding both ranked near the bottom, while their pitching staff recorded the highest earned run average of any club in the league.

Longtime GM jwperry allowed left fielder Chad Stahl, who had spent his entire professional career with the Redwings, to walk during free agency.  He also allowed reliever Jamie Fulchino to leave.  The players were replaced by starters Mark Matsui and Ed Croushore, now in his second stint in Rochester.  Additionally, a couple of Rule 5 draft picks, including center fielder Max Gonzalez, look to contribute to the Redwings this season.

In the meantime, jwperry’s $20 million man, SP Jose James, signed in season 25, is set to report to Low A ball with RP Wandy Aceves, signed internationally a season prior.  Additionally, starter Bill Brandt, relievers Orber Nieves and Osvaldo Aguilar, and former first overall draft pick SS Billy Washington highlight jwperry’s strong efforts to rebuild the Redwings into a contender once again.

Under the tutelage of their former owner and GM, the Seattle Seawolves, then located in Sioux City, were twice division champs and won their own World Series just a season ago.  Last season’s club had a top-five defense and pitching staff to go with an above average offense, despite posting just 82 wins and missing out on the postseason.

Heading into the offseason, newly introduced CCAsleson’s work was cut out for him.  Faced with the decision to dive headfirst aggressively back into contention or to dive headfirst into a rebuild, CCAsleson chose the latter.  After declining the option on starter Bert Bechler, he allowed Domingo Amaro, Luis Mantalban, and Fausto Siqueiros to depart via free agency.

He traded for defensive-minded center fielder Chin-Lung Satou, signed aging reliever Bill Martin, and made a flurry of waiver claims to fill out the Seawolves’ roster.  Thanks to the aggressive style of the previous ownership group, the Seawolves have very little in the way of recent draftees or international signees that may contribute quickly to a rebuilt roster.  However, the Seawolves do hold four of the first 53 picks in the upcoming amateur draft.

AL North Analysis

Based on the moves that were made this offseason, Pawtucket and Rochester may once again duke it out for the cellar in one of the weaker divisions across the league.  Despite that, there appears to be more light than tunnel remaining in both teams’ respective rebuilds.  Given the number of high quality prospects in the Pawtucket organization, the Terriers may rise from the ashes first, but Rochester will surely be right behind them when both turn the corner in a season or two.

Of last season’s top two finishers, the Seawolves appear headed for a rebuild of their own, though they are in for a long ride as they begin their journey this season.  As a result, the reigning champion Rock Cats, coupled with an aggressive offseason, look well-positioned to take the division again this season to give themselves a fair chance to defend their ring.