This entry marks the penultimate edition 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. Today, we discuss the AL North.
Key additions: RP Rod Zavada, SS Aubrey Kelly, LF Chico Ugueto, RP Cory Small, C Chris Palmer, 1B Billy Daniels, DH Mel McMasters
Key losses: DH T.J. Sinclair, SP Bobby Gorzelanny, RP Emmanuel Gibson, SS Horace Grossman, C Blaine Knotts
Last season, the Rock Cats had an offense and pitching staff that rated as roughly league average, though their defense was slightly above average. Nonetheless, the season 22 World Series Champs collected 90 wins, good for a second place finish and, if not for an injury in the Wild Card round to SP Pat Murata, potentially a return to the Series.
The overall success of the past few seasons aside, however, season 23 represented the next step in a series of regressions for the club since a 101-win campaign in season 21, and the team did lose several notable players this offseason. Bobby Gorzelanny, the oft-injured season 21 Cy Young winner, walked via free agency, as did powerful shortstop Horace Grossman, backup backstop Blaine Knotts, and mid-season acquisition T.J. Sinclair, who played well for New Britain down the stretch.
To fill the voids and fortify the club, longtime general manager dflom2008 traded reliever Emmanuel Gibson for four-time Gold Glover Aubrey Kelly - a step down offensively, but a clear step up defensively. The club also picked up relievers Cory Small and Rod Zavada to improve the bullpen, catcher Chris Palmer to replace Knotts’ role on the team, and big bopper Billy Daniels to strengthen the bench. The club also acquired Chico Ugueto in a trade to add some punch to a lineup whose offense presence in leftfield has been light in recent seasons with Santiago Benitez, and added back long time Rock Cat Mel McMasters to DH for the club.
Key losses: RF Quinton Brohawn
The Terriers won only 65 games last season - their fifth consecutive under .500 - and are in the midst of a long rebuild. This offseason didn’t do much to change the team’s direction. Most notably, long time right fielder Quinton Brohawn, who had played every game of his Major League career in Pawtucket and hit more than 400 home runs for the team, departed for Iowa City during free agency.
The team did not do much to address the loss of one of best hitters on the below average offense, though this is to be expected during a rebuild. As such, no major free agents were brought into the organization, and the most notable newbies were acquired during the Rule 5 Draft, including pitchers Curtis Fox and Louis Black.
The promotion of super prospect 2B Carl Clark, however, is big news for the Terriers and their fans - a signal that there may be more light than tunnel at this point. Other prospects that Terriers fans should be excited about include 2B Jerome Espy, RP Enerio Lecuona, power-hitting C/DH Kendry Gandarilla, and recent international signings SS David Cruz and world-class starter Hong-Chih Jung.
Key additions: RP Butch Ford, SP Clayton Wakefield, RP Edgar Martin, DH Arlie Cosby, SS Clint Norton
Like the Terriers, the Redwings surely consider themselves to be in rebuild mode. Though just three seasons removed from their last postseason appearance, Rochester won only 54 games last season - a sharp decrease from 77 in season 22 - securing the first overall pick in the upcoming draft.
After this offseason, it seems as though general manager jwperry has truly committed his club to the rebuild. Ramiro Pujols, the club’s longtime shortstop who was signed as an international free agent nearly 15 seasons ago, was not retained, as was the case with closer Armando Cruz and reliever Hayes Milton, whose option was declined. The team also dealt some of its pieces, including arb-one right fielder Nipsey Paulsen, to re-stock the minor league pipeline with prospects like LF Marcos Garza.
As far as many of the players that were brought in, none are likely to be the difference between a playoff run or a fridge run, including starter Clayton Wakefield. However, some acquisitions may go beyond simply building a bridge to Rochester’s next playoff iteration. Rule 5 draftee Clint Norton could prove to be the club’s long-term replacement to Pujols, while talented prospects like RP Orber Nieves, powerful SS Jay O’Keefe, and 2B Seth MacRae work their way up the ranks.
Key additions: LF Eliezer Camacho, 2B Kelly Kinsler, RP Luis Mantalban, 2B Alexi Mairena, C Phil Clifton
Behind a top ten pitching staff and a defense that committed the second fewest errors in the league last season, the Sioux Falls Skywalkers - then in Vancouver - won 94 games, winning the AL North for the first time since season 20. The fact that such a good team was plagued by a middling offense made the offseason’s priorities rather clear for general manager Kylo_Ren.
The Skywalkers let a variety of part time players leave, including C Ted Carpenter, possible future Hall of Fame 1B Billy Daniels, 1B Sid Spence, and reliever Pedro Vincente. Light hitting centerfielder Max Marmol was claimed off of waivers. To replace the production on offense, the club added Eliezer Camacho to bring some life to the outfield, IFs Kelly Kinsler and Alexi Mairena to fortify the bench, and traded for offensive C Phil Clifton in exchange for prospect RP Mario Barclay. The club also added Luis Mantalban to its bullpen.
The biggest moves for the club likely include a big effort to retain CP Greg O’Neill and SP Elrod Daly, two important pieces of the Skywalkers’ success from a season ago. The hope seems to be that the offensive maneuvering will be enough to put the team into the playoffs, but if it is not, the similarities from last season’s division champion keep Sioux Falls in a good position.
AL North Analysis
The AL North is less complex in terms of dissecting a probable end result than most divisions, given that two separate teams are each rebuilding. Pawtucket probably will not contend this season, though they appear to be nearing the end of their rebuild. Rochester, on the other hand, has a younger rebuild on its hands, but GM jwperry put his foot on the gas and accelerated that process this season, potentially limiting the number of down years that the club may have.
New Britain is almost always in the conversation, but another arm injury to ace Pat Murata - his second in two starts dating back to last postseason - makes the Rock Cats’ road much longer should they make the postseason. All things considered, however, Sioux Falls likely remains the team to beat in the North this season due to a strong pitching core and an offense that looks to have improved to some degree.