This entry marks the first 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 start with the AL West - the division of the reigning champion Albuquerque Arrows.
Albuquerque had a reasonably quiet offseason, but as the expression goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The Arrows have won at least 97 games in each of the last six seasons and are coming off of their second World Series victory of the last four seasons.
The team was not without its offseason losses, however. LHP Ramiro Bonifacio, signed away by the Salem Witch Hunts, made 208 appearances (130 starts) over five seasons with the club, compiling a 79-36 record to go with a 1.34 WHIP and 3.94 ERA in 841 innings pitched. RHP Kurt Cepeda, 30, had spent his entire career with the Arrows organization, pitching well above league average along the way, despite a rocky season 23 (.300/.353/.538 against, 6.79 ERA in 55.2 IP). He has signed with the Chicago Old Style. Both pitchers were tied to draft pick compensation.
To replace those fairly productive arms, the Arrows moved to sign a couple of veterans: 36-year old southpaw Bob Keefe and 35-year old Albert Maradona. Keefe, who has split time between the rotation and the bullpen over his career, signed a one-year pact worth $5.5M (including bonuses). After a similar career workload to Bonifacio, Keefe’s career numbers come in slightly more favorably, with a 1.31 WHIP and sub-4.00 ERA. Maradona, with more than 2,200 IP under his belt, signed a two-year pact worth $13M. Both Keefe and Maradona have begun the season in the bullpen.
The biggest offseason move the Arrows made, however, may be the two-year extension of 1B Harry Crawford. The slick-fielding 32-year old clocked 48 HR and drove in 122 runs in season 23, slightly outperforming his robust career .262/.343/.507 triple slash. He has thus far spent his entire career with this organization. The deal buys out his final season of arb eligibility and his first year of Free Agency.
Key additions: 1B Omar Blasco, SP Bobby Lovullo, 3B Oswaldo Alomar, SP Phil Chen, 1B Dallas Bolsinger
Under the leadership of hofstad_c, Fresno has improved by 17 games over the course of three seasons, finishing second to Albuquerque in the previous two. In season 23, however, its pitching was considerably below league average. And despite an offense that was well above average, two-time All Star Miguel Bocachica, the team’s primary RF, retired.
To combat some of their pitching woes, the team parted ways with declining SP King High, who won 15 games in season 23 despite sub-par peripherals, and replaced him with SPs Phil Chen and Rule 5 pickup Bobby Lovullo. Chen offers promise as a heavy sinker baller, but Lovullo, whose young career consists of only six starts, landed himself on the 60-day DL after only two in Fresno. The team also dealt promising youngster Alfredo Pujols to put SP prospect Ahmed Olmos in the pipeline.
To counteract Bocachica’s departure, the Nighthawks signed power hitting 1B Omar Blasco to a three-year pact and picked 1B Dallas Bolsinger in the Rule 5 Draft, paving the way for what could be an effective platoon and allowing Rafael Balentien, who hit 39 HR last season, to shift to RF. Oswaldo Alomar also provides a reliable bench bat, easing the departure of Orber Moreno, an offensively sound backup catcher.
Key losses: None
Honolulu, like their division rival Fresno, have also improved in each of the last three seasons, though that hasn’t been enough to prevent three consecutive last place finishes. In season 23, the Lava still found themselves somewhat below average in the batter’s box and on the hill. Further, the Lava rated as below average defensively, a problem for a staff that can rely somewhat heavily on the ground ball.
The Lava didn’t lose many ML contributors this offseason, aside from a reliever with a bloated ERA or two. They signed pitch calling wizard Blaine Knotts to back up primary catcher Oleg Blair, but their biggest move of the offseason involved the dealing of big time prospect Carlos Martinez for two prospects and 2B Gonzalez Carrasco, who has just made his big league debut and who easily fits into the Lava’s lineup as one of its more dynamic hitters.
Aside from those moves, key extensions were given. RP Steve Ondrusek, who converted 31 of 36 saves for Honolulu last season, was signed to a two-year extension that carries a mutual option for season 26. Additionally, 25-year old SP Vladimir Calvo was given a five-year extension, buying out his first two seasons of free agency. Calvo, acquired in another deal with Fresno last season, has shown promise at times during his young career, including a 1.28 WHIP in more than 100 innings in Fresno prior to last season’s trade. Honolulu is betting on five seasons of that pitcher with this extension.
As with Honolulu and Fresno, Salem was plagued by a subpar pitching staff in season 23. For this reason, the team finished four under .500 despite its powerful offense and above average defense, anchored by perennial Gold Glover Aubrey Kelly.
The Witch Hunts let SP Phil Chen walk, lured Ramiro Bonifacio away from division rival Albuquerque, and added groundball pitcher Jamie Fulchino, hoping both would strengthen the rotation. In a bit of bad luck, though, Bonifacio suffered a stress fracture in his elbow in his fourth start in Salem. Fortunately, the club did not lose its 13th overall pick pick, which was protected, for the signing. They also acquired a pair of dynamite prospects in Domingo Nunez and Howard Rolls.
Salem also released arb eligible Stryker Pagan, who had played a variety of positions and averaged more than 35 home runs per seasons over the last three years. While the production may be missed, the Witch Hunts will rely more heavily on Cesar Moraga and Sandy Sullivan at 3B and LF, respectively. Both players are quite productive in their own right.
Despite such high profile additions and the loss of Pagan, some of the biggest moves came in the form of promotions from its minor league pipeline. Salem traded defensive wizard to the New Britain Rock Cats, opening the door for rookie SS Pablo Aguilar, another defensive minded shortstop but with a stronger bat. Among the other promotions include heavy ground ball pitcher Del Reagan and electrifying SP Zip Lawrence, who has already greatly reduced the impact of Bonifacio’s injury in his young career.
AL West Analysis
Honolulu continues to make incremental improvements to their big league club while continuing to build up their farm. Fresno, while also continuing to rebuild, has bas aggressively upgraded parts of its club, though it may still find problems in its rotation with Lovullo going down early.
Meanwhile, Salem may have addressed its most pressing ML needs most aggressively, giving them short odds to be the most improved team in the division. That said, Albuquerque is still the team to beat - and not just in the AL West - after returning much of the same roster from last season’s championship club.