Monday, January 23, 2017

NL North Preview: Season 24

This entry marks the eighth and final 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 finish by discussing the NL North.

The Old Style had an offense that far out-slugged the average team in season 23, but a pitching staff that surrendered more than a quarter of an earned run more than the league average per game and a defense that ranked near the bottom both played a role in the club’s first losing season since season 13, one of the longest stretches around the league.  Last season, the team posted only 69 wins, a stark 19-win drop from the season prior.

Potentially making matters worse, Chicago lost some very important players to its success during that span over the offseason, including second base stalwart Eduardo Butera, long-time starter Joe Matheson, and reliever Leon Jenkins, all to free agency..  Effective bench bat Alex Cervelli also left for retirement, and former closer Jamie Kim was let go after taking a serious step back last season, pitching to a 6.97 ERA in more than 41 innings.

To make up for lost production, the club signed Bobby Gorzelanny and Kurt Cepeda to stabilize the rotation and bullpen, respectively.  The club also signed defensive-minded shortstop Chico Marmol to start up the middle, vastly improving the defense.  The team also filled some holes internally with players like 3B Jordan Branyan and RP Louis Dixon.

The most notable moves, though, include the contract extensions of three players: LF Ken Silva, 3B Yamid Wilfredo, and C Yusmeiro Seguignol.  All three players were in their final year of arbitration and would have hit free agency after the season, if not for the extensions.  Combined, the three hit 97 home runs in season 23, and their extensions provide hope that the team can build around this core and avoid a long term rebuild.

The Dover Despicables, recently relocated from Seattle, have only had one winning season and one playoff appearance since season 18, a trend that, unfortunately for the club, would not end in season 23.  Last season, an above average pitching staff and a roughly average defense was plagued by an anemic offense that batted a league-worst .239 with a league-worst .679 OPS.

Having the league’s worst offense, though, made the offseason’s priorities clear for general manager gogogiants.  The club let aging players Derrick White and Karim Robinson leave via free agency and moved to sign Eduardo Butera away from division rival Chicago to play in left and added Gregory Erdos, Al Flores, Jamie Won, and Carlos Aparicio to add punch to the infield in both the starting lineup and on the bench.

The Despicables also lost starter Malcolm Baez, who contributed more than 180 innings to the team last season.  The club invested heavily in the once-touted Pete Garcia to replace his production, doling out a five year deal that they hope pays dividends.  gogogiants also added relievers Rich Lush and Ehire Alomar to fortify the bullpen.  All told, Dover had arguably the most aggressive offseason in the division, though recent draft picks like 2B Terry Kickham and SP Denzel Charleston offer more hope for the near future.

Key additions: 1B Stryker Pagan

Like Dover, Kansas City is another franchise whose struggles have persisted for seasons, with the club’s last winning season coming in season 12.  Despite that, the Monarchs capitalized on a weak division in season 23 to make win the division and make the postseason at just 72-90.  The team made an early postseason exit, however, due in part to the subpar pitching staff (4.54 ERA) and a league-worst defense that committed more than an error per game (171).

Though general manager urbanwarrior could have opted for an aggressive offseason to take further advantage of the weak division, he instead played the market relatively quietly.  Aging 1B Guillermo Cabeza, with more than 2,300 hits, 468 home runs, and a possible argument for the Hall of Fame one day, was let go as his skill set continues to diminish.  Bench contributor Bob Arrieta also walked.

The major acquisition that the team made was the free agent signing of Stryker Pagan, who had been released by Salem before his second arbitration hearing. Pagan, who has a career .232 isolated power, will replace Cabeza at first.  Other voids were filled internally, such as the promotion of RP Benji Martin.

The biggest move for the club was the contract extension that was given to ace SP Antone Gardner, though his season ended before it began with an arm injury.  Despite the injury, he will make $8 million this season and for the next three.  Fortunately, though, prospects like SP Mel Valentin and SP Larry Thornton are working their way up the ladder and seem on the cusp of their debuts.

Syracuse has not won more than 68 games since season 18, the last season that the club made the playoffs.  In season 23, they won 66, plagued by subpar pitching and defense, as well as an offense that triple slashed only .245/.308/.384.

The Syndicate had as many losses as anybody in the division from last season’s big league club.  Utility bench player Hades Hermanson, starting 1B Travis McCartney, starting SS Tomas Pujols, and back up catcher Ralph Ross were all let go.  McCartney hit well for the most part, but with diminished power and only 49 RBI.  Pujols, known as a defensive shortstop for the bulk of his career, performed as advertised, including his light bat - he OPS’ed only .583.  Reliever Jeurys Bastardo also walked via free agency.

To fill its holes, general manager hatton98 claimed Danyl Pulido to help with the bench, as well as offensive-minded catcher Ted Carpenter to back up starting C William Scarsone.  Power hitting shortstop Horace Grossman was signed primarily to play in center.  Pedro Vincente was also signed to replace Bastardo in the bullpen.  Finally, the club extended SP Tony Ayala, who provides valuable innings to the team’s rotation, having thrown 233.1 IP in season 23.

NL North Analysis

The NL North was easily the worst team in the league last season, with all four teams finishing with between 66 and 72 wins.  Dover had a very aggressive offseason, however, addressing their offensive needs in bulk.  They may stand to be the most improved in the division by season’s end.  Conversely, Kansas City had a rather quiet offseason, though last year’s division champion remains similar enough that they may be able to repeat.  Regardless, long rebuilds for both teams should put either in contention within the next couple of seasons.

Syracuse was arguably second busiest in the division, and may also lay claim to the division’s most improved this season, which would be fortunate, as the length of rebuild thus far has them potentially a year or two behind Dover and Kansas City.  Meanwhile, Chicago certainly has the core to be competitive, and may be the closest to contention with an aptly executed trade or two.  The moves this offseason should ensure that the team can be competitive if it wants to be, as opposed to potentially committing to a rebuild.

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