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.

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