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.
Key additions: SP Edgard Franco, SP/RP Jamie Fulchino, SP Von Boucher, SS Chico Marmol, SS Wilkin Diaz, LF Rob Diaz, CF Benito Ordaz
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.