Sunday, July 23, 2017

NL East Preview: Season 26

This entry marks the fourth of a series of previews by division for the young 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 NL East.

In season 25, the Boston franchise faced an abrupt change in ownership and, ultimately, its second consecutive losing season.  After a long run of success, including a World Series victory just five seasons ago, the Beaneaters find themselves in the relativey early stages of a rebuild, though new general manager jimmy1217 made some positive steps in that regard this offseason.

All-Star Ivan Romero was allowed to walk via free agency, giving the team the 24th overall pick in this season’s amateur draft as compensation.  Season 25 All-Star 1B Alex Cortez was also traded in a blockbuster deal that brought a couple of future ML contributors and SS Julio Villarreal to Boston.  Steady 3B Doug Burks also left via free agency.

Romero and Cortez helped lead Boston to one of the league’s top offenses a season ago, despite a defense and pitching staff that both ranked second to last.  With their bats out of the lineup, the Beaneaters seem committed to a rebuild, an assessment that includes the departure of reliable starter Orlando Campos.  Several Rule 5 draft picks and pitchers were added to the club to replace their productivity, including relievers Clayton Van Poppel and Will Ferguson, and 25-year old starter Nestor Gabriel.

Since GM DWobble took over the Charlotte Pups franchise, he has seemed singularly focused on rebuilding the historic Upper Deck club that has failed to post a winning record since season 20.  A season ago, the Pups were roughly average on all sides of the ball and finished in third place, managing to avoid the cellar for the fourth consecutive season.

This offseason, the franchise’s movement toward youth continued, with aging starters/relievers Del Hernandez and Jackie Colbrunn being let go, as well as longtime LF Derrick Watkins, who won two World Series rings with the franchise in seasons 17 and 19.  Thirty-something relievers Alberto Maradona and Glen Thomson were signed to replace some of those innings, and three-time Silver Slugger winner Willie Bennett became one of the club’s highest profile signings under DWobble’s leadership.

Perhaps the most notable move, though, is the four-year extension of young RF Nipsey Paulsen (.878 OPS in season 25).  And though the club traded Hamish Chance (26 HR in season 25) for a relief pitching prospect, many of the club’s best players, including season 25 Rookie of the Year 1B Steve Edmonds and 25-year old CP Josh Snelling should give Pups fans hope that there is currently more light than tunnel.

After two consecutive World Series appearances in seasons 23 and 24, the New York Knights took a step back in season 25… or, as much of a step back as any team that wins 104 games can take.  Despite a record that was actually a two-win improvement over the previous season, the club failed to make the League Championship Series last season.  

With the league’s top pitching staff (3.13 ERA) and a top-five defense, there isn’t much room for improvement.  The Knights were outhit by the league in season 25, though, and GM tedwilliams1 made some moves to spark the club.  Aging bench bat Sparky McMurtry was let go in favor of young DH Aaron King, non-tendered by Baltimore, and the powerful RF Yamid Wilfredo.

Additionally, aging pitcher Joe Matheson was let go after a productive season 25, though it is hard to imagine that they will miss him much.  Under tedwilliams1’s direction, the club’s piggyback-style rotation has led to incredible success, with SP Heinie Swann winning three of the last four National League Cy Young Awards while with the New York franchise.  The Knights’ strong pitching staff should once again power the club in season 26.

With its above average pitching staff and roughly league-average offense, the Penn Quakers posted their best win-loss record a season ago (87-75) since winning 89 games back in season 22.  Despite that mark of success, as well as the vast improvement the club has made since GM Xtrahits took over after a 99-loss campaign in season 18, Philadelphia again failed to make the postseason for the first time since season 5.

To begin one of the more aggressive offseasons for a club, Xtrahits took part in a blockbuster with the New Britain Rock Cats, acquiring All-Star CF Jolbert Cabrera to play second base, a move that will vastly increase the production at the position over former 2B Cleatus Walters.  Though the club did have to part ways with a pair of prospects and starter Von Boucher to make the deal work, starter Bert Bechler, with 189 career wins and five All-Star appearances, was signed to replace him in the rotation.  SP Joshua Park and RP Glenallen Ferrara were also let go.

The Penn Quakers also signed season 25 Gold Glove winner Alan Ott to fortify the bench and reliever Max Trajano to contribute out of the pen.  In addition to those transactions, one of the most significant moves was the retention of free agent LF Will McRae, one of the best hitters in this season’s free agent class and a longtime Penn Quaker.

NL East Analysis

New York had a fairly quiet offseason, though as one of the best teams in the entire league - one who retained much of last season’s roster - you wouldn’t expect the Knights to need much revamping in an attempt to return to their third World Series in four seasons.  They should once again be the favorite to take the NL East, though several huge upgrades in Philadelphia should make the division tighter and could give the Penn Quakers their third playoff berth in franchise history.

Under new management, Boston made strides in their rebuild efforts and have multiple first round draft picks this season, which should excite fans in what one might expect to be a down season.  Charlotte, on the other hand, had their most aggressive offseason under current leadership and should be competitive sooner than later, though the Pups may still be a season or two off.

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