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.

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.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

NL North Preview: Season 26

This entry marks the second edition of a series of previews by division for the upcoming 24th season of Upper Deck.  A run down of each team will be followed by an overall analysis of the division.  Today, we continue by discussing the NL North.

In season 26, the Detroit Tigers baseball club (formerly the Chicago Old Style) will take the direction of just the second GM in franchise history after a change this offseason.  In season 25, the team had their third consecutive losing season, though 77-85 was good enough to tie for first in the NL North despite middling offense, defense, and pitching.

The Tigers’ new GM, mikesons1973, had no problem getting started quickly, and without the sentimentality of which any longtime owner might be guilty.  Future Hall of Fame first baseman and longtime Old Style Orber Gomez (709 HR over 16+ seasons) was not re-signed, as with starters Octavio Castillo (241 career wins) and Junior Leroux, a reliable starter who underwent arm surgery last season.  Defensive-minded shortstop Chico Marmol was also let go.

Mikesons1973 made some big plays to fill such big holes, however.  A couple of non-tenders, SS Chad Tatum and CF Enerio de los Santos, offer defense and offensive upgrades over the position in the previous season.  Starter Gavin Jackson was brought in on a five-year deal guaranteeing at least $32.25M, and, in another big splash, All-Star 2B Cyrus Barrett was acquired for a pair of prospects.

The Monarchs finished in third place with just 67 wins in season 25, the club’s thirteenth consecutive losing season.  Despite an offense and pitching staff that rated as only slightly below average, Kansas City fielded the league’s worst defense (.969 fielding percentage).  However, longtime GM urbanwarrior made some big plays this offseason in the hopes of cashing in on a weak division.

First, urbanwarrior participated in a blockbuster trade with the Richmond Brewers, sending workhorse starter Kareem Woodson (220+ IP in season 25), longtime 3B Paul Nakano, and starting 2B Johnnie Palmer to the Brewers for All-Star RF Shaggy Eickhoff and one of the best offensive shortstops in the league in Charlie Barry, vastly improving the club’s offensive prowess.

The club also signed starters Brett Lambert and Aneury Pascual to the rotation while also cutting ties with longtime Monarch SP Ben Thomas.  Combine the offseason’s moves with ace SP Antone Gardner and SP Mel Valentin and Kansas City’s prospects are looking much better than last seasons.

On the strength of two consecutive 77-win seasons, the Syndicate are back-to-back NL North division champions, having made the playoffs in each of the last two seasons.  That said, Syracuse has not advanced to the National League Championship Series since season 13, and Iongtime GM hatton98 made some big moves this offseason to take his club to the next level.

After letting workhorse Yorman Velasquez and reliever Livan Gutierrez walk, hatton98 made huge strides not only to replace their productivity, but to exceed it.  In separate deals, he parted with a pair of nice prospects, including 1B Wilt Schimpf, to acquire All-Star SP Carlos Beltre and elite RP Paul Stevens from Richmond and Oklahoma City, respectively.

Additionally, Syracuse added 3B Cesar Moraga, a defensively versatile player with some pop, and catcher Ted Carpenter to split time behind the dish.  And last but not least, 2B Reymond Mota was signed to a five-year extension, guaranteeing that the Silver Slugger second baseman will be a Syndicate for years to come.

In season 25, a below average offense and pitching staff doomed the Toronto franchise, then located in Dover, to a last place finish as they notched just 65 wins.  In fact, the Blue Jays club has not had a winning season since season 18, and as such are rather far along in their rebuilding efforts.

New GM ghutton9 stayed the course this offseason, cutting ties with arbitration-eligible starter Wellington Cervantes, as well as letting a trio of old, declining starters whose contributions likely scored negative WAR figures in season 25.  The most notable transactions included the signings of sometimes-starters, sometimes-relievers Geoff Berken and Dummy Power to eat innings.

The most notable players in the organization that should give the organization hope are SPs Denzel Charleston, who just notched his first big league season, and prospects Yangervis Lucano, and Joey Sappelt, both of whom were drafted highly within the past few seasons.  Also close to the bigs is prospect 2B Terry Kickham, who has All-Star potential.  Ghutton9’s first pick to continue the strong drafting efforts will be the third overall pick in this season’s draft.

NL North Analysis

Once again, the NL North was easily last season’s worst division in the league, with all four teams finishing with between 65 and 77 wins.  Despite that, the Tigers and the Syndicate, who tied atop the division in season 25, both had very aggressive offseasons, hoping to capitalize on the division’s overall weakness and take first place by storm.  Not to be outdone, however, Kansas City made some aggressive moves this offseason, as well.  Despite having more ground to make up to win the division than Detroit and Syracuse, their hugely improved offense should allow them to compete

It is anybody’s guess who might come away with the division, although Toronto would be a surprise pick to come away with it.  After the only quiet offseason in the division and a rebuild that is quite far along, the most pressing question for the Blue Jays management may be whether or not to cash in on star LF Eduardo Butera’s value by trading him in advance of this season’s deadline, thus acquiring more value for future seasons.