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.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

AL North Preview: Season 24

This entry marks the penultimate 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 discuss the AL North.

Last season, the Rock Cats had an offense and pitching staff that rated as roughly league average, though their defense was slightly above average.  Nonetheless, the season 22 World Series Champs collected 90 wins, good for a second place finish and, if not for an injury in the Wild Card round to SP Pat Murata, potentially a return to the Series.

The overall success of the past few seasons aside, however, season 23 represented the next step in a series of regressions for the club since a 101-win campaign in season 21, and the team did lose several notable players this offseason.  Bobby Gorzelanny, the oft-injured season 21 Cy Young winner, walked via free agency, as did powerful shortstop Horace Grossman, backup backstop Blaine Knotts, and mid-season acquisition T.J. Sinclair, who played well for New Britain down the stretch.

To fill the voids and fortify the club, longtime general manager dflom2008 traded reliever Emmanuel Gibson for four-time Gold Glover Aubrey Kelly - a step down offensively, but a clear step up defensively.  The club also picked up relievers Cory Small and Rod Zavada to improve the bullpen, catcher Chris Palmer to replace Knotts’ role on the team, and big bopper Billy Daniels to strengthen the bench.  The club also acquired Chico Ugueto in a trade to add some punch to a lineup whose offense presence in leftfield has been light in recent seasons with Santiago Benitez, and added back long time Rock Cat Mel McMasters to DH for the club.

Key additions: RP Curtis Fox, SP Louis Black

Key losses: RF Quinton Brohawn

The Terriers won only 65 games last season - their fifth consecutive under .500 - and are in the midst of a long rebuild.  This offseason didn’t do much to change the team’s direction.  Most notably, long time right fielder Quinton Brohawn, who had played every game of his Major League career in Pawtucket and hit more than 400 home runs for the team, departed for Iowa City during free agency.

The team did not do much to address the loss of one of best hitters on the below average offense, though this is to be expected during a rebuild.  As such, no major free agents were brought into the organization, and the most notable newbies were acquired during the Rule 5 Draft, including pitchers Curtis Fox and Louis Black.
The promotion of super prospect 2B Carl Clark, however, is big news for the Terriers and their fans - a signal that there may be more light than tunnel at this point.  Other prospects that Terriers fans should be excited about include 2B Jerome Espy, RP Enerio Lecuona, power-hitting C/DH Kendry Gandarilla, and recent international signings SS David Cruz and world-class starter Hong-Chih Jung.

Like the Terriers, the Redwings surely consider themselves to be in rebuild mode.  Though just three seasons removed from their last postseason appearance, Rochester won only 54 games last season - a sharp decrease from 77 in season 22 - securing the first overall pick in the upcoming draft.

After this offseason, it seems as though general manager jwperry has truly committed his club to the rebuild.  Ramiro Pujols, the club’s longtime shortstop who was signed as an international free agent nearly 15 seasons ago, was not retained, as was the case with closer Armando Cruz and reliever Hayes Milton, whose option was declined.  The team also dealt some of its pieces, including arb-one right fielder Nipsey Paulsen, to re-stock the minor league pipeline with prospects like LF Marcos Garza.

As far as many of the players that were brought in, none are likely to be the difference between a playoff run or a fridge run, including starter Clayton Wakefield.  However, some acquisitions may go beyond simply building a bridge to Rochester’s next playoff iteration.  Rule 5 draftee Clint Norton could prove to be the club’s long-term replacement to Pujols, while talented prospects like RP Orber Nieves, powerful SS Jay O’Keefe, and 2B Seth MacRae work their way up the ranks.

Behind a top ten pitching staff and a defense that committed the second fewest errors in the league last season, the Sioux Falls Skywalkers - then in Vancouver - won 94 games, winning the AL North for the first time since season 20.  The fact that such a good team was plagued by a middling offense made the offseason’s priorities rather clear for general manager Kylo_Ren.

The Skywalkers let a variety of part time players leave, including C Ted Carpenter, possible future Hall of Fame 1B Billy Daniels, 1B Sid Spence, and reliever Pedro Vincente.  Light hitting centerfielder Max Marmol was claimed off of waivers.  To replace the production on offense, the club added Eliezer Camacho to bring some life to the outfield, IFs Kelly Kinsler and Alexi Mairena to fortify the bench, and traded for offensive C Phil Clifton in exchange for prospect RP Mario Barclay.  The club also added Luis Mantalban to its bullpen.

The biggest moves for the club likely include a big effort to retain CP Greg O’Neill and SP Elrod Daly, two important pieces of the Skywalkers’ success from a season ago.  The hope seems to be that the offensive maneuvering will be enough to put the team into the playoffs, but if it is not, the similarities from last season’s division champion keep Sioux Falls in a good position.

AL North Analysis

The AL North is less complex in terms of dissecting a probable end result than most divisions, given that two separate teams are each rebuilding.  Pawtucket probably will not contend this season, though they appear to be nearing the end of their rebuild.  Rochester, on the other hand, has a younger rebuild on its hands, but GM jwperry put his foot on the gas and accelerated that process this season, potentially limiting the number of down years that the club may have.

New Britain is almost always in the conversation, but another arm injury to ace Pat Murata - his second in two starts dating back to last postseason - makes the Rock Cats’ road much longer should they make the postseason.  All things considered, however, Sioux Falls likely remains the team to beat in the North this season due to a strong pitching core and an offense that looks to have improved to some degree.

Monday, January 16, 2017

NL East Preview: Season 24

This entry marks the sixth 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.  We will continue with the NL East.

In season 23, the Bow Sox featured an electric offense led by three-time All Star third baseman Rodney Bradley and the National League’s eventual Most Valuable Player, 1B Billy Ray Lane.  The team won just 83 games, though, due in part to a pitching staff that surrendered more than four and a half runs per nine innings.  Yet in spite of the team’s many All Star caliber players, Boston underwent a major makeover this offseason.

Despite the overall pitching problems, the back of the bullpen was a point of strength for Boston.  Impending free agent closer Rod Zavada saved 39 games, though his cost in free agency turned out to be prohibitive.  In a decisive move, general manager Xtrahits dealt starting catcher Davey Torres, who triple slashed .289/.399/.504, to acquire season 23 Fireman of the Year Roscoe Barkley.  Torres was then replaced by the selection of Ralph Kirby in the Rule 5 Draft.  The team also lost Bradley to free agency, but have replaced him internally with Hector Beltre.

Xtrahits also moved to sign Bob Leyritz to stabilize a disappointing rotation, as well as Francisco Abreu, Vic Arenado, and Les Hatcher to fortify a bullpen and bench that both lost players, including Alexi Mairena and Hersh Winston, who remains unsigned.

Despite a new look team, a five year extension to Lane and the promotions of 22-year old top prospect RF Jacob Swann and CF David Koh provide the underpinnings of a strong core for seasons to come.

After a long and successful run that included six World Series championships, the Charlotte Pups franchise changed hands over the offseason after three consecutive seasons of under .500 baseball.  The club’s new general manager, DWobble, moved aggressively to re-shape the team.  The Pups’ offseason certainly may qualify as the league’s busiest, particularly on the trade front.

The Pups let various players leave, including long time centerfielder Oscar Carr and type A free agent Kelly Kinsley, and traded LF David Valdes and RF Ted Park.  The club picked up several useful pieces, such as Gold Glove caliber John Crede to start at shortstop this season and offensive catcher Johan LaHair.  And while the club mostly had its aims set on the future, Rule 5 draftees Marwin Manto and Joaquin Cairo could prove to be useful complementary pieces in the future.

In reshaping the organization’s future, DWobble made several impactful moves.  The Pups acquired 25-year old Nipsey Paulsen, who will eventually slide in as the team’s everyday right fielder, as well as CF Yasiel Tapia, current ML contribution 3B Don Kelleher, relievers Ezequiel Marrero and Avisail Valenzuela, and starter Ralph Wilkerson.  Charlotte was certainly aggressive in its trade strategy, but has created a foundation conducive to a new era of success for the franchise.

Though just three seasons removed from winning the World Series, the Philadelphia Athletics featured a roughly average offense in season 23 that bogged down a top ten pitching staff and the second best defense in the league.  Bullpen issues also plagued the club, which include 21 blown saves.  Owner tommymax would work to address some of these needs, though not before relocating the club from Philly to Cincinnati, rebranding the Athletics as the blue collar Lumber Company.

Aside from the name change, the Lumber Co. is relatively similar in structure to last season’s squad - not a huge surprise after its eighth consecutive playoff appearance.  Tommymax declined the team’s end of a mutual option on closer Fausto Romero and signed a trio of relievers - Harry Clark, Mark Suzuki, and Ivan Fife - the latter two of which have thus far closed games with great success.  In one other noteworthy loss, long-time starter Alberto Maradona, who posted 64 wins over parts of six seasons with the franchise, was allowed to walk, though his innings have been replaced by the signing of long-time Old Style SP Joe Matheson.

Clearly, the bullpen issues that the club faced in season 23 have been addressed.  As for the offense, the Lumber Company parted ways with two part time players in Willie Alcantara and A.J. Cox, moving decisively to replace their roster spots with Doug Burks and Sergi Moehler.

Most notably, perhaps, is that the team gave contract extensions to season 21 Cy Young winner Tyreace Beck and SP Orlando Campos.  Beck’s deal is a three-year pact set to begin next season, while Campos’ extension takes him only through next season.  Taken together, these moves should serve to strengthen a perennial contender led by big boppers LF Ivan Romero and 1B Carlos Mota.

Last season, tedwilliams1 took over as general manager of the Knights franchise and led the club to its best record since season eight, as well as the club’s fourth World Series appearance.  The Knights had the league’s best pitching staff (3.18 ERA) and its best defense (.988 fielding percentage), but an anemic offense that triple slashed .246/.307/.377 is perhaps what prevented the team from taking the crown against eventual champs Albuquerque Arrows.

The team’s most important moves are probably those that occurred internally.  Tedwilliams1 accepted the $20 million mutual option on Heinie Swann, clearly valuing the reigning Cy Young winner’s contributions despite hit exorbitant price tag.  New York also extended CF Juan Seneca and six-time All Star LF Glen Raines, as well as CP Gil Gibson and stud SP Dummy Wyatt, among others.

However, New York was forced to deal with some losses. Relievers Mark Suzuki, Sean Fischer, and Harry Clark, all three contributors to last season’s successful bullpen, were signed away and have been replaced by several others, primarily Travis Thurman, in the midst of a career renaissance. Further, the team brought in Stuffy Stanley to add some offense to the lineup, and Willie Alcantara’s pedigree to fortify a bench that also lost Mel McMasters, one of the team’s best bench bats.

NL East Analysis

This season, the NL East may once again come down to Cincinnati and New York. The Lumber Company retooled its pitching staff and has the offensive pieces to win. Season 23 pennant winner New York also retooled its pen, while also working to fix one of the league's worst offenses. Either or both teams may need in-season trades to push them over the top, however, should their offseason moves prove inadequate in addressing their biggest needs.

Meanwhile, Boston was aggressive in its efforts to remain competitive despite losing several of the offseason’s biggest free agents. They may be in the mix for the postseason as well, though it may take a few deadline deals to turn on the heat and fully replace lost production.

As for Charlotte, the Pups had an incredibly busy offseason and, though they will likely not compete this season, DWobble has certainly built the foundation for what should be a competitive team in the seasons that come.