2020 Preview: Lake League East

BOSTON BACK IN CHARGE

Boston is predicted to claim the LL East pennant handily in 2020.

(GAME DATE – April 1, 2020) — It’s no April Fool’s joke. Boston is our prediction to lead the Lake League East Division at the conclusion of the 2020 Championship Season. Last year’s division winners New York are predicted to come in 3rd, but realistically could bump Pittsburgh out of their 2nd place spot and secure a wild card spot at the end of the year.

The Brawlers have had a busy off-season making some important roster moves after posting their first sub-.500 season since 2012 last year. Their 80-82 finish was 14 games behind the NY Dragons, and they were 8 games behind the offensively deficient Toronto Nomads.

What’s different for 2020? Veteran Guido Groeneveld and manager Nevil Fast retired after last year for starters. The 38-year-old Guido was the oldest catcher in baseball in 2019, and despite providing some offense (10 home runs, 51 RBIs), his .232 average and 14 errors were impacting his production but at the plate and behind it. He posted a career worst 4.85 CERA.

The Dutchman’s departure left the team still searching for a full-time catcher, but for now they can expect a reliable backstop in free-agent signing Mokuo Kajioka, who hit .267 with 16 dingers and 64 RBIs last year with Pittsburgh.

Nevil Fast, who came to managing late in his career (he was a pitching coach until last year) was replaced with 3rd year tactician Tony Palacios, who spent 9 games last year as Dallas manager, and had a successful 58-42 season with Denver the year before that, the last year of 100-game seasons.

Some big free agent signings helped bolster a weak rotation. Andrew Ward joined the team on a 2-year, $27.8 million contract signed on Christmas Day. The 2-time all-star is noted for his ability to hold runners, and throws a variety of great pitches with better than average control. After 10 seasons with Pittsburgh (formerly Hamilton, then Rimouski), his record is a respectable 67-47, with a career 3.76 ERA.

Although Ward has been a starter his whole career, Boston will likely slot him in as a setup man out of the bullpen, giving them a big improvement in their relief corps. Former Seattle Salts closer Jon Courteau will join him after signing a 3-year deal in January that will see the 34-year-old paid $65.8 million.

The hard-throwing fastballer has 164 career saves, and great WHIP (1.19) and ERA (2.86) numbers over his 12 years at the major level. As a bonus for fans, Courteau started his career in Boston, a 17th overall pick in the 2008 draft out of Queen’s University, though he never really got a chance to prove himself before a 2011 trade to New York.

Boston also traded three minor leaguers for a very serviceable right fielder and DH from Toronto, John Webster. Last year Webby his .261, scored 45 times, and had 11 homers. In Boston’s smaller field, he could double his home runs numbers if given enough playing time. But the Brawlers already had some great run producers, with first baseman John Docherty, left fielder Bruce Aberto, and third baseman Zong-ming Gang all competent run producers with double digit home runs and decent averages. All of this should translate into at least 90 wins for the Brawlers in a relatively weak division, earning them 1st place.

Pittsburgh and New York will tangle for 2nd place. Toronto could be hot on the heels of both teams and it will be interesting to see if all three teams compete for just one wild card spot in September. The Iron Pigs have the speed and run production, while the Toronto Nomads have maintained their very strong pitching rotation and bullpen. New York has a blend of both, and the predicted 80-82, 79-83, and 79-83 finish for the three teams respectively indicates a very tight battle among clubs that, overall, will be outclassed by Boston and much of the West division.

Pittsbugh has added some arms to help their rotation, namely Lazaro Lozano, who last played for a successful Arizona club that saw them make their first playoffs last season. Lozano was not that team’s best starter by any means, but he is a reliable back-of-the-rotation lefty who will give the Iron Pigs some a complete rotation. Aussie closer Lou Bricknell is expected to lock down the close leads all year with his 97 mph heater and wicked 12-6 curve. The former starter could make the jump back into the rotation if needed.

New York will have the second best LL starter leading their rotation, as Steve Rollins will compete with Toronto’s Knuckles Malone for the wins title, and could claim the strikeouts title. They will back their rotation with gap hitter Manny Davila, former Ohio sluggers Justin Good, and Alec Tricity, as well as homegrown talent at first base, Pedro Rosario, all competent hitters who can produce runs as well as save them in the field.

The Toronto Nomads were unable to make any serious off-season offensive improvements and will largely look the same as last year. But last year’s pitching was good enough to earn them 2nd place with their best season in over a decade. First baseman Brian Chambliss will lead the team’s offense, with other second-tier players filling roles, such as Joseph Walker in left field, a very capable leadoff hitter, and Rich Dillon at second base. The team will struggle offensively at other places, but can rely on the best rotation in the league, one which added former Detroit hurler Matthew Rendall to the 1-2 combination of Knuckles Malone and Alex Medina, who last year combined for 35 wins and nearly 450 K’s.

Montreal is expected to continue to crash and burn, just 2 seasons after winning it all. Their predicted 72-90 finish might even be optimistic, as they will be without plus-.300 hitter Orlando Garza to open the season, veteran arm Judson Martel seems to be on a decline at age 33, and they have one of the oldest pitching staffs in baseball with an average age of 30.34. Jose Ramirez will end up providing much of their offense and challenge for the batting title, but it won’t make up for so many terrible position players everywhere else. And the future looks bleak, with few AAA-level prospects in the league’s 18th ranked minor league system.

 

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