(Game date: Feb. 19, 2019) — As the preseason winds down, and Spring Training fast approaches, teams are getting ready for the 2019 season.
Many teams have a vision for the coming season, but many more are still trying to figure themselves out.
The Cowboys finished 2018 in 5th place, the sixth consecutive season in the basement. But is there any hope for Arizona fans looking towards 2019? The answer is: MAYBE.
First, Tak-keung Yang, who was 2018’s AEL Rookie of the Year, is expected to remain solid at 1B as a power hitting machine. Young shortstop Joe Keuppers is among the best in baseball in terms of defense, and steadily making in-roads offensively. The outfield of Alexis Rosa, Blair Caldwell and Bronson Jamieson could prove potent, but likely the lack of pitching will hurt them once again this year.
Even with the addition of Cody Martin in the off-season, as their big power-hitting DH, they will struggle to hold off opponents and will suffer at the likes of California, Seattle and Nevada, who look to be the dominant contenders in their division. The Cowboys dreadful minor system is still years away from producing any meaningful talent, and so expect them to look at trades and free agent signings to bolster their lineup and rotation, though most of that work for 2019 has already been done.
BOSTON BRAWLERS (GM: Scott Ellis)
The Brawlers have their work cut out for them, having made absolutely no roster moves to add players during the off-season. Yet, they lost several big names to retirements and free agency, including catcher Bill Ross (retired), and pitchers Alfonso Gutierrez and Pete Sharpe (both free agency).
Sharpe, who anchored the rotation last year, went 6-11 but held down a respectable 3.28 ERA, while Gutierrez did double-duty as a reliever and starter, and was a key rotation piece in 2017 going 12-5, with a 2.71 ERA.
They still have Lenny Brisco, Sincere Gilmore, and Marshall Bennett, but they lack a quality #4 or #5 in the rotation. At the plate, they will get reliable production from veterans Angel Payan and Bruce Aberto, and a healthy Zong-ming Gang is sure to garner base hits and perhaps contend for the MVP, but there are too many question marks, including 37-year-old catcher Guido Groeneveld, the entire bullpen, and the fact that there is no bench coach, hitting coach or team trainer.
With the improvements New York and Montreal made since the end of 2018, Boston may find themselves in a quick tailspin not long into the season.
From winning two Bull Cups in three seasons (2015 and 2017) to 3rd place last season, the Inferno will likely not be able to reverse any of their downward momentum this season, given their poor off-season moves.
They managed to add no one of note, yet lost 1B Logans Run and reliever Kevin Krohn to free agency, along with Cody Martin who signed with Arizona for a fraction of his Inferno salary. Run and Martin turned down QO’s to sign elsewhere for less than the QO amount, suggesting these players wanted off the boat.
The Inferno still have reliable Israel Medina at 3B, but have essentially hit a reset button just two seasons after winning the Bull Cup, which suggests a long and painful rebuild on the horizon. In a tough division with California and Nevada, they will not fare well at all this year, and their top prospects are still 3 seasons or more away from mattering.
After a short, and large scale rebuild last year that saw the departure of potential future HOFer Jim Lahey (to division rivals Nevada no less), the Tidals went into the off-season looking to spend big. And that they did, signing hugely anticipated international 1B Hiroki Omiya, projecting to be a top-of-the-charts home run hitter, catcher Dao-zi Ling, who should be effective protection for Omiya in the batting order, high profile hitting machine Peyton May at 2B and several other value additions.
The Tidals may or may not contend in 2019, but they will certainly give Nevada pitching something to worry about as they look to reclaim former glory as the top team in the west less than a decade ago.
CHICAGO PIT BULLS (GM: Scott Davis)
The Pit Bulls looked like a feral dog that had been kicked and abused last season, sliding in to a worst-in-team-history .300 finish (30-70). The off-season brought more misery, as they lost pitcher Ming Ou to retirement. Ou had spent his entire 15 year career with Chicago, and leaves as the winningest pitcher in club history, as well as the club’s strikeout king (beating out recent Hall of Fame inductee Ricky Terrazas who also played for Chicago).
There were other losses, too, but those ones would have helped more than hurt, as low production veterans like Oscar Barajas fled for free agency (many still remaining unsigned).
But then Davis broke out the check book. Closer Kevin Krohn and groundballer Jesus Carrillo were added to the bullpen at a cost of over $11 million for the pair. Starter William Febres a former Sandy Koufax winner from 2009, who was 4-1 with a 2.01 ERA before being injured last year while playing with Rimouski, will anchor the #1 slot in the rotation for another $11 million.
To assuage concerns of adding too many 35+ year old veterans, Davis went gangbusters during the Rule 5 draft, signing what is possibly a record number of minor leaguers – eight in total. Of them, only former California A-level reliever Dylan Dixon seems to stand out, but the gamble on untested youth could easily pay off and at the very least has had an impact in driving down payroll for 2019.
Chicago may not compete with Minneapolis, Ohio and Detroit in 2019, but if even a handful of the Rule 5’s work out, they will look like contenders in 2020 and beyond.
DALLAS DEPUTIES (GM: Mike Zaam)
Since Zaam took over not a whole lot has happened, other than the departure of several free agents (16 in total). No signings or trades have occurred, and the team looks like it will be another year in the basement, aiming for a top draft pick.
But, with prospects like Matt Horsely (OSA ranked 3rd) and John Heart (OSA ranked 11th) inching their way through the league’s 2nd ranked minor league system, adding top draft picks may turn out to be the long-term winning strategy the team needs to finally escape the basement, where they’ve been since 2014.
The Motorheads looked like they were gaining some momentum last season, but then it all fell apart. Their top pitcher, Jake Figurski, hit the high road for free agency after 2018, and is still looking for a safe port to harbor in.
Detroit is gambling on Angelo Rodriguez as a free agent reliever signing. The 39-year-old is the all-time career strikeouts leader (at 2,160), but was underutilized with Minneapolis last season. But even at his advanced age, he hasn’t really lost his control much, and his cutter, splitter and changeup don’t rely on velo to get outs. He might provide some useful mid-relief innings, while other bullpen arms do the harder work of closing out games.
The Motorheads also picked up Logans Run after he left Calgary, and can back him up with Dennis Guppy and Ger Vaartjes, two more sluggers in the lineup. But nothing screams contender about Detroit, and they will have a tough time threatening the Minneapolis Ravens this year.
With a top-ranked prospect in Payton Bint, the Motorheads could give the Ravens a run for their money in 2-3 seasons, but not before.
Until recently led by GM Troy Vogel, the Storm are now under new (AI) management and were aggressive in adding starting pitching to their mix for 2019, picking up Kyle Cahill in free agency, and trading for Connor Pearce from Calgary.
The big gamble, however, is Ricky Jalapeno, the center fielder who played just 32 games with Seattle last season, and just 1 game for the Anchorage Aces in 2017. Injuries have seen Jalapeno decline somewhat, but he’s still considered in the top 10 at his position when healthy.
The Storm also have raker Andy Laboy behind the platter and batting title contender Xavier de Soto at third base. They do still have areas to improve on, but overall look like they could finally break into the playoff mix for 2019.
The Hops, who recently relocated from Louisville, remain in one of the most lopsided divisions, with juggernaut Minneapolis Ravens leading the way. It’s doubtful the Hops have done enough in he off-season to tip the balance away from that.
However, they do have Lake League batting title winner and Rookie of the Year Les Groves, who could easily surpass 40 home runs in the longer 162-game season. The Hops may find enough offense in Elias Huerta, Jason Nelson, and Koji Kondo to eliminate Ohio from the mix, leaving them as the only serious opposition for the Ravens.
They have an 8th ranked minor league system and a pile of cash to work with, they could end up adding talent in the 2019 draft that will see them outpace their division rivals by 2021.
MINNEAPOLIS RAVENS (GM: Brendan Burke)
The Ravens charged to a historic 63 win season last year, setting the Lake League record. In a longer, 162-game season this projects to a 100+ wins, and the Ravens seem determined to drive themselves there for 2019.
They suffered few off-season defeats, losing a smattering of mediocre players and just one who mattered (closer Shigenobu Takahashi who went to free agency and signed with St. Petersburg). They picked up Pete Sharpe at $10.6 million a year for 7 years, and will fit him in to the #2 or #3 spot behind Ricky Rodriguez.
Importantly, they added some serious power in international free agent Lan-quing Siew at 2B, and he complements last year’s international signing Evandro Cerigo very well. Cerigo was a Rookie of the Year contender in 2018, and should clear 40 home runs in the 162-game 2019 season. Siew could easily match that and hit as well as switch-hitting shortstop David Baker who batted .338 last season.
The worst news for Lake League teams is that not only are the Ravens a great team now, they have a great system that promises some top talent in 3-4 seasons.
MONTREAL METROS (GM: Danny Desrochers)
The 2018 Bull Cup Champion Metros survived the off-season with much of their 2018 team intact, which is good news for them.
They did see 3B Alejandro Reyna leave for free agency, but the 36-year-old is getting too old to convince many that he will improve, and has just 2 seasons at the major level for GM’s to judge him by. Desrochers picked up Gula Kareem and Corrosive Joseph as FA signings. Kareem will cost Montreal a draft pick, but he might be worth it after having a great season with New York in 2018, hitting 19 home runs and batting .283. Joseph makes for a value defensive shortstop or third baseman, who can hit for average well.
The rotation is still headed by 2-time Sandy Koufax winner Judson Martel, and 7-time All-Star Ron Alder, who was immensely valuable in the playoffs after Martel was injured last season. This is a pitching one-two punch that can rely on 20 save closer Jon Courteau and the Metros should have no trouble gliding into the playoffs again for a 14th consecutive season, building on a solid legacy.
NEVADA SPEEDERS (GM: Scott Dummler)
The Speeders had a miracle season in 2018, rocketing from 3rd to 1st in just a year, and tying the 63-win league record.
They are mainly status quo from last season, which is not a bad strategy since it worked so well at getting them into the postseason. They did lose a chunk of useful bullpen arms to free agency, most notably Shi-min Chaim and Jonas Reyes who combined for a 10-2 record, 14 saves, and 78 strikeouts over about 90 innings.
But, they signed Reyes back and added former Seattle closer Adam Fitzpatrick, who will likely setup for the more dominant Nate Kremer.
The trio of Chitoji Yamada, Jim Lahey, and Jose Torres will generate the bulk of their scoring, and the club has enough talent in the prospect tank to leverage into trades as the season goes along, should they need to bolster any areas and keep themselves in contention.
California will be their only serious opposition in 2019.
NEW YORK DRAGONS
The Dragons were sunk after the off-season, losing Gula Kareem and Chris Chrism to free agency, two productive hitters and at least one, Kareem, with some measure of power. Reliever Everett Weisensel left for free agency as well, having suffered another poor season that did not approach his 2017 Reliever of the Year stats, a 25 save season with a 1.33 ERA. Weisey showed some signs of promise, with a 2.08 ERA and 1.04 WHIP, but with a small sample size of just 8.2 innings the team didn’t want to take a chance on him.
Then came the blockbuster trade with Ohio, that immediately propelled them back into the conversation as a 2019 playoff contender.
Though they dealt free agent signing Section Attack (who had cost them a draft pick) along with three pitchers and a prospect catcher, the return was three solid offensive players in Alec Tricity, Justin Good and Matt Port, and a playoff MVP pitcher, A. C. Deucey.
Deucey had a mediocre year in 2018, but was one of the Lake League’s top pitchers just a year before that, going 14-2 with a 2.24 ERA. He throws 95 mph with one of the crispest sliders in the business, and joins a stacked rotation that includes Steve Rollins, Fred Loveless and Ricky Naugler, making the Dragons rotation one of the deepest in the league.
Good will hit from the cleanup with Manny Davila protecting him, and the Dragons now have one of the best infields in baseball.
Critics will say the trade does nothing to improve the Dragons long-term outlook, and with the 16th ranked minor system in baseball, that may be true. The vast majority of the roster is free agency eligible after 2019, including all of the starters but Rollins and Andrade (who is under team control until 2023). But the team is looking to get back to a winning record after going 49-51 last year and finishing below .500 for the first time since 2012.
The trade, and the free agent signings, are a game changer for New York, and immediately propel them into a playoff conversation with Montreal.
NORFOLK SHARKS (GM: Lawrence Tabachnick)
The Sharks had a quiet off-season, which could work against them except that most of the teams in their division also made few changes during the off-season.
They added Alfonso Gutierrez, the former Boston pitcher, and drafted Mike Sclafani from Ohio in the Rule 5 draft, a high-potential first baseman that had been one of the Oxen’s top prospects.
With Danny Sanchez and Earl MacPherson heading up the offense, and Miguel Ortega who was last year’s AEL batting champ at .377, leading off the lineup, the team will win games, maybe even more than they lose. But it’s hard to see them giving a serious threat to the St. Petersburg Admirals in 2019.
OHIO OXEN (GM: Dylan Maccarone)
The Oxen finally pulled the pin on the rebuild, and executed the massive 9-player deal that saw them lose about half their offense and one of their top pitchers.
The shell of a team left over, Garth Goyle, Tyrone O’Saurus, and Juan Toothry, is a great core to build around. Goyle may eventually become a defensive liability, but as a first baseman that won’t likely impact the wins and losses, and at any rate can be moved to the DH role with ease.
The rotation will include some combination of Frasor Clause, Nick Pruitt, Rusty Rowe and Steve Howard, but now the addition of Miguel Lebron and Jose Castaneda give the team options to move some of the lower performing starters back to AAA, or into the bullpen, which is already one of the best in the league.
The trade solves a temporary problem, which is whether Ohio can make a run at Minneapolis in 2019. They will. But it doesn’t solve their longer term problem, a worst-in-baseball farm system, a crushing budget squeeze, and a slew of pending free agents after this year that may not all re-sign.
PHILADELPHIA LIBERTY WARRIORS
The former Denver Danger team, which was moved to Philly this past off-season, and that eliminated the much stronger Nevada Speeders in the first round of the playoffs last season, saw 25 players leave the organization through trades, free agency, retirement and waivers.
They did manage to gain a promising young center fielder, Al Turley (in a trade with Toronto), a solid-stuff Triple-A reliever, John Wagner (drafted from Detroit in the Rule 5 draft), and rock ’em, sock ’em slugger Carlos Mendoza (free agent signing). It remains to be seen whether it will all be enough to keep them in contention with St. Pete’s, Miami and Norfolk.
PITTSBURGH IRON PIGS
The former Rimouski Fighting Moose blew the budget last year, blew their first three draft picks on compensation free agent signings, and then were blown out of the playoffs by Montreal.
The off-season added salt to the wound, as many of their big name free agents left for free agency again, with 13 players in all leaving to look for better offers, including William Febres (who signed with Chicago), Kyle Cahill and Celestino Caparica (Miami), Dao-zi Ling and Mo-ruo Chen (California), and Carlos Mendoza (Philly).
But it was not all doom and gloom for the new Iron Pigs. They moved into a bigger stadium, in a bigger market, which will solve some of their budget concerns, and they added some talented – if geriatric – bullpen arms in free agent signings. They still have some great starters, and if no one recognizes any of the position players there is perhaps a chance that they will manage to fool some of the better opposing pitchers enough to squeak out some wins.
If not, they can reset with a bigger budget and better draft picks moving forward.
The Salts were once solid contenders, but now with the departure of so many top relievers and even some starters, they face another season of retooling, while working to improve their budget in a tight market.
The infield of Jorge Garzes at first, Bradford Seymour at second, Hoshi Mizuguchi at third and Bubble Smith at short should provide something for fans to get excited about, but only if Garzes and Mizu are re-signed beyond this year.
ST. PETERSBURG ADMIRALS (GM: Brandon Popper)
The Admirals are relatively unscathed after the off-season, having lost only Section Attack to free agency. They still have a solid core of offense in Katai Kitigawa, Alex Viramontes, Takeo Otomo, and Chris Pratt, who will once again put the team on top in the division in run production.
The pitching remains excellent, with the rotation of Jose Soto, Chris Zerkle, Harry Ferguson and Dusty Hertz now joined by international free agent signing Young-lau Weng, a 100+ fireballer with years to grow ahead of him.
Their other big catch was Shigenobu Takahashi, the closer who left Minneapolis for free agency.
The Admirals are in control, in calm waters, and looking like 2019 contenders once again.
TORONTO NOMADS (GM: Ray Morrell)
After a dismal 2018, wrought with injuries and budget woes, the Nomads finally look to make some inroads in improving for 2019. They dumped expensive non-performers in free agency, picked up a promising Rule 5 catcher, Aaron Dilla, from St. Pete’s, signed two relievers in free agency that could improve the bullpen.
There is still a long way to go, however, before the Nomads are in the playoff conversation. The rotation of Knuckles Malone and Alex Medina looks weak with only sophomore major-leaguer Jim Torelli and no one else of significance to back them.
The addition of Rich Dillon and Brian Chambliss on the right side of the infield last season in trades helps, but large gaps exist on the left side. The team hopes to see continued improvement from outfielders Joseph Walker and Adam Russillo, but there are no illusions in the Toronto front office, the Nomads will not be in the race for another 2-3 years at least.