Six Bull League teams have never had an appearance in the Bull Cup Championship Series. Aside from the four expansion teams formed in 2012, there two others: the Toronto Nomads and the Denver Danger.
All six teams have at times had star players and quality seasons, but playoff success has thus far eluded them. Will any of them break that drought in 2017, and make it to a Bull Cup final?
We break down the teams and rate their chances for success as we consult the tea leaves in this preseason feature, starting with the team with the longest drought.
The Nomads have two capable, elite level starters in Knuckles Malone and Alex Medina. But they continually lack reliable and consistent offense.
The stats tell the grim tale: despite having a plethora of award-winning players over the seasons, since 1995 they have only had 4 winning seasons. They are consistently outscored, and have only had a positive run differential in four seasons (2005, 2007, 2008, 2010). In the last 22 seasons they have scored an average of 4.5 runs per game, but have allowed an average of 5.2 runs per game, which is clearly not a formula for success.
Last year, they finished 4th (33-49), only a marginal improvement over the previous season’s dreadful 32-50 fifth place finish.
They hope to turn it around, and have some promising talent in their minor league system, as well as a few nice prospects already at the top level, like Alexis Rosa and Joseph Walker, along with solid performers like Miguel Tafoya and closer Cyril Lefevre.
But they need at least one more key offensive piece, either a consistent high-contact hitter who can get on base and drive in runs, or a powerful slugger who can come up with 25+ home runs a year. If they do make the playoffs, they are not likely to see the final round until they solve their offense problem.
Despite struggling during Spring Training, the Danger are well-positioned to make it to the Bull Cup this year. That is, if they can stay healthy.
Top of the rotation star Rich Ojeda is 36, and while he had a great 2016 (7-3, 3.20 ERA, 12.3 K/9), his years could catch up with him at any time. Closer Nick McLellan is 39, and while still one of the most effective rally-killers in the league, his ERA has crept up from a career-best 1.50 in 2004 to 3.27 last season. Both pitchers could have plenty of steam left in their tank, but they may need plenty of rest days, which means leaning on the younger, underdeveloped arms. Jason Jankovic and Edwin Betancourt fit the bill nicely, but still need time to mature.
Offensively, the Danger have the right tools. Star catcher Javier Chavarria, 3B Roberto Lozano and LF Glen Reese are top of the lineup guys who can carry the team to where they need to be. All three should be at well over 20 home runs this season, and Chavarria could hit 30. Reese and Lozano have never had sproblem getting on base consistently.
And if trends count for anything, the team has made the playoffs for the past four seasons. Another trip to the post-season is not out of the cards, and they have the experience to get to the final round. They possibly might be short on depth, which means that injuries and slumps during the season could have an impact on how far they get come September.
Despite having some promising talent in their batting order, like Koji Kondo and Antonio Nicolle, the team has no depth and lacks good pitchers, which is a serious impediment to making it to the postseason.
The Cowboys have finished in 5th place in every year since they formed, except their first. They have one of the lowest budgets and payrolls in the league, and although they are sitting on a pile of cash, there are so few viable free agents available that could help them that they are better off saving their money for next season.
On the bright side, they will eventually see themselves in a postseason, sooner rather than later. They have three of the top pitching prospects in the league, Alex Orellana (#2 ranked), Nick Seer (#4 ranked), and Robby McWeeney (#8 ranked). Once they blossom, they will be a dangerous crew for batters to face night after night.
BATTLE CREEK ATTACK
Battle Creek is another of the 2012 expansion teams, and they are still playing like it’s their first season in the league. They are at least 4 to 5 years away from being under serious consideration for a playoff run, and even then, a trip to the Bull Cup finals is unlikely.
Niek Rodriguez, a nine-time all-star who was formerly one of their best pitchers, and in a class among some of the best in the league, is now 36 and on the decline. Just since 2014, his ERA has jumped from 2.96 to 4.77 last season. Similarly, his strikeouts have slid down and his WHIP was at a career high 1.32 last year.
There is literally no other talent on this roster outside of a decent closer, Everett Weisensel, who will not get much use closing games as there is virtually no offense to generate a lead to protect.
Sorry, Battle Creek, back to the basement for now.
The Deputies may not make it to a Bull Cup this year in their current state, but they are determined to make a run at the playoffs. And, as history tells us, once a team is in the postseason, surprises can happen.
First the positives. Dallas can count on some solid hitting and run production through the year from talent like SS Celestino Caparica, who is any manager’s dream lead-off guy, catcher Jerry Bravo, who can hit long balls with the best of them and is hitting his peak years, and line-drive hitter 2B Koichi Masuda. Their bullpen can kill rallies, with 2016 Woodchuck Trophy winner Nate Weil captaining a crew that also includes Jon Courteau, who is OSA ranked #2 in the Bull League at the closer spot.
But the bad outweighs the good on this roster. No talented outfielders, only one of whom is marginally good on the defense, and none of whom are in the running for hitting awards. The rotation is headed by arguably the worst starter in baseball, according to OSA rankings. Bob Finney has the unfortunate distinction of being #20 among the 20 teams top-slotted starters. A free agent signing from the Cinquantes, he led the Lake League in home runs allowed last year, with 24, and held an ERA of 4.94. He somehow managed a 7-5 record, mainly due to Chicoutimi’s offense, but he won’t likely have that kind of run support at Dallas this season.
Could we be wrong? Possibly. CF Chris Zahn showed promise in 22 games in 2015, hitting .329 and tapping in 6 HR’s before missing the rest of that season with a finger injury. When he came back last season, he didn’t hit nearly as well or as often, but still showed flashes of power and speed. He’s a year older now (he will turn 24 in June), and perhaps a year wiser. His big bat could really help Dallas give them the push they need for a playoff trip. But poor pitching is bound to plague them should they make it.
(Grade: B Could really do it)
Since the 2012 expansion, Norfolk has suffered from being in a small market and struggling to compete in a division with powerhouses like the Jacksonville Ravens (now Olean Oilers) and the Calgary Inferno.
But they have manage to piece together a lineup that could take them to the postseason anyway, headed by SS Danny “Golden Boy” Sanchez, a dream lead-off guy who hits well and often, runs fast, and shows Zen-like patience at the plate. Danny led the American Eagle League in walks for the past three years, and OBP in two of those years. On average, he’s successful at stealing bases more than 76% of the time. At 30 years old, he’s still in his prime, and has yet to miss a game due to an injury.
No team can rely on just one player to take them places, but the Sharks also have 2B Miguel Ortega, who is virtually a doppelganger in skills to Sanchez. He sees and contacts the ball well, and runs like the wind. He doesn’t show quite as much patience, but has still managed a career .303 average and .333 OBP. Ortega was a free agent acquisition who played for New York last year, and he will be worth every last dollar of his $14.2 million salary this year.
RF Bronson Jamieson, 1B Rick Baggywrinkle, and LF Bradley Hale round out an offense that can compete with the best teams. The one serious area of concern is the pitching, and outside of the very capable Charles Ling, there is no other high quality starter, and potentially no lefties anywhere at all.
They may not win it all, but the Sharks have a better-than-even shot at making the playoffs this year and potentially finding themselves in a Bull Cup final.