Roster Expanding as Pennant Chase Heats Up

(GAME DATE — Aug. 29, 2019) — The Bull League is entering its final month of play for the 2019 season, and the pennant chase will really start in earnest, as teams active rosters expand to 40 players for the final weeks.

Several teams are expected to make some big moves, with those locked-in teams using the extra roster spaces to bring in new players who can allow their veterans some rest ahead of the playoffs, while out-of-contention teams will give their upcoming stars a chance to shine before the offseason roster decisions get made.

The teams to watch closely, however, will be the ones on the bubble for a wildcard, as they make last minute moves to try to put themselves into a playoff spot.

The Milwaukee Hops and Miami Storm in particular will without a doubt be leveraging the extra roster spaces to try to muscle their way into wildcard spots. The California Tidals and the Norfolk Sharks similarly are within grasp of a wildcard spot, and have minor league depth to draw on to try to get there.

We take a look at what moves these and other teams may make as we roll into September.

The Contenders

The Minneapolis Ravens are the surest of the playoff contenders, currently sitting atop the Lake League West at 82-51, with a 8½ game lead over the Ohio Oxen.  Their lineup boasts three players in the MVP conversation, rookie 2B Lan-quing Siew, RF Evandro Cerigo, and LF Chris Zahn. They are the top run-producing lineup in the LL, and have one of the best starting rotations and defense depth charts as well.

That said, they will want to preserve their rotation for a playoff run, and give their bats some rest as well. AAA-level Thunder Bay is chock full of talent, and is headed for the Cow League playoffs themselves, but they could still see 25-year-old right-handed starter Henry Lemieux (14-7, 3.61), who is already on the 40-man roster, get a promotion early on in September.  LF Danny Minor, who is 2nd on the Thunder Bay roster in home runs with 17, and pushing a 2.5 WAR, could also see a promotion to give Chris Zahn some much-needed rest.

2B Donald Lei is slashing .249/.363/.389 with 11 HR and 9 SB, for a 3.9 WAR with Thunder Bay. The 27-year-old would be a great infield supplement to ease the burden on Siew and help avoid a last season spell on the DL for the hot international rookie.

Speaking of Ohio, they have suffered pitching woes all year, compounded by the loss of two decent starters to injuries: Skeeter Heater (May 3, torn UCL), and Steve Howard (May 23, elbow ligament reconstruction). While three of their rotation have notched up a dozen or more wins, it has been thanks to their incredible offense for 2019, which includes MVP contender Tyrone O’Saurus at backstop, currently hitting .294 with a LL-leading 43 home runs.

The Oxen minor league well is very dry, but Triple-A Toledo Tornados could contribute LHP Ross Cooper to the rotation, as a possible solution to moving around less effective rotation pieces.  Tornados LF Jeremy Evans could similarly find himself on the expanded roster, bringing his AAA 4.2 WAR and 152 wRC+ into the mix. He is not currently on the 40-man roster, but the club has 4 open slots and a need to solidify their offense in the event of a late season injury, or just fatigue setting in with their top-producing outfield.

The New York Dragons currently have a marginal lead over the LL East, with a 78-55 record and 4½ game lead over the Toronto Nomads. The Dragons power-driven offense includes a smorgasbord of top names, like former Oxen infielder Alex Tricity and DH Justin Good, veteran CF Tony Cruz, and 1B Pedro Rosario, all of whom have double-digit home runs. Their 2nd in the LL pitching is headed by power pair Steve Rollins and Ricky Naugler, and the team will almost certainly see a playoff entry after a two year hiatus.

To ensure they arrive there in good form, look for 40-year-old veteran Francisco Erazo to make a reappearance from the AAA Hartford Judges roster, most likely in a DH role. LF Dan Konschak could see a promotion to give Chris Chrism and Cruz a rest.  Fastball/curveball ace Robby Andrade, who is holding a 1.18 WHIP at AAA right now, will almost certainly supplement the New York rotation to ease the pressure on Rollins and Naugler.

The Nomads have less wiggle room, with the club heavily relying on top ace Knuckle Malone, a serious triple crown and Sandy Koufax contender, to keep them in the playoff game. They have already shuffled around offensive pieces, and would be scraping the barrel to try to supplement their batting order. Their Triple-A offense is lousy, and other than 3B Dusty Vega, or CF Gerard Corcoran, it is unlikely many new names will see a promotion as the team will not want to mess up what has thus far been working well all season.  Vega and Corcoran offer excellent defense, and offense that won’t hurt their current lineup.

In the Metro League East, the St Petersburg Admirals stand alone in playoff contention, with a 79-53 record that puts them a full 14½ games ahead of the Storm. They have not suffered from injuries as much as some teams, with only 3B Israel Medina on the mend at the moment, due back in 2 weeks. Still, they will want Jose Soto, Dusty Hertz and Harry Ferguson as healthy 1-2-3 rotation arms in the post-season, and so we expect to see Triple-A St Anthony starter Jon Velasquez (9-9, 4.04) get a phone call to join the major level roster in early September.  SeaWolves closer Brett Abruzzo and middle reliever Chris Lough could see a late season spell as call-ups as well.

OF Brian Arnold is a likely promotion as well, as he plays all outfield positions well and was very productive on the AAA roster, bringing both speed and power to the lineup. C Jose Ramos, who crafted an OPS of .809 through 82 games at AAA-level, could be a suitable backup to Bill Clark, and is already on the very full 40-man roster.

The Seattle Salts hold the current lead in the ML West by just 1½ games over the Nevada Speeders. And, for the first time in franchise history, the Arizona Cowboys are in contention in the late season, holding the 2nd wildcard slot just 8 games behind Seattle. All three teams have 70+ wins and it’s as tight a race as any year has seen for this division.  The Salts have suffered a slew of injuries all season, and have still managed to hang on.  Six players in their lineup have 20 or more home runs, and closer Jon Courteau has notched 30 saves. The team is formidable this year. Their AAA-level Portland Timberwolves are in playoff contention in the Cow League, but could still contribute 40-man roster names such as RHP Edgar Mojica (7-2, 3.20) and CF Luis Rodriguez (116 wRC+ and 1.3 WAR). Rodriguez could easily replace and ineffective CF Justin Reich, or even defensive liability Ryan Vallis at LF.

The Speeders intend to dethrone the Salts for the pennant, and have the offense and bullpen to do it.  They have gaps in the starting rotation, and not much left in the pitching gas tank in the minors, though with room on their 40-man they could promote George Hollenbeck (10-5, 2.85) out of AA-level Hughes River Bats to supplement their 5-man rotation of Jim Koch, Al Mota, Danny Tirado, and two question marks.  Offensively, they will want to milk every home run out of MVP contenders 1B Jim Lahey and LF Chitoji Yamada, but a promotion for AAA Oakland Dukes 1B Franklin Nava and RF Mick Connolly is not out of the question. Nava is already on the 40-man and could give Lahey some rest ahead of the playoffs, while former Western Mustangs college tourney MVP Connolly would be an easy addition to the crew, and as a bonus has all 3 options left on his contract.

The Cowboys are limping into the wildcard just 4½ games ahead of Miami, and could easily falter during the last month. They are missing two important arms, Adam Toth and Jaylen Carlier, out for the season with injuries. That they have still managed to land where they are is commendable, but not sustainable. They will need to keep RF Tak-keung Yang in the lineup as much as possible to ensure the best chance at staying in a wildcard. That said, 5-tools guy CF Jeremy White comes back from rehab in 5 days, where he has shown promise that the Cowboys hope translates into runs at the ML level.

ON THE BUBBLE

The Milwaukee Hops are hungry to make their first-ever playoff in franchise history, and are so close they can taste it. At 68-66, they are just 14½ games back from the Ravens – miles given the time left – but only 6 away from the wildcard. Two bad series for Ohio, and 2 good ones for the Hops, will put them into a WC slot.

The Hops will close out August against the hapless Chicago Pit Bulls, but then have some tough opponents down the September stretch, including the tricky Toronto Nomads with their solid pitching, and offensive juggernauts New York, Minneapolis and a 4-game set to close the year out against Ohio, with whom they are directly contending with for that WC spot. That final series will be crucial for the Hops and for Ohio.

The Hops roster strategy in September will likely include raiding their AAA-level Mobile River Bandits for veteran arm Jake Davey (10-8, 2.56) and probably Brendon Starratt (6-6, 2.94). Starratt’s 1.00 WHIP and 3.1 pitcher WAR is looking appetizing to the weak Hops rotation, and both pitchers are already on the 40-man roster. September might also be the right time to put probably Hall of Fame bound Koji Kondo back on the 40-man roster as a DH. Offensively he was lackluster for the Hops earlier in the season, but as the pennant race heats up his potential power cannot be ignored.

Over in the Metro League, the Miami Storm need 4½ games to close in on the Cowboys and the 2nd wild card. They will have a tough go over the next weekm, facing St Pete’s, Seattle and Nevada, in that order. However, once they fight through that, they can expect to finish the season with relatively easy sets against Dallas, Calgary and finally Philly, after meeting Norfolk and St Pete’s for a second time. The Storm have a stacked offense, 2nd in the ML in batting average and 3rd in OBP, but it’s pitching that needs to improve for the home stretch. We predict Don Hopewell, reliever Hector Burgoa, Layton Etter and Camden Harrington to all find their way into the mix by months end.

The California Tidals are just 1½ games further behind a WC than the Storm, and are itching to prove they are done with their playoff slump – in danger of extending to a 5th season. A late season rally could put them ahead of the Storm and the Cowboys, should either team falter in the next four weeks. They will have the cards stacked against them, having lost top hitter Peyton May in June to a torn PCL injury, and potentially career-ending injury to 40-year-old ace Connor Pearce, out with a torn rotator cuff since August 7th. Starter Jake Figurski may just return in the nick of time from the DL, but the rotation is limping into the last month on life support overall.

That will place a heavy burden on their offense to outperform their peers, a tough challenge against the Storm, whom they are in a race with, and Nevada, St Pete’s and Seattle, who are all lined up to play against the Tidals in September. But two series against the Cowboys could swing the odds in their favor, if they take 5 of the 7 games that could close their game deficit by half. Well-timed wins against Philly and Calgary, with Dallas as their final opponent of the year, could put them into a WC if luck runs their way. For the Tidals, their season may not be decided until the last game.

AAA-level C Edwin Torres, with 20 home runs and a 2.7 WAR for the Anaheim Pharaohs, and disciplined speedster RF Ray Macqueen, could find themselves promoted next month as the Tidals press home the attack on the Storm and the Cowboys.

Not in it

The Chicago Pit Bulls have been out of the race since April, but picked up hot-hitting phenom John Rambo in the 2019 draft and are almost literally salivating at the chance to see him do his thing in the Bull League. Rambo led the NCAA in home runs with 34, and hit a mesmerizing .419, in his final college year before being drafted 1st overall by Chicago in June. In 27 games at AA-level Anchorage, he hit safely in 32 out of 109 at bats, knocking 10 home runs in the process. At AAA-level Milwaukee Pugs, he bumped his average up to .361 in 10 games, and blasted 4 home runs.  He has 48 home runs this year at all levels, and an OPS over 1.000.

There is always debate about bringing up talent too soon, but Rambo seems almost a shoe-in for a roster spot in Chicago for the 2020 season, it makes sense to get him to the roster in September even if it shortens the wait until his free agency eligibility down the road. One reason is that the team is not as bad as it seems on paper, and next year their offense of Justin Kelly, Mike Strang, David Herbst, and Frank Erickson could see far better results with better pitching on the mound.  Brett Gilbert could be joined next season by AA-level Jeremy Wright, should the 22-year-old former CANAM college Pitcher of the Year impress during spring training.

Just as Chicago is itching to get Rambo into the mix, the Dallas Deputies could similarly be hoping to get an early look at AA-level CF John Heart, a 5-tools phenom whose contact ability, speed and power rival Rambos. Currently the 3rd ranked overall prospect, Heart has been solid at every level since being drafted in 2016, save for his slow 10 games to start his AAA career this season.

The Montreal Metros have had an uncharacteristic poor showing this year, after winning the Bull Cup in 2018. They have talent in their system that they will want to trial before the year’s end, possibly including top-rated reliever Chris Perez, currently 3-0 with 2 saves and a 2.56 ERA at AAA-level Gatineau, and promising 3B Tom Carroll, batting .270 at AAA-level.

Carroll’s power (13 home runs so far this year, 13 last year at AAA) will supplement MVP Jose Ramirez well, and hopefully bring the Metros out of the power basement, where they sit at 10th in the LL in home runs this year.

To summarize, look for some important moves for the contenders as they try to hold on to their playoff spots, with some early flashes of talent making appearances amongst the out of the race teams, as rosters expand in 3 days.

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