Follow me on Twitter. I have 64 followers now. So I can have an NCAA Tournament amongst my followers — at least the pre-play-in version of the NCAA Tournament. My next follower plays Alcorn State in the play-in game, winner gets Kentucky. So just know that.
Since the Wingnuts play approximately 93.5 of their 96 games against North Division foes, let’s take a look at the other four teams in the division. Or, if you want to go to AmericanAssociationBaseball.com and look at the rosters of the other teams, that’s basically what I’ll be doing. So you can skip reading this blog. But if you don’t want to do all that hard work, just keep reading.
Lincoln: The defending league champions return much of the squad that upset the Wingnuts in the opening round of the playoffs last summer. The Saltdogs, especially in that series, were carried by their pitching, and they’re boosted by the returns of Jim Paduch and Tim Brown. Though ace Jarrett Gardner retired, he’ll still have a profound effect on the pitching staff, because he was named pitching coach by manager Marty Brown.
On offense, the Saltdogs have a potentially fearsome lineup that hinges on the abilties of late-season pickups Gavin Dickey, Argelis Nunez, Rafael Alvarez and Juan Richardson to produce runs. The consistency of Phil Hawke, who can hit for power and averge, gives Lincoln a deep lineup and enables other power hitters to fill the bottom third of the order. Defensively, Lincoln is strong up the middle with catcher Shawn McGill and shortstop Albenis Machado. I’d slot Lincoln as the team to beat in the division and probably league-wide.
Sioux Falls: Since the Wingnuts joined the league in 2008, Sioux City has been one of Wichita’s strongest rivals. It hasn’t been much of a rivalry, though, because the Wingnuts usually get the best of it. I would guess that won’t change much this season, because on paper the Explorers’ roster looks relatively weak. Remember that ex-MLBer they signed, Joe Bisenius? He’s already gone, having signed with the Washington Nationals.
So there’s not much to get excited about if you’re an Explorers fan. Sorry to any Explorers fan who might be reading. And there might be a couple, because they’ve had a strong Wichita connection the last couple years. But even that is starting to crumble, because former Wichita State infielder Nick McCoola is now with Fort Worth, leaving Derek Schemerhorn without his former Shocker teammate.
The team might be strong in the bullpen, where David Trahan and Brett Reid both have track records of providing late-inning outs. The offense should be led by outfielders TJ Bohn and Jon Owings, who both have experience in affiliated ball. After that, it looks like Sioux City is full of a bunch of hangers-on. It lost its ace, Nick Singleton, now with the Wingnuts.
Sioux Falls: The Canaries ERRRRR Pheasants (channeled Jim Rome just now) made my favorite signing of the offseason, snagging one-time mega prospect Reggie Abercrombie. He was supposed to become the next big thing with the Dodgers in the early 2000s, instead his countless tools didn’t translate and he bounced around the majors as an extra outfielder. Why is he my favorite signing? Because in 2007, while with the Astros, he taught me an elaborate, multi-step handshake in the visitors’ clubhouse at Turner Field. Yeah, I’m name-dropping again this season.
Aside from Abercrombie, the Pheasants picked up Brandon Sing, who holds the league’s single-season home run record of 22, set with Pensacola in 2008. Last year, he smacked 23 bombs in the Atlantic League, a step up from the American Association. With a strong table-setter in Joe Anthonsen and a middle of the order that includes Abercrombie, Sing and Beau Torbert, the Pheasants look pretty dangerous.
Sioux Falls always seems to keep its pitching staff fairly intact from season to season, and it has done so again this year with familiar names such as Ben Moore, Travis Kane, Ryan Grant and Andrew Pluta. Familiar to me, anyway.
St. Paul: The darlings of the American Association look to have a fairly stacked roster this season. But you never really know how it’s going to look on the field. The offense is especially intriguing, and it starts with the acquisition (as expected) of Kevin Millar, a veteran major leaguer who has some World Series hardware. Sure, he’s old, but he was in big-league camp this spring, so you know he’ll probably hit in this league.
After that, the Saints have a couple players near and dear to my heart from their days in the Cleveland Indians organization. One-time prospect Jason Cooper returns to the Saints, as does Ole Sheldon. The Indians grabbed Sheldon from the Saints during last season, then released him. So he’s back in St. Paul. Millar, Cooper and Sheldon join veteran Saint Brent Krause as long-ball threats.
The Saints also have to like their bullpen. They picked up former Pensacola closer Hunter Davis, whom the Wingnuts tried to acquire last season before picking up Justin Dowdy from Shreveport. Also in the back end of the Saints’ bullpen is Joe D’Alessandro, who threw gas in the Wingnuts bullpen for a few weeks last summer but never quite harnessed his electric array of pitches.