Pivotal season in prospect for national league
15 November 2016
Starting on Thursday 17 November – with reigning champion Brisbane Bandits at home to Canberra Cavalry – the seventh 2016/17 Australian Baseball League season will be without any doubt its most important to date as the league transitions from majority MLB ownership and strives to gain a foothold in a crowded sporting market.
Although Major League Baseball will retain its all-important funding interest in other aspects of Australian baseball – in particular the academy programme – ownership of the Australian Baseball League is now totally in the hands of Baseball Australia and its state associations, who face a raft of challenges in seeking to provide the resources and the services fundamental to growth and viability of the league.
Challenging times, yes. Exciting and potentially rewarding times? Certainly.
The initial funding commitment of Major League Baseball was for five seasons – so that the sixth became a bonus in a sense, one that allowed breathing space for Australian interests to prepare a strategy for ongoing development and effective delivery of the Australian Baseball League.
This time around, the six-team competition will be administered and resourced by predominantly local interests with the assistance of a handful of overseas interns in each state. It will rely heavily on the support that it can garner from volunteers attached to existing clubs and associations across the country. Again supported by generous local sponsors, the league faces the ongoing challenge of sparking community interest and drawing people through the gates.
The season schedule appears simple and well-balanced. It will be a forty-game season, with each of the six teams playing five four-game home series and five four-game away series against all others. The top side at the end of the regular season will head straight to the Championship Game in early February, while second and third will play a qualifying series to decide the other opponent.
While final rosters are not expected to be settled until some weeks into the Australian Baseball League season, one element of which we can be assured is the high quality of the baseball that will be played. Aside from the inclusion of exciting home-grown talent and many of our emerging young professionals in the sport, each of the six clubs will be bolstered by quality imports from United States and Asia – including a number of players with Major League or Japanese professional credentials or experience.
A disappointment for most of its time in the revamped league – including three wooden spoons - Melbourne Aces will be managed by Australian National Head Coach Jon Deeble, who has attracted to the club some exciting names that include AAA catcher, national representative and Perth Heat superstar Allan de San Miguel to bolster a stable of former Major Leaguers including Mark Hamburger, Virgil Vasquez, Shane Lindsay and Peter Moylan. With a trio of players from Seibu Lions (Nippon Professional Baseball) and emerging stars from both Australia and abroad, the Aces are already favoured by many to contend for the championship. While there will be a wealth of elite experience among the Aces ranks, the squad will include some tremendously exciting young prospects from home and abroad.
All other clubs will be seriously tested by Brisbane Bandits, who will be aiming to defend their championship title under returning Manager David Nilsson, a man who knows plenty about baseball success at the highest levels. Continuing to forge a strong working relationship with Tampa Bay Rays, the Bandits can be expected to suit up some high quality imports to augment an already powerful group of returning players that includes Ryan Searle, Sam Holland, Justin Erasmus, Ryan Battaglia, Simon Morriss, Mitch Nilsson and Andrew Campbell. Of special note are the inclusions of former Major League players Ryan Rowland-Smith and Trent Oeltjen, who are making the trek north as they prepare for the World Baseball Classic early in 2017. Their presence among an already imposing roster will see the Bandits enter the season favoured to defend their championship.
Under returning Manager Steve Mintz, Adelaide Bite will be aiming to go one better than its second to the barnstorming Brisbane Bandits in 2015/16. Boasting a mixture of familiar faces among quality imports, the Bite will again be looking for plenty from the likes of Steven Chambers, seasoned national representative Mitch Dening, emerging young hurlers Nick Hutchings and Chris Horne, along with the returning Hei-Chun Lee and rangy Loek van Mil. Already creating enormous interest at West Beach, imports LeDarious Clark and returning shortstop Jordan Cowan will bolster an impressive Bite roster that is again blessed with veterans Angus Roeger and Stefan Welch despite losing pitchers Dushan Ruzic and Josh Tols to Melbourne. Detroit Tigers signee Jack O’Loughlin will be a fascinating left-armed addition to the Bite roster that will continue to be provided guidance and leadership by gamer Matt Williams.
Steadily building an impressive coaching and management resume, Jason Pospishil will again take the reins with Sydney Blue Sox, one of three clubs - along with Melbourne and Adelaide - that has not yet won a Championship in this incarnation of the national league. Again focusing on its home-grown talent, the Blue Sox will be expecting big things from Australian Under 23 representatives Jacob Younis, Zac Shepherd, Guy Edmonds and Josh Guyer, along with proven performers in Luke Wilkins, Alex Howe, Todd van Steensel, Vaughan Harris, Craig Anderson and Trent d’Antonio. Blue Sox prospects will be bolstered even further through the recruitment of a string of United States professionals including Stone Garrett (Marlins), Malik Collymore (Brewers), Tucker Neuhaus (Brewers), pitcher Sven Schuller (Dodgers) and fellow hurler Trevor Foss (Indians).
Keen to record its second championship under returning Manager Michael Collins, the Canberra Cavalry outfield defence has been strengthened by the inclusion of former Blue Sox player and Rockies professional David Kandilas. While the Cavalry can be expected to trot out some big name imports – including Josh Almonte among an anticipated six from the Blue Jays organisation - they will again be expecting plenty from classy left-armer Steven Kent on the hill and big-hitting first-sacker Boss Moanaroa. Seasoned Hayden Beard is back pitching after long-term injury, River Stevens will return for another ABL campaign, while the Cavalry will be looking to Aaron Sayers and emerging young catcher Robbie Perkins to step up to another level in this league after distinguishing themselves respectively at Honkbal and the Under 23 World Cup.
Winner of four of the six Australian Baseball League championships, Perth Heat is an enormously proud club that will be anxious to atone for what was a disappointing last season – by their lofty standards – under incoming Manager Matt Kennelly. Despite losing Allan de San Miguel to Melbourne, the Heat will again look to its regular players in Tim Kennelly, Sam Kennelly and former Major Leaguer Luke Hughes to provide offensive grunt. Tom Bailey and left-armer Daniel Schmidt rejoin the pitching staff, while popular infielder Joey Wong returns for another season. Continuing its long-standing relationship with Baltimore, the Heat has attracted left-armed Orioles pitchers in Will Dennis and Lex Rutledge, while pitcher Mike Lee and catcher Mike Blanke join the club from the Atlantic League.
With so many unknowns and so many new players heading into the new season, it will be a fascinating first round, during which four selected games will be streamed live by ABL TV. It is expected that four games only will be streamed live each series, hopefully adding further incentive to baseball supporters to attend games and to build upon crowd numbers that have stayed static over the past couple of seasons. While the number of games being streamed live is limited, Adelaide Bite supporters will be able to hear all ofheir home games on a digital radio feed at this address: www.mixlr.com/adelaidebitebaseball
While comprehensive online coverage of the Australian Baseball League will quite properly be the responsibility of the league and its affiliate clubs – in conjunction with national and state governing bodies – Australian Baseball Alumni will be providing its support in the form of weekly previews, series summaries and occasional features during the ABL season.
We are pleased to announce that qualified journalist, sports fanatic and producer of the SEN Major League podcast Xavier Player has again agreed to help us out with weekly series previews and the occasional baseball feature as time and circumstances permit.
We anticipate series previews to be posted on our website and linked via Facebook by late Wednesday or Thursday morning prior to each series, starting from later this week.
While the first few rounds will give us all a better idea of where each club is at, there is already enormous interest in the All-Star Game, which will be played at Melbourne Ballpark – for the fifth time – on 22 December.
The All-Star Game will provide the ideal setting for some of our emerging young stars to strut their stuff and to prove their credentials as selectors focus on their own options for the 2017 World Baseball Classic and beyond. Touted as a development league from the very start, the Australian Baseball League and events such as the All-Star Game provide a wonderful opportunity for all players – especially younger players – to place themselves in contention for selection at the Classic and upcoming tournaments including 2019 Premier 12 and the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
These are exciting times for Australian baseball. Times that are replete with fantastic opportunities for all of those seeking to forge a career in the sport – or at least to play at Australian Baseball League level and to give themselves a real shot at national representation, wherever else the journey may lead them in our great sport.
Australian Baseball Alumni urges baseball supporters to get behind the Australian Baseball League during this, its most important season to date. It may well be a make or break season, albeit one that creates enormous and exciting potential for administrators, sponsors, players and volunteers now that responsibility for the national league project has been placed squarely in the hands of our own eminently qualified and dedicated baseball people.
We encourage all with an interest in the sport to turn out at games, to engage constructively and passionately on social media and above all to enjoy the entertainment that lies ahead of us over the summer months.
Best wishes to all six clubs, and to the Australian Baseball League, for a fantastic summer of baseball.