Australian Baseball League 2017/18:  Overview

While releases in recent days have foreshadowed what may or may not happen as the Australian Baseball League seeks to expand its sphere of influence in years to come, for aficionados in the sport the more immediate interest is focused on the fortunes of the six existing clubs as they embark on campaigns starting this week.

 

Australian Baseball Alumni correspondent AJ Mithen has been closely tracking the build-up to the 2017/18 ABL season and he has spoken to many of the key personnel engaged in the six clubs vying for Claxton Shield success as the resurrected national league strives to forge a legitimate place in the sporting market.

 

Co-host of A Sporting Discussion and committed to Alumni coverage of what may be a defining Australian Baseball League season, AJ Mithen has directed his attentions to assessing your club’s prospects prior to the first round starting later this week.  

 

In wishing all clubs every success for 2017/18, we add Brisbane Bandits to Adelaide Bite, Sydney Blue Sox, Perth Heat and Canberra Cavalry.......... 

 

AJ Mithen

21 November 2017

 

BRISBANE BANDITS

 

LAST SEASON.


21-18, champions

 

STATISTICS OF NOTE.


Back to back champions.

 

THE YEAR AHEAD.


Clubs accustomed to success understand how to pace their way through a season. You don’t see too many title winners who bolt from the gates, always striving at maximum intensity - they work with a rhythm designed to peak when it’s time for the games that matter.

 

Late into the 2016/17 season, a lot of us had written off the Bandits as being too flaky with the bat and stuck with a wild bullpen that couldn’t get the job done. It looked for a moment that the Bandits had left themselves too much to do to make the postseason.

 

Then after round seven Brisbane went 13-3, a run finishing with a sweep of the Aces at their own ballpark and a second straight title.

 

And there’s no good reason to doubt a repeat of a repeat this year, either. Brisbane’s attack remains as potent as ever, with reliable bats up and down the nine.

 

Brisbane hit solidly and consistently and when you add the speed of players like Aaron Whitefield and Logan Wade, there’s even more extra bases and steals on offer.

 

Brisbane were the best defensive team in 2016/17 season, leading the ABL in fielding percentage (.980) and committing the least errors (27). This helped to get them through the tough bullpen times without too much damage in the standings.

 

Manager David Nilsson’s roster has a familiar look. TJ Bennett returns to the top of the order while locals David Sutherland, Wade Dutton, Andrew Campbell and Mitch Nilsson will be working to keep the Claxton Shield up north.   

 

There’s also good things expected of Ryan Ihle, another Brisbane native who joins the Bandits after playing at Columbus State University.

 

Big hitter Donald Lutz will play the whole season after leaving early last year to get married and Adam Weisenburger jets in to take the catching role.

 

Chinese Professional Baseball League star Chih-Sheng Lin (who will go by the name ‘Ake’) comes to Holloway Field with millions of eyes watching his every play. You need to go deep diving to find a CPBL record or achievement Ake hasn’t done yet and his addition will add greatly to the league’s profile in the Asian region.  

 

TWO THINGS TO LOOK FOR.

 

Strikeouts.

 

How do you improve on championship-calibre pitching? You add more championship-calibre pitching.

 

Brisbane have recruited Southern Thunder starter Tim Atherton from the Cavalry and major leaguer Travis Blackley returns to the ABL. That’s some undeniable quality in the starting rotation.

 

Familiar returning names include Rhys Niit, Justin Erasmus, and Matt Timms. On the import side Ryan Bollinger will step into the starting rotation while Zac Treece and Chiu Pin-Jui will work with Pat Young and Timms to keep things under control in the middle innings.

 

Even if opponents manage to work their way through the bullpen, they’ll have at least one inning facing the ABL’s saves record holder, Ryan Searle. Searle has ended the rally dreams of too many batters to mention and it’s stating the obvious that his form is critical for the Bandits.

 

There’s yet another championship arm in the wings too, with Rick Teasley a big chance to return to Brisbane at some point after the All-Star break.

 

More of the same.

 

Stability and consistency is the foundation of any championship and Brisbane make a point of providing it off the diamond. They’ve built a strong club culture that Bandits fans buy into and they certainly aren’t afraid to put their ‘three-peat’ ambitions front and centre.

 

With a high quality roster, coaching panel and an obvious appetite for more success, a third straight Claxton Shield for Brisbane is a huge possibility. 

 

ADELAIDE BITE

 

LAST SEASON.

 

23-17, eliminated 2-1 by Brisbane in postseason week one.

 

STATISTICS OF NOTE.

 

Adelaide were a combined 11-5 against the 16/17 ABLCS contenders Melbourne (7-1) and Brisbane (4-4). Their pitching struggled at times to find the zone, with 269 strikeouts putting them last in the ABL. They also hit 25 batters. 

 

THE YEAR AHEAD.

 

The Bite have new leadership, with 29 year old Chris Adamson graduating to the top job. He’ll combine the role with duties as Baseball SA’s high performance manager.

 

“I’m really excited,” he says. “It’s a huge honour for me to get an opportunity, particularly at such a young age. It’s something I’m excited about and grateful for, but it’s something I want to grab with both hands.”

 

“I’ve been working towards this for a few years since I started transitioning from playing into coaching.”

 

Looking to make amends for the Bite’s disappointing finish to 2016/17, Adamson made sure to get his core local players working early.

 

“We probably got going earlier than usual because I wanted the Aussies to be as prepared as we could be, so all the local guys have been going for quite a while now.”

 

“A constant message that’s going to be coming this year is limiting the amount of free bases we give up, whether through walks or errors. We want to be very sound fundamentally and throughout the preseason that’s been our number one focus.”

 

“Having that extra bit of time to instill that message is hopefully something that is beneficial come game one.”

 

There’s a lot of hitting prowess at Adelaide. They’ll be looking to players like Connar O'Gorman, Jordan McArdle and Angus Roeger to keep the bases crowded.

 

McArdle’s development will be a feature of the Bite’s campaign this year.

 

There’s high expectations for their import players, particularly young shortstop Rodrigo Ayarza who comes highly recommended by those in the know at Houston. His combination with Darius Day at the top of the order could present trouble for opposition pitchers.

 

Catcher Isaias Quiroz and Stephen Lohr arrive looking for quality at bats and they have the potential to further boost the Bite’s attack.

 

An important re-signing is towering 7’1 Dutch closer Loek van Mil, who had 8 saves and an incredible 0.4 ERA in 18 games last year.

 

Like all of us, Adamson is raring for the season to start. 

 

“I’m just trying to get the players as prepared as I can and all on the same page for what we want to achieve. At this stage, it’s going ok.”

 

TWO THINGS TO LOOK FOR.

 

Tighter pitching.

 

A large part of Adamson’s focus is on the Bite’s pitching, and the addition of Aussie major leaguer Luke Prokopec as pitching coach is paying off early.

 

“His resume speaks for itself,” Adamson says. “He’s someone who immediately commands respect, which is important from a coaching perspective, but he’s also a guy who’s really willing to improve every single player.”

 

This is good news for Under 18 Australian representatives Ky Hampton and Jack O’Loughlin.

 

“He’s been very hands on in the way he’s gone about it and it’s already paying dividends, some of these guys are taking big leaps forward,” Adamson says.

 

“It’s exciting to see, particularly for the Aussie guys and it will be good to see how it comes to fruition during the season.”

 

Plenty of Bite merchandise heading overseas.

 

If you doubt the impact a shrewd overseas signing can make, just look at the press conference for Adelaide’s announcement that Taiwanese baseball legend Chang Tai-Shan, aka ‘Tarzan’, was joining the club.

 

The 40-year old holds Chinese Professional Baseball League all-time records for hits and homeruns and his bat can only help an already potent offense. He’s a legend in his home country and there will be a huge amount of interest in how he performs in Bite colours.

 

ABL fans should do their best to get to a game and see what all the fuss is about.

 

 

SYDNEY BLUE SOX

 

LAST SEASON.

15-24, fifth, six games behind playoffs

 

STATISTICS OF NOTE.

 

Sydney had the ABL’s worst batting average in 16/17, coupled with the most strikeouts. The Sox finished bottom two in 11 of the 16 ‘major’ batting categories.

 

After some early promise they never recovered from a shocking 1-7 stretch against Melbourne, going 6-13 after the All-Star break. An appalling 4-15 away record also took care of any postseason thoughts.

 

THE YEAR AHEAD.

 

No more looking back - it’s a new day at the Blue Sox. Tony Harris returns to ABL management looking to make his stamp on a club that has been under .500 for their last three seasons.

 

Asked to describe his approach to season 17/18, Harris is clear.

 

“Blue collar, I think, is a good way to go,” he says. “I just like that mentality. No one here is more important than the other.”

 

“Clubhouse culture to me is super important, it has such a bearing on field. Having the right leaders in place is really important because they’re an extension of the coach’s philosophy and our mentality.”

 

“Our mentality will be to never give up, never say die and we’re going to grind until that last out is made.”

 

A large part of the cultural rebuild is the signing of Australian 2004 silver medalist and 41 year old hitter Gavin Fingleson.

 

“He brings a lot more than just his bat and glove. It’s his leadership and the intangibles that I love with Gav,” says Harris.

 

“He and (Trent) D’Antonio are the same ilk – gritty, grindy tough outs, pesky offensive guys at the top of the lineup who are table setters.”

 

There’s good talent on the Sydney roster. Reliable starters Trevor Foss and Craig Anderson return, Sven Schueller will resume working late in games, New South Wales local Josh Guyer is back - as is ‘young veteran’ infielder and highlight reel contributor Jacob Younis.

 

Notable among the Blue Sox imports from the Pittsburgh Pirates is Michael Suchy, who is expected to bring some a little cleanliness to the Blue Sox outfield.

 

There’s also serious hitting quality and experience headed to Blacktown with Taiwanese catcher Jin-De Jhang and utility Chiang Chih-hsien.

 

The Blue Sox start the year without some of their best Aussie talent like Zac Shepherd, Todd Van Steensel and the Wells brothers, Alex and Lachlan, as they recover from a heavy minor league workload.

 

Harris is hopeful but not confident of getting one or both Wells boys in uniform this season.

 

“You’d love either at the back end maybe, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

 

“Todd will have another couple of weeks off before he gets going, so we might have him a little sooner than previous years perhaps.”

 

“Shep is another guy we might see on the back end, he’s having a bit of a breather at the moment which is understandable.”

 

TWO THINGS TO LOOK FOR.

 

Sounder fundamentals.

 

The Blue Sox defence had a shocking year in 16/17 and Harris wants to make certain it doesn’t happen again. 

 

“Fundamentally we’ll be very sound,” he says. “I’m a structured individual as far as that’s concerned and I like us to be clean defensively. Since I’ve been here that’s what we’ve been focusing on, our team fundamentals.”

 

“We might only get one or two or three chances against a Hamburger or a Blackley or what have you and we have to make sure we execute when given those opportunities.”

 

“I think we have a good balance. We’ve got ourselves a nice roster and we’ve given ourselves a chance.”

 

A break out season for Connor MacDonald.

 

The 21-year old joins the Blue Sox from Brisbane and Harris couldn’t be happier about it. “I love Connor Mac,” says Harris. “He’s a great kid who comes from a great family and he deserves as much playing time as we can give him. It was a bit of a logjam with Goofy Sutherland up at Brisbane and some more guys coming in.”

 

Harris knows MacDonald’s talent and is keen to see him flourish.

 

“He could be a young man who can really let loose this year and have a good year for us. He’s a nice complement to the older guys we have, the older imports that will be in the middle of the lineup.”

 

“Hopefully it helps him to perhaps open up a window, he’s still only 21 so the window is getting a little smaller each year, but he’s got a window to try and catch back on again.”

 

“I think it will be a great year for him and we’re here to help him be the best version he can be.”

 

PERTH HEAT

 

LAST SEASON:    14-26, last, 7.5 behind playoffs

 

STATISTICS OF NOTE.


The Heat went 5-11 in games decided by 1 run. And 12 of Perth’s losses came after leading at some stage.

 

THE YEAR AHEAD.


The Heat finished an uncharacteristic sixth last year but the season ran a lot closer than final numbers indicate. They were a winning chance deep into a lot of contests, but just couldn’t find the critical hit or get the key out.

 

Looking to turn the Heat’s fortunes around is West Australian Andy Kyle (below), who has taken on a three year deal and inherited one of the league’s youngest rosters.

 

Kyle has at his disposal some of Australia’s best raw young talent in outfielder Ulrich Bojarski (19 years old), catcher Alex Hall (18), infielders Jess Williams (18) and Jake Turnbull (19) and pitcher Jake Baker (19).

 

“I’m excited – but it’s been tough going getting players together so late,” Kyle says. “We have a lot more depth than last year. There’s still spots open on the roster and it’s quite competitive to get one.”

 

Kyle sees the potential for his younger players not just in the ABL, but in Southern Thunder teams down the road.

 

“Hall, Williams, Baker and Turnbull are the next wave of quality WA talent and could also shape the national team as well. I’m looking forward to Ulrich joining us too - he’s a big boy!”

 

Adding to Perth’s Aussie talent pool is the hotly anticipated arrival after the All-Star break of another WA product, recent Pittsburgh Pirates draftee Robbie Glendinning.

 

The Heat still have experience to balance this youth, welcoming back two reliable bats in former Major Leaguer Luke Hughes and club stalwart Tim Kennelly. Hughes and Kennelly’s leadership will stretch well beyond what happens on the field.

 

Kyle is keen to see what his charges will offer in a season of further development and growth.

 

“The squad is excited and ready to go, and we’ve got a great matchup in Melbourne to see where we’re at.”

 

TWO THINGS TO LOOK OUT FOR:


Starting pitching. With the amount of hitting weaponry being assembled across the ABL, quality pitching is going to be more important than ever.

 

It’s no secret that Perth’s pitching battled last year, with three of their starters in the ABL’s top four for walks allowed. Kyle is taking a sharper focus on the early innings for 2017/18.

 

“Starting was one of our biggest issues, we couldn’t get much going,” Kyle says. “Tom Bailey and Nick Veale are fresh and ready to go, hopefully that’s where we’re stronger this year.”

 

Imports Alex Boshers and Kyle Simon join the club from a season playing Independent ball and will also shoulder some of the starting rotation.


Imports. With all respect to last year’s cohort, Perth’s 17/18 internationals look like they are in a position to make a large contribution to the club. Once again (on paper at least) it appears that the Tampa Bay Rays have sent some good stock to the ABL.

 

Fan favourite Joey Wong is gone, but the Barbagallo crowds may grow to love 20-year old outfielder Garrett Whitley, a 2015 first round MLB draft pick with definite ‘buzz’, as they say. 

 

Mike Brosseau is another import to keep an eye on. He arrives with a reputation for consistent hitting.

 

There’s also another outfielder, Jake Fraley, and Zac Law, a catcher with plenty of experience in the minors.

Perth Heat Manager Andy Kyle

CANBERRA CAVALRY

 

LAST SEASON:   20-20, fourth

 

STATISTICS OF NOTE.


Last season Canberra’s pitchers gave up 325 hits, second least in the ABL. They countered that by handing out the most walks (165). Interestingly, their hitters struck out the least, but also drew the least walks.

 

THE YEAR AHEAD.

 

Canberra’s 16/17 season finishing at 20-20 seems fitting, given that a hot start at the plate wasn’t supported by the pitching staff but when the pitching did come good, the bats faded.

 

The Cavs were in the postseason race for the majority of the year, even challenging for second spot before two poor home series against Melbourne and Brisbane took them out of the playoff picture.

 

Manager Michael Collins returns to the nation’s capital with a host of familiar faces including Boss Moanaroa, Kyle and Robbie Perkins and David Kandilas. Detroit Tigers draftee and exciting Aussie prospect Cam Warner will return to his hometown for his first taste of the ABL.

 

Brian Grening returns to the mound, local young gun Brodie Vassilakis continues his development from last year and the Under 18 World Championships and Steve Kent (pictured below) moves from the later innings into a starting role.

 

The loss of national team pitcher Tim Atherton to Brisbane will be felt deeply, but Kent is excited about the potential in the Canberra squad.

 

“It’s been good to have everyone on board, to get to know one another a little bit and run some team plays,” Kent says. “The team is shaping up really well.”

 

Once again the Cavalry head into a season with questions over local roster numbers, a situation not helped by potential lengthy bans for Jason and Aaron Sloan after testing positive to banned substances.

 

“We’ve really got a good local core now to build around,” Kent says. “I know there’s an issue around the country with how many imports we get, but we really do have a good base of local Aussie guys. Our local guys are quality players.”

 

Kent going into the rotation could well be a move that keeps Canberra’s defence on a solid footing.

 

“I relieved in the last couple of years because that’s what I was doing in the states, but now I’m not playing there anymore and have to work a real job, it works out easier for me if I can slot into the rotation and throw one game a week,” he says.

 

“I understand my role now these days, I’m a bit of an older guy who’s played for a while and I’d like to think I have some experience and hopefully some knowledge that I can pass along too.”

 

“If I can help guys out any way I can, that’s something I’m really looking forward to.”

 

This year’s import intake from the Toronto Blue Jays and San Diego Padres includes Tayler Saucedo, Lake Bachar and Daniel Lietz to bolster the pitching crew.

 

There’s also outfielder Ryan Kalish, who in 2016 was playing in the majors with the Chicago Cubs. His bat will be key to keeping the Cavs in the playoff hunt. 

 

TWO THINGS TO LOOK FOR.

 

Cam Warner is a ‘rookie’ by ABL standards, but Kent knows that he’s not some wet-behind-the-ears recruit. 

 

“It’s funny - it’s easy to say Cam Warner’s young because it’s his first year out here, but the amount of experience he’s got from playing at TCU and in the College World Series, I think sometimes we Australians don’t understand the gravity of that tournament,” Kent says.

 

“He’s used to playing in front of crowds, he got drafted by the Tigers and had a great season for them, so he’s going to be huge for us to have in the middle of our lineup.”

 

“I’m really excited to watch him play, I haven’t seen him play for four or five years. I can’t wait to see him out there.”

 

Gabriel Arias is the latest teenage Venezuelan sensation to grace the ABL and Kent likes what he sees so far.

 

There’s been comparisons to Cavs alumni and ‘ABL graduate’ Didi Gregorius and Kent sees a talent that’s both exciting for the fans and an example for younger Aussie prospects.

 

“For that kid to be 17 years old, watching him field ground balls is so smooth, the way he throws across the diamond is effortless,” Kent says.

“17 year old kids in Australia are really good players, but in reality this is the type of player that we’re going over to compete with when we go to the states.”

 

“I think it will be awesome for our young local kids to get out there and see him and maybe get a bit of motivation to keep working hard, because that’s the kind of talent that’s out there as well.”

 

Steve Kent on the hill for Canberra