Australian Baseball League 2014/15: Season Preview

Entering its fifth season, the Australian Baseball League moves into playing action with an Opening Round that starts in Brisbane on 30 October. Stuart Capel assesses each team's prospects for the 2014/15 campaign.

ADELAIDE BITE

Manager: Brooke Knight

 

2013-14 Finishing Position:  fifth (21-25 record)

 

Following a disastrous start to the post-Tony Harris era where new manager Charlie Aliano lasted just eight games (2-6 record) and import James Baldwin was sent home, it is easy to forget that the Bite had worked their way to a 21-21 under replacement manager Brooke Knight. However, losses by one, one, one and two runs in the final series at home to Perth saw the South Australian franchise miss the playoffs when just two wins in that final series would have seen them in a tie for second with the Sydney Blue Sox.

 

For the 2014-15 season, the first piece was put in place early, with Knight agreeing to return to run the Bite program, while Southern Thunder outfielder Mitch Dening has joined the club after moving to Adelaide.  The addition of Dening, plus the return of veteran Tom Brice gives the middle of the Bite some significant left-handed power, and some protection for Stefan Welsh.

 

Imports Chan Moon, a speedy middle infielder from the Houston organisation and pitcher-turned-outfielder Aaron Miller from the Dodgers minor leagues will compliment the local hitters, while AAA catcher Rocky Gale could prove to be the second coming of Cody Clark (Brisbane – season three), but without the power.

 

The pitching staff will be guided by veteran Darren Fidge, who has decided to play another season after what was supposed to be his farewell tour last year.  Born in 1974, Fidge leads a young staff that features just three other pitchers who were born in the 1980s.

 

Matthew Williams, who ended the season in the rotations, will likely be called on to start again, while coach Knight will be hoping for more output from young locals Nick Hutchings and Wilson Lee, while Josh Tols, who threw well in the hitter-friendly Pecos League in the US, could prove another starting option.  Of the import pitchers, look for independent leaguer Morgan Coombs and Mariners affiliate Troy Scott to start, while the bullpen will feature several affiliated arms to cover the permanent move of Williams to the starting rotation.

 

Prediction: Re-signing Knight was a massive boost for the Bite, who have recruited well.  The Bite possess plenty of power from the left side, and if their table setters at the top of the order do their job, the Bite should have little trouble scoring enough runs. While the starting pitching isn’t the strongest in the league, the bullpen possesses several solid import arms, and Rocky Gale is an excellent defensive catcher.  They will be one of the improvers this season.  Third position.

BRISBANE BANDITS

Manager: David Nilsson

 

2013-14 Finishing Position:  sixth (18-28 record)

 

While the Bandits finished in the cellar last season, the club has certainly been the most active away from the field, overturning many off-field positions in a quest to make the ABL playoffs for the first time since the resumption of the league.

 

New CEO Mark Ready has brought in Kate Dobie (GM Sales and Operations) and former GM Paul Gonzalez (GM of Commercial) to share the overall GM after Jay Klein was removed.

 

Not satisfied there, Ready has returned David Nilsson to the position of Manager -  replacing Kevin Jordan - while the club has secured some substantial sponsorships and now possesses naming and stadium sponsors.

 

While the club lost Brad Dutton on the eve of the season, several regular faces such as Josh Roberts and David Sutherland return, while youngsters Ryan Battaglia, Logan Wade and the returning Mitch Nilsson will certainly be called upon to provide some offensive punch. Brisbane has again secured four players from the Tampa Bay Rays organisation, with centre fielder Johnny Field looking the kind of player who will become a fan favourite before too long. 

 

Having used several import arms last season, an injury to bullpen star Rhys Niit and the Tristan Crawford move to Canberra have decimated the team’s bullpen, and Nilsson will have to determine whether to use the returning Justin Erasmus in the starting rotation or use him at the back end of the bullpen. Recently released by his independent league team, Ryan Searle leads the staff and is in effect auditioning for a job overseas in 2015. However, aside from the two local right handers, the pitching staff does appear thin.

 

Prediction: In the forty-eight hours leading up to the season, the Bandits were looking to bolster the pitching staff with several import arms, while Brad Dutton announced he was leaving the club. While the hitting line-up should be honest, aside from Ryan Searle and Justin Erasmus, the pitching looks thin, and there doesn’t appear to be any immediate replacement for Niit and Crawford at the back of the bullpen.  Sixth position.

CANBERRA CAVALRY

Manager: Michael Collins

 

2013-14 Finishing Position:  third (22-24, lost ABLCS to Perth Heat)

 

On the back of their 2012-13 ABL Championship Series victory and their triumph in the Asia Series, the Cavalry’s magic carpet ride eventually came to an end in Perth in last season’s ABL Championship Series with the Heat taking both games by a solitary run.

 

Following some rule changes, which see every team able to have at most five imports (including pitcher) on the field at any time and requiring two Australian starting pitchers, Michael Collins and the Cavalry have had to do plenty of work to their roster in order to be competitive for the coming season.

 

The draft yielded the Canberra former Cavalry RHP Tristan Crawford, who rejoins the club after a season in Brisbane. Crawford is likely to join the starting rotation along with another returning pitcher in Tim Atherton, who spent the last two seasons on the books of the Sydney Blue Sox. Wayne Ough, who last pitched in the ABL a couple of seasons ago with the Adelaide Bite, has also joined the Cavalry, and will partner Aaron Thompson and the rehabbing Steve Kent as the Australian arms available to Collins.

 

Brian Grening returns for a fourth season with the Cavalry after another season in the Atlantic League, and has helped acquire several other independent arms, including Jake Brown, who is expected to round out the starting rotation with Grening, Atherton and Crawford.

 

Fan favourite Jack Murphy returns to catch for Canberra, a duty he will share with local Robbie Perkins, while the Cavalry have added another six overseas professionals to their hitting line-up.

 

Collins has also added Kieran Bradford, Scott Hillier and Adam Silva through the Australian draft, while locals Aaron and Jason Sloan round out the initially named local contingent.

 

Prediction: With minimal local depth, the new rules impact on Canberra the most, and it does leave several question marks about their pitching. Tim Atherton made one start at AAA, got shelled, and was subsequently shut down. Will he be ready for a full season?  Following two Tommy John surgeries and having closed last season, will Tristan Crawford last a full season? Brian Grening showed signs of wearing down during his independent league season. Will his arm bounce back? Can Steve Kent, who will not be ready to start the season, be effective once he returns and will veteran Wayne Ough’s arm hold up at 35?

 

While there’s enough pitching issues for Michael Collins, can he keep seven position playing imports happy, and how will he use his local talent and get positive production out of everyone as the team chops and changes?  Fourth position.

MELBOURNE ACES

Manager: Tommy Thompson

 

2013-14 Finishing Position:  fourth (21-24)

 

Having finished with the lowest winning percentage (.326) of any side in the four seasons of the ABL in 2012-13, the Aces 2013-14 campaign was indeed an improvement, but several close losses and the loss of a tie-breaker to the Cavalry saw the Aces miss the playoffs for the second time in as many seasons.

 

Missing the playoffs was the end of the road for Manager Phil Dale, who has left the club in a sweep-out of the coaching staff, which has seen Tommy Thompson, a manager in the Chicago White Sox minor leagues, taking them helm of the club.  Thompson will be assisted by Dean Marnell, who played in the former ABL, along with player/coaches John Hussey and Scott Wearne.

 

The team will turn to several younger players to step-up this season, with Ryan Dale, Ben Leslie and Aaron Sayers - all rookie leaguers in the minor leagues - likely to play important roles, while Brad Harman will again be called-upon to lead the way on the field and in the batters box. Imports Dylan Cozens and Adam Engel will be a part of an exciting outfield, while Chace Numata and Kellin Deglan will stare duties behind the plate.

 

While the Aces line-up looks OK, the pitching staff does not. Of the local arms Aces fans are accustomed to seeing, Lewis Thorpe, Dan McGrath and Sam Gibbons are all likely to not pitch this season, while pitching coach John Hussey will only be available during the second half of the season.

 

Although several import arms have been sourced, it does appear as if the Aces could begin their season with the pitcher that has the most ABL experience being Japanese import Makoto Aiuchi, who threw three innings for the club in two appearances last season. The rest of the staff loom as rookies at the ABL level.

 

Prediction: Go back to last year and the four best pitchers for the Aces were Joe Burns, Lewis Thorpe, Justin Erasmus and Brett Zawacki. None of the four will throw a pitch for the club this season.

 

The pitching staff is going to be heavily reliant on imports, and while Brad Harman and several imports will lead the hitting, there will be a reliance on Dale (.191), Sayers (.141), Leslie (.140) and Jared Cruz (four at-bats) to step-up.  Asking for all of them to do so and help push the club towards its first season at or above .500 is a big ask. Expect Tommy Thompson to be aggressive on the bases and make his team play some exciting baseball, but the pitching has too many question marks on it. Fifth position.

PERTH HEAT

Manager: Steve Fish

 

2013-14 Finishing Position: Minor Premiers and Champions (32-14)

 

With three ABL Championships in four seasons, Perth has proven they are the Gold Standard of the competition, and given they have been robbed of a chance to emulate

Canberra’s success at the Asia Series, they have even more motivation to go back-to-back for the second time in five seasons.

 

While some have already talked down the Heat as Mike Ekstrom is not returning following his stunning performance with the club last season, it must be remembered that Ekstrom didn’t appear down the stretch, and did not pitch in the finals either.

 

Ekstrom was replaced by Brian Baker, who was the winning pitcher in the Championship clincher for Perth last season, and after a season split between Mexico and Southern Maryland, he returns to the club, while Shawn Sanford, who threw for Quebec in the Can-Am League, will be asked to fill the hole left by Anthony Claggett.

 

The loss of Corey Adamson to the West Coast Eagles and the lures of the AFL will hurt, however the Heat have imported three outfielders in Brian Pointer (Philadelphia), Nick Rulli (Oregon State University) and Tim Smith (Quebec) to help fill any holes in the expanses of the Barbagallo outfield.

 

Manager Steve Fish is spoiled for choice behind the plate, with Allan De San Miguel and Matt Kennelly joined by Baltimore import Steel Russell and teen catcher Jake Turnbull, who recently signed with Cincinnati, while Joey Wong returns an infield that will also feature Luke Hughes, Tim Kennelly and Taishi Nakagawa, who joins the club from the Rakuten Eagles in the Japanese NPB.

 

Prediction: There is an old boxing adage which notes that in order to beat the champion, you have to knock them out, and not rely on the judges scorecards.

 

While the Heat may not be as strong as last season, even losing an extra half dozen matches would give them a 28-18 record, which would be enough to have finished atop the ABL table in every season to date.

 

With Sydney still to prove they can overcome their Preliminary Final hurdle, Canberra likely not as strong as last season, Adelaide coming from a long way back and Melbourne and Brisbane not at their best, Perth still look the team to beat in season five.  First position.

SYDNEY BLUE SOX

Manager: Jason Pospishil

 

2013-14 Finishing Position: second (23-23, lost the Preliminary Final series)

 

Four seasons into the ABL and there has only ever been one team to be defeated in a Preliminary Final series, with the Blue Sox having fallen at the second to last hurdle in all four seasons to date.

 

Despite this, the Blue Sox loom as a genuine finals contender once again, with a squad that contains just two rookies in pitcher Travis McDonald and outfielder Alex Howe.

 

While more than one team in the competition will endure more than their share of struggles with their Australian pitching, that will not be an issue for Manager Jason Pospishil and his coaching staff, with a long list of local talent at their disposal. So deep is the Blue Sox pitching that the club has only one overseas pitcher in the form of Markus Solbach. Solbach, who has previously pitched for the Melbourne Aces, joins from the Arizona Diamondback organisation, in which he threw well at three minor league levels this season after being signed out of independent ball.

 

Though Mitch Dening has moved to Adelaide and will play with the Bite, the hitting line-up is still strong and promises to only get better. Full seasons from Trent Oeltjen (thirteen games last season) and David Kandilas (did not play) can only benefit the Blue Sox. Josh Dean and Guy Edmonds are an extra year advanced, while Zach Shepherd is one of the best young talents in Australian baseball.

 

Complimenting them will be import 1B/C Will Swanner, who likes to hit the long ball at the expense of a number of strike outs and outfielder Alex Glenn - who hit twenty-four home runs at Advanced-A in the Arizona organisation - while veteran AAA infielder Tyler Bortnick will spend a season with the club after missing much of the northern summer due to injury with Reno.

 

Prediction: Mitch Dening hit zero home runs last season and had just twelve RBIs in over one hundred at-bats. This can be replaced.

 

The Blue Sox will have absolutely no issues juggling their rotation to fit the restrictions on the rotation, which will make Pospishil’s job that much the easier, while the hitting line-up has a legitimate home run threat in the form of Glenn, who has power that may even make the Blue Sox ground look like a bandbox.

 

They’ll certainly be a finalist, but can they overcome their Preliminary Final hoodoo? Second position.