Wichita Wingnuts vs. Laredo Lemurs
Game 1, Best of Five
Tonight the first round of the American Association playoffs get underway with the Wichita Wingnuts visiting the Laredo Lemurs for the first game of their best-of-five game series. Wichita was the winners of the South Division and finished with the best overall record in the league. They were ranked first in batting average, team ERA and fielding percentage while winning a league record 73 games.
The Laredo Lemurs finished second in the South Division and reached the playoffs by virtue of the Wild Card. They ranked third in batting average, ERA and fielding percentage. They finished at 58-42, the third best record in the league.
The Minor League Sports Report provides a position-by-position comparison of both teams and offers a prediction of who is expected to win the series.
Catcher: Carlos Ramirez vs. Chris McMurray
Of the two, McMurray is clearly the better hitter and is stronger defensively as well. Ramirez finished at .221 with 6 home runs and 41 RBI in 77 games. McMurray was named as the American Association Post-Season All-Star catcher after hitting .261 with 7 homers and 60 RBI. He also threw out better than 30 percent of base-stealers. Both have the confidence of their pitching staffs.
First Base: John Alonso vs. David Espinosa
This is one of the closer competitions as both Alonso and Espinosa had great seasons. Espinosa bats ahead of Brent Clevlen, so he sees a lot of good pitches, and he made the most of it, hitting .338 with six home runs and 22 RBI in 36 games after joining the Wingnuts. Alonso bats clean-up and his job is to protect slugger Travis Denker, a job he excelled at. He finished with a .344 average in 88 games with 17 home runs and 66 RBI.
Second Base: Travis Denker vs. Abel Nieves
In virtually any other comparison, Nieves would dominate the conversation. He finished sixth overall in the league with a .354 average, and had 52 runs scored and 45 RBI. Since joining the Wingnuts he has been especially hot, batting .558 in 12 games with 11 runs and 10 RBI. Denker slumped a little at the end of the season, but he still finished second in the league with 25 homers. He really produced some huge numbers, scoring 78 runs and driving in 85, second in the AA.
Third Base: Kyle Brandenburg vs. Chris McClendon
Brandenburg finished out the last month of the season with Laredo, where he hit .242 in 24 games with 7 runs and 2 RBI. McClendon appeared in 80 games, hitting .296 with 47 runs scored and 49 RBI. He also stole 21 bases, and is a huge factor at the bottom of the Wingnuts order.
Shortstop: Devin Goodwin vs. Ryan Khoury
Goodwin had a huge year for the Lemurs, batting .288 with 17 home runs and 68 RBI. He also scored 77 runs and stole 26 bases. He should be the runaway choice, but he is up against Ryan Khoury. Khoury may be the best lead-off guy in the American Association. He finished with a .315 average, 12 homers and 61 RBI. He finished second in the league with 87 runs scored, and stole 31 bases, plus he was third in the league in on-base percentage at .436. He is also the best defensive shortstop in the league.
Left Field: JP Ramirez vs. Jake Luce
Ramirez is a primary cog in the Lemurs lineup. He has been a run producer in his own right, despite not getting the recognition of some of his teammates. Ramirez is hitting .304 with 11 home runs and 60 RBI. Luce was picked up just before the All-Star break and has been a monster force for the Wingnuts. He hit .341 in 34 games with 25 runs scored and 33 RBI. He also stole 10 bases. Both have played a significant role with their teams, but Ramirez has been one of the key members of their lineup all season long.
Center fielder: Nick Van Stratten vs. Brent Clevlen
This is another one of those matchups that is a comparison of two players having absolutely outstanding years. Along with Khoury, Van Stratten is one of the two best lead-off guys in the league. He finished the season with a .349 average, scored 81 runs and drove in 49 more. He also stole 19 bases. Clevlen is in the top 10 in many offensive categories, including average, runs scored, home runs, RBI, doubles, on-base percentage and extra-base hits. He led the league in batting and is an excellent defensive center fielder as well. He is a finalist for the MVP of the league.
Right field: Denis Phipps vs. Carlo Testa
Another very close match-up of two players having outstanding seasons. Phipps has a little more power than Testa, clubbing 15 home runs to go along with his .335 average and 47 RBI in 66 games. Testa had a slightly higher average, coming in at .338, scored 79 runs (28 more than Phipps), hit 10 home runs and knocked in 58. He also stole 24 bases in 100 games played. Testa has the larger numbers in many areas, but he also played 34 more games. These two are very evenly matched overall.
Designated Hitter: Byron Wiley vs. Victor Diaz
Wiley will most likely get the lion’s share of the at-bats at the DH spot. Wiley hit .287 with 6 home runs and 23 RBI in 47 games. He also has 23 extra-base hits and 27 runs scored. Diaz was brought in late in the season to add some pop to the Wichita lineup, but he has struggled overall, hitting just .240 with 0 home runs and 12 RBI in 12 games. His 2 walks and 15 strike outs have also been cause for concern.
Two weeks ago this would have been virtually no contest, but the loss of Jon Link to the Marlins and the trade of Justin Klipp has left the Wingnuts rotation a little less formidable. They still have the league leader in wins (Jason Van Skike) and Tim Brown won 10 games, but Frank Del Valle has not been incredibly impressive lately and Celson Polanco has only made 2 starts, so the team may not be exactly sure of what they are getting from him. Anthony Capra recently returned from the DL and he is the wild card for the team. If he performs well, the Lemurs are in a lot of trouble. Laredo may have the best group of starters in the league, led by Cesar Carrillo, the American Association ERA king, and Jeremy Strawn, who went 9-0 in his 10 starts. They can match-up well against Brown and Van Skike, meaning it will be up to Tyler Pearson, Casey Harman and Josh Strawn to be real difference makers. The three went a combined 19-19, and at least two of these guys are going to have to step-up for the Lemurs to take this serious. They are all capable of doing just that.
While the Lemurs have a decided edge in starting pitching, the Wingnuts have an overwhelming one in the bullpen. Laredo has three competent arms in Scott Weismann, Michael Suk and Caleb Graham, but closer Chad Povich has looked hittable, especially lately. The Wingnuts have an incredibly deep bullpen led by Mike Zouzalik, Daniel Bennett, Chase Johnson and Chris Peacock. This group has a 13-1 record and a 3.21 ERA, outstanding numbers. The interesting part for Wichita will be how closer Dan Sattler will perform. Sattler has an incredible 1.84 ERA overall between Wichita and St. Paul, but he has struggled with his control, walking 35 batters in 44 innings, including 5 in 4 innings of work for the Wingnuts. Despite the challenge of him maintaining his control, he has done the job, getting 3 saves for Wichita and 22 overall. If this series becomes a battle of the bullpens, Laredo is in some trouble.
With such outstanding lineups it would seem that the benches would have very little to do with the outcome of this series, but that is simply not the truth. Both managers like to use their full complement of players, and when called upon the subs have delivered. What may separate the two is the back-up catchers, where Brent Dean is a .300 hitter and Danny Taveras saw very limited action and did not rise above the Mendoza line.
Manager: Pete Incaviglia vs. Kevin Hooper
Incaviglia has been around the American Association since 2008, when he took over the Grand Prairie AirHogs and guided them to the South Division playoffs. This is his second season with Laredo. Hooper is regarded by many league executives as the best manager in the American Association. He is in his fifth season with the team and has a 295-197 record.
Prediction: There is no doubt that this has the makings of a great series. These are two teams with great lineups, great pitching and solid defense. They can hit for average and power, and have a pitching staff that can keep opponents off the scoreboard. It would be easier to see the Lemurs doing better had they not lost 7 of 8 games between the two teams in the last three weeks. The Wingnuts are thriving off this run, and seem as motivated as ever. Call it Wichita in 4.
By Robert Pannier
Senior Baseball Editor
Member of the IBWAA