American Association South Division Should Be All Out War

American Association South Division Should Be All Out WarAmerican Association Daily will provide insights and features on the American Association of Professional Baseball League, as well as player and coaching profiles and transactions going on with teams around the league. In today’s edition, we look at how tough the South Division in the American Association should be, as there are a lot of dynamics that should make for an exciting season and all out war whenever teams from this division square off against one another.

American Association South Division Should Be All Out War

When the American Association decided to go with two six-team divisions, a lot looked at the North and thought that it would be much the tougher of the two. With the two-time defending champion Winnipeg Goldeyes, the always tough St. Paul Saints, the Gary Southshore RailCats, the team that won last year’s wildcard, moving to the North, and the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks, who have a power laden lineup and a solid rotation, the division looked stacked. Add in that Mike Meyer has been building an outstanding squad in Sioux Falls and Butch Hobson brings a proven track record for success to the expansion Chicago Dogs, and there will not be an “easy” victory among the six.

It almost seems that the South Division is viewed as the step-child of the league, but that is as far from the truth as one could imagine. It may be the South that proves to be the real battlefield this season, where every contest will seem like all-out war.

The South Has It All

In 2017, the Wichita Wingnuts won 61 games, the Lincoln Saltdogs won 58, and the Kansas City T-Bones were winners of 57 contests. That puts them just a half-game off of the win totals of the Goldeyes, RedHawks, and RailCats, and it would not be surprising to see these six teams put up similar win totals this season.

Many will see the separation between the two divisions being about the bottom three teams in each, and there are really a lot of similarities there as well. The St. Paul Saints had a disappointing season in 2017, primarily because of player contracts being purchased and a slew of injuries that deprived the team of their third straight season reaching the playoffs.

The same thing can be said of the Sioux City Explorers. The team that set a record in 2015 for wins in a season (75), was decimated by injuries and they had more contracts purchased by affiliate teams than other any in the league. Already this off-season they have seen Major League clubs knocking at the door, and have lost four players before Spring Training even got underway. There is no doubt that, barring the same kinds of issues as last season, that they will be a 58 to 70 win club.

That leaves the final two teams in each division, where some dramatic changes in direction could make the Cleburne Railroaders and the Texas AirHogs serious contenders, making this a division of six outstanding teams.

Wichita Wingnuts (61-38 in 2017)

With nine straight trips to the playoffs and five appearances in the American Association championship series in six seasons, the Wichita Wingnuts are always in the running, establishing themselves as arguably the best organization in all of independent baseball. There have been a lot of changes around the team this off-season, including a change at general manager (Josh Robertson retiring and Brian Turner taking over) and manager (Pete Rose, Jr. being replaced by longtime star Brent Clevlen), plus the team has lot the heart of the batting order and starting rotation. There is still a lot of talent on this team, and Robertson remains to help build the 2018 Wingnuts. There may be a lot of changes on the field, but one thing that never changes is that this team finds a way to win.

Lincoln Saltdogs (58-41 in 2017)

Bobby Brown is in his third season with the Lincoln Saltdogs, and he has already proven to be one of the best managers in independent baseball. Brown in 110-89 since 2016, taking his team to the Central Division title last season. He has already re-signed several key pieces to last year’s lineup and added some key arms that should keep this team in the running all season. This is a nice blend of talent from the veterans all the way to the younger players including Curt Smith, who may be the nicest person and most feared hitter in the league.

Kansas City T-Bones (57-43 in 2017)

Joe Calfapietra is in his second season with the Kansas City T-Bones and he had this team in the thick of the pennant race all the way until the last weekend of the season. The T-Bones manager has also done a great job of building his pitching staff, and he has the most potent middle of the order in the American Association in Kevin Keyes, Art Charles and Zach Walters. This team is going to hit and if their pitching staff allows less than four runs a game on average they will easily win 60.

Cleburne Railroaders (47-53 in 2017)

A lot of people will look at the team’s 47 win season and think that it was more of a mirage than reality. They will say that because Cleburne got to play the Salina Stockade and Texas AirHogs so much that their win total is padded. That is just not the case. Gabe Suarez will be entering his third season as a manager and he did a great job of putting together one of the best pitching staffs in the American Association, especially in the bullpen. That kept this team competitive and there is no reason to believe this year’s team won’t have a quality staff as well. The one area where an improvement was needed is in its every day lineup. Suarez was hamstrung by a shoestring budget, but the talk around the team is that this may not be the case in 2018. There are two opposing rumors that ownership is going to invest some capital into making this team a winner, but there is also talk that they were looking to sell the team. If the former is true, then this would open the door for Suarez to bring in some quality bats which would likely make this team the surprise of the league.

Sioux City Explorers (46-54 in 2017)

After two straight seasons in the playoffs, injuries and contract purchases made it a battle just to put together a team to take the field each night. Despite that, Sioux City Explorers Manager Steve Montgomery did an amazing job in keeping this team competitive, still winning 46 games despite never fielding the team that was scheduled to be their opening day lineup. The Explorers Skipper is already building a quality pitching staff and has All-Star Nate Samson returning. Major League clubs have already been hovering around Sioux City, signing four players already, but no one should think that last year’s struggles will be repeated this year.

Texas AirHogs (43-57 in 2017)

The Texas AirHogs have been a total seller so far this off-season, releasing some key players in November, including RHP T.J. Bozeman, OF Charley Thurber, and infielders Trevor Sealey and Beamer Weams, then they traded away OF Denis Phipps, All-Star infielder Alvaro Rondon, and RHP Luis De La Cruz to Sugar Land in January. No player has been added, giving credence to the rumor that the 2018 Texas AirHogs will actually be the 2020 Chinese National Baseball Team. Sources have explained that the way that the Chinese team will prepare for the Olympics is to put their team in the American Association. Whether Billy Martin, Jr. chooses to remain as the team’s manager is not for certain at this point, but this will add a whole new dynamic to the league. The Chinese government will want to see a competitive team on the field, and that will mean the very best players will be coming.

It Should Be Up for Grabs

The South Division should be as challenging as the league may have ever seen. There are a lot of interesting dynamics which will have to play out, but if all of this comes together, it will not only mean that there will be a lot of parity in this division, but that the teams in the North will be dreading having to take on their southern counterparts.

American Association Daily Notes

The Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks announced that infielder Manny Castillo was traded to Evansville of the Frontier League for a player to be named later.

Podcasts

Mound Talk with Sioux City Manager Steve Montgomery
Strike Zone with St. Paul Saints Manager George Tsamis

By Robert Pannier

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