American Association Daily provides 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, the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks are the focus, as new manager Michael Schlact has already put together an impressive roster that is ready to make a championship run this season.
A Legacy Built on Success
When the 2018 American Association begins, there will be a lot of changes around the league. A new team will join (the Chicago Dogs), a one-year team will be gone (the Salina Stockade), there will be new players, new stadium renovations, and changes in general managers. A lot will be different in 2018. However, there will be no bigger difference than in Fargo-Moorhead, where the RedHawks will have a new manager for the first time in franchise history.
After 21 seasons, Doug Simunic will no longer be at the helm, as Michael Schlact becomes the new manager of the team. Ownership did not make this move without seriously examining the decision they were making. Simunic had been the team’s manager since 1996, the first year that the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks took the field. Letting him go was like the Packers dismissing Curly Lambeau or the Bears telling George Halas that they no longer required his services. Doug Simunic was RedHawks baseball.
However, in the sports world, when you don’t win, your life expectancy as a manager or coach is short – extremely short, and that is the place Simunic found himself in. The team had been to the playoffs 16 times in 21 seasons, including winning championships in 1998, 2003, 2006, 2009, and 2010, but they had not been to the post-season since 2013. The last two seasons they had been in the thick of the playoff chase until the final week of the season but fell short, and ownership felt it was time to move on.
The Answer Was Right in Front of Them
With about a month left in the 2017 season, Michael Schlact was named the team’s interim manager. He helped to rally the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks, as they posted a 16-8 record over the final four weeks, falling just a game short of the wild card.
At the completion of the campaign, the interim title was removed. The Skipper had clearly proven that he had what it took to lead this team, as well as to inspire them to victory.
However, the one area where he had to prove himself was in building a team. Simunic had been a master at finding talent and building a roster that always had five guys or more who should have been in affiliate ball. You don’t win championships without having talented players, and that was where the former RedHawks manager was able to deliver.
The question became if Michael Schlact could have the same kind of success. Did he have the charisma to convince players to come to Fargo-Moorhead to play baseball as well as the rolodex to reach out to any player he was seeking. The early returns have been that he has both.
The Foundation Is in Place
The off-season has been a busy one for Michael Schlact. Many managers choose to wait until February and March to start building rosters, seeing which players are being released from Major League organizations during Spring Training, but the new Fargo-RedHawks Manager has been active virtually from the moment that he got the job.
In September, the Skipper added infielder Tommy Mendonca from the Lincoln Saltdogs. Mendonca has been in the American Association the last four seasons, spending three with the Sioux City Explorers before moving to Nebraska last year. He had an outstanding season in 2017 despite missing nearly two months due to injury, hitting .291 in 49 games with 22 runs scored and 28 RBI.
A month later, the team signed a plethora of players, especially for their pitching staff. RHPs Richie Mirowski and Jose Nivar were re-signed in the middle of the month. Nivar appeared in just three games for the RedHawks last year, but was a key piece of the Laredo Lemurs bullpen the season before, posting a 3.15 ERA in 34 appearances. Mirowski also had a brief stay in Fargo-Moorhead last season, posting a 2.79 ERA in 4 starts. He struck out 22 in 19.1 innings pitched.
Right-hander Tyler Thompson was resigned a week later. Thompson made 37 appearances for the RedHawks in 2017, going 4-3 with a 5.18 ERA. While he did give up a lot of hits (63 in 48.2 IP), he did show great command of his stuff, walking just 18 while striking out 46.
On October 24, seven players were signed by Schlact. This included RHPs Tyler Stirewalt, Benji Waite, and Carson Goldsmith, infielders Derrick Fox and Yhoxian Medina, and catcher Joe DeLuca.
Stirewalt made three starts in Fargo last season, going 1-2 with a 4.67 ERA. Waite started last season with the St. Paul Saints before joining the RedHawks. He was a combined 4-7 with a 4.21 ERA. Goldsmith made 9 appearances in Fargo-Moorhead, recording a 2.16 ERA.
Medina was the team’s starting shortstop last season, and had an outstanding year. The infielder hit .279 and 94 games with 44 runs scored and 27 RBI. Fox spent 35 games with the RedHawks, hitting .205, and DeLuca made 13 appearances for the team, hitting .367 with 5 runs scored and 6 RBI.
October had been a busy month, but Schlact didn’t let up much in November. On November 13, he signed OF Devan Ahart and RHP Trevor Simms. Ahart had an outstanding year for the team , hitting .292 in 78 games with 8 homers and 30 RBI. He also scored 60 runs and stole 11 bases, becoming a key contributor near the top of their order. Simms spent last season in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization, splitting time between three levels where he was a combined 7-6 with a 4.92 ERA in 34 appearances. Simms can both start and relieve, giving Schlact some flexibility.
Four days later, outfielder Keury De La Cruz was re-signed. De La Cruz starred for the team in 2016, when he hit .316 and 99 games with 18 homers and 72 RBI. That earned a contract from the Seattle Mariners organization, but he was released later in 2017, returning to Fargo-Moorhead where he hit .249 with 9 home runs and 35 RBI in 57 games.
Travis Ballew had pitched for the RedHawks in 2016 before his contract was purchased by the Miami Marlins. He spent the majority of last season there before finishing off the year in Sugar Land (Atlantic League). Ballew was 1-0 with a 1.64 ERA and 10 appearances in 2016. Last season he had an overall ERA of 3.29.
The pitching staff got another live arm when Schlact traded for right-hander Andrew Woeck from the Sioux Falls Canaries at the end of November. Woeck had an outstanding season in Sioux Falls last year, making 40 appearances and posting a 4-1 record with a 3.33 ERA. He’s got a live arm, striking out 62 and 51.1 innings pitched and could get a real shot of closing in Fargo.
Cameron Griffin became another arm added to the pitching staff when he was signed on December 7. Griffin was in the New York Mets organization for the first five years of his professional career. Last season he split time between two levels, where he combined to go 1-5 with a 3.88 ERA in 40 games. He struck out 56 in 58.0 innings pitched.
The team provided fans with an early Christmas present when right-hander Jose Almarante was re-signed on December 19. Almarante has incredible stuff, striking out 118 and 133 innings pitched last year. He only walked 36 in his 21 appearances, 19 of which were starts. With left-hander Tyler Alexander moving onto Mexico, it is likely that Almarante moves to the top of the rotation as the team’s No. 1 starter.
The team got off to a good start in 2018 when outfielder Breland Almadova signed with Fargo-Moorhead on January 10. Almadova has spent the last two seasons in St. Paul, appearing in 138 games total and combining to hit .255. He has a great deal of speed, stealing 46 bases in 57 attempts, and is an outstanding outfielder.
The RedHawks added another big left-hander when Sebastian Kessay was signed a few days later. The LHP was with the Houston Astros organization last season, where he combined to go 4-4 in 21 appearances, 10 of which were starts. What is most impressive is that he struck out 85 in 63.2 innings pitched, and could be the perfect replacement for Alexander.
At the end of January, left-hander Will Solomon returned to the team. Solomon had been part of the trade that brought Mendonca to Fargo but was reacquired. The LHP had been with the team the last two seasons, going 5-5 last year with a 4.47 ERA in 104.2 innings pitched.
On February 1, three players were signed, including RHP Trey McNutt, infielder Carlos Triunfel, and outfielder Willie Doll. McNutt was in the RedHawks bullpen last season, where he finished 4-3 with a 5.10 ERA, striking out 46 in 42.1 innings pitched. McNutt had seven solid seasons with the Chicago Cubs and San Diego Padres organizations before coming to Farg0-Moorhead.
Triunfel spent parts of three seasons in the Major Leagues and had an impressive 10 year minor league career before signing with York (Atlantic League) in 2017. Last season, he hit .271 in 62 games with eight homers and 28 RBI. Triunfel can play both short and third, and he is a solid defensive player. Doll was signed after having an impressive season for Santa Fe in the Pecos League, where he hit .466 and 47 games.
Schlact had addressed virtually every part of his team, but added one key piece yesterday when catcher Charlie Valerio was re-signed. Valerio has been with the RedHawks the last two seasons, hitting .275 with 12 home runs and 47 RBI in 93 games last year. He has not performed well at throwing out runners (10 percent last season), but understands how to call a game and pitchers love throwing to him.
There Is a Lot of Talent There
The removal of Doug Simunic clearly sent a message to the new manager as well as to the team as a whole. Ownership expects to win, and Michael Schlact has responded by building one of the most complete teams and we are only in February.
There’s a great deal of talent on the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks already, and the pitching staff has the makings of one that could easily be the best in the American Association in 2018. There seems to be the perfect complement of fireballers as well those who use a variety of pitches to get people out. If the Manager can add a big bat or two those may be the final pieces for a championship run.
American Association Daily Notes
On Monday, the St. Paul Saints signed infielder Noah Perio. Perio returns to the American Association after having an outstanding year for Sioux City in 2016 when he hit .338. Last year, Perio was at AA-San Antonio (San Diego Padres) where he hit .281 in 112 games with 53 runs scored and 36 RBI…The Winnipeg Goldeyes signed three key infielders from last year’s championship team. Andrew Sohn was an MVP candidate, hitting .302 in 96 games with 88 runs scored and 45 RBI. He also stole 30 bases. Jordan Ebert appeared in 48 games, where he hit .316 with 24 runs and 13 RBI. The two should make up one of the best double-play combinations in the league this season. David Bergin was also an MVP candidate last season, appearing in all 100 games, having a monster year at the plate, hitting .323 with 20 homers and 77 RBI. He also scored 74 runs and had 33 doubles.
Featured Image by KVRR News
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA