In American Association Daily, the Minor League Sports Report’s Robert Pannier examines the challenges St. Paul Saints Manager George Tsamis faces trying to repeat as North Division champs, as he has already lost five of his players to affiliate clubs over the last two months.
Five Saints Already Reaching for the Heavens
With 70 days until the 2019 American Association season gets underway, there is still plenty of time to find outstanding players to fill roster spots. Major League Spring Training still has about three weeks left, and the market will be soon be flooded with players looking for jobs.
No doubt that St. Paul Saints Manager George Tsamis is already fixed in front of his computer looking at baseball reference and transaction reports trying to find a new set of players to replace a number of key players who have already had their contracts purchased this off-season. The success of the St. Paul Saints last season meant that Major League organizations came calling on his players, and now he is scrambling to find a new group that can help his club repeat as the North Division champions.
An All-Star Group Lost
This has been an exciting time for players in the American Association as affiliate clubs have purchased the contracts of over two dozen players already. Five of those players have come from the St. Paul Saints, who have seen their All-Star catcher and four members of their pitching staff headed to Spring Training.
It was not a surprise that catcher Justin O’Conner had his contract purchased. Despite a suspension hanging over his head, the 26-year-old was simply too good to pass on. He set a single season high last year with 17 homers and was absolutely brilliant behind the plate. He clearly has the talent that could lead him to the highest levels of the sport. O’Conner joined the Chicago White Sox.
The St. Paul pitching staff lost RHPs Evan Mitchell, Matt Solter, and Zack Jones as well as LHP Chris Nunn. Nunn signed with the Texas Rangers, Jones joined the New York Mets, and Solter and Mitchell were both signed by the Cleveland Indians.
No Need to Fear
These will be some tough shoes to fill. O’Conner was the best defensive catcher in the American Association last season. Nunn became a top two starter and Jones became the team’s closer. Mitchell became a solid addition to the bullpen down the stretch and Solter did a fine job after joining the rotation.
The key word related to the four pitchers was “became.” All but Solter joined the team later in the season, and played a pivotal role in helping the team reach the American Association championship series. The majority were all signed by the Saints Manager weeks, even months after the season got underway.
This was arguably the best season George Tsamis has put together in terms of building a team. While that 2015 team will still be looked upon as the gold standard in terms of his player personnel abilities, the truth is that the 2019 was a textbook example of what to do to turn around a team’s fortunes.
After losing to Winnipeg on July 1, the St. Paul Saints were an ordinary 22-20. They had lost three of four to Winnipeg (June 21-24) before being swept at home by the Sioux City Explorers, ending a dreadful 1-6 homestand. The team was actually playing significantly better on the road than at the friendly confines of CHS Field. Plus, their closer and their No. 1 starter had their contracts purchased.
That is when Tsamis began tinkering with the roster. Actually, butchering would be a more appropriate term. The Skipper added Nunn and Trevor Foss to the rotation, plus built arguably the best bullpen in the league, headed by four outstanding right-handers, including Jones and Mitchell, as well as lefty Ken Frosch.
The lineup got a serious makeover as well. Kyle Barrett became the team’s centerfielder and was a catalyst, hitting .338. Zach Walters came in a trade and became a big voice in the locker room and a big bat on the field. Aaron Gretz added a big bat off the bench, Nathaniel Maggio played well at first while Brady Shoemaker was nursing an injury, and Burt Reynolds reclaimed his status as one of the most dangerous bats in the league after joining St. Paul.
St. Paul went 37-21 over the final two-plus months of the season using a roster that had almost entirely been rebuilt. Only nine of the 23 players on the playoff roster started the season with the team, which says a lot of about Tsamis’ ability to find talent to build a winner whenever he needs it.
The Process Begins
No one should think that George Tsamis is sitting on his hands. While he is happy to see his players get a chance at their Major League dream, he expects to win and has already been taking the steps to make that happen.
That team re-signed Max Murphy in February. The outfielder set a team record in 2018 with 136 hits when he hit .319 with 70 runs and 68 RBI from the leadoff spot. He showed quite a bit of pop with his bat, hitting 31 doubles, 5 triples, and 7 homers in 98 games.
Ace Eddie Medina also re-signed with the team. The right-hander was brilliant all season, going 9-5 with a 2.80 ERA. He set a single season high with 115.2 innings pitched and 104 strikeouts. In the playoffs last season, the right-hander allowed two runs in seven innings against the Gary Southshore RailCats in the divisional series, before blanking the Kansas City T-Bones in eight innings of work to earn the victory in Game 2.
In addition, Tsamis added former Atlantic League standout Devon Rodriguez. Rodriguez hit .288 in 113 games last season, a year after hitting .364 in 77 games. He played one season in the American Association, playing for the Texas AirHogs in 2016 where he hit .302 in 97 games.
There is also talk that 2B Josh Allen could be back. Allen hit .344 in 24 games before his contract was purchased by the Mets, and his bat would give the Saints a real force at the top of the lineup.
It is just 10 weeks until the season gets underway. It should be exciting to see what Manager George Tsamis comes up with to keep the St. Paul Saints back on top in the American Association’s North Division.
By Robert Pannier