American 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, Greg Tagert employed a strategy that helped to make the Gary Southshore RailCats American Association champs in 2013. Will lightning strike again in 2018?
He Who Laughs Last
When the 2016 American Association season began, many around the league looked at the roster of the Gary Southshore RailCats and laughed. Manager Greg Tagert had built a team that was more than 70 percent rookies and the belief around the league was that the team would be lucky to win 30 games. When the team started out the season 2-6 it looked like the mocking was prophetic.
However, one voice who believed that Gary would be quite competitive was St. Paul Saints Broadcaster Sean Aronson, who pointed out that by season’s end the RailCats would be the team no one wanted to play. Aronson explained that what made Tagert so good was his ability to teach and form a team that by the midpoint of the season was more difficult than any in the league to play. How right the Saints broadcaster was.
By season’s end, not only had Gary Southshore gone way beyond 30 victories, but a stretch in August of six straight wins and eight victories in nine games had the team in the playoff hunt where they fell just two games out for the Central Division title.
Last season, the Gary Southshore RailCats were taken a little more seriously, but still many believed that the previous year’s team was an aberration. However, the 2017 team was even better than the 2016 version, which won 52 games. These RailCats would win 57, including winning six of their last seven games against the Central Division Champion Lincoln Saltdogs to earn the Wild Card.
They were swept in the playoffs by the Wichita Wingnuts, but was missed in all of the surprise was the fact that Manager Greg Tagert had his team right where he wanted them. His plan for the team was right on schedule.
The Greg Tagert Plan
In 2013, the Gary Southshore RailCats surprised everyone when they made the playoffs as the Wild Card team, then knocked off the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks before defeating the highly favored Wingnuts for the American Association title. It really should not have been that much of a surprise, however.
For three seasons, Greg Tagert had kept the core of his team together, so that in that third season, they had gelled into a winner. The roster was filled with guys who had starred for the RailCats, including Mike Massaro, who hit better than .300 in each season from 2011 to 2013, including 17 triples in the championship year. In three seasons, Massaro had 45 triples and 65 doubles, and drove in and scored at least 60 runs each year.
Craig Maddox was another key piece, playing exceptional defense behind the plate and handling the pitching staff like a master conductor. He joined Adam Klein and Brian Kolb, who had also been in Gary for all three seasons.
The pitching staff in 2013 saw five return from the staff in 2012, and catcher Ryan Babineau returned in 2013. This not only gave Tagert nearly half of his staff back, but both of his catchers returned as well, making sure that there was greater cohesiveness, and the strategy paid off with an American Association title.
It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again
The strategy that helped to make this team league champions in 2013 is coming around again this season. The top two players for Greg Tagert last year, Colin Willis and Alex Crosby, have already been re-signed for this year. Willis hit .319 with 15 stolen bases and 54 runs scored, and Crosby, who will be entering his fourth season with the RailCats, batted .291 and made only 2 errors at first base. Willis also led the team in homers with 8.
Those are not the only two returning however. Andy DeJesus played brilliantly in the infield last year, making only 9 errors in 73 games while hitting .254, and Randy Santiesteban re-signed after hitting .257 in 67 games.
The pitching staff will see the return of Alex Gunn, who made an impressive 25 starts last season to lead the American Association. Gunn was 8-5 with a 3.47 ERA, and tossed 152.2 innings of work.
Jeff McKenzie returns as well, after posting a 3.72 ERA in 14 appearances, 11 of which were starts. The left-hander was 4-4, and will combine with Gunn and Daniel Minor (3-1 in 6 starts) to form what should be one of the best 1-2-3 groupings in the American Association.
While the RailCats Manager has been focused on keeping his core intact, he has also added two pieces to this year’s team who should make a huge difference in this lineup. Mitch Glasser came to the team as part of the Charle Rosario deal, and has as solid of a bat as any you will find. He hit .282 in Cleburne last season, after hitting .314 for Joplin the year before. Glasser has speed (18 stolen bases, 70 runs), and makes contact (40 strikeouts in 4o9 at-bats). He is the perfect fit in Gary and will give Tagert a number of options on how to use him every time he steps to the plate.
Jimmy Heck was arguably the best player for the Salina Stockade last season, hitting .258 with 36 runs scored and 24 RBI in 89 games. He is another one who has great bat control (51 Ks, 344 at-bats) and plays solid defense.
The grouping of Glasser, Heck, Willis, and Crosby are going to make contact the vast majority of the time and they all play good defense. With the three starters this team has (the team uses a four man rotation) this team will not be ignored this season. They move to the North Division for 2018, which will make it a challenge if they are going to reach the playoffs, but no one should think it will take until mid-season for Greg Tagert to have this team firing on all cylinders.
AAD Notes: St. Paul Saints left-hander had his contract purchased by the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday. Thielbar pitched three seasons for the Minnesota Twins, but pitched the last two in St. Paul. Last year he was having an amazing season, allowing only five runs in 22.1 innings pitched before an injury sidelined him for the second half of the year.
By Robert Pannier