Lamarr Rogers Set to Redefine ‘RailCats’ Baseball
American Association Daily provides insights, features, and recaps of the action from around the American Association of Professional Baseball League, as well as player and coaching profiles and transactions. In today’s edition, Robert Pannier looks at the changes to the Gary SouthShore RailCats under new Manager Lamarr Rogers and how this will change the way this team has played.
A Whole New Way of Thinking
Benjamin Franklin once said that there are only two things you can be sure of in life: death and taxes. If you have been an American Association baseball fan for the last half decade, then you could have been just as confident that the Gary SouthShore RailCats were going to be a team loaded with rookies, scratching out runs each night, and hitting a minimal amount of home runs each year. In fact, it would not have been surprising if the team leader in homers led the club with a single digit number.
That was RailCats baseball. It was a scrappy style, very fundamentally sound, that made Gary SouthShore arguably the most annoying club in the league. It was also a club that patterned itself off a youthful model. There were likely not going to be more than four or five players who had 3+ years of professional experience. That left the club battling to stay out of last place the last few seasons, as they simply could not compete against clubs who had 10 or 12 guys with AA and AAA experience, many of whom had players who had reached the Major League level.
That RailCats team is dead. All nine lives have been used now. With the hiring of new manager Lamarr Rogers, this club is ready to compete, and is doing so with a roster that is set to battle with the best of them. No doubt this East Division in the American Association got a whole lot more competitive.
No More Mr. Nice Guy
When the 2021 American Association season ended, the Gary SouthShore RailCats had 19 rookies and an LS-1 classified player on their active roster. That meant 20 players on this team had three or fewer years of professional baseball experience. No veteran players were on the active roster, and only one had as many as five years of professional experience. In contrast, the Kansas City Monarchs, the team who won the American Association Championship, had five rookies, four veterans, and 11 players who had at least five years of professional experience. It is easy to see why Kansas City finished with 30 more victories than Gary.
That was not necessarily the fault of former Manager Greg Tagert. The club had limitations on what they were willing to spend on the team, and Tagert had been a wizard at developing young talent into playoff contenders. His luck simply ran out, as more experienced players joined other American Association teams looking to continue their baseball career. That left Tagert at a clear disadvantage.
Rogers does not look like he has this handicap. Ownership has opened their wallets, and given him a freer rein to be able to acquire top-level talent. That has not only meant that he has signed a number of talented veterans, but has traded away a group of players who had already been signed by the previous manager, looking to improve the overall talent level of the club.
At this point, it looks like at as many as half of this roster is going to be different from the 2021 addition. That is good news for RailCats fans, who are looking for a team who they can believe is going to be in the running as the calendar turns to August.
Calling the Game
Gary SouthShore has had some talented catchers in their history, and the combination of Jackson Smith and Chris Burgess should help this pitching staff to stay in ballgames each and every night. Jackson appeared in 62 games last season for the RailCats, hitting .174 with two home runs in 19 RBI. His main asset is his ability behind the plate, as he recorded only for errors and six passed balls in 223 chances last season, while throwing out six of 31 baserunners.
Jackson has the experience and Gary, but Burgess is likely to be the everyday catcher. He comes out of the Baltimore Orioles organization, where he reached AA-Bowie last season. Burgess struggled at High-A Aberdeen (.108 batting average, 26 games), but that came after he sat out the entire 2020 season when minor league baseball was shut down. In 2019, the catcher hit .286 at the Orioles rookie league team.
Holdovers, Newcomers Give Infield Some Pop
The one area where RailCats fans are going to see a lot of familiar faces is in the everyday lineup. Several players from last season return, and many are coming off spectacular seasons. The infield will see the return of Michael Woodworth, Daniel Lingua, Tommy McCarthy, and Thomas Walraven.
Woodworth had been in the Oakland Athletics organization in 2019, but lost the 2020 season. Oakland released him and he signed with the RailCats and was a big-time performer, hitting .367 with 22 runs scored and 17 RBI in 31 games. Lingua put together an impressive year in his first season playing professional baseball. The infielder hit .281 with 37 runs scored, 42 RBI, 13 stolen bases, and 24 extra-base hits in 89 games. He was arguably the MVP of the team last season, and will likely settle in at second base.
Walraven had a big year in Gary in 2019, hitting .301 in 62 games. That included hitting six homeruns, scoring 35 runs, and driving in 31. He sat out all but one game in 2020, but returned to the RailCats in 2021, hitting .281 in 71 games. Walraven likely partners with Lingua as the double-play combination for the team. McCarthy also returns after hitting .221 in 40 games in 2021.
None of those four should be confident in their position with Gary this season, however. Rogers has brought in three talented infielders ready to compete. It starts with Michael Cruz, who reached AAA-Salt Lake for the Los Angeles Angels last season. Cruz has six years of minor league experience, hitting .239 in 278 games. You can be sure he did not come to Gary looking to sit on the bench, and will be given every opportunity to be in the everyday lineup. Cruz is a very versatile player, playing catcher, first base, and outfield in the Diamondbacks organization.
Donivan Williams started out the season with High-A Palm Beach (St. Louis Cardinals) where he hit .220 in 46 games. He signed with the Windy City (Frontier League) to close out the season, and put up solid numbers, hitting .273 in 25 games. Williams is another versatile player, playing second, third, short, and the outfield in the minors and will be battling for one of those middle infield positions.
K.V. Williams was another player hurt by the pandemic. He started the 2019 season with the Low-A Hudson Valley (Tampa Bay Rays), appearing in 62 games. However, after the 2020 season was canceled, Edwards appeared in just six games for the Rays rookie league team before his 2021 season was over. He hit .278 there, clubbing two home runs in just 25 at bats. He showed a great eye at the plate last season as well, walking six times in those six games, posting a .480 on-base percentage. Edwards has primarily played outfield, but can play second and third as well.
Same as It Ever Was
Where the team is going to have a very similar look is in the outfield. Raymond Jones, Alec Olund, M.J. Rookard, Zach Welz, and Jesus Marriaga are all returning. That is not a bad thing, however. Marriaga had the best year of them all, hitting .284 with 35 runs scored and 31 RBI in 80 games. He stole 19 bases as well to lead the club.
Olund hit .280 in 67 games, hitting five home runs. He scored 41 and drove in 37, boasting a .372 on-base percentage. Welz (.264, 35 R, 25 RBI, 43 games) and Rookard (.259, 2 HR, 35 R, 24 RBI, 59 games) will be battling for that remaining spot. Jones is also in the mix after hitting .241 with 28 runs scored and 30 RBI. He got off to a fast start in 2021, clubbing three homeruns early, but finished with just four.
Javeyan Williams will also be in the mix. The former San Francisco Giants player reached High-A Eugene last season, where he hit .145 in 22 games. While he can play anywhere in the outfield, he is a natural centerfielder, a good thing to have in spacious US Steel Park.
A Big Overhaul
If there was anyplace needing an upgrade it was in the pitching staff. The team used 32 different players in games last season, far too many to be competitive, especially when only a couple of those players were lost when their contracts were transferred to affiliate clubs. As a result, Rogers has kept just a small group from last year’s team. That group should be of great help to the overall effectiveness of this team.
Trevor Lubking was the ace of the staff in 2021. He started 19 games for the team, and led the club and innings pitched (117.0), victories (5), and strikeouts (117). The left-hander finished with a 4.84 ERA, but he wore down over the last seven weeks of the season, allowing at least four runs in four of his final eight starts, including 11 against Fargo-Morehead on July 23. By the way that Rogers intends to use the staff, Lubking should be fresh and ready to go each time he takes to the mound.
Chris Erwin returns after posting a 3.09 ERA in 14 appearances, nine of which were starts. With the manager using an eight-man rotation, Erwin will be one of the guys taking the ball on a regular basis. He struck out 44 in 52.1 innings pitched, but needs to lower his walk total (24) if he is going to stay on this club.
Aaron Phillips appeared in just two games in 2021, both of which were starts. He was spectacular, allowing two runs in 14.0 innings, giving up nine hits while walking two. He struck out seven. He will most assuredly be in the rotation, as will Adam Heidenfelder. The right-hander appeared in 16 games last season, seven of which were starts, posting a 4.11 ERA. He also walked far too many batters (27), but has great stuff, striking out 62 in 59.0 innings.
John Sheaks, Josh Vincent, and Jack Eisenbarger were with the RailCats last season, but are going to have to prove that they belong there this year. Vincent started nine games for Gary last season, going 2-4 with a 6.20 ERA. Eisenbarger appeared in seven games for the RailCats, starting two. He posted a 4.62 ERA, striking out 24 in 25.1 innings, but walked 13. Sheaks made nine starts, posting a 5.40 ERA. He only walked nine in 40.0 innings, which is good news, but he allowed 50 hits which is far too many at this level.
Four additions should add a lot of talent to this pitching staff. It starts with Elio Serrano, who reached AA-Tulsa for the Dodgers last year. Serrano was cruising through the Dodgers organization before Covid wiped out the 2020 season. He still has a 3.32 ERA in 90 minor league games, and could very well supplant Lubking as the ace of the staff.
Carlos Vega comes over from Gateway (Frontier League), where he was 3-4 with a 5.32 ERA in 25 appearances, eight of which were starts. He has great stuff, striking out 84 in 71.0 innings pitched, and will be a project for Rogers to get him back to affiliate ball.
Like Serrano, Leif Strom was hurt by Covid. He showed promise in the Washington Nationals system, reaching Mid-A Hagerstown in his second season of professional ball, but floundered last season at High-A Fredericksburg, going 1-4 with a 9.50 ERA in 27 appearances. His control is good. He simply needs to work on pitch location, which will be another focus for the RailCats staff.
Of all the pitchers in this group, the one who was likely hurt the most by Covid-19 was Harrison Francis. The right-hander looked spectacular in his first few seasons in the Diamondbacks organization, going a combined 8-0 with a 2.70 ERA in 2018. An injury wiped out almost all of 2019, and he did not return to the diamond until late in 2021. The numbers were rough for the right-hander at Low-A Visalia, where he posted a 9.79 ERA in 24 appearances. That came courtesy of 35 walks in 26.2 innings pitched, as he is still trying to return to form after not pitching in nearly three years. Rogers and pitching coach Tom Thorton are great teachers and should have him ready to go on opening day.
A New Brand of Baseball?
While the team has holdovers from a club that only won 39 games last season, it looks like Lamarr Rogers has kept the best of that group and added some additional talent that should make this Gary SouthShore RailCats team a very competitive club in the East Division. If they are going to compete in this division, this is going to have to be a much more talented club as the division hosts five other outstanding teams.
Rogers looks like he has this club ready to go, however. The five other managers in this division better be ready or they are about to be Railcatted Lamarr Rogers style.
By Robert Pannier