Lincoln Saltdogs Have Playoff Core in the Dog House

Lincoln Saltdogs Have Playoff Core in the Dog HouseAmerican 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, the Lincoln Saltdogs Manager Bobby Brown has made a number of moves to re-sign key pieces to last season’s Central Division Champions. Will this have the team ready for another playoff run?

Ready to Repeat – In a New Division

The Lincoln Saltdogs move to the South Division in the American Association this season, but this team has every intention of being a division winner again. The 2017 Central Division champs have been busy re-signing players that played a pivotal role in last year’s playoff run, and Saltdogs Manager Bobby Brown looks to have made keeping his core intact a major priority.

Mr. Smith Returns to Lincoln

No signing was bigger than when fan favorite Curt Smith was signed on December 21, giving Saltdogs fans an early Christmas present. Smith first arrived in the Nebraska capital in 2011, where he appeared in 78 games, hitting .335 with 9 homers and 48 RBI.

His success earned him a shot with the Miami Marlins, who purchased his contract and sent him to AA-Jacksonsville in 2012. Smith hit .261 there with 9 homers and 48 RBI. The next season, he moved to AA-New Britain, the AA affiliate of the Minnesota Twins. After a slow start, Smith was released and returned to Lincoln, where he put together another outstanding season, hitting .316 in 49 games.

The following year Smith returned to affiliate ball, playing a season in AA-Springfield (St. Louis Cardinals), where he put up a solid season. The infielder hit .262 with 11 homers and 52 RBI. However, he would be back on the free agent market by season’s end, returning to Lincoln the following year.

In 2015, Curt Smith hit .294 with 12 homers and 61 RBI. He was chosen to the American Association All-Star team and even won the Home Run Derby at the mid-season classic. A year later, the Saltdogs star set a career high in homers with 17, while hitting .331 with 60 RBI. Last season, Smith helped the team return to the playoffs for the first time since they reached the American Association championship series in 2014. He also represented the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic before the 2017 season.

The Core Is Intact

Smith has become a foundational piece upon which Brown has built this team, and his return is pivotal to another playoff run. However, the moves that the Saltdogs manager made did not end there.

Five days before Smith re-signed, outfielder Tim Colwell arrived from the St. Paul Saints. Colwell has been one of the most underrated players in the American Association since he was first signed by Manager Steve Montgomery in 2014. The outfielder hit .307 for the Sioux City Explorers that year with 19 stolen bases in 64 games, all while playing outstanding defense. In 2016, he hit .301 in 98 games, and played well for the Saints last year, hitting .281 in 68 games, despite missing time due to injury.

While Colwell has a lively bat, his greatest asset is his speed. Lincoln was tied for 10th in the league last season with only 69 stolen bases, and his speed at the top of the order should add a whole new level of dimension to Brown’s arsenal. He stole a career high 29 bases in 2015, and was successful in 22 of his 23 attempts last year. Add in the fact that he is an exceptional defender in any outfield position, making just one error in 68 games last year, and this may be the move of the off-season.

If Colwell hits .280-plus, he is going to have a number of chances to score, because the heart of the order is quite good. Infielder Cesar Valera, who led the team with a .327 average and 70 runs scored to go along with 52 RBI, was re-signed a week ago. Valera not only has a solid bat, but is an outstanding defender as well.

Randolph Oduber re-signed just after the New Year. The outfielder hit .286 last season and was second on the team in RBI with 60. He led the Saltdogs in homers with 17. Brandon Jacobs returns for his third season in Lincoln. Last year he set a single season high with 12 homers, while batting .249 in 97 games. This, a year after hitting .275 with 11 homers in 87 games. This gives a solid top four or five positions in the batting order.

Looking to Be No. 1 Again

The lineup has not been the only area where Manager Bobby Brown has been busy building his team. The Lincoln Saltdogs had the No. 1 pitching staff in 2017, and several key pieces are signed for next season. That starts with reliever Brad Orosey, who came to the team late and pitched great in his four appearances. Cesilio Pimentel started the season in Fargo-Moorhead, where he was 5-1 before being traded to Lincoln. He would only appear in 11 games before his contract was purchased by the Arizona Diamondbacks, but he will start the season in Lincoln. Dimitri Kourtis, who made 26 appearances and posted a solid 3.39 ERA, gives this bullpen a lot of depth.

The starting rotation took a loss when Bennett Parry was traded, but they should still be solid as Shairon Martis re-signed. Martis made six starts last season and posted an outstanding 2.00 ERA. In 40.1 innings, the right-hander allowed just 30 hits while striking out 32.

If the team can re-sign Derek Gordon and they can add another solid starter, then the Lincoln Saltdogs are in prime position to make another playoff run. The biggest issue for Brown is going to be filling the shoes of closer Michael Wagner, who was dealt to Sussex (Can-Am League) in November. He also has traded away his No. 1 setup guy, dealing Cameron McVey back to Winnipeg. However, no one should think that Bobby Brown made these deals without having a few irons in the fire.

AAD Notes: The Wichita Wingnuts have always built their team strong up the middle, and with John Nester behind the plate, the Wingnuts opted to re-sign shortstop Leo Vargas. Vargas has been a steady player for Wichita the last three seasons, hitting .242 in 2017 with a career high 46 RBI. Vargas has made at least 20 errors in each of the last two seasons, but he has as good of a range as any in the league, and is a lot more solid than those numbers would suggest…The Kansas City T-Bones traded for Jake Matthys on January 9, and he signed with the club Monday. The former Gary Southshore RailCat appeared in 20 games last season, posting a solid 3.86 ERA, while striking out 31 in 32.2 innings.

By Robert Pannier

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