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, the Gary Southshore RailCats are off to a fast start. Robert Pannier wonders if this team is the early season favorites for the American Association title.
Greg Tagert Has RailCats Scratching Way Near Top
The 2013 season was a memorable one for the Gary Southshore RailCats. Manager Greg Tagert had kept together a solid nucleus for a few seasons, enabling his team to go all the way to the American Association championship, defeating the heavily favored Wichita Wingnuts to earn their only title.
This past off-season, we questioned in American Association Daily if 2018 was going to be a repeat of that memorable banner year. If this was going to be the year that Tagert took his team all the way, as he had built a roster that included a group of players who knew exactly what it took succeed in Gary while also adding key pieces that should have made this team a real contender to win it all. A little over three weeks into the season, it looks like that analysis was spot on.
There Always Seem to Be Nay Sayers
One of the funny things about the Gary Southshore RailCats is that every year there are those who surmise that there is no way that this team is going to be any good. Manager Greg Tagert builds a team of mostly rookies and second year players, and rarely is there a player or pitcher who seems like he has a future in affiliate ball.
They postulate a last place finish for the team, boasting that it would be surprising if the RailCats even won a third of their games against teams that use established veterans and who follow the traditional models. Yet, they always exceed expectations.
That proved to be the case the last two seasons, when the RailCats challenged for a playoff spot in both years. In 2016, it went down to the last weekend of the season, when they were competing with the Lincoln Saltdogs and the Sioux City Explorers for the Central Division title. Sioux City would win the final three games of the season, knocking Gary Southshore out.
In 2017, the RailCats were fighting for the wild card spot and the Central Division title entering the last weekend. They would win the final three games, finishing 1.5 games out of the Central Division, but earning the wild card berth, jumping over both the Kansas City T-Bones and Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks on the final day of the season.
These were rosters filled with rookies, yet it did not matter. Greg Tagert figured out a way to get them to play like winners and they proved themselves to be just that.
That Model Reaching Its Pinnacle
Early in the 2015, Greg Tagert explained that what made his 2013 team click was that he had built a solid foundation of players who became the nucleus of a championship team. He wanted guys who had been around for three or four years, who truly understood the way he wanted a team to play, and that resulted in an American Association title.
He began that process again in 2015, as the team finished 45-55, a respectable record for a group that started the season with no less than 15 rookies on the 22-man roster. Many around the league laughed at the team and how it was built, but the team was in the wild card hunt until an eight-game losing streak at the end of the season ended their hopes.
A skid at the end of the season ended the RailCats playoff hopes in 2016. The team lost four straight before winning three out of four against the Joplin Blasters, but they were not able to overcome the hot finish of the Explorers.
In 2017, the Gary Southshore RailCats were the surprise of the league. A 16-8 record to close out the season gave the RailCats a 57-43 record, earning the wild card spot.
Today’s Gary Southshore RailCats
This story has been told before, even in American Association Daily. What makes it so relevant today is that the plan is completely on point this season, much as was predicted in this publication back on January 24. We believed that Greg Tagert had put together that core group of players – Alex Crosby, Colin Willis, Alex Gunn, Daniel Minor, Wilfredo Gimenez, Reggie Wilson – who understood how the Skipper wanted his team to play ball and they were ready to take the team to the American Association title.
Consider how well this team has played this season. A week into the 2018 campaign, the RailCats were 2-5 but, since then, have gone 12-4. They are one of the two hottest teams in the league and are 1.5 games out of first place in the North Division, only trailing the St. Paul Saints who they are 3-3 against this season.
What is so amazing is that this is a team winning without superstars. They do not have a top 20 hitter. Their leading home run hitter has 3. Their leading RBI producer is not in the top 20. Overall, the team is seventh in hitting.
The pitching staff is fifth in ERA. They have two pitchers tied for fourth in wins, but their leader in strikeouts in 19th in the American Association and their top pitcher in ERA is 11th overall.
What makes the RailCats stand out is that they are an incredibly sound fundamental team that Greg Tagert has managed to get the best out of on virtually every single night. They beat you by doing everything a team should do to win, and when you don’t bring you’re A game or you make a mistake, they will make you pay for doing so.
The scariest part of this whole scenario is that it usually takes about 30 games into the season before the RailCats start to put things together. However, this team looks like they have figured it out already. That is not good news for the rest of the American Association as, come August, this could be a team winning 70 percent of their games on a consistent basis. As Yogi Berra once said, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”
Featured Image of Greg Tagert Courtesy of Jonathan Miano, The Times
American Association Daily Notes
We need to catch up on some transactions, staring with the Cleburne Railroaders trading OF Axel Johnson to Windy City (Frontier League) for future considerations…The Chicago Dogs added RHP Jared Carkuff. The right-hander has been in the San Diego Padres organization the last three seasons. He began 2018 splitting time between Mid-A Fort Wayne, AA-San Antonio, and AAA-El Paso, where he was a combined 3-1 with a 6.00 ERA in 16 appearances…The Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks signed RHP David Ernst. Ernst is returning to baseball after being out since 2015. That year, he pitched for the RedHawks, making one appearance…The Lincoln Saltdogs signed RHPs Jake Hohensee and Scott Kuzminsky. Kuzminsky started the season in the Seattle Mariners organization. He was with High-A Modesto and AA-Arkansas, combining to go 1-1 with a 3.73 ERA in 16-appearances…The Wichita Wingnuts added OF Hunter Clanin…The St. Paul Saints signed OF Jake Smith…The Winnipeg Goldeyes signed RHP Carter Johnson.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA