Play Ball! 22 Questions Will Be Answered During 2022 American Association Season – Part I
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 22 questions that will be answered during the 2022 American Association season as all 12 teams spring into action on Friday. Here is Part I.
Season 17 of American Association Baseball Set to Get Underway
The American Association Gets underway on Friday the 13th of May with a lot of excitement surround the 17th season of the league. There is a new team, a new playoff format, new division alignment, one new manager, and plenty of new players.
There is clearly a lot of excitement for organizations, players, and fans as the season is about to get underway. There are also a lot of questions to be answered. In honor of the year 2022, here are 22 questions fans should be looking to see answered during the season.
How Will the Lake Country DockHounds Fare?
If one looks at recent history of expansion franchises in the American Association, they have not done particularly well. In 2021, the Kane County Cougars went 44-55. In 2019 the Milwaukee Milkmen went 38-62 in their first campaign. A year earlier, the Chicago Dogs went 45-54. The Cleburne Railroaders went 47-53 in their first year.
It is not easy for an expansion franchise to compete, especially in this league. This is one of the most competitive professional baseball leagues, and it takes a special kind of manager to recruit and navigate the first season for any expansion franchise.
With that being said, do not be surprised if the Lake Country DockHounds have a great inaugural season. Not only do they have an established manager in Jim Bennett, but there is a large group of players who have an established track record of success in the American Association, including the Manager’s son, T.J. Bennett, Blake Berry, Aaron Takacs, Wilfredo Gimenez, Carson Goldsmith, and Todd Van Steensel. Bennett was Manager of the Year in 2019, so he completely understands what needs to be done to build a franchise and turn them into a winner.
Answer: Look for the DockHounds to be right around the .500 mark.
What Manager Is on the Hot Seat?
Most managers are in a very solid position entering the 2022 season, but one is in a bit of a precarious situation.
Here at the Minor League Sports Report, we hold few baseball people in as high of a regard as Sioux Falls Canaries Manager Mike Meyer. However, he clearly is on the hot seat this season. That seems like an unfair situation for a skipper who led his team to the American Association championship series just two seasons ago, but there are a number of factors going against him.
First there are new owners in Sioux Falls. While they may have a great deal of respect for Meyer, new owners often will expect results right away. They may neglect to recognize the great job that Mike has done here and become impatient should the team struggle early.
This is the sixth season for Meyer, who has an overall record of 190-270. His 45 wins in 2017 was the most by the club in nine seasons, and he is the first Canaries manager to lead the club to the playoffs since the team won the championship in 2008. With the Canaries celebrating their 30th anniversary, the pressure may be on for the skipper to put together a winning campaign. If he fails to do so, the team may have a new manager next year.
Winnipeg Goldeyes Manager Rick Forney may also be feeling a little bit of heat as well. Since winning the 2017 championship, the club has gone 177-182. They have missed the playoffs in all four of those seasons, and there may be some additional pressure on Forney to deliver a winning team with the club finally able to play all their home games in Canada this season.
Answer: Mike Meyer is definitely the skipper on the hot seat, but look for him to be back in 2023.
What Second Year Manager is Going to Have the Best Year?
There are three managers who are in their second year with their clubs – Brett Jodie in Lincoln, Logan Watkins in Cleburne, and Jim Bennett in Lake Country. Bennett is actually in his first season with the DockHounds, but this is his second season as a manager in the American Association, so will include him in this list.
Watkins led Cleburne to their first playoff appearance in franchise history, and this should be a very interesting season for him. Logan has been given the complete reins to build this team this season, so expect an outstanding bullpen and the club to do a lot more running.
Jodie did a great job with this club, falling just short of the postseason. However, he was taking over the team built by the previous manager, and has had the entire off-season to build the Saltdogs the way he would like. The starting staff for this group looks incredible, and this is going to be a very dangerous club.
Bennett has a proven track record. He was Manager of the Year with Fargo-Moorhead in 2019 and has also had his first opportunity at building a club on his own. The DockHounds have a potent lineup and the bullpen is deep. They should be right in the thick of things.
Answer: While all three will have a great season, look for Watkins to have the better of the three.
Are the Cleburne Railroaders in Danger of Being Contracted?
Every year, there is always some rumor swirling around the league about the Texas teams breaking off and joining another league or the American Association finding that teams in the Lone Star State simply do not fit in the geography of the league. While that may have had some validity in previous seasons, it may be no more relevant than this year.
With Winnipeg back at home, no longer playing in Jackson, Tennessee, Cleburne is literally on an island in comparison to the rest of the American Association. The closest team is the Kansas City Monarchs, who are eight hours away. That has forced league officials to change the way that series will be hosted by the Railroaders this year, as the club will play six-game series at The Depot against teams in their own division.
There will be all kinds of people clamoring for letting the Railroaders go, but that is not going to happen for two reasons. First, the American Association would very much like to expand into Texas. If the economy settles down, do not be surprised if Texas has two or four more clubs in the state within the next two to three years. It is a big state with a lot of population centers, and those are fan bases that could support a team.
In addition, the league has had long-distance travel situations before. Even when there was more than one team in Texas, clubs had to go seven hours to get from the Dallas area to Laredo. Some complained, but it still went on.
Answer: The Railroaders are not going anywhere.
Is This the Last Season for the Explorers in Sioux City?
There is a lot of talk about the Explorers moving out of Sioux City. A dispute between owner John Roost and the Sioux City government over damaged seats at Lewis & Clark Field has the owner talking about moving the club. It seems like a problem that should be quite easy to resolve, and expect it will be.
Truth be told, owners always threaten to move their club when they are trying to negotiate to get a better deal or get upgrades in the stadium whether team plays. City governments always act like they don’t have money to pay for upgrades. In the end, it always seems to work out.
Answer: Do not hire a moving company, as the Explorers are not going anywhere.
Will the Gary SouthShore RailCats Play a Different Style of Game Under Manager Lamarr Rogers?
This is a very interesting question, as fans have become accustomed to the Greg Tagert style of baseball. Greg ran a club that was very fundamentally sound, played incredible defense, liked to run, and did all the little things that make a team as annoying as heck to opponents.
Rogers looks like he has a different philosophy for how he would like to run the club. However, with only a couple of months to sign players and make acquisitions, Lamarr is going to have to be a little realistic about the makeup of his club. He has several of the players that Tagert had already signed, which is not necessarily a bad thing. There is a lot of talent here, but there is not a lot of power. This club is going to win only if they at least partially embrace the Tagert philosophy.
Answer: It may change some as the season is going along, but look for a similar style in Rogers’ first season.
How Do the Lincoln Saltdogs Fare without Curt Smith?
There were a lot of retirements over the off-season. Players that American Association fans had come to love and enjoy watching play – Josh Allen and Michael Lang, for example – have decided to hang up the cleats and move onto the next chapter of their lives.
One other who opted to do so was Lincoln Saltdogs legend Curt Smith. Smith holds almost every major franchise record for the club and became a staple in that lineup over the last seven seasons. However, it was his infectious personality that really drew fans in, making him an endearing character within the league. Curt always had a smile on his face and, while someone may replace his numbers at the plate, no one is going to fill his shoes in the clubhouse.
Answer: There is no possible way to replace a Curt Smith, but this club will be okay.
How Will Realignment Affect the Pennant Races?
This is one of the more interesting aspects of the 2022 American Association season. Four teams from the South Division join the Winnipeg Goldeyes and Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks to form a colossal division that will now include the Sioux City Explorers, Kansas City Monarchs, Sioux Falls Canaries, and Lincoln Saltdogs. The East gets all five Chicago-Milwaukee area teams as well as the Cleburne Railroaders.
In the East, the biggest story in this division is going to be travel. Clearly, these teams, with the exception of Cleburne, have virtually no travel in comparison to West Division teams. The five clubs in the upper part of this division will have a lot of day trips to go play games, returning home at night to rest in their own beds. That should make these clubs a lot fresher and in better shape in the dog days of summer.
However, they also face a different challenge. They will have to travel to Cleburne to play six-game series. Those are going to be some long, grueling series, especially for Gary and Lake Country who travel to Texas in late July and early September. For Cleburne, a lot of their off days are going to be spent on bus trips traveling back to Texas, not giving the team many true days off.
In the West, I-29 is going to be very busy with American Association buses. These are still relatively short trips for most of these clubs, as nobody is spending 17 hours on the bus, except getting to Cleburne. However, there are still a lot more nights spent in hotels than what they will see in the East.
Answer: The six-game trips to Cleburne likely gives the Railroaders a big edge.
How Many American Association Players Will Have Their Contracts Transferred to Affiliate Teams?
American Association managers got a good look at what it’s like to manage at the AAA level last season. With well over 70 players moving back to affiliate ball, teams were constantly making roster moves to adjust to losses while finding enough talent to keep their team competitive. Lineups seemed to change on a daily basis for most clubs.
Most in the American Association do not believe that we are going to see a repeat of that this year. I agree, it is not going to be over 70 players, but do not be surprised if it is at least 50. The one thing to watch for will be after the MLB amateur draft is over. Because they have contracted the number of rounds, there are going to be a lot of additional players available for partner leagues. Scouts are going to recognize that they may have missed on a few players and the signings are going to begin. That is going to make for a crazy July, August, and September.
Answer: Look for 58 transfers this season.
Who Are Five Players Who Are a Lock to Move Back to Affiliate Ball?
There are a group of players who, I must admit, I am genuinely surprised are not in affiliate ball already. These are guys that had ridiculous seasons last year, and I would not be surprised to see them headed back to a Major League organization.
Saltdogs infielder Josh Altmann set a franchise record with 29 homers, hit .305, drove in 72 runs, and played very good shortstop for the Saltdogs. Most of these numbers were single-season highs for him, but that should say something about what Altmann is capable of doing. A middle infielder with those types of numbers and skill seems a natural fit back in affiliate ball.
Chicago Dogs closer Jeff Kinley is another head scratcher. Not only is he a power left-hander, but his numbers were ridiculous last season, allowing 27 hits and 12 walks in 55.1 innings pitched while striking out 64. He could close, work as a set up guy, or fill just about any role a Major League organization is looking for. Plus, it looks like he’s added a changeup which will only make his stuff that much better.
Milwaukee Milkmen infielder Logan Trowbridge is another guy that has easily earned an opportunity with an affiliate club. On his defense alone he has proven himself to be a worthy selection. In all seriousness, Trowbridge could be one of the best guys defensively in any league at five different positions. Plus, he hit .289 with 87 runs scored, 11 home runs, and 48 RBI, stealing 40 bases while walking 40 times. If there is not room for this guy somewhere in affiliate ball, then 30 teams seriously do not know how to scout.
Matt Adams is not much of a no-brainer for Kansas City. He has not even swung at a pitch in the American Association yet, but played for Colorado last year and has 118 home runs in 856 career Major League games. At 32, he may not have the same pop as when he hit .271 with 19 home runs for Atlanta in 2017, but someone is going to need a veteran bat come July or August.
This may seem like a stretch to some, but Sioux Falls Canaries outfielder Wyatt Ulrich should already be in affiliate ball as well. He was a true rookie last season, yet hit .327 in 88 games with a .402 on-base percentage. At one point, Ulrich had a hitting streak over 30 games and had reached base in over 50 straight contests. He can also play a variety of positions, and had a monster season in his professional debut. This guy is simply too good to ignore.
Answers: Trowbridge, Kinley, Adams, Altmann, and Ulrich – expect Kinley to be the first to go.
Can Milwaukee Milkmen Keep Enough of His Players to Battle for East Division Title?
This is a very good question. The season has not even gotten underway yet, and Milwaukee has already had six players whose contracts were purchased and one, Adam Brett Walker II, who got a lucrative offer to play in Japan. Last year’s MVP is gone. Last year’s closer for the Milkmen (Nate Hadley) is gone. Last year’s No. 1 starter (David Holmberg) is gone.
Yet, with all these players signed away, Manager Anthony Barone has figured out a way to keep this team stacked. Don’t sleep on Milwaukee.
Answer: Do not be surprised if this team wins the division.
By Robert Pannier
Minor League Sports Report - Play Ball! 22 Questions Will Be Answered During 2022 American Association Season – Part II
May 13, 2022 @ 11:30 am
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