American Association Daily provides 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, we look at the moves by the Sioux City Explorers and ask the question, “Are they the team to beat in 2018?”
Are the Sioux City Explorers the Team to Beat in 2018?
Baseball is one of those sports where there is as much talk about the off-season moves that teams make as there is about the actual season itself. Signings, releases, trades, and other transactions can generate a lot of buzz with fans, helping to bring optimistic projections about how well their team will do, as well as spur discussion as to who has made themselves the “team to beat” for the upcoming season.
While there is still 46 days left until the American Association season gets underway, the team that has established themselves as the favorites are the Sioux City Explorers. With the deep pitching staff that Manager Steve Montgomery has put together, this is going to be a team that it is going to be difficult to score runs against. In addition, the lineup will be no slouch either, making them the winner of the off-season to this point.
Go Big or Go Home
While there have been a number of teams that have added former Big Leaguers, Montgomery has brought in three who should have a dramatic impact. Luis Durango has reached the Major Leagues three times in his career and has had a great deal of success every place he has played. He sat out the 2017 season, but is in great shape and could leadoff for this team, even at 32.
The additions of RHP Taylor Jordan and Patrick Schuster will not only bring a lot of talent, but add experience that should trickle down throughout the staff. Schuster was last in the Majors just two seasons ago, and is looking to rebound after a tough 2017 campaign when he had a combined 4-2 record and a 6.16 ERA for AAA-Nashville (Oakland A’s) and AAA-Oklahoma City (Los Angeles Dodgers). At AAA in 2016 the left-hander was 1-0 with a 1.21 ERA.
Taylor Jordan is returning after an injury wiped out much of 2016 and all of 2017. The right-hander was called up to the Washington Nationals in 2015 after going 5-6 with a 2.95 ERA in 19 starts at AAA-Syracuse. He will likely move to the top of the rotation for the Sioux City Explorers, taking the No. 1 or No. 2 spot.
A Deep and Talented Staff
Right now, of the 24 players listed on the Sioux City Explorers roster, 13 of them are pitchers and it is likely that Montgomery is not done with this staff yet. What is so impressive about this group is that it is not just the number of pitchers signed. This is an extremely talented group that has three or four guys that could close and a lot of experience that should help the younger guys on the team.
Besides Jordan, the Explorers lured Brian Ernst out of retirement, and he will likely be penciled into one of the top three spots in the rotation. Hunter Ackerman comes over from Evansville (Frontier League), where he was 8-6 last season with a 4.75 ERA in 2017. Justin Vernia will likely fill one of the spots after making six starts for Sioux City last year.
There is also a great deal of flexibility with this staff. Chris Powell made 4 starts for the Explorers last season and can be used as a swingman when the Sioux City Manager needs. Luis Mateo started his career as a starter in the New York Mets organization where he was dominant, going a combined 10-6 with 165 strikeouts and just 13 walks in 134.1 innings. Two seasons ago, he split time between the rotation and the bullpen, going a combined 2-0 with 52 strikeouts in 54.1 innings pitched for AAA-Las Vegas and AA-Birmingham.
The starting staff is in good hands, but the bullpen should be the story of 2018 for the team. PJ Francescon was the closer for the Sioux City Explorers last year, and he had an outstanding season, saving 18 games. He may move to the Atlantic League looking for a “better” chance to get back to affiliate ball, which will open the door to a number of outstanding arms on this team to look to be the team’s closer.
Ryan Flores struck out 93 in 78.0 innings for Sioux City last season. He has to cut down on his walks (40) however. Geoff Broussard was closing games in the Cincinnati Reds organization last season. At AA-Pensacola, he had 5 saves and a 3.20 ERA with 34 strikeouts in 45.0 IP. Mateo could also get this job. Either one could take the closer’s role but, should Francescon return, the seventh through ninth innings may be lights out for opponents.
This Is an Outstanding Lineup as Well
The pitching for the Sioux City Explorers is going to be the headline, but the everyday lineup should be a top three or four in the American Association. All-Star shortstop Nate Samson returns, and he is one of the best five players in the league. It would not be a surprise if he was at AAA somewhere by season’s end.
Michael Lang also returns. The longtime Explorers standout has built quite a reputation with the team and is looking to rebound from a solid 2017 season that was a bit below his personal standards.
Dylan Kelly (.294, HR, 23 RBI) returns behind the plate. Jay Austin came over from Sussex County (Can-Am League) where he hit. 349 with 28 runs and 21 RBI in 43 games. He also stole 20 bases and is an outstanding defensive outfielder. Joe Jackson (.264, 6 HR, 22 RBI) or LeVon Washington (.293, 12 HR, 57 RBI) will get at bats at the DH or to give others the day off. Jay Baum also comes from Sussex County and will likely be the everyday third baseman. In 86 games, he hit .291 with 8 homers and 48 RBI. He also stole 20 bases.
Bring on 2018!
On paper, this is the deepest and arguably the most talented team in the American Association. This is a playoff team right now, and Steve Montgomery has not even acquired the veteran bat he is looking for.
However, this was a playoff team at the beginning of 2017 as well. The team saw a number of its best players signed by affiliate clubs (a bitter-sweet thing for every club) and injuries deprived the team of most of the rest of their stars.
If this team stays healthy and they are able to replace the players lost to affiliate ball (and there will be at least three who will be signed by the end of June), the Sioux City Explorers will likely be the team to beat in the South Division.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA