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. Injuries and player contracts being purchased destroyed a promising season for the Sioux City Explorers, but Manager Steve Montgomery has already made some big moves to improve the pitching staff, as well as adding a lively bat that should make this team a real threat in the South Division.
Since Steve Montgomery became the manager of the Sioux City Explorers before the 2014 American Association seasob, two things have been true. Most other managers around the league grew to dislike the intense former pitching coach of the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks, and the Explorers became one of the best teams in the league.
This is what will make the Sioux City Explorers serious contenders in their new division this season, as the team moves to the six team South Division for the upcoming 2018 season. No doubt that this team will be ready to return to 2016 form, which should be even more irritating to the other 11 managers around the league.
Passion to Win
Off the diamond, Steve Montgomery is one of the nicest guys you will meet. He makes himself available to anyone who would like to chat about baseball, sports, or whatever. However, when he comes out of the locker room and heads to the field, it is like Superman stepping out of a phone booth. The smile and jovial spirit turns to a competitive fire that the former pitcher admits has rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.
While the Manager may not have many fans around the league, in his own city he is seen as a kind of savior. After the Sioux City Explorers had just two winning campaigns in 11 seasons prior to his arrival, the team has had winning seasons in two of the four seasons with Montgomery at the helm, including winning a league record 75 games in 2015. Overall, the team is 222-178 during his tenure as manager.
Last season, the Explorers went 46-54, but that was far from a disappointing season, despite being eight games under .500. Sioux City lost some of their best players to injury, including catchers Dylan Kelly and Tyler Ogle, All-Star shortstop Nate Samson, and RHP Rob Wort, quite possibly the best pitcher in team history, who was lost for season and opted to retire following a shoulder injury. Major League affiliates also plucked a great deal of the talent on this team, as 1B John Nogowski, who was hitting over .400 at the time, was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals, RHP Kevin McCanna had his contract purchased by the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Miami Marlins signed RHP James Needy, and RHP Mark Vasquez joined Puebla in the Mexican League.
At one point last season, only two players that were in the starting lineup on opening day were in the lineup that night, and injuries were taking such a toll that Montgomery was often unable to name that night’s starter until right before game time. It was a tough year, and it is actually quite extraordinary that the Explorers were able to win 46 games.
Joining the Arms Race
As a former pitcher, it is not surprising that Steve Montgomery would put together a top pitching staff, but last year’s woes made this year’s group an even greater priority. That is why the Manager has already added five arms to his team, along with outfielder Jay Austin.
The first of these came on November 8, when RHP Brian Ernst opted to come out of retirement, choosing to sign with the Explorers. In three of his four professional seasons, the right-hander pitched for the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks, including in 2016, when he split time between New Jersey in the Can-Am League and the RedHawks. Ernst is 32-23 in 70 career starts with a 4.58 ERA.
In December, the Explorers Manager signed RHPs Eric Karch and Justin Vernia. Karch was with the Los Angeles Angels organization last season, where he spent the vast majority of the season at AA-Mobile. There, the right-hander pitched well, posting a 2-2 record and a 2.06 ERA in 19 appearances. The number that really stands out is that Karch walked just 5 in 35.0 innings pitched, something any former pitching coach loves to see.
Vernia came to Sioux City late last season, signing in August and finishing the season with a 3-2 record in 6 starts. He did walk 18 in 35.1 innings pitched while allowing 41 hits, but his upside is tremendous. In his four college seasons, the right-hander posted a career mark of 30-5 with a 2.72 ERA and 5 shutouts. It’s a big step to go from college to the pros, but the off-season should give him some time to reflect on what he learned from the 2017 season.
On January 10, Montgomery re-signed RHP Ryan Flores as well as added RHP Marcus Jensen. Flores will be returning for his second season with the Explorers as well. He led the team in appearances in 2017 with 44, and finished the year 4-5 with a 4.27 ERA. Flores has a live arm, striking out 93 in 78.0 innings pitched and, if he can get his walks down (40), he could be a dominant performer in the American Association, maybe even taking over the closer’s role.
Marcus Jensen was signed on the same day as Flores, and he comes with quite a pedigree, as his father played nine seasons in the Majors as a catcher for the San Francisco Giants, Detroit Tigers, Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins, Boston Red Sox, and Texas Rangers. The younger Jensen spent six seasons in the Tampa Bay Rays system before signing with Rockland in the Cam-Am League last year. The right-hander proved to be a winner for the Boulders, going 8-2 with a 4.04 ERA in 33 appearances. He started 5 games.
Building a Well-Rounded Staff
The addition of Brian Ernst will give Steve Montgomery a guy he can put in the top part of his rotation and depend upon to make 20 starts this season as well pitch six-plus innings on a regular basis. Justin Vernia will also return to the rotation.
Marcus Jensen could fill any role, as he has closed (20 career saves), started (15 career starts), and has worked out of the bullpen in a variety of roles. He may be the perfect in a seventh or eighth inning role. Eric Karch should also fill a setup role as he has good command and has the kind of stuff that should enable Montgomery to bring him into a game no matter how hairy the situation may be. Ryan Flores will likely be given a shot at the closer’s role. He did record 2 saves last season, as well as make 2 starts, but he will most assuredly be working out of the back end of the bullpen next season.
…And One Big Bat
It will be the pitching staff that most will be talking about, but the addition of Jay Austin may be as big as any that Steve Montgomery will make. Austin was acquired by the Lincoln Saltdogs and then sent to Sioux City to complete an earlier deal.
The outfielder has a lively bat, hitting .349 in Sussex County (Can-Am League) in 43 games last season. The year before, he hit .341 in 98 games. What Montgomery has to like is that Austin is a threat to run any time he reaches first. The outfielder stole 20 bases last season and had 40 the year before. In his 66 attempts the last two seasons, he has only been caught 6 times. The Explorers manager loves to run, and Austin is the perfect complement to that game plan.
Ready for the New Challenge
With the American Association switching to two divisions this season, the Sioux City Explorers move out of the now defunct Central Division and join the South Division. There is no doubt that Kansas City, Lincoln, and Wichita will have solid pitching staffs to throw at opposing offenses each night, and Steve Montgomery is building a group that should be included among the division’s elite.
AAD Notes: Former Salina Stockade pitching coach and starting pitcher Brian Smith was re-signed by the Lincoln Saltdogs. Smith was 3-11 last season for Salina before coming to Lincoln. He tossed four complete games last year, and should reap the benefits of pitching for a team that will have a lot more stable of a roster…Jabari Henry was re-signed by the Sioux Falls Canaries. Henry led the American Association in home runs last season with 29, and was ninth in the league in RBI (72)…The Wichita Wingnuts signed RHP Taylor Hoesen, the fifth pitcher signed by the team this week. Hoesen last pitched in college in 2017.
By Robert Pannier