Who Is American Association’s Top Manager? Candidate 2: Steve Montgomery, Sioux City Explorers
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 continues looking at the top four for American Association Manager of the Year. Today’s looks at Sioux City Explorers Manager Steve Montgomery.
Building on the Fly
Most of the managers in the American Association not only manage the team on the field, but also are tasked with building their club. That requires skippers to not only have the ability to put their team in the best position to win each night, but also to build a team that helps to put them in the right position to be able to win each night. That means having a big Rolodex, being a great evaluator of talent, and being able to figure out who is the right piece to turn a good club into a great one or to turn a struggling club into a contender.
Over the past four seasons, one of the themes related to the best managers has been their ability to make significant changes to their club as the season was going along. In 2018, the then Kansas City T-Bones were a solid but not spectacular club in July, but manager Joe Calfapietra made several moves in July and turned them into American Association champions. A year later, then St. Paul Saints Manager George Tsamis took a very ordinary club, completely overhauling them, keeping just a handful of players who were on the roster on opening night, and leading them to the 2019 title.
In 2020, Sioux Falls Canaries Manager Mike Meyer had a good club, but his pitching staff was not very good. Meyer went out on the open market and made some big deals to acquire a starting rotation that helped lead the team into the American Association championship series. Last year, it was Calfapietra having to make a number of changes due to player signings, yet he found a way to take his club to their second championship in the last four seasons.
It is the ability to take a solid, maybe even a mediocre club and turn them into one that is feared heading into the playoffs that can garner a lot of support from voters. This is why Sioux City Explorers Manager Steve Montgomery finds himself among the list of the top four candidates.
Steve Montgomery Changes the Entire Makeup of the Club
At the start of the 2022 American Association season, the Explorers were expected to be a team that could pitch very well, but offense was going to be a challenge. Unfortunately, both parts of the team failed early on, as Sioux City came out of the first month 3-12 with the second worst ERA in the league (6.37) and the fourth worst team batting average (.258). The club hit 14 homeruns, which was fourth from the bottom, and it looked like this season was going to unravel quickly.
However, Montgomery did not panic. He began rebuilding this team, fearless in his quest to get victories out of his club. That included dropping Carlos Sierra, who began the season considered as the top starting pitcher on the staff. Several other arms that were considered to be a key to this club’s pitching staff were let go as well. Montgomery had served notice that players better perform or they were out the door.
The same was true with the starting lineup. Injuries and a lack of performance had this club struggling to score runs through the first seven weeks of the season, as they were hitting right near .260 with 33 homeruns in 39 games.
However, Montgomery was not just letting go of those who were not performing. He also made a number of key acquisitions. That included adding outfielders Danry Vasquez, Ademar Rifaela, and Danny Amaral. The three outfielders instantly generated offense for this club, joining Trey Martin and Chase Harris in forming arguably the best outfield in the American Association. That necessitated Amaral moving to the infield, which has only strengthened the lineup even more.
Recently, Montgomery reacquired catcher Dylan Kelly and added shortstop Miguel Sierra. With longtime Explorers superstar Nate Samson struggling through injuries for much of the year, the Sioux City skipper felt it was necessary to make a move, and Sierra became another big acquisition this year. He is hitting .364 through his first four games, and four of the five key acquisitions he has made are hitting above .300, with Amaral at .288. However, he leads the American Association in stolen bases with 43.
The moves have paid dividends on both sides of the diamond. The lineup has gone from hitting .258 in the first month to .274 in July and they are hitting .266 in August with 26 homers in 24 games. The club has hit 54 homeruns over their last 50 games, a significant increase over where they were through the first seven weeks.
The pitching staff struggled a little in July, posting a 5.88 ERA, but that was par for the course, as six clubs in the American Association had ERAs above five and three others had ERAs at 4.90 or higher. Everyone struggled in July, so it was not surprising that the Explorers did so as well. However, in August, Sioux City has the best ERA in the American Association (3.42) as the re-signing of right-hander Matt Pobereyko has only helped to make this pitching staff better. Pobereyko had been the closer in his two previous stints, but has shined in the starting rotation since rejoining the club.
With 10 games left in the season, Sioux City holds a 3.5 game edge over the Lincoln Saltdogs for the final playoff spot in the West Division. They are two games under .500, which may not seem very impressive, maybe not even worthy of consideration for Manager of the Year. However, consider where this club was at when June began. Since that point, they have gone 41-31, a .569 winning percentage.
In the American Association, what needs to be understood is that being a great manager is not just about winning games. It is also about figuring out what is not working, and being willing to make some very tough decisions to improve your club. That has the Sioux City Explorers arguably entering the final week of the season as the club that no one wants to face in the playoffs.
One thing stands in the way of Montgomery earning more serious consideration. The Explorers end the season with three at home against the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks and then four at home against the Lincoln Saltdogs. If Lincoln is still fighting for a playoff spot when that series begins, the Explorers are going to need to dispatch Lincoln with extreme prejudice. Should this team miss the playoffs, Montgomery’s chances of being Manager of the Year are over.
By Robert Pannier