It’s Time to Say ‘Play Ball’ on 2021 Frontier League Season
The Frontier League will take to the diamond beginning on Thursday, the first time that the league has been in action since 2019. This is an exciting season in the league, not only because they finally get underway, but also because we will finally get to see how well the blending of the Can-Am League with the Frontier League will work.
It should be an exciting season where a lot of questions will be answered. Since this league has not been in action since 2019, here are 19 questions that will be answered during the 2021 Frontier League season.
How Will the League Look?
This is part of what is really exciting about the Frontier League this season. With the combining of the two leagues, the league now has 16 teams, with eight in each of the divisions. That makes it by far the largest of any of the independent baseball leagues, and they are in a position to likely expand even more. This should create some fantastic pennant races and give a lot of fans the opportunity to see some quality baseball.
What About the Canadian Teams?
If you have not heard already, the league will do without two of its Canadian teams this season with one operating as a traveling team for the year. Both the Trois-Rivieres Aigles and the Ottawa Titans have opted not to play since the Canadian border remains closed. The Québec Capitales have opted to play, but under a different name and all 96 games will be played on the road this year. Too bad a Jackson was not available for this Canadian team as well.
How Will Roster Rules Affect Teams?
This is going to be one of the more interesting aspects to the Frontier League this season. The Frontier League has added some veteran roster spots as well as two classifications for more experienced players. For former Can-Am teams, their managers are going to have to adjust to reducing the number of veterans they can have while increasing the number of younger players.
This is going to create an interesting dynamic, as both sets of managers are going to have a little bit of a learning curve. It will be interesting to see which managers are able to adjust to these roster changes early on. It would seem that those original Frontier League teams will have the early edge.
Who Will Be the Surprise Team in 2021?
For fans of American Association baseball, this will not be a surprise at all, but pay close attention to the Washington Wild Things. They finished the 2019 season at 37-59, the worst record in the league. However, they made a bold move in the off-season, hiring former Winnipeg Goldeyes hitting coach Tom Vaeth as their new manager, who brought on Alex Boshers to be their pitching coach.
Vaeth has done a great job of building this roster, including having some former American Association talent in McKenzie Mills, John Sansone, and Derek Reddy. Washington had the worst ERA in 2019 (4.19), and this has been a major focus of the new manager. This team should see a drastic improvement, and it will not be a surprise if they win 48+ games. However, the Wild Things are in the toughest division in the league, and that is going to make for quite the challenge for the new manager and his staff.
Can River City Repeat?
The River City Rascals defeated the Florence Freedom in an exciting five-game series to win the Frontier League championship in 2019. Unfortunately, the club is not part of the 2021 season, so they will not be a repeat champion.
Does that Make Florence the Team to Beat?
The Florence Y’alls have to enter this season as the favorite. First off, manager Brian White has assembled a group that has much of the same talent that the team had in 2019 when they went to the championship series. That includes Andre Mercurio, who hit .291 with 33 runs scored and 23 RBI in 59 games for the team. Also returning is Austin Wobrock, who drove in 50 and scored 42 runs and 95 games.
On the pitching side, Karl Craigie returns after an unbelievable 2019 season where he posted a 0.93 ERA in 37 appearances, saving 10 games. No doubt this group will be tough.
How Do the Former Can-Am League Teams Impact the League?
Skipping past the obvious point of there being more teams in the league, the Frontier League is going to have a real challenger in the Sussex County Miners and the New Jersey Jackals. The Miners finished with the top record in the Can-Am League in 2019, going a remarkable 61-33 and making it to the league championship series. However, they were no match for New Jersey (48-46), who won the last Can-Am League championship in four games.
The one good thing for the rest of the teams in the league is that both teams are in the Northeast Division, which means that only one can qualify for the playoffs. However, whichever team comes out of that division is going to be considered a favorite.
How Good Will Quebec Be?
Wow, this is a tough call. Équipe Québec, as they will be known, has some talent, but 96 games on the road is not going to be easy. They may start out fast, but expect this team to really struggle in the second half of the seaso.n
Will the Frontier League Face Same Challenge as American Association with Player Signings?
You can count on it. The American Association is being pillaged for players by Major League organizations, and the Frontier League has not been immune. They have already lost 20 players before the first pitch has been thrown this season and you can count on any player or pitcher who gets off to a hot start is going to get transferred.
This is going to be the biggest factor affecting the pennant race early on. Let a team get off to a hot start behind four or five players and you can count on them getting signed to affiliate deal. That team will suddenly find themselves struggling to keep up.
What Will the Divisions Look Like?
There will be four divisions for the 2021 Frontier League season. They will be the:
- Atlantic Division (New York Boulders, Équipe Québec, Tri-City ValleyCats)
- Central Division (Joliet Slammers, Windy City ThunderBolts Schaumburg Boomers, Lake Erie Crushers)
- Northeast Division (New Jersey Jackals, Washington Wild Things, Sussex County Miners)
- West Division (Evansville Otters, Southern Illinois Miners, Gateway Grizzlies, Florence Y’alls)
How Will the Schedule Look?
The teams will play a 96-game schedule. The schedule is not a balanced one, however.
Teams will play games within their own division as well as with one other division. So, the teams in the Central will play the teams in the West and those in the Atlantic will play the teams in the Northeast.
This unbalanced schedule will have teams playing a lot of their schedule against one team far more than the others. For example, Evansville will play Schaumburg and Southern Illinois 18 times but face Joliet nine times. Three teams are on the schedule 12 times. The New York Boulders face the New Jersey Jackals 28 times, but the Washington Wild Things only 12 times.
This schedule is going to have a big impact on the standings.
Can I Watch All the Games?
You sure can. This season all games will be available on www.FrontierLeagueTV.com. All the games through the end of May are free to watch. Then you can purchase a subscription for the entire season or purchase a monthly subscription. You will not want to miss out on the action.
Which Miners Are Better?
Southern Illinois finished 2019 at 53-43. Sussex County finished 61-33. Both teams have great managers, Bobby Jones in Sussex County and Mike Pinto in Southern Illinois. Sussex County is a bit deeper and I like the veterans on this team, but they have a lot of rookies and the pitching staff is a bit less experienced.
I also like the matchups for Southern Illinois. Their opponents will not be as formidable, so Southern Illinois will win probably five more games.
Why Is Florence the Team to Beat and Not Evansville?
Evansville is a great team. They were tied with Florence for the top record in the Frontier League in 2019, so they should be considered a favorite as well. The Otters are managed by Andy McCauley who has a proven track record, earning 481 victories in 910 career games managed. That includes leading the team to the 2016 Frontier League championship.
The challenge for Evansville is that they have a very young pitching staff. Pete Perez is the only veteran, and they are going with a young group of catchers as well. That could be a bad combination which could keep Evansville from being the playoff team coming out of the West Division.
Does Lake Erie Have the Easiest Road to the Playoffs?
Lake Erie is in the same division as Joliet, Wendy City, and Schaumburg. None of those teams finished above .500 in 2019, and each has their challenges for this season. Windy City is the team with the deeper pitching staff while Schaumburg has the veteran catcher. Joliet is very young around the diamond, and I believe they are going to have a very difficult time. That makes Lake Erie the likely winner of this division.
Will Anyone Run Away with Their Division?
If anyone has a chance, it will be Lake Erie, but do not count on anyone dominating their division. The best teams appear to be out east, and they are going to batter each other. Florence, Evansville, and Southern Illinois should all be quite good, and I see Joliet, Windy City, and Schaumburg as quite similar to one another. Lake Erie is the one team that stands out in that division and they may be the only team that holds a 10 or 12 game lead in their division by the time the season ends.
What Will the Level of Competition Be Like Early On?
This is going to be the big question mark in the Frontier League. The vast majority of these players did not play in 2020, meaning that it is going to take some time for them to get their rhythm back. This is going to be especially true for the hitters.
What we have seen in the American Association is that the clubs that had a large number of players who were playing last year got off to a fast start. There is not a large number of players who played last season playing for any team in the Frontier League this year, so expect pitchers to dominate for about two weeks.
How Will the Teams Finish in the Standings?
Here is how I see the teams finishing in each of their respective divisions:
- New York Boulders
- Tri-City ValleyCats
- Équipe Québec
- Lake Erie Crushers
- Windy City ThunderBolts
- Joliet Slammers
- Schaumburg Boomers
- Sussex County Miners
- Washington Wild Things
- New Jersey Jackals
- Evansville Otters
- Florence Y’alls
- Southern Illinois Miners
- Gateway Grizzlies
Who Will Win the Championship?
The playoffs are set up so that the winner of the Atlantic Division will take on the Northeast Division winner in the first round. That leaves the winner of the Central Division taking on the winner of the West Division.
Look for Evansville to take out Lake Erie in four games. Sussex County will beat New York in five games.
That makes for an Evansville-Sussex County finals. Look for this to go the distance, with Evansville hoisting the crown.
By Robert Pannier