Play Ball! 2020 American Association Set to Get Underway
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, Robert provides some key storylines as the 2020 American Association is set to get underway on Friday night, and he provides his predictions on how teams will fair this year.
American Association Gets Underway Friday Night
You can’t keep a great league down. That should be the moniker for the American Association for 2020 as America’s best independent league is set to start their season on Friday night with “all” six teams in action. That there are only six teams playing is one of the main stories of this season, but it is not the only. Here are things fans will be talking about as the season begins.
A Six-Team League
With Canada basically on lockdown and players from other countries not being able to receive visas, it was clear that the Winnipeg Goldeyes were not going to be playing at home and that the Texas AirHogs had a daunting task to fill their roster so late, as their squad from the Chinese National Team would not be coming. There was also some very legitimate concern at the league office about taking players on the road for 17-hour bus trips trying to play in 10 cities. The fear of players contracting Covid-19 escalates greatly with each additional city that added to the equation, making the idea of the “hub” city the only logical one.
That left the league to decide how many hub cities and how many teams would be at each of those cities. The magic numbers were three, now four, and six. Looking at the states that were allowing for large gatherings, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Texas were available. The distance to Texas was clearly a problem. The other three states, and now four since Illinois has slackened up, offered three great locations as the farthest driving distance was eight hours. Quite workable.
That left the league to determine how many teams would play and who they would be. That could not have been an easy decision but five of the teams made sense. Clearly, the three hub cities – Sioux Falls, Fargo-Moorhead, and Milwaukee – would be in. Both the Chicago Dogs and St. Paul Saints were expecting that their states would open and they were both geographically ideal to the other three cities. Chicago is already open.
That left the final team. A great case could have been made for the other seven teams, but it would not be surprising if Winnipeg was chosen because of their rivalries with teams like the Saints, Canaries, and RedHawks. While a strong case could be made for the Explorers, especially considering that Iowa was open already, the Goldeyes were likely selected because it made sense from a marketing standpoint.
For fans of those six teams who are not playing this year – do not fret. League Commissioner Joshua Schaub has already made it clear that your team will be back next year, and that they will be in a better financial position than ever before. The league is committed to your cities, so you are not going anywhere.
A New TV Deal
The American Association has a new streaming service for this year. You will be able to catch all the live action at AABaseball.TV. The service will cost $20 for the entire season, which is a great price. Not only will you have access to all the games, but a plethora of bonus content as well. That includes features and shows from the six teams who are not playing this season. It should be a major upgrade.
This is a golden opportunity for the American Association to shine, and this new TV deal should help to make that possible.
Meet Your Four Hubs
The four locations for this year’s games are Milwaukee, Chicago, Fargo, and Sioux Falls. St. Paul could be added later. Chicago and Milwaukee are new ballparks and are absolutely spectacular. They should give the league a great look to the national media. Newman Outdoor Field in Fargo is an older ballpark, but fantastic.
Sioux Falls has an old facility that needs some upgrades – or preferably a new stadium all together. What makes games there different than any of the other three parks is that this is a hitter heaven. The ball flies out there, so there are going to be a lot of high scoring games. What that means is that you are going to see a lot of ESPN highlights from the Birdcage as there should be a lot of runs scored and opportunities for great plays.
The Road Warriors
Two teams – the St. Paul Saints and Winnipeg Goldeyes – could play their entire seasons away from their home parks. You can be sure that this is the case for the Goldeyes. Playing out of a suitcase all season is never easy, but it is a lot more of a challenge when your “home” crowd is a heated rival. Sioux Falls fans don’t like the Saints and, as my good buddy Kevin Luckow is fond of saying, the favorite two teams of Fargo-Moorhead fans are the RedHawks and anyone facing the Goldeyes.
Both teams are used to playing before large crowds in their own home parks, but now they will get no love at all.
The Managers’ Stories
The six managers are as different as any six men you will find, particularly in their stories. This is going to be one of the most enjoyable narratives all year long.
The RedHawks and Milkmen have brand new skippers. Anthony Barone has known for eight months he was the guy in Milwaukee. Chris Coste got his job three weeks ago. Coste is a living legend of sorts, not only establishing himself as a great independent baseball to the Majors success story, but he is also the head baseball coach at nearby Concordia College. Barone is managing at the professional level for the first time ever. He clearly is looking to build a reputation under a very challenging situation.
Saints Manager George Tsamis should be taking a curtain call every night after leading his team to their first championship since 2004. However, he will be “celebrating” in front of a hostile Canaries’ crowd. Speaking of Canaries, Manager Mike Meyer has been looking to restore the luster in Sioux Falls. The team has fallen on hard times over the last decade, and there has to be some pressure on him to elevate the play of this team.
No two stories are going to be more powerful than those of Goldeyes Manager Rick Forney and Dogs Skipper Butch Hobson. Forney tragically lost his son David a few months ago and it is hoped that the return of baseball will give him some sense of joy. Hobson is high risk to the Covid-19 virus because of his age and the shunt inserted in his heart. Yet, he is dedicated to leading his team. Emotionally, there would be nothing like an American Association championship with those two teams playing one another.
The Hub City Rivalry
There is going to be no greater determining factor to this season than the hub city rivalry. The teams that are scheduled to play in the same city as their home ballpark will play each other 24 times. If one of those teams dominates the other, they are almost assured of making the playoffs. That should give these games a playoff atmosphere.
The Pandemic Dilemma
We can’t ignore the pandemic. This is going to be a storyline you are going to hear about all season long. Hopefully, you won’t hear much about it. Hopefully every player, coach, and staff member will make it through the season without an issue. However, if one team has a player or two that contracts the illness, especially a star player, it is going to have a dramatic impact on the standings and the psyche of the league. This story is going to be the elephant in the room for the entire year.
The Calfapietra Factor
Joe Calfapietra’s Kansas City T-Bones will not be playing this season, but no person may have had a bigger impact on the year than Joe. Of the 42 players taken in the league dispersal draft, 17 came from Kansas City. Players such as Dylan Tice, Dylan Baker, Roy Morales, and Cito Culver are going to be big time performers for their teams. Depending on how many former T-Bones players the championship team has, they may want to send a bottle of champagne to Joe.
How They Finish
Those will be some interesting storylines to follow, but we hope that the primary focus will be on what’s going on down on the field. The quality of talent in the American Association this season is going to be ridiculous. Because the league has condensed to six teams and minor-league baseball has closed down, there is an exorbitant amount of talent available. There are no easy lineups, no bad fourth or fifth starter, no wasted reliever on these teams. Everybody is going to be good. Some will be great.
One thing for sure is that the level of talent will keep this season competitive. No team is going to run away with the best record and no team is going to be abysmal. Everyone is going to be in it until the last couple of weeks of the season.
As is the annual tradition, here is how everyone will finish the season (expected record listed in parentheses):
6. Sioux Falls Canaries (25-35)
The bullpen was an issue last year and it has the potential to be one this season as well. The Canaries are definitely going to hit, but can they hold leads. For now, the answer to that question is incomplete.
5. St. Paul Saints (28-32)
It’s hard to imagine that both of the teams from the Sioux Falls hub will finish in the bottom of the league, but that’s how we see it. St. Paul has a great starting rotation and their bullpen should be lights out, but their everyday lineup is not nearly as intimidating as the others. The Saints likely lose a lot of 3-2, 4-2 games this season.
4. Winnipeg Goldeyes (30-30)
Like St. Paul, Winnipeg has an outstanding starting rotation. Their bullpen is not as good, but should still be above solid. The lineup looks better, and they should score some more runs. This gives them the slight edge over St. Paul.
3. Milwaukee Milkmen (31-29)
Milwaukee may very well be the second-best team in the American Association this season. The problem is that they are in the same hub as the best team. Facing Chicago 24 times is not going to be a cakewalk, and that’s the reason why they miss the playoffs.
2. Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks (33-27)
When a team gets a new manager so close to the starting of the season, that usually is an indicator that something is wrong in the organization. However, Chris Coste is a premium talent, and he should make the RedHawks even better this year. They finish tied for the top mark but lose the tiebreaker because Chicago will have more victories against them.
1. Chicago Dogs (33-27)
The Chicago Dogs were a starting rotation away from being the best team in 2019. Butch Hobson built a great lineup and had an outstanding bullpen, but the starters killed the dream. Not this year. With three former Major Leaguers likely in the rotation, he has all the pieces for a championship club.
So, Who Wins It?
No team hates the Rob Pannier prediction more than the team expected to win it all. In the four years of making this prediction, I have yet to be right, so there will be five happy managers out there knowing that they were not cursed in this way.
That leaves a very unhappy Butch Hobson. Chicago looks great this season. Even without MVP Keon Barnum, they are going to score runs and they are going to have outstanding pitching. This is the team to beat, so get ready for those Dogs to start howling.
By Robert Pannier