With the conclusion of the 2005 minor league season, I will now begin a series of wrapups on each minor league team's season, starting with the Triple A level down to the Short Season teams. I have decided to do it on a week by week basis. So without further adieu, here is the Southwest Michigan Devil Rays 2005 season wrapup.
TEAM: A- Southwest Michigan Devil Rays
LEAGUE: Midwest (East)
1ST HALF RECORD: 33-36 (Third Place)
2ND HALF RECORD: 39-31 (Third Place)
PLAYOFFS: Wild Card (Swept in two; 1st Round)
SEASON IN REVIEW: In their first season as a Devil Rays affiliate, Southwest Michigan became the only organizational team to make the playoffs, though they did not win a game in their playoff trip. The M-Rays were often overlooked coming into the year because Montgomery was loaded with talent, but SWM had some talent themselves, as they rode the efforts of SS Reid Brignac, C John Jaso, 3B Chris Nowak, OF Francisco Leandro, OF Shaun Cumberland, P James Houser, and P Andy Sonnanstine to a very successful season. There were many more good efforts from M-Rays players, but we'll save those for the MVP and POY awards.
The M-Rays began the season with what could only be described as a very disappointing first half, finishing with a record three games under .500. But thankfully, the MWL League has two halves, and the M-Rays won their final five games of the second half to clinch a 39-31 recrod and one of the league's eight playoff spots. And while the M-Rays were swept out of the playoffs by eventual champion South Bend, this team was loaded with talent, and you shouldn't be surprised to see many of them wearing a different Devil Ray uniform in the coming years.
TEAM MVP: Where to start? You had Reid Brignac, who delivered an amazing jolt of power from the shortstop position, John Jaso, the catcher who despite being injured for the season's final month, continued his great stats from the NY-Penn League. Chris Nowak, Francisco Leandro, who was promoted to Visalia for the final month, and outfielders Fernando Perez and Shaun Cumberland. There were just so many outstanding performers, so who gets the award? Well, since this involves six people, it isn't as simple as some of our past pitching decisions, so I decided to compare the players' batting lines, BA/OBP/SLG, and determine the award based on their average rank against their peers.
So Brignac clearly is out of it, despite what my colleague Jake might tell you, as are Nowak and Cumberalnd. It gets slightly closer among the top three, as the highly underhearalded Noawk is only .33 points away from Jaso, along with Francisco Leandro, who would have won the award in Visalia with the stat line he put up. But the results show the tale of the tape, and Jaso gets the award. By the way, Patrick Breen and his .302/.383/.502 line got some consideration, but he only played in about half of SWM's games, so if he remains in Battle Creek next season, he will have a leg up on this award.
Jaso was injured for the final month of the season, and started to slip near the end, and he will probably have to find a new position somewhere down the line, but he is still a prospect of great value for the time being, as GOOD left-handed hitting catchers (sorry Pete LaForest) are rare. Jaso certainly fits under that category, as he hit to a great batting line with the M-Rays. He was able to hit 14 home runs while driving in 50 runs for Southwest Michigan, and showed incredible paitence, as he put up a BB/K of 42-53. That is very, very impressive.
Many had wondered whether Jaso's performance last year for Hudson Valley was a fluke. He hit .302/.378/.437 for the Renegades in his second tour of duty in the NY-Penn League. This came after a dreadful 2003 in which he hit .221/.339/.305. But Jaso proved last year was not a fluke by doing even better against better competition. While the jury is still out on whether the batting average and SLG% will fluctuate, it appears that his plate paitence is for real. Even in his awful 2003, he put up an above average OBP of .339, and an Iso OBP of .118.
Jaso had a great year for the M-Rays, and saliva starts to flow when I think about putting him in the Cal League next year. But with the stat line he put up, he may find himself wearing a yellow cap next season. This was the toughest MVP to vote on yet, and with most of the M-Rays' top prospects headed for Visalia next season, you can imagine that the Oaks won't be laughingstocks again.
PITCHER OF THE YEAR: Could Andy Sonnanstine win the 'Pitcher of the Year' title for two different DRO teams? Well, I'll leave this as food for thought. Among series contenders other than Sonny, James Houser had the lowest ERA at 3.76. Sonny's ERA in Battle Creek? 2.55. And despite being in Visalia for most of the season's second half, an ERA differential of 1.21 is just too large to ignore. So in an easy decision, Sonnanstine gets my award as Southwest Michigan's 2005 Pitcher of the Year.
I already went through his drawbacks and stuff in my Visalia wrapup, so I will limit this space to just running through and raving about his stats. Sonny went 10-4 for Southwest Michigan in 116.2 innings, once again giving up a lot of hits, but he can do that when he walks only 11 people all season. He also gave up 10 home runs for the M-Rays while striking out 103, for you math challenged folks, that means that he strikes out 9.36 batters before issuing a walk. That is a slightly worse K:BB than at Visalia, but impressive nonetheless.
Again, just for fun, I am going to calculate Sonny's DIPS ERA, because that devalues hits, which are mostly a product of luck, in my opinion. After doing some calculator work, it turns out that Sonny's DIPS was 3.16, higher than in his tour of duty with Visalia, and higher than his ERA, but it takes nothing away from a great season for Sonnanstine.
PLAYER NOTES: In this section, we dedicate space to the individual players who were of interest during the 2005 season.
3B Chris Nowak-Nowak, as you can see in the MVP section, was one of SWM's top performers this year, and the underheralded prospect raked for the M-Rays. Nowak slammed seven home runs while driving in 65 runs for the M-Rays, and showed even more platye paitence than Jaso by walking only two less times than he struck out, 56:58. Nowak is just 22 despite being a college-seasoned player, and has risen in my Top 25 prospect list thanks to this season. He is doing even better than he did in his first pro season for Hudson Valley last year, with an OPS increase of .93 points from last year, and should find himself doing even better in the hitter-friendly Cal League next season.
3B Travis Schlichting-You don't want to call a player who ca't even legally drink a bust quite yet, but Schlichty is very close after a third straight disappointing season for the 2003 4th round pick. After showing some hope by putting up a .340 OBP last season with Charleston, he fell absolutely flat this year in the MWL, hitting to a line of .252/.303/.335, and probably keeping him in Single A ball for another year. In his three seasons, Schlichting has had an OPS over .638 once, and his first season in Princeton yielded a .565 OPS. The bottom line is Schlichting has been nothing short of awful in his three seasons, and if he doesn't turn it around next year, he may be looking for a new team.
SS Reid Brignac-There is no doubt in my mind that Brignac can be a very good player, perhaps even a good major league contributor. But I believe my colleague, the so-called "minor league expert" overvalues him just a tad. We all had high hopes for Brignac after a 2004 in which he hit .361/.413/.474 for Princeton, and got seven hits in 14 at bats for Charleston. But Brignac's average dipped mightily in Southwest Michigan, staying near or under .250 for the balance of the season and eventually ending up at .264, which, while not horrendous, is somewhat disappointing.
On the bright side, the 19 year old shortstop slammed 15 home runs for the M-Rays, a welcome and unexpected increase in power from his one total home run in half a season last year. He even earned a slot on the MWL's Eastern Division All-Star team, beating out last year's No. 1 overall pick Matt Bush for the starting job. Brignac does need to work a bit on his mediocre OBP, but my colleague is right when he tells you one thing. With these numbers, a Brandon Wood-esque season could be forthcoming if Brignac ends up in the California League.
OF Shaun Cumberland-If you read my first installment of Instructional League notes, you would know that I am very high on Cumberland as a prospect, and not Ricky Williams-high. After languishing in the short season leagues for two years, putting up a .329/.375/.439 line for Hudson Valley in 2004, a light bulb went on somewhere within the scouting department-let's promote this guy. Like Brignac, Cumby's .268 average is mediocre, and his OBP is only a bit better, but he is a nice, well-rounded prospect that will not put up spectacular numbers but will be a steady "rock" for consistency. His ability to drive the ball into the gap dawned on me in instructs, and should Cumby go west next year, a breakout could be forthcoming. The Rays, as we know, have no burning need for any more outfielders, but depending on how he develops, Cumby could find a way into the Rays' future.
OF Francisco Leandro-This was obviously a good year for Francisco Leandro. His very good year for SWM was merely a teaser to his Cal League performance, and he jumped very quickly onto the radar. Leandro had shown signs of a possible breakout in 2004, when he hit .349/.448/.519 in a little more than 100 at bats for Charleston, and while he did not do nearly as well for the M-Rays, a .304/.412/.431 line for Battle Creek was worthy of a passing grade. Leandro, 25, is a little old to still be in A ball, but he appears to be a late bloomer, and it will be interesting to see where he ends up in 2006.
OF Fernando Perez-No matter how Perez's baseball career ends up, he won't be scrounging for work should he drop out, as Columbia U grads generally don't have problems landing jobs. But after a 2005 in which he hit .289/.364/.406, Perez may not have to worry about going into the working world anytime soon. His high OBP clearly indicates a rarity: a young hitter with plate discipline, something especially rare in the DRO. And this comes after a particularly awful 2004 in which he hit .232/.314/.322 in the Valley. It is unclear which Perez will show up next year, but if he ends up with the Oaks and has a great SLG%, don't be fooled. Perez, if he sticks, will earn his way through getting on base via the walk or HBP, not by slugging the long ball.
LHP James Houser Jr.-The D-Rays are very high on this Sarasota native. A 2003 second round draft pick, Houser put up excellent numbers in his two previous seasons in Princeton in Charleston, but only made seven starts for the River Dogs last year, and despite putting up a 2.20 ERA, was kept in Low A for this season. He did some good things for SWM this year, putting up a 3.76 ERA in 22 starts for the M-Rays, but injuries struck again, and he was knocked out of several scheduled starts by the injury bug. But Houser obviously has promise. He continued to show good control while retiring many batters via the strikeout, putting up a K:BB of 3.3. He surrenders a HR/9 of less than one, does not give up tons of hits, what is there not to like? If Houser can manage to stay off of the DL, he has a good chance of making an impact in the major leagues down the line, and watching him battle in the Cal League next year will be very interesting to watch.
LHP Jarrad Lavergne-The Rays have a nice trio of lefties up in Battle Creek, and to say that Jarrad Lavergne had the worst year of them is scary. Lavergne, despite that distinction, still put up an ERA of 4.16. Still, a bit more must have been expected of Lavergne after he put up a 1.64 ERA in 12 games (eight starts) for Hudson Valley last year. He had struggled to get over the hurdle that is Princeton for three seasons, and he has been gold ever since leaving the Appy. Still, Lavergne needs work. His K:BB of 1.36 is terrible, his WHIP of 1.49 is awful, and about the only good sign in his peripherals is his low home run rate. The bottom line is, Lavergne's ERA is a very big misindicator of how well he pitched. He will need a lot of work to be a successful pitcher, because if he goes to Visalia with that stuff, he will get lit up.
LHP Brandon Mann-The last in the trio of Battle Creek lefties, Mann had a good season and not so deceptive peripherals for the M-Rays. Like Lavergne, the 2002 27th round pick struggled to get out of Princeton, and struggled even more in Hudson Valley in 2003. But these last two years have seen a complete turnaround in his fortunes, and Mann has developed into a solid lower level prospect for the Rays. After pitching to a 3.38 ERA in the NY-Penn league in '04, Mann pitched about equally well in the MWL in '05, putting up a 3.81 ERA in 151 innings and 27 starts. Like Lavergne, his K:BB of 1.37 is pretty awful, but his 1.37 WHIP, while not good, is better than Lavergne's, to go along with a similar home run ratio. It looks like Jake will have to do without the free tickets next year, as Mann will most likely be California Dreamin' with the Oaks.
P Chris Mason-Ironically, two Chris Masons have been involved in the DRO. One wa s a 37th round draft pick of the Rays in 1997 out of UAB who never pitched an inning. The other you may be slightly more familiar with. This one was the Rays' second round pick this year out of UNC-Greensboro, where he mopped the floor with opposing hitters. NY-Penn League hitters suffered the same fate, and were probably not sorry to see him and his 2.40 ERA wave goodbye. In 15 innings with the 'Gades, Mason did not surrender a home run, and he con
tinued that stretch over 18.2 innings of baseball. So in a combined 33.2 innings, not one pitch from Mason cleared the yellow line. Then again many runs did not clear the plate under his watch. In his two stops, Mason gave up 13 walks to 30 strikeouts, while giving up only seven earned runs. Despite passing this year's test with flying colors, Mason will likely remain in Battle Creek next season, much to the dismay of opposing teams.
SERIES: This week was the fourth of a six part series examining the 2005 Rays minor leagues. Next up is the Short Season teams, and that is coming up Monday. So stay tuned every Monday for the next two weeks as I present my season wrapups leading as we begin the AFL season.
Sept. 19th: AAA Durham
Sept. 26th: AA Montgomery
LAST WEEK: A+ Visalia
THIS WEEK: A- Southwest Michigan
NEXT WEEK: Short Season Teams
Oct. 24th: Awards Show