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Opening Day Is Here – Let’s Cover It!

Schiraldi, Lukas_Media_Wall (Clinton)_DSC_7249

Greetings LumberKings fans, yes I know its been awhile since I’ve been on here, but today is Opening Day, I am in Kane County, and the excitement is real. The hype is real. We have baseball just around the corner!

If by some chance you haven’t had a chance to look at the roster yet, here is a link to it. Top prospect Braden Bishop leads this year’s group, but there are a lot of guys that have the potential to be breakout players. Nick Wells who we wrote about a few weeks ago is going to start on Sunday. Rayder Ascanio, who played six games with the 2015 LumberKings and was then promoted to Bakersfield, is back in Clinton. Kyle Wilcox, who had nine saves last year in Everett, will be in the starting rotation to begin the season. Tonight though, its Lukas Schiraldi taking the hill against Taylor Clarke of Kane County. Tune into the broadcast tonight on WCCI 100.3 FM or by click this link to stream the game live if you want to catch all the action and catch my pregame interview with Lukas. He talks a lot about the organizational change in pitching philosophy, and it seems to have him feeling comfortable.

Tonight should be a lot of fun as the LumberKings seem to be in the right state of mind going into the season. Here is a link to tonight’s media notes which should help you get more oriented with the matchup. Weather is a bit on the cold side, but hey that’s par for the course in the Midwest in April! I will be back on the blog again tomorrow with a quick recap of tonight’s game and what to look for in Zack Littell’s first start of the season.

Pre-Season Prospect Analysis – Part 4


Wayne Taylor

In the first three parts of our pre-season prospect analysis, we have targeted players that are on the Baseball America top 30 Mariners list. In part 4 of this series, we will talk about two positions that in terms of the lower levels, do not have players on the list: catchers and first basemen.

We will start off at first base, which will look dramatically different for the LumberKings than last year. Two of the three main contributors at first base, Taylor Zeutenhorst and Pat Leyland, are no longer in the organization. That leaves just Kristian Brito, who very well could be back with the LumberKings for the 2016 season. The Puerto Rican hit just .219 last season, but did homer seven times to go along with 51 runs driven in. Brito’s main problem was the strikeout (130 of them) but another year of experience should help reduce that number dramatically. There is no doubt that Brito has a lot of untapped potential, and he will get his chance to prove himself again in Clinton.

Then there is Ryan Uhl, who we talked about at length during the Valentine’s Day edition of Friday Fun (you can view that post here). Uhl hit .415 his senior year at division 2 Indiana University of Pennsylvania, with a .536 on base percentage and a school record 29 home runs. That translated into a seventh round selection by the Mariners in June, and while he only hit four home runs in Everett, his college number show he has the ability to hit more. Its really a two horse race and more than likely both with start their 2016 campaigns with the LumberKings. The fact that both are righties makes it seem as if you have two of the same player, but 2016 will be big proving grounds for these guys.

The catching position is very interesting, because Wayne Taylor, James Alfonso, and Adam Martin could all be back with the team in 2016. Taylor hit .234 in 86 games played with three home runs and 29 RBI, but he is regarded very highly for how he handles pitchers. Alfonso was a mid-season call up from extended spring training, and tore the cover off the ball when in the lineup, boasting a .393 average in 25 games. “The Fonz” as he was called certainly put up numbers that would warrant a promotion, but the sample size may not be big enough to justify having him start in Bakersfield. Then there is Adam Martin, who was up and down throughout the season, but when on, was the best power bat the LumberKings had behind the plate (he hit what was probably the longest home run all year at home in late August). Last year the LumberKings opened with three catchers on their roster, and its likely they could again this year.

Yet what about the guys that played in Everett last year? 23 year old Arturo Nieto is a candidate to make the 2016 LumberKings roster, playing in 40 games with the AquaSox and hitting .288 over 118 at bats. Nieto on Baseball America’s Mariners depth chart is ranked as the third best catching prospect. Then there is former Washington State Cougar P.J. Jones, who played in 32 games with Everett, but only hit .157. Jones more than likely would start the season in extended spring training and then go back to Everett.

I really cannot make a projection on the catching end, because there could be a lot of moving parts. It’s more of a situation of who performs best during the spring, and even then a lot could change during the season.

In our final preview, we will take a look at the probable 2016 LumberKings bullpen.


Pre-Season Prospect Analysis – Part 3

Ascanio, Rayder CLN1501 (Gierhart)

Rayder Ascanio (credit Paul Gierhart)

So far in this five part series, we have analyzed the center field conundrum brewing at the A ball ranks, as well as the analysis of two promising lefties who more than likely will be on the 2016 LumberKings roster. Today, we are going to analyze another intriguing situation: the shortstop shuffle.

With players who are on the younger side, there is a tendency to want to hold them back and bring them along slowly. That philosophy held true for the 2015 LumberKings, as they saw no players from the 2015 draft. However there was one exception of a young guy that made his was quickly up the ranks: Venezuelan shortstop Rayder Ascanio. After a series of injuries to the LumberKings infield, Ascanio was called up from extended spring training to Clinton, where he went 7 for 24 in six games played. His range at shortstop was the most impressive, as he showed how adept he was defensively. However, after those six games, the 19 year old Ascanio (he turns 20 tomorrow) was promoted to Advanced A Bakersfield, where he became the starting shortstop. He was effective early at the plate, but his bat dropped off, finishing his California League stint with a .229 average in 297 at bats over 77 games. The only really bad stat was his 70 strikeouts, which is a lot for someone who is expected to be a table setter atop the lineup. Still, the 5’11” switch hitter, who has never played above the Arizona League prior to last season, showed flashes of brilliance, good enough to earn him the 20th spot on Baseball America’s Mariners top 30 list.

Jump to the 2015 draft, where Seattle drafted Stanford shortstop Drew Jackson in the fifth round. Jackson, the younger brother of former Chicago Cubs first round pick Brett Jackson, had struggled offensively with the Cardinal until his junior season, where he lead the team with a .320 average over 147 at bats. Jackson started his pro career with short season Everett, where he proceeded to obliterate every opposing pitching staff. He hit a league leading.358, and at times he was hovering around .390, in 226 at bats over 59 games. Jackson also posted a .432 OBP and lead the league with 47 stolen bases. All of that helped garner him the Northwest League MVP, and the number 3 spot on the Baseball America Mariners top 30 list.

By logic of where they are in their pro careers, you would assume that Jackson would start with Clinton and that Ascanio would begin with Bakersfield. Yet the one thing that stands out is that by all accounts, Ascanio was promoted too quickly. Not only that, Jackson may already be ready for Advanced A based upon his 2015 performance. Ascanio proved that he was serviceable in the California League, but many may argue that his offensive numbers prove that he’s best suited to start 2016 in Clinton. While I could be wrong, I don’t see a scenario in which Ascanio will start at a higher level than Jackson. Both are fantastic defensive shortstops, it’s the production at the plate which will determine their placements.

In Part 4 of our week long series, we will take a look at first basemen and catchers to watch out for in Clinton in 2016.

Pre-Season Prospect Analysis – Part 2

Wells and Brentz LumberBlog

One of the results of deadline deal trades is the acquisition of high value prospects. The teams that trade the big leaguer desired know that the demand for the stretch run is high, so they can hold out for impactful prospects. With the Blue Jays in a position where they would be able to make a run at the playoffs (which they did successfully) they picked up reliever Mark Lowe from the Mariners. In exchange, Toronto gave up two top pitching prospects, who will make up the subject of our analysis today.

Both lefties, Nick Wells and Jake Brentz are on target to begin the 2016 season in Clinton. Wells, a native of Alexandria, VA, was drafted in the third round of the 2014 draft. Being that he was only 18 years old, Wells started his career with the Gulf Coast League Blue Jays, and struggled, posting a 1-3 record with a 5.71 ERA over 34.2 innings. Wells was slotted 28th on Baseball America’s 2015 top 30 Blue Jays prospects list. Toronto elected not to start him on a full season roster, rather decided to keep the young 6’5” southpaw with short season Bluefield. There, he went 1-2 with a 4.78 ERA in seven starts spanning 32 innings. Blue Jays’ management thought that Wells would be an appealing prospect for a Mariners’ system that needed left handed pitching.

After the trade, Wells was sent to Everett, where he caught fire. Wells only gave up two runs in 18 innings pitched, and in two of his three starts (all which were at least five innings), he did not give up a run. The end of his 2015 season was good enough to jump him to the 21st spot on the 2016 Mariners top 30 list. Baseball America describes Wells as someone whose go to pitch is his curveball, which has a lot of break and has a velocity in the mid 70s. He also has a slurve type pitch which is in the low 80s. Wells doesn’t have an overpowering fastball, but has been clocked as high as 93. Bottom line though is that Nick Wells is a finesse pitcher who can strike guys out (seeing as his strikeouts per nine innings rate was over 8.0 last season).

If Wells is the ice, then Jake Brentz is the fire. The Missouri native did not really learn how to pitch until the end of high school, but when scouts saw him hit 96 on the radar gun, they knew he was a project worth working on. Toronto grabbed him in the 13th round in 2013, slowly bringing him along through the system. Like Wells, he started with the Gulf Coast League Blue Jays, but only pitched 7.2 innings in 2013. With Bluefield in 2014, Brentz showed progress, putting up a 4.08 ERA in 39.2 innings pitched. Last year, Brentz pitched 36 innings between Bluefield and Everett, going 1-2 in 11 appearances (10 starts) with a 4.00 ERA. In his 14 innings with the AquaSox though, opponents only hit .188 against him. 2015 allowed Brentz to jump onto Seattle’s 2016 top 30 list, landing him at number 25.

I chose these two pitchers because their numbers and where they are in their careers indicates that more than likely, they will be LumberKings in 2016. The new organizational philosophy is going to be to bring pitchers along more slowly, but I can’t see any legitimate argument against starting both of these lefty starters in Clinton in 2016. Both have the potential to be impactful starters in the organization, and both have proved that they can pitch effectively in short season leagues. If you had to start one of them in extended spring training I would argue for Wells, simply because he’s younger. If Brentz were to start in extended spring training, that would near guarantee that he pitches another season in short season, which doesn’t seem it would happen for someone who has already pitched in short season twice.

Wells and Brentz are ranked third and fourth on Baseball America’s depth chart of Mariners’ left handed starters, behind Ryan Yarbrough (who made two starts in Clinton while recovering from an injury he suffered at Advanced A Bakersfield) and Luiz Gohara, who made two spot starts with the LumberKings and will likely begin 2016 on Clinton’s opening day roster. Having three left handed starters with that much potential could prove to be a big plus for the LumberKings going into the season.

In Part 3, we will take a look at some interesting situations on the left side of the infield.

Pre-Season Prospect Analysis – Part 1

Cousino, Austin CLN1501 (Gierhart)

First off, I want to apologize for the lack of posts in the past few weeks. There have been a lot of preparations that I’ve needed to make to get ready for the season, and I haven’t had much to write about lately with opening day still a few weeks away. But I did want to share my insight on something that has come to my attention, or rather, something that arrived in my mailbox this past week.

The Baseball America Prospect Handbook is the obligatory broadcaster purchase, because it gives us broadcasters ideas on who we are going to be seeing in our league for the upcoming season. In a league like the Midwest League, where there are 16 teams, there are a lot of guys to go through. Granted, the rankings are the opinion of one organization, but its rankings are well reasoned and thorough.

There are some interesting breakdowns in terms of their top 30 prospect lists, and today we want to focus not just on the lists themselves, but why the 2016 lists are different than the 2015 lists. In particular, we are going to focus on 2015 LumberKings and potential 2016 LumberKings and make an evaluation based on 2015 performance and 2016 expectation. Yes I know this seems like an overly used topic for a baseball blog, but hey, if it has to do with the LumberKings, then any analysis is worth listening to. We are going to try to do one of these a day this week, so that you aren’t oversaturated with a grand analysis in one article.

The Center Field Situation

I want to start off by analyzing a situation that we talked about on the Seattle System Scoop (take a listen here if you haven’t had a chance to). In 2014 the Mariners took University of Kentucky center fielder Austin Cousino in the 3rd round. Cousino had a great college career and looked like a great value pick in the third round. In his first season with Everett, Cousino put up respectable numbers, hitting .266 with six home runs and 28 RBI with a .341 OBP over 271 at bats spanning 66 games. That and his college reputation landed him in the 23rd spot on Baseball America’s 2015 top 30 list.

Yet Seattle decided to double down on center fielders, using their 2015 3rd round pick on University of Washington center fielder Braden Bishop, and he lit the Northwest League on fire last season. He hit .320 over 219 at bats in 56 games, hitting two dingers and driving in 22. While Cousino’s power numbers were better, Bishop hit for a higher average. His exploits in 2015 landed him in the seventh spot on the 2016 top 30 list.

Meanwhile, Cousino was hurt for the first three months, and debuted with the LumberKings on July 4th. While he was fantastic defensively, Cousino struggled at the plate, hitting just .190 in 232 at bats. In part because of that, Cousino is not on the 2016 list. If he has a good 2016 season, there’s no doubt that he can vault back up this list.

The most interesting question that arises though is where Cousino and Bishop will begin their seasons. Cousino has a year more experience in pro baseball which would make you think that he would start with Advanced A Bakersfield and Bishop would begin in Clinton. Yet based on 2015 performance, Cousino may start with the LumberKings and Bishop in Bakersfield. Neither will play in the same lineup because based on where they were drafted both need to be playing in center field every day.

That also doesn’t include the third piece of this puzzle, Luis Liberato. The Dominican native was just 19 years old in 2015 and spent eight games with the LumberKings last season. Liberato only had four hits in 30 at bats, proving he wasn’t yet ready for full season baseball. He started on Everett’s opening day roster and put up good numbers, hitting .260 with five homers and 31 RBI. Liberato is ranked 13th on the 2016 list because of his all around talent, but was not ranked on the 2015 list. Baseball America’s center field prospect depth chart has Bishop first, Liberato third, and Cousino sixth. Regardless of where he starts, Cousino will be much better than he was last year because he will be healthy. Bishop in contrast probably won’t put up the same average he did in Everett, but he will need to up his walk numbers (only five last season). Liberato is only 20 and won’t be as rushed, so expect another season in Everett for him to grow.

Tomorrow, we will take a look at two lefty starters on the 2016 Mariners top 30 who weren’t even in the Seattle System when the 2015 list came out, Nick Wells and Jake Brentz.

Seattle System Scoop – Episode 2

The Seattle System Scoop has returned, as the broadcasters from the Seattle Mariners minor league affiliates return to talk baseball. This week’s episode takes a bit of a non baseball turn, as myself, Dan Besbris (@DanBesbris) of the Bakersfield Blaze, Brandon Liebhaber (@B_Liebhaber) of the Jackson Generals, Mike Curto (@CurtoWorld) of the Tacoma Rainiers and Pat Dillon (@AquaSoxRadio) of the Everett AquaSox talk about our preparations for the season and our lives off the headset.

It’s a very interesting topic. A lot of you may think that we just call the games and that’s it, but there is much more to our jobs than meets the eye. The topic that we had the most fun with were the changes in our eating habits, and I admitted to my weird tick of making the next days breakfast the night before (I highly recommend if you want to get a few more hours of sleep). It will probably be the one episode of this podcast where we don’t talk baseball throughout, but we hope you find it entertaining.

Why The LumberKings Love Leap Years

Leap Day William

Before we begin, you’re probably wondering what the heck that picture is. Well, for those of you who watched NBC’s 30 Rock, there was an episode in 2012 highlighting Leap Day. In true 30 Rock fashion, they gave Leap Day its own holiday mascot, Leap Day William (played by Jack McBrayer in the show). The legend of Leap Day William as explained by McBrayer’s character Kenneth is that Leap Day William has gills (which implies he can live underwater for some reason), lives in the Mariana Trench and trades candy for children’s tears (I’m as confused as you are). Within the Leap Day Episode, there is a movie about Leap Day William, who is appropriately portrayed by Jim Carey. His attire is what is shown above, signaling that he was once in a barbershop quartet or dresses extravagantly for UCLA basketball games.

Today, much like the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil, we get to see Leap Day William because it is indeed February 29th, which is a sigh of relief for LumberKings fans. Why is it do you ask? If the trends of performances during leap years hold true, the 2016 LumberKings will make the playoffs.

Since the year 2000, the LumberKings have made the playoffs every leap year, with 1996 being the last time they did not make the playoffs in a leap year. Until 2000, the Clinton franchise had not made the playoffs in a leap year since 1964, and their first leap year playoff appearance was 1956. Since the team became the LumberKings, 1996 is the only leap year in which they haven’t made the playoffs.

Clinton’s playoff leap year teams that have played 140 game seasons have averaged 73.5 wins per season, with them never winning less than 71 games and never winning more than 78. Its worth noting that the 1964 Clinton C-Sox won 77 games despite only playing a 125 game season.

Maybe this is just a coincidence (who are we kidding, it totally is), but with the encouraging signs of improvement inside the Mariners’ player development department, there could be a playoff appearance in the future. We may even give Leap Day William box seats to the first playoff game!

leap-day-william gif

The Midwest League Oscars – Part 2

Instead of calling this Friday Fun, part 2, we will simply just refer to this as the second part of our Midwest League Oscars. For those of you who didn’t read part one on Friday, you can view it here. Now, it is time to award the Best Actor In A Lead Role and our 2015 Midwest League Best Picture. What will the Academy decide?!

Best Actor In A Lead Role

Ryan McBroom – 1B (Lansing)

McBroom was part of what was statistically the best offense in the Midwest League. However, unlike some of the 2015 Lugnuts, McBroom was never promoted, and his longevity in Lansing may explain why he won the 2015 Midwest League MVP. A 15th round pick out of West Virginia in 2014, McBroom was second in the Midwest League in RBI (90), first in doubles (39) and added 12 home runs while batting .315. For a good period of time during the middle of the season, McBroom was batting close to .360. He had a lot of help around him, but McBroom’s consistency in Ken Huckaby’s lineup makes him the ideal star player.

Bobby Bradley – 1B (Lake County)

McBroom may have had the best all around offensive numbers, but nobody was more exciting to watch than Bobby Bradley. All the Captains’ first baseman did was lead the league in home runs (27) and RBI (92) while also have a stretch where he hit a home run in five consecutive games. Bradley also had 11 more home runs than the Midwest League’s second leading home run hitter (Bowling Green’s Casey Gillaspie, who was promoted to Advanced A in July). Bradley has been compared by some scouts to Prince Fielder, and while he needs to improve on his contact numbers (148 strikeouts in 408 at bats), he has the power to eventually make the big leagues.

Austin Gomber – LHP (Peoria)

In the lower levels of the minor leagues, it is very rare to see starting pitchers have a consistent amount of long outings. Austin Gomber proved to be an outlier to that theory. The 4th round pick out of Florida Atlantic spent the entirety of last season with Peoria and put up fantastic numbers, going 15-3 with a 2.67 ERA in 22 starts spanning 135 innings. With the exception of his first start, the lefty went over five innings in every start, and completed six or more innings in his last seven starts. Gomber also lead the Midwest League with 140 strikeouts, while walking only 34. He parlayed his consistency into a non roster invite to Cardinals big league spring training. Throwing strikes will get you a long way, and Gomber proved in 2015 that he has great command of the strike zone.

LumberKings Nominee: Gianfranco Wawoe – INF

Wawoe was an unknown coming into 2015, but the Curacao native established himself as one of Clinton’s most consistent and dynamic players. Pronounced Gee-ahn-frank-oh Wa-woo, he hit eight home runs (second on the team), played six different positions throughout the season, and had an 18 game hitting streak. Wawoe did it all, which is why he is the LumberKings nominee at this spot.

Winner: Bobby Bradley

It’s hard to find someone who can take the game over with power, but thats exactly what Bobby Bradley did in 2015. Even though Lake County didn’t make the Midwest League playoffs, no individual meant more to their team than Bradley. He is an “actor” that is worth watching no matter the situation.

Best Picture

West Michigan Whitecaps

The 2015 Midwest League champions were huge down the stretch, and their pitching is the main reason why they were so good. Whitecaps pitching had a 3.48 team ERA during the season, and had three starters with at least 11 wins. The Whitecaps got hot at the right time and rode that wave (no pun intended) to the championship.

Quad Cities River Bandits

The 2015 Quad Cities River Bandits won more games in the regular season than any other team in minor league baseball during the regular season (88), and had the league’s best team ERA (2.65). While they got bounced in the first round of the playoffs, its hard to argue that any other team was as good during the regular season from start to finish than the River Bandits.

Cedar Rapids Kernels

While the 2015 Kernels didn’t have a ton of offensive firepower, they made up for it with their pitching depth. Cedar Rapids had ten players make six or more starts, and also finished third in the league in team ERA (3.22). The Kernels bullpen may have been what was most impressive, as it seemed every time the Kernels needed a big out late in the game, they got it.

Winner: Quad Cities River Bandits

Even though they didn’t win the title, the 2015 River Bandits were the best team from top to bottom throughout the year, and more often than not, if that team had the chance to replay their playoff run, they would have won it all.

This awards show is complete. Enjoy the real Oscars later this evening!




Friday Fun – The Oscars Part 1

Friday Fun - Oscars Mediawall

On Sunday night in Los Angeles, the stars will come out to shine for the 88th Academy Awards. For the majority of Americans, the nominations and winners of these awards define what is a “great” movie or performance. Personally, I don’t think that a movie has to be nominated for an Academy Award to be considered great (I think anyone who has seen Deadpool can say that it is a great movie and will not be nominated for an Oscar next year). Yet the best part about the Academy Awards is all of the prognostication commoners like us do to see who we think will win. I for one never guess the movies or actors that I think will win, but rather the ones I want to win (I’m batting .000 on all of my Leonardo DiCaprio guesses)

So you all are probably wondering how this relates to LumberKings baseball? Well, based upon the team’s 46-93 record, there aren’t a whole lot of awards to give, but doing our due diligence as the official blog of the Clinton LumberKings, there has to be a LumberKing nominated in every category. Today’s Friday Fun, if you haven’t guessed it already, is a 2015 Midwest League Oscar Ballot. We will have awards given for Best Actor In A Lead Role (Player), Best Actor In A Supporting Role (Player), Best Director (Manager), and Best Picture (Team). We will do two today and two on Sunday (which will make it a Friday Fun, Sunday Edition). Each category will have four nominations plus the LumberKing nomination. After a careful judgment from the Academy (aka me), a winner will be announced below. Without further ado, let the Midwest League Oscars begin!

Best Actor In A Supporting Role

Nick Tanielu – INF (Quad Cities)

Tanielu was one of few 2015 River Bandits to start on the opening day roster and finish the season with the team. Despite the fact that he wasn’t promoted, Tanielu was consistent throughout, batting .308 over 419 at bats, bashing six home runs and driving in 70 runs. He played in 110 total games, and could play all over the infield.

Kyle Grana – RHP (Peoria)

A closer isn’t a lead actor, but one of the biggest supporting actors on the team. The Peoria Chiefs had two fantastic closers in Grana and Robby Rowland, but once Rowland was promoted to High A Palm Beach, the job went exclusively to Grana. He did not disappoint, as the 6’4”, 245 pound closer posted a 2-2 record with a 0.78 ERA over 57.1 innings spanning 54 appearances. His 24 saves ranked second among all Midwest League pitchers, and he lead the league in appearances.

Zac Curtis – LHP (Kane County)

If Kyle Grana is a part of this list, then Zac Curtis has to be as well. The Kane County closer lead the Midwest League with 33 saves, and threw 54 innings over 53 appearances. He posted a 4-4 record with a 1.33 ERA, and had a WHIP of just 0.83. To put it simply, Curtis is grinder, and someone that every team needs. Plus he’s a lefty, which in the closers role makes him that much more valuable.

Colin Bray – OF (Kane County)

The 2015 Kane County Cougars didn’t have a lot of overwhelming star power, but a lot of guys who came in everyday and did their job. One shining example of that was Colin Bray. The 6th round pick in 2013 spent all of 2015 with Kane County, and played in 130 games, hitting .308 over 490 at bats. Bray drove in 52 runs and stole 27 bases in 36 attempts. Simply put, an all around player.

LumberKings Nominee: Kody Kerski – RHP

Kerski was the gold standard for LumberKings relievers in 2015, leading the team with eight saves. He notched a 4-3 record with a 1.80 ERA over 60 innings. Kerski was the go to guy in key situations.

Winner: Zac Curtis

A huge part of what Kane County was able to do last season came in large part to the fact that they had Curtis. He only blew three saves, and he struck out 75 batters while walking only 12. In his first season with short season Hillsboro in 2014, he had 14 saves in 15 chances, and had just a 1.00 ERA over 27 innings, giving up just three earned runs and five total runs. Every team needs a Zac Curtis.

Best Director

Josh Bonifay (Quad Cities)

For those who have met Josh Bonifay, he is as cool of a customer as they come. He makes good lineup adjustments, understands where certain personnel need to be played, and gets everyone on the same page. While the Astros have one of the deepest farm systems in all of baseball, give Bonifay credit for navigating the River Bandits to a 88-50 record, the best in the Midwest League, garnering him the Midwest League’s manager of the year award. Bonifay had a 70-64 record combined in two seasons with the Greenville Astros, winning the Appalachian League manager of the year award in 2013.

Jake Mauer – (Cedar Rapids)

Mauer is a steady hand in Cedar Rapids, which is why he is once again returning to the Kernels in 2016. The brother of Twins catcher Joe Mauer, Jake Mauer is a tried and true skipper in the Minnesota system, finding his niche in Cedar Rapids. Mauer guided the 2015 Kernels to a 77-63 record and a birth in the Midwest League championship series. He has won at least 73 games in each of the three seasons he’s managed Cedar Rapids (2013-2015), after failing to win more than 64 games in three straight seasons managing the Fort Myers Miracle of the Florida State League. Mauer is a relaxed manager, and one of the reasons why Cedar Rapids came so close to bringing home their first Midwest League title since 1994.

Andrew Graham (West Michigan)

Like with an Academy Award that wins best picture, its almost implied that the director of that picture is nominated for best director. That being said, the manager of the 2015 Midwest Champions is on the list. Andrew Graham got the Whitecaps into the playoffs behind a 42-28 record in the second half (75-64 overall). West Michigan rode their staff of power arms into the finals, where they beat Cedar Rapids in five games. Graham pulled the right strings at the right time with his pitching staff, and had one of the best one-two bullpen punches in the league with Johan Belisario and Joe Jimenez. Despite not winning the title in 2014, Graham managed the Whitecaps to an even better 82-58 record. He will be back in West Michigan again in 2016.

Ken Huckaby – (Lansing)

Ken Huckaby is more famously known for his collision with Derek Jeter in 2003, but he should be better known for his role as one of the best managers in the Midwest League. Huckaby guided the 2015 Lugnuts to the first half eastern division title with a 42-28 record and an appearance in the eastern division finals. Huckaby’s players loved playing for him, and from everything I have heard, he blends well with youth. Huckaby will be with the Dunedin Blue Jays this season, but he should be acknowledged for his success in getting great execution from one of the most talented rosters in the Midwest League.

LumberKings Nominee: Scott Steinmann

The record does not tell the story when it comes to Scott Steinmann, whose goal is to develop players skill sets and give them life lessons they can use beyond the diamond. He made sure that his players were prepared to enter battle every day, and you can’t ask for much more than that.

Winner: Josh Bonifay

While Bonifay didn’t win a playoff series, he proved that he could keep a team successful despite roster turnover. The 2015 River Bandits had most of their 2015 opening day roster either promoted or traded, so to see how competitive they were bringing a lot of younger guys up shows just how good of a manager Bonifay is. Having won two manager of the year awards in just three years of managing proves Bonifay’s worth.

We will be back Sunday with our Best Actor in a Lead Role and Best Picture nominations and winners.

Monday Coffee Thoughts

Sometimes the best ideas in life can come when one is having their morning coffee. For this 23 year old broadcaster, that moment happens more often than not. I love coffee, the taste and the spark it gives me to function. Yet while in college, coffee wasn’t just a morning routine, it was a nighttime necessity; my friends can vouch for my double fisting of two french roasts while writing a history paper in the caverns of the Northwestern University Library. Wherever I may be, some of my best thoughts are coffee fueled, which is why I thought it might be appropriate to offer some thoughts on LumberKings baseball. Here are two of my February 22nd coffee thoughts.

1. Walk rates must improve

If anyone followed the 2015 LumberKings, they know that one of biggest problems that the pitching staff had were the inordinate amount of free passes they issued. Clinton walked more batters (519) than any of the other 15 Midwest League teams. That amounts to a 3.73 walks per game average, and a 3.82 walks per nine innings average. However, this was not just a problem for the LumberKings, but rather the entire organization. Let us take a look at the walks/nine innings rates for all of the Mariners affiliates

• Tacoma Rainiers: 3.08

• Jackson Generals: 3.85

• Bakersfield Blaze: 2.97

• Clinton LumberKings: 3.82

• Everett AquaSox: 3.82

These numbers indicate that walks have been a problem across the entire organization, yet with the new “control the zone” philosophy that we expect to be implemented system wide, expect lower walks rates across the board. It may seem like an overstatement of the obvious, but the less walks, the less runs given up. If the 2016 LumberKings can get that 3.82 closer to three, I think you will see a remarkable improvement in terms of length of starts and win total. Just so you all can see the math, if the 2016 LumberKings have a walks/nine innings rate of three, based on the amount of innings pitched in 2015, they would issue a grand total of 407 walks, 112 less than last year. Thats 112 less opportunities for runs to score. Simple and straight forward analytics.

2. Offensive strikeout rates must improve

Another oversimplification of the obvious, but so often last year it seemed as if the LumberKings had a chance to drive in a run, the batter at the plate would strike out. In general though, strikeouts proved to be the Achilles heel for the 2015 LumberKings offense. Clinton struck out 1177 times last year, second most in the Midwest League behind the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, who had 1178 punch-outs. The LumberKings averaged 8.46 strikeouts per game, and averaged one strikeout per 3.94 at bats. It also didn’t help that the 2015 LumberKings had four players who ranked in the top 15 in total strikeouts. Yet was this a problem across the whole organization? Lets take a look at the other affiliates strikeouts/game and strikeout per at bat averages

• Tacoma Rainiers: 7.02 SO/game, 1 SO per 4.95 at bats

• Jackson Generals: 7.18 SO/game, 1 SO per 4.52 at bats

• Bakersfield Blaze: 8.97 SO/game, 1 SO per 3.74 at bats

• Clinton LumberKings: 8.46 SO/game, 1 SO per 3.94 at bats

• Everett AquaSox: 7.88 SO/game, 1 SO per 4.27 at bats

What these numbers can tell you is that there is a struggle at the lower levels to make contact. Bakersfield also lead the California League in team strikeouts (1256) so the rates you see for them and the LumberKings are what needs to improve the most. During the April and May months, conditions in the Midwest favor pitchers, so there will be an adjustment for many players who have never played in cold weather on a consistent basis. Once the season reaches the midway point, I will try to compare strikeout rates from month to month to see if weather in fact does make a difference. Regardless, if the strikeout numbers go down, the odds of driving in runs will improve dramatically simply because the more the ball is put in play, the better chance you have to advance runners on base. Simple enough right?

Well, I’ve finished my morning brew. Have a topic you think I should mull on over a cup of coffee? Leave a comment and I’ll make sure that I get to it on the next edition of Monday Coffee Thoughts.