On a night with a reasonable chance of precipitation, the final home game of the season, the 2015 Delmarva Shorebirds completed a five-game sweep of the first-half division champion Hickory Crawdads. They also managed to finally crawl over the 200,000 mark in season attendance, with an all-time franchise low of 203,520 making it out to Perdue Stadium. If the original forecast had held, the team would have suffered its first sub-200,000 season.
While the statistic seems bleak, though, the truth comes out on further study. On a per-game basis, the attendance was remarkably stable between 2014 and 2015: just three fewer per game. The average of 3,230 tracks with recent performance where the team has existed in that attendance range for a decade or more.
What was lacking this year, however, was home dates. While every team in the South Atlantic League is assigned 70 home dates and 70 road games scattered throughout the year, Mother Nature can be downright uncooperative at times. The average SAL team lost four dates due to rain this year, but Delmarva had the fewest openings with 63. Just getting to league average and assuming normal attendance at each game would have made the difference between sweating out 200,000 fans or a modest uptick in attendance from last season.
One culprit for this issue is the very field the team plays on. Imagine this scenario: a weekend full of promotions is on tap, but the area gets a gullywasher Friday afternoon and another significant drenching Saturday morning. Not a drop falls during the time the games are scheduled, but two dates are lost due to “wet grounds.” That situation seems to play out in Delmarva almost every year with the field’s poor drainage and this year we indeed lost a couple games like that. This has been a sore spot for years: I love going to the games, the food is pretty good (I liked the buffalo chicken brat I finally tried at the last game, for example) and I didn’t mind the price increase for a Thirsty Thursday beer because it was larger. But if I show up on a clear evening and the game is called because we had a cloudburst earlier that day, I’m not a happy camper.
For a number of years I have had a fairly consistent list of “pans.” But about a month ago I stumbled onto an article in Ballpark Digest by Zach Spedden that detailed some very exciting changes coming to Arthur W. Perdue Stadium.
The first phase involves redoing the drainage for the entire field, literally stripping it to bare earth and starting over. It got underway just days after the final out was recorded.
(Photo credit: Delmarva Shorebirds)
Presumably next season the field will be better able to handle an inch or two of rain in an afternoon thunderstorm, draining it away in time for the game.
But I can’t wait to see the changes slated for the 2016 offseason – which hopefully gets a late start.
Between the 2016 and 2017 seasons, the Shorebirds will make several improvements to the ballpark. In what (Shorebird General Manager Chris) Bitters called a “key piece” to the renovation, a new boardwalk-themed wraparound concourse will surround the field. New tiers will be added to the current group area down the right-field line, while the left-field side will see an increase in group and standing room options as well as slope adjustments to the current berm seating. Also in the works is a plan to remove the current metal bench-styled seating in the second level in favor of fold-down stadium seats.
The goal in making these adjustments to the berm, group, and standing areas is to give fans who prefer to wander during their visits more options, all the while making the stadium feel less congested on crowded nights. “That’s going to be a huge hit, particularly on our busier nights,” said Bitters. “When we are full now, people are hanging out on the concourse,” reflecting a demand for more comfortable standing room.
One of the most crucial aspects of this phase of the renovation will be a brand new videoboard. Perdue Stadium has used the same videoboard since opening in 1996, which, according to Bitters, limits what the Shorebirds can do from a promotional standpoint. With a more modern board, he said that fans can expect better animations, more interactive promotions, and instant replays as part of a more modern experience. “For our fans, having seen those at Camden Yards and other ballparks, they kind of have come to expect that stuff.”
Now THAT will be worth following on Facebook. Its net effect may be similar to FirstEnergy Park in Lakewood, which also has a 360 degree concourse. If it’s made wide enough, there could be cafe-style seating out there, giving casual fans the option to scope out the action behind the center fielder while enjoying a bite to eat and adult beverage.
And maybe – just maybe – we can get back to what Thirsty Thursdays once were, with the game followed by an hourlong concert by a local/regional band. Those were great!
Naturally, all this would come at a price. I’m not privy to any inside information, but the question to me is not if but when ticket prices and parking fees go up. The limited-government conservative in me is already a little perturbed that the taxpayer piggy bank was raided to pay for this – hopefully we get the extra tax revenue from increased attendance and interest to make it a zero-sum game. $4 million may not seem like a lot, but if ticket prices went up $1 it would take well over a decade to pay for itself through that avenue, not counting interest. It seems to me, though, that the county was looking for more of a buy-in from 7th Inning Stretch LLC, the team’s owner. (Like a number of other facilities, a privately-owned team plays in a publicly-owned stadium. Wicomico County owns Perdue Stadium.)
So the pieces are being put into place: a new long-term agreement between the team and county, improvements to Perdue Stadium to satisfy both the Orioles and the fans, and a likely continuation of their longstanding player development contract when it comes up for renewal next season.
Soon the only thing I might be able to pan would be the Orioles’ scouting staff. With the proposed facility improvements, all that’s missing is another trophy to go with the two gathering dust after 15 and 18 years, respectively. Playoff baseball has been AWOL from Perdue since 2005, and that’s way too long.
After six straight seasons of losing and the perception that most of the Orioles’ prospects were going to be playing at higher levels in the system, surely the experts had Delmarva penciled in for a regression from last year’s 66-73 record. And if the crystal ball had foretold that over a dozen players would be parked on the team’s disabled list for the latter half of the season one might expect a dreadful record such as those we had earlier this decade.
You may have never heard of most of this year’s Shorebirds before and in a couple years they may return to obscurity. But in the season’s second half they were the little team that could, turning around a 33-35 first half to go 38-32. Too bad this was the year West Virginia had the team to win 50 games of 70; still, by finishing 71-67 overall Delmarva snapped its six-year slide and perhaps made a few prospects out of guys thought to be suspects when 2015 began.
By the way, if you liked last year’s format you’re in luck because I’m recycling it.
With a batting champion and barrage of .300 hitters pacing last year’s lineup, a repeat of their franchise-best batting wasn’t in the cards. This year the team was around league average in a number of categories, finishing close to the middle of the 14-team SAL.
- A .249 team batting average was only 11th in the league.
- Yet they outscored last year’s squad, as 621 runs was enough for 7th in the league. That was actually fairly efficient since they ranked 12th in hits with 1,122.
- The 257 doubles tied for fourth, which was also their rank with 44 triples.
- 67 home runs was good for ninth position.
- We finished fifth with 571 runs batted in.
- We finished ninth in total bases with 1,668.
- We drew 458 walks, which ranked 3rd in the SAL. (We were leading the league for a good part of the season, too.) On the other hand, 1,084 strikeouts was third-most.
- Team speed was not an asset. We were dead last with just 69 stolen bases in 100 attempts. By comparison, Hickory was next-to-last with 95 steals.
- Our .325 on-base percentage was seventh in the league, with a slugging percentage of .370 ranking eighth. This meant our OPS of .695 was 8th of 14.
The average numbers continued with the pitching staff. We ended up eighth in the league for ERA with a 3.75 mark.
Some other pitching numbers:
- Our 12 shutouts tied for third in the loop.
- We had the fifth-highest number of saves with 41.
- It seemed like we had a lot of doubleheaders and not many extra-inning games. Combine that with being two games short of a full schedule and you figure out why we threw the fewest innings (1,177 2/3.)
- 1,175 hits allowed was ninth. Yet the 608 runs and 491 earned runs we gave up were good for seventh.
- Maybe it’s because Perdue Stadium is a tough home run park, but we gave up the fourth fewest with 61.
- Control was good: we were one off the league lead with just 56 hit batters and the 364 walks we allowed were fourth-lowest.
- Only Rome held us off the bottom in strikeouts as we collectively fanned 891 – a far cry from last season’s 1,105.
- Finally, our WHIP (walks+hits/innings pitched) was sixth in the league at 1.31.
Our fielding was somewhat subpar, as we finished in a tie for 10th with a .968 aggregate fielding percentage.
Around the organization, only Frederick and one of the two Oriole Dominican Summer League teams finished below the .500 mark. Bowie and Norfolk made their respective league playoffs; more importantly Aberdeen was in their league race until the final day of the season and finished 40-36. Here’s hoping their winning ways continue here next season.
The question before us now is how this year’s crop of Shorebirds of the Week fared, so let’s review.
April 9 - Nik Nowottnick
I picked Nik only to see him promptly elevated to Frederick. And while he made two April appearances with the Shorebirds, being unscored upon in 2 1/3 innings, he spent most of the year with Frederick where he went 4-2 with a 4.91 ERA in 37 appearances. One concern is a 1.67 WHIP as he walked 35 and allowed 69 hits in 62 1/3 innings. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him repeat Frederick.
April 16 - Alex Murphy
For the first month or so Alex tore up the league, collecting 28 RBI in 32 games. But an injury cost Murphy three months of the season, so his pre-injury slash of .258/2/28/.737 OPS held up. After a brief GCL rehab stint where he went 0-for-8 in two games, Alex finished the year in Aberdeen where he hit .291/2/8/898 OPS in 15 games. He’ll be 21 next season so don’t be surprised if we see him again in the hopes of an injury-free season.
April 23 - Zeke McGranahan
Zekey had a good start to the campaign, but ended up on the disabled list by Memorial Day and lost the rest of the year. He finished 0-3 but with a 2.53 ERA. The 1.59 WHIP raised some eyebrows, though, as he walked 20 in 21 1/3 innings. The injury also came at a bad time because Zeke was on the older side of league average and turns 25 in January. If he’s back in time next season he may be pressed to succeed quickly.
April 30 - Jomar Reyes
One of the youngest players in the South Atlantic League this year will likely be one of the youngest in the Carolina League next season, if he can stay on the field. Various injuries limited Jomar to 84 games with the Shorebirds and forced him out of the SAL All-Star Game, but he hit .278/5/44/.774 OPS here. Add in the 5 rehab games he played in a brief return to the Gulf Coast League (4-for-16 there) and it was a great season for an 18-year-old. Reyes is my Prospect of the Year.
May 7 - Jared Breen
In his second tour of duty with the Shorebirds, Breen was showing improvement at the plate until a serious collision with the stadium wall ended his season after just 62 games. He had a .242/1/22/.677 OPS slash line at the time, which put him on pace for his best offensive season thus far. He may be on the cusp of a promotion to Frederick, although in his case he may need extended spring to recover from his collision.
May 14 - Bennett Parry
Parry was an effective starter until his season came to a premature end in May. In 9 starts, Parry was 3-3 with a 2.82 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP. His strikeout/walk ratio was 35 to 11, which is also good. Assuming he can recover in time, there’s no reason he shouldn’t move up.
May 21 - Conor Bierfeldt
In his second season with Delmarva, Conor did well enough (.247/7/56/.780 OPS) to merit being both a league All-Star and second-half promotion to Frederick. With the Keys, though, Conor regressed to just a .202/5/29/.654 OPS. It fit with the pattern Bierfeldt established the year before where he hit only .196 with Delmarva, so the question is whether the Orioles will give him another shot with Frederick.
May 28 - Matthew Grimes
Grimes led the team in starts (24) and innings pitched (126) but also gave up 148 hits and 58 earned runs. A 10-7 record and 4.14 ERA went with a 1.45 WHIP. Matthew had a campaign which merits promotion to the next level and will probably get it.
June 4 – Jay Gonzalez
The one person who could bring speed to the Shorebird lineup, Jay amassed 24 stolen bases in 72 games with Delmarva before being promoted to Frederick where he added 10 more. Naturally he had a transition at the plate, where a .294/0/21/.792 OPS slash with Delmarva slipped to .234/0/21/.591 OPS with the Keys. More telling, a 72/61 strikeout/walk ratio with the Shorebirds fell to 61/26 there. It’s probable he gets another shot there, though.
June 11 - Steve Wilkerson
Due to injuries, Steve only played in 92 games with the Shorebirds. But the league All-Star put together a solid season, hitting .287/2/30/.747 OPS. When you consider that Wilkerson raised his average 97 points from 2014 to 2015, you have to think he may have placed himself on the prospect list.
June 18 - Stefan Crichton
Stefan pitched well enough (4-4, 3.27 ERA and 1.15 WHIP) to merit a late-season promotion to Frederick. With the Keys, Crichton pitched is 7 games to a 4.05 ERA and 1.13 WHIP. More impressive was the 50 to 12 strikeout to walk ratio he had with Delmarva that became 18 to 1 in Frederick, in 13 1/3 innings. That’s a good resume for Frederick in 2016.
June 25 - Garrett Cortright
It was a shutdown season here for the SAL All-Star, who pitched to an 0.96 ERA and WHIP with the Shorebirds. But he found a little more difficulty with Frederick, allowing eight earned runs in 14 2/3 innings with the Keys. His strikeout to walk ratio went from 34 to 7 to 8 to 4 with the promotion. Still, Cortright should be a part of the Keys pitching staff next year.
July 2 - Logan Uxa
When I picked Logan, he had just returned from Frederick where he hit .265 in 13 games. With a late-season slump, Uxa finished with a .243/7/37/.736 OPS slash for the Shorebirds. He’ll be 25 by next spring and came as a minor league free agent, so the chances are he either makes Frederick or gets released.
July 9 - Elier Leyva
Leyva made his American professional debut with Delmarva, hitting .238/3/43/.636 OPS at the age of 24. It was a lengthy trial run, as Leyva played 118 games to lead the team. Whether these numbers merit promotion will be up to the Orioles, who gave him a bonus equivalent to that of a 9th or 10th round pick. Likely he gets another season.
July 16 - TJ Olesczuk
Demoted from Frederick after just 7 games where he hit .158 (3-for-19), Oleschuk hit .251/4/46/.741 OPS with the Shorebirds in 73 games. It seemed appropriate that he played with Delmarva, considering Frederick was a large leap from the Gulf Coast League where he played in 2014.
July 23 - Yermin Mercedes
Coming up at the tail end of the first half, Mercedes developed a reputation as a hard swinger and ended up leading the team with 8 home runs in only 64 games. Add in 42 RBI and a .272 average, and there’s a good case for advancing him ahead of the two catching prospects originally assigned to Delmarva, Jonah Heim and Alex Murphy.
July 30 - Nick Cunningham
The 4-3, 3.23 ERA numbers Nick put up before being selected as Shorebird of the Week ended up being his final numbers as he was placed on the suspended list. After the disaster of his 2014 season, Nick redeemed himself with a good season where he controlled his walks and gave up fewer hits than innings pitched. But will his suspension damage his career? That’s the question as Nick won’t be eligible to start the 2016 season.
August 6 - Josh Walker
Making 16 starts for Delmarva, Josh went 8-4 with a 3.20 ERA and a 59/15 K/BB ratio for a 1.16 WHIP. Those stats allowed Walker a late-season promotion to Frederick, where he struggled in 14 innings with an 0-2 record and 7.07 ERA. He still had good control, but allowed 20 hits in those 3 appearances. He’s likely ticketed for a spot on Frederick’s staff, though.
August 13 - Cam Kneeland
With the players placed on the Shorebirds, who would have thought a refugee from independent baseball would lead the team in RBI? But Cam’s total of 63 topped the team, to go with 6 home runs and a .267 average for a guy who played 49 games at third, 27 at second, 25 at first, 12 at short, and a couple in left. Hopefully the Orioles will see what he can do at the next level.
August 20 - Max Schuh
Another mid-season addition to the staff, Schuh was outstanding in 24 relief appearances despite the fact his peripheral numbers (39 hits allowed and a 1.34 WHIP in 40 1/3 innings) weren’t spectacular. He lost his only decision but picked up 3 saves overall, finishing in 15 of 24 appearances with a paltry 1.79 ERA.
August 27 - Ademar Rifaela
Although he started the 2015 season with a brief 7-game stint at Aberdeen (where he went 6-for-30), Rifaela found a home in left field for Delmarva. With a slash of .262/5/20/.740 OPS in 59 games here, the question surrounding him is whether that was a long enough audition for the next level or if another half-season is required. My thinking leans toward the latter, which means we would see him again in April.
September 3 - Dariel Delgado
As the last pick, Delgado finished pretty much true to his stats when selected, going 8-3 with a 3.09 ERA and 1.31 WHIP over 93 1/3 innings. This was after a brutal nine-inning stretch in Frederick where he allowed 12 runs; however, the nine runs given up in one single-inning appearance skewed the numbers significantly. Since this was his second round with Delmarva, I would think Dariel moves up next season.
Here is a list of my Shorebirds of the Year, going back to the award’s inception in 2006:
- 2006 – Ryan Finan
- 2007 – Danny Figueroa
- 2008 – Sean Gleason
- 2009 – Ron Welty
- 2010 – Brian Conley
- 2011 – David Walters
- 2012 – Brenden Webb
- 2013 – Lucas Herbst
- 2014 – Chance Sisco
One thing they all have in common is that they were selected as a Shorebird of the Week.
But in compiling this list, I realized to my horror that my memory failed me. There is a significant omission of a deserving player who played here all season and put up good numbers on a team which frankly didn’t have any outstanding talents that had enough time here to qualify. Perhaps the closest were Jomar Reyes and Steve Wilkerson, but neither made it into 100 games.
So I looked at the mound and realized that some of those players had good but not great seasons. You’ll notice that just two pitchers have been Shorebird of the Year, and they had to either be flat-out dominant for a whole season (Sean Gleason) or lead the league in saves (David Walters.)
It would not be such a big deal to skip this player, except John Means did something unique: the first Shorebird no-hitter in 17 years. So I’m going to be unique and for the first time name a non-Shorebird of the Week, John Means, as my Shorebird of the Year. Just because I thought in August that I already picked him shouldn’t keep John from his due.
So that’s a wrap on the player side for 2015. Next week will be my picks and pans feature speaking as a fan, and then in December I will certainly update my Shorebird of the Week Hall of Fame. The Class of 2015 is my largest in several years, and as of this writing is an all-pitcher class.
Then sometime around the start of spring training I’m going to try and predict the 2015 roster. As it turned out, 15 of my 25 picks were in Delmarva at some point in the season so I didn’t do half-bad I guess. Next year, if the creek don’t rise, will be the tenth season of Shorebird of the Week. But you can rest assured I won’t put the Shorebirds on the shelf for seven months.
Not only is the end of the season bittersweet, but picking the final Shorebird of the Week is tough because there are normally two to four guys who have a legitimate case for selection. Last year my final 2015 pick was one of those also-fans at the end so Dariel Delgado quietly came back and put together a good season for Delmarva, first out of the bullpen but lately as a starter. In fact, since joining the rotation for good on July 20 Dariel has shaved his ERA down from 3.95 to its present 3.23 and picked up three consecutive wins in his last three starts to run his Delmarva record to 7-3.
Dariel was actually promoted briefly to Frederick in late May but returned here after some tough outings, including one where he gave up nine runs in one inning. A 12.00 ERA in nine innings will blemish anyone’s record, but the Cuban native who just turned 22 last week has returned to form with the Shorebirds.
As I stated above, this season was Delgado’s second one here. He was promoted in July of 2014 and finished 0-3 but with a respectable 4.09 ERA in 33 innings, allowing 33 hits while striking out 25 and walking 10 for a 1.30 WHIP. While his secondary numbers aren’t quite as good this year – his strikeout rate is down while he’s walking 3.3 batters per 9 innings on the season – he’s managing to get the outs he needs to put together good lines, such as the one run and four hits he allowed in his career-long seven innings against Hickory on Sunday.
While Delgado was signed as a free agent by the Orioles in 2013, Dariel was actually drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in 2011 as a 29th round pick, but did not sign as a 17-year-old. That brief foray to Frederick was the first setback in what’s been a steady climb up the ladder for Delgado, who I would expect will be in the mix for Frederick’s rotation next season.
Now for a little housekeeping. As usual I will review the 2015 season next week and pick a Shorebird of the Year, then the following week brings my picks and pans. Then I put the Shorebirds on hiatus until I add new players to the Shorebird of the Week Hall of Fame in December. Last night capped a home season which was rather successful on the field although attendance has lagged. In coming weeks I’ll have some thoughts as to why.
At this time of year, I start to wonder about who may be in the Shorebirds’ plans for next season – although we still have a mathematical chance at making the postseason, the odds of our hot streak coinciding with West Virginia’s utter collapse are about the same as hitting the Powerball the week after you win MegaMillions. The more sure bet is that Ademar Rifaela will be in the Shorebirds’ outfield to begin 2016.
A 20-year-old product of Curaçao, the island that produced the Orioles’ Jonathan Schoop and a growing number of other big leaguers, Rifaela packs some surprising power in a 5′-10″, 180 pound frame. After not hitting a homer in his first pro season, spent with the Dominican Summer League Orioles back in 2013, Ademar socked four home runs in just 34 GCL games last year and has five with Delmarva in 48 games. A 2-for-5 night last night brought his batting mark to .266, which is better than his career mark by nearly 20 points. His OPS going into last night was a healthy .765, among the top marks on the team among the active roster.
You may not have expected Rifaela to move up as soon as he did, given the fact he got off to a slow (6-for-30) start with Aberdeen, where he played his first seven games this year. But an injury to catcher Tanner Murphy created the roster spot and the promotion of Jay Gonzalez a few days later opened up the lineup card – Rifaela has held it down most of the time since.
One thing which may change going forward is Ademar’s spot in the lineup. While he often bats leadoff, Rifaela is not a high-percentage base stealer nor does he draw a lot of walks. He seems more suited for the 5 to 7 part of the lineup.
In any case, Ademar has positioned himself as a prime candidate to anchor the Shorebirds’ lineup around next season. But with a lack of outfield talent in the organization as a whole, he may move up faster than I think. If you ask me, though, little more seasoning wouldn’t be a bad thing for Rifaela. He has plenty of time to grow into a solid corner outfielder at the highest level.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve gone through a couple of guys who have taken the long way around to get their shot with the Shorebirds. But Max Schuh is not one of those as a 7th round selection by the Orioles in the 2014 draft, out of UCLA – it was sort of expected that he make the climb up a level despite just 12 innings with Aberdeen last year. With the IronBirds he only put up pedestrian numbers – a 5.25 ERA and 1.58 WHIP won’t turn a lot of heads.
But while he didn’t break camp with the Shorebirds in April, Schuh came along just after Memorial Day and joined the team from extended spring. And once he shook off the rust of pitching in real games and got his ERA into the twos, it has stayed there. Despite not being a classic power relief pitcher based on his strikeout rate and number of hits allowed, Max has been effective when it counts.
His best asset seems to be his control, as Schuh has walked just 13 batters in 41 professional innings to date; on the other hand, he has given up over a hit per inning over that timespan. That trend has abated over the last few weeks, though, with the exception of a poor outing Max had at West Virginia. If he can get himself under a hit per inning, it will move him onto the Orioles’ radar screen.
As I stated above, Max seems to be on that proverbial schedule a prospect out of college has – the first pro season in the advanced rookie league, followed by a full-season squad the next year. Granted, Schuh is a year older than average for this level but it’s the expected career point, and he’s pitched well enough – particularly as a lefty – to merit a step up next season. Since Schuh has been groomed thus far exclusively as a reliever, he could end up being one of those pitchers known as LOOGYs – left-handed one-out guys. They come on to face a left-handed batter or two late in the game and they seem to last in the game forever, or at least into their forties.
I have no idea if that’s the career Schuh will have, but the fact he turns in generally consistent performances each time out bodes well for his future.
Considering that Cam Kneeland came into the season with precisely two games played in the previous 18 months, it was little surprise he got off to a somewhat slow start, hitting only .191 as May came to a close. But the injury to Jomar Reyes back in June allowed Kneeland to play every day and the average began to climb – now he’s hitting a solid .258 with 4 homers, 47 knocked in, and a .728 OPS. And don’t look now, but he is second on the team in games played behind Elier Leyva with 88. In this season of attrition, one can call Kneeland a survivor.
But that label doesn’t just apply to 2015. Finding no takers in the 2012 draft – perhaps because the University of Massachusetts at Lowell isn’t a highly scouted location – Kneeland plied his trade with the Worcester Tornadoes of the independent Can-Am League. (One of his teammates: a 47-year-old Jose Canseco.) In 47 games there Kneeland only hit .236/5/25/.696 OPS. But when the Tornadoes blew out of town and landed in Quebec as the Trois-Rivieres Aigles, Kneeland ended up following them and was named the loop’s Rookie of the Year for hitting .306/9/62/.831 OPS in 99 games. On the strength of that season Cam signed with the Orioles in the 2013-14 offseason but only played in 2 games for Aberdeen (going 0-for-6) before being deactivated. Officially he was sent to the GCL Orioles but never appeared in a game for them.
With two seasons in independent baseball, Cam is 3 years older than league average (at 25) so the experts may chalk up his success as a matter of being more experienced than the average pitcher. But the numbers are good considering the year off, and line him up for a shot at further advancement down the road.
Kneeland reminds me of another former SotW, Tucker Nathans, who also hailed from the New England region, played for a small college (and went undrafted), then played in the Can-Am League before being signed. Nathans was a Carolina League All-Star this year and has since been promoted to Bowie. Both are the scrappy, utility-type players managers love for their flexibility.
Perhaps there is something to this formula of letting independent leagues be a long-term tryout camp, as the Orioles seem to comb through those ranks often to find players for Delmarva. There are a handful of Can-Am alumni in the bigs, and Kneeland is trying to join that select group.
In a season where the most frequent roster move seems to be a trip to the disabled list, the starting rotation has not been immune. Twelve different pitchers have at least one start this season for Delmarva, as compared to 13 over the full season last year and 11 back in 2013.
But injuries and callups create opportunities, and Josh Walker has made the most of his chance so far. In 12 starts since being called up on May 31 Walker has gone 7-2 with a 3.17 ERA and nifty 40/10 strikeout/walk ratio in 59 2/3 innings. Moreover, his wins tend to be dominating: five shutout innings at Kannapolis and Lakewood for his first wins on June 7 and 18, seven shutout at home to Lakewood on July 1 – where he allowed just three hits – and a one-hit shutout for 5 1/3 innings at Charleston on July 22. That was the first of three straight starts and wins for the 24-year-old Walker, a streak which is current and includes Sunday’s win.
Josh came from the University of New Mexico in his hometown of Albuquerque and was only a 22nd round pick last year. He pitched reasonably well as a reliever with Aberdeen last season (1-1 record, 3.80 ERA and 1.27 WHIP in 23 2/3 innings) but seems to be taking to a starting role quite well. None of his Aberdeen appearances were starts; in fact, he only pitched once before the fifth inning with the IronBirds and that was early on.
With those seven wins, though, Walker has moved into second place among Delmarva’s staff. He only trails John Means, who has eight more starts under his belt and only has eight wins to show for it (along with a no-hitter, of course.) This sort of performance makes the likelihood of a promotion high, although I think it would be to begin 2016. Walker hasn’t pitched a full season yet since he came here in May, so there’s a chance he could make a handful of starts here next year as well.
In any case, though, being able to put together a dominating performance is half the battle, with the other half being consistency. Josh only has a couple blemishes on his record, though, so he may be closer to that goal than some others on the staff. It will be interesting to see how he progresses through the system based on his success here.
When I took this photo of Nick Cunningham in late April, he looked like the farthest thing from a Shorebird of the Week. Even after this effective appearance against Greensboro, his ERA had only dropped to 7.88 and it would balloon again by the end of April to 11.88, exceeding even his ghastly 10.09 ERA he had here in 2014 when he allowed 45 runs (40 earned) in 35 1/3 innings. Batters hit .369 against him last year; although it dropped to .314 in April he was still giving up multiple runs seemingly every other game.
One advantage for players who struggle early in the season, though, is a roster dodge teams often do. Since Aberdeen and other short-season teams aren’t playing yet (but have roster space) teams will “demote” struggling players to the lower level, placing them out of game situations but maintaining the chance to work with them on the side. Presumably that was Cunningham’s lot as he was “sent down” May 6 and returned on his 24th birthday, May 21.
Since his return the leaf has turned over, as Cunningham has gone 3-0 with a 1.73 ERA and 1.03 WHIP – it was as if a totally new pitcher had arrived. Even in a couple spot starts Nick has been effective and fans no longer cringe when he comes in from the bullpen.
Over the years I’ve featured a number of players who toiled in mediocrity (or worse) before the point came where they seemingly and suddenly “got it.” Perhaps the 20th round selection from the University of Arizona two years back “got it” during the two weeks he was off the active roster because he’s become much more effective. Augusta found that out when he scattered three harmless hits in three innings on Tuesday night to get the win as he held a 5-4 lead.
In any case, he may be lining himself up for a chance at the next level. It took Nick parts of two seasons to advance from Aberdeen, and his second bite of the Delmarva apple is now far sweeter than the first. Just don’t count him out if he struggles to start in Frederick.
Lately this has been a familiar position for Yermin Mercedes – getting congratulations for yet another home run blast. (This particular one occurred Sunday, erasing an early 1-0 deficit and providing the first three Delmarva runs in a 16-6 blowout of Greensboro.)
And it’s a tale of taking advantage of an opportunity as a player chases his dream through the lowest of the low rungs of the minor leagues. Once the property of the Washington Nationals, where Mercedes hit .296 in 123 games over three seasons for their Dominican Summer League team, Yermin wasn’t through when the Nationals cut him loose after 2013. Instead, he traveled to the U.S. and latched on with the Douglas Diablos of the Pecos League, an independent loop based in Texas and the Southwest. It was a bizarre 2014 season as Mercedes played with three teams in two leagues: Douglas and White Sands of the Pecos League for 54 games and the San Angelo Colts of the now-defunct United League for six.
All told, the numbers were eye-popping: a .380 average with 17 home runs, 74 knocked in, and a 1.119 OPS. It’s worth noting, though, that these are not pitching-rich leagues: the aggregate Pecos League average last year was .314 with an .852 OPS. Regardless of the quality of the league, by season’s end Mercedes had the first step on his path complete as the Orioles inked him to a minor league deal last August 28 for the 2015 season.
But the story gets even better. Delmarva looked to be set at catcher with Alex Murphy and Jonah Heim, both high draft selections in 2013 who were ticketed for the Shorebirds. Unfortunately for them, the duo has only caught 43 games as both have been sidelined by injury. Heim’s injury in late May paved the way for Mercedes to replace him, and Yermin has hit as one may expect with a .291/6/25/.887 OPS slash line in 32 games.
Yermin’s been in the pro ranks since 2011 but the Dominican native is still only 22 and has played a little bit of first base and third base in his career, along with three innings of mound duty last season.
And he’s been a one-man wrecking crew in the last week: along with his three-run smash against Greensboro that reversed the early deficit, last Thursday he hit a grand slam in a 7-4 loss to Lexington after a 3-run blast in an 11-3 win the night before. Not only that, his 2-run 9th inning triple tied the homestand finale against Greensboro Monday before he scored the winning tally in that 3-2 victory and last night he knocked in the first of the two runs Delmarva beat Charleston with, 2-0. In seven games he has three home runs and 14 RBI.
Add in the fact he’s caught 38% of would-be base stealers (after posting close to 50% in the DSL) and you may wonder why the Nationals didn’t keep him around. The Orioles are probably glad they didn’t.
When TJ Olesczuk came to the Shorebirds in early June after a brief stay with Frederick, he started off like a house on fire. TJ went 9-for-16 in a series at Kannapolis, hitting his first professional home run and knocking in nine runs. In short, for that series he was a one-man wrecking crew for Intimidator pitching. But I wanted to see how he would do after a few weeks, and as players often do they cool down after a torrid start. Earlier this month, Oleschuk was benched for a few days after his average tailed below .250 for the first time as a Shorebird.
That pause seemed to refresh TJ’s bat because over the last five games it has slowly heated up again. Olesczuk went 3-for-11 in three games at Hagerstown but has stepped it up with six hits in two games against Lexington. The second-worst pitching staff in the league has been battered by the Shorebirds over the last two days and TJ has used them to spring his average up 33 points for a .283/3/31/.836 OPS slash line.
I’m not sure how they do it, but 40th round selections seem to thrive with the Shorebirds. Olesczuk joins Garrett Cortright as last-round picks who are succeeding at this level. Taken out of Winthrop University, the 23-year-old New York product got into 7 games at Frederick, going 3-for-19 before being sent down to perhaps a more appropriate level considering he toiled in the Gulf Coast League last summer. There he hit .265/0/12/.659 OPS in 34 games.
Only one of the four outfielders who began the season with Delmarva is still here – Elier Leyva, last week’s SotW. Jay Gonzalez and Conor Bierfeldt have been promoted while Jamill Moquete has missed most of the season with an injury. Thus, the chance is there for TJ to hold down left field for the rest of the year and get another 50 games or so under his belt – all told, he has only played in 72 games over two seasons. It’s an opportunity to show the Orioles he’s not just an organization guy picked to fill out a low minor league roster.
If he can keep his average around the .280 level he should get another bite of the apple at Frederick – if not this year, then certainly in 2016. Like Bierfeldt before his promotion, Olesczuk has a knack for driving in runs – those 31 are in as many games, so imagine how far up a prospect list a player could go if he kept that up for a full season.
Even getting to 50 RBI in 80 or so games played would open some eyes, so let’s hope TJ can keep going.
As is often the case with players from the Caribbean region, a team can rarely be sure what they will get when they sign a player. The traditional scouting avenues of organized high school, travel team, and college don’t exist to the same extent so it’s more difficult to judge competition.
It’s even tougher to do so in Cuba, but the Orioles took a $180,000 chance anyway and signed outfielder Elier Leyva last year.
So Delmarva fans weren’t quite sure what to expect when Leyva was assigned here in April, and unfortunately Elier had a hard time with the transition. At April’s end he was hitting just .186 and after May the average had only crept to a .215 mark. But Ryan Minor has been patient with the 24-year-old Cuban and it’s been rewarded as Leyva has hit .284 since (including a sizzling .338/.797 OPS in June.) While he has slumped somewhat of late, bringing his current numbers for the year to .244/2/26/.644 OPS, Leyva is still more consistent than he was early on and seems to be cutting down on the rookie mistakes I noticed at the start of the season.
Although he’s only been in professional baseball since April, the expectations were fairly high – Leyva’s bonus money was equivalent to that of a 9th or 10th round draft choice. Fortunately, for the most part Leyva’s trajectory over the season has been upward so he has the easy potential to finish with numbers in the .270 average and .700 OPS range. (He’s also had the benefit of regular playing time – by week’s end he will pass the promoted Jay Gonzalez and become the team leader in games played with 73.) With another 56 games remaining on the schedule, a finish with numbers akin to those he posted in June makes a late-season cup of coffee in Frederick a possibility.
Cuban coffee would likely be just fine for the Orioles’ brass, who have invested a lot into their outfielder. We’ll see if he’s worth it.
While it is an everyday occurrence for some player somewhere to account for all of his team’s runs in one game, generally that’s in a range from one to four runs. So putting up seven is a cause for celebration, and to make it even better the last four came as a walk-off grand slam.
Welcome to the Monday night Logan Uxa had – a sacrifice fly, two-run triple, and the grand slam accounted for everything in the 7-3 win over Hagerstown. But it wasn’t like Logan was scuffling before that, as he raised his average to .268 in the game – as of last night he’s batting .258/3/15/.870 OPS in 18 games here. (Earlier this season with Frederick, Uxa was .265/1/2/.831 OPS in 13 games.)
At this time last year, though, Uxa wasn’t even playing organized ball. A 32nd round selection by the Reds in 2013 out of Arkansas State, Logan mainly toiled in the AZL (equivalent to the Gulf Coast League) that season, posting good numbers (.281/1/28/.818 OPS) there and getting a few games at high-A Bakersfield as a reward. However, Uxa did not make a team out of camp in 2014 and after extended spring finished in June the Reds let him go. It took until January for Logan to sign with a team to try out for, and the Orioles have used him as they often do with the guys they consider “organization players” that fill holes in a team’s roster. He’s bounced between being active and inactive for Delmarva and spent the larger part of June in Frederick.
While we know Uxa can hit, he does come with a few disadvantages he’ll need to work on. Through his career, he’s exclusively played first base but the Orioles like to have more flexibility. This is particularly true since Uxa is a little subpar in the field. I suspect his further advancement in the system depends on that, since he is somewhat older than his peers (Logan is already 24, when most SAL layers range from 19 to 23.) Baseball-Reference has an interesting split of older vs. younger pitchers and Uxa has 93 of 108 plate appearances against younger hurlers. So maybe some reps in the outfield are in his future.
Yet Logan is the underdog you can’t help but root for, and on Monday night he came up sevens.