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.
A last-minute addition to the North team, Garrett Cortright becomes my fourth and final SAL All-Star to be a Shorebird of the Week this season. Not that Cortright wasn’t deserving to go – a first half that featured a 1.50 ERA and 0.97 WHIP in 30 innings is solid stuff, especially when you’re unscored upon in your last seven outings covering 9 2/3 innings. Opponents were -for-June against him until (ironically enough) Tuesday night’s SAL midsummer classic, when he gave up a run in 1/3 of an inning. Since it doesn’t count on the seasonal stats it’s a good time for a blemish.
You probably recall Garrett from the tail end of last season, a time when he pitched effectively (1-3, 3.94 in 19 games) for the Shorebirds and was my last SotW for the season. With a second tour of duty allowing Cortright to get almost a full season at Delmarva, we get a clearer picture of how he would fare at this level: overall with Delmarva he’s 3-4 with a 2.76 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in 62 innings. Not bad for an afterthought in the 2013 draft as a 40th-round selection from Canisius College in New York. (It’s a school, though, which is gaining a reputation: 3 players were drafted from there in the first 15 rounds this year.)
Since Garrett has already put in close to a full season here, it would not surprise me if he’s not promoted in the next couple weeks (if not when second half rosters are set tonight.) The crop of All-Stars from last season had several immediate advancements among them, so the trend is there for experienced players to make the jump. With numbers like this Cortright has as good of a case as anyone else on the team.
If you follow my Shorebird of the Week feature, or any of my other Shorebird coverage, you likely recall that just before the season I tried to predict who would make up the team’s roster this season. I was hoping to beat my mark from last season, and I suspect the rash of new players added over the last month will help my percentage.
Early on I lost 2 of my 25 players as infielder Federico Castagnini and pitcher Augey Bill were released. I checked to see if they latched on with any of the independent league teams and apparently they have not, so I presume they have called it a career. As for the others on my list, here’s where they are. (Bold denotes they have been a Shorebird of the Week.)
Pitchers who have spent time with Delmarva include Tanner Chleborad (who made one start before going on the DL in April), Stefan Crichton, Dariel Delgado (who was promoted to Frederick briefly in late May and returned a couple weeks ago), Brian Gonzalez, Ivan Hernandez (just brought up from extended spring), John Means, Nik Nowattnick (sent to Frederick early on), and Max Schuh (also a June callup.)
As for the other hurlers: Augey Bill was released, Keegan Ghidotti and Kevin Grendell are with Aberdeen, and David Hess and Austin Urban were both promoted to Frederick to begin the season. Out of 13 pitchers, 8 have played here and potentially 4 others could – Urban is pitching well enough, though, that I don’t see him back this year.
Moving behind the plate I got both correct – Jonah Heim and Alex Murphy split catching duties for a time until both were hurt. I also correctly tabbed Tanner Murphy as the third catcher. The latter Murphy, though, was reassigned to Aberdeen June 9 but is not on their active roster. Now I’m up to 10 for 15.
On the infield, it’s a mixed bag. The only consistent Delmarva player of the six I named is Jomar Reyes. Austin Anderson has resided on our restricted and disabled lists all season, while Ronarsy Ledesma has had spot duty with the Shorebirds before being sent down to Aberdeen. We just added Derek Peterson to the roster this month as well.
Going the other way, unfortunately, are both Castagnini and Hector Veloz, who was released from Aberdeen’s roster last week. That gives me 3 of 6, with the chance at a fourth later this season. 13 for 21.
Finally, in the outfield I was correct on Jay Gonzalez, T.J. Oleschuk (as of earlier this month), and Riley Palmer – although Palmer has mainly played first base rather than the outfield. Oswill Lartiguez has begun the season with Aberdeen.
This means that, out of 25 players, I have 16 correct and the potential for up to 6 more if they play well (or poorly) enough. I’m finding out, though, that baseball is an inexact science.
Going into this season I thought my Shorebird of the Week Hall of Fame would have one more lean year before many of the crop of good players from 2014 start to break through. Instead, I have three already enrolled in the Class of 2015, and who would have bet on Scott Copeland to be the first when he debuted for Toronto in early May? Within a week later that month, I had the second and third: Oliver Drake for the Orioles and Eduardo Rodriguez for Boston. There’s a chance for a fourth if Mychal Givens gets into a game while with the Orioles, and Eddie Gamboa also spent time with the team.
So I have a lot to watch for in the second half. Hard to believe we are midway through another year, isn’t it?
Yesterday I posted on Third Friday, a monthly event that’s become so successful that it spawned a similar spin-off called First Saturday and may have pushed downtown redevelopment over the hump. Similarly, there are some new businesses and apartments going up on the northern edge of the city along U.S. 13, and even the venerable Centre of Salisbury – venerable as a 27-year-old mall can be, I suppose – has the promise of something Salisbury has longed for, a Cracker Barrel restaurant. It’s slated to be built in the parking lot outside the abandoned J.C. Penney store. (Shoot, I was happy when Buffalo Wild Wings finally made it here from Ohio.)
But there is one prime area that has all the ingredients needed for success – plenty of traffic, good visibility, and reliable city utilities. Yet it sits vacant and unused because its plans for development came along at a bad time.
Several years ago, before my unplanned exile from the building industry, I helped draw up a proposed project which would have established a third attraction for Salisbury. Obviously we know the Centre of Salisbury was a retail destination point and at the time the downtown area was being discussed as something which, as it turns out, it is in the process of becoming – a place where visual and performing arts serves as the draw, along with a handful of local eateries.
But the plot of land just south of Perdue Stadium had its own node, with a guaranteed gathering of anywhere from 500 hardy, weather-tested souls to overflow crowds of over 8,000 people 60 to 65 times a year during the spring and summer. Add in the thousands of travelers driving by and there was the potential for a destination of its own; close enough to the beach to be a viable alternative for budget-concious travelers looking for something with a slower pace, yet with the attractions to enjoy a summer evening without the need for driving around.
As originally envisioned, the development had several key elements for success: office space for workday usage, restaurants for both travelers and those seeking a place to have a business or casual lunch, and lodging for those who wanted to have an anchor point to explore the area yet not have to deal with beach crowds. Its misfortune was beginning the development process at a time when we were entering the Great Recession of 2007-whenever. (Some may argue the area is still in one based on employment numbers.)
One other proposal envisioned for the site was the construction of a new Civic Center on the opposite side of the Perdue Stadium parking lot. Besides the obvious plentiful parking available, a new Civic Center would have the advantages of making beer sales at events possible (a deed restriction for the property of the current Wicomico Youth and Civic Center prohibits alcohol sales as a condition of having it donated to the county for its use) and could be configured for more seating than the current arena to attract larger acts.
Any action on that, however, is several years to a decade away. Yet the county is putting money into 20-year-old Perdue Stadium and the owners of the Delmarva Shorebirds are committing themselves to another two decades as the station’s prime tenant. In short, the main attractions aren’t going anywhere.
Yet this valuable land sits as a part of Salisbury time and economics seemingly forgot.
I understand the emphasis our city fathers have placed on revitalizing downtown and trying to make it a close-by gathering place for both young professionals and Salisbury University students. With a transit system already in place to ferry students from campus to downtown several nights a week and grand plans to spruce up the Business Route 13 corridor from SU to the east edge of downtown, city visionaries and elected officials have it covered. Meanwhile, the part of town encompassing the Centre of Salisbury up toward Delmar seems to be doing just fine although admittedly some of that retail may be getting long in the tooth and due for upgrades. The closing of J.C. Penney was just another pockmark on a facility which may need its own transformation in the next decade lest it suffer the fate of the old Salisbury Mall it replaced.
But that rebirth can be set on the back burner for now. Downtown development may be the place where the cool kids go, but there are other assets Salisbury can put in play with the proper foresight and investment. Imagine what could be there now if things had proceeded a decade ago, and work to make it a reality in the next few years. The infrastructure is already there thanks to the aborted previous plans, so let’s get this diamond in the rough to shine.