2019 Season Preview Part One- Martin Abresch

Detroit Thunderbirds

2018: 57-83, 6th place
Detroit was the worst team in baseball last season. They could be even worse this season. There is hope on the horizon as Detroit has some top talent in their minor league system.
The Thunderbirds pitching staff was the worst in the United States last season. In free agency this off-season they lost Rich Bradley (signed by Windsor), Jimmy Mack (signed by Hamilton), and Jim Manuel (signed by Toronto). What’s left is a Triple-A staff with lights-out closer in Wilford Trites. Will last year’s Relief Award winner get any save chances at all?
The T-Bird lineup still features Silas Carvalho, baseball’s best hitter for average and biggest stolen base threat. But it’s the emergence of young Richard Leclerc that should really get fans excited. Acquired from Traverse City in the William Anderson trade, Leclerc was the third overall pick in the 2017 draft. Despite being only 21 last season, Leclerc hit .318/.351/.429 in 245 plate appearances.
Leclerc represents the first young talent to emerge from Detroit’s loaded system. Talents like shortstop Ray Blue are just around the corner. Detroit’s present might look bleak, but the future looks bright indeed.
Hamilton Mounties
2018: 70-70, 3rd place
Hamilton is always competitive, but being competitive isn’t enough. The Mounties want a championship, and they’re doing everything that they can to bring one home.
In 2016, Hamilton lost a hard-fought, seven game Championship Series to Milwaukee, but they had good reason to expect future playoff opportunities. In that light, 2017 and 2018 have been especially disappointing, both years bringing third place finishes. With Dave Teague (29), Roosevelt Gilbert (31), and Tate Crosby (31) in their prime, Hamilton cannot afford to waste time.
This off-season, Hamilton management pushed the payroll to the limit. Their $154 million payroll is $30 million higher than the next highest payroll. They signed numerous players to patch holes, and they come into the season with one of the deepest teams in baseball.
Hamilton has five solid starters, but four of the five underperformed in 2018 and set career lows in WAR: Roosevelt Gilbert, Tate Crosby, Richard Bel, and Gilles Thomas. The sole bright spot was the emergence of Charles Hammond as force. Were those performances a fluke, or were they the beginning of a trend? One good thing: the starters will not need to pitch deep into games because the bullpen has been overhauled. Closer Randy Costello will be joined by free agency signings Eric Blashill (Milwaukee’s closer last season), Daryl Ford (who struck out 103 batters in 88 innings for Duluth last season), Drew Paul, and Jimmy Mack (Hamilton’s closer in 2015-16). No other team in baseball has the sheer number of quality arms that Hamilton has.
The Mountie offense still revolves around Dave Teague and Paul Trent. Teague is the best hitter in the game: he’s the only player to post a 1.000+ OPS. Trent is the all-time home-run king. Free agent acquisition Dave Roberts should add some punch to the lineup, and several young players look ready to step up and help shoulder the run-scoring load, especially Pete Newell (24) and Jorge Fernández (25). There is depth on the bench. This offense has the potential to be very dangerous, but it also looks to be one Teague injury away from average.
There is no doubt that Hamilton will once again be competitive this year, but will this be the year in which things fall into place and they bring home their first championship? It could be.
Thunder Bay Caribou
2018: 65-75, 5th place
Thunder Bay has been an up-and-down team, going to the playoffs in odd-numbered years and finishing below .500 in even-numbered years. If history is any guide, they should finish 2019 in second place and represent Canada in the Championship Series.
The Caribou look to have a solid rotation. Veterans Ron Gorman and Dale O’Brien provide a strong one-two punch, but 25-year-old phenom Randy Carey might end the season as the ace. Add in a full season of Stephen Caldwell and the Caribou could have four All-Star quality starters. The bullpen has some good arms in Steve Foster, Jeff JacobsSébastien Moreau, and Didier Picot. There is a lot of quality on this pitching staff. If things go right or if they add another elite arm (or two), they could have the best staff in Canada.
The Caribou offense was dealt a huge blow when third baseman Mark Hunt was injured in spring training. He will miss the season, and the Caribou will miss his bat sorely. It’s too bad, because the Caribou had the makings of an exciting lineup.
In my estimate, Thunder Bay’s lineup is the most difficult to predict. It looks to feature several young players with the potential to break out: second baseman Jack Wheaton (25) looks to be on the cusp of stardom, Fred Darrach (21) is both extremely young and extremely talented, and Brent Harris (24) is looking to improve on a respectable rookie campaign. Veteran Vasa Trevino has a good bat that sometimes turns into a great bat. Veteran Chris Jeffries followed up an amazing 2016 (.278/.358/.483) with a horrid 2017 (.192/.267/.295) and a good 2018 (.259/.337/.386). Which Chris Jeffries will show up this season? At least shortstop Wilber Trudel and center-fielder John Hicken are known quantities: both have quietly provided roughly league-average offense while playing good defense at key positions, making each of them good for about 3.0 to 4.0 WAR per year.
So here is the question. Can a team go 65-75, add no new significant players in the off-season, and lose one of its best hitters to injury—can such a team reasonably hope to make a dramatic improvement and compete for the playoffs? The answer, surprisingly, is yes. If young players like Carey, Wheaton, and Darrach emerge—if players like Caldwell and Jeffries play to their potential—if management makes a savvy mid-season move or two—if things go well then, yes, these Caribou can compete with any team in Canada.
And it’s an odd-numbered year. The fates are with them.
Traverse City Bears
2018: 65-75, 5th place
Traverse City has been a consistently mediocre team, but the consistent results disguise some large changes to the team. Take a look at this:
year  W  L  payroll
2016 66-74 $147 mil
2017 67-73  $63 mil
2018 65-75  $44 mil
The previous general manager left the organization with a large payroll and huge debts. His replacement has managed to slash the payroll and get the team’s finances back in the black—and he did this without any drop in performance! With the team now back on solid financial ground, the Bears appear ready to make a move up the standings.
The lineup is a bit of a hodge-podge. Veteran slugger Kevin Boivin returns to Traverse City to anchor the lineup. Shortstop Zi-cheng Chang is only 21, but he has superstar potential. Martín Ortíz is coming into his prime years: with his blazing speed, he covers center field as well as anyone in baseball. Off-season acquisitions Junior Reeves and Keith Beaumont are solid, veteran bats. There are some gaping holes in the lineup (catcher, second base, third base) so the veteran bats will need to produce.
With William Anderson and Scott Moss, the Bears have a pair of starters as good as any team. Dave McAleer should be solid in the #3 role, and Kurt Peddle and Kade Goudie are good bullpen arms. The problem for the Bears is that the rest of the staff is mediocre at best.
Traverse City doesn’t yet look ready to compete for a playoff spot. Both the lineup and pitching staff have large holes than need to be plugged. But they do look like a team on the way up.

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