Luke Erickson

Luke Erickson is a season-ticket holder for the Potomac Nationals, but makes a point of seeing games in Hagerstown and Harrisburg at least once a summer. When the PNats are away on the weekend, Luke finds a minor-league game somewhere to watch, and generally attends 70-80 baseball games a year up across several states. A former sportswriter with newspapers in Massachusetts and Oregon, Luke lives in Western Fairfax County with his wife and two sons.

Oct 292012
 

The 2012 Potomac Nationals will most likely be remembered by those that watched them closely (*ahem*) for two things: (1) the team that couldn’t win on the road (2) underachievement. You can argue against the latter to a certain extent, but it’s pretty hard to argue against the former: A 10-26 mark in the first half, a 12-21 mark in the second for a combined 22-47 mark that was third-worst in affiliated ball (Louisville, 22-51; N.W. Arkansas, 22-48).

This, of course, would be unremarkable except that in Woodbridge, the 64-win P-Nats were 42-28 — third-best in the Carolina League behind 74-win Myrtle Beach (42-26) and 87-win Winston-Salem (48-23). When I dug into it in early June, I discovered that at least some of it was attributable to the offense hitting nearly 100 points better on the road than at home, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense since the Pfitz generally comes up as neutral in ballpark effects. Other factors are surely at play here, but it’s interesting (at least to me) nevertheless.

Underachievement is a little more in the eye of the beholder. It’s often the disconnect between expected and actual performance. While as a fan (disclosure: see first sentence in “About” below), I feel like this team underachieved, as prospect follower I have to allow for the alternate, more objective interpretation that perhaps some of these guys simply hit their ceiling. There just aren’t very many guys that finished in Woodbridge in August that I don’t expect to see again next April; nearly everybody that deserved a bump up to Harrisburg got one.

So let’s take a look at the first P-Nats team to miss the Carolina League playoffs since 2009:
HITTING

PITCHING

There are two things that strike me when I look at these two comparisons: (1) How similar Potomac’s pitching totals were to Hagerstown’s (2) How much better the hitting was than I would have guessed (nearly mediocre vs. subpar). What didn’t shock me was the low OBP. Francisco Soriano, Blake Kelso and Michael Taylor shared the team lead with 40 walks drawn in 87, 106 and 109 games. David Freitas was next with 39 — in 78 games. Seemed like every time I would fill out my scorecard, I’d be filling in OBPs with numbers that looked like batting averages.

That’s a natural segue to the Top 13* batters (* for 2010 Draft Picks, ** for DSL graduates). Full team statistics can be found here. *Another “extra” to catch a notable

There are some bright spots if you look for them — Kevin Keyes and Jason Martinson’s power, for example. Ricky Hague demonstrating he can play second base (.983FA in 35G). Michael Taylor living up to the hype for his defensive skills in center. But there are also things to pick that aren’t nits — Taylor, Martinson, and Keyes whiffed a lot. The team’s left fielders gave the team’s centerfielders ample opportunity to show off their range.

As aforementioned, none of this is unusual — it’s emblematic of the level: players too good for Low-A, but not quite good enough for AA. The question is whether or not there’s a “yet” in that sentence. This is often where some players repeat… and many will stall (see: Peacock, Brian; Martinez, Carlos).

On to the pitchers…

Well, at least there wasn’t much in the way of mediocrity. The pitchers were either good or they were bad. And even some of the “bad” were pitchers had their moments of “good.” The Matts are a good example of this. Swynenberg was terrific in April, pitching one of the best games of the year on the final Sunday of the month. Grace finished the season strong, capping off his season with eight shutout innings against playoff-bound Wilmington on the final Saturday of the season, a game that Steve Souza won with an 11th-inning grand slam.

Enough has been “said” about how good Nathan Karns was this season. Unfortunately, that leaves us with discussing how disappointing Robbie Ray’s season was. Most of the damage was done in the second half — 1-9, 7.67 vs. 3-3, 4.89 — with the southpaw becoming particularly prone to giving up the longball (10 in his last 10 appearances). Perversely, I was almost wishing to learn that he had been hurt; easier to give him a pass, so “speak.”

Unfortunately, I don’t have the magic bullet as to the why (and if I did, I wouldn’t tell 😉 As the season progressed he struggled with his command, issuing nearly double the walks and seemingly always falling into hitter’s counts and it was usually in the early going, not the middle innings. He turned 21 four weeks ago, so it’s not the end of the world, but it’s the primary reason he still makes the…

OBLIGATORY TOP FOUR LISTS
I thought about only listing three apiece, but decided to go with four as an acknowledgement of the bias that comes with being a disappointed fan of the team. There’s more projection here than usual, as alluded in the discussion of Ray, and I’m giving some props to the guys that finished the season strong.

Batters
1. Michael Taylor
2. Kevin Keyes
3. Ricky Hague
4. Adrian Sanchez
HM: Randolph Oduber

Pitchers
1. Nathan Karns
2. Neil Holland
3. Rob Wort
4. Robbie Ray
HM: Matt Grace

Oct 282012
 

The Salt River Rafters scored in six of nine innings on Saturday to double up the Mesa Solar Sox 12-6 for their third straight win.

Highlights from the four Nats that saw game action…

…Paul Demny got right back on the horse and tossed a scoreless inning in the 7th, though he gave up a hit and a walk.

…Jason Martinson singled, walked, and scored a run while playing third base (no defensive chances).

…Matt Skole was on the other side of the diamond on defense (five putouts) and drew two walks and scored twice, going 1-for-2 before being lifted for a pinch-hitter in the 8th.

…Brian Goodwin pushed his average to .349 with a pair of triples. He scored twice and drew two walks while playing centerfield, where he snagged three flyouts.

Salt River resumes play with a visit to Phoenix tomorrow afternoon. Ryan Perry is expected to get the start.

Oct 272012
 

Three big innings carried the Rafters past the Javelinas as Salt River held off a late charge from Peoria for an 8-7 win yesterday afternoon.

Just two Nationals got into the game.

Anthony Rendon batted fifth in the lineup and played third base. He drew a walk in the and stole second, scoring a run as part of Salt River’s three-run outburst in the first. He drove in a run on a sac fly in the 5th and doubled in the 7th for a 1-for-2 afternoon. Defensively, he had busy day — six assists, including a 5-4-3 DP in the 4th and a bunt attempt in the 6th.

Aaron Barrett (pictured above) gave up a leadoff single in the 8th but had it erased with a double play on the next batter. The fortune quickly became misfortune after another single then a home run cut the three-run lead Barrett was protecting to one. He still earned the hold by getting third out on another grounder.

With the win, Salt River returns to first in the AFL East with an 8-7 mark. They close out the week with another day game this afternoon, visiting the Mesa Solar Sox.

Oct 262012
 

It’s been largely quiet on the transaction front thus far in the offseason, but there were a couple of signings released in this week’s dispatch from Baseball America for the week of Oct. 16-23:

• C Carlos Maldonado re-signed

• C Jeff Howell re-signed

Maldonado, along with erstwhile OF Brett Carroll, had elected free agency earlier this month.

Maldonado has twice been recalled then outrighted to AAA for the Nationals in the past three seasons, playing four games in late May/early June of 2010 and four games this past May when the Nationals catchers were doing their best impersonation of Spinal Tap drummers.

Howell saw time at each level from High-A to AA to AAA in 2012, playing a total of 53 games — not bad for a guy that spent 52 games in the independent American Association in 2011. Both catchers can be described as glove-first backups, with fielding averages of of .990+ for both backstops.

Other former Nationals that have recently re-signed include Michael Martinez and Pete Orr with Philadelphia and Shairon Martis and Aaron Thompson with Minnesota.

Oct 262012
 

It was another four-run 6th, but this time the Salt River Rafters put the hurt on with a 6-3 win over the Phoenix Desert Dogs.

Brian Goodwin once again led off and played centerfield and doubled twice while going 3-for-4 with a walk and two runs scored to push his batting line to .333/.409/.667 for the fall. Defensively, he had one putout.

Matt Skole’s rough patch continued with an 0-for-5 afternoon with three whiffs, as the 2011 fifth-rounder has gone 1-for-10 this week with eight K’s. He turned in another error-free game at first base, handling all nine chances.

Anthony Rendon (pictured above) had an RBI double while going 1-for-4 and put the tag on an attempted steal of third for his lone putout.

Cole Kimball, who was featured by Byron Kerr on MASN earlier this week, turned in high-wire inning by loading the bases on three consecutive singles in the 7th, but got the goose egg with a lineout to short and double-play ball in his sole inning pitched.

With the win, the Rafters float back to .500 at 7-7, but still remain a ½ game out of first place behind the Scorpions in the AFL East.

Oct 252012
 

A dropped popup in the 6th proved to be an incredibly costly error as the AFL-best Peoria Javelinas took full advantage to score four in the frame and take a 6-5 lead en route to a 7-6 win over the Salt River Rafters.

Jason Martinson was the sole National to get the start, but broke up his hitless streak with a two-run double while going 1-for-4 from the #7 slot in the lineup. Defensively, the 24-year-old handled both defensive chances at third base, including turning a 5-4-3 double play in the 4th.

Paul Demny made an appearance in relief and gave up an unearned run on two walks and a hit while pitching the 7th inning.

Matt Skole and Brian Goodwin were both called on to pinch-hit in the 9th but neither made it to first base safely.

With the loss, Salt River drops below .500 at 6-7 and into second place in the AFL East, a ½ game behind Scottsdale. The Rafters play host to Phoenix this afternoon and Peoria tomorrow before finishing the week in Mesa.

Oct 242012
 

Brian Goodwin and Matt Skole both homered but a bases-loaded walk in the 10th — the third in a row with two outs — upended Salt River as the Rafters fell in extras, 5-4.

Three position players and Washington’s sole starting pitcher appeared in the game.

• Ryan Perry threw four perfect innings in his third fall start, striking out four. He needed just 42 pitches to retire the 12 batters he faced.

• Goodwin led off and played centerfield, going 3-for-4 with a walk, a run scored, a stolen base, and his third home run for the Rafters. He made one putout on defense.

• Skole drove in two from the three-hole and drew a walk but went 1-for-4 to lower his AFL batting average to .400. He played error-free ball at first base, with 10 putouts and an assist to the pitcher covering in the 8th.

• Anthony Rendon drew a walk but went 0-for-3 for the game batting sixth. He handled both defensive chances at third base, combing with Skole for a pair of 5-3 groundouts.

The loss drops Salt River to .500 at 6-6 but the Rafters remain atop the AFL East by a ½ game over Scottsdale. They travel to the AFL-West leading Peoria Javelinas this afternoon for the first of five straight day games on the schedule.

Oct 232012
 

After blowing a 4-1 lead in the 9th, the Salt River Rafters got a walkoff solo shot from the White Sox’s Andy Wilkins in the bottom of the 10th for a 5-4 win over the Mesa Solar Sox. The victory snapped a three-game losing streak for Salt River and extended Mesa’s to seven.

The starting trio of Brian Goodwin, Matt Skole, and Anthony Rendon were in the starting lineup while relievers Cole Kimball and Aaron Barrett turned in an inning of work.

Goodwin led off and played left field, singling off the second baseman’s glove in the Rafters’ two-run third. He would draw a walk in the 9th but was gunned down trying to steal. He finished the game 1-for-4 with a run scored and a putout on defense.

Skole returned to earth with an 0-for-4 night as the Salt River DH and No. 5 batter, striking out three times.

Rendon batted eighth and went 1-for-4 with a run scored. His sole defensive chance at third base was the front end of a 5-4-3 double play that eclipsed the Solar Sox 10th inning.

Kimball was the first reliever out of the ‘pen in the 5th but was touched for a run on a leadoff double followed by a groundout, a walk, and a sac fly.

Barrett gave up a pair of two-out singles in the 7th, but struck out Matt “Can I Buy A Vowel?” Szczur to strand them both.

With the win, Salt River improves to 6-5 and reclaims first place in the AFL East by a ½ game over Scottsdale. Ryan Perry is scheduled to make his third start this evening against the Surprise Saguaros.

Oct 222012
 

On the field, the Hagerstown Suns improved upon a successful 2011 campaign with an 82-55 overall record. They missed the first half by three games with a 42-27 mark, but won the second with slightly worse record of 40-28, only to get swept in the playoffs with a pair of 2-run losses (3-1, 7-5). Some may blame the late promotion of Matt Skole at the very late date of August 15 — two months too late, if you ask some folks — for the quick playoff exit, the more objective take is that the pitching just wasn’t there, much like Auburn.

Off the field, the Suns entered the 2012 season with the spectre of the team leaving for Winchester and the rumblings of a new stadium being built in Hagerstown, culminating in a rather bold move of the team opening the kimono by giving a tour of Municipal Stadium, ostensibly to demonstrate that renovation is a not an option. The move may have prevented the team from losing its PDC through 2014, but it’s hard not to infer that threat of the team leaving is to blame for the huge drop in attendance from 2011 to 2012 (1,931 per game to 1,366 — a 29.3% decrease).

Back to the review… Let’s take a look at how the Suns compared to the rest of the South Atlantic League:
HITTING

PITCHING



Like 2011, the Suns were among the league leaders in runs and homers (2nd), hits and stolen bases (3rd), and walks (1st). I’ll go out on a limb and say this will probably be true for 2013, too. Unfortunately, some of the reason for this is that the team was among the oldest in the league, with multiple players repeating the level.

Pitching, which had been the organization’s strong suit for years, is now becoming one of its weaknesses. This the fourth of the seven affiliates, and all four levels have given up runs above the league average. This is not to say there weren’t bright spots in Hagerstown — obviously, a couple of examples stand, um, head & shoulders above the others — but it does seem like there was a Mr. Hyde for every Dr. Jekyll. When you can outslug your competition, it often goes unnoticed (well, at least until the playoffs), but this the last level where that’s the case.

Turning back to the bats, we now look at the Top 12 hitters in terms of plate appearances. As always, full statistics for the team can be found here, and the key for the asterisks is one * for the 2011 draft picks and two ** for the DSL graduates.
Like Auburn, there is really little to complain about in terms of overall offensive production. Just three of the top 12 produced below the league average, and three produced Nintendo-like numbers for both Gross Production Average and Isolated Power. The problem, of course, is that quite a few of these players were playing a level behind where they should have, as my Hagerstown guy put it in his review.

The only beacon of hope is that maybe, just maybe, one or two of the position players that were promoted from here to Potomac will be challenged with Harrisburg rather than resuming 2013 in Woodbridge. I know that sounds harsh, but perhaps an offseason “leapfrog” might serve as both an incentive to the Low-A guys and reminder to the High-A guys that moving up to the next level isn’t a foregone conclusion. The large number of six-year FA pitchers that were brought in at AA and AAA this year is an example of that line of thinking.

Speaking of pitchers…
For all the bitching and moaning discontent over the lack of promotions in the system, Hagerstown was interesting case when it came to pitchers. Four pitchers were promoted from Hagerstown to Potomac, and four pitchers were promoted to the Hub City — but two of those came not from Auburn but from the GCL. And three were 2012 picks.

It’s the skipping over that’s unusual. Ordinarily, one would expect a sequence like Blake Schwartz going from Viera to Auburn and Blake Monar going from Auburn to Hagerstown. Likewise for Leonard Hollins and, say, Travis Henke. It may be just be an anomaly, but it’s worth noting nonetheless.

For the second straight year, eleven pitchers made at least five starts for the Suns. Ineffectiveness and promotions were more to blame than injuries this year, with one starter dropping down from Potomac and two moving up midseason and one very late. Five pitchers went up and back to Viera for fine-tuning (most notably, Turnbull and Estevez) and a sixth went out for the year and under the knife (Brian Dupra).

Once again, I’ll refer you to my eyes on the field for Hagerstown’s hurlers.

OBLIGATORY TOP FIVE LISTS
Before blasting me for not listing Karns, remember that he pitched more innings for Potomac and I’m trying to avoid double-listing guys, which gets more difficult as we hit the upper levels. There isn’t a set number of spots to fill for the watchlist, after all. If it means fewer guys and shorter lists at the upper levels, so be it.

Position Players
1. Brian Goodwin
2. Matt Skole
3. Billy Burns
4. Jason Martinson
5. Steve Souza
HM: Caleb Ramsey

Pitchers
1. Alex Meyer
2. Christian Meza
3. Aaron Barrett
4. Brian Rauh
5. Blake Schwartz
HM: Ben Hawkins

Oct 212012
 


The Scorpions stung the Rafters with a three-run 3rd and added single runs in the 5th and 7th innings en route to hand Salt River its third straight loss, 5-3.

Matt Skole singled, doubled and scored a run while batting third and playing first base, where he took part in four double plays — including an unassisted twin-killing in the 7th.

Anthony Rendon had his on-base streak stopped with an 0-for-4 effort and committed two errors (one fielding, one throwing).

Jason Martinson struck out twice in three hitless at-bats, but combined with Skole for other three DPs.

Paul Demny let in a run on two hits — a double and a single — and struck out a batter in the 7th, raising his ERA to 4.05 in four appearances.

With the loss, Salt River falls to 5-5, a ½ game behind Scottsdale in the AFL East Division.