By every typical measure but one, the 2013 edition of the Potomac Nationals was the best ever in Woodbridge. They won both halves, rather handily — the first by six games, the second by nine games. They allowed the fewest runs, scored the second-most runs, had second-best defense, stole the most bases, etc.
Unlike last season, they could win away from the Pfitz (in fact, they were the only team in the Carolina League with a winning road record), where they were dominant: a 47-23 mark (.671). While perhaps coincidental, the rain that had plagued the team in 2011 and 2012 stayed away: just three rainouts at home, which helped the P-Nats set a single-season attendance record of 236,772 (3,534 per date), surpassing the previous mark of 220,145 in 1998, according to their PR folks.
And yet they didn’t win the League Championship. Intellectually, we know this shouldn’t matter. The minors aren’t about winning, they’re about development (e.g. 4/5ths of next year’s DC rotation could be homegrown — three of them pitched here on their way up). But emotionally, it does matter: you want to see the guys move up the ladder, but also want to see them win.
So 2013 won’t have the same resonance as 2008 or 2010, but let’s take a look at how they did, starting with how they compared to the rest of the Carolina League…
* GPA = Gross Production Average
The P-Nats posted remarkably similar numbers to the Suns, but with (a LOT) more speed and more power. They only led the league in steals but were second in AVG, OBP, SLG, hits and run scored. They were only league average (or thereabouts) in walks, strikeouts, and HRs (a.k.a. the three true outcomes), which in theory should have made them less vulnerable to the offensive outage that ended the season on a sour note (i.e. they proved they could hit and score without an unusual reliance the longball, drawing walks, or avoiding the whiff).
The pitchers led the Carolina League in just about everything except strikeouts (4th) and (curiously) home runs (8th), though unlike the Suns, the usual gap between starters and relievers was evident. The lack of strikeouts may be a bit of surprise, given the presence of Robbie Ray and A.J. Cole, but as we’ll see later on that’s because the P-Nats had several high-contact, low-strikeout pitchers, too (maybe the HR thing isn’t so curious).
Let’s take a closer look at that lineup, beginning with the Top 12 batters in terms of PAs…
|Name||Age||PA||Position(s)||G @ Pos||Fld%||Err||GPA||ISO|
(* = 2011 Draft Pick, ** = DSL Graduate)
Excluding the veterans, half of these guys were repeating the level. This is not unusual — it was four last season — but it’s the most in recent memory. Some of the repeats improved significantly (M. Taylor, Martinson) and some actually regressed (Keyes, Oduber). What remains to be seen is whether this is a trend or an anomaly. The case for the former: The Nats have been signing six-year FAs to plug holes in AA and AAA, which seems to indicate an “up or out” mentality; either you’re good enough for AA after a couple of years at High-A or you get released. The case for the latter: common sense, skepticism, or mere conjecture.
What was a pleasure to watch was seeing how this group functioned as a unit on offense. Burns set the table and wreaked havoc, Martinson supplied the requisite power and RBIs. When they were promoted, Dykstra and Taylor seemed to both assume the roles respectively. Even the guys that finished with below-average nos. had their moments (nice way of saying “streak,” no?)
Defensively, this was the best outfield yours truly saw over the last eight seasons — especially the trio/alignment of Burns-Taylor-Oduber. Adrian Sanchez didn’t improve on offense, but did improve on defense — increasing his range and showing an improved arm. Kevin Keyes won’t be mistaken for Andres Galarraga at 1B, but his conversion from the OF was a success.
On to the pitchers, the Top 12 listed by innings pitched…
|Blake Schwartz^||23||23/23||11-4, 0||2.65||132⅔||117||26||80||1.078||8||7||4|
|A.J. Cole||21||18/18||6-3, 0||4.25||97⅓||96||23||102||1.223||12||4||6|
|Taylor Hill*||24||15/14||6-2, 0||2.99||84⅓||73||11||54||0.996||6||4||4|
|Robbie Ray||21||16/16||4-3, 1||3.11||84||60||41||100||1.202||9||4||7|
|Greg Holt||24||42/0||9-0, 1||3.71||70⅓||67||33||55||1.422||8||5||7|
|Brian Rauh^||21||16/12||4-2, 0||4.22||64||69||18||35||1.359||3||0||7|
|Colin Bates||25||36/0||5-4, 1||2.61||62||58||8||48||1.065||4||6||5|
|Brian Dupra||24||29/3||1-7, 0||4.96||61⅔||64||28||44||1.492||7||1||7|
|Matt Purke*||23||12/13||5-3, 0||4.42||61||67||18||41||1.393||3||4||9|
|Sammy Solis||24||13/12||2-1, 0||3.43||57⅔||58||19||40||1.335||3||0||3|
|Richie Mirowski*||24||32/0||8-3, 6||1.50||48||32||11||59||0.896||6||0||5|
|David Fischer^||23||21/0||4-0, 2||4.30||44||29||44||53||1.659||2||5||8|
(^ = 2012 Draft Pick, * = 2011 Draft Pick)
It’s not a perfect parallel, but the 2013 starting rotation was very reminiscent of the 2008 edition, which saw just one pitcher make 20+ starts (Ross Detwiler) and a series of guys get promoted to Harrisburg (Jordan Zimmermann, Adrian Alaniz, Craig Stammen, and Jhonny Nunez). Though he didn’t begin in Potomac, Blake Schwartz was the Ross Detwiler and we can only hope that three of the four promoted — Taylor Jordan, Taylor Hill, A.J. Cole, Robbie Ray — also make it to The Show (one down, two to go).
As aforementoned, there were two noticeable weaknesses with the pitching — shaky bullpen and low K rates. Overall, the team converted just 42 of 68 save opportunities (61.7%) though the overall bullpen numbers weren’t bad: 39-24, 3.47 ERA. Just four of the the top 12 pitchers had better than league-average strikeout numbers (Cole, Mirowski, Ray, Fischer). While it certainly helped that few of the low-K guys had high-BB rates, it’s a warning flag because high-contact pitchers need something else besides good control to compensate: luck, great defense, or the tendency to generate plenty o’ groundballs.
For those wondering, Taylor Jordan missed the cut, having pitched 36⅓ innings in six starts before his promotion while Robert Benincasa threw just 30 innings in his 25 appearances (all in the second half).
OBLIGATORY TOP 4 LISTS
It’s time to start getting tougher, especially as we head towards what’s considered the true pinnacle of the minors: Double-A.
1. Michael Taylor
2. Billy Burns
3. Adrian Nieto
4. Cutter Dykstra
HM: Jason Martinson
1. A.J. Cole
2. Robbie Ray
3. Matt Purke
4. Blake Schwartz
HM: Sammy Solis