The Great Lakes Loons of the Class-A Midwest League really presented a “Tale of Two Cities” scenario during the 2018 season. In the the first half of the season they posted a 24-44 won-loss record, the lowest in the Midwest League and perhaps challenging for the lowest in all of Class-A ball. During the second half they put together a record of 36-33 with a blistering 27-10 stretch starting during the third week of July following a five-game losing streak. That run gained them a wild card berth in the play-offs. Unfortunately, they were eliminated from further play by dropping two play-off games to the West Michigan Whitecaps.
The season started with much anticipation, on my part at least, with the return of the venerable John Shoemaker as manager and pitching coach Bobby Cuellar returning for a second stint with the Loons. Jair Fernandez returned for a second year as hitting coach and 26-year-old Seth Connor began his coaching career after a five-year minor league playing career as a versatile infielder.
The opening day roster included only one of the Dodgers top 30 prospects with still 19-year-old outfielder Starling Heredia returning to the Loons for a second season. Due to injury his 2018 season ground to a halt as he made no more appearances with the Loons after June 8th. In 53 games with the Midland squad he hit but .182.
The dugout door with the Loons turned out to be a revolving door as only eight players of the opening day roster were still with the Loons at the end of the season. Catcher Garrett Hope appeared in only 19 games making his last start on July 22nd. Maybe he is coaching material in the Austin Chubb mold.
The excitement of opening day was heightened as the Loons could start any given game with as many as six players 20 or younger taking the field – pitchers Melvin Jimenez, Jesus Vargas, infielder Moises Perez and outfielders Starling Heredia, Carlos Rincon and Romer Cuadrado. That excitement soon subsided as most of the youngsters struggled in the pitching rich league.
Jimenez, who later returned to the Loons, and Devin Hemmerick were the only opening day pitchers still on the staff in the final game of the season. Relief specialists Andre Scrubb, Zach Pop, Marshall Kasowski and Dan Jagiello all were promoted to the Quakes with Scrubb and Kasowski also moving on to Tulsa.
Reliable starter Edwin Uceta was promoted to the Quakes as was Wills Montgomerie and Max Gamboa. Right-hander Riley Ottesen had a forgettable season and will no doubt start with the Loons again in 2019 to get his career back on track.
All opening day infielders except shortstop Moises Perez were promoted to the Quakes as was outfielder Carlos Rincon.
So what happened to right the ship in July? Manager John Shoemaker suggested in an interview with Loons announcer Chris Vosters that the influx of 2018 college draftees made a significant difference in the on-field play. He suggested that coming out of the college ranks they came with a background not too dissimilar from Class-A and a regimented type of work ethic that let them fit right in.
Pitching coach Bobby Cuellar agreed with his manager. “From where we came from, clinching was very special,” Cuellar said. “The most important thing is what these young men did. With the people that came in, the culture was set.” A winning culture, that is.
Ten players from the 2018 draft class joined the Loons – pitchers John Rooney, Austin Drury, Bryan Warzek, Stephen Kolek, catcher Hunter Feduccia, infielders Devin Mann, Luke Heyer, Deacon Liput and outfielders Drew Avans and Josh McLain. Eight of those draftees were among the Dodgers first 12 selections in the 2018 draft. Actually, there were eleven from the 2018 draft as outfielder Matt Cogen – selected in the 30th round – played two games with the Loons in early September and had three runs batted in on a pinch hit double that cleared the bases.
Offensively the Loons as a team were in the lower third of the league with a triple slash of .244/.319/.363. They did rank third in stolen bases mostly because of the work of outfielder Brayan Morales.
On the mound they were in the middle of the pack or lower in most categories with a team ERA of 3.72 and a WHIP of 1.34. Interesting enough they led the league with 543 walks yet finished second with the fewest hits allowed with 1051.
Individually it was almost impossible to see how they ranked as all but one hitter – Romer Cuadrado – had too few at bats to qualify for league leading stats. Cuadrado hit but .210 on the season but turned it up in August in the play-off run hitting a solid .296 with several clutch hits.
In limited at bats these players hit quite well:
Josh McLain – .303/ 195 AB
Hunter Feduccia – .290/100 AB
Gersel Pitre – .282/ 188 AB
Deacon Liput – .280/168 AB
Bryan Morales – .273/326 AB
Morales had 46 stolen bases, just shy of the league leading 49, although his season ended on July 20 th with a Hamate Bone injury.
The Loons pitchers also missed the qualifying number of innings pitched. Edwin Uceta and Alfredo Tavarez, both with just short of 100 innings pitched, would have finished in the top five with their 3.25 and 3.30 earned run averages respectively.
The relief pitcher took up the slack after the loss of several stellar performers to the Quakes with three of the 2018 draftees matching their predecessors.
RHP Stephen Kolek 0.66 ERA, 27.1 IP, 0.80 WHIP, 27 K, 6 BB
LHP Bryan Warzek 2.75 ERA, 19.2 IP, 1.22 WHIP, 33 K, 3BB
LHP Austin Drury 0.51 ERA, 17.2 IP, 0.74 WHIP, 18 K, 5 BB
Right-hander Melvin Jimenez returned to the Loons in a relief role and wound up as a closer at the end of the season. In 41.1 innings pitched in relief he posted a 2.61 ERA and a 0.94 WHIP along with 45 strikeouts and 16 walks. He will return to a starting role at some point in the future.
Not to be forgotten is right-hander Devin Hemmerick who made 31 relief appearances with the Loons over 56 innings. He posted a 2.73 ERA on the season and apparently didn’t like the colder weather in April and May. In the second half over 30 innings he posted a 1.50 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP along with 18 strikeouts and nine walks. If he can up his strikeouts a bit and limit his walks a bit he just might be an Andrew Istler type of pitcher.
Also, if the plate would just stand still, right-hander Andre Jackson might just live up to his “sleeper” alert.
What happens for 2019? That one is almost impossible to predict but here goes. I expect pitchers John Rooney, Stephen Kolek, Austin Drury and Bryan Warzek along with Devin Hemmerick to start the 2019 season with the Quakes with Jesus Vargas, Alfredo Tavarez and Gerardo Carrillo to follow sometime later. I think Andre Jackson may fall in the later category but would not bet on it. I expect left-hander Warzek to become a starter. He is a strikeout machine.
I expect Brayan Morales and Gersel Pitre to begin the 2019 campaign in a Quakes uniform. They have paid their dues. Morales is a speedster and Pitre has become a very versatile player who seems to like to bat in clutch situations. Third baseman Brock Carpenter should accompany them to the Quakes.
I feel quite certain that outfielder Josh McLain is on a Zach Reks trajectory and that catcher Hunter Feduccia will move on to the Quakes as still 19-year-old catcher Ramon Rodriguez takes aim at a full time job behind the plate with the Loons. Feduccia is a catcher’s catcher. Shortstop Deacon Liput is a sparkplug, perhaps prepping for second base, and is a sure bet to play in Rancho Cucamonga at some point in 2019 if not on opening day. I would not be surprised to see third baseman Luke Heyer begin the season with the Loons and then follow the Brandon Montgomery path to the Quakes. Romer Cuadrado may well start the 2019 season with Great Lakes to see if his late season surge was the real thing.
Don’t give up on Starling Heredia. He lost much of his season due to an eye injury. Keep an eye open for right-hander Zach Willeman, the Dodgers 19th round selection in 2018.