2023 Menard’s Playoff Chase

By | 2016-06-20

By Dan Cahill, Wizarding GM

Note: Please keep in mind this is my first big article I’ve done and I do make mistakes. Please don’t take any predictions personally except for Seattle. They need to learn that Planes really aren’t as good as Trains.

With only eight series left in the season and four games separating the top seven teams of the Menard’s League, many are wondering who will emerge as champion, who will battle for a coveted promotion to the Silver League, and who will be left behind watching the games from home. Here at USBA Network, we are determined to find out the final positioning of the Menard’s, because let’s face it, the PL can be as boring as Slack on a Sunday.

#12 Hartford Whalers (Currently 12th, 20-64)

Already eliminating from playoff contention and sitting at the bottom of the USBA are the Whalers. Collin Hill has done his best to anchor a fanbase that has endured heartbreak after heartbreak. While the defenses of Louisville (-18.5 Team ZR), Thunder Bay (-22.8), and Chicago Hawks (-33.3) have been regarded as some of the worst in USBA history, Hartford has the worst defense with a -41.3 Total Team ZR. 22 year old C Juan Tapia has begun to bring some excitement to Hartford fans by hitting .255 and blasting 10 homers. Outside of that, fans haven’t had much good to bring enthusiasm towards the franchise.

What they need to do to… GET READY FOR NEXT SEASON

There are obvious holes on this Hartford team to be filled. The front office should be planning for the eventual departure of Duran and who will be taking over at first base. Al Anderson has hit consistently well for the past two seasons and might be hold the spot for a few years, but a long-term first baseman could provide a steady building block for the team. Any bullpen help would be appreciated to help begin the turnaround. This list could go on for a while. Almost every place you look on the roster, there is major room for improvement. However, one bright spot any Hartford fan can look to is their AA team. The Thunderhawks are the home of guys like Goldstein and Stanley, who might have the chance to win back Whaler fans through their gloves and their bats. Starting to get some more prospects and pieces from free agency are crucial to start moving Hartford in the right direction.

#11 Las Vegas Flamingos (Currently 11th, 30-54)

Despite having some of the coolest uniforms in the league, fans have been left disappointed with the Flamingos this year. Pitching has been sub-par, and the hitting has had too many off days. Key players like Sake van Arem (.295 AVG, 22 SB, .727 OPS) and Sinclair van Kooten (.289 AVG, 11 HR, .816 OPS) have emerged to keep fans coming back to Las Vegas again and again. Collingwood (3.53 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 8.3 K/9) has become well known for not only being the best pitcher on the Vegas staff, but also for the famous after parties on days he got the win. He may have only got credit for the win eight times this season, but there have been far more suspicious injuries the next day than eight. They have proved themselves to be a team not to be underestimated as they have beat Wizarding and a PL team in Houston so far in the Americana with a chance to upset Vancouver.

What they need to do to… GET READY FOR NEXT SEASON

I believe that Vegas is in a slightly different spot than other lower Menards teams. There are already key pieces in place to help carry the team. The starting pitchers are all relatively young with room for improvement. The minor league isn’t filled with a bunch of future studs, but it does have a lot of players who could be solid. This isn’t a franchise in disarray, it is a team on a down year. The front office should be looking to decide what is going to happen at Center Field next year, consider extending van Kooten, and look for pitching help. Adding a veteran starter would help provide a little bit of security as the young guns continue to develop. The bullpen can use help to replace Garrett as he prepares for retirement and to help the team not have to hold their breath every time a setup man enters the game. Las Vegas should look to use their draft pick on a starting pitcher to help to restock pitching depth that has been depleted after the past few years.

#10 Montana Pandas (Currently 9th, 38-46)

You know what every single person in Montana likes to do, every night of the week? If you guessed go to Yellowstone National Park or Glacier National Park, you would be really close. It actually isn’t national parks these residents go to, it is the paw-print shaped Panda Park! That’s right, every single person in Montana goes to watch their favorite baseball team play. There have been a few nights when some people had to visit family, so please don’t be concerned that there were a few times when they didn’t reach full attendance. Panda fans love to wear their panda hats and drink through their bamboo straws every chance they get as they go out to see their favorite players. Then, as soon as they get to the park, they wonder, “Where did he go? Didn’t we just trade for him last week?” In a fit of rage, they throw off their hats and storm out. The next day they wake up and realize their mistake. How could they leave their panda hat at the park? They travel back to the stadium that night. The fans don’t actually care what is happening on the field. Instead, these fans love to go talk to other people and compliment their panda hats as they drink from bamboo straws.

What they need to do to… MAKE THEIR STADIUM BETTER

Since any player, prospect, or pick I make a comment on will probably be gone the first week of the offseason, I’m going to focus on the one thing we know the front office can’t trade away, the stadium. The stadium is already the only reason Panda fans have any interest in going to the stadium, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any room for improvement. These people are unnaturally obsessed with dressing as Pandas, so why not bring pandas to the stadium? They should build a zoo into the stadium. As fans walk around, they could see pandas, red pandas, polar bears, and caterpillars to represent every team. This would provide a steady attraction for fans and a reason to raise ticket prices. In the case of fans being upset they can’t recognize any players that they had the last series, the friendly animals would provide a reliable companion that probably will stay more than the season. This would also allow the stadium to sell Polar Bear Pops and create more merchandise revenue. This plan is the perfect way to combine a unique fanbase, a unique management plan, and a unique stadium all into one.

#9 Capital District Red Knights (Currently 10th, 33-51)

“Where were you when you heard the news?” When Knights fans look back at the 2023 season, this is the question they will ask each other. Every fan was united in the pain in hearing the sad news of the career ending injury to Daniel Lallanilla. Only a few weeks into the new season, the star outfielder went down and was never fully replaced on the offense. Carbajal did a fantastic job making the move to Right Field so Lopez could move to Left Field. The Red Knights lacked any sort of offensive power to make them a threat this season. Capital District staff members were the least likely to strike out opposing batters. Only a few young guns like Cesar Rivera and Marlon Miller were able to provide bright spots for fans.

What they need to do to… GET READY FOR NEXT SEASON

Capital District needs to find major league building blocks. Lallanilla’s contract going off the books will help free up some room to add important players. Capital District desperately needs to waive Sexto Rodriguez to make him unhappy to void those last two years through his player option. Capital District might be able to find a few guys worth going after to help move the Knights back up the ranks of the Menards League. While their AA team has Oswaldo Mobray, Sergio Ortiz, and Chris Costa, there aren’t many bright spots in the Capital District system. Top to bottom, this franchise is in a bad shape. It is going to take several offseasons of hard work to get this franchise to emerge as a threat for promotion.

#8 Kingston Township Legion

The Legion have been quietly working to build a team that will be a contender in the Silver League in the next few years. This may come as a surprise to many fans who haven’t heard much about the Legion’s moves. The last trade made by this franchise was back on January 1 when they traded for Martin Nunes. With 2020 3L Pitcher of the Year Shigemasa Horiuchi injured since late July, the second youngest pitching staff in the Menard’s League has garnered the respect of hitters everywhere. The starter ERA of 3.63 is good enough for third best in the league. Homegrown talent like Layton Templeman (.299 AVG, .714 OPS, 2 HR) and Clay Rush (.303 AVG, .893 OPS, 9 HR) have been making fans excited for next season.

What they need to do to… GET READY FOR NEXT SEASON

It looks like Kingston Township might be abuzz next year with excitement for the playoff race. The very obvious move to be made this offseason is to use the team option and get rid of the horrendous contract on 34 year old Gonzalo Lopez (.252 AVG, .827 OPS, 14 HR). Dropping the potential whopping $41 million year is key to helping the team be a force in free agency. If the team considers dropping Akihiko Oike (.243 AVG, .737 OPS, 10 HR), the team has another $10.3 million to add to their arsenal. Suddenly, a team that has been under the thumb of bad contracts has a legitimate chance at finally adding the pieces to go for a promotion. This money would probably be best spent on a new arm for the bullpen and providing depth and replacements for the infield and outfield leaving this offseason. The core is there and ready to contend, but the team just needs a few more pieces to start to be a threat.

The top seven teams are all in the race and have a shot at making the playoffs, and even winning the chance to compete in the Tournament of Champions. With 24 games left to play, there are scenarios and key matchups that every USBA fan should be keeping an eye on. This section will highlight those teams and show what could be done to turn playoff hopes into reality. I have went through matchup by matchup and guessed the winner. Any series against Hartford and Montana was ruled an automatic sweep to prevent me from saying one team would lose a series and another would sweep for no reason. Wizarding was ruled as less likely to sweep a series and to win a series in order to reduce bias.

#7 Austin Rangers (Currently 2nd, 50-34)
Projected record: 64-44
Remaining series: 2x Seattle, 2x Las Vegas, Philadelphia, DC, Wizarding, Detroit
Strength of Schedule: .5735
Key Matchup: September 22-24, Home against Seattle Aviators

The reason Austin is in the playoff chase right now is the performances of two young batters who have put the team on their shoulders and plowed ahead. The first of these is Carlos Kramer. Currently second in batting average with a .339 clip, Kramer has cranked out 19 homers and established himself as a stolen base threat with 20 steals, not allowing teams to try to walk to him. Add to that, the tremendous rookie season of Jesus “Hotrod” Reyes, who smacked 21 homers and hit for a .292 average, and the Rangers have one of the most dangerous lineups in the league. Guys like have Lester Sullivan (2.80 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 7.27 K/9) and Julio Rodriguez (1.52 ERA, .78 WHIP, 14.87 K/9, 28 Saves) have provided steady performances for the team to build themselves a credible reputation.

What they need to do to… GET FIRST PLACE

Of the top seven teams, Austin has the toughest schedule left to play. It is time for Austin to prove whether or not they deserve to be in the playoffs and get promoted. Every player is healthy and ready to help down the stretch. Starting pitching can’t afford to have many mistakes. 15 of the remaining games are home, where the Rangers maintain a 31-8 record. With such a difficult schedule ahead of themselves, the final home series might have the biggest implications on playoff hopes of any series. If they keep up their home performance and snag a couple of sweeps, Austin could get themselves crowned champions of the Menard’s League.

#6 Wizarding Express (Currently 4th, 49-35)
Projected record: 64-44
Remaining series: 2x CD, 2x Philly, Kingston Township, Seattle, Hartford, Austin
Strength of Schedule: .4862
Key Matchup: September 19-21, Away against Philadelphia 1776

For the first time since becoming the 2018 3L champions, the Wizarding franchise has a winning season within their reach. Fans have eagerly awaited to see young stars like Antonio Martinez and Rafael Arrendondo carry the team to their promotion, but GM Dan Cahill wasn’t sure if they were ready yet. This year, his concerns proved to be valid, but other players have stepped up to carry the team to where they can compete in the playoffs. Rookie Nathan Tanner (.317 AVG, .875 OPS, 29 SB) became a foundation for the team with both his glove and his bat. Cole Shaffer (.277 AVG, .852 OPS, 13 HR) turned into a first baseman to reduce injury chances and make room for Eiji Suzuki and Nathan Clay. Chris Thurman is making his case to earn a Glove Wizard Award at Center Field. Having Thurman has been essential to make the staff look good. The Express have the best starter ERA (2.85) by a longshot (the next closest is Seattle with 3.48) with two of the league’s top pitchers in Hines and Hall leading the way. The AAA team has the starting depth and bullpen depth as needed.

What they need to do to… GET FIRST PLACE

Wizarding needs to make sure they don’t blow leads. Beyond Resendez and Haines, fans are cautious to trust any reliever with a lead. With such strong starters, many losses have come from the pen and batters not supporting the starters. With a playoff race so close, streaky hitters can’t go cold. A matchup against the rival Aviators kicks off the last part of the season. If new additions can perform well, Wizarding could be in a spot to challenge for first place. Philadelphia has a good enough of a staff and backbone of hitters to make Wizarding fans eager to watch the six games between the two teams. The away series might be what decides the fate if they can make it or not. The six off days in the middle of September could be just what Wizarding needs to make sure not to overwork Hines before the key last stretch.

#5 Detroit Renaissance (Currently 2nd, 50-34)
Projected record: 66-42
Remaining series: 2x DC, 2x Rocky Mountain, 2x Montana, Hartford, Austin
Strength of Schedule: .5118
Key Matchup: September 15-17 Home and Away against DC Divided

A lot of fans and teams look at Detroit and see a solid team. Detroit isn’t the best hitting team (fifth in OBP) and not the best at pitching (third in ERA), but the team is going to consistently be pretty good at both. Kyle Bywaters (.322, .761 OPS, 36 SB) and Juan Gonzalez (.302 AVG, 1.032 OPS, 25 HR) have been offensive powerhouses this year and kept the team winning in tight games. Domingo “BooBoo” Ramirez and his six pitch arsenal has led the team in strikeouts with 115 and touted a 3.36 ERA. Alejandro Arteaga has only allowed a few 13 runs in his first six starts. The staff can be pretty good but isn’t going to necessarily dominate teams. Detroit has the potential to win a series against any team they beat, but the last few series will show if they are actually the best around or just a pretty good team.

What they need to do to… GET FIRST PLACE

The next series against DC is going to be interesting with Cris Mendoza down with shoulder inflammation. No one seems to be sure who will take his spot in the rotation on the 23rd. Detroit has some hard games left to play. However, three series against Montana and Hartford could give Detroit the boost it needs if it struggles against the likes of DC and Rocky Mountain. If DC and Rocky Mountain are defeated, Detroit knocked two teams back and could claim the automatic promotion. Hitters cannot afford to struggle with everything this close. Herrera needs to step up his play in the next 24 and prove that he should deserve to be batting third in the lineup. Juan Gonzalez has to step up his play in the outfield (-8.1 LF ZR) to keep up with his excellent hitting. Bywaters needs to play his best and show off his base running skills.

#4 Philadelphia 1776 BC (Currently 7th, 47-37)
Projected record: 66-42
Remaining series: 2x Kingston Township, 2x Wizarding, Austin, Capital District, Rocky Mountain, Las Vegas
Strength of Schedule: .5074
Key Matchup: August 31- September 2 at Wizarding Express

Philadelphia possesses a dangerous rotation led by 22 year old Carlos Sanchez (2.01 ERA, .78 WHIP, 7.83 K/9) helping the team be able to win all but one of the last fifteen times he took the mound. Despite having some skilled pitchers, the hitting has been the story of Philadelphia’s season. The team has the most hits of any team. A starting pitcher facing Philly has to start off his day against Jesus Orozco (.315 AVG, 5 HR, 32 SB, .855 OPS), Cliff Aldridge (.329, 12 HR, .914 OPS), and Jesus Cabane (.312, 6 HR, .854 OPS). Dave Morris, Hector Torres, and Antonio Granados threaten to keep the hitting going as the pitching grinds through the Philly lineup. Even more than having a good staff and a mean lineup, the Philly defense is second to none with a 29.6 Zone Rating, almost ten points better than the next best (Capital District with 19.8).

What they need to do to… GET FIRST PLACE

Philadelphia has done well until now, but they can’t slack off in their playoff race. Tough games against Austin and Wizarding will prove whether or not they have what it takes to call themselves the best team in the Menards League. Woody Sullivan has the skill to dominate, but he is going to have to be at his best during this stretch and not blow any leads. The breaks for cup games should allow Carlos Sanchez with extra days to rest and have a chance to play a few more games than he would otherwise. The batters have proved that they can produce and the pitching talent is there, they just have to both be at their best during this stretch. The next series against Austin and the away series at Wizarding could become the proving point to show if they have what it takes to stay in the chase or if they will fall out of contention.

#3 Seattle Aviators (Currently 4th, 49-35)
Projected record: 67-41
Remaining series: 2x DC, 2x Austin, Wizarding, Las Vegas, Kingston Township, Montana
Strength of Schedule: .5512
Key Matchup: August 31 – September 2 Home against Austin

The Seattle Aviators have been the center of a lot of controversy this year. From Donald Trump sending money for the team to use the hashtag #MakeSeattleGreatAgain to sending their public relations manager to Siberia because their team was losing, Aviators GM Mau Delgado has truly earned his reputation as the most evil GM in USBA history. A lot of the scrutiny seems to disappear when the team takes the field and for good reason. The on base percentage of .362 is the highest in the league with young guys like Jorge Mojica (.287 AVG, .785 OPS, 4 HR) and Kenny Webster (.294 AVG, .868 OPS, 13 HR) leading the way. The pitching staff has been absolutely tremendous earning the second best ERA (3.48) and second best starter ERA (3.48) as a result of Eduardo Molina (2.47 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 8.38 K/9) and Dan Mitchell (3.36 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 7.39 K/9) emerging as some of the best pitchers in the league.

What they need to do to… GET FIRST PLACE

The Aviators team is a tough team to beat and there isn’t a single team in the league looking over them. Questions remain if the league low opponent batting average of .228 and BABIP of .267 can be maintained down the stretch. The Aviators have to take down the red hot rival Wizarding Express before facing both DC and Austin in two more series. Each win is going to be a fight and crucial to becoming the champions. The talent is definitely there for the Aviators to deserve to be the champions, but a tough September might be enough to keep them out of the playoffs with how close the top teams are.

#2 Rocky Mountain Nuggets (Currently 6th, 48-36)
Projected record: 67-41
Remaining series: 2x Hartford, 2x Detroit, Las Vegas, Montana, Philadelphia, Capital District
Strength of Schedule: .4340
Key Matchup: August 22-24 at Las Vegas Flamingos

The Rocky Mountain Nuggets might be the biggest surprise of the season. Not many expected them to still be fighting for the championship as the season went into late August. A lot of the help has come from veteran David Verhoeve. After a poor 2021 season where he only got on base 27.4% percent of the time and limited playing time in the 2022 season, he has found his place as the Nugget DH hitting for a .285 average, .917 OPS, and 16 homers. Michael Riley (.282 AVG, .971 OPS, 14 HR) has produced better than expected and been worth 2.8 WAR. Current strikeout leader Alfonso Zapata (2.97 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 7.19 K/9) and Hunter Wilson (2.73 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 6.01 K/9) have anchored a rotation, only to be replaced by a fantastic bullpen full of young relievers like 23 year old Jorge Garza (1.34 ERA, .82 WHIP, 8.48 K/9). The Nuggets have the most strikeouts of anyone in the league.

What they need to do to… GET FIRST PLACE

The Nuggets have the easiest schedule left to play of the top seven teams, which is why they are ranked so high. They have done very well until now, but they cannot afford to have many losses in series against Hartford and Montana. If the offense can produce and the pitching staff continues their excellent performance from this season, Rocky Mountain poses a threat to sneak in and grab the automatic promotion.

#1 DC Divided (Currently 1st, 51-33)
Projected record: 67-41
Remaining series: 2x Detroit, 2x Las Vegas, 2x Seattle, Austin, Capital District
Strength of Schedule: .5257
Key Matchup: August 28-30 at Austin

Since losing consecutive demotion games in 2019 and 2020 and joining the Third League, DC Divided has been a dominant team. Fans are still worried to trust Hidalgo after last year’s meltdown in the final promotion games. A poor start in the first few months left fans wondering if DC still had the pieces they needed to be able to even make the playoff race. Then, the team took off. MVP candidate Ray Sears (.333 AVG, 1.001 OPS, 21 HR) has been worth 5 wins above replacement and continued to be a decent fielder at third (6.1 ZR). Rookie of the Year candidate Tony “Sugar” Romero (.360 AVG, .820 OPS, 17 SB) has been a prime example of the solid players coming from the expensive International Free Agent market. The number one offense has been complimented by a tremendous pen led by the 37 year old veteran Myron Snow who hasn’t allowed a run since coming over from Richardson City. “Hoodoo” Kaneko (2.44 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 5.94 K/9) has proven himself to be worthy to be called the ace of a pretty good starting rotation.

What they need to do to… GET FIRST PLACE

DC is a tremendous team, and because of that, they have a huge target on their back. Outside of a series against the rival Capital District Red Knights, any team left on the Divided’s schedule has a fair chance to steal a series win away from DC. If the team splits a series against any of the three teams they play twice, there is a really good chance someone can steal away first place. DC can’t afford to lose anyone to injury right now. All eyes will be on Sears and Romero to see if they can keep up their unbelievable performances from this season. Kaneko will have to lead the rotation through some of the most dangerous offenses the 3L has to offer. DC has been tremendous for three years now and deserve to have their shot in the Silver League, but the path is going to be a difficult one for Sears and crew.

A lot of USBA fans would agree that the Menard’s League has provided some of the greatest playoff races in the past few seasons. Any of these top seven teams could blow all of their progress by losing just a few series. Hopefully, this article encourages you to keep a closer eye on this year’s race. Feel free to comment with your thoughts.