Rick Forney says it’s a marathon, not a sprint. His Winnipeg Goldeyes have covered plenty of ground in the first month of their American Association season, having completed just more than a quarter of their schedule. The team entered play on Friday night at Shaw Park with a 16-10 record. Not spectacular, but certainly a solid start as they look to successfully defend the league championship they captured last year. However, the finish line is nowhere in sight. There is a long road ahead with plenty of baseball left to be played.
While it’s still early, certain storylines are beginning to emerge. As a result, here are five things we’ve learned so far about the 2017 edition of the Goldeyes:
The offence is often explosive
Winnipeg is among the league leaders in several categories including hits, team average, runs, stolen bases and home runs. On most nights, scoring enough runs to win isn’t a problem. They currently have two of the top four batters in the league in Shawn Pleffner and Wes Darvill, and entered play Friday with six of their nine regular hitters at .292 or better. That’s plenty of weapons in the arsenal.
The pitching is a work in progress
With those bats, why haven’t the Goldeyes won more games? Look no further then the mound, where Winnipeg sits near the bottom of the league in several categories. The main one that stands out is the club’s 4.72 team ERA, third-worst in the league. As well, no team has given up more hits than the Goldeyes.
It isn’t fair to paint every hurler with the same brush. Starters Kevin McGovern, Edwin Carl and Mikey O’Brien have been solid, as have back-of-the-bullpen arms in Victor Capellan and closer Ryan Chaffee. However, starters Zach Nuding and Zack Dodson have hit some turbulence along with relievers Kenny Matthews and Mitchell Lambson.
A handful of rookie relievers have also been signed — and released — since the season began after failing to have success. The search for consistency continues.
"The young guys have scuffled. It’s always a crapshoot in this league. It’s hard for rookies to come in here and take the league by storm. It’s a tough league to pitch in," Forney said.
The skipper isn’t afraid to tinker
Second baseman Casio Grider was traded on Thursday night to the Texas AirHogs for future considerations. Forney admits it was a difficult decision to make, considering Grider was a big part of last year’s championship. But Grider also carries a "veteran" label in this league — one of just five allowed per team — and with that comes major expectations.
He was hitting just .141 through the team’s first 26 games. Grider’s playing time was dwindling, as the versatile Mason Katz earned regular starts in his place.
"I like Casio as a person, I like him as a player. It’s the way things go sometimes in this league. At some point, you have to take a look and evaluate your club as a whole," Forney said of Grider’s trade.
Expect more additions — and auditions — to continue in the coming weeks. Teams can carry up to 23 players, provided five are rookies. The Goldeyes currently have just 20 players including three rookies.
The Goldeyes are in for a tough divisional fight
The St. Paul Saints, the guests at Shaw Park this weekend, are once again proving to be an elite team and the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks look to have returned to their usual form following a rare off year last season. The Goldeyes will have a battle on their hands as they try to capture the Central Division title and the automatic playoff berth that comes with it.
At the very least, they’ll want to ensure they are the best "second-place" team in the league’s three divisions to earn the lone wild-card spot. As of Friday night, Winnipeg sat one game back of the Saints and were two up on the RedHawks.
They were also tied with the Sioux City Explorers for the wild-card spot. Expect this to continue playing out right up until the regular season wraps in early September.
The "Sioux City Flu" was memorable — and terrible
"I’ve never seen anything like it," Forney said Friday about what happened last week in Iowa, when two of his players were hospitalized and about a dozen others became ill while on a road trip.
They still don’t know what caused it. Food poisoning? Something in the water? A contaminated bus? Forney said it took quite a toll on his squad.
"People just started to drop," he said. "You got two guys at the hospital, about 10 others who look like they should be at the hospital. You’ve got guys throwing up... and you don’t know where it’s from." It took a while, but Forney believes all of his players are now back to feeling healthy.