2005 was going to be a big year for the Syracuse Chiefs. Coming into 2005 the Jays brought in several free-agents who looked like they would help the Chiefs challenge for a division title, Chad Mottola, Bryant Nelson, Jason Alfaro and Matt Whiteside were signed to complement Jays prospects like Aaron Hill, Gabe Gross, John-Ford Griffin, Guillermo Quiroz, John Hattig, Brandon League, and Francisco Rosario. However the best laid plans of mice, men and Dick Scott came to naught as the Chiefs never really got hot in 2005 and finished eleven games back of Buffalo. The Chiefs 2006 lineup will feature many returnees and more prospects, especially pitchers, and once again the Chiefs expect to contend in 2006.
The Chiefs lineup in 2006 will look like this:
C Mike Mahoney and maybe Jason Phillips 1B Kevin Barker 2B Ryan Roberts SS Sergio Santos 3B Rob Cosby LF John Ford Griffin CF Wayne Lydon RF Chad Mottola DH John Hattig SP Francisco Rosario SP Josh Banks SP Casey Janssen SP David Purcey SP Ty Taubenheim RP Lee Gronkiewicz RP Brandon League RP Shaun Marcum RP Dustin McGowan RP Adrian Burnside RP James Baldwin RP Ben Weber
The offense is a mix of players with solid AAA experience and younger guys who are working their way through the system. Mottola, Barker and Griffin return to Syracuse where they hit 74 home runs between them last year. Cosby and Roberts move up from AA where they had very good results for a Fisher Cats team that had a weak offense. Hattig and Santos are trying to bounce back from injury and a poor season respectively, Mahoney represents another veteran presence, while Lydon will try and show that spring training is no fluke and that he belongs at AAA.
With the veterans and prospects expected to perform up to their normal levels, the key to the Syracuse offense should be the play of Santos, Hattig and Lydon. Santos struggled in AAA in the Arizona organization last season, the Jays hope he can be more selective in 2006 and show better offense. Coming into 2005 Santos had hit well at every level but 2005 started slowly for him and he could never recover. Hattig was injured for most of 2005, he needs a full healthy season to show he deserves a shot at the big leagues. Lydon spent the last two years in AA in the Mets system. Lydon has a lot of speed and will play an excellent center field but last season his batting average slipped to .244. He will want to get that average up close to .300 this season. Time will tell if his good play in spring training will carry over into the regular season.
Cosby and Roberts are lower level prospects, #17 and #26 respectively according to BA, and possible sleepers. Both have a solid track record for hitting at every level. Roberts needs to cut down on the K’s (more than a K per game in AA) and fine tune his defense at second a little bit. Remember he was a third baseman until a couple of years ago. Cosby missed virtually all of the 2004 season but bounced back to hit over .300 with 17 taters last season. Griffin, Mottola and Barker combined to strike out 329 times in 351 AAA games last season, big sluggers with big swings. The Chiefs might be prone to the K this season.
The starting rotation is very inexperienced for AAA. Janssen, Purcey and Taubenheim were in A ball through the middle of last season and combined have made 28 AA starts and zero AAA starts. Banks has pitched a full season in AA but nothing in AAA. Rosario is the only one with AAA experience. The Blue Jays have said they like to challenge their players, this is a good example of that. The four starters, other than Taubenheim could have expected to be here, they are four of the Jays top eight prospects. Taubenheim was not listed as a prospect by BA mainly because his “stuff” is fringier; Ty likely earned his AAA spot with a strong spring training but is the most likely to struggle with the jump.
Banks spent all of 2005 at AA and is ready for the AAA hitters. Janssen is a year older than Banks but was drafted a year later, Janssen was drafted in his age 23 year while Banks was drafted in his age 21 year. Janssen caught up to Banks on the depth chart last season and earned his AAA spot with a strong spring training. Both pitchers work four pitches into the mix to keep the hitters off balance. AAA could be a roller coaster experience for the first month or so as they learn how to work the veteran hitters.
Purcey makes a big jump to AAA. In 2005 Purcey held AA hitters to a .205 average in 43 innings, his problem was he walked too many of them. After the season Purcey went to instructional league to work on his control and so far in 2006 he appears to have resolved his issues. Rosario returns to the rotation after a half year hiatus. Rosario made 18 starts for Syracuse in the first half of last season before moving to the pen. I am not sure if this move is just to find a fifth starter or do the Jays want Rosario to be a starter again. Rosario needs to work on his secondary pitches if he is to succeed as a starter.
The bullpen is another mix of prospects and veterans. Marcum, League and McGowan are each close to major league ready. A strong showing would get them to the big leagues when the first call goes out for bullpen help. Marcum and McGowan make their first trips to the bullpen in the minors having been starters until gaining bullpen experience in the major leagues last season. The Jays had always expected Marcum to move to the bullpen eventually so his move is not unexpected, McGowan’s move however is a big one. McGowan was always expected to be a stud starter until he pitched better in the bullpen for the Jays last season. His value would be much higher as a starter which is why this move by the Jays surprises me. It could just be a comfort on McGowan’s part. League returns to AAA in search of a consistent delivery that will have him fooling the hitters again, although his heater can hit the high nineties League was not missing many bats.
Baldwin, Weber and Burnside provide the veteran support while Gronkiewicz is in between, passed over as a prospect by the Indians but still young enough to avoid the veteran label. A young pitching staff in AAA can take a while to get its bearings, figuring out how to pitch to the more experienced hitters.
The Chiefs offense should be league average or better. The pitching could struggle initially as the rookies get acclimated to AAA. If the team can stay around .500 through the first six to eight weeks they should be positioned for a push to a title in the second half.