Let’s do a little role-playing exercise. Suppose you are a new GM tasked with the formidable charge of defending a league title won by a dominant team last year. What would be the most likely way to successfully achieve this goal? If you answered, “try to put together the exact same team again” you might be on the same wavelength as the folks down in Kenai because it appears that they’ve attempted to do just that. I may be exaggerating a bit, but this team has to be the most returner-heavy team in the league this year. And I can’t say that I blame them, considering the way they played last season.
Four of these second-year Oilers are pitchers: JD Salles, Brandon Kizer, Jordan Mills, and Jon Maciel. Maciel was a big part of the Oilers’ attempt at the NBC World Series title last year, winning their opening-round match and striking out 9 in 8.2 total innings in Wichita. JD Salles was also instrumental in their Wichita success, winning two of their tournament games. He posted a 2.41 era in ABL league play over 33.2 innings last season. Jordan Mills was the #4 prospect in the ABL in 2011, according to Baseball America; he’ll bring back his straight side-arm delivery that opposing batters managed only one extra-base hit against all summer. Last, but definitely not least, is Brandon Kizer, a 2011 ABL All-Star and Oilers’ Most Valuable Pitcher, who logged a minuscule 0.35 era out of 24.1 bullpen innings.
Kyle Ferramola is a right-hander who I anticipate will be bringing the heat to AK. According to Baseball America his fastball will touch 95 mph which is nothing to sneeze at. Perfect Game ranked him #390 of their national 2010 class before he went on to play in the Valley League in 2011. Another right-handed hard-thrower is John Straka, whose heater touches 92 and settles in about 90. Like Ferramola, he has summer ball experience, starting 12 games in the Northwoods League last year. He should be a very durable arm and eat up a lot of innings for the Oilers; he led NDSU starters with 110 innings pitched. Over that span he issued 92 strikeouts and walked only 18.
Nigel Nootbaar, another rightie, has a fastball that hits 90 (depending on who you ask) and compliments it with a slider and change-up, according to bbprospectreport.com. Mark Garcia has two seasons of summer ball under his belt; he was one of the best pitchers in the West Coast league in 2010 and went on to pitch in the Northwoods last summer.
Nootbaar is not just a pitcher, but an effective two-way player; look for him to log significant innings on the infield as well.
Three returners will be swinging bats in Alaska this summer: Nate Ring, Jeff Yamaguchi, and Manny Acosta. Yamaguchi was highly ranked by Perfect Game in 2010; last year in Alaska he showed a perfect glove, committing no errors in 23 league games. In collegiate play in 2012 he committed just two. In both seasons he hit lightly but an ability to draw the walk helped him bolster his on-base percentage. Ring was also perfect in the field last season, committing no errors compared to just four on the 2012 collegiate season.
In addition, shortstop Josh Miller — brother of 2010 & 2011 Oilers’ Michael Miller — has been invited to play for the Oilers. Miller played two years for Cuesta College, where he had a noteworthy junior college career, before transferring to the University of San Francisco.
Among the new faces who I’d expect to make significant contributions are Frank Martinez, the catcher out of Cal State Bakersfield. Martinez has been a solid backstop, committing just two errors in 22 collegiate games this spring. With an .818 OPS he is also a well-rounded hitter that will contribute on offense. Filling in at just about every infield position, including catcher, could be Garrett Stubbs, a versatile utility infielder. According to his Perfect Game profile he’s got some speed and a strong arm.
My overall impression of this team is that they’re going to be most effective by holding opponents to a low score. As far as pitching goes, I think this is going to be a continuation of a long line of Oilers teams that shut opposing batters down cold. They look like they have one of the hardest-throwing teams in the league and are built around a core of returning pitchers that did well last season. Their pitchers are going to be backed up by a crop of fielders who are very capable with their gloves. I wouldn’t expect many error-induced big innings where they get blown out. At the same time, they might be a little bit light on the power end of the batting equation. I don’t know if they have the big bats to mash the ball like they had in years past. They’ll have to be patient at the plate, drawing walks and getting good pitches to hit for contact.
So, the burning question on everyone’s mind: will the Oilers successfully defend their title? Having conveniently saved my preview of this team for last, I feel that I’m in a good position to answer that question and the short answer is: maybe. No doubt about it, this is a solid team that echoes a recent tradition of outstanding play. They will put up a great season and there’s no indication that they’re not the team to beat. But they’ve gotta play to their strengths, and a lot of other teams — including some that have been bottom-feeders the past few years — are looking really good. In other words, I wouldn’t order the rings yet. It’s going to be a hard-fought battle if they intend to stay on top, but if their first three games are any indication of their abilities, they might just pull it off.