Originally the New York-Penn League affiliate of the Pirates, the Erie SeaWolves advanced to Double A as a member of the Angels’ system in 1999 before becoming part of the Tigers organization in 2001. The team nickname comes from the city’s location along Lake Erie as well as its initial association with the Pirates. (Historically, the term “sea wolf” has referred to a pirate.)
Jerry Uht Park opened in 1995 on a relatively small parcel of land in downtown Erie. Because of the need to fit the structure into an existing city block, the park has some interesting features. Instead of a normal grandstand along the first base side that gradually goes back until it reaches the concourse, there is an upper deck above the concourse and back lower seats. These raised seats provide a view that is unique among minor league parks. Another defining characteristic is the short porch in left field, just 312 feet from home plate.
Coming off of a division title in 2007, the Erie SeaWolves had visions of a repeat performance in 2008. However, a commitment to winning at the major league level and the natural progression of a minor league system made the 2008 season a challenging one for the Tigers’ Double A affiliate. The SeaWolves did not reach their ultimate goal, but it was far from a lost year. A strong finish and improvements from several young players made the season a qualified success and promised improvement in the immediate future.
In order to fully understand the SeaWolves’ rollercoaster ride in 2008, a recap of the 2007 is in order. The summer of ’07 was an exciting time for Erie fans as their local heroes finished first in the Southern Division of the Eastern League. The title was the first for the SeaWolves since 2001 when the club featured future big-leaguers Eric Munson and Omar Infante and was managed by Luis Pujols.
Despite the hitter-friendly dimensions of their home field, the 2007 SeaWolves were a well-balanced team whose attack finished second in the Eastern League with 699 runs scored and whose pitchers finished third with a 3.76 ERA. The team benefited from many of the best pitching prospects in the Tigers’ system including Dallas Trahern (12-6 with a 3.87 ERA), Jair Jurrjens (3.20 ERA in 19 starts), Eulogio de la Cruz (3.41 ERA in 11 starts), Andrew Miller (three runs allowed in four starts), and Burke Badenhop (three runs on eight hits in three starts). Eddie Bonine led the team with 14 wins and posted a 3.90 ERA. The young staff was complemented and mentored by 12-year major league veteran Alan Mills (23 saves).
Top batting prospects included first baseman Jeff Larish, who led the league with 28 homers and 101 RBIs. Second baseman Mike Hollimon (.371 OBP and 56 extra base hits) and outfielders Clete Thomas (a team-record 97 runs scored), Matt Joyce (.293 average and 13 home runs over the last three months), and Cameron Maybin (.400 batting average and four homers in six games) all contributed in the push to the EL playoffs. Just as Mills aided the pitching staff, eight-year Double A veteran Jackson Melian, with a .310 batting average in 88 games, gave the SeaWolves a veteran presence in the dugout.
Under the guidance of Matt Walbeck, who had managed the West Michigan White Caps to Midwest League championships in 2004 and 2006, the 2007 ’Wolves went 81-59 before being ousted from the playoffs by the Akron Aeros. Given the revolving-door nature of minor league rosters and the priority given to player development over winning, keeping a team focused on a minor league pennant race is no easy task. A total of 45 players passed through Erie in 2007, each with an eye on the major leagues. Walbeck rose to the occasion and was named 2007 Minor League Manager of the Year by Baseball America.
After the 2007 season, Detroit president and GM Dave Dombrowski traded many of the organization’s best prospects for veteran players who could make an immediate impact in the majors. Jurrjens and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez were traded to the Braves for shortstop Edgar Renteria. Trahern, Miller, de la Cruz, Badenhop, Maybin, and catcher Mike Rabelo were shipped to the Marlins for first baseman Miguel Cabrera and pitcher Dontrelle Willis. These transactions seriously depleted the talent level in the Tigers’ farm system, especially in the high minors (Double A and Triple A).
Because of these trades and also many promotions, Erie would end up with a whole new team in 2008. Thomas made Detroit’s roster out of spring training. Joyce, Bonine, Larish, and Hollimon were promoted to Toledo; all eventually would play for the Tigers in 2008. Walbeck took the opportunity to coach third base in Texas. After managing West Michigan to the Midwest League championship in 2007, Tom Brookens became the SeaWolves manager for 2008.
Most of the remaining top prospects in the Detroit system did not spend any time in Erie in 2008. In contrast to a year earlier, when 14 of the system’s top 30 prospects (as picked by Baseball America appeared on the Erie roster), only five such players suited up for the SeaWolves in ’08. Of those five, pitcher Freddy Dolsi was quickly promoted to Detroit and speedy outfielder Freddy Guzman was sent to Toledo within a month of Opening Day.
The SeaWolves got off to a good start by winning their first four games against eventual Southern Division champion Bowie. The ’Wolves went 14-11 in April and were still slightly over .500 (15-14) on May 4; however, a 12-game losing streak from May 5 through May 17 dropped the club to 15-26 and dampened their hopes. Contributing to the slide were the promotions of Dolsi and Guzman and a season-ending elbow injury to closer Brett Jensen. The team continued to struggle and, going into the All Star break, stood at 39-58 (.402).
After the break, Erie was one of the best teams in the Eastern League, going 29-16 down the stretch. Just as promotions can hurt a minor league team, they can also help. The second half surge was fueled in part by two newcomers from Lakeland, pitcher Guillermo Moscoso and outfielder Casper Wells. A few holdovers also contributed with strong finishes.
The main difference between 2007 and 2008 was in the decline of the club’s pitching, as the team ERA rose from 3.76 to 4.59 in 2008. None of their regular starters in 2008 finished with ERAs under 4.00, with and two of them posting ERAs over 6.00. It was a staff virtually devoid of power pitchers, as Erie finished dead last in the league with 763 strikeouts.
The top pitcher in the rotation was Lucas French. French led the league with 170 innings pitched though he had a pedestrian 88/60 strikeout-to-walk ratio. On a positive note, the left-hander finished the season well, posting a 2.95 ERA in his last eight starts.
Help seemed to be on the way for the staff when emerging prospect Luis Marte joined the team in May after seven strong starts for Lakeland. However, the 21-year-old Marte hurt his elbow soon after the promotion and missed two months. The young righty was not as sharp upon his return and finished his Erie season with a 5.05 ERA in 57 innings.
On the bright side, Moscoso gave the Erie staff a much-needed boost after his promotion from Lakeland in early August. The Dominican right-hander had a 3.12 ERA and a superb K/BB ratio of 50/8 in six starts for the SeaWolves, striking out 10 batters in his Double A debut on August 3 and repeating the feat on August 31.
A couple of promising relievers also provided a spark. Right-hander Casey Fien, 24, posted a 2.96 ERA and 42/12 K/BB ratio in 45.2 innings and had many Tigers fans looking for a promotion to Detroit before season’s end. Side-arming righty Rudy Darrow struck out 14 batters and saved six games in 14 appearances for the SeaWolves after being reassigned from West Michigan to Erie in late July.
While Erie’s pitching was generally a disappointment, its offense was potent. The team finished second in the league in runs (726), batting average (.271), and slugging (.422), with much of the production coming from young prospects that had breakout seasons.
Long touted as a five-tool player by scouts, left fielder Wilkin Ramirez finally put up numbers to match the hype. Ramirez batted.303 with an .893 OPS and 26 stolen bases in his second season with Erie. Still just 22, the converted third baseman played in the Eastern League All-Star Game and the prestigious Major League Baseball Futures Game.
Another outfielder who boosted his prospect status was the 23-year-old Wells. The Grand Rapids native batted .289 and smacked 17 homers in 75 games for the SeaWolves after his promotion from the White Caps. Season highlights included hitting for the cycle on July 29 and a three-homer game on August 5.
Already a capable defender, catcher Dusty Ryan made strides as a hitter and even finished the season with an impressive stint behind the plate in Detroit. The big backstop hit 15 homers in 296 at-bats for Erie before advancing to Toledo and then Detroit. After his promotion, the SeaWolves went from 6-foot-4, 230-pound Ryan to 5-foot-11, 165-pound James Skelton, who showed little power but posted an impressive .425 OBP in 85 at-bats.
Despite a slow start, slugging first baseman Ryan Roberson finished second in the league with 25 home runs and fourth with 86 RBIs. The right-handed batter belted 13 of his round-trippers in the last two months of the season. He also had a team best 19-game hitting streak from May 28 through June 26.
Finally, in a year in which 51 players saw action for Erie, William Rhymes was one of the few constants. The determined second baseman had a solid season with a.306 batting average, his 158 hits led the EL, and his 76 runs were a team-best.
Thanks in part to quality 2007 and 2008 First-Year Player Drafts, the Tigers’ system should provide a deeper pool of prospects for Erie in 2009. A promising group of new players will join some of those that contributed to the post-break surge in 2008: returning players could include Wells, French, Marte, and Darrow.
As every Tigers fan knows, 19-year-old right-hander Rick Porcello is the centerpiece of the new wave of talent who could start the season at Erie. The Tigers’ first pick in the 2007 draft compiled an 8-6 record and a 2.66 ERA for Lakeland in 2008. He may be joined by 2008 first-rounder Ryan Perry although both players have had exceptional springs and could potentially make the Tigers big league club. Perry is a hard-throwing Arizona State University product who got his feet wet with 16 strikeouts in 13.2 innings in relief between the Gulf Coast League Tigers and Lakeland. Another promising reliever is Zach Simons, who was acquired from the Rockies last year for Jason Grilli. The 23-year-old right-hander posted a 2.36 ERA with 61 strikeouts in 53.1 innings in Lakeland.
The highly regarded Cale Iorg will head the list of new position players. Still rusty after spending the previous two years in service as a Mormon missionary in Portugal, Iorg batted just .251 with 10 homers 99 games for Lakeland in 2008. However, the 23-year-old infielder is seen by Detroit’s brain trust as a future major league all-star. Other offensive reinforcements should include Tigers minor league position player of the year Ryan Strieby. The 6-foot-5, 235-pound right-handed-hitting slugger blasted 29 homers and drove home 94 runs in only 112 games while playing first base for Lakeland in 2008. Second baseman Scott Sizemore will look to bounce back from a wrist injury that sidelined him for the second half of the season. Prior to the injury, the 23-year-old Sizemore batted .286 in 203 at-bats for the Flying Tigers.
The 2009 SeaWolves should again benefit from the development of prospects in Erie in 2009 and, with a more talented roster likely to be put in place in the spring, SeaWolves fans can realistically dream of a winning season.
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