The Lake County Captains got THIS close a number of times. Games were decided by one or two runs. They ended both seasons with a winning record, but were still just short of making it to the playoffs for the second year in a row. Despite missing the postseason, it would be a mistake to call this a disappointing season for the Captains.
“It was a great year for a lot of first year guys in this league” Manager Shaun Larkin said of the team. “We saw a lot of guys get better in their individual areas. I thought we played well as a team. There’s a lot of grinding in a full year, and that’s all you can ask for – guys playing for each other the whole time. We gave ourselves a chance to win more often than not. We gave it a run in the first half, gave it a run in the second half up until about a week and a half ago. We had a winning record in both halves, we weren’t one of those teams who was hot one half and not the next.”
Larkin, in his first season as a manager, can now say that he’s been part of the only two Captains teams in the history of the franchise to end the season with winning records in both halves (2003 and 2015).
Low-A minor league ball has always had a strong focus on development, and this year was no exception. The growth that the players experienced – many of them already strong in their performances – allowed the season to end on a positive note.
From the start, the Captains roster was filled with well-known names from recent draft classes in players such as Bobby Bradley, Justus Sheffield, Yu-Cheng Chang, and Francisco Mejia. Throughout the season, new names emerged in Greg Allen, Taylor Murphy, Bobby Ison, Sean Brady, Thomas Pannone, and J.P. Feyereisen, among many others.
The highly-touted prospects certainly did not crumble under the pressure of their stature. While each had their own struggles throughout the season, the big names in Lake County proved that they are big for a reason – they are players who don’t give up easily. Bradley missed a few weeks early in the season with an oblique injury, which could have put him back a lot in terms of his progress at the plate. However, the 19 year-old bounced back with perhaps even more power than with which he started, hitting 27 home runs by the end of the season and being promoted to the Lynchburg Hillcats just one home run short of tying the Captains season record of 28 homers. While Bradley also led the team with 148 strikeouts, his age does not make that overly concerning. Power hitters are going to strikeout at a higher rate, simply because they are going to be swinging for the fences more often than not. Further, since Bradley is so young, he’s likely only going to improve his approach at the plate as his career continues. To say anything about him is alarming right now would be to speak far too soon.
Position players Chang and Mejia, also both young, had strong seasons in their own rights. While neither amassed Bradley’s amount of homers, each showed that they are more than capable in their respective roles. For Chang, much of his struggle came from playing his first full season of professional baseball in a completely new climate among teammates who spoke a foreign language – hardly a situation that encourages success. However, despite dealing also with a concussion after receiving a ball to the head and a hand injury later in the season, Chang continued to battle back and rise to the challenge. He ended the season with nine home runs, four triples, 16 doubles, and 91 hits. His 25 errors were second on the team, trailing Murphy’s 32, but don’t seem to jump off the page as being a major, major issue. Perhaps it’s because Captains fans watched Dorssys Paulino rack up error after error at shortstop a few years ago, but Chang’s don’t appear to be a career breaker yet. Mejia also took some time to adapt to a full season of professional baseball and, despite still having to refine his performance, showed his abilities behind the plate, particularly in calling strong games.
Mejia’s ability to call a game is further demonstrated in the strength of Lake County’s pitching staff this season. Perhaps one of their strongest assets, the Lake County pitching roster dominated for much of the season. They become the first Captains’ team in history to have five pitchers reach over 100 strikeouts in a season when Sheffield, Pannone, Milbrath, Brady, and Anderson Polanco achieved that goal in August.
After adapting to the climate of Eastlake, Sheffield easily became one of the most dominant pitchers in the league. Larkin also extolled his virtues as a teammate, saying Sheffield matured not only on the field but off, as well. Sheffield ended the season with 138 strikeouts in 127.2 innings, and kept his strong performances up all the way through the end of the season.
Milbrath, who spent his second season in Lake County this year, seemed to struggle a bit at the beginning of the season. He was a 2014 Midwest League All-Star, but didn’t show much of that early success until later in the season. Milbrath turned things around as the season came to a close, however, as he ended the season with 130 strikeouts.
The starting pitching wasn’t the Captains only claim to fame, as their back end of the bullpen also contained a number of talented, strong pitchers. Feyereisen, who didn’t stay with the Captains long, came into the season without having given up a single run in his professional career. Although he eventually did lose that title, he had a team-low 1.08 ERA before his promotion to Lynchburg. He gave up only two runs in Lake County.
Feyereisen was joined by Luke Eubank and Cameron Hill in the bullpen to form a trio of late-inning relievers. Eubank and Hill continued to be lights-out after Feyereisen received his promotion. Hill and Feyereisen led the team with 10 saves each (which makes Feyereisen even more impressive, as those 10 saves are only over a portion of the season, while Hill’s are the entire season), and Eubank was next on the leaderboard with five saves.
Other notables from throughout the Captains season are Ison and Allen. Both came into 2015 relatively unknown, though their performances with the Captains should likely change that within the Indians organization. Ison was a scrappy player who delivered in situations when he mattered – he was hitting. 261 with runners in scoring position and .360 with runners at first and second, giving his teammates opportunities to advance.
Allen’s style of play is also one that can be a difference-maker within the Indians organization. He quickly became the strongest center fielder on the team, with a smooth style of play reminiscent of Michael Brantley himself. At the plate, Allen hit .273 with seven home runs and 45 RBI. His speed on the biggest is also nothing to scoff at – he stole 43 bases this season. Allen played for the late Tony Gwynn Sr. while in school, and the impact that Gwynn had on the outfielder can be seen.
While many players had noteworthy seasons, the season by Grant Fink may come to be important to the Indians organization. At 24, Fink just finished his second full season with the Captains and played only 62 games. He’s getting to be on the older end of playing low-A baseball, which may mean a decision will be made about his career in the coming months. While Fink has a quiet leadership quality, and served as a strong mentor to many of the younger players this season, his lack of playing time this season is alarming. He spent some time at third and first this season, but Bradley and Taylor Murphy both took over the majority of the time at those positions. Fink doesn’t have a lot of standout tools that the Indians can’t find elsewhere in the organization, and the writing seems to be on the wall for the infielder.
While the Captains had a number of strong players this year, and a season that ended in two winning halves, perhaps the biggest success story has to come from Dorssys Paulino. Paulino was entering his third year in Lake County to start 2015, and it quickly became a sink or swim season for him. Luckily, everything seemed to click this year for the shortstop-turned-outfielder, as Paulino received the coveted promotion to the Lynchburg Hillcats in July. He was only a few games short of spending the most games in franchise history in a Captains uniform.
“You’re a product of what the organization gives you, first,” Larkin said of the team. “After that, what you do with those guys, how they go about the work, how they approach their day, my job is to create the environment in which they’re able to get better. What they do with that time is up to them, ultimately. Our job is just to create environments for them in which they can develop their individual skill sets, environments in which they are excited to play baseball at the professional level, and help them get better. Wins and losses will come and go based on a lot of different things; you can’t always control wins and losses. But you’re going to win a lot more games than not if you prepare yourself to play the right way, if you stick with each other over the course of the year. That was our message.”
“We stayed the course the whole year,” Larkin said of the 2015 Captains. “Looking at it that way, and how these guys learned how to be teammates over the course of the year, through thick and thin, that’s what I’m most proud of.”
Photo: Lianna Holub/DTTWLN Photographer