Prior to the start of the Frontier League season that concluded Sunday, Wild Things general manager Tony Buccilli and manager Gregg Langbehn each channeled their inner Mike Tomlin and talked about how “the standard is the standard.”
That standard, they said, was making the playoffs. It had become expected from the Wild Things and the team’s players understood as much, they said. The bar for success had been set. Anything less would be a bust of a season.
Washington had ended a 10-year playoff drought in 2017, and a year later was back in the playoffs as the top seed before losing in Game 5 of the championship series, falling one win shy of its first league title.
So optimism was running high for 2019. Nobody was expecting what happened.
The thud you heard this summer was the Wild Things failing to clear the bar that had been set for them, missing the landing pit and falling like a rock into the Frontier League’s basement.
The Wild Things went from first to worst in one year. Their 37-59 record was not only the worst in the Frontier League this season, it was Washington’s worst in its 18-year history.
Two steps forward, one giant leap backward.
So how did this happen?
Off the field, there were several things that severely hampered the Wild Things, not all of them were of their own doing. Some of it was just plain bad luck.
For example, last season Washington had the Frontier League Player of the Year in outfielder James Harris and the Pitcher of the Year in Thomas Dorminy. Both guys played this summer but not for Washington. The Wild Things got nothing in return for either player.
Harris wanted to play in an independent league with older players and where he could make more money than he would in the Frontier League. So Washington traded him to Winnipeg of the American Association for Jordan Ebert, a productive young player and former college standout at Auburn. Ebert, however, didn’t want to play in the Frontier League and Washington traded him to Sioux Falls of the American Association for first baseman Nathaniel Maggio, a young power hitter who was expected to be a middle-of-the-order hitter for Washington.
Shortly before the start of spring training, Maggio informed the Wild Things that he would not be playing baseball this year.
Dorminy played in the Atlantic League for Somerset this year and in August had his contract purchased by a team in Taiwan. Whether Washington wanted to have Dorminy return in 2019 or not didn’t matter. The Frontier League, which has an age limit of 27, changed its cutoff date for when a player must turn 27 to be eligible for the next season, moving it up by several months. Because of the change, Dorminy was deemed too old, so Washington couldn’t have traded him for another player even if it wanted.
There also was the trade of starting pitcher Chase Cunningham to Southern Illinois. For three years, Cunningham was a rotation stalwart for the Wild Things, winning 24 games. He was solid as solid gets.
But the Wild Things traded Cunningham to Southern Illinois in exchange for lefty relief pitcher Nick Durazo, who had a good 2018 season with the Miners and played his college ball in Pennsylvania at Mercyhurst. All Cunningham did this year was go 10-5, win five games against teams the Miners battled for playoff spots and was named the FL’s Pitcher of the Year. Durazo had a 2-2 record and 4.18 ERA before being traded back to Southern Illinois in July for infielder Stephen Lohr, who batted .204 with Washington.
The Wild Things lost a second key player just before the season started when catcher Kyle Pollock opted to retire rather than play in Washington for a fourth consecutive season. That left a huge void but Buccilli did an excellent job filling it by signing catchers Lucas Herbert and Cody Erickson. Herbert was the only Wild Things player signed by a major league organization this season, finishing the year with Arizona’s Class AA affiliate and batted .300 in eight games.
On the field, much of the trouble can be blamed on an awful start that had the team playing catch-up in the standings all season. Washington won its season opener at River City, then lost 11 of the next 13 games and 22 of 30.
The pitching was the culprit during the poor start as Washington had an team ERA more than one run higher than the rest of the league over the first 30 games.
The Wild Things had a season-long bout of one-run misery. They suffered 24 one-run losses, tying the league record.
Washington did go on a run and had a chance to join the playoff race. On June 27, it was only five games out of first place and led the league in hitting with a .261 team batting average (yes, this was a bad year for hitters). Trouble, however, was brewing. Two weeks earlier, infielder Wander Franco, who might have been the team’s best position player at the time, made plans to leave the team after a road trip to Southern Illinois and Joliet. When Langbehn discovered the exit strategy for Franco, whose brother, also named Wander Franco, is the top-rated prospect in minor league baseball, he stopped playing the third baseman and released him when they returned to Washington.
The entire offense seemed to exit, too. Washington batted .227 over its final 55 games and finished eighth in the 10-team league with a .242 batting average. The lack of offense led to a Pittsburgh Pirates-like collapse as the Wild Things lost 15 of their last 19 games.
The hitting swoon coincided with a pitching improvement. The starting pitching that had been so bad stabilized and the back of the bullpen, which consisted of lefties B.J. Sabol and Zach Reid, and righthanders Zack Strecker, Jesus Balaguer and James Meeker, was sensational. They had a collective ERA of 1.45 after July 20. Left-handed hitters had an anemic batting average of .138 (21-for-152 with 61 strikeouts) against Sabol, Reid and Balaguer.
So where do the Wild Things go from here?
They must find some top-of-the-order hitters who work counts and draw walks. This year’s hack-at-everything club drew only 259 walks, by far the fewest in team history. They also must field a more athletic team to take advantage of the spacious triples-yielding gaps at Wild Things Park and improve their defensive range at several positions.
Washington proved that you can go from first to worst in one year. Going from worst to first in one season will be a much more difficult act to pull off in 2020.
Sports editor Chris Dugan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org