Independent Audit: Laredo Retools Just In Time To Claim First Title

Jeff DeBlieux (left) and Jake Rhodes helped earn Traverse City its first Frontier League championship

Jeff DeBlieux (left) and Jake Rhodes helped earn Traverse City its first Frontier League championship

The Atlantic League's season was still wrapping up, but the rest of the independent leagues have crowned their champions:

AMERICAN ASSOCIATION: All season, the St. Paul Saints and Sioux City Explorers battled for the title of the best team not only in the American Association, but in modern independent league history. When the season ended, the Explorers' 75-25 (.750) record was the second-best ever. But at 74-26 (.740), the Saints finished with the third-best record, just a game behind. (In case you were wondering, the all-time leader is the 1999 Fargo-Moorhead squad that went 64-21, a .753 winning percentage.)

When the American Association season wrapped up, however, neither team took home the trophy. Instead, Pete Incaviglia's Laredo Lemurs leapt from the wild card to the title, bringing the first trophy back to Laredo in the team's fourth season in the league.

But for those who were paying very close attention, the Lemurs’ surge wasn't as surprising as one might believe.

In the final month of the season, Incaviglia remarkably remade his team. A trade with Gary brought in shortstop J.D. Pulfer and center fielder Drew Martinez. Travis Denker, one of the team's best players in 2014, returned to the club after his Mexican League season ended. Laredo snatched up catcher Phillip Pohl after the Twins released him, and acquired starting pitcher Matt Sergey from the Frontier League's Washington Wild Things.

In the span of a week, the Lemurs had turned over nearly half of the lineup and added a starting pitcher. Few teams have ever made more adept moves. Sergey went 2-0, 0.00 in three regular season starts and 1-0, 2.79 in two playoff starts. Martinez hit .412 to lead all hitters in the playoffs. Denker, a former Dodgers prospect, hit .406 with a playoff-best two home runs and eight RBIs. Pohl also hit two home runs and six RBIs.

With closer John Brebbia saving five of the Lemurs' six playoff wins with 13 scoreless innings, Laredo edged Wichita 3-2 in the best-of-five semifinals and then topped Sioux City 3-1 in the best-of-five title series. Brebbia celebrated the title for multiple reasons—he also got a contract with the Diamondbacks as soon as the season wrapped up.

Laredo has made the playoffs in three of its four years in the league, but that success has yet to be rewarded by attendance. Laredo drew 1,302 fans per game in announced attendance this year, third worst in the league and averaged 765 fans in the playoffs.

CAN-AM: When you win a ring, no one will remember how dominant you were on your way to the title.

When the Can-Am League announced its postseason all-star team, not one player from Trois-Rivieres was on the team. If you scan the Can-Am League's leaders, it's hard to find many Aigles.

Yes, a lineup led by Pedro Lopez and Steve Brown was solid and starting pitchers Matthew Rusch and Charles Gillies were very reliable, but the Aigles were never the dominant team in the league in 2015.

Trois-Rivieres looked doomed after a 1-9 stretch in early August, but manager Pierre-Luc LaForest was able to convince the team (with a few roster tweaks) that they were better than they had shown so far.

“After our losing streak we had a change and a talk, different stuff we'd started doing. I’ve never seen a full 180 change like they did. It was absolutely incredible how they jumped aboard. The last month and a half, they were finally playing to the ability,” LaForest said.

The Aigles rallied to edge Ottawa for the final playoff spot in the Can-Am League. And when the playoffs rolled around pitcher Luis Matos got hot at the right time, winning two of his three playoff stars, Javier Herrera hit only .211 but timed his hits well to drive in 11 runs in 10 games and Daniel Mateo hit a pair of home runs. In the deciding Game 5 of the championship series against New Jersey, Herrera drove in a run, Mateo scored on a sacrifice fly and Mike Bradstreet didn't allow an earned run in 7 ⅔ innings. It was Bradstreet's only playoff start.

This was LaForest’s 10th title between his playing career and his time as a coach, but it was his first as a manager.

“As a manager it’s a helluva lot more stressful than as a player. The past three years I've learned a ton on how to respond to players and how to manage players. It's a lot different than when you are in the circle (as a player),” LaForest said.

FRONTIER LEAGUE: After a difficult 2014 season, Traverse City looked like it needed to make a significant number of changes. The Beach Bums finished with the third worst record in the Frontier League winning less than 4 of every 10 games.

But manager Dan Rohn and director baseball operations Jason Wuerfel brought back a number of the core players from that team convinced that they weren't as far away from contending as everyone might believe.

With additions of a whole new outfield of minor league veterans Brandon Jacobs, Jay Austin and Reggie Lawson stepping in to help returnees like Yazy Arbelo, Jose Vargas and Jake Rhodes, the Beach Bums went 56-38 during the regular season to earn a wild card spot. And they picked the perfect time to get hot. Traverse City won its final three regular season games, then went a perfect 6-0 through the playoffs, knocking off Rockford in the first round, sweeping Normal in the semifinals and then sweeping River City in the championship series.

Jacobs was the star of the regular season and playoffs for Traverse City. After hitting .320/.405/.554 in the regular season he hit .417 with two home runs and six RBIs in the playoffs.

"He's had a tremendous year. He was continually the spotlight guy coming through with two out base hits or home runs," Rohn said.

Starting pitcher Kramer Champlin was equally dominant. The 6-foot-6 righthander from Arizona State allowed one run in two playoff starts, going 2-0, 0.64 with 13 strikeouts in 14 innings.

PACIFIC ASSOCIATION: Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller's book won't have a happy ending. The Grantland and Baseball Prospectus authors teamed up to run the Sonoma Stompers baseball operations in 2015 to try to win a title using Sabermetric principles and to write a book. The Stompers started very strong, winning the first half title, but the San Rafael Pacifics rallied to catch them in the second half, winning their final eight games including a 4-3 win over Sonoma in the championship game. Daniel Gonzalez singled in Johnny Bekakis in the bottom of the ninth for the walk-off win.

PECOS LEAGUE: The Santa Fe Fuego edged the Alpine Cowboys two games to one in the championship series of the Pecos League.