Wednesday Dish: Loons Flying High

One year ago, the Great Lakes Loons were struggling to the worst record in the low Class A Midwest League (54-85) and fielded the league’s weakest offense (.241 team average and 3.6 runs per game). What a difference a year (and a couple of 2008 draftees) makes.

The 2009 edition of the Loons has been far more competitive, going 40-30 and finishing in third place in the MWL’s Eastern Division in the season’s first-half. The biggest difference in the Loons’ turnaround has been their lineup, which has been one of the MWL’s most productive offensive units. The Loons are tied for second in the league in runs scored and rank fourth in both team average (.263) and home runs (53).

Leading the charge are couple of the Dodgers’ 2008 draftees, shortstop Dee Gordon and right fielder Kyle Russell. Gordon has been the lightning rod at the top of the Loons lineup, leading the team in average with a .311/.373/.405 line in 299 at-bats. Gordon hits little home run power, but he’s shown a knack for getting bunts down as well as finding the gaps, as evidenced by his league-leading eight triples.

Perhaps the place Gordon is at his best is on the bases. The Dodgers’ fourth round pick in 2008 from Seminole (Fla.) CC and son of former big league reliever Tom Gordon, Dee Gordon leads the MWL in steals having gone 41-for-51 in 72 games. Gordon disrupts opposing pitchers and defenses, and his presence on the bases often means No. 2 hitter Jamie Pedroza is going to get some fastballs to hit.

"(Opposing pitchers) are trying to slide step and be quick to the plate and throw fastballs," Great Lakes manager Juan Bustabad said. "Jaime Pedroza hits second for us, so he’ll get some good fastballs. Most of the time he’ll take a pitch to try to let Dee steal second base. He will get good pitches to hit. Pedroza has swung the bat well for us, too. So if he steals second, Pedroza gets a hit and all of a sudden we’re winning 1-0."

Gordon’s defense at shortstop hasn’t been as stellar, as he’s made 24 errors, tying him with Quad Cities’ Niko Vasquez for the most of any MWL shortstop. Bustabad said the biggest area of concern has been Gordon’s throwing. Gordon needs to stay on top of the ball, as he’s shown a tendency to drop his arm angle and unleash high throws.

While Gordon has been sparking the Loons’ offense from the top of the order, the thunder in the middle has come from Russell, the Dodgers’ third rounder a year ago from Texas. Russell slugged 19 home runs during his junior season for the Longhorns and left school as Texas’ all-time home run leader with 57 for his career. Russell frequently struggled with wood bats during his amateur career, but he was finally able to make the transition last year, hitting 11 home runs in 61 games for Rookie-level Ogden, and he’s carried that success into this year.

Russell leads the entire MWL with 18 home runs, which is already more than any Loons player hit last year. Russell combines his tremendous raw power with a bit of an all-or-nothing approach. The 23-year-old was hitting for a respectable average at  .286/.371/.579 through 280 at-bats, but that came with a team-leading 98 strikeouts.

"He’s just aggressive," Bustabad said. "He’s an aggressive hitter. He goes up there ready to hit."

Russell has shown he’s not afraid to take a walk, having drawn 37 on the season, but Bustabad made it clear that that’s not what Russell’s going up there to do. One of the biggest obstacles for the lefty-swinging Russell has been his struggles against lefthanded pitchers. Southpaws have held Russell to a .219 average and yielded only two of his 18 home runs. Russell has had a particularly hard time laying off breaking balls from lefties, leading to 30 strikeouts in only 73 at-bats against them.

It’s an area he’ll need to refine, waiting for better pitches to hit against lefties, but his power remains too loud to ignore.

"He’s got some great power," Bustabad said. "He also has 24 doubles, so he’ll hit the ball a lot in the gaps as well."

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