Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Forecast: Sunny with a chance of gopher balls

After a two year hiatus that felt like a decade, elite baseball returned to Royal Athletic Park last summer. Fans were thrilled to be able to come out to the old ballyard and watch baseball again and (for the most part) were willing to forgive the sometimes uninspired play from the expansion HarbourCats. Although the Victoria squad finished with a 22-32 record, the skill level of last year’s team hinted that a fair bit more was possible. Now that the novelty of the team’s inaugural season is behind us, many fans will be looking for a better on-field product this summer.

But what can we realistically expect from the 2014 version of the HarbourCats? Only three players are scheduled to return from last year’s squad (Bryan Conant, Alex DeGoti and Logan Lombana), so predicting how the team will fare is a bit of (educated) guesswork. An accurate prognosis is further hindered by the fact that not all players have reported to the team yet and significant roster moves could still be made in the near future. The one thing I do know about the 2014 H-Cats is that the roster is a lot bigger than last year’s, especially on the pitching side. A grand total of 43 players have been signed, including 22 hurlers, giving the team plenty of fresh bodies to draw from. There were periods last year when there were only seven or eight chuckers on the active roster, so the coaching staff will have a much easier time managing the pitching staff this season.

As of today, Conant appears to be the ace of the staff, with Andrew Nelson looking like a solid number two option in the starting rotation. However, Conant could be taken in the MLB draft this week and sign professionally -- great news for the big lefty but not-so-good news for the 2014 HarbourCats. Jacob Hill and Bret Helton were expected to slot in as top-end starters on the team, but their status is unclear at this point. The remaining starters are a bunch of question marks right now, but there is a lot of raw talent that could potentially produce a few nice surprises. In the bullpen, Carson Schneider and Quintin Torres-Costa look like reliable southpaws, but there is no obvious candidate to be the key late-inning guy from the right side. 

The HarbourCats shouldn't have too much trouble scoring runs this year, however. The team is full of line-drive hitters who can get on base with regularity -- outfielders Danny Collier, Nathan Lukes and Hunter Mercado-Hood to name just three. Catcher Aaron Barnett also falls into that category, but with his Pepperdine Waves rolling in a Super Regional this weekend it could be a while yet before Mr. Barnett makes an appearance with the ‘Cats. Infielders Gabe Clark and Bryce Greager are a couple of big boppers who should flash some power and drive in a bunch of runs this summer. Without a doubt, this team will be fun to watch swing the bats.

On paper the HarbourCats look like a team that will improve upon their 22-32 expansion record but don’t quite have the horses to take a serious run at the WCL championship. Of course, baseball is played on grass and not on paper, so anything is possible -- especially with the unpredictable nature of summer collegiate baseball. Given the information currently at hand, it seems like the best case scenario would have the team flirting with a playoff spot but being mathematically eliminated in the last week of the season. I'll spare you the details of a worst case scenario, but let's just say that starting pitching could be the team's Achilles' heel (and the chances of that jump significantly if Conant, Hill and Helton don't appear in a HarbourCats uniform). No matter how things shake out with the roster and the standings, baseball fans are still in for a very entertaining summer at Royal Athletic Park. 

We’re also expecting that the team will improve upon their attendance numbers in 2014. Last year the HarbourCats drew 1,437 fans per regular-season game, second best in the WCL behind only Bend, Oregon (1,574). While that number sounds good, we think that this market should produce considerably higher numbers. Look for the HarbourCats to smash last year’s average and possibly even take a run at the all-time season attendance record for the league. Victoria already holds the WCL record for the largest single-game attendance (4,210), set at last summer’s All-Star Game, and I wouldn't be shocked to see our fair city improve upon that mark. Not only have the HarbourCats done a much better job of marketing the team over the last seven months, but they have also strengthened their community ties. With the addition of a better on-field product, this organization looks ready to take flight in year two. 

We’re pretty excited about the upcoming season, and we’re confident that Royal Athletic Park will be the place to be in the summer of 2014. If you haven’t done so already, get your tickets to see the new-and-improved version of the HarbourCats. We’ll see you at the ballpark!

Click 'Play' for the blog's official Opening Day theme song by The Baseball Project.

No comments:

Post a Comment