photo: Peoria Chiefs (Allison Rhoades/Peoria Chiefs)
The Peoria Chiefs had a very good 2018 season that took them all the way to the Class-A Midwest League finals.
It was an extension of 2017, when a weak first half was followed up with a strong second half, which, though the club was one game under .500 overall, still enabled them to reach the post-season as the second-half wild card.
Of course, through thick and thin, individual player development occurred as always.
The 2018 edition of the Chiefs, managed again by Chris Swauger, got out of the gates slowly but stormed back in May and June, finishing the first half of the season eight games over .500. That 39-31 record had them in second place by just one games and they punched their post-season ticket by winning the wild card on a tiebreaker.
In the second half, Peoria continued a comparable pace, but their 37-32 mark was only good for a tie for third place, 7 ½ games back in the in the eight-team Western Division.
In the first round, the Chiefs took on the first-half division winner, Quad Cities. The River Bandits had just swept the Chiefs in the final series of the regular season, but that did not matter. Peoria won the first two of the best-of-three to advance to the second round, where they again swept their opponent, Cedar Rapids, to become Western Division champion.
Peoria took on Bowling Green in the finals, as the Chiefs lost three games to one in the best-of-five format. Hot Rods pitching stifled the Chiefs bats to the point they scored just five runs in total over the four contests.
The MWL is a full-season league. The 140-game regular-season schedule began on April 5 and concluded on Labor Day, September 3. The 16-team league is made up of two eight-team divisions with the Cardinals placed in the West.
However, primarily because of the dicey April weather in the upper Midwest, only one MWL team got in a full slate of 140 games. The league ranged from a low of 134 to a high of 139, which included Peoria.
The Chiefs followed a predictable formula, winning 61 percent of their contests at Dozer Park, but prevailing in 48 percent of their away games. Their .547 (76-63) winning percentage for the full-season was fifth-best in the MWL, though what mattered was the standings in each individual half.
The Chiefs were an inconsistent group during April, with both a five-game losing streak and stretches with both four and three wins in a row. It washed out to a 10-11 mark that had them in fifth place.
A seven-game winning streak from May 10-16 enabled Peoria to vault from fifth to first place. The team bounced back from a tough 3-6 road trip to Beloit and Quad Cities to sweep Burlington in a five-game set to end the 20-13 month on a high note.
As the first half ended on June 17, Peoria’s nine wins in 16 games was one short of tying for the division lead, but the club was awarded the first half wild card on the tiebreaker with Clinton.
Following the All-Star break, the Chiefs won seven of 10 to close out June, but despite the strong record, found themselves two games out of first.
July was a good-but-not-great month, as the club went 15-11, but lost two more games in the standings. The highlight was a 5-1 road trip to Lansing and Great Lakes.
A strong 5-1 opening to August put the Chiefs back into a share of the division lead. For the briefest period – between a win and a loss in their double-header on the 16th – Peoria had sole possession of first place.
However, a 3-6 road trip to Cedar Rapids, Quad Cities and Kane County took the wind out of the Chiefs’ second-half sails. After losing their final three at Quad Cities, Peoria finished the second half at 37-32, in a tie for third, 7.5 games back.
A historical perspective
Even with the sub-.500 mark in 2017, Peoria has logged winning seasons in four of the last five years, including playoff appearances in each of the last four seasons.
The 2018 Chiefs’ overall winning percentage of .547 is their best since the Cardinals returned their affiliation to Peoria six years ago.
Following are the recent Peoria records by year.
LF=lost in finals
The Cardinals were also affiliated with Peoria from 1995 through 2004, followed by eight seasons in Quad Cities. During that earlier Peoria decade, the Chiefs had five winning seasons, made four playoff appearances and won the 2002 MWL title. The Cardinals organization also were 2011 champions while associated with Quad Cities.
The Chiefs finished eighth of 16 league teams in ERA at 3.73. That is down from the club’s 3.32 mark in 2017. The Cards were just 0.04 better than the league-average ERA this season of 3.77.
With young prospects Johan Oviedo and Alvaro Seijas in the rotation, learning as they went, the pitching staff finished seventh in strikeouts, but issued the fourth-most walks. The Chiefs total of 1168 strikeouts was just two below-league average, but their free pass total of 501 exceeded the MWL midpoint by 46.
Driven by the high walk rate, the Cardinals’ WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) of 1.362 placed them 12th in the league. They were worse than the FSL average of 1.333.
The news is right down the middle in terms of age. The Cardinals’ opening staff was the eighth youngest in the league, averaging 22.0 years old, compared to the MWL average of 21.9 years.
The 2018 Chiefs were clearly offense-powered.
Despite a last-season dip after MVP Elehuris Montero was promoted, Peoria ranked in the top quarter of the league in all four slash stat categories – second in batting average and fourth in the other three. In the all-important runs scored category, the Chiefs were fifth.
A key reason for the success is they put the ball in play. As a team, Peoria hitters had the second-fewest strikeouts in the league. Their walk rate was in the middle of the pack, at ninth.
The Cardinals system-wide deficiency in stolen bases was present in the Midwest League as well. Peoria’s total of 73 team steals was dead last. Their success rate of 62.4 percent fell far short of the league average of 68.3 percent, as well.
In hitters’ age, the Cardinals average of 21.4 years was almost right on the FSL average of 21.3.
The Beach Birds were an elite fielding club, at least in comparison to the rest of the MWL. Their fielding percent of .976 placed them third overall.
Peoria’s ability to control the running game continues to be respected. The league completed the third-fewest steals against the Cards, for a total of 76 on year. Further, their caught stealing rate of 43.3 percent a year led the entire MWL, significantly better than the league average of 31.7 percent.
The Cardinals opened with six starters, of whom two remained in that role at season’s end, Oviedo and Seijas. Kodi Whitley (Peoria) and Winston Nicacio (State College) finished in the bullpen.
Starters promoted upward to Palm Beach were Jake Walsh (May 24) and Evan Guillory (June 25).
In-season additions to the Beach Birds starting corps included Alex Fagalde from extended spring training (May 18) and Jesus Cruz from the Palm Beach bullpen (June 4), both of whom also ended the season in the high-A Beach Birds rotation.
Paul Balestrieri also joined the rotation from EST on April 24 and two were promoted from State College – Angel Rondon on July 11, followed by Jake Dahlberg on August 1.
11 pitchers collected saves for Peoria in 2018. Whitley led the way with nine, followed by Fabian Blanco with eight. Thomas St. Clair had five and Bryan Dobzanski with four.
Two of the six Chiefs mid-season all-stars came from the pen and both were promoted upward in-season. St. Clair did not stick and was returned to the Chiefs on August 1 while Dobzanski remained at high-A.
Offense was the strength of Peoria during 2018, though with several key exception, the key players changed along the way. The primary constant was utilityman Yariel Gonzalez, who appeared at six different positions in the field and was among the offensive leaders. The club’s strong catching tandem of Dennis Ortega and Julio Rodriguez also were with the club from wire to wire.
Among those promoted upward quickly were two returning Chiefs – outfielder Dylan Carlson and first month sensation, first baseman Juan Yepez. Following much later were first-half all-star season baseman Irving Lopez, outfielder Bryce Denton and Midwest League Most Valuable Player Elehuris Montero. On the other hand, prospect outfielder Jonatan Machado could not handle the jump to the Midwest League and was returned to extended spring training.
Key second-half arrivals included St. Louis’ top two draft picks from 2018 – third baseman Nolan Gorman (via Johnson City) and first baseman Luken Baker (from Johnson City). Among other 2018 draftees promoted to the Chiefs are second baseman Nick Dunn (fifth round) and outfielders Brandon Riley (14th) and Justin Toerner (28th).
At .322 and .311 respectively, Elehuris Montero and Yariel Gonzalez finished first and third in the Midwest League batting race.
In OBP, Montero ended up sixth at .381 and Gonzalez was 10th at .357. Montero is also the MWL leader in slugging at .529, 26 points ahead of the next-closest hitter, with Gonzalez eighth at .458. The pair finished first and 10th, respectively in OPS at .910 and .811.
The two are sixth and eighth in the league with 69 and 64 RBI, respectively. The 19-year old Montero ended up tied for ninth in the MWL with 68 runs scored. Nick Plummer was fifth in the league with 657 walks.
Johan Oviedo’s 4.22 ERA is best among Peoria qualifiers (0.8 IP per team game) but just 16th in the league. With 118 strikeouts, Oviedo is seventh in the MWL.
Oviedo finished no. 1 with 77 walks issued as no other MWL pitcher had more than 61. Alvaro Seijas is fifth in the circuit in hits allowed (148), leading to a far-too-high 1.62 WHIP, second-worst in the league. Oviedo was right behind at 1.54, mostly due to the free passes. In fact, the 20-year old tied for the league lead in lowest opponents’ batting average against at .238.
Montero logged the longest hitting streak, 14 games, from June 23 to July 8. Outfielder Scott Hurst’s 20-game on base streak from May 27-June 24 was best on the team.
Oviedo registered both the longest winning (six – July 8 to August 14) and losing (four – May 2 to June 8) streaks on the staff. Fagalde’s consecutive innings streak was a team-best 19 2/3 at the time of his promotion upward.
Though his 13 appearances and 12 starts were not enough to qualify among league leaders, Fagalde’s 1.63 ERA paced the starters. Oviedo’s 10 wins and 10 losses were both rotation-leading, as were his 118 strikeouts and 79 walks.
In relief, Robbie Gordon (0.36 ERA in 25 1/3 innings) and Patrick Dayton (0.70 over 34 2/3 innings) shined.
Offensively, it was the Montero show, as the third baseman was first on the team in runs (88), hits (123), doubles (28), triples (three – tied), home runs (15), RBI (69), as well as all four slash stats noted above.
Outfielder Nick Plummer paced the Chiefs in walks with 67, but also with 131 strikeouts. Plummer was also the top basestealer with 10, but was caught seven times.
Among the end-of-season Beach Birds ranked in the most recent monthly top 50 prospect list compiled by The Cardinal Nation are two pitchers and four position players. They are Gorman (#4), Baker (#13), Seijas (#28), Oviedo (#29), Ortega (#41) and Rodriguez (#42).
Six Chiefs were named to the Midwest League All-Star Game for the Western Division, but St. Clair had already been promoted. Others were Dobzanski, Ortega, Gonzalez, Montero and Lopez. The latter three were starters.
Two Peoria players were named to the league’s post-season All-Star Team. For Montero, it was a major honor, as the MWL Most Valuable Player. Gonzalez also repeated his all-star recognition.
Three also received team awards, announced before the final home game:
- Most Valuable Player – Montero
- Pitcher of the Year – Fagalde
- Sandberg Award – Rodriguez
Only the latter remained with the club at that point.
The 2018 Peoria Chiefs were driven by offense and with pitching that improved as the season went on. They had just enough to take the first-half wild card on a tie-breaker. After a slightly-above .500 second-half, the Chiefs hit their stride in September, sweeping two playoff rounds until facing Bowling Green in the finals.
Link to master article with all 2018 award winners, team recaps and article schedules for the remainder of this series. Of course, that will include our selections as the Peoria Chiefs Reliever, Starting Pitcher and Player of the Year.
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