Sioux Falls Canaries hope veteran bats can lead them back into contention
Return of Jabari Henry, Wyatt Ulrich will provide punch, but is there enough pitching to keep the Birds in the American Association playoff hunt?
SIOUX FALLS — After nine straight losing seasons, the Canaries finally returned to the playoffs in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, falling to the Milwaukee Milkmen in the league championship series.
But that respite from the losing is looking more and more like a mirage after the Birds went 36-64 in 2021 and 33-66 last year.
As they look to get back into contention in 2023, skipper Mike Meyer isn't making any bold proclamations, but he does sound cautiously optimistic. The Canaries have a handful of proven bats who should steady the clubhouse as well as the lineup, and for the pitching staff Meyer focused more on assembling arms with talent than pitching know-how, somewhat of a departure from the past.
Will it work? We'll find out starting Thursday, when Sioux Falls hosts Cleburne in the American Association afternoon lid-lifter at 4:05.
"We have so many new faces, and that's brought an injection of energy," Meyer said. "We feel a little more focused, a little more keyed in to getting our work in and making sure we're prepared and ready to go. Having those veteran guys, and guys who will stand somebody up if they're not working enough is something we've been lacking the last couple years."
The Birdcage remains a launching pad for hitters, and that makes the return of Jabari Henry the Canaries' top asset. Now 32 years old, Henry tied his own team record with 29 home runs last year, driving in 86 runs in 98 games. He's hit 92 homers as a Canary, the most in franchise history, having surpassed 20 in three of the four seasons he's spent with Sioux Falls (he's also the team's all-time RBI leader).
Joining Henry at the top of the lineup is Wyatt Ulrich, who batted .327 to win the league's rookie of the year award in 2021, then came back to hit .338 last year, earning a brief stint in the San Diego Padres system. Ulrich will play center field and hope to be a factor on the bases (he's stolen 31 bases in his two years in Sioux Falls). Those aren't the only familiar faces, though. Mike Hart returns to Sioux Falls after playing in the Frontier League last year, where he hit .255 with 19 homers. He previously spent four seasons with the Birds and proved himself as a reliable lefty bat and versatile defender. He'll be manning first base, but can also play the outfield and catcher.
Another intriguing veteran is Dominican outfielder Welington Dotel. Dotel is 37 years old and never made it higher than Class A in affiliated ball, having spent the last decade-plus in Mexico and various independent leagues. He hit .277 with five homers for Lincoln last year.
Meyer also hopes to, eventually, have a major league left side of the infield. Darnell Sweeney, who hit three homers in 85 at-bats for the Phillies in 2015, will play third base. He hit .321 with 13 homers and a .410 on-base percentage last year in the American Association for Kansas City. And while former Augustana product Jordan Barth will man shortstop for now, Meyer hopes to get former big-leaguer Osvaldo Martinez back soon to pick up where he left off last year, batting .271 with six homers and a top-flight glove.
Marshall Rich, who batted .288 in the Pioneer League last year but has just a .302 career slugging percentage, is expected to be the primary catcher.
Hunter Clanin could be a key piece, as well. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound left-fielder batted .273 with 14 homers and 21 steals for Lincoln last year and brings a tremendous arm to the outfield. And Meyer is also excited about second baseman Trevor Achenbach, who hit 22 homers in the Frontier League in 2022.
That has the makings of a strong lineup, but as is usually the case, the Canaries' fortunes will likely be decided by their pitching. This year's staff would have a tough time being worse than last year's, as the Birds had a 6.17 team ERA in 2022. They had five pitchers make at least five starts and post an ERA of 7.77 or higher.
Veteran lefty Ty Culbreth went 7-6 with a 5.18 ERA in 18 starts and returns to anchor the rotation and serve as pitching coach. He'll be joined by a former major leaguer in Akeem Bostic, a right-hander who threw a scoreless inning for the Mets in 2021 but struggled last year at two levels of independent ball.
DJ Sharabi returns to Sioux Falls after a good year with them in 2021, and will try to make the transition from relief to the rotation. Mitchell Walters will try to make the same move. He had a 4.29 ERA last year out of the bullpen, where his fastball was clocked as high as 98-mph. If he can work in the 93-95 range as a starter, the Birds think he can have success.
Chris Macca and Jerryell Rivera are a pair of youngsters who've impressed Meyer with their stuff, while the bullpen returns Charlie Hasty, who posted a 3.70 ERA in 46 games last year, Colby Wyatt (4.88) and and Christian Johnson. Pat Young is a 6-7 reliever who can touch the high 90s but needs to harness his command, while Israel Cruz and sidewinder Max Tannenbaum have also impressed Meyer.
"We have question marks, for sure," Meyer said. "But there's talent here. We can run and we have some pop. I feel good about the lineup. Pitching-wise, you need stuff in the Birdcage. That's the evolution of our approach with our staff. We've got young guys that throw hard. They spin their breaking balls well. Hopefully that translates into better production and more wins."