As was mentioned on the site Friday, the Double-A Akron Aeros took home all of the major awards in the Eastern League this season and have also clinched first-place in the Southern Division. With only two contests remaining in the regular season, their playoff schedule is set and the team with the Manager of the Year, Pitcher of the Year and League MVP aims for yet another successful post-season run in 2009. With a current record of 87-53, the Aeros also became the first franchise in the 86-year history of the Eastern League to record 80+ wins in five consecutive seasons.
Last night, Akron defeated the visiting Erie SeaWolves at Canal Park to knock the ‘Wolves out of the playoff race and secure a match-up with the Reading Phillies. A series victory in the Southern Division Championship would then bring the Aeros to their fifth straight Eastern League Championship although the team has only won the title in 2003 and 2005. With all of the top prospects in tow this season however, it certainly appears that great things are still possible for this young and promising team, and baseball at Canal Park should still be exciting over the next two weeks.
Just to recap how the season has turned out thus far for Akron, it was a miraculous rush out of the gates as the team bolted to a 16-4 month of April and quick 22-5 record. They would also get to 20 games over .500 at 28-8 by May 22nd, but then stagnated for the better part of two and a half months, hovering around that 20-game mark. In the final two weeks before my internship came to an end in the beginning of August, Akron was on fire again while finally hitting the 30-game mark on August 21st. A loss for Reading on August 30th gave the Aeros the regular season division title and then yesterday, the Phillies clinched their spot to match up with Akron starting in less than a week.
In Double Dose of Double-A fashion, I will now go into detail about the award-winning components to the Aeros this season. Between Carlos Santana and three first-round draft picks, a perfect game pitcher and several talented relievers, the team is stacked for the playoff race and I definitely encourage everyone to keep checking up on them in the next two weeks:
Carlos Santana – How can it get much better than another MVP award for the 23-year-old native of the Dominican Republic? He was the MVP of the advanced Class A California League last season despite playing only 99 games before the trade to Cleveland, and this year became the third Akron player to win the award (Victor Martinez in 2002 and Jordan Brown in 2007). He has 15 more walks than any player in the league with 90 right now, and also ranks in the top three in runs scored, doubles, home runs and RBI. He leads the league with a .515 slugging percentage and ranks second with a .413 on-base percentage, showing incredible plate discipline for a player in Double-A. All indications lead to Santana beginning 2010 with Columbus and then gradually making his way to Cleveland, potentially becoming the everyday starter by the All-Star Break over the current quartet of catchers on the big league club (Shoppach, Toregas, Gimenez and Marson).
Jeanmar Gomez - This 21-year-old native of Venezuela made quite a splash when he was promoted to the Aeros and promptly threw just the second perfect game in the Eastern League in just his fourth start past Class A. The lanky 6-4 right-hander had his ups and downs following that sensational outing May 21st in Trenton, but then continued to cruise through July and August. Considering the depleted starting pitcher talent in the EL right now, Gomez’s numbers stood out at the end of the year as he is currently 10-4 with a 3.43 ERA. He is third in the league in ERA, while also ranking in the top ten in strikeouts and third in WHIP. Entering the season, Gomez was in the mix along with Hector Rondon and Kelvin De La Cruz as the top Class A pitching prospects in the organization. While Rondon has taken a major leap towards Cleveland, Gomez is not too far behind and should make his Major League debut sometime next year.
Mike Sarbaugh – The former Canton/Akron Indian himself, Sarbaugh is in his second year as the skipper of the team and led them to yet another successful regular season. When things went crazy with all of the roster moves and all of the pitchers shuffling through the system, Sarbaugh was the common commanding force. He was a very positive influence on all of the young players such as the two above, continuing to push them throughout the season. I directly recall one point, where Santana was struggling through a 30-game stretch with a batting average around .230, and Sarbaugh said to just focus on hitting line drives: “How about a couple doubles today Carlos?” I would hear these things and know that he was truly the perfect manager for this team, and with an 87-53 record it is hard to argue with the results. He is a really good managerial prospect and I truly do hope he stays within the system down the road, unlike the previous manager for Akron Tim Bogar.
Jose Constanza – The only one on this group not to win a season-ending award from the Eastern League, I felt that this speedy native of the DR deserved quite special recognition as well. The recently turned 25-year-old played 95 games for Akron last season, batting .278 with a .683 on-base percentage. He came into ’08 having recorded 39 steals in each of the previous two seasons, but his starts diminished towards the end of the year and he finished with just 23 swipes on the year. This season, back for a second go-around in Akron, he dominated from the get-go and now stands among one of the most impressive leage leaders offensively outside of Santana above. He is batting .279, right around where he was last year, but also is now tied for second in the league with 75 walks (currently on the DL, OF Nick Weglarz is tied with 75). Constanza also leads the league in runs scored, ranks in the top ten in both hits and on-base percentage and is now tied with Reading CF Quintin Berry for the league lead with 48 steals. He has continuously drawn the praise of Sarbaugh and has had quite the turnaround season in his career.
(Note: The Aeros did not win all four post-season awards from the Eastern League. The Rookie of the Year award, a more recent creation of the EL, went to former Stanford Cardinal and current Lehigh Valley Iron Pig OF Michael Taylor.)