Season in Review: 2017 Great Falls Voyagers

Team: Great Falls Voyagers
League: Pioneer League (Rk)
Final record: 34-42 overall (15-23 1st half, 19-19 2nd half)
Final placement: 3rd in 1st half, 1st in 2nd half in North Division. Lost in PIO Championship Series.
Complete Team Stats

The Voyagers are a perennial postseason presence in the Pioneer League, having made the playoffs in ten of the last eleven years. The team started the season with four straight wins, but the rest of the first half was pretty ugly (11 wins in 34 games the rest of the half). But the team turned it on in the 2nd set, and then swept Missoula in a best-of-three first round of the playoffs. In the championship round, after losing the first game to Ogden and then being rained out of their second contest, it all came down to a double-header on Sunday the 17th of September. The Voyagers stayed alive with a game one win before finally losing the last game and the league crown.

The Pioneer League is notoriously hitter-friendly. This team posted a combined .276/.359/.427 line with 72 home runs in 76 games, which seems big until you realize that put them around the middle of the pack or lower in all those categories. Mirroring that, the team's pitching performances may not look so great out of context, but they led the league in ERA and WHIP. With the baseline set, let's look at the key individual contributions...

Position Players

As is typical, the White Sox stocked their more advanced rookie affiliate mostly with that year's collegiate draftees and some Latin American pipeline products who already have a year or two of stateside experience. But the biggest offensive performance on the team came from 23-year-old corner infielder Anthony Villa. Drafted in the 19th round in 2016 and repeating with Great Falls, Villa was named the league's MVP after posting a video game line of .314/.453/.619, hitting 16 home runs in just 63 games while playing a mix of first and third base. He was pretty clearly too much for the league, but next year he'll have to battle with Gavin Sheets, Jake Burger, Corey Zangari and a fellow we are about to discuss for playing time in A-ball.

2017 12th round selection Justin Yurchak made a big splash in his pro debut. The 20-year-old who got an over-slot bonus hit .345 with a .448 OBP, more walks (43) than strikeouts (33) and added 8 long balls in his 269 plate appearances. There is some question of his eventual defensive home, but it sure looks like his bat will play. 9th round pick Craig Dedelow hit a ton as well, putting up a .321 average and a .253 ISO thanks in part to 12 home runs and 21 doubles in his 60 games. A handful of this year's draftees helped the team with their bats, including outfielders Tyler Frost and Logan Taylor (.800 and .780 OPS respectively), and infielders Tate Blackman and David Cronin (.359 and .354 OBP).

Catcher/outfielder (yes really) Jacob Cooper posted a strong .291/.365/.456 line, and despite being around the system for a while the 2015 20th round pick is still just 21 and makes a case for full season ball next year. His tandem catching partner Nate Nolan showed some power with eight homers to propel a .788 OPS. Speaking of Nolans, UDFA pickup and outfielder Nolan Brown was among the team leaders in AVG (.329) and OBP (.376), and led the club with seven stolen bases.

A number of young LatAm players saw time with Great Falls, though none put up numbers that stood out. Franklin Reyes hit .249 with 5 home runs and just 5 walks in 56 games, but he was just 18 so he's quite young for the league. Reyes signed in 2015 for $1.5M (the second largest J2 bonus the team had ever paid out at the time) as an outfielder, but he's now a first baseman. Third baseman Amado Nunez came into the season as one of the team's top thirty prospects but struggled with performance and injury on his way to a .193 average across the rookie affiliates, mostly with Great Falls. He's 19 years old so, again, patience is required.

Pitchers

The Voyagers' team ERA of 4.73 might seem high, but again some context is needed - because that was the best number in the league. In that context, UDFA signee Kyle Von Ruden was highly effective as the rotation's anchor. Picked out of the independent Frontier League, Von Ruden posted a 4.27 ERA, 1.29 WHIP and struck out 63 batters against just 17 walks in 86.1 IP. Brandon Agar (another UDFA signing, in his case from 2016) and 21-year-old 2015 draftee Christopher Comito posted ERA's just above five in their 15 starts each.

2017 draftees played a part here as well. Lincoln Henzman was the team's 4th round selection this year, and he's the highest round pick who spent material time with Great Falls. He started seven games and worked three more in relief, on an innings limit, and posted an even four ERA in his brief 27 innings. 31st round lefty Parker Rigler started ten games and came from the pen in another six, striking out a good number of batters (8.0 K/9) but allowing some runs (5.88 ERA). The rest of the starts came from a smattering of pitchers who also spent time working from the bullpen. Chicago native Adam Panayotovich started nine games (versus seven from the pen), maintaining good control (3.1 BB/9) but also got hit a bit (95 H in 63.2 IP).

Most of the best performances were registered from the bullpen, a handful of them coming in pro debut seasons. 5th round pick Tyler Johnson struck out 16 batters and allowed just 7 hits in 10 innings of work, though he did also walk 7. There had initially been talk about Johnson converting to a starter role, but more recent reports indicate he likely stays a reliever. 11th rounder and over-slot bonus recipient Will Kincanon struck out a batter an inning and kept hitters at bay as seen in his 1.25 WHIP in 21 outings. 6th rounder Kade McClure (who you might know from such films as "The White Sox love Louisville Cardinals" and "So you want to be tall") provided just a four-appearance cameo but made a strong impression, striking out eight and allowing a single hit in four frames. 10th rounder J.B. Olson was dominant in his debut: 13 IP, 11 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 13 K, which earned him a promotion to Kannapolis. Even 17th rounder Blake Battenfield got in on the act, striking out 40 against 8 free passes in 31.1 innings.

Josue Gerardo wins the award for the most unusual grouping of stats - he struck out 11.8 batters per nine innings, but also allowed 13.7 hits and 9.4 walks by the same denominator. And since everyone's all about the trend of more position players pitching nowadays, utility infielder Max Dutto gave it the college try for one inning, allowing four runs on four hits and a walk. He did also strike out a batter.

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