By Joe Southern
Despite a valiant effort at the end of the season to make the playoffs, last year’s Atlantic League champion Sugar Land Skeeters are not defending their title.
The traveling trophy has quietly left the confines of Constellation Field and will be awarded to either the York Revolution or Long Island Ducks as they do battle this week in the championship series. The Skeeters finished the season 67-73 and tied for third in the Freedom Division.
Looking back, this season was probably the most challenging for manager Gary Gaetti in his six years here. Gaetti, the only manager the team has had, faced a number of difficulties including losing several key players to call-ups and injury, the loss of his father during an extended absence from the team, and Hurricane Harvey that forced a home series to be played on the road and caused other disruptions for the team.
“At the start of the season we started off with the best team in the league talent-wise,” he said. “We started coming together in May and then I started losing my best players.”
Chris Nelson retired, and Jeremy Barfield, Andy Wilkins and Felipe Paulino all had their contracts bought out (although Paulino later returned). Ultimately seven players had their contracts purchased by Major League teams or other professional leagues.
Injuries also plagued the team. Zech Zinicola and Lance Zawadzki were lost for most of the season and seven other players spent time on the disabled list.
Despite the hardships, Gaetti said he was pleased with the effort put out by his players this year.
“We ran it until the end,” he said. “They fought all the way until the end. They responded with a great effort and hard work. They made it exciting the last week.”
In the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, the division winners of each half of play make the playoffs. The Skeeters finished third in both halves in the Freedom Division, going from 30-40 in the first half to 37-33 in the second. Leading the team this year was second baseman Josh Prince. He was awarded the team’s Most Valuable Player award and led the Atlantic League in stolen bases with 55.
“Josh is an outstanding baseball player … He’s the stick that stirs the drink,” Gaetti said.
Prince was the leadoff hitter for much of the season and battled through some injuries along the way. He also became a father for the first time as he and his wife welcomed a baby girl.
“He’s a winner. He had a very, very solid season,” Gaetti said.
Pitcher Jake Hale led the team with an 11-6 record. He was promoted to player/coach when Gaetti took a leave of absence for family matters.
“It’s amazing to me how he (Hale) only played as high at A-ball,” Gaetti said.
He said Hale doesn’t have a lot of velocity on his pitches, but he has a great ability to place the ball where he needs it and has a good command of the game.
“He’s a smart, smart pitcher,” Gaetti said.
He said if it were not for some bad plays and bullpen breakdowns that Hale could have easily won 15-20 games this year.
A third annual award presented by the Skeeters was the Community Man of the Year award, which was given to catcher Albert Cordero in recognition of his efforts in the community.
Off season changes
The biggest question this off season centers around Gaetti and whether or not he will return for a seventh season at the helm of the Skeeters.
“There are reasons to continue on and reasons not to,” he said.
Late in the season Gaetti took a leave of absence to return to Illinois to help care for his elderly mother. While there his father died unexpectedly. His mother requires a lot of care and Gaetti said he doesn’t want that to be a distraction to the team.
“I want to be able to sit down with the owners and (General Manager) Jay (Miller) and see what’s best for Sugar Land,” he said.
Another change for next year includes the situation with the Bridgeport Bluefish. The team is one of two original Atlantic League teams left and they were evicted from Harbor Yard after a 20-year run. The franchise will start play in 2019 in High Point, N.C., but it is not yet known what will happen in 2018.
“The Bluefish membership will be sold to an investor group in High Point, N.C., to begin play in 2019,” said Frank Boulton, who is the CEO of the Atlantic League and owner of the Bluefish and the Long Island Ducks. “We, the ALPB, are presently working on a schedule for next year with a road team as one option and also in talks with a potential city that would host an eighth team for 2018 and also become a member of ALPB. Details to follow in early October.”