Orem Owlz Playoff Preview

Owlz outfielder-first baseman Roberto Lopez had a season for the ages, finishing the 76-game Pioneer League season with an AVG/OBP/SLG of .400/.480/.667 and the league’s Most Valuable Player award.


Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.

Wednesday night, the Orem Owlz open the best-of-three Pioneer League title series at North Division champion Great Falls. The Owlz were 52-23, the Voyagers were 39-37.

Orem and Great Falls met in the 2007 playoffs. Orem finished 37-39. Great Falls finished 51-24.

The Owlz won two straight to take the pennant.

So a word of caution before you think the title is a sure thing.

Personally, I’ve always hated the league’s best-of-three format. The North and South Division alternate which division gets the home-field advantage in the playoffs. In odd-numbered years, it’s the North Division. In even-numbered years, it’s the South Division.

The road team for Game #1 becomes the home team for Games #2 and #3, which really makes that first game so pivotal.

If you’re the home team for Game #1 and win, then all you have to do is win one of two on the road. If you’re the road team for Game #1 and win, then you just have to win one of two at home to take the title.

So if Orem can knock off Great Falls in Montana, they come home Friday night with a huge advantage. It’s 600 miles from Great Falls to Orem. How’d you like to be the Voyagers on the team bus Thursday knowing you have a 14-hour bus trip ahead of you only to have two must-win games ahead of you before a hostile crowd?

Interestingly, the Owlz have been a better road team than home team in 2008 — 28-9 on the road, 24-14 at home. The Voyagers have been a better home team, 21-17 versus 18-20 on the road. So both teams play to their strengths Wednesday night, and their weaknesses Friday and Saturday.

Short series statistics aside, it’s been a memorable year for a team that seven or eight years from now could be compared to the 1999 Boise Hawks team that was also loaded with future Angels. That Tom Kotchman team (43-33) had future major leaguers Alfredo Amezaga, Tom Gregorio, Gary Johnson, Robb Quinlan, Dusty Bergman, John Lackey and one start by some guy named Francisco Rodriguez. Sure, most of those kids had no more than a token appearance, but considering that on the average only one in ten minor leaguers ever set foot in a big-league dugout, seven players is an impressive achievement.

Kotch’s 2001 Provo Angels (53-23) also had its share of future major leaguers — Nick Gorneault, Casey Kotchman, Jeff Mathis, Dallas McPherson, Steve Andrade, Pedro Liriano, Ervin Santana, Steven Shell and Jake Woods.

Outfielder-first baseman Roberto Lopez demolished the league, finishing with an AVG/OBP/SLG of .400/.480/.667. In 67 games, he hit 28 doubles and 14 homers. His 72 RBI were the most for an Angels short-season team since Robb Quinlan had 77 for Boise in 1999. Lopez walked more than he struck out — 23 strikeouts to 34 walks in 270 AB.

Lopez turns 23 on October 1, making him very old for the league. I’ve seen older players do well before in the Pioneer League, only to flame out at higher levels, so it’s a good idea to remain a bit skeptical until Roberto proves himself at Double-A and Triple-A. Nonetheless, his remarkable plate discipline — even for this level — is a good sign. Kotchman told me back in June that he thought Lopez might project as a corner fourth outfielder in the major leagues.

Two other names more easily fall into the prospect category. 20-year old third baseman Luis “Lucho” Jiminez finished with a line of .331/.361/.630; his 15 homers edged Lopez and teammate Angel Castillo who each had 14. But Jimenez committed 13 errors and has been the DH since August 12.

Castillo, 19, had a line of .281/.345/.533 yet whiffed once every 3.2 at-bats. But as Kotch said, the ball makes a different sound when it comes off his bat; if Angel can harness his raw talent, he might be the best prospect of the three.

Lefty starter Jayson Miller was named the pitcher of the year with a 2.33 ERA in 81 IP, but as with Lopez you have to be a bit skeptical due to age. Jayson turns 23 in November; he was selected in the 30th round of the June draft. Looking back at the 2001 Provo Angels, lefty Jason Dennis had a 2.05 ERA in 75 IP and was the left-handed pitcher on the league’s post-season all-star team, but he too was 23 and by 2003 was in independent ball.

19-year old southpaw starter Will Smith might be a more projectable talent. At 6’5″ with a little more room to grow, you have to be reminded of Randy Johnson although he doesn’t quite have the Big Unit’s plus-plus velocity. Nonetheless, you have to be impressed by his numbers — a 3.08 ERA in 73 IP, and an insane 76:6 SO:BB ratio. Let’s also note he was a Tom Kotchman find; Kotch was scouting in north Florida and saw Will pitching for Gulf Coast Community College. The Angels drafted him in the 7th round; Baseball America reports he signed for $150,000, which might be one of the bigger steals in recent years when we look back at the 2008 draft.

Right now, the rotation for the playoff series appears to be Miller in Game #2 and Smith in Game #3. Manuarys Correa, who spent most of the year with Rookie-A Tempe, will have the start in Game #1 at Great Falls. Correa had a 2.65 ERA in 57.2 IP with the Arizona team and a 67:10 SO:BB ratio. The Pioneer League was a different story for the 19-year old, posting a 6.20 ERA in five games (four starts).

Of course, the Owlz will be missing their most valuable asset, Tom Kotchman himself. He remains in Florida tending to his ill wife. Interim manager Brent Del Chiaro and veteran pitching coach Zeke Zimmerman carry on in his place.

I’ll be in Orem for Games #2 and #3, so look for highlight videos — and, hopefully, a championship dogpile.


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