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Anemic Albuquerque Isotopes stumble through rough first half

A few prospects manage to stand out in otherwise forgettable Triple-A campaign.

At least this guy has been entertaining since joining the Albuquerque Isotopes.
At least this guy has been entertaining since joining the Albuquerque Isotopes.
Courtesy of the Albuquerque Isotopes

Four days off are magical words to minor-league baseball players. While three of the Albuquerque Isotopes will have one game to play, the rest can kick back over the All-Star break.

"It’ll be nice, that’s for sure," lefty pitcher Kyle Freeland said. "But definitely after that break we’ll be champing at the bit to get right after it."

At one point this season it might have been difficult to imagine any Isotope wanting to get back on the field. The first half of the Pacific Coast League season saw the team set an ignominious record with a 13-game losing streak from June 17-30. It was a dismal stretch during which the team scored just 27 runs.

Since the calendar flipped to July, Albuquerque has gone 6-4, including winning the last three games in a four-game set at Las Vegas to close the first half.

While that run of success gives hope for a more competitive finish, the playoffs are about as unlikely as one can imagine for a team that is 37-53, 15.5 games out of first place in the Pacific Southern Division.

So what went wrong in the first 90 games of the PCL season for the Isotopes? Did anything go right? Is there a point to asking questions in print? Only when they get answered.

It’s the (lack of) hitting, stupid

Going into the break, the Isotopes have hit an anemic .257/.321/.380 as a team. The lowest previous batting average recorded by the team was .271 in 2013, while that team also set the worst slugging mark (.412). The most dismal OBP was last year’s .332 mark.

Consider that even during the Marlins’ years (2003-08), on teams filled almost entirely with journeymen and organizational scrap-heap players, Albuquerque’s worst marks were .277/.343/.421, all in the first season when the Isotopes still made the playoffs.

Manager Glenallen Hill has said repeatedly that this team is not a powerful bunch and would have to manufacture runs, but far too much of the lineup is incapable of even getting on base at a decent enough rate.

The infielders have been a particularly bad bunch when it comes to hitting. Of course, this team was assembled with a glove-first group that has included Jeff Bianchi (.265/.335/.310, HR, 11 RBI), Chris Nelson (.233/.276/.267, HR, 22 RBI), Tim Smalling (.236/.294/.313, 3 HR, 20 RBI) and Joey Wong (.216/.319/.272, HR, 16 RBI). To a man, each can field multiple positions quite well, and all are positive guys in the clubhouse, but that does not erase the damage they do with their bats. Or, in this case, don’t do.

At one point Rafael Ynoa (.264/.328/.365, 2 HR, 22 RBI) was hitting well in the leadoff spot and giving this team some semblance of a scrappy offensive identity. Then he fell into an extended June funk and, well, the results speak for themselves.

Other contributors to the struggles have included since-released catcher-first baseman Ryan Casteel (.230/.273/.368, 3 HR, 20 RBI), who never got enough consistent playing time to ever get into a rhythm, and outfielder Noel Cuevas (.234/.293/.328, HR, 8 RBI), who was mercifully demoted to Double-A.

A few of the organizational players were at least semi-decent contributors, with at least one being a pleasant surprise.

Catcher Dustin Garneau (.231/.330/.495, 6 HR, 11 RBI) has played well defensively, with the occasional big hit, while riding the ABQ-to-DEN express multiple times.

First baseman Ben Paulsen (.282/.342/.442, 3 HR, 24 RBI) was in quite a funk of his own in June before he turned it up after the calendar flipped to July. He’s never been a big power bat, but only three home runs in 181 at-bats isn’t exactly forcing his way back up to the big-league roster.

Utility guy Alex Castellanos (.271/.317/.441, 2 HR, 8 RBI) has been a surprise during his 17 games with the team after being held back in extended spring training for undisclosed reasons. His glove and arm on the infield have been a lot better than his 2012-13 stint as an Isotope.

As for the outfield, Mike Tauchman (.266/.319/.337, 32 RBI, 17 stolen bases) has filled the gritty role on this team quite well. His strong start to the season faded as his playing time was lost to Cuevas, which remains one of the season’s great mysteries as to why the organization was prioritizing one over the other.

The most pleasant surprise on the team has been Stephen Cardullo (.280/.351/.470, 11 HR, 47 RBI), who was plucked out of independent league obscurity and now leads the team in home runs and RBI.

The prospects are all right, at least

Rockies fans really aren’t overtly concerned about the status of the fringe, it’s the prospects that matter the most. In that regard, the Isotopes have done OK, not great, but there’s no one thought of as legit MLB material who is circling the drain.

Catcher Tom Murphy (.268/.287/.583, 11 HR, 32 RBI) has had a good and bad season. The good is the power is still there and defensively he’s been solid behind the plate. He still struggles with throwing out baserunners, but many of his pitchers haven’t been helping him out in terms of holding guys at first.

The downside is that unsightly OBP, which is largely the result of a god-awful 55-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Those whiffs have come in 168 at-bats over 44 games. Go ahead do the math for the percentages; it won’t be pretty in any way it can be sliced.

Things are a bit better in regards to right fielder Jordan Patterson (.316/.415/.473, 4 HR, 34 RBI), the team MVP of the first half. Only the drop in power might concern some, but overall his patient approach has paid plenty of dividends. Take note, Patterson missed seven games during that 13-game skid, which surely did not help a sputtering offense. Defensively, he has also been solid, getting to show off his strong, accurate arm more than once against opposing baserunners.

On the pitching side, right-hander Jeff Hoffman (4-7, 4.03, 98.1 IP, 99 H, 34 BB, 99 Ks) has been ridiculously good at times and fairly consistent throughout the year. There have been a few bad starts here and there, though even the best arms in the big leagues have those. Hoffman’s days in Albuquerque are likely numbered, either due to his escalating innings count (he only had 104 last year) or due to a deserved promotion to Colorado.

Lefty Kyle Freeland (1-2, 4.26, 19 IP, 28 H, 4 BB, 14 Ks) has pitched better than his numbers indicate in three starts since coming up from Hartford. Sooner or later his luck on some of the bloopers and bleeders will turn and he will begin putting up some gems.

Fellow southpaw Harrison Musgrave (4-5, 4.37, 59.2 IP, 65 H, 24 BB, 40 Ks) has looked good at times, extremely hittable at others. In other words, he fits his projection as a back-of-the-rotation arm with fringy stuff and (at times) good command.

Oh, and then along came this center fielder named David Dahl (.500/.536/.846, 2 HR, 5 RBI) who was apparently born on Krypton before his July 4 arrival in Albuquerque. He might be fun to watch in the second half.

A 54-game sprint to the finish

The Isotopes open the "second half" with an eight-game homestand against Memphis and Nashville starting Thursday night. In terms of wins and losses, there’s not much to worry about, but at least prospects like Dahl and Freeland figure to (maybe? probably?) stick around to provide some entertainment.

Then, who knows, maybe some more talent will arrive in the inevitable July 31 trades. This assumes the Rockies make multiple trades and don’t sit on their hands again after just one … ah, that’s for the writers in Denver to worry about.