Previewing The Patriots

The level of excitement doesn’t quite seem to be where it’s been in the past heading into a Somerset Patriots season, does it?

Blame the Atlantic League.

Oddly, the defending league champions are set to open on the road in Bridgeport later tonight, and will then play a three-game set in Long Island, meaning the first seven games of their title defense will come away from TD Bank Ballpark.

The Patriots won’t wear white until their April 30th home opener, when the fifth ring ceremony in franchise history will take place before their 7:05 PM game against the Bluefish.

By then, however, you might have a pretty good idea of what kind of team you’re going to get this season.  Is it the team you see on paper…the one with a loaded offense but question marks on the pitching staff?  Or will they be something completely different? 

Let’s take a look at the team on paper before I get to see them with my own eyes for the first time eight days from now…

CATCHING

The bulk of the catching duties will likely be handled by Jason Belcher this year, with Pete LaForest alternating between first base and behind the plate.  LaForest also told me he can play a little third base if necessary, but that scenario doesn’t seem too likely.

This is a big season for Belcher, who is the number one catcher for the first time as a Patriot.  Always consistent at the plate, his ability to throw out baserunners has always been the knock on him, and that’ll have to improve if he wants to make sure that #1 status is cemented.  LaForest’s combination of power and versatility make him a valuable asset not only to the Patriots, but likely affiliated baseball at some point as well.  He will, as I said, play multiple positions for this team to keep that “versatility” tag, and he could supplant Belcher as the regular catcher for a stretch if the situation calls for it.

INFIELD

Josh Pressley, Matt Hagen, Elliott Ayala, Jeff Nettles.  Any questions? 

I could just leave it like that, but really…that’s a loaded, loaded group right there.  If there are any questions, they likely center around the play of Ayala, who will man shortstop for Somerset this season.  While there are a handful utility infielders on the team who could step in if needed — most notably Iggy Suarez — it is unlikely that there will be too much instability on the dirt this season. 

Pressley will likely see only limited time at first base.  LaForest will likely play first when Pressley is DH’ing, although most questions surrounding Pressley’s health were answered during spring training.  And don’t rule out seeing Joe Burke there this season, either.

OUTFIELD

Tim Raines, Jr., Noah Hall, Wayne Lydon and Burke are likely to get the majority of the time in the outfield this season.  Collectively, they’re a solid, athletic group that should be exciting to watch, especially Raines, Jr. and Lydon.  Hall brings veteran leadership and a consistent bat to Somerset, while Burke’s versatility could have him in multiple spots in any given week to spell the so-called regulars.

Both Raines, Jr. and Hall have been picked up out of the Atlantic League before — Hall twice by the Yankees and Raines, Jr. last season after a brief stint overseas.  It’s not unreasonable to think it could happen again…as is the case with many teams in this league, affiliated baseball may dictate how successful Somerset’s offense ultimately is this season.  Right now, they’re loaded…but a few signings, and they could be scrambling to replace some of their potent bats.

STARTING PITCHING

Josh Miller, Josh Muecke, Mike Thompson and Jesse Darcy currently comprise the Patriots starting rotation, with the fifth slot to be determined.  They don’t actually need a fifth starter until May 1st, so that’s not a real pressing issue just yet. 

The uncertainty of Muecke, Thompson and Darcy, however, is.  With all the turnover in the pitching staff this season, nobody really knows what to expect.  While Muecke brings Triple-A time and Thompson’s made it all the way to the big leagues, Darcy’s never made it past A-Ball, and who knows who’s going to fill that number five slot.

Miller was outstanding for Somerset last year, and big things are expected of the club’s Opening Day starter…but to give you an indication of just how unstable things have become from last year to this…Miller was booted out of the starting rotation in the playoffs last year to make room for Jason Standridge.  And now, he takes the ball on day one.

RELIEF PITCHING

With Casey Cahill and Brian Henderson holding down the middle innings for Somerset, nobody’s got any concerns there.  They were two of the most solid and reliable relievers in the league last season.

But there are a lot of questions marks otherwise.  Will Mike Gardner be able to recover from shoulder surgery that forced him to miss all of 2009?  Will Carlos Hines or Ryan Houston emerge as a true closer?  Will Matt Reilly or Jason Monti get significant innings?  And what role will Justin Jones, who wanted to be a starter, fill?

PREDICTION

When I predict that the Somerset Patriots won’t win the championship, they do.  When I predict that they will, they don’t.  The last two seasons, I had the York Revolution winning it all.  And…uhhh, yeah…we all know how that panned out.

But I don’t see it this year.  If you asked me right now — and that’s essentially what a pre-season prediction is — if I thought Somerset would win a championship in 2010, I would tell you no.

It isn’t that they aren’t good enough right now.  And it isn’t that I don’t think Brett Jodie can do a good job of plugging the holes that will inevitably pop up thanks to affiliated baseball.  There just might be too many holes to plug, and with the overall turnover in the league this season and talent level, it seems to be anyone’s game this year.

There are a lot of question marks in that pitching staff this season…and while it wouldn’t at all be shocking to see some familiar faces come back to the team this season to “fix” that, will it come in time?  I do think Somerset will make the playoffs…because it’s hard to envision a Patriots team not getting there after making it for three straight and four out of the past five seasons. 

It makes too much sense for them to win this season, because that’s all they’ve done for the past two seasons: Win. 

Or maybe it’s just some reverse pyschology on the behalf of Patriots fans…after all, they do win when I think they won’t…

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