Columbia Fireflies: 2017 Season In Review | Astromets Mind

Friday, February 16, 2018

Columbia Fireflies: 2017 Season In Review

Taking a closer look at how the Columbia Fireflies finished last season with a 68-70 record in the SAL

What’s in this post:

-       Season Summary
-       Astro’s Awards
-       Coaches
-       Team Stats
-       Fireflies on the SAL Leaderboards
-       Promotions/Injuries
-       Links to Astromets GIF Recaps (95 + ASG)

What Happened

            Compared to the Mets three other full season squads, the Columbia Fireflies were relatively loaded when the season started, featuring seven players that ranked in MLB Pipeline’s preseason top-30. Then, as the season wore on, more top-30 prospects joined the roster, including a young shortstop named Andres Gimenez and a lefty with a strikeout touch named Thomas Szapucki. And overshadowing all of those top prospects was Tim Tebow, who was attracting sellout crowds wherever the team went, providing an atmosphere not often seen in A-ball, especially in April.
            With a loaded team and some Tebow magic, the Fireflies started 2017 with a 5-game winning streak during which they outscored their opponents 39-12. The good feels wouldn’t last long, however, as they finished the month just one game over .500 and with one of those top-ranked prospects already lost to a season-ending surgery (Blake Tiberi underwent TJ surgery). The Fireflies then battled to stay around .500 until the end of May, when everything suddenly clicked again and the team put together a 17-6 run to finish the first half. The surge catapulted Columbia into a playoff race, and they temporarily held first place, but the Fireflies couldn’t win out in Charleston, and the Greenville Drive rallied late on the last day of the half to jump one-half game ahead for a playoff spot. One key first-half performer was unavailable for the Fireflies final week of the half, as Max Kuhns had just hit the DL for an injury that eventually required TJ surgery.
            After hosting the 2017 SAL All-Star game, the Fireflies lost several players to promotion (Michael Paez, Jordan Humphreys, Merandy Gonzalez, Tim Tebow, and (eventually) Adonis Uceta), and the rest of the team started breaking down. Columbia lost 16 games as 7 players went on the DL with season ending injuries in July, and then 18 games as 5 more players went on the DL in August. Overall, the Fireflies had the worst record in the SAL during the second half, with most of their struggles coming at home (10-22). The team went from surging as one of the top teams in A-ball to floundering as one of the worst in a matter of weeks, so what exactly happened?

            Given how much the roster changed throughout the season, it wouldn’t be crazy to break this down into three teams: the first-half Columbia Fireflies, the July Columbia Fireflies, and the August/September Columbia Fireflies. There were several constants on the roster throughout, but even those players who spent the whole season healthily playing for Columbia went through big shifts in production across those three time frames. Except for the bullpen. Columbia’s bullpen was fantastic all season long, and they finished with a 2.90 ERA, which is better than any team ERA in the league – I don’t have a bullpen ERA breakdown for each team.
            Of the 19 players who made a relief appearance for Columbia last year, there were several righties who stood out, but the conversation should probably start with Adonis Uceta (1.26 ERA, 47 K: 16 BB over 43 IP). Uceta made it to Double-A last year with a mid/upper-90’s fastball and some usable secondaries. Uceta allowed 0 ER (1 unearned run) over his final 29.1 IP with Columbia (that streak stretched to 36 IP in St. Lucie), which was one of five such stretches by a Cola reliever to last at least 15 IP: Matt Blackham finished the year with a streak that reached 26.2 IP (2 unearned runs allowed), Joseph Zanghi had a stretch of 21.2 IP (6 unearned runs allowed – 5 in one unusual outing just before it ended), Max Kuhns had a stretch of 15.1 IP (0 runs allowed), and Adam Atkins had a stretch of 23.2 IP (1 unearned run allowed).
            Although Blackham (1.43 ERA, 82 K: 19 BB over 56.2 IP) was never promoted, he might have the highest upside of the group, as he has shown upper-90’s heat in the past, and mixes in some nasty secondaries. After Uceta was named the SAL RP of the Month for June, Blackham won the award in both July and August, but he was robbed of a spot on the postseason All-Star team.
            If the Mets didn’t already have Joe Zanghi (2.19 ERA, 64 K: 26 BB over 61.2 IP) in their system, they probably would’ve found a way to trade for him at the deadline, as he fits the ‘mid-90’s with a slider’ mold that the Mets targeted with their midseason acquisitions. Kuhns’ (2.10 ERA, 37 K: 10 BB over 25.2 IP) stuff is similar to Blackham’s, but Kuhns was shaking his forearm out a lot during appearances in the first half, and eventually needed TJ surgery in July. Then there was Adam Atkins (0.86 ERA, 29 K: 6 BB over 31.1 IP), who gave the Fireflies a very different look from the pen, as he pitches with a funky side-arming delivery that allows him to get a lot of movement on his fastball and slider – he also finished the season on the DL.
            The Fireflies only got 47 relief appearances from lefties in 2017 and Taylor Henry (4.33 ERA over 60.1 IP) was the reliever in 39 of those instances, so he was basically the only lefty in the pen all season long. It’s not like A-ball teams are going to play the matchup game – remember the goal is player development – but it still feels odd to see just one lefty in a minors pen. Henry and Cameron Griffin (3.05 ERA over 41.1 IP) were with the team almost all season – Griffin did get a month in the FSL – and neither did much to stand out.
            In contrast to those two, there were three righties who didn’t spend the whole season with Columbia, but who did stand out while in a Fireflies jersey. Austin McGeorge (1.42 ERA over 12.2 IP) earned a quick promotion to St. Lucie, where he continued to pitch well. Matt Pobereyko (3.15 ERA, 53 K: 14 BB over 34.1 IP) was signed out of the Frontier league (where he struck out 38 batters in 18 IP), and finished the season impressing in the Arizona Fall League. And the Mets acquired Ryder Ryan (profile) in the Jay Bruce trade, and he struck out 13 over 13 IP down the stretch with Columbia.
            Two players joined the team at the end of the season and struggled a little in their first taste of full season ball. Keaton Aldridge is a converted catcher with some good heat and very little pitching experience, so his struggles were expected, and he’s since been released. Lefty Aaron Ford struck out 9 over 5.2 IP after a great debut in Kingsport, but he was smacked around for three homerun’s during his limited time in the SAL.
            That leaves just 16 relief appearances unaccounted for: 4 came from 3 different position players, 11 combined from the trio of Darwin Ramos, Joel Huertas, and Jake Simon, before they were moved to the rotation (at various points throughout the season), and 1 came from starter Blake Taylor in the penultimate game of the first half.

            While the Cola pen was more than capable of protecting any leads given to them, they didn’t have as many chances to protect leads as you’d hope, and far too often that was because the starters left the team in a big hole early. Overall, Table 2 shows that the Cola pitching staff was middle of the pack in the SAL by most metrics, but in reality, the Cola staff was a mix of the great, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
            Let’s start with the great: Merandy Gonzalez (1.55 ERA, 65 K: 13 BB) and Jordan Humphreys (1.42 ERA, 80 K: 9 BB). Both went 69.2 IP over 11 starts, and the Fireflies went 10-1 with both starters on the mound. That means they were 18 games above .500 with their top two starters going, and 20 games below .500 with anyone else going. Humphreys posted the flashier numbers but I thought Merandy showed better pitching ability and a higher upside. Both were promoted mid-season, although neither finished the year in St. Lucie’s rotation: Humphreys needed TJ surgery and Merandy G was traded.
            Moving on, aside from Harol Gonzalez, most of ‘the good’ came in spurts that didn’t last long. Harol G (3.56 ERA, 91 K: 37 BB over 126.1 IP) led the group of ‘good’ starters with 20 starts before a late-season promotion to St. Lucie. He was effective (2 R or less allowed in 11 starts) and consistently gave the Cola rotation some length (6+ IP in 17 starts), which led to 14 quality starts and my pick for team Cy – edges Humphreys due to playing time.
            Thomas Szapucki (2.79 ERA, 27 K: 10 BB over 29 IP) appeared to be settling in nicely over his first 5 starts, but his arm reached its limit in his sixth outing and his season ended with TJ surgery. Gary Cornish’s (3.07 ERA, 20 K: 5 BB over 29.1 IP) 50-game suspension ended around the same time Szapucki joined the rotation, and Cornish was also effective when healthy, but only healthy for five starts. Thomas McIlraith’s (2.22 ERA, 15 K: 8 BB over 24.1 IP) rehab took him through Columbia as the calendar was turning to July, but he lasted just 4 starts before another injury put him back on the shelf. Finally, Jose Carlos Medina (2.70 ERA, 17 K: 7 BB over 23.1 IP) was good over his 4 starts, but he wasn’t added to the rotation until the middle of August.
            Somewhere between the good and the bad were Gabriel Llanes and Chase Ingram. Ingram (4.63 ERA over 23.1 IP) followed McIlraith’s path both in and out of the rotation starting in mid-July – aka, MiLB rehab brought him in, and another injury ended his season. Ingram was effective over his first four starts (of five), just not in a sustainable way: 16 K: 18 BB + 3 HBP. Llanes (4.48 ERA, 67 K: 38 BB over 142.2 IP) led the team in IP and was very effective despite a low strikeout rate for most of the season (had a 16-start/102.2 IP stretch with a 2.89 ERA). Unfortunately, he allowed an 8.90 ERA over his final 6 starts and his ERA ballooned.
            It wasn’t all bad for Blake Taylor (4.94 ERA, 72 K: 49 BB over 85.2 IP) either – he posted a 2.83 ERA during his best 10-start stretch – but he struggled at times in his first full year back and as a starter since his TJ surgery. He allowed 10+ runs twice, walked 3+ in 13 of 18 starts, and only went 6+ IP in one-third of his starts.
            Another Fireflies starter who battled injury problems in 2017 was Colin Holderman (4.94 ERA, 25 K: 11 BB over 31 IP). Holderman’s season started with the high of an 11-K performance, but it was all downhill after that thanks to a labrum injury that knocked him out in April. He did battle back for some starts in August, but his season ended on the DL.
            Three pitchers split time between the rotation and pen. Most notable among the group is Darwin Ramos (4.81 ERA over 39.1 IP), who spent May coming out of the Cola pen and August in the starting rotation for 5 starts. Jake Simon (4.70 ERA over 15.1 IP) allowed 0 earned runs in 3 of his 4 appearances, but 8 runs in the outlier, and then he really struggled pitching out of the Brooklyn rotation once short season ball started. Lastly, Joel Huertas made 2 good appearances out of the Cola pen at the end of April, which earned him a start 10 days later. But alas, his arm had also reached its limit, and his season ended with a TJ surgery too.
            The remaining 16 starts came from two guys who joined in late July and came from opposite directions. Justin Brantley (5.18 ERA over 48.2 IP) pitched exclusively as a starter for the Fireflies down the stretch after starting the year in the St. Lucie pen. And Martin Anderson (6.89 ERA, 36 K: 16 BB over 31.1 IP) joined the team from Brooklyn after signing on with the Mets as an undrafted free agent.

            Just as the Fireflies good pitching mostly just came in spurts, the Fireflies good offense mostly just came in spurts. After an up-and-down April and May, the lineup started clicking on all cylinders during the Fireflies hot stretch to close out the first half. There were a few scoring outbursts in the second half, but the Fireflies lineup became too inconsistent to support any big winning streaks after the promotion of Michael Paez and injuries to Blake Tiberi (season ended in April), Desmond Lindsay (missed half of June and his season ended in July), Gene Cone (missed most of 6 weeks), and Dash Winningham (missed two weeks).
            In total, there were 13 players to finish the year with at least 200 PA for the Fireflies: 4 posted a wRC+ above 100 (better than league average), 3 were in the 92-99 range, 4 in the 80-84 range, Ali Sanchez was at 64 wRC+, and Arnaldo Berrios finished with a 53 wRC+. Of the guys who didn’t make that 200 PA cutoff, Ian Strom’s .832 OPS over 162 PA is the most interesting, and it earned him a late-season promotion to the St. Lucie Mets. Also, Reed Gamache and J.J. Franco provided solid work for Columbia as utility infielders (and emergency relief in Franco’s case), Quinn Brodey finished his first pro season in a Fireflies jersey, and 9 other players took at-bats with Columbia in 2017.
            Of the players to finish with an above league average performance, Michael Paez’s 152 wRC+ was far-and-away the best, and his was the best offensive performance from a Mets prospect in A-ball for several years. Brandon Brosher overcame a 39.5% K-rate to post a 128 wRC+ thanks to a good walk rate (11.5%) and 13 homeruns over 261 PA. Desmond Lindsay struggled to find hits for nearly two months (.545 OPS through 5/26), but then he studied some tape, made some adjustments, and went on a tear (.912 OPS over 108 PA) before needing a season-ending surgery. Last but certainly not least, consensus #1 prospect in the system Andres Gimenez used a solid approach to finish with a 107 wRC+.
            The three players who just missed the league-average cut were Jacob Zanon (99 wRC+), Dash Winningham (95 wRC+), and Tim Tebow (92 wRC+). Tebow’s patience (9.8 BB%) and the occasional extra base hit allowed him to finish with a much more respectable line than almost everyone expected. Zanon missed more than 2 months after taking a HBP to the head in April and then slumped hard in July (.552 OPS), but he went 30-33 on stolen base attempts and hit his way up to St. Lucie in August. As for Dash, he went from ice-cold, to red-hot, and then back to ice-cold again – that was just in the first half – and then didn’t do much to stand out in the second half. There was a 5-week stretch during which Dash was one of the hottest hitters in pro baseball – 8 doubles, 10 homers, 31 RBI over 33 games – and it was huge in the Fireflies charge to the top of the division. Unfortunately, it seemed like Dash started trying to do too much, which led him away from his successful approach.
            The next group of four found ways to be productive, just not consistently, so their final lines were noticeably below average. Dan Rizzie’s led the group with an 84 wRC+ after joining the team in mid-June and then taking over primary catching duties when Ali Sanchez went down for good. A high strikeout rate (28.3%) limited the effectiveness of fan-favorite Jay Jabs (82 wRC+), but he came up with some big hits throughout the season. Luis Carpio (81 wRC+) led the team with 535 PA and only missed 13 games all season. Carpio was actually pretty consistent, he was just consistently mediocre: he posted an OPS between .580 and .614 in each of the final 5 months of the season. Finally, although the Fireflies often had Gene Cone leading off, his 80 wRC+ puts him in the final spot with this group. Cone’s final line is deflated some from his .278 BABIP, but he was patient (13 BB%) and made pitchers work (4+ P/PA), which made him a perfect fit in the leadoff spot. Cone also finished with a very low .054 ISO

            Finally, let’s review how the Fireflies performed in the field last year. Thanks to injuries, the Fireflies defensive alignments were even more varied than St. Lucie’s, with just 6 players playing at least 50 games at one position: Arnaldo Berrios played 51 games in RF, Ali Sanchez played 55 games behind the plate, Desmond Lindsay played 62 games in CF, Andres Gimenez played 89 games at SS, Luis Carpio played 97 games at 2B (and 27 at SS), and Dash Winningham played 100 games at 1B. Columbia used at least 5 different players at each position, and 7+ at all positions besides catcher and shortstop.
            There may have been a lot of turnover, but fortunately for Columbia, their up-the-middle defense was generally consistent throughout the season. Ali Sanchez and Dan Rizzie are both defense-first catchers, and Sanchez showed an impressive ability to control the run game with a 48% CS-rate. Andres Gimenez regularly flashed the leather for highlight reel plays and showed the potential (barring any major physical developments) to stick at SS long-term. Luis Carpio didn’t do much to stand out at second base (and he was bad at SS), but he was consistent enough to be about SAL average for the position. As for CF, the Fireflies rarely lacked range out there with Desmond Lindsay, Gene Cone, and Jacob Zanon combining for 126 games in CF. Lindsay’s inexperience at the position showed at times, and his arm was a little weird, but he covers a lot of ground out there.
            Michael Paez also saw 33 games up the middle between shortstop and second base, but he’ll likely be limited to second moving forward, as he’s just too stretched at short. Paez also spent 20 games at third base with Columbia, and I think he should continue to get looks over there moving forward, as he showed good instincts at the hot corner. Paez wasn’t the only Cola player who spent time at multiple infield positions in 2017, the list also includes: Reed Gamache, Brandon Brosher, Vinny Siena, J.J. Franco, Milton Ramos, Jay Jabs, and Oliver Pascual.
            Although he did have previous infield experience, Jabs ended up seeing time at 3B and one game at 2B because the outfield was often too crowded for him to crack. CF was always covered, Tim Tebow held down LF for 44 games in the first half, and Arnaldo Berrios held down RF in the second half. Jabs was the majority left fielder after Tebow’s promotion, but he still had to share it with Ian Strom, Cone, Zanon, and Quinn Brodey. Tebow was a disaster defensively early in his first taste of pro ball, but he did show improvements over the course of the first half. The rest of the group of regular outfielders ranged between average to very good defensively, with Arnaldo Berrios’ work in RF sticking out. Berrios finished with 6 OF assists in his 51 games, and he made a number of highlight reel catches along the way.

            So, what happened? Columbia was done in by two I’s: inconsistency and injuries. The Fireflies inconsistencies in April cost them a first-half division title, and then injuries decimated the second-half roster. This team went from playing some of the most exciting minor league baseball I’ve watched in the first-half to a team that was limping to the finish line before July was over. Seven Columbia players were placed on the DL for good in July, and another five were added to that list in August.
            The second-half roster also had to sustain the hit of losing Columbia’s top-3 players to promotion. Paez’s bat was never replaced in the lineup, and it would’ve been hard for any prospect to replace what Merandy Gonzalez and Jordan Humphreys did for the pitching staff in the first-half. Additionally, although Tim Tebow wasn’t a huge difference maker on the field, his promotion left a noticeable absence in the crowds that came out to watch Columbia play and changed the energy around the team a little.
            Although it’s tough not to be disappointed with the injuries and how things finished in Columbia, there were several positive developments: Andres Gimenez stood out as an 18-year old shortstop in full-season ball, Luis Carpio and his shoulder stayed healthy all season, Michael Paez and Jordan Humphreys emerged as interesting prospects to keep an eye on in the system, Matt Pobereyko came from Indy ball and proved to be one of several ‘somewhat interesting righty relief prospects’ in the Cola pen, Ian Strom posted an .832 OPS during his 41-game stint, and Desmond Lindsay flashed his serious offensive upside for about 100 AB (13 XBH, .912 OPS) before requiring a season-ending surgery.

Astro’s Awards

MVP: Michael Paez.
Cy: Harol Gonzalez.
Fireman: Matt Blackham.


Manager: Jose Leger
Pitching coach: Jonathan Hurst
Hitting coach: Joel Fuentes
Other: Josh Kozuch (Assistant), Kiyoshi Tada (Athletic Trainer)

Team Stats/Rankings

Overall: 68-70 (.493)

Home: 33-36 (.478)*
Road: 35-34 (.507)
*Attendance: 315, 034 (4,773 average)

Day: 13-10 (.565)
Night: 55-58 (.487)

April: 13-12 (.520)
May: 14-11 (.560)
June: 16-10 (.615)
July: 12-16 (.429)
August: 12-18 (.400)
September: 1-3 (.250)

One-run Games: 23-22 (.511)
Shutouts: 17-13 (.567)
Walkoffs: 6 wins

vs. AL:            36-37 (.493)
vs. NL:            32-33 (.492)


Table 1 – 14-team league, stats below per BB-Ref

Average Batter Age
Stolen Bases
Caught Stealing
On-base %
Slugging %
Sac bunts
Sac flies


Table 2 – 14-team league, stats below per BB-Ref

Average Pitcher Age
Batters Faced
Wild Pitches

Starters: 772.1 IP, 750 H, 3.82 ERA, 603 K: 262 BB
Relievers: 432 IP, 370 H, 2.90 ERA, 458 K: 148 BB


Table 3 – 14-team league, stats below per BB-Ref

Fielding %
Passed balls
Stolen bases allowed
Runners caught stealing

ªHat tip to the Fireflies game notes for help gathering these stats

Fireflies on the SAL Leaderboards


Top-11 among qualified hitters, per Fangraphs

Dash Winningham

Stolen Bases
Jacob Zanon, 28, 11th (in 50 games!)

Andres Gimenez, 15.3%, 11th

Luis Carpio, 0.56, t-8th

Swinging Strike%
Luis Carpio, 7.4%, 8th


Top-10 per Fangraphs, minimum 60 IP

Jordan Humphreys, 10, t-5th
Harol Gonzalez, 9, t-10th

Complete Games
Harol Gonzalez, 3, t-1st
Jordan Humphreys, Gabriel Llanes – 2, t-4th

Gabriel Llanes, 142.2, 6th

Jordan Humphreys, 1.42, 1st
(Joseph Zanghi, 2.19, t-11th)

Jordan Humphreys, 2.16, 2nd

Jordan Humphreys, 31.1%, 5th

Jordan Humphreys, 3.5%, t-6th

Jordan Humphreys, 8.89, 3rd

Jordan Humphreys, .168, 3rd

Jordan Humphreys, 82%, 4th

Jordan Humphreys, 0.72, 1st

Swinging Strike%
Jordan Humphreys, 15.3%, 9th

*Note: Matt Blackham finished with 56.2 IP, but his 36.8 K%, .183 AVG allowed, 81% LOB rate, 1.43 ERA, 1.74 FIP, and 17.5% Swinging strike rate would’ve qualified


(Initial promo date)

-       Anthony Dimino (4/12)
-       Austin McGeorge (5/2)
-       Michael Paez (6/22)
-       Jordan Humphreys (6/22)
-       Merandy Gonzalez (6/22)
-       Tim Tebow (6/26)
-       Adonis Uceta (7/27)
-       Jacob Zanon (8/17)
-       Colby Woodmansee (8/17)
-       Harol Gonzalez (8/17)
-       Ian Strom (8/26)


(Guys who finished the year on the DL and the date they were placed there)

-       Seth Davis (Missed entire season) – Had a surgery in late May
-       Blake Tiberi (4/11) – Came back for 2 games and then had TJS on 5/3
-       Max Kuhns (6/12) – Had TJS in mid-July
-       Thomas Szapucki (7/9) – Had TJS on 7/19
-       Ali Sanchez (7/13) – Came back for one game but missed the second half with a broken hamate bone in his left hand
-       Thomas McIlraith (7/17) – Started the season with St. Lucie but missed nearly two months earlier in the year with a left oblique strain
-       Joel Huertas (7/21) – Had TJS in late July
-       Desmond Lindsay (7/22) – Had ulnar nerve transposition surgery in late July
-       Gary Cornish (7/22) – Also missed 50 games due to a suspension last year
-       Blake Taylor (7/28)
-       Vinny Siena (8/10)
-       Chase Ingram (8/12) – Started the season with St. Lucie but missed two months earlier in the year with a right elbow injury; had a surgery in early September
-       Adam Atkins (8/13)
-       Colin Holderman (8/22) – Also missed two months earlier in the year with a labrum injury
-       Andres Gimenez (8/30) – Took a foot to the face on 8/29 and left a little bloodied, but he was back with the team sporting a big bandage the next day

Free Agents/Released

-       Reed Gamache (Released 10/13)
-       Justin Brantley (Released 10/13)
-       Keaton Aldridge (Released 10/17)
-       Cameron Griffin (Released 10/17)
-       Martin Anderson (Released 10/17)
-       Natanael Ramos (Elected Free Agency 11/6)
-       Jose Carlos Medina (Selected by San Diego in the Triple-A Rule 5 draft)


(95 Games Covered + All-Star coverage)

Date – Starting Pitcher




SAL All-Star Game – Dash Winningham (MVP, 2B, 2 RBI), Michael Paez (1B, R), Merandy Gonzalez (1 IP, K, 7 Pitches), and Adonis Uceta (1 IP, 3 K) highlights, plus a few HR derby highlights of Paez and Dash





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