State of the Expansion Franchise: Michigan

Part IV of a five-part series reflecting on our 2012 expansion.

The Michigan Moneyballers will forever be known as the club that passed on Mike Trout and instead selected catcher Alex Avila with the first overall pick in the 2012 Draft.

Trout is already a legend at age 23, and he’s helping carry the Iowa Cyclones to what looks to be their first playoff berth this year. Avila was cut by Michigan manager Ken Crawford after the club’s 2013 season.

But the Moneyballers aren’t feeling that bad for themselves. They dealt shortstop J.J. Hardy to Chatfield that first winter in exchange for Adam Jones, who has turned out to be a pretty fair center fielder of his own. Jones leads this year’s Moneyballers in homers (15) and RBI (73) through 120 games as Michigan holds down one of the three wild-card spots with 40 games to play.

Adam Jones

Adam Jones

Michigan Moneyballers Roster Evolution

Players acquired pre-2012: 34
Players dealt away: 10
Players cut: 18
Still Moneyballers: 6  — OF Peter Bourjos, 1B Brandon Belt, P Homer Bailey, CF Adam Jones, P Ricky Nolasco.

2014 record: 64-56 (.533)
2013 record: 67-93 (.419)
2012 record: 60-100 (.375)

Face of the franchise: Adam Jones

GM Style: Charts R Us — Michigan has more than twice as many sac bunt attempts as the league’s No. 2 team, and also leads the league in hit-and-run attempts.

Sensing they were on the brink of contention this year, the Moneyballers made a big splash at the trade deadline, acquiring OF Jacoby Ellsbury, SS Jose Reyes and C Brian McCann from Applegate; RP Brian Wilson from Destin and OF Rajai Davis from Iowa.

The new-look Moneyballers went 9-11 in August, but at 64-56, they hold down the second wild-card position with 40 games to play. They’re virtually guaranteed to continue their upward trend in the win column, after 60 and 67 wins in their first two years.

After the Avila move (“I blame my Strat mentor, The Commish, for not giving me better advice on that one,” says Ken), Michigan redeemed itself with first-round picks of Manny Machado in 2013 and Michael Wacha in 2014, although Wacha has been sidelined with injury for much of the season.

Ken is also pleased with the selection of Ben Zobrist in the 2012 Expansion Draft, one of only four players of 36 chosen who remain with their original club.

The Moneyballers have tried various strategies in their first three seasons — aiming for as many 1 fielders as they could in their first year; playing the sac-bunt and hit-and-run charts more than any other club this year. That includes having Machado, an A bunter but still a guy who lashed 51 doubles and 14 homers for the Orioles, laying down a league-high 40 sac bunts through 120 games. But small ball is what the Moneyballers have done since their inception, leading the league in sac bunts each of their three seasons.

That’s not exactly a tribute to the Moneyballer approach of Oakland A’s fame. Michigan is actually middle-of-the-road in the league for on-base percentage (seventh at .331) and dead last in the league in homers at 91.

My general strategy so far in Strat has been to put a premium on defense and pitching, as opposed to offense,” says Ken. “I’m not sure where that came from, but somehow I got the idea that that was the way to go. I’m changing my opinion on that a little each year, but it was hard to change my team over night.”

While Michigan has held on to six original Moneyballers, three of them — Peter Bourjos, Brandon Belt and Ricky Nolasco — are candidates to be jettisoned at this year’s cut-down. And the Moneyballers have been hit hard with real-life injuries (Belt, Homer Bailey, Machado, Anibal Sanchez, Wacha, Patrick Corbin) that are going to make it challenging for them to contend next season.

Hence the decision to pour everything into a run at this year’s postseason and the late-season pickups to improve the club’s offense.

“Don’t get me wrong, I still feel defense is important, and I could probably never consistently start a ‘4’ rated player, particularly at an infield position,” Ken says, “but I can see that offense is very important, particularly in a 15-team league.”

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