We continue our look at each of the five Washington Nationals minor affiliates by taking a look at the level that is the closest to the big leagues. After looking at low-A Hagerstown last week, we look at the triple-A Syracuse Chiefs.
This season, the Chiefs are 54-70 and in fifth place in the International League. It’s been an up-and-down season for the Chiefs as they have had a 12-game losing streak and an 11-game win streak.
Of course, most of the buzz around the team in upstate New York has been shortstop Trea Turner. Turner, who was acquired this offseason in the Steven Souza trade (former Syracuse Chief), is hitting .299 with three home runs, 15 RBI’s, and has a .342 on-base percentage in 46 games. Despite Turner’s great season, Syracuse’s offense has scored the fourth fewest runs in the International League (471).
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However, even though the Chiefs haven’t scored many runs, they are finding ways to get on base. The team’s .324 on-base percentage is sixth in the IL. Second baseman Emmanuel Burriss (.294, 3 HR, 30 RBI’s) has a .363 on-base percentage in 75 games.
On the mound, Syracuse has a team ERA of 3.87, which is near the middle of the pack in the league. While the Chiefs’ pitchers have the fewest strikeouts of any team in the league, they have surrendered the third fewest walks. One of the best starters for a rotation that has seen most if its pitchers get time with the Nats this season is Taylor Jordan. In 16 starts, Jordan is 4-4 with a 2.41 ERA and has a 1.35 ERA in his last four starts.
To get more information on Turner, A.J. Cole, and other prospects up in Syracuse, I spoke with Victor Barbosa, who covers the team for 27outsbaseball.com. We at District On Deck would like to thank Victor for taking the time to answer these questions for us:
Ricky: How crazy has it been covering a team that has had both a ten game losing streak and a ten game winning streak in the same year?
Victor: Coming off of last year’s 2014 International League North Division title, expectations were high coming into the year. Injuries, inconsistent play and key players being called up to the majors obviously contributed to the early struggles. When the Chiefs entered their June 6-7 series against the Pawtucket Red Sox at 17-38 and having lost a dozen in a row (also an almost unfathomable 19 out of 20), all signs pointed to a very long summer in Central New York.
But since June 14, the Chiefs are a very solid 35-26. This of course was highlighted by their recent 11-game winning streak, which was just one shy of matching the franchise-record streak of 12 games set in 1979. A ton of credit has to go to Manager Billy Gardner Jr. and his coaching staff for bringing the team out of the league cellar with this great summer of baseball.
R: Trea Turner is hitting .311 in his last 30 games with the Chiefs. What has stood out to you about Turner this year and do you think he’s ready to be called up to the big league club?
V: I absolutely believe Trea Turner is ready to be called up to the Washington Nationals. After a very obscure past 12 months for the 2014 draftee – he was dealt last offseason as a PTBNL from San Diego but could not join the Washington organization until one year past his draft date – he has been terrific.
After a brief stint in Double-A Harrisburg, Turner was promoted to Syracuse on June 26. He actually began his Triple-A career 0-for-17, but has arguably been the Chiefs best hitter since the start of July.
Two things stand out to me about the 22-year-old – his baseball IQ and maturity, along with his speed on the base paths. It’s impressive given his age, how rare it is that you find Turner swinging at bad pitches, making mistakes on the bases or making a mental error in the field. His speed may not be categorized as “elite,” but his 13 steals in 14 tries across 46 games with the Chiefs speak for itself. Playing a premier position like shortstop, Turner has shown great range and turned 28 double plays. His ability to move from first to third or second to home on a single is a special sight for any baseball fan or analyst.
R: A.J. Cole was rated as one of the Nats’ top prospects before the season began, but he has had an ERA of 3.86 this season. What has caused Cole to struggle at times this season?
V: A.J. Cole has had his ups and downs this season in Syracuse but at just 23 years old, the potential is very much there.
Cole has been called up the Washington on two occasions (although they were brief stints) this season, so the interest from the big club is obviously there. He went through a short period where control issues plagued a few starts in late May-early June. From May 29 (season-high seven walks) to June 24, in five starts, Cole surrendered 19 free passes in just 18 innings.
He’s had three solid starts in August and could very well be called back up in September. Over the trio of appearances, Cole has gone 18.2 innings, allowed 12 hits, four runs (three earned,) walked four and struck out 14.
R: Who has been the biggest surprise/disappointment this season for Syracuse?
V: The biggest surprise for Syracuse this season has been Kevin Keyes. The infielder/outfielder/designated hitter was only called up from Harrisburg on June 15, but it’s not coincidence that the team has played it’s best baseball with Keyes in the lineup.
Keyes has served as the cleanup hitter over 50 times in his two months with the Chiefs, providing great protection for slugging International League All-Star Jason Martinson. Keyes versatility is a great attribute as well. He has appeared in games at first base, left field, right field and designated hitter.
The surprise factor with Keyes (who won IL Batter of the Week after being promoted,) has been prolonging his hot streaks to keep his batting average near .300. While his figure stands at .285 after 58 games with the Chiefs, that is a full 50 points higher than he hit in 56 games with the Harrisburg Senators this year. His career average in the minors is .240 and he has never hit over .265 in a full season.
R: Which players other than Turner do you think can help the Nats when the rosters expand in a few weeks?
V: Turner is indeed the clearest choice to make an immediate impact in Washington. If Ian Desmond leaves the club via free agency in the offseason, I would not be surprised at all to see Turner starting at shortstop for the Nationals in 2016. For September’s playoff push, there are a couple of other Chiefs who could certainly help the Nats.
Teams can never have enough pitchers and bullpen help is always a big target for major league teams with September call-ups. With that being said, Chiefs closer Rafael Martin could definitely make a positive impact in the nation’s capital if he is promoted. The recent struggles of Nationals set-up man Drew Storen is certainly a cause for concern and here is where Martin could be utilized. Martin began the year setting up Jose Valverde, but since his release from the team, the 31-year-old has been stellar. He’s made eight straight scoreless appearances, holding opponents to six hits and no walks while punching out 12 over an even eight innings.
Another useful September addition could be infielder Matt Skole. Skole can play first and third base and has shown a serious amount of pop since being called up to Syracuse nearly one month ago. He’s launched four homeruns and driven in 14 runs and could be a very valuable left-handed bat of the Nationals bench.
R: If fans were to check out a game at Syracuse, what is the first thing that they should expect when they get to the ballpark?
V: One of the most recognizable faces (and voices) at NBT Bank Stadium this season has been that of General Manager Jason Smorol.
Smorol was hired as the Chiefs GM after the 2013 season and shows his passion and dedication for baseball in Syracuse through his interactions with fans, countless promotional nights through the season and pre-game pump-up routine near the pitcher’s mound.
Whether it’s your first ever Chiefs game or your weekly visit to the stadium, expect to see (or hear) Smorol floating throughout the ball park, chatting it up with the fans. “Are you on board with your Syracuuuseee Chiefs?!” Smorol asks the crowd before every home game.