Nobody knows New Britain Rock Cats baseball better than West Hartford’s Jeff Dooley.
Dooley, voice of the Rock Cats on radio since 1998, builds everything in his life on a foundation of optimism, whether he’s delivering his smooth play-by-play portrayals or adding stations to his ever-growing Rock Cats Radio Network.
Life hasn’t been easy for the native of Lincoln, R.I., in recent seasons, but nothing short of death and destruction can dent the Dooley optimism. Last season, the aspirations for a winning season plummeted right from the start. The Rock Cats crash-landed in last place in the Eastern League’s Northern Division and proceeded to write new chapters of futility.
Dooley accentuates the positives in situations that would send others spiraling into the depths of despair. The Rock Cats compiled a 44-98 record (.310 winning percentage), the worst of its kind in the EL since the 1943 Utica Braves went 37-101 (.268).
But as Dooley points out, there were positives.
Center fielder Ben Revere, a Rock Cats most of the season, wound up with the parent Minnesota Twins in the midst of a torrid American League Central Division pennant race.
Right-handed pitcher Kyle Gibson showed why he looms as a future big league starter, perhaps even before 2011 plays out, by going 7-5 with a 3.68 ERA in 16 Double-A starts.
Outfielder Joe Benson, good enough at football to warrant a scholarship offer from Purdue after his high school days, displayed his multiple talents while leading the team with 23 home runs and uncorking laser-like throws to nail unsuspecting baserunners.
Revere and Gibson have advanced to Triple-A, but Benson returns to New Britain with the hopes of improving the rawest aspect of his game. So does sweet-swinging left-handed first baseman Chris Parmelee, and Dooley likes repeaters.
“I think the game slows down for them the second year in the league,” he said.
“[Current Twins outfielder and former Rock Cats MVP] Michael Cuddyer is a good example. He struggled in 2000 then comes back in 2001 and I think he was the best player in the league.
“No question Benson and Parmelee were overmatched last year. They had to go back to A-ball to figure things out. But Benson ends up winning the Twins’ minor league player of year award. I think they have bright futures.”
Benson struck out 136 times in 459 at-bats and was vulnerable against right-handed pitching. Given his strong arm, ability to hit for power and deceptively fast footspeed, he possesses the kind of raw ability that makes scouts swoon.
But in order for the Rock Cats to re-establish their EL credibility, pitchers and players will have to improve and emerge in number. Dooley cites a change in the Twins’ philosophy as the primary reason for optimism.
The Twins habitually have the youngest team in the EL while others are known to stack their teams with veterans. The Twins altered that approach, presumably to help their high-level minor league clubs compete, and perhaps find a diamond in the rough.
“There are some veteran guys,” Dooley said. “There’s some leadership, but with that being said, we have to take a look at the other teams in the league. Until you see whether the league is up or down, it’s hard to judge.
“It’s a great league and it was definitely very good last year. One of the scouts said the pitching was the best it had been in 15 years. Still, there’s no excuse for losing 98 games, but it’s tough to compete when you have young kids.”
Shortstop Estarlin de los Santos, touted as a prospect heading into 2010, had a horrible showing (.177 batting average, 22 errors in 64 games). He’s been replaced by Michael Hollimon, who has some major league experience with the Detroit Tigers.
Infielder Ray Chang, a Red Sox farmhand last year, was an opening night starter and he cracked three hits.
Pitching, as always, is the key, and New Britain’s 5.17 ERA and staggering WHIP (walks and hits to inning pitched ratio) of 1.57 leave no wonder why the team failed so badly.
Right-hander David Bromberg, Twins minor league pitcher of the year in 2009, earned passage to Triple-A last year after going 5-5 with a 3.62 in 17 Double-A starts, but returns to the EL for further seasoning.
He and Deolis Guerra, the last remaining Twins asset from the Johan Santana trade to the Mets prior to the 2008 season, are the lone 40-man roster hurlers and loom as manager Jeff Smith’s top starters.
“Guerra struggled his last 10 or 12 starts last year, but they say he’s keeping his fastball low and throwing his curve for strikes,” Dooley said. “[Pitching coach Stu Cliburn] said he’s never seen him look so good in spring training. The Twins still have a lot of stock in him.”
Also of interest is left-hander Spencer Steedley, an effective reliever until injury incapacitated him from the beginning of May on.
One thing’s for sure – win or lose, the Rock Cats are well received by area fans. They break their season attendance record every year, so while Dooley may lead the league in optimism, there are a lot of central Connecticut fans in the first division.