The 2014 season for the New Orleans Zephyrs started amid much promise and hope.
The team had been totally revamped from 2013, when the Zephyrs comprised veterans of Triple-A baseball who were more stop-gaps — an offensively challenged group who set a franchise record for strikeouts.
This year’s team was full of prospects who appear to have a better chance at a major league career. It had hitting, speed, fielding and a bullpen of hard throwers.
“If our starting pitching holds up, we could have a special season,” new manager Andy Haines said when the season began.
That, they did not. After a first half that pointed to a potential playoff berth, the Zephyrs stumbled hard after the All-Star break, going 18-25 going into the final three games. They entered the final weekend hoping to climb out of last place in the American Southern Division.
Injuries and a large number of call-ups by the parent Miami Marlins, two bad stretches by the Zephyrs, a hot division opponent in the Memphis Redbirds, and Haines being a rookie manager all contributed to a storm of demise.
“We were in first place near the end of July, and after that we were only a game or two out,” Haines said. “We had about a three-week stretch where we didn’t pitch well enough in games or to keep leads in games.
“You couple that with the fact that (the Memphis Redbirds) got red hot, and that’s the season right there.”
New Orleans was 54-49 and leading the American Southern Division by a half-game on July 21 after All-Star starter Elih Villanueva won at Iowa 5-4. The Z’s then lost 10 of their next 13 games and fell six games back.
The seeds for the slide had been planted as early as July 16, when top young pitching prospects Andrew Heaney and Anthony DeSclafani, as well as slugging first baseman Justin Bour and center fielder Jake Marisnick, a good all-around player now starting for the Houston Astros, were called up to Miami. That was on the heels of starting pitcher Sam Dyson being called up the day before and Jordany Valdespin, an exciting, versatile player, going to the Marlins two days before that.
Although Heaney DeSclafani, Bour and Marisnick returned to the Zephyrs later in the season, the Zephyrs never got back on track.
Unlike 2013, the Marlins are in a pennant race. In June, they made 45 transactions, a team record. Forty involved Zephyrs players.
“We had some injuries to (ace) Jose Fernandez and Ed Lucas, and a few ticky-tack injuries,” said Marty Scott, the Marlins’ vice president of development. “But mostly, we were trying to get the best chemistry and performers to give us a little punch.”
Brian Chattin, the Marlins’ director of player development, said: “We had a stretch where it seemed we had a move every single night. It was kind of an all-hands-on-deck approach.
“At the Triple-A level, it’s hard to maintain a consistent lineup or pitching staff when phone calls come every day to help the major league team.”
The Zephyrs battled back from a 1-7 start to the season to climb to first place at 38-32 on June 15. They stayed at the top the next two weeks, the highlight of the season.
“When Heaney (May 20) and DeSclafani (May 22) came, that’s when we had taken off,” Haines said. “But I know that the Triple-A club exists to help the big-league club.”
The relief corps was forced to work more innings than usual after the mid-June call-ups, and it became stretched thin, Haines and pitching Charlie Corbell said then.
Still, the Zephyrs began a key series at Memphis on Aug. 7 three games out of first place and having won the final three games of their home series against division-leader Nashville.
That’s when the dam broke. New Orleans split the first two games of the Memphis series, then lost 21-3 and 12-0 in consecutive games on its way to losing seven of eight, including four in a row at home.
On the other hand, the series in Memphis sent the Redbirds on a 15-3 run.
For Haines, it has been a season of adjustment, coming from the Marlins’ Single-A team in Jupiter, Florida, where he managed last season. Haines said all the transactions that are a part of Triple-A baseball is much different from Single-A.
“I don’t think I have to change the way I relate to players,” he said. “But the team dynamic will really challenge you because of all the turnover. You’ve just got to keep after it.”
Scott and Chattin said Haines did well keeping the team together and liked how he managed.
“He learned a lot about the challenges in Triple-A,” Chattin said. “He put his stamp on the club, he developed an excellent work ethic for the players, he had the pulse of the clubhouse, and the players played hard and went about as professionals and competed till the end.”
Both also said there were a lot of positives. For one, all the Zephyrs call-ups helped the Marlins stay in the thick of the race.
Then there was the continued development of outfielders Mark Canha (20 home runs, 28 doubles) and Kyle Jensen (27 homers, 29 doubles), and catchers Rob Brantly and Kyle Skipworth, as well first baseman Justin Bour (17 homers, 27 doubles) and shortstop Juan Diaz, who were obtained in the offseason. Bour also was a designated hitter with the parent club.
“And then you look at some of the kids who came from Double-A during the course of the season: Heaney and DeSclafani,” Chattin said. “They continued to progress toward the big leagues. They both got to the big leagues this year. They have yet to establish themselves, but they’re on that path.”
The Zephyrs finished 14th in attendance in the 16-team league, with an average of 4,801 fans per game. And they missed the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season.
“As a competitor, I want every team I’m on to play in the postseason,” Haines said. “After the way we fought back from that tough start at the beginning of the season and still having a chance after what we went through in July, not having a chance to play in the postseason is a tough pill to swallow.”