Great Falls skipper Ryan Newman has had to juggle his lineup unlike any manager in the Pioneer League this season. Yet his Voyagers won the North Division's first-half title despite seeing no less than five of his top players move up in the Chicago White Sox system.
The Voyagers lost Adam Heisler, Kyle Robinson, Michael Marjama, Andrew Douglas and D.J. Jarrad to promotions but still won the first-half crown by four games over Billings. Great Falls posted a 24-14 record in the first half in defense of their 2011 Pioneer League championship.
"Ultimately we're here to develop players first," Newman said. "And if we do that the right way, it will translate into wins. Obviously at the big league level you're trying to win every night. At the Minor League level we're trying to develop big league players who are going to be winners.
"They've taken the bulk of our guys, but that's what they're supposed to do."
Perhaps the biggest loss was Robinson, an outfielder who was leading the league in hitting at .378 when he was promoted to Class A Kannapolis of the South Atlantic League on July 28. Newman said Robinson had put the Voyagers' offense on his back, and the numbers proved it. By the time he left, Robinson was also ranked in the top five in on-base percentage and slugging.
Still, Newman said it was pitching -- headlined by right-handed starter Jonathan Casey -- that paved the way for Great Falls' success. Casey is 4-3 and sits second in the league with a 2.23 ERA, a big reason the Voyagers have the lowest team ERA at 4.07.
Casey has done it with solid command of his pitches.
"The biggest thing I've noticed is he's hitting his spots," catcher Brent Tanner said. "He's spotting his fastball inside and outside to both left-handed and right-handed hitters, and his changeup is just outstanding. He's getting tons of swings and misses on his changeup."
"Pitching carried us in the first half, and we played solid defense behind them," Newman said. "We were never out of a ballgame. We had a ton of come-from-behind games, and it says a lot about these guys in the locker room. They're never out of a game, no matter what the score is. They battle and they put the work in."
Tanner is part of a lineup that will make or break the Voyagers in the second half. A product of the University of South Alabama, Tanner was leading the team with four home runs and 26 RBIs while splitting time between catcher and first base.
By virtue of their first-half title, the Voyagers have already clinched a berth in the postseason. If complacency is an issue, Great Falls might be concerned with its 0-3 start to the second half. But Newman doesn't seem too worried. He is, after all, walking that fine line as a Minor League manager.
"I put it on us as a coaching staff to keep these guys motivated," Newman said. "Obviously having a playoff berth locked up makes it easier for us. We can do more things that we want to do during games, trying different things, getting more guys in the lineup as far as at-bats. But as we get closer to the end of the season we've got to get the ship sailing the right way and keep everything moving uphill.
"We're going to try to finish strong here in the second half and go into the playoffs feeling good about ourselves."
New attitude: Grand Junction is seeing quick results since moving from Casper after last season. A franchise that never finished over .500 in its history challenged for the South Division's first-half title behind the bat of the No. 10 overall pick in the 2012 Draft, David Dahl. Ogden won the division via tie-breaker, but both teams were 21-17.
Stat factory: Orem center fielder Joel Capote has taken over as the league's leading hitter with a .402 average. But Capote has been a scourge to Pioneer League pitching in other ways, too, as his league-high .513 on-base and .630 slugging percentages attest.
1,500 club: Billings' Pat Kelly won his 1,500th career game as a manager with a 7-0 victory over Helena on July 27. Kelly is only in his second season as the skipper in Billings, but this is his 24th year as a Minor League manager. Career-wise, "P.K." has served five different Major League organizations in 12 different circuits.