The season actually started out quite well for the Mobile BayBears. On May 1st, the team was tied for first place, second baseman Rusty Ryal was batting .325, third baseman Cesar Nicolas was batting .357, and shortstop Yunesky Sanchez paced the Southern League with a .380 batting average and had not yet committed an error. Reliever Abe Woody had only allowed one run to cross home plate in 14.2 April innings and A. J. Shappi held a 1.53 ERA through late May. Matt Torra continued his strong second half of 2007 to go 4-1 with a 1.71 ERA in his first seven starts.
Shortly thereafter, Torra and Woody earned promotions to Tucson while the three infielders fell back to earth offensively. Top prospects Gerardo Parra, Cesar Valdez, and Javier Brito each joined the team mid-season and made significant contributions, but couldn't ignite this Bears team to a sustained win streak.
Ultimately, it was a case of their players not getting hot all at once. "I think you'd be able to say we're not pitching when we're hitting or we're not hitting when we're pitching," first baseman Bryan Byrne conceded. "We haven't put them together at the same time."
Our two Player of the Year Awards for Mobile then go to the two players who performed consistently well from May onwards while the rest of their teammates took turns on hot and cold streaks.
Position Player of the Year - 1B Bryan Byrne
Uncharacteristically, Bryan Byrne batted .260 in April. It marked the lowest batting average Byrne has reached in a full month since his very first pro month, way back in July of 2005. Predictably, his struggles did not last long, as he proceeded to hit .333 in each of the next two months and .311 in July. He fell to .269 in August, but coupled that mark with a .400 on base percentage.
The only player who could match Byrne's offensive production was Javier Brito, who drove in 42 runners in just 63 games. This was his second season in Double-A, however, and he actually wasn't as impressive as he was last year, when he won the FutureBacks Position Player of the Year Award for Mobile and was named the MVP of the team. Rusty Ryal did drive in 12 more runs and score once more than Byrne did, but he also made 48 more outs, and teetered from dynamo one month to easy out the next. Catcher John Hester exhibited great offensive prowess from June onwards, but reached base just over 30% of the time for the season.
Byrne hit .328 with runners on base and .340 when they were in scoring position. He led the BayBears with a .303 batting average, .405 on base percentage, 27 doubles, and 66 walks. Also, Byrne was runner up in hits, runs, RBI, and total bases. Perhaps most importantly, his defensive prowess saved his fellow infielders from many throwing errors throughout the season. This team player even moved across the diamond to third base for six games, the first time he has tried that since he attended St. Mary's College, and he made no defensive miscues there in that limited time.
It isn't a slam dunk, but Byrnes' consistency, clutch performance, defense, and overall offensive numbers make him this year's Position Player of the Year for Mobile.
Pitcher of the Year - RHP Tony Barnette
Who would have thought that Tony Barnette could win this award when on May 17th, he was 2-5 with a 6.60 ERA? He was dropping his body down during his delivery and appeared to be overmatched by Double-A hitters after having skipped the Hi-A level.
Barnette worked with pitching coach Jeff Pico to correct the mechanical flaw and became a force. He posted earned run averages of 3.00, 2.63, and 2.70 over the final three months and won his last seven decisions of the season. Despite always having been known as a control pitcher, Barnette also tied with Mississippi's Todd Redmond for the Southern League lead in strikeouts, even though he pitched in 12.2 fewer innings than Redmond did.
Barnette's primary competition for this award is fellow Arizona Fall League teammate Reid Mahon, who went a perfect 18-for-18 in save chances with the BayBears. His ERA impressed at 3.07, but it couldn't compare with his 1.62 mark last year across three levels, including Mobile. Considering that Mahon had already shown that he could succeed in the Southern League and that he only played with the 2008 BayBears through June, we have to give the edge to a pitcher who skipped a level and exceeded everyone's expectations but his own.
Barnette's 11 wins were four more than any other BayBear. His 3.87 overall ERA paced his teammates who tallied 80 or more innings with the club while his WHIP of 1.20 was best among those with 30 or more innings pitched. In a dreary season for the BayBears, Tony Barnette was a bright spot that only kept getting brighter.
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