Season in Review: Connecticut Defenders

The 2006 Connecticut Defenders had the core of the 2005 California League champions. Sounds like a recipe for success, right? Well, you never know what's going to happen. An injury here and a promotion there, and a promising Double-A season goes to waste.

RECORD: 64-77 (.454); 5th Place in 6 team Northern Division; 10th Place in Eastern League

SEASON IN REVIEW: The newly renamed Connecticut Defenders (formerly known as the Norwich Navigators) seemed to have a promising nucleus.  Led by sluggers like Nate Schierholtz, Eddy Martinez-Esteve and Travis Ishikawa, and with promising pitching prospect Jonathan Sanchez teaming up with Eastern League vet Pat Misch, it seemed like the Defenders would have a good year.

And what do you know, they got off to a great start.  They started the year off winning 8 of 9 and finished April 13-8.  But things went south in a hurry.  On May 6th, Martinez-Esteve felt a twinge in his shoulder on a check swing, and went down with an injury.  A rehab was attempted, but he eventually had surgery and missed the year.  Ishikawa got brief call-ups in April and May, and that and small injuries kept him from getting into a rhythm.  Hot starter Jonathan Sanchez got pushed into the bullpen, and got promoted out of Double-A right away.  And Schierholtz suffered a lingering hand injury that led to a summer long slump.

It became too much for the Defenders to overcome.  Their top pitchers, Matt Palmer and Misch, soon followed Sanchez to higher levels.  Schierholtz came around in August, and some consistent hitting by mid-season promotion Brian Horwitz helped the team win 10 of 13 in the early part of the month to tease a playoff push, but the team wasn't able to overcome the summer blues and get anywhere close to the playoffs.

TEAM MVP: There was an MVP on this team?  The team had very little consistency through the year, with only 5 players netting more than 100 games played.  Among the hitters, only 2 players with more than 45 games could bat at .270 or higher.  And none of the pitchers stayed around long enough to really make a mark.

At the end of the year, Schierholtz rebounded from a poor summer to have an incredible August.  In the month, he had a .376/.406/.696 line and was one of the best players in the league.  His performance in the month nearly gave the Defenders the balance from good pitching to at least look like they had a chance to succeed.   A good month shouldn't make an MVP type performance, but on this team, not a lot of players even were around for a month.

TOP PITCHER: Sanchez had the most buzz after three spectacular starts, but he was moved to the bullpen and promoted quickly.  The best pitchers eventually got moved up as well.  Misch had a solid year for the longest, but it was Palmer who really was the best of this group.

The 27 year old was no stranger to Connecticut.  He'd pitched there mostly as a reliever in 2004, and again in 2005 despite making only 11 appearances.  He relieved to start the year, but moved into a starting role and had a 1.30 ERA before making his inevitable promotion to Fresno.  Palmer may not be a star prospect, but he lit up Double-A and did pretty good in Triple-A.

PLAYERS WHO STEPPED UP: There simply weren't many players who did that this year in Double-A, but most of those who did were on the mound.  Chris Begg had a good start to the year, and despite a late slump, he was one of the most consistent starters for the Defenders with a 3.40 ERA.

Misch also had a good year, posting a 2.26 ERA in returning for his third season in Double-A.  After suffering a setback year in 2005 and struggling in Triple-A before a demotion back to the EL, Misch started the year strong and didn't look back before moving back up to Triple-A.

Closer Billy Sadler repeated the level, and came back to reclaim some of his status.  He had a 2.56 ERA with 20 saves in 44 games, and 67 strikeouts in 45.2 innings.   But he returned to having a lot of control problems after seemingly improving on them in 2005.

At the plate, injuries sapped all the big hitters of their power, but one hitter surprised.  Horwitz, who had won batting titles in 2004 and 2005.  He got pushed up to Connecticut after doing well in High-A after Martinez-Esteve's injury, and struggled at first in the new league infamous for promoting pitchers, but he soon turned it on and ended the year with the highest batting average (.286) of any Defender batter with significant at bats.

PLAYERS WHO DISAPPOINTED: Ishikawa suffered a foot injury after his first callup, and never found himself after it.  He batted .232 and struck out 88 times in only 298 at bats, despite showing some ability in his first couple of stints in the majors.

Eddy Martinez-Esteve, meanwhile, started out pretty well, batting .272 with 10 doubles and 2 home runs in just 92 at bats, but his shoulder injury eventually required labrum surgery on his non-throwing shoulder, after having the same surgery on his throwing shoulder before the 2005 season, and the season was lost.

On the mound, San Jose's top starter in 2005 Garrett Broshuis was on and off, and ended up being more off than on and finishing with a 4.97 ERA.  He was a consistent presence on the mound, however, making a team-high 27 appearances.

THINGS TO THINK ABOUT: Norwich's reputation of being a pitcher's paradise remained, even as it faced the best group of Giants hitters to come through since San Francisco affiliated themselves with the team.  The Giants asked the team to move the fences in for 2007, while the Defenders countered by suggesting they make the less expensive move of moving the plate up while resodding the field.  Neither will happen, however, as ESPN will spend the offseason filming a movie in the park, preventing any major changes.

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