Erie finished the season in fifth place in their division, posting a record of 67-75 – not quite what fans were hoping for when the season started, especially when it was confirmed that Tigers' top prospects Jacob Turner would be kicking off the year with the ‘Wolves.
Besides Turner, Erie was littered with a number of top pitchers in the organization, including Casey Crosby, Lester Oliveros, Chance Ruffin, Luis Marte and Austin Wood. However, despite so many top arms, the SeaWolves finished ninth in the Eastern League in ERA, with a posting of 4.37.
There wasn't quite the same excitement at the plate though, as much of the opening day roster was filled with a number of relatively non-descript players – hard workers who could play ball, but weren't among the who's who in the organization. Francisco Martinez was the lone exception, but at just 20 years of age, expectations on him were quickly tempered.
That group of non-descript players though didn't perform all that bad, finishing fifth in the Eastern League in runs scored and fourth with a .266 average.
It all combined though to result in a team that just wasn't quite able to challenge the division leadership, and remained near the bottom of the Western division for much of the year.
Among the individual performances though, Turner did not disappoint, except for that pesky little win column. Turner won just three games in 17 starts for the ‘Wolves, but pitched well all season long, posting a 3.48 ERA before he eventually got his mid-season call-up, first to Detroit, and then back down to Toledo before returning to Detroit after September 1st, where he finished up the 2011 campaign.
Everyone expected a good year from Turner, however, the same can't be said for Crosby, who barely pitched in 2010 due to elbow issues. The young man though arrived in Erie ready to deal, and shined, posting a 9-7 record with a 4.10 ERA while leading the ‘Wolves in innings pitched (131 2/3) and strikeouts (121).
Said one NL scout about the duo, "Two absolutely electric arms at the head of that rotation. Early in the year you had a 40% shot of seeing one of these two if you caught a game in Erie, and if you did, you were in for a treat. They are both elite guys in that system."
While the ‘Wolves lost Turner at midseason, they benefitted from the arrival of Lakeland's top starter; 2010 second round draft pick Drew Smyly. The left-hander made only eight starts in Erie, but was practically unhittable in his time there. He went 4-3 with a 1.18 ERA, allowed just 32 hits in over 45 innings, and struck out 52. One AL scout remarked about Smyly in 2011, "When he showed up in Erie I think people expected him to falter a little. He didn't. He feasted on the challenge. He stepped up and absolutely dealt. One of the best stretches I saw by a kid in that league this year. He could be in Detroit next year." Certainly a ringing endorsement for both the long and near term future for Smyly.
Jumping to the bullpen, the ‘Wolves went through a number of closers and late inning relievers over the course of the year. In fact, eight different relievers recorded at least one save for the ‘Wolves.
Ruffin and Oliveros were expected to carry the load – however, neither made it in Erie for the entire season, with Oliveros elevated in May and Ruffin in July – coincidentally, both of the pitchers ended up being moved in trades later on in the summer, with Ruffin included in the deal that brought Doug Fister to Detroit and Oliveros being the key piece to land Delmon Young.
Wood was one constant in the back of the bullpen, as he spent all of 2011 in Erie. He went 5-5 with a 3.16 ERA, recorded six saves and struck out nearly one batter per inning.
The guy who impressed the most down the stretch though was righty Tyler Stohr, who was coming off Tommy John surgery but showed well in his appearances with the ‘Wolves. He recorded three saves with a 4.21 ERA and struck out 27 batters in 25 2/3 innings and impressed enough that there remains hope amongst scouts for the reliever draft class of 2008. Said an NL scout on Stohr, "That guy is a big leaguer. He's fearless out there. Combine that with some dirty stuff and you've got a setup guy. I really liked him."
No pitching staff would be complete without a man leading the way, and for Erie, that was catcher Bryan Holaday, who was aggressively moved to Erie to start the year. Erie manager Chris Cron, in his first year at the helm of the ‘Wolves said about the young backstop; "For a kid in his first full year of pro ball he did an exceptional job of handling our pitching staff. He still has some things to work on in terms of his receiving, but he really handled and led our pitchers this year. He was a huge asset."
Moving to the offense, Martinez was the highlight, but also left Erie midway through the season as he was also a part of the Fister trade with Seattle.
The player that really turned heads this season though was Justin Henry, who after years of relatively modest numbers, hit over .300 for Erie and posted an OPS over .800, leading the way among qualified hitters for the ‘Wolves. Henry flashed his gap power with 24 doubles and six triples. Henry led the way at the plate despite moving all over the diamond on defense, showing off his versatility by playing all of the outfield spots in addition to second base, third base and shortstop. "The guy I think really made a name for himself this year is Henry," said an NL scout, continuing "He played solid D at several positions, including shortstop, where he surprised the heck out of me. He can work a pitcher, make contact and run, and that combined with his versatility could just profile him as a utility guy."
One player who was expected to be a reliable hitter in the middle of the order was Brandon Douglas, but a hamstring injury sidelined him to start the year, and slowed him down for much of the first half. However, he rebounded strong and finished with a .281 average. Cron said about Douglas: "He might not be a huge prospect, but he's a ball player. I won't ever put anything past a ball player. He grinds out at-bats. He grinds out every game. He was a big catalyst for us this year. You might look up one day and see him in the big leagues."
The ‘Wolves also had a rotating group of players at shortstop, with one-time top prospects Audy Ciriaco, Gustavo Nunez and Cale Iorg all seeing time there. Said an AL scout, "At various points in the year there was some serious glove work on that roster. Those three guys in particularly could absolutely pick it! They were fun to watch."
While Nunez and Iorg struggled with the bat, Ciriaco came on with a .277 average and drove in 55 runs while ripping 36 extra base hits.
Finally, Rawley Bishop, while not a traditional power hitter, led the way power-wise, belting ten home runs for the team and leading the club in runs driven in with 67.
All in all, while the season record didn't meet the hopes some fans had for the club, there was still much to see and enjoy at Jerry Uht Park in 2011. Erie fans got to see likely-future Tigers like Turner and Crosby, and Ruffin, Oliveros and Marte all made their big league debut in 2011 after starting the year with Erie.