Charleston RiverDogs manager Luis Dorante was in good spirits before the 2016 season began. While talking to reporters on the field on media day, he joked about last year’s constantly changing lineup. “This year with the club that I have, we’re going to spend more time with this club now, hopefully we can win the first half and then they can take my players. The last two years they’ve been taking my players way before the first half ends. It seems like this year we’re going to keep them,” Dorante said.
The RiverDogs finished five games ahead of second place Greenville to clinch the first half Southern Division championship with a 42-27 record. The RiverDogs would appear in the playoffs for the first time since 2005 as a result.
By the time the playoffs rolled around, the roster had turned over quite a lot with only a few players remaining from the first half champions. Charleston went 34-36 during the second half and fell to second half Southern Division champion Rome in an exciting three-game playoff series, 2-1.
The RiverDogs path to the playoffs started with a sizzling start to the season. Charleston went 16-6 in April and the pitching staff would establish itself as the backbone of the team. The pitching staff ended up leading the South Atlantic League with a 3.03 team ERA.
Domingo Acevedo was impressive with his fastball he could throw into the upper 90s with a nasty slider. Acevedo went 3-1 with a 1.91 ERA in eight starts before being called up by Tampa in the middle of June.
Brody Koerner started off strong with a 1.74 ERA in three starts with Charleston, consistently throwing strikes. Left-handed James Reeves, was impressive out of the bullpen pitching to a 2.70 ERA in 10 innings with 15 strikeouts in 10 innings. Reeves, from nearby Summerville, SC, was familiar pitching at Joe Riley Park, home of the RiverDogs, as he also pitched there for The Citadel in college. Both Koerner and Reeves were called up to the Tampa Yankees on April 26.
Josh Rogers would join Koerner and Reeves in Tampa two days later on April 28. The lanky left-hander went 2-1 posting an ERA of 1.59, striking out 25 batters in 22 and two-thirds innings.
Travis Hissong started the year in Charleston and quickly moved up to the double-A Trenton Thunder during 2016. He opened the year with the RiverDogs with a 0.54 ERA while striking out 23 batters in 16 and two-thirds innings. He moved up to Tampa from Charleston on May 9.
Despite the ever-changing pitching staff, the RiverDogs remained strong with pitchers such as Christian Morris, Nestor Cortes, Luis Cedeno and Yefrey Ramirez.
Cortes, Morris, and Cedeno would earn South Atlantic League Pitcher of the Week honors for the RiverDogs. Cortes went 6-2 in 13 games with Charleston. He put up a microscopic 0.79 ERA striking out 75 batters in 68 and a third innings. His WHIP was a mind-boggling 0.746. He’d end up the year with Tampa, but made spot starts for Trenton and Scranton along the way. He earned his Pitcher of the Week honor for May 16-22.
Morris would be a mainstay all year long with the RiverDogs. He went 8-5 with a 2.99 ERA. Morris wasn’t afraid to pitch aggressively posting an impressive 1.07 WHIP in 120 and one-third innings in 22 starts. He won his Pitcher of the Week honor for the week of June 6-12.
Cedeno would join the fold from extended spring training on May 16. He earned his Pitcher of the Week honor for July 25-31. He ended up going 9-9 with a 3.68 ERA for the RiverDogs. On July 28, he was perfect through six innings against Lexington before allowing a walk and a hit to start the seventh. That was the only hit he allowed in seven innings pitched in a 1-0 RiverDogs victory. He was called up right before the playoffs to Tampa.
Ramirez went 4-2 in 11 starts with the RiverDogs with a 2.80 ERA. He struck out 66 batters in 61 innings allowing only 14 walks. He earned his spot on the Tampa Yankees roster on June 30.
Andrew Schwaab would be the right-handed sidearm closer for Charleston most of the season. Schwaab saved 20 games for the Dogs and ended up with a 4-1 record out of the bullpen with a 2.27 ERA. He made the South Atlantic League All-Star Team for the Southern Division, along with teammates Cody Carroll and Daris Vargas.
Carroll worked 91 and 1/3 innings out of the bullpen in 26 games. He struck out 90 batters with a 3.15 ERA. Vargas was 10-8 with a 2.95 ERA on the year. Vargas features a 97 mile per hour fastball along with a nasty slider and change.
The RiverDogs received an infusion of pitching talent courtesy of the Carlos Beltran trade. Dillon Tate, Erik Swanson, and Nick Green came over from the Texas Rangers organization on August 1. Tate was the biggest prize of the haul being the 4th overall pick of the 2015 amateur draft.
Tate showed great velocity on the mound with a biting slider in the mid-80s and a fast ball that reached as high as 96. There were reports that his velocity was down with Hickory this year, but that was not the case when he came over to the RiverDogs. Tate worked exclusively out of the bullpen putting up a 1-0 record with Charleston with a 3.12 ERA. He struck out 15 batters in 17 and a third innings pitched.
Green went 3-0 during the regular season with a 1.06 ERA and earned the Game 1 start in the playoffs. Swanson ended up with a 3.60 ERA pitching in five games, two of those starts, with Charleston.
Offensively, the RiverDogs had many impressive performances that landed much of the roster in Tampa. Thairo Estrada would be the first position player to earn a promotion to Tampa on May 22. In 35 games with the RiverDogs, Estrada hit .286 with five home runs and 19 runs batted in. He stole 11 bases in 14 attempts.
Connor Spencer was the next RiverDog to head up to Tampa after being called up on June 14. Spencer only hit five home runs in his time with Charleston, but that may be due to Joe Riley Park, a notorious pitcher’s park. He hit .253 while drawing 19 walks in 45 games.
Jeff Hendrix started off the year in center field for the RiverDogs and fought through two injuries in his time in Charleston. He injured his hamstring and spent time on the disabled list. After he came off the DL on May 28, he ended up winning Player of the Week honors for May 30 – June 5. During that stretch, he went 15-for-24 with three doubles and five RBI. He then sprained his wrist and landed on the DL again on June 14. However, when Hendrix came back, he picked up where he left off, earning a promotion to Tampa on July 17. Hendrix plays a very good center field and gets on base. He ended up hitting .299 with an on-base percentage of .401 with Charleston. He stole 11 bases in 14 attempts before his promotion.
Kyle Holder was another standout for Charleston. Holder is a sleek fielder who can play second base and shortstop. Holder ended up batting .290 in 88 games. He did have an undisclosed upper body injury and an ankle injury that landed him two disabled list stints. He was teamed up the middle with Hoy Jun Park, who also swapped between second base and shortstop.
Park is a solid fielder with a strong arm but seems more suited to second as he needs to work on his footwork. He also struggled at the plate hitting .225 while striking out 120 times. He did end up with 12 triples which led the league. He also needs to improve his base running instincts as he made many mistakes on the base paths. While Holder seems to be a good bet for Tampa next season, Park may need some more time in Charleston.
Chris Gittens had a very good season at first base for the RiverDogs. He hit .253 with 21 home runs and 70 RBI and was voted to the South Atlantic League’s Postseason All-Star Team. Gittens also won the 2016 Top Dog award as voted on by the fans. Gittens at times struggled with curveballs but improved against breaking stuff as the year went on. He has tremendous power and great pop off his bat.
Highly regarded Luis Torrens came back from a shoulder injury that sidelined him in 2015. Torrens did struggle offensively and defensively which was most likely a result of his time away from the game getting his shoulder back in shape. Torrens struggled with passed balls (16) during the season. At the plate, he hit .230 in 40 games.
In the playoffs, the RiverDogs faced a hot Rome Braves team built on pitching. In game one at Rome, Nick Green faced touted Braves prospect, Mike Soroka. Rome broke out first against Green, scoring on an RBI triple from Ronald Acuna that scored Ray-Patrick Didder. Didder scored on an Austin Riley groundout to make it 2-0 Braves after one inning. Soroka shut down the RiverDogs, allowing only one run on a Hoy Jun Park RBI single in the fifth. Soroka went seven and two-thirds innings allowing seven hits, while striking out four, walking only one batter, picking up the win in the 3-1 Braves win.
In game two back in Charleston, the RiverDogs were on the brink of elimination down 3-0 in the bottom of the seventh. Kolby Allard, who was picked 14th overall in the 2015 amateur draft by Atlanta, shut down the Dogs for six innings, allowing no runs and only three hits. In the seventh, Chase Johnson-Mullins came in to relieve Allard and the Dogs furiously rallied to score four runs to take a 4-3 lead. Cesar Diaz scored Kane Sweeney with an RBI single for the first Dogs run. Vince Conde then scored Park and Diaz on a single to right field to tie the game at three. The Braves then went to the pen again and brought in Corbin Clouse. Jhalan Jackson scorched a grounder to third base that Austin Riley could not handle for the Braves which scored Holder for a 4-3 lead. Taylor Widener would earn the win in relief and Andrew Schwaab shut the door on the Braves for the save to secure the win and tie the series at 1-1.
Another promising prospect for the Braves would take the mound in game three. Max Fried would shut down the RiverDogs for seven and two-thirds innings, striking out 11 batters and allowing only one run. The Dogs only run came in the first when they took a 1-0 lead on a Park double that scored Sweeney. Christian Morris started for the Dogs and ran into trouble in the fifth. Riley doubled in Alejandro Salazar and Didder to give the Braves a 3-1 lead. Justin Ellison then drove in Riley with a double to left-center field to extend the lead to 4-1, which would end up being the final score and the RiverDogs season came to an end. Rome would end up defeating Lakewood two games to one in the South Atlantic League championship series.
RiverDogs defensive coach Travis Chapman summed up the season, “It’s been great. You look at the Kyle Holders, the Chris Gittens, and Jhalan Jacksons, the guys who have been here all year, Hoy (Jun) Park, those guys and the new guys who came in, they kept teaching how the RiverDogs play and kept them learning… It’s been a very successful season for the RiverDogs.” Chapman also had praise for pitching coach Justin Pope and the RiverDogs pitching staff, which was the strength of the team all year long. “(Justin Pope) did a great job and really all the pitchers. They came in, Popey got them working, throwing strikes. We played defense behind our guys and our pitchers really battled. We got a lot of strikeouts, ground balls, got a lot of weak outs. You know Popey and really all of our pitchers did an excellent job.”
RiverDogs middle infielder Kyle Holder also reflected on the season and had this to say, “We had a great group of guys, we changed a lot, but somehow we were able to stay close as a team no matter who came into the clubhouse and I think that’s a big reason why we were so successful. Great group of guys and look forward to playing with them in the future.”
The RiverDogs had plenty of support in 2016, as the team broke its previous single-season attendance record set in 2015. 293,161 fans came through the turnstiles.
Before game two of the playoffs at Joe Riley Park in Charleston, the New York Yankees and RiverDogs announced they had renewed their player development contract for four years. The Yankees will supply Charleston with prospects through the year 2020.
2017 will see the RiverDogs open up the Riley Park Club. The addition is being built to the right of the press box and will provide 6000-square feet of event space that will be available not only during RiverDogs games but during the off-season as well. It will not only overlook the field but also give views of the Ashley River beyond the right field wall and the sunset over the wetlands along the first-base side of the ballpark.
On the field, the Yankees will field another strong team in Charleston for 2017 if the Staten Island Yankees 2016 season is any indication. Staten Island once again made the New York-Penn League playoffs, bowing out to State College in the first round.