Colorado Springs, CO - Revenge was sweet for Jason Whitehead. The 28yr old smacked a walk-off 2 Run homer in the bottom of the 9th to cap a come from behind victory for the Colorado Springs Raiders over the Iowa City Bison. Whitehead made his ML debut behind much fanfare for the Bison after the then 25 yr old was a Rule 5 selection 3 years ago... but the Bison gave up on him after reserve duty and limited playing time that only gave him 28 at bats before releasing him. It took 3 years for the chance that Whitehead needed to show up his former team.
But perhaps the biggest story behind the latest Bison loss is how last season's best record in the National League (104-58) has become one of the worse. The story starts with two future Hall of Famers but aging veterans: Mike Burrell and Kenny Perez.
Despite showing that he could still play last season, the Bison allowed future Hall of Famer Perez (.305 AVG, 15 HR) to become a free agent when he supposedly demanded a $4 million per year, 4 year contract that would've had him in a Bison uniform up until age 40. The 38 yr old Burrell (.315, 16 HR last year) still had a year left in his contract, but after an offseason that had a toll on his reflexes, affecting his ability to make contact and play in the field, Burrell found himself in a Penguin uniform when the Bison placed him on irreversible waivers. Gone were two of the franchise's most significant players, two veterans signed as free agents and seen as the reason the Bison made several post-season appearances. GM Raul Padilla explained: "Kenny and Mike were the ultimate professionals and we hope they will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame some day. Although our young players could benefit from them, it wasn't fair to them to be backup players in Iowa City, or in Kenny's case, to expect him to take a much lower salary simply because we were overbudget".
Next, the Bison lost one of last year's most significant role players: rookie pitcher Rube Murphy. Murphy logged 95 innings for the Bison bullpen, including 14 starts filling in for staff ace Cookie Ramirez. Following some disagreements with management after Murphy demanded to be a starting pitcher, the Bison waived him. GM Raul Padilla said: "Rube had a lot of upswing and it was hard to let him go, but it was best for him to find a team that could accommodate his professional interests and make him happy. He wanted to start, and... if somebody is not happy with the role we need him to play, it is best to sever ties...and we did. (Murphy was claimed by Boston, where he had a 10.38 ERA after making 4 appearances - all in relief - and being waived again).
But the story wouldn't be complete had the Bison replaced these three with comparable talent. In Rube Murphy's place, the Bison have inserted 35 yr old Brett "The Homer" Clark. The veteran has been a starter for the bulk of his career, and has a propensity for giving up the long ball. The Bison believed Clark would do better in the large spaces of Principal Stadium, but so far, the Bison ranch has been too small to contain the 7 HRs in 7 innings that Clark has appeared. (At this pace, if he logs 95 innings like Murphy did, the league will have a new record for HRs allowed).
To replace Burrell and Perez, the Bison traded for veteran Walt Daniels. Daniels has been in a season long slump (.215 AVG, .257 OBP, and .271 SLG). Jason Hall, who was acquired last year as a backup to Perez, has been a disappointment in full-time duty and has not yet found his rhythm. Rumors are being circulated that both may be traded if they don't hit their groove soon.
The Bison suffered a significant loss in the third game of the season when starting pitcher Rick Cobb, who was 17-7 with a 3.53 ERA last season, sprained his shoulder and landed on the DL. Rule 5 pickup Geronimo Martinez has pitched in well in Cobb's spot, and may bump struggling Pedro Saenz from the rotation when Cobb returns, and Brett Clark is likely to be released.
Today, the Bison acquired 1B Britt George from Memphis. The 30 yr old was known as a contact and high average hitter, but has struggled recently and was demoted to AAA earlier this season by Memphis. The Bison are hoping to give him a chance to jump-start their offense.
In the meantime, many realize that the Bison are at a crossroads. While many of their players have struggled after the departure of two of their former stars, critics also realize that the team has underperformed as a whole and that they are likely to improve. Management is considering trading for the future, but in a young season, it may be too soon to pull the trigger and throw in the towel. GM Padilla said" We are at a crossroads. We realize that our team is in a slump, but it is still early and we have the talent to succeed. Tomorrow we may start a winning streak and we won't look back, but we are always looking for ways to improve and have a competitive franchise for years to come."