The St. Paul Saints are off to a fast start in the American Association, leading the North Division for most of the season. There have been several players that have made significant contributions to that early season success, but the Saints found themselves short-handed recently thanks, in large part, to that success.Right-hander Vinny Nittoli and second baseman Josh Allen had been on fire. Nittoli was 3-2 with a 3.21 ERA in this five starts, striking out 38 in 28.0 innings, ranked third in the American Association. Josh Allen had a slow start, going 6-32 through the first ten games of the season, but Manager George Tsamis moved him to the leadoff spot on May 30 and he blossomed. In 14 games, Allen was 25 for 58, scored 10-runs and homered four times.
These two had become key ingredients for a team looking to return to the playoffs after a one-year hiatus, but success comes at a price. On June 12, the contract of Nittoli was purchased by Saltillo (Mexican League) and, two days later, the New York Mets purchased the contract of Allen. Great opportunities for the players, but a double whammy for the St. Paul Saints.
Adding injury to insult was the loss of catcher Justin O’Conner to a dislocated thumb on June 17. O’Conner was the starting catcher, appearing in 24 of the team’s first 27 games. He was hitting .238 and lead the team with five home runs, but it was his play behind the plate that was earning rave reviews.
The Saints catcher had the complete confidence of the staff and was shutting down opposing running games this season. O’Conner had thrown out 33 percent of would-be base stealers but, more importantly, only 12 had even attempted to take an extra base on him. He had a cannon for an arm and could throw with authority from any position.
Looking Local for the Answers
One of the biggest challenges for an independent team is that there is no farm system where a team can turn to restock their roster. They have to go to the open market and hope that they find a player or group of players who will not only make a contribution, but play comparably to the one who was lost.
Every manager has a rolodex of agents, player personnel directors, and teams to contact to see if they can find the right player to fit their need, but the best option may actually be right under his nose. That proved to be the case for St. Paul Saints Manager George Tsamis, who found three gems from local area colleges. Needing a catcher, starting pitcher, and infielder, the Saints Manager decided to take a look at players who were graduating but not ready to hang up their cleats quite yet.
The first of these came just before Nittoli was signed away, when Tsamis signed St. Thomas Tommies right-hander Ryan Zimmerman. Zimmerman was coming off an impressive senior season where he was 6-3 in nine starts, with two complete games and a 3.36 ERA. The right-hander led the MIAC in strikeouts and had closed the 2018 season in fine fashion, going the distance against Gustavus Adolphus.
Zimmerman made his first start for the Saints on June 2 and pitched well, yielding two runs, one earned, on three hits in five innings of work. He took the loss, but proved he could pitch effectively at the professional level. The right-hander got a bit of a reality check in his last start, giving up six runs in four innings against the Lincoln Saltdogs, but Lincoln has three of the top five home run hitters in the league, so no shame in struggling against an offensive machine. In his three appearances, the former Tommies ace has a 4.61 ERA.
The loss of Allen was as big, if not bigger. Not only was he hitting well in the leadoff spot, but he was easily the team’s best defensive player beyond O’Conner. Replacing a defensive whiz who was the catalyst to the offense was a bigger challenge but, so far, Zimmerman’s former teammate, Jake Smith, may have proven to be the answer.
Smith was an outfielder with the Tommies, but Tsamis has utilized him at short and he has done the job. Smith has appeared in four games this season, adding a spark to the lineup, hitting .462 with four runs scored and four RBI. The shortstop has three hits in each of his last two starts and has played well at short.
While pleased, Tsamis is not surprised by Smith’s performance. “He was an outfielder at St. Thomas, but we knew he could play short and he has been solid there. It’s not easy to move from playing in college to the pros, but he has handled it well and been great.”
Needing another catcher, the Saints looked just up the street from St. Thomas, signing Concordia-St. Paul backstop Connor Olson. Olson was a standout at Concordia, appearing in 42 games this season where he hit .268 with 23-RBI. He set the school record for homers in his sophomore season, hitting 15.
Olson appeared in one game since the signing, going 1-4.
In It for the Long Haul
While the three were signed to meet specific needs, the truth is that all three will likely stay with the team. The play of Smith is making him invaluable, and he has great versatility in that he can play several positions, which makes him even more valuable. Zimmerman could remain in the No. 5 spot in the rotation, as long as his performance against Lincoln proves to be more of an aberration. Even Olson is likely to stick, as the Saints Manager is prone to carry three catchers.
What Lay Ahead
After finishing a three-game set in Lincoln, the St. Paul Saints return home to begin a four-game series against the Winnipeg Goldeyes starting Thursday. Winnipeg is currently in third in the North Division, trailing the Saints by 2.5-games. The Goldeyes have won the last two American Association championships.
The Sioux City Explorers come to town on Monday to begin a three-game series. The Explorers have the best record in the American Association, leading the South Division by 4.5-games. Sioux City is second in the league in hitting and third in ERA.
Rob Pannier writes about the Saints and the American Association just about every day on MinorLeagueSportsReport.com.
The next homestand also includes promotions for National Yoga Day, Winter Canival in June and Toilet Paper Drive. Stop by SaintsBaseball.com for tickets.
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