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Avs Looking for Title Run

By Bill Little, Colorado Avs News

When PBDL newcomer Scott Keys was hired as the general manager of the Colorado Avalanche this offseason, he quickly set two standards for the franchise: Compete for a Gold Division championship every year and build a sustainable farm system that could be counted on each season to supplement the big club.
He walked into a perfect situation to meet the first goal.

And he has a long way to go to meet the second.

The Avs have been a perennial power in the three years of PBDL, making the playoffs each season and winning two championships. With a historically strong pitching staff and some exciting young players ready to augment a solid veteran roster in the field, the Avs certainly have their eyes set on another playoff run in 2016.

“Our entire management team is so excited about out club this year,” Keys said on the eve of the 2016 season. “Guys like Bob Williamson, Oscar Wallace. Zak Benjamin and Gary Hurley are so outstanding, both in the field and in the clubhouse. They’ve been through the PBDL wars and know what it takes to compete in the Gold Division. And that experience can only help with the young guys ready to make their mark.”

While the Avs roster has a very veteran look, the team is certainly counting on a youth infusion carrying the offense this season. Four players age 26 or under are slated to open the season as starters for the club, including rookies Ryan Strickland and 23-year-old shortstop phenom Paul Christian.

“In this game, you can’t just stack a team with superstars,” Keys said. “Finances won’t allow it - and neither will the other teams in the league. You have to be able to continually build and change over your roster. Players leave - some for more money and some for a different opportunity. It is the nature of the game. So you need a talented and well-stocked farm system to keep your team competitive - or the relegation monster will quickly eat you alive.”

And that is where Keys finds himself in a pickle. To say the farm system is bare would be the understatement of understatements.

“Yeah, we were shocked,” Keys said of his management team’s thoughts when they got a first-hand look at the Avs farm system. “Some here wanted to leave Ryan (Strickland) and Paul (Christian) down (in the minors) just so we could say we have some prospects,” (the GM laughed at this remark, but with a hint of seriousness).

It is fair to say that the previous Colorado regime paid little attention to the Avs farm. When Keys took control of the squad, most of the teams in the minors weren’t even fully stocked. It is the tsunami of disasters.

“It is a challenge, for sure. It will take several strong drafts and smart maneuvers to build this system back up. But that’s why we are here,” Keys added.

While the farm may languish, the big club looks as solid as ever:

1B: The Avs best power source, Tom Cramer will again man first for the Avs. While his last two seasons have fallen far short of his outstanding 2013 campaign, Cramer was second on the team in homers with 15 in 2015 and figures to man the cleanup spot in manager Dan Stevenson’s lineup most every day.

2B: Ray Haley had a breakout year in 2015, his first as a full-time starter in the PBDL. The 24-year-old hit .278 with a .344 OBP for the Avs. “Ray is a good kid and his teammates love him and the effort he gives every day. He has work to do to reach the level we think he can attain, but he’ll get there,” Keys said.

3B: At 32 years of age, Gary Hurley is one of the “old men” of the club. But the Canada native has plenty of gas left in the tank to improve on his strong 2015 campaign. Hurley, who will man third base on a full-time basis this season, hit .286 with a .369 OBP last season, but he was far from satisfied. “Last year’s numbers simply weren’t good enough,” he said. “I need better power numbers and I need to drive in more runs. That is what this team expects of me and that is what I expect of myself. We’ve got a great bunch of guys here in Colorado. Hopefully the nagging injuries that bothered me last year are gone and I can put up the numbers we need.”

SS: One of the first things Keys did when he took charge of the club was champion the promotion of shortstop Paul Christian, whose defensive prowess should have him challenging for Gold Gloves early in his career. “Defensively, Paul is ready to play at this level. There is no doubt about that,” Keys said. “Last year he struggled in the minors, but he had great success in 2014 and we think he can again - even on the bigger stage. I am incredibly excited about Paul holding down our shortstop spot for years to come.”

OF: If the Avs have a superstar among the position players, it would have to be 30-year-old outfielder Bob Williamson. Williamson, who will man center on most nights this season, hit .290 last year and led the Avs in home runs with 18. He has 43 home runs and 161 RBI over the last three seasons and is the unquestioned field general in Colorado. Twenty-six-year-old Ed Welch is in his second full season in the PBDL, after posting a respectable .241/.441/.733 slash line last season. Welch is an outstanding defensive presence in left field for the Avs and the club plans to use his speed on the base paths to its advantage this season. Highly-ranked rookie Ryan Strickland will get his chance to lay claim to right field this season, even though he disappointed the big club with an often lazy effort last year in the minors. “Ryan has all the talent in the world - we are hoping the challenge of playing in the big leagues will drive him to be better,” Keys said. With the trio of Welch, Williamson and Strickland on the field, the Avs should have one of the best defensive outfields in the league. Not to be forgotten is Lucio Sanchez, who will back up both corner outfield spots and be the team’s primary DH this season.

SP: If the Avs are going to make a run at the Gold Division title, it will come on the back of its starting rotation, consistently ranked as one of the best in the PBDL. Ace Oscar Wallace and the improving Ed Wolf top the rotation, followed by veteran stalwart Zak Benjamin (13-4, 2.75 ERA in 2014) to form an imposing rotation. Christian Hunter, who pitched in the bullpen last year, will get first shot at the 4th spot in the rotation.

Bullpen: Twenty-five-year-old Ed Allen from New Braunfels, Texas has put together seasons of 29, 24 and 22 saves with a sub 2.80 ERA in his three seasons in Colorado to lead a sometimes dominant back end of the bullpen. Setting up for Allen will be righties Walt Brown and Tu-an Loh, with Jesus Lopez, Larry Keller and newcomer Gerald Rainey rounding out the bullpen corps.