Monday, September 18, 2017

BBM 2017 Summer Awards: Manager of the Year

Aguascalientes Rieleros manager Homar Rojas
While Pedro Mere in Tijuana has his second career pennant to burnish his credentials and Tim Johnson led a Puebla team with more than 20 of its players relocated to Monclova to an unexpected appearance in the Serie del Rey, choosing Baseball Mexico's 2017 Summer Manager of the Year was the easiest of the five selections to be announced this week: Veteran skipper Homar Rojas took over a moribund Aguascalientes team in February and piloted the Rieleros' bargain-basement roster to a 64-46 record (fifth-best in the Mexican League), the team's first playoff berth since 2012 and was able to extend the Railroaders' first-round series to six games before falling to Mere's Toros.

Cobbling teams together from shoestring budgets is nothing new to Rojas, who learned to make do in eleven previous seasons at the helm of LMB franchises in Oaxaca, Reynosa, Campeche and Monclova, where he went 188-145 with three playoff berths (including a 2015 Serie del Rey appearance) for the Acereros between 2014 and 2016.  New owner Gerardo Bustamante, who bought the team last winter, decided he could find a manager who'd improve Monclova's 2016 record of 69-43 and brought in Wally Backman, who lasted 42 games before being fired.

Rojas, for his part, landed on his feel in Aguascalientes in February after also getting axed from his winter job as skipper with the Mexican Pacific League's Jalisco Charros when the 15-19 first-half record the Guadalajara team posted was deemed insufficient.  The Rieleros roster had little to recommend going into the 2017 season, although they did have BBM's 2016 Summer Batter of the Year, infielder Diory Hernandez, who was coming off a .319/23/97 season during which he led the Liga in RBIs.  Aguascalientes was sixth in the LMB North with a 53-58 record, ending the season under interim player-manager Saul Soto (who returned to his player-only role this year).  The Rieleros had some good hitters but a suspect pitching staff going into their 2017 schedule under Rojas.

The Nuevo Leon native oversaw a few changes in his lineup, including the surprising early-season release of Hernandez, and struck gold by inserting indy ball infielder Jose Vargas, LMB veteran outfielder Dave Sappelt into the Rieleros' everyday lineup while adding onetime Rockies hurler Yohan Flande and ex-Dodgers farmhand Roy Merritt to his starting rotation and installing onetime MLB reliever Jose Valverde as his closer.  The result was a plucky team that punched above its weight, especially in the second half of the season, and improved their record 11.5 games over 2016 while establishing themselves as a very scary fourth-place team that none of the three teams finishing ahead of them (Tijuana, Monterrey and Monclova) wanted to draw as a playoff opponent.  Attendance in Aguascalientes also improved, as the Rieleros averaged 3,572 at 70-year-old Parque Alberto Romo Chavez, an increase of 19 percent over 2016's turnstile count.

After the Rieleros were eliminated by Tijuana, the 53-year-old Rojas (who managed LMP pennant-winners with Obregon in 2007-08 and Hermosillo in 2009-10) looked back upon the unexpected success of Aguascalientes and lauded his players' attitude and desire during games: "The only thing I've heard are good things about this team, and it was the players who did that, "he told El Clarinete of Aguascalientes.  "I'm congratulating them in the media but I already did that in person in Tijuana, where I took away some important things from them.  I was very satisfied with all their work."

So were we, and that was due to Rojas' steady, calm hand at the Rieleros' helm.  The former catcher now has a twelve-year career LMB managerial mark of 703-646.  This was not a hard choice to make.

BBM MANAGER OF THE YEAR AWARDS
Summer 2010   Eddie Diaz, Oaxaca
Winter 2010-11  Matias Carrillo, Guasave
Summer 2011   Daniel Fernandez, Veracruz
Winter 2015-16  Edgar Gonzalez, Mexicali
Summer 2016   Willie Romero, Yucatan
Winter 2016-17  Luis Sojo, Los Mochis
Summer 2017   Homar Rojas, Aguascalientes