Season Record: 36-34 (South Atlantic League Southern Division, 3rd Place) / 31-39 (South Atlantic League Southern Division, 6th Place)
For the first time in twelve years, minor league baseball returned to the Midlands of South Carolina, and while the Columbia Fireflies did not exactly have the best inaugural season, it will still be a year that people won’t forget. Over 261,100 fans came out to watch the Fireflies throughout the year, a record in Columbia, surpassing the previous record of 156,921, set by the 1996 Capital City Bombers. Over 9,000 gathered to attend Opening Day, and a few days later, on April 9, a little over 4,000 witnessed the team’s first no-hitter, a combined effort on the part of Thomas McIlraith, Alex Palsha, and Johnny Magliozzi.
Despite a talented roster, the Fireflies had trouble turning that potential on the field into wins. The team ended the first with a 36-34 record, barely over .500. After various promotions sapped the team from their top talent, Columbia did even worse, ending the second half with a 31-39 record.
Despite being considered a major bat after being drafted out of the University of Miami, David Thompson was a below-average offensive player in 59 games with the Brooklyn Cyclones. Well rested after playing consecutive collegiate and NY-Penn League seasons, Thompson enjoyed an excellent year with Columbia, ending the season second on the team in OPS. Though not indicative of skill, but rather of the quirks of chance, at times during the 2016 season Thompson not only found himself among league leaders of the South Atlantic League in RBI, but amassed enough RBI to be considered among the league leaders in every major and minor league in the world. Additionally, the third baseman cleared up some questions regarding his physical ability to play the position due to a weakened arm from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery performed in 2014, and was at least adequate, if not solid. He spent two separate stints on the disabled list, and combined with past injuries, may or may not be fairly tagged with the injury-prone label. Given some mechanical changes that he will need to make to hit more advanced pitching, it would be best if Thompson does not lose developmental time.
Just like he did in 2015 with the Brooklyn Cyclones, Vinny Siena got off to a blisteringly hot start with Columbia. The scrappy middle infielder reached base at least once in each of his first twenty-one games, and when that ended, he started a new streak that lasted seven games. As late as May 8, roughly a month into the season, his on-base percentage hovered around .500, at .496. While certainly playing over his head for that first month of the season, and perhaps in all 66 games he played with Columbia, the 2015 draftee is surprisingly well-rounded for a player drafted in the 14th round, 419th overall. His simple, line-drive oriented swing may not play up against the more advanced competition he will face in the future, but with a solid defensive foundation up the middle and above-average speed, Siena is a player who should at least be able to accrue value and help his team if it doesn’t.
Forty-seven Irishmen have played Major League Baseball. Of those forty-seven, forty-six were born in the 19th century. Joseph Cleary, who was born in 1918, was the last Irish-born player to appear in a Major League baseball game, a feat he accomplished when he recorded a single-out for the Washington Senators in 1945. The Belfast-born PJ Conlon is looking to buck the trend and be the next major league player to be born on the Emerald Isle, and if he continues pitching like he did in 2016 with the Fireflies, he will be a shoe-in to accomplish the feat. Until his promotion to St. Lucie in the second-half, the southpaw posted a league-leading 1.84 ERA, striking out nearly a batter per inning while walking only 10. His fastball is fringy, sitting in the high-80s and low-90s, but his change-up is a plus pitch, and his fringy cutter, slider, and curveball give batters enough to think about to maximize his fastball-change combination and above-average command. Conlon has an uphill battle, but only a fool would bet against the luck of the Irish.
With 88 strikeouts in the first half, and 134 strikeouts in total, Joe Shaw led the Columbia Fireflies in the category not only in the first half, but for the entire season. With a high ERA, 150 hits allowed, and a .274 batting average against, Shaw did not enjoy too much success outside of his high strikeout rate. The right-hander has an explosive fastball, at times topping out in the high 90s, but has had problems maintaining the velocity, sometimes dropping as low as the high 80s. A plethora of mechanical issues in his delivery may be to blame, which would also explain his so-so command. With an undistinguished curveball and an undistinguished change-up rounding out his repertoire, Shaw will have to put the work in and develop either or both pitches and work on his mechanics in order to have success against more skilled batters.