It’s always fun for me – and for most minor league observers, those who are paid to do this and those who are not – to try and figure out which players from a Low-A roster will get to the major leagues. Looking at the 2012 Hickory Crawdads roster and trying to guess who from that squad would make is a fascinating exercise in hindsight
The 2012 Hickory Crawdads roster featured FOUR first-round selections and only one – Luke Jackson – made it past AA. Nick Martinez, who threw 26 innings at Fordham University, a program which hadn’t had a former pitcher in the majors since 2001, started the 2012 season in the Crawdads bullpen. He went on to make the South Atlantic League All-Star Game, then put together a strong 2013 season that catapulted him to a major league debut with the Rangers at the start of the 2014 season.
Martinez, now looking to his fourth MLB season, has a key stretch coming up during which he is trying to make the team either as a fifth starter or a bullpen arm.
The first full season for Martinez was somewhat average for the then-21-year-old. He posted a 4.83 ERA over 117 2/ 3 innings, though he did strike out 109 batters to just 37 walks. The native of Miami, FL admitted that 2012 was one in which he was learning to become a professional.
In the interview below – done during last week’s Texas Rangers Winter Caravan held at Rock Barn Golf & Spa in Conover, N.C., Martinez talks his rise to the major leagues with Texas and what helped him along the way.
When you were here in 2012, did you ever think that you’d be coming back here in 2017 as a major league pitcher?
Martinez: No, I couldn’t look that far ahead down the road. It is good to be back. The memories are coming to me. I used to play many golf rounds out here at Rock Barn and I had a lot of great memories playing for Hickory.
What is the biggest memory you can recall from that season?
Martinez: Baseball wise, it’s an interesting year because it’s your first full season. You get to learn a lot about yourself mentally and physically. Obviously, that’s one of the milestones of playing a full season. Off the field, though, it’s a chance to really bond with your teammates. We had a lot of great memories playing here at Rock Barn.
You had come out of college, and if I remember right, you had thrown something like 26 innings in college. Who or what circumstance gave you the confidence that you could pitch at a professional level?
Martinez: My father, since high school, kind of prepared me just in case I ever became a pitcher. He had me go to some pitching lessons, so it wasn’t completely bazaar for me to make that transition. I was okay with making that transition before it even happened. In college, I just wanted to play professional baseball. Once the Rangers gave me that chance as a pitcher, I was all in and eager to learn and get better. I still am.
You had pretty much a quick rise when you left here and debuted in 2014. What flipped the switch and gave you the confidence that you could do this on a major league level?
Martinez: 2013 was probably my best minor league season. I was more consistent. I knew what I needed to do to keep that consistency. I was clear mentally and I knew what I needed to do. Obviously, when you transfer up to the major league level, it doesn’t exactly equal the same amount of mental pressure and mental consistency. I went through my ups and downs in 2014, but once you get over that hump, it makes things a lot easier. Again, once you know what you need to do, you kind of establish a work ethic and things to help you maintain that.
Who is somebody that had a big influence for you to get to that level, that you could do this at the major league level?
Martinez: Every pitching coach I came across in the minor league system, as well as the pitching coordinator. I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with coaches that have made me better at every level and taken my game to the next step and prepare myself mentally and physically.
What was it like to step on a major league mound for the first time?
Martinez: Surreal. It’s crazy. Obviously, you’re anxious and nervous and stuff like that, but it’s kind of an anxiousness and nervousness that you can work with, because I felt prepared. I felt like I was ready for this. Obviously, it’s something you train for your whole life. It’s something you dream of and I felt like I belonged on the mound and I was ready to go. I was very fortunate, also, to be pitching in my home state, so my family was able to drive up and watch my debut.
Who was the first hitter that gave you the reality check that you were in the major leagues?
Martinez: Evan Longoria. The reality check that said, “this is the show; this is the big leagues.” In my debut.
Did he hit you hard or something?
Martinez: He smoked a ball. I got him out, but he smoked a ball somewhere. I think it was right at someone. Thank God, he got a good handle on it. (Note: In the second inning of Martinez’s debut, Longoria grounded sharply off Martinez for a 1-4-3 putout.)
Who was the first hitter you faced that was a dream hitter. Maybe somebody, when you were in high school, that you said, “I’d like to face this guy.”
Martinez: 2014, Derek Jeter’s last year in the major leagues. I got to face him at Yankee Stadium and once again at home in Arlington. It’s just something I’ll never forget, obviously. He does his whole pre-pitch routine in the box. It’s something that you see on TV and on video games, and now he’s doing it to you and letting you know he’s ready. It was a dream come true. It was wild.
Looking ahead to this year, I know the Rangers are looking to solidify the number-five spot. What are you looking for, as far as getting your foot in that door and keeping that spot?
Martinez: Competing. I’m going to go into spring training competing for that fifth spot in the rotation. I’m still in the part of my career where being in the major leagues at all is a goal. I’m going to be competing for the fifth spot, but if a bullpen spot opens up, I’m also going to be eager to land that spot. My main goal, first, is to be in the major leagues, but, obviously, I set my goals a little higher. I know I can help this team at the start.
I meant to ask this earlier, what did (pitching coach) Storm Davis mean to you for that 2012 in Hickory?
Martinez: Storm played a huge part in that mental game of baseball and what to expect in your first full season, mentally and how your body is going to feel physically – how tired you’re going to get and ways to grind through it. He helped me out a lot with different sequences and what to look for in hitters.
Part of the fun of the minor leagues is to play the guessing game of whether this player or that one will make it to the major leagues. However, we rarely consider the same about the managers and coaches. Like the players, they, too, have major league dreams. Josh Bonifay will begin to live his out for the Texas Rangers this season as the team’s major league field coordinator.
Bonifay, who played second for Hickory for all of 2000 and part of 2001 and then returned as a coach in 2008, has put together an impressive resume as a coach and manger in recent years. He was named the South Atlantic League coach of the year in 2012 while the hitting coach with the Houston Astros low-A affiliate at Lexington. One year later, Bonifay was the manager of the year in the Appalachian League while guiding the Greeneville (TN) Astros to the championship series. In 2015 he took home the same honors from the Midwest League while at low-A Quad Cities, which went 88-50.
Bonifay’s work in developing players in the Astros chain caught the eye of the Rangers and his connections with from the Pittsburgh Pirates days played a role in his hiring by the Rangers. During Bonifay’s playing days in the Pirates system (1999-2005), he had the opportunity to play under the tutelage of Tony Beasley at AA Altoona in 2004-2005. The field coordinator at the time was Jeff Banister, now the manager at Texas, for whom Beasley is the third base coach.
“…I’ve known Josh since he was probably 10 or 11 years old,” said Banister of Bonifay. “I had developed a relationship with him, not only as a person, but also as a player, when he played for Pittsburgh, then transitioning to the coaching side of it. And then I watched him from a far as he became a highly successful manager.”
A longer connection has also served Bonifay well – the connection with his father, Cam Bonifay, who was the Pirates general manager from 1993 to 2001. Through that relationship, Josh, now 38, has seen the inner workings of the game at its roots.
From bat boy to player to coach to minor league manager, all of that has prepared him for his first taste of the major leagues as the Rangers field coordinator. He, along with his wife Tiffany and their two daughters are ready to embrace the challenge ahead, which will include a move to Arlington.
In the interview below, Bonifay talks about some of the challenges he faces as he gets ready for spring training.
There have been big changes for you, not just your growing family, but professionally for your career. Let me first ask you about all the changes you’re going through right now.
Bonifay: It’s just a very exciting time for my family and myself. This was just an opportunity that came about. I was at Disney World when I got a phone call from Houston saying the Texas Rangers had asked for permission. After they got permission, I talked to Banny (Jeff Banister) just for a minute and then talked with (Rangers general manager) Jon Daniels about going out for an interview. Everything was kind of a whirlwind. It went really, really quickly, but it’s just extremely exciting and I’m very happy to be a part of the Rangers family. They’re tremendous people and I’m looking forward to working with Banny and Beas (Tony Beasley) again. All these guys are just phenomenal people and it’s a phenomenal organization. I’m just very excited.
Not very many people go from managing short-season ball to the major leagues. What’s the biggest adjustment you think you will have to make in that huge step?
Bonifay: The thing is just getting to know the players. Once you get to know the players and you understand them on a personal level, then you can start to teaching baseball. Baseball is a sport that, even if you are in the lower levels, you’re still teaching the game a certain way. It’s not that you’re going to teach a different way than you would a player in the big leagues – you’re trying to prepare them for the big leagues. So, you’re going to teach baseball a similar way. Just really getting to know their personalities and know who they are and what makes them tick, understanding what their bodies do and how they do it. Just developing personal relationships with them. I think if you get their trust and you develop the relationships, then you can teach them the game of baseball.
What is your role going to be with the Texas Rangers? I’m familiar with what a minor league field coordinator does, but what a major league field coordinator do?
Bonifay: My responsibilities will be running spring training, developing the schedules through Banny, and through (Rangers pitching coach Doug) Brocail and all the pitching guys, through (Rangers hitting coach Anthony) Iapoce and the hitting guys, and just developing a schedule so all the guys will know where they are going and know their responsibilities. During the season, I’ll be working with outfielders and baserunners.
Is your family going to move with you, or are they staying here in the area? This is a big deal for all of you.
Bonifay: I think we are going to move to Arlington. We’re going to put our house on the market in the next week or two and then we’re going to make the move out to Arlington. We’re very excited. We’re all in as a Texas Ranger. We want to be a part of it. We want to be involved in that community. We want to be involved the team heavily. We’re going to make that move to do that.
Longer term, what are you looking to do, as far as your baseball career? Obviously, you’re getting a major league taste, which you didn’t get as a player? That’s got to entice you for bigger and better things down the road.
Bonifay: I’ve always said this, as I’ve been going up. I really don’t have any personal goals of what I really want to do. This was a goal to get to the big leagues, because I didn’t make it as a player. But, this is just something to be a part of a staff to help players get better and helping the organization to win a championship. There’s really no personal goals. I just want to be involved in baseball. My family has been in it over 150 years combined. We love the game. We love teaching it. We love being a part of it and enjoy the opportunity that we get to teach and we get to part of it and make a living.
What’s the biggest thing that you’ll have to do, in maybe cutting your teeth, where you didn’t get to the majors as a player? Now, you’re here as as field coordinator. You’ve been around guys that have played and coaches and such that have seen the ropes in the majors.
Bonifay: I don’t have personal experience, but I sort of do. My dad was a GM for 10 years, so I grew up in the major league clubhouse. I grew up on the charter flights. I grew up as a bat boy, so I know what they do, the work ethic. I know the toughness, the grind that they go through, having to show up every single day. Long flights, playing a night game, than having to turn around and fly overnight and then play a day game. So, I know the rigors of that, just because of my experience with my father. In terms of that, I understand the complexities of those types of different things.
On a personal level, no, I’ve never been there. I’ve never fully experienced it personally, as a player. You know, it’ll be a challenge, but it’s good that I do have some background.
How wild is that you played here two years, you came back and coached here with the Pirates, now you’re back here in a whole different circumstance?
Bonifay: My wife and I really – she is from Lenoir – we grew up the last five years here. We really enjoyed the area. We loved that our in-laws are really close. We loved that our kids get to see their grandparents very often. But, I think with the move – if we want to get more involved with the Rangers, so we’re going to be closer – that we can spend more time at the ballpark and I can see my kids in the morning before I go to the field. That’s the big key is taking care of my kids.
What is the thing that enticed you about the Rangers?
Bonifay: The people, the organization. It phenomenal. Their success has been tremendous in developing players that also are at the big league level. And also enticing is being able to work with Banny and Beas. It’s a people organization. They care about people and their players.
Spike Owen was all set to be the manager at Hickory for the 2016 season. That was until late February when Texas Rangers third base coach Tony Beasley was diagnosed with cancer and began treatment. So, into the gap stepped Owen.
The experience for Owen with the major league club was a valuable one for him, as he was able to watch big league manager Jeff Banister on a daily basis.
“I was appreciative to be on the major league staff,” said Owen during the 2017 Texas Rangers Winter Caravan held by the Crawdads at Rock Barn Golf & Spa in Conover, N.C. on Wednesday. “I learned much more from him (Banister) than he did from me. He made things easy for his staff, which is what I intend to do with my staff…”
“His dugout presence was unbelievable and I think that’s so important at whatever level, how to react at what’s going on in the game at a given situation and how you handle yourself.”
The reset button has been set and Owen – at least for now – is scheduled to try his hand at managing the class Low-A Crawdads. Banister – who said on Wednesday he’s known Owen since Owen’s playing days at the University of Texas – was impressed with how his long-time friend handled the responsibility given to him last year. Confident in Owen’s abilities as a player developer, Banister said the former big league infielder should be a perfect fit for Hickory.
“He’s a guy that has great patience with players and has a teacher’s mindset and a servant’s heart,” said Banister. “A guy that I think is going to be great on the development side and has had success already on the development side.”
I had a chance for an interview with Owen prior to the luncheon on Wednesday. Here is some of what he had to say.
You were set up to come here last year and things have a way of, in baseball, I guess like the rest of life, having a change of plans.
Owen: As in everyday life, with baseball it’s about making adjustments. Obviously, I found out late that Tony Beasley, our third base coach, had cancer and so Banny had called me to ask if I would fill in for the year at third base. (It was) a great experience, obviously being in the big leagues again – I hadn’t been there since ’95 – and that was a great experience and I’m very thankful that I was chosen to do that.
Now that Tony was healthy, I was looking forward to getting back into my managing career. I’ve only managed for one year in 2015.
I’m a little bit familiar with Hickory, when I was roving in 2009-2010 so I’ve been in and out of Hickory for those two years and enjoyed it when I came in. I’m looking forward to spending the summer up here.
Are you more pleased to be managing or would you rather stay in the Majors in some capacity? I know the goal is to always get to the Major Leagues, but you want a managing career as you said.
Owen: It’s a tough question, as you said, because when I first got into coaching in the Minor Leagues, I wasn’t quite sure what direction and I think there’s probably a lot of guys that are like that. But the more that I’ve been in it, and now experiencing the big league level last year as the third base coach, it gives me more motivation to try to get back there in whatever capacity.
But, I’m very excited about managing again. Like I said, I haven’t done it a lot and I enjoyed it and I enjoyed being the guy in charge on the bench. So, with this opportunity opening back up for me to manage is something that I’m excited about.
What’s the biggest adjustment you’ll have? You were getting the first-class treatment last year. Is there going to be an adjustment getting back on that bus and going to Lakewood (N.J.) and Hagerstown (Md.)? How do you make that adjustment?
Owen: You know, you just get on the bus and roll. It is what it is. Obviously the things in the big leagues are first class as they should be. But to me, the travel is part of the gig. The fun part is working with the players – the young men and young kids – and trying to help their development to reach their dream of going to the big leagues.
So, I know that my time in High Desert managing, I didn’t know what to expect from High Desert all the way to this first year managing and that age group. I’ve been in Triple-A for a long time and I loved it.
From everything that I’m hearing, I actually don’t know the guys on our team and we won’t know until the end of Spring Training. But with me being in the big leagues last year and not down at the minor league Spring Training, and not being around the younger guys, I’ve got to get acquainted with them and obviously will in Spring Training pretty quick.
I know you won’t know until late March early April and the guys actually get the tickets to fly out here, but one name we’re hearing a lot is Leodys Taveras – the outfielder that everybody is assuming that he’s going to come and play at center field at some point in 2017. What do you hear about him and his tools? Everything that I’ve read is that his tools are off the chart for him being so young.
Owen: I’d have to agree with what you’re saying, because I haven’t seen him also. I have read a little bit about him and obviously the skill set that he brings. So, it’ll be exciting to see him at Spring Training. Again, if he’s slotted to come to us I’d obviously love to have him, but we’ll kind of see how that plays out.
What’s the biggest thing you’re looking for as far as being in Hickory full time?
Owen: I look forward to being in North Carolina and this part of the country. I haven’t spent much time here except my time roving. The Sally League – getting a new league – it’s all going to be new to me. I think just seeing the country and hopefully having a solid year for the Crawdads. I look forward to the baseball side of it – obviously, that’s what I’m here to do – and getting these young guys ready and hopefully have a great year.
What’s an adjustment you’ve made as far as being in one spot as opposed to roving? Do you like one over the other or does one have more of an advantage?
Owen: Well, when I was roving you get to get home more, which is a huge advantage of doing that job. Going in and out of your affiliations for three or four days and being on the road, and then being able to go home for three, four, or five days.
When you’re in full season you pack up and go to Spring Training and you don’t get home until September. Obviously we have an All-Star break and a few days off, but with me being in Texas, that’s a pretty long flight. So roving that’s really the main thing.
But to me, there’s something about being with the club from the start to the finish that I really enjoy to seeing, because when you rove, you don’t get to see the development like you do when you’re with them every day and see the progress that they’re making. You may come in and not come back in for a month or so. Yeah, they’ve played a really good three days , but you see them for three games and then you’re gone again. So, just kind of starting from the beginning and finishing it off and seeing the progress that they’re making.
The Hickory Crawdads begin its 25th anniversary season with a bang on Wednesday, January 10 by hosting the 2017 Texas Rangers Winter Caravan at Rock Barn Golf and Spa in Conover, N.C. The Rangers made a two-stop tour of their North Carolina minor league affiliates, as the caravan was part of an event last evening at the new affiliate in Kinston.
On hand from the Rangers were Neil Leibman, chairman of the Rangers ownership group, assistant director of player development Paul Kruger, manager Jeff Banister and 2017 Crawdads manager Spike Owen. Also attending were major league field coordinator Josh Bonifay – who played and coached at Hickory during the Pittsburgh Pirates affiliation – as well as pitchers Tony Barnette and Nick Martinez. Martinez pitched for Hickory in 2012. Rangers radio voice Matt Hicks emceed to post-luncheon event.
Prior to the lunch, I had a chance to interview several of the participants, including Banister. The Rangers manager previously hopped into Hickory while in his role as the Pirates minor league field coordinator late in the last decade. During the interview, we talked about his time as a rover in the minors and the importance of Low-A ball in the future development of major leaguers. We also talked about what he expects Owen will bring to Hickory, as well as Bonifay’s addition to the staff. This is the first of four interview’s from Wednesday’s event.
If I remember right, you came here as a rover with the Pirates not that long ago. It seems like not that long ago, but 10-15 years ago. Now, you come back here as a major league manager.
Banister: Yeah, first of all, I came here as a minor league manager in 1995, when I was with Augusta, and then back again as a field coordinator for Pittsburgh, all the years that Pittsburgh was here. So, I think the last time I was here was in 2008. Somewhere around that time frame.
You know, it’s fun to come back. As I flew into the airport and flew over the stadium (L.P. Frans Stadium), it was fun to see that stadium. I hadn’t really seen it this time of the year before with snow on the ground. It’s feels good to see a lot of people and recognize faces – there are some that I know better than others.
I spent a lot of time here. There were times that I had to manage here. When Jeff Branson (Crawdads manager in 2005-2006) was here and had to take a leave of absence, and Dave Clark (2004 manager) was here and had to take a leave of absence. So, I have a lot of fond memories of Hickory and this ballpark. It was always one of my favorite stops.
How different a world are you in now than in Low-A baseball? Are there times you wish you think, maybe it might not be too bad to come back to a lower level with less pressure, etc.?
Banister: You know what, I’ve been a minor league guy, a development guy at heart, really. That’s who I am. The opportunity to manage the big leagues is obviously spectacular, all the superlatives that you can put on it and think about. However, understanding the grassroots level, where you come from, the paths of people, are all woven into what I do every single day. I never forget that.
One of the things that you look at in putting the staff that I put together at Texas, they’re all long-time, minor league guys that understand the development side of this game and what we do. The teaching process is still a part of our life at the major league level. It’s impacted by the stadiums we play in, the travel and the number of people. But, it’s still baseball.
Spike Owen was your third base coach last year, and he had to fill in for another former Crawdads Tony Beasley. He’s coming here to manage this year. What have you seen with Spike over the last year that you think he will bring to this position here at Hickory?
Banister: Well first of all, I’ve known Spike for a long time, even all the way back to his University of Texas days. This is a guy who was a highly competitive player. He loved to play the game – a tremendous knowledge of how to play the game.
I would say that he’s a guy that over the years has learned and transitioned himself into the understanding of teaching the game. He’s a guy that has great patience with players and has a teacher’s mindset and a servant’s heart. A guy that I think is going to be great on the development side and has had success already on the development side.
One, that gives me great comfort to know that our players are getting the best of what I consider both worlds – the teaching aspect of it, but also the knowledge of what it takes to be a major league player. He’s a long time major league player himself and has a great understanding. He refreshed that this past season being on the major league staff. He’s got a fresh set of eyes on what it takes to be a major league player.
From your time as a field coordinator, managing, etc., what is the biggest thing that a player in Low-A needs to learn that will serve him well when he gets to the major leagues?
Banister: First of all, that you’re still going to make mistakes. This is an imperfect business and it’s an imperfect game, as much as we’d like to think that it’s a perfect game. You’re not always going to be successful. It’s an extremely negative game. You’re not going to have production that stands out on paper, visible for everybody to see, but there are contributions that can be made. You have to be able to finish your game off, in a sense that, if you’re a home run hitter and you’re facing a guy that doesn’t hit home runs, what do you have in your skill set that can help a team offensively. Can he run the bases well? Can he play defense?
The thing in today’s game, we have so much knowledge, so much information, understanding the game plan, where you need to play, the tendencies of other players. It’s no longer just a sport of roll out the balls and bats and go perform. There’s an education process of who you’re playing, how you’re playing, and what you need to do to beat this team. Because the bottom line, teams show up every spring training with the thought process and idea to win, and they know everything about you as the opposing team.
What adjustments can you make to have some measurable success day in and day out. You’re not always going to have huge successes every single day. So, it’s small incremental success where you’ve got to build your career on. If you’re looking for huge increments every single day, this game will eat you up, spit you out and put you back in the minor leagues.
Josh Bonifay, who played here with the Pirates and coached here with the Pirates, is now going to be your field coordinator. What did the Rangers see in him to be able to hire him to fill that position?
Banister: First of all, I’ve known Josh since he was probably 10 or 11 years old. I had developed a relationship with him, not only as a person, but also as a player, when he played for Pittsburgh, then transitioning to the coaching side of it. And then I watched him from afar as he became a highly successful manager.
The thing that I looked for in this position is one, the administrative side of it. Can you put together the things that myself, the scouting staff and the coaching staff want, so that we can put a day together for individual players – how are they going to get better every day individually – but also collectively. Also, we’re look for a guy that had outfield experience, teaching outfield, and baserunning experience and being able to teach baserunning.
He fit that role and he’s had success with players over in the Houston organization. He had success with the Pirates organization. So, that in itself, and how he relates to players, and how can he relate to the other coaches. But also, the thing, for me, is that he’s an open book. A guy that’s not coming in with, “hey, I’ve got all the answers, this is what I’m going to do to put a stamp on this. He’s a guy that’s coming in with a clean slate and wants to learn, but add value to each one of us coaches.
Yesterday, two of “our” own players from the Hickory Crawdads were suddenly taken from us. Hickory Crawdads pitchers Erik Swanson and Dillon Tate were a part of a trade in which the parent club Texas Rangers acquired slugger Carlos Beltran from the New York Yankees.
For many Rangers fans, it is a time to get excited about what Beltran can bring to the lineup at Arlington. For many Crawdads fans, their hearts have been stomped.
We don’t see many trades at the low-A level. When pitcher Matt Ball came here in May after a trade with the White Sox, it was the first time a player came to Hickory via a trade since 2008 – the final season of the Pittsburgh Pirates affiliation. As far as sending a player away, that hadn’t happened since 2013 when C.J. Edwards went to the Chicago Cubs. Prior to that, it had been since 2009 when Matt Nevarez left the Crawdads in a trade that brought Pudge Rodriguez back to Texas.
At this level, we know we are going to bid farewell to “our” players in due course. It may happen in a few days, or a couple of years. We certainly hope that when “our” players leave that it is to move up the ladder – to get one step close to their own major league dreams. Of course, at times they leave after being waived and that dream ends.
We often have this fantasy of “our” players moving up to the major league level with the parent club. The joy of seeing in a Texas Rangers uniform Rougned Odor and Joey Gallo and Nomar Mazara and Martin Perez and Hanser Alberto and Ryan Rua and Jurickson Profar is a genuine joy for those of us in Hickory who knew them when. We have this Elysian hope that “our” players will continue to play together always and do so for Texas. It’s like hoping your neighborhood kids will grow up together and always remain friends. The reality is that most of those kids move away from home and rarely keep in touch. The same is true in baseball – minor league teams rarely play together in the big leagues.
Our hope was to see Swanson and Tate, as well as Lewis Brinson and Luis Ortiz – former Crawdads involved in another trade that moved those players into the Milwaukee Brewers chain – in those Texas Rangers uniforms taking the field in Arlington. However, if you ask those four players about their major league dreams, the name on the front of the uniform won’t matter to them – Braves, Brewers, Yankees, Blue Jays, Cardinals, etc. They are chasing the dream of a major league career. It matters not in which multi-tiered stadium that takes place. As minor league fans, we have to remember that.
They are “our” players, but in reality they are not. The name on the front of the jersey says Hickory, but the big red T on the patch located on the sleeve reminds us they belong to another. The Rangers pay the salaries and we have to remember that the minor leagues exist solely to help bring the major league club a championship. As hard as it is, sometimes that involves sending “our” players elsewhere.
However, for those who follow minor league teams – especially for us in Hickory –we gain an attachment during the time they are here. They are “our” players. It’s not just because “Crawdads” is on the front of the jersey with the letter “H” on the cap standing for our hometown of Hickory. At this level, they become part of us – of our community, and in some cases, part of our families. We have a different kind of access to these guys that those in the major league community do not. We celebrate their successes after a game, and share in the struggles and offer encouragement. We meet their families and welcome them to Hickory when they visit and roll out the welcome mat to our town.
So, while Rangers fans celebrate, we here in Hickory are in a bit of shock – for two of “our” own are leaving us for another team. (It could get really weird in a couple of weeks when Charleston (S.C.) visits L.P. Frans, as it is rumored that both Tate and Swanson will be assigned to the River Dogs.) But while the reality that “our” players will always leave, there is another reality present: Swanson and Tate and Brinson and Ortiz and Travis Demeritte and Jorge Alfaro and Nick Williams and Edwards and everyone else who donned a red claw on their cap will be “ours”.
We look forward to following their careers all the way to the majors.
When the Hickory Crawdads sprinted out to a 26-12 record in mid-May – the 14 games over .500 is currently the high-water mark of the 2016 season – much of that was on the back of a stellar start at home during which the team went 12-5 through May 14.
The next day, Hickory lost a 19-inning contest 9-2 to Rome (Ga.) and the squad has been in a free fall at home, going 10-20. Since taking three out of four from Lexington (Ky.) to end April and begin May, over their last nine home series Hickory has lost five and tied four others.
Conversely, the Crawdads (54-47 overall) currently have the best road record in the South Atlantic League at 32-22. Hickory returns home tonight (Thursday, July 28) on the heels of a 4-2 road trip at Delmarva (Md.) and Lakewood (N.J.).
“Actually, Me and Matos were talking about that the other day about our record on the road is better than our record at home,” said Crawdads manager Steve Mintz in an interview I had with him at the end of the last home stand. “Most of the time, anywhere you’re at, that’s different. I really don’t know.”
Looking at the home-road split for the Crawdads as a team, the lineup has struggled to take advantage of the comforts of L.P. Frans Stadium, which is considered a park that is friendly to hitters. As a team, the Crawdads have slugged just 29 homers over 47 homes games, compared to 38 over 54 road games. On the road, the team has 154 extra-base hits to just 104 at home. The home slash is .247/.317/.357 compared to .252/.322/387 away from L.P. Frans Stadium.
While the offense hasn’t taken advantage of its home park, the friendly hitting confines have taken a bite out of the pitching staff numbers. SAL hitters have bashed the Crawdads hurlers to a .265 average at home, .258 on the road. One number that jumps out is homers allowed – 42 at home to just 27 on the road. Six of the eight shutouts tossed by Hickory this season have come at road ballparks.
One thing to consider is that home teams generally do their development work at home. Major league clubs send their rovers to Hickory during home stands in order to put the time in to help players with a particular skill, etc. While Mintz says that while the work could have an effect, it’s work that has to be done.
“Hopefully, it’s going to pan out by the end of the year,” said Mintz. “We want these guys to be better. Honestly, we’d love to win, but first and foremost, we’ve got to teach these guys how to play it right. With the young group that we’ve got, that’s a big chore that’s we’ve got here. We’re up for it, but I can’t answer the home and away thing.”
The Crawdads open tonight’s homestand with a four-game series against Hagerstown (Md.), followed by a three-game set against Delmarva. For several reasons, the upcoming seven games could have a bearing on the Crawdads playoff chances.
The Crawdads open the series with the Suns in fourth place, but only 2.5 games behind Hagerstown in the Northern Division’s second-half standings. Hagerstown already clinched a playoff spot by winning the first half and should it win the second half, the team with the next best overall record would claim a wildcard spot. In that race, Hickory is two games behind Greensboro and one behind Delmarva.
After this home stand, the Crawdads will have just a few chances to take care of business themselves, as Hickory will have just eight games left against Northern Division foes – all on the road. Four of those games are at Greensboro.
Hickory Crawdad pitcher Dillon Tate is experiencing what nearly every minor leaguer goes through: a slump. The number four pick overall by the Texas Rangers in the June 2015 draft has looked mortal after a quick start this season.
A hamstring injury seems to have separated the two worlds that has been Tate this season. After allowing one unearned run over his first two starts and striking out sixteen to just one walk over 10.2 innings, Tate retuned three weeks later a different pitcher with different results. Over his last 13 outings (12 starts), Tate has given up 32 earned runs over 44 innings with 34 Ks to 21 walks. The South Atlantic League hit .390 against him in May and is at a .326 clip in July.
Scouts I’ve talked to say Tate’s mechanics are a mess. The velocity that was 96-98 mph is down as low as 91-92 when he is struggling. The high, Juan Marichal-like leg kick is gone from his delivery and it’s been a process of finding a consistent, repeatable motion. There are moments we see the brilliant stuff and then the next inning it falls flat.
To his credit, Tate is not flustered. He understands there is a process to go through to get things right again and is confident it will happen.
I had a chance to talk with Tate after his last start against Lakewood on Thursday. Here is that conversation.
I want to talk to you about the last couple of months. You started well and then had the hamstring injury and it’s been a work in progress to get back to where you were before that. Take me through your last couple of months and the process of getting back to where you were earlier this year and when you came here last year.
Tate: Recently, I’ve just been scuffling and just battling out there and working on things in between starts. I’m trying to get some angle on my fastball to try to help me out. The organization has been helping me out to do that and giving me some things. I’ve been doing it well other times, sometimes not so much. It’s one of those things that you just need to get reps at it until it becomes an actual habit for you. I’m just going to keep going out there and battling and keep working on what I need to work on.
We’ll notice, for example you started well last night. You were and 94-95 in the first and hitting spots. Then we could watch the velocity come down. Is there a fine line with what you’re working on that your successful verses not being as successful?
Tate: I think, as of late, it’s been me trying to do multiple things out on the mound, instead of focusing on one thing that I need to do. So, I think that’s probably been the root of it, for some of it, I should say – not all of it. Simplicity is probably best for me at this point in time. So, just really focusing on working on one thing out there, rather than trying to do three or four different things right now.
So give me a couple of the things you are working on. Maybe at the top of the list the main thing and then maybe a 1A, 1B, 1C sort of thing.
Tate: There’s probably not even a 1A, 1B, 1C to it. I think the headline of it all is to keep the ball down. And then, how are you going to keep the ball down, etc. How are you going to keep it down and doing the things that I need to do to keep the ball down to make it a habit. I think that’ll come within time. This is just part of the minor league process. Everybody’s got a different journey, and this, right now, is mine. I’m going to roll with it, learn from it and keep going.
We notice the leg kick isn’t quite as high as it was when you got here. Is that something the Rangers had you work on or is that something you picked up on. Mechanically, is that part of the whole picture?
Tate: They talked about it a little bit. It was one of things where it’s so extreme that it can throw me off at times with certain pitches. At the end of the day, when you’re up there on the mound, to be successful, consistency is the key. To be consistent, you’ve got to repeat the same thing over and over again. Having that leg kick to be toned down a little bit will help me be more consistent. So, I think that’s all it is.
Saw a couple of curveballs last night? Is that new?
Tate: I threw a few curve balls. It was a pitch that I’ve had; I’ve just never really thrown it. The organization wants me to bring it back, so I’m working on it again and trying to bring it back.
One of the things you were working on – it was at the top of the checklist when you and I talked at the beginning of the season – was the changeup. How do you feel that pitch is working for you?
Tate: I’ve thrown some good ones and I’ve thrown a handful of not so good ones. It’s a feel pitch and some days it’s really good when I’m out here, and other days, like yesterday, not so much. I’m really just trying to focus in on that one thing that’ll make me throw that pitch over the zone and be more consistent with it. When I find it, I’ll hit my stride.
When you get into a rough patch, does it get to the point where you try to do too much to where you try to overthrow and pitches flatten out? You mentioned that you’re trying to do three and four things at once. Is that a part of that process?
Tate: I think so. There’s just a lot of information coming and I need to do a better of sifting through the information and just getting just one piece of information at a time. Work on this and then get that down. Then I’ll a work on this, instead of trying to take it all at one time and master it all. It’s just too tough to do.
When you’re on mechanically, what has to happen for you?
Tate: I think for starters, you’re not thinking about anything, for one. I think that’s for anybody when things are going well. Then to get down to the logistics of it, I think, me not leaning back. When you see the really high leg kick and how it was last year and how it is now, I’m not leaning back as much. So that’s going to help me stay over the rubber a little bit better and I’ll be able to better control my body better. That’s just one thing. There’s others things that go in there, too: hand and when they separate, head movement, things like that.
Has then been much more of a mental process than you thought it would be at this point, even last year?
Tate: Certainly, because last year, I’d just go out there and pitch and throw and I’m not thinking about anything. But now, there’s some things that need to be addressed and I’ve got to go out there and work on them. I’m definitely thinking about those things. So, that makes it a little tough. But, I think if anything that I’ve learned anything from this year is how to turn the page when things aren’t going well. That’s what you’ve got to do at the big league level and that’s something I’m learning how to do now. So, there is are positive things that are coming out of this.
Ti’Quan Forbes lined a solo homer in the sixth and a pair of relief pitchers spun five shutout innings to give the Hickory Crawdads a 4-3 win over the Lakewood (N.J.) BlueClaws Thursday night at L.P. Frans Stadium.
With the win, Hickory (48-43 overall, 10-11 second half) salvaged the final contest of a three-game series with their South Atlantic League Northern Division rival and snapped a four-game home losing streak. Lakewood (39-51, 11-10) had won the first two games of the series and the loss interrupts a stretch in which the BlueClaws had won six of their last seven.
The Crawdads will begin the back half of the two-team homestand on Friday as they host the West Virginia Power in a four-game series.
After Hickory’s Dillon Tate and Lakewood’s Jose Taveras breezed through the first inning, both hand trouble keeping the opposing lineups in check during their remaining tenures on the hill.
The BlueClaws struck first in the second. Damek Tomscha singled to left to open the inning. One out later, Wilson Garcia sneaked a groundball through the right side before Deivi Grullon singled in Tomscha. Tate held Lakewood at bay from inflicting further damage as he got Grenny Cumana and Brendon Hayden to ground out.
Hickory answered in the bottom of the inning, as Josh Altmann doubled and scored on Tyler Sanchez’s bloop single to left-center.
Lakewood countered in the third when Tomscha’s sacrifice fly scored Zack Coppola. Sherman Lacrus quickly brought the Crawdads even again to start the bottom of the inning when he homered to left-center – his first of the season.
Grullon cracked his third homer (6) against the Crawdads in as many games in the series to put the BlueClaws up again 3-2 in the fourth. Lakewood put two other runners aboard in the inning, but Tate worked out of the inning by getting Josh Tobias to foul out to Forbes along the dugout at third.
A Lakewood error got the Crawdads even again in the fifth. With two outs, Frandy De La Rosa singled and moved to third on Dylan Moore’s bloop single to right. With Josh Altmann at the plate, BlueClaws catcher Grullon attempted a pickoff of Moore at first. First baseman Wilson Garcia allowed the throw to trickle away, which allowed De La Rosa to scamper to the plate with the tying run.
In the sixth, Forbes lined a fastball from Ismael Cabrera (0-1) just over the wall in left-center, which turned out to be the final margin of the game. That single-run margin, however, was not without peril. After Joe Palumbo (6-3) was relatively untouched from the fifth through the seventh innings, the BlueClaws threatened after one out in the eighth. Brandon Hayden walked and Zack Coppola placed a single into shallow left field.
Manager Steve Mintz brought in Garrett Brummett to replace Palumbo. Cornelius Randolph greeted Brummett with a sharp single to right that loaded the bases.
Brummett got Josh Tobias to pop up to De La Rosa at second and Tomscha followed with a popup in front of home plate. With a quartet surrounding the play, it took a diving play by first baseman Altmann to complete the out and hold the BlueClaws scoreless.
From there, Brummett retired the side in order in the ninth for his first pro save.
After the Hickory Crawdads tied the game in the ninth, the Lakewood (N.J.) BlueClaws struck for three runs in the 11th to take a 6-3 win on a hot, muggy Wednesday afternoon at L.P. Frans Stadium.
The win was the second straight by Lakewood (39-50 overall, 11-9 second half) at Hickory and overall their sixth out of the last seven games.
Hickory (47-43, 9-11) dropped to 19-23 at home this season and lost its fourth straight at home. The Crawdads are assured of continuing a drought in which they have not won a home series since taking three of four vs. Lexington (Ky.) from April 29 to May 2. Since that time, the Crawdads have lost six series and tied two others (9-19 overall).
As they did in game one of the series on Monday, the Crawdads took the early lead in the second. Ti’Quan Forbes tripled just past the dive of Jose Pujols in right to score Josh Altmann, who had singled and stole second earlier.
Lakewood rebounded with a two-out rally in the fourth as Damek Tomscha singled and Pujols followed with a two-run blast to right, his South Atlantic League leading 17th of the season.
Both starting pitchers held the opposing lineups from wreaking further damage through five innings. Lakewood’s Franklyn Kilome allowed three hits and two walks, and struck out seven. His counterpart Wes Benjamin gave up five hits to go with his two runs allowed and struck out five.
BlueClaws reliever Skylar Hunter contributed to his downfall in the sixth as an errant pickoff attempt of Frandy De La Rosa at first skipped into foul territory in right field. De La Rosa moved to third and scored when Tyler Sanchez singled to left.
A controversial play led directly to a run for Lakewood in the seventh inning. With runners at first and second and two outs, Zack Coppola singled on what looked to be a routine grounder to second. Frandy De La Rosa charged the ball and as he entered the baseline between first and second, the runner, Edgar Cabral, ran into De La Rosa, knocking De La Rosa flat and sending the glove high into the air. Cabral was ruled safe at second with Wilson Garcia scoring on the play from second. De La Rosa remained in the game, but Cabral was taken out after struggling to run to third.
Crawdads manager Steve Mintz argued the call and was eventually ejected from the game.
The score remained 3-2 until two outs in the ninth. Forbes singled and scored all the way from first when Pujols mishandled a bloop single into right by Yeyson Yrizarri.
Emerson Martinez (0-2) entered the game for Hickory in the 11th and immediately walked Pujols. A sacrifice moved him to second before Martinez got Duran to bounce to short. After a wild pitch, Grenny Cumana singled in Pujols and then scored on Deivi Grullon’s second homer in as many games.
Jeff Springer struck out two of the three batters he faced to close out his three-inning relief outing and pick up the win (1-0).
Crawdads leave ducks on the pond:
As has been the case much of the year, the Crawdads missed several opportunities to add runs to their ledger and finished the game 2-for-12 with runners in scoring position.
A couple of stout defensive plays contributed to Hickory’s woes. Though Altmann eventually scored from third in the second, Ricky Valencia missed an RBI when second baseman Josh Tobias, who was playing in to cut off the runner at third from scoring, made a diving stab of a sharp grounder to hold Altmann and retire Valencia.
With Forbes at third, the Crawdads had a chance to take the lead in the seventh, Eric Jenkins chopped a ball to the left of the mound. Third baseman Damek Tomscha made a hard-charging play to the ball and short armed a quick throw to first to barely catch the speedy Jenkins and end the inning.
Otherwise, the Crawdads flailed away at the plate and that cost them a scoring chance in the fourth. Dylan Moore and Altmann walked to start the inning and moved up to second and third on Kilome’s wild pitch. With his fastball command perilous at times, Kilome turned to the slider to get Tyler Sanchez, Valencia and Forbes on strikeouts.
Altmann again whiffed in the sixth with a runner at third in the sixth, though De La Rosa did eventually score in the inning.
For the season with runners in scoring position, the Crawdads collectively have a slash of .239/.316/.343. With the bases loaded, it is .183/.243/.267.
Forbes fortunes continue at third:
What is becoming routine this season, Forbes showed off the leather with a couple more quick grabs of short hops in the game, including perhaps his best of the season in the tenth. On a sharp grounder by Tomscha, Forbes made a sprawling backhand pick of a short hop. Then seated with his right leg bent behind him, Forbes got enough on a throw across the diamond to get Tomscha by a step.
Wes Benjamin continued a steady progression through the 2016 season on Wednesday night. Coming off Tommy John surgery, the goal was to steer the lefty through good health and thus far it is working. Of his 12 starts, Benjamin has completed five or more innings in ten of them. In those ten starts, he has given up more than three runs just once and has walked more than one batter in just two of his 15 overall appearances (13 walks overall in 71 innings)
Benjamin is a guy that spots his fastball (90-91) well around the strike zone. He’ll mix in a change and a curve for show and used both to good effect today. Benjamin was especially tough in a couple of long battles with Phillies No. 5 (mlb.com) prospect Cornelius Randolph, who fouled off several pitches in both appearances against Benjamin. After Benjamin spun a high-and-tight fastball to the lefty in the first, he spotted a 92 mph pitch on the corner at the knees to get the out. In the third, it was a change on the inside corner that got the job done for a caught looking K.
Benjamin has 26 Ks over his last 20.1 innings of work.
Martinez a one-trick pony:
Emerson Martinez had his second tough outing in a row in a win/lose situation and has been tagged for the loss in both.
On Saturday at Rome (Ga.), it was two walks and two wild pitches that led to two runs scored in the ninth for a Braves walkoff win. On Wednesday afternoon, it was the inability to throw the curve for strikes that did him in. By my count, all five of them were well out of the strike zone, staying up and well to the 3B corner side of the plate. With that info in hand, the BlueClaws hitters were able to pick out a fastball to their liking and went to the attack. Cumana’s RBI single and Grullon’s homer were both on fastballs down the middle.
Moore joins the club:
Dylan Moore stole his 30th base of the season when he swiped second in the fourth inning. He joins teammate Eric Jenkins in the 30-steal club, as the outfielder already has 39. The two become the sixth duo in club history to steal 30 or more in a season, the first since Odubel Herrera (34) and Christian Villanueva (32) turned the trick in 2011.
Yrizarri stays hot:
Yeyson Yrizarri had two more hits on Wednesday and he now has multi-hit games in six straight (11-for-22). Currently in the midst of a seven-game hitting streak, the 19-year-old has 11 RBI and 0 strikeouts in that span.
Chris Tremie a catcher on the inaugural 1993 Hickory Crawdads squad, holds a unique place in the team’s history. On July 1, 1995, the former Hickory backstop became the first Crawdad to go on to the major leagues when the Chicago White Sox called him up from AAA Nashville.
The native of Houston, Texas went on to have brief major league stints with the White Sox, Rangers, Pirates and finally the Astros before calling it quits after the 2005 season.
Tremie then signed on with the Cleveland Indians minor league system to begin his coaching career in 2006 as the hitting coach at short-season Mahoning Valley. His first managerial gig came the next season with then South Atlantic League rival Lake County (Ohio), which brought Tremie back to Hickory for the first time since 1993.
After he led Akron (AA) to the Eastern League title in 2012, Tremie, 46 moved up to manager at AAA Columbus and he is in his fourth season as the Clippers manager. Under his leadership, the Clippers made the playoffs the last two seasons and won the International League championship in 2015.
With his club in pursuit of another playoff spot this season, Tremie was named the manager of the International League team for the Triple A All-Star Game, which will be played tonight (July 13) in Charlotte.
I had a chance during the all-star workout in Charlotte to speak with Tremie about his memories of Hickory in the early days, as well as about his current success with the Clippers.
You were on the original 1993 Crawdads team, looking back 23 years ago, what do you remember about that season?
Tremie: It was a great experience for me. It was my first full season of professional baseball. Hickory was a brand new stadium, a very nice stadium. It wasn’t quite done when we got there, so that’s one of the memories I had. We didn’t have a locker room right at the beginning of the season, but it came in a little bit later. Just a lot of good memories and the town and the people that were there, and also the fans that came out.
One of the highlights of that season was the fan base with a lot of sold out games. I’m guessing the town was pretty well taken with the new club and baseball coming to town.
Tremie: They seemed to be really excited there. Like I said, it was my first professional season. At the time, I didn’t really know what to expect, kind of going into it new. Now, after being around, both managing and playing for a while, it was pretty special being there. Fans were really excited, the people in town were really nice when we were around and if they noticed us. They opened their arms to us as players and as a team in that city. It was good.
You got to play with Magglio Ordonez, who was there the first couple of years. What do you remember about playing with him at 18, 19?
Tremie: He was young, as you mentioned – 18, 19 years old – extremely talented. It was fun watching him play, even at that age and at that experience level. We knew he was going to be good in the future and obviously that rung true and he had a great career. It was a time I got to be around him when he was just a kid starting out. It was great to watch his career as the years went on.
You got to play for Fred Kendall, who had a long career both as a player and has a coach and manager. How did that come together for you, as far as looking ahead to your career as a manager and such?
Tremie: A good experience. He had been around a lot of experiences and Mark Salas was there as well throughout the early part of my career. Both of those guys taught me a lot. Things that I remember from those times I actually still use today, sometimes. I’ve very grateful for those experiences.
Best memory from 1993, or maybe a funny memory.
Tremie: Probably, my first professional home run, I hit in Hickory that year. I was really struggling at the plate at them time. That probably sticks out as one of the highlights. But also, being around the guys and dressing in the trailers for the first month was kind of funny. But we got it done. The facilities came along and finished up and they were really nice. I have nothing but good things to say about Hickory.
You were the first Crawdad to get to the major leagues. I don’t know if you remember that, or not. What was that experience like when you were called up?
Tremie: I didn’t know that. It was just like any other person that goes up for the first time. I was very excited but a little surprised at the time when it happened. I was not expecting it at that point in my career, given the kind of season I was having. Very exciting.
You got to come back as a manager to Hickory when you were with Lake County in 2007. What was it like coming back as a manager?
Tremie: It’s kind of funny. It was good memories, going to the ballpark and remembering what it was like when I was a player, and then going back there 14 years later. It was my first year managing, too. So, it’s kind of ironic that first year playing and the first year managing I was able to go to that ballpark.
Now, you’ve been with Columbus four years now and won the International League title last year. Describe what that experience has been like for you?
Tremie: First of all, I’m grateful for the players that I’ve been fortunate enough to be around the last few years with the Indians organization. We had a great group of guys that have played hard. It’s been a fun experience, especially at the AAA level all the years I’ve been there. Last year was special in the fact that we ended up winning the league, but the year before that we were in the playoffs and had a really good team, as well. Overall, it’s been a great experience being around quality people and quality players and watching them grow.
Looking ahead, are you looking toward a major league gig for you, or are you of a mindset of taking it as it comes?
Tremie: I just go about doing my job and enjoying myself and enjoying being around these players. I just do what I enjoy doing and whatever happens in the future, that’s what happens. Right now, I just take it day by day.