Last Tuesday, June 21, 2016, Erik Swanson took the mound at the South Atlantic League All-Star Game, which was held at Lexington, KY. It was exactly one year to the day that Swanson made his debut with the Hickory Crawdads.
The plan was to begin his stint out of the bullpen and then work into the rotation. However, after seven relief outings, a forearm flexor strain ended his season, save for a brief rehab stint in the Arizona Summer League near the end of its season.
A lot has changed for Swanson in the course of the season, especially a renewed attention to his training. That training has paid off in velocity – his fastball sits in the 94-96 mph range and has been clocked up to 98 – and in the ability to take the ball every six games as part of the Crawdads rotation. After throwing 38 innings total over his first two pro seasons, Swanson is already at 57.2 innings following his last start at Greensboro.
In the interview below, Swanson talks about the benefits of his training, the adjustments to his repertoire, and coming to the pros from Iowa Western Community College.
First off all, considering where you were this time last year, you’ve got to be especially pleased with how things have gone for you.
Swanson: Yeah, I am. Last year, coming up here at the all-star break and pitching for about a month and then getting hurt and missing the rest of the year, my main focus this year was to stay healthy. Making the all-star team was another goal of mine coming in here and playing for Hickory. It was a pretty good accomplishment that I was able to do.
What do you think has been the key to your success this year versus where you were last year? Obviously getting healthy is a big part of that, but a lot of guys are hurt one year and come back the next and don’t do what you have put together in the first half.
Swanson: Obviously, like you said, health has been the biggest key for me. Being in a little different role this year – last year I was out of the pen when I was here – this year coming in as a starter, I feel that that’s a big key for me. I think it’s what I do best. I’m able to prepare myself a lot better – getting that routine. Being on a six-man (rotation) here, I’m able to get into the six-day routine, which has been really big for me this year.
One of the things that Mike Daly (Texas Rangers senior director of minor league operations) mentioned when he was here, he said one of the things that he was pleased with was that you’ve owned the strength and conditioning and the training and the arm care. What was the turning point for you in that area?
Swanson: Obviously health was my biggest. Last year, missing as much time as I did, I knew that year was going to be a big year for me. This offseason, I got after it as much as I could. I felt like I prepared myself going into spring training and put myself into a situation to succeed. Then, being able to carry that from spring training to Hickory this year was been huge for me. Working with Dustin (Crawdads trainer Dustin Vissering) on some different arm care routines that I’ve been doing that have been working. I’m just trying to do that and continue that to stay healthy.
Did you take the training less serious before you got hurt?
Swanson: No, it’s not something that I took as serious as I am now, which is one of my bigger downfalls. I was a little overweight last year. The big key focus for this year was if I could come in spring training at a healthy weight – a good weight – physically strong. I feel like I did and I think that most everybody thinks that I did that as well. Now, the focus for me is being able to maintain that and show them that I can do that.
Having thrown so few innings, in the last year, so you think that has helped you to stay strong, at least in the first half, with the idea that you’re going to add some innings to that total this year?
Swanson Yeah, that’s a big part of it. I don’t know off the top of my head how many innings I threw last year, but I think I’m close to double the innings I’ve thrown my entire professional career. A big part of that is me staying healthy and me getting in the shape that I needed to be in to come in this year as a starter and bring able to maintain that throughout the rest of the year. Staying healthy is going to be huge for me. It’s going to be a challenge and that’s my main goal this year.
Was there a moment in the training that you flipped the switch, or did somebody say something to you, or was there a combination that said to you that this has to be different?
Swanson: Obviously, this is only my second full year. Me being a college guy, I’m 22 years old and in Low-A, which is fine with me. But, I just kind of sat down and thought to myself, “How long are they going to keep me around if I’m not doing what I need to be doing?” I think that’s kind of the point in the offseason was when I started to really flip that switch.
I came into spring training and I felt great and still feel great. I still have lot more room for improvement on all those aspects of everything – physical shape, mentally strong – and all that comes down to what I do on the field and off the field. So yeah, I think there definitely was a point where I decided to flip the switch on my own, along with other people telling me that it’s time.
What’s been the difference as far as your stuff goes. I remember you had a good fastball last year and a change – but we didn’t see you enough to get a grasp. What are some different things you’ve done as far as your stuff goes?
Swanson: I had a decent fastball last year and it’s definitely improved this year. The changeup has been a big one for me. It’s a pitch that I’ve been constantly working on, changing grips – and I’ll probably continue to do that until I find a grip that I feel comfortable throwing. That’s something that’s definitely improved from my first start here until my last start. I’m working on slider grips a little bit. Now, I’m working on a little bit of a curveball that hopefully the next start I’ll be throwing it in some games. I feel comfortable throwing it in my bullpens.
How does someone pitching at Iowa Western get noticed by pro scouts?
Swanson: Going from my first Juco (Wabash Valley CC , IL) to Iowa Western, that was my biggest thing. I needed to go somewhere where I’m going to get recognized, where I can go on and continue my college career and possibly have the opportunity to play professional baseball. It just seemed like they go back to the (NJCAA) World Series every year in Grand Junction (CO).
My head coach Marc Rardin was phenomenal. He taught me so much stuff and improved my game on the mound and off the field. That’s kind of his motto; he teaches us to become men before baseball players – to prepare us for life after. Going there, he helped me with that. It’s a winning program, so they’re going to get scouts around there and I just happened to go there. He gave me all the tools I needed and I put them together and had a successful season and got noticed by the right people.
When you were drafted by the Rangers, was the expectation that you would start or they would throw you from the bullpen?
Swanson: When I went to Spokane, I was a little bit on an innings limit because in my freshman year in college I threw only 17 innings, and then I threw close to 90 innings in my sophomore year. So, they wanted me out of the pen in Spokane. But in the future, the plan was to become a starter. I think that was the direction I was headed last year when I first got here, but then obviously injuries put that on hold a little bit.
I want to go back to your college coach and you saying that he treated you like men. What was a big life lesson you got out of that experience with your coach at Iowa Western?
Swanson: When I went there, it was a big program with team. You focus on the guys around you. He’s big in the classroom. If you’re not doing your stuff in the classroom, then I’m not going to say you didn’t deserve to play, but you’ve got to earn it.
The reason I said that, that he wants us to become men first and prepare us for life after baseball, because that’s something he always told us. What I do here, whether it’d be on the baseball field or off the baseball field with classrooms, study halls and stuff like that, my first goal is to help my ballplayers to become men and prepare them for life after baseball. At some point it’s going to end. You can go online and I can guarantee you that you can find that quote in a few different articles. I heard it all the time when I was there and even in articles that I read now, I still read it.
What are the goals for the rest of the year?
Swanson: I had a few goals coming in. Obviously, staying healthy is my main goal. Reaching my inning limit is another one. At some point, one of my goals is to get out of here. Obviously, that’s out of my hands. I just need to do what I’m doing here. I need to keep up what I’m doing. If they decide that I need to move somewhere, then obviously that’s decision. I just need to keep doing what I’m doing and trying to get to the point to where they have no choice but to move me up. Notching a playoff spot while we’re here.
You get a call to the major leagues, what does that look like for you? What do you think your reaction will be?
Swanson: It’s kind of a dream come true. That’s something you dream about since you were a little kid, getting a call. I think the coolest thing for me, once I realize what is happening, will be making that call to all my family and letting them know that I’m going up.
I don’t know, that’s a really good question. I’ve never really thought about how I would react or anything. I think that’d be definitely the coolest part is to be able to call my mom and dad and friends, brother and sister-in-law and telling them that.
You guys put up with some much crap. What’s the biggest part of the crap that you might look back on and say, “That was worth it”?
Swanson: There’s a lot of little things that, I wouldn’t say that it’s crap, they might just get boring. You get that same routine every day and stuff seems like it’s tough. You come to the field every day at the same time. Obviously, that’s your time you get your work done, but sometimes you wake up and you might not want to come in, but you know you have to and you know that your ultimate going that you’re trying to get to, going in that day is going to help you get there.
You’ve got instructionals at the end of the year. The regular season is over with and it’s another month that you’ve got to add on, that can be a little frustrating at times. I’ve been twice, once because of injuries last year. I had to get some more innings in. It’s tough doing that, but at the same time, you know it’s worth it. The things that you do there is going to prepare you for the next year and get you better. You’re constantly learning, no matter where you are, so that’s the way that I look at it. No matter what you’re doing, no matter how bad it sucks, you’re going to learn something – whether it’s something really small, or something that may impact your game for the rest of your life. It’s all worth it.
Very few professional baseball players get the chance to play near their childhood home. Even fewer minor leaguers get to do so. Former Hickory Crawdads left-handed reliever Jeffrey Springs got to do just that and he made the most of it in working a promotion this week to high-A High Desert.
Springs is a native of Belmont, N.C. – about a 45 minute drive from Hickory – and was a part of the 2011 state 3A championship team at South Point High.
He was named the state 3A player of the year in 2011 and set the Gaston County record for strikeouts and is tied for wins in the county’s baseball history.
Springs went on to a stellar four-year career at Appalachian State – also about 45 minutes from Hickory – where he posted top-10 career marks in starts, strikeouts and innings pitched for the Mountaineers.
He got his first chance to come home – Springs is the first App State product to pitch for Hickory – late last summer when the Texas Rangers 30th round pick in 2015 was promoted to the Crawdads for the final week of the regular season. He struck out six over 3.1 innings and then punctuated his season with a key moment in the first round of the South Atlantic League playoffs.
With Hickory facing elimination in game two of the Northern Division series, the West Virginia Power rallied to tie the score at 3-3 in the top of the fifth and had the go-ahead run on first. Springs was brought in to face SAL all-star rightfielder Michael Suchy. The lefty needed only one pitch to get Suchy to pop up to second and end the inning. The Power did not score again over the final 13 innings of the series.
This season, Springs was a foundational piece of the Crawdads bullpen prior to his promotion. Springs currently has three pitches – low-90s fastball, a looping curve ball, and a change that Springs uses as his go-to pitch. He is also working on adding a slider to the mix. In 18 outings, Springs struck out 40, walked eight, and posted a 1.16 ERA over 31 innings. The SAL batted .106 against him – the stingiest mark among relievers in the league – which earned him a spot in the SAL all-star game in Lexington, Ky. Springs struck out the only batter he faced to close out the sixth inning.
Below is the interview I did with Springs late last week, just after his addition – strangely, for me, a late addition – to the Northern Division all-star roster.
Obviously you were a late addition to the all-star game. I thought you should’ve been picked originally, but let me get your reaction to your selection to the all-star game.
Springs: Obviously, it’s humbling to be a part of something like that. It’s obviously really good. Like you said, I wasn’t picked in the beginning, but whatever. It is what it is. But I’m really happy to be a part of it and I’m looking forward to spending a couple of days in Kentucky and getting to compete and enjoying it.
What are you looking forward to the most?
Springs: Just being able to pitch against the best hitters in the league and competing to see how you match up, to be honest. Obviously we’re out here to compete and you’d like to see how you match up with the best.
Was there disappointment when you weren’t picked the first time?
Springs: No. It is what it is. I know it’s sometimes tough for relievers to make it. So, I wasn’t really expecting to or not expecting to.
How cool was it to pitch here after coming out of App (Appalachian State)?
Springs: I was excited when they posted the rosters out of spring training. I kind of had my fingers crossed to be in Hickory, not only because that’s moving up for me and getting one step closer, but just being close to home and being on the East Coast where my family can actually get to come and see me play. They weren’t able to come out to Spokane and see me. I’m right up the road from where I went to school for four years. It’s really nice. I feel like I’m playing at home and I’m very comfortable here. It’s definitely an advantage, because I live right down the road and I get to see the mom and dad every once in a while and friends and stuff like that. It’s really nice.
Do you travel down to Gaston County?
Springs: Yeah, I travel there most off-days to visit family and stuff. It’s nice to see them and they come to a good it of games.
You got here last year for the last couple of weeks and the championship run. That was a nice bit of a reward for you.
Springs: It was a great experience, for sure. That team was very good. Obviously, they clinched the first half and it was exciting to be a part of a special thing that they had there at the end. Talent wise and the chemistry within the team, it was really special to be a part of it. They really accepted me with open arms. I contributed the little bit I could whenever they asked me to me to do whatever.
You got a key out in that playoff run.
Springs: I think against West Virginia – we had great starters. Obviously, they pretty much carried the team pretty much the whole year. I came in and threw one pitch to bridge the gap. We had great eighth-inning guys and we had a great closer. If the starters for some reason couldn’t get to the eighth inning, we just kind of bridged the gap. Like I said, our bullpen was stacked with Dillon (Tate) and Lulu (Luis Ortiz) back there and then Scott Williams. If we’d get to the eighth inning, we’re winning the game pretty much.
What was your goal entering this year and how has that progressed for you?
Springs: Just being as consistent as possible. That’s something I tried to do last year at Spokane and carry it over to this year. They talk about staying on the kiddie coaster and being consistent, so when you have good outings and bad outings, they’re not too far apart. Just being consistent and doing whatever role they need me to do – being in the bullpen, or if they need me to be a lefty specialist, or a late-inning guy. Whatever they need me to do, just taking it and running with it and being the best at it.
Did you start at App?
Springs: Yeah, I started my whole career in high school and four years at App. When I got to the Rangers, they said you’re going to be in the bullpen, which is no big deal. It’s kind of an advantage for me because, at most, bullpen guys are two-pitch guys. But being a starter, throwing three and working on a slider now; here’s all three pitchers for a couple of innings and you don’t have to see me twice. It’s kind of nice, to be honest.
The one out-pitch for you has been that curveball. Has that been an advantage for you at the start?
Springs: My changeup really is the one that is an equalizer for me to right-handed hitters. I’m almost more comfortable at times with right handers in the box – I know that’s weird being left handed – but for me, my changeup is what gets me back on course. If I’m missing with fastballs, or whatever it may be, for some reason, when I go to it, it kind of settles everything back down. That’s what I go to. My breaking ball has gotten more consistent and I throw it and bury it 0-0, or whatever I need to do. It’s probably a changeup that has really been my equalizer.
I throw a curveball, but the change is the out pitch that I need right now. It’s not really my out pitch; it’s to get the weak contact, the popups. It really helps my fastball. I don’t throw like some of these guys, 98, or anything like that. I have to change speeds and keep hitters guessing.
Is that slider going to be the key for you moving up?
Springs: I think so. If I can really develop that and learn that, that’ll really hopefully take my game to left-handed hitters to be able to hopefully succeed at getting them out. Obviously, if you’re a left hander and you can’t get left handers out, you’ve got problems. I’ve been working on it a couple of weeks and hopefully if I can nail that down, I’ve got a shot of progressing a little bit more, a little quicker.
Do you have hopes of moving up this year, or are you fine being close to home?
Springs: Whatever they want me to do. If they want me to stay here or if they want me move up, obviously that’s the goal. It’s another step closer to the ultimate goal of making it. If they want me to move, I’ll be more than happy to pack my stuff up whenever they ask.
Is there hope for you that you get a change to start, or are you comfortable coming out of the bullpen?
Springs: Obviously, I started my whole career. That’s kind of where my heart is, whatever you want to call it. But like I said, I just want to keep pitching. If I get to start, that would be icing on the cake. But just getting to pitch, for me, is the biggest thing. I don’t care if we’re up by ten, down by ten, or tied in the ninth, as long as I get to pitch, I’m pretty content with that.
Between you and (Joe) Palumbo – although y’all have run into a bit of a rough patch lately – along with (John ) Werner, it’s been a nice back of the bullpen the first half of the season.
Springs: I feel like as a team, our pitching has been pretty consistent throughout the year. Hitting is going to go in slumps. That’s just how it is. I mean, they’re going to struggle. We feel like as a staff, we have to carry them. We have to keep them in the games, no matter if they’re putting up ten runs or they’re putting up two. For the most part, we did that. We’ve struggled the last few weeks and kind of shot ourselves in the foot trying to win the first half.
Werner’s been nice. It’s another consistent guy who comes in and you know what you’re going to get. Palumbo has been pretty good all year. We feel like we’ve got some guys in the pen that can really finish off games. Our starting staff is really good, and like I said, they’re been really carrying it pretty good.
You get a call to the major leagues, what is your reaction going to be?
Springs: Oh man, I don’t even know. Obviously, you dream of it since you were a little kid. I don’t know what my response will be. You try not to think about it too much during the season, but it’s hard not to wonder when you’re sitting there – even in the offseason – what would it be like. Honestly, I couldn’t even tell you. I’d probably call my parents and just thank God for the opportunity. It’d be so surreal for a guy to really get a grasp on it until you maybe step onto the field. Fingers crossed, we’ll see.
Who’s the first non-family person you’ll call?
Springs: Probably the girlfriend. Obviously, mom and dad, my grandpa and my brothers. There have been a couple of people that have really helped me along the way with the pitching aspect. Devon Lowery, he made it to the big leagues out of Belmont (South Point High), where I’m from. He’s helped me so much along my way. I’ve had so much help. I’ve been fortunate enough to come in contact with people that know a lot about the game and helped me tweak things that I needed to get where I am. There’d be a lot of thanks going out to so many different people.
What’s the one thing that that you’ve gone through that you’ll look back on and say that was worth it?
Springs: Just the sacrifices, like the offseason. What you have to go through to get your body in shape and the arm in shape and all the sacrifices over the years. You can’t go and do normal things like normal people do. All the hard work that you put it would be worth it to reach that ultimate goal. It’d be like, “I’m glad I did everything that I did to get where I am.”
The journey of Pedro Payano to what he hopes will be a major league career has been an odd one since an overweight six-year-old first rambled around the baseball diamond. But with the belief he has in himself, and the prodding of a now late-grandfather, Payano has begun to get into the crosshairs of baseball publications, who are beginning to focus on him becoming a major league pitching prospect.
Payano came to Hickory in August 2015 seemingly out of nowhere. He spent three full seasons in the Dominican Summer League and had started a fourth before suddenly a three-level jump to Hickory with a stop in Arizona on the way. It was a promotion that the Crawdads certainly benefited from as they prepared for the run to the South Atlantic League championship.
The Crawdads had already clinched a playoff berth, but as the team entered August and faced as many as eight extra games, the minimizing of innings for the team’s starters had begun. Luis Ortiz was gradually shifted to the bullpen. Dillon Tate was a one-inning starter after already completing a full college season, as well as dealing with some arm soreness. Brett Martin’ outings were curtailed as he finished a first full season. Ariel Jurado and Yohander Mendez were on a piggyback arrangement. Then here came Payano.
In his first start at Delmarva (Md.) on August 3, he spun a five-hit shutout over six innings and struck out five, needing 87 pitches to do so. He returned six days later and on the back-end of a tandem start with Brett Martin, Payano allowed one hit, three walks, and struck out three over four innings to defeat Lakewood (N.J.)
It was eight days later before he returned to the mound and he gave up his first run. But despite giving up eight hits and hitting two batters over five innings, the damage was just the one run in a win over Hagerstown (Md.).
He then gave up just one run in each over his next three starts, the final one a nine-strikeout performance against Rome (Ga.) over 5.2 innings.
Payano then saved his best for last. In game one of the SAL championship series, he tossed a six-hitter over six innings and struck out eight to defeat Asheville and give the Crawdads a 1-0 series lead.
In an article I did for the Hickory Daily Record after that game, Corey Ragsdale, the Crawdads manager last season, said of Payano, “To be honest, I didn’t know a lot about him when he got here. He’s exceeded my expectations and has been a real pickup.”
Payano throws a fastball in the 92-93 mph range and supplements that with a curve and change. What has set him apart during his stint here in Hickory has been his ability to throw any pitch in any count, along with the smarts to know how to do it.
“I think that Pedro is (a) guy that has a very good I.Q,” said Texas Rangers senior director of minor league operations. “He’s very good in terms of being able to read what the other hitters are trying to do. He’s able to attack them based on what the hitters are trying to read; so, he’s able to read bats.”
With all the ability, it took a while for Payano to get to Hickory and he freely admits to having a “short mind”, as he termed it. One Rangers rover said frankly that Payano had to “grow up.”
There was a start earlier in this season where an observer could see that Payano could be pushed to lose control on the mound. After the Crawdads were pounded in two straight games at home by Greenville (S.C.), they returned for a 10:30 a.m. game. The earlier start prompted both teams to play sloppily in the early going, and after the Crawdads held a 2-0 lead, it threatened to get away from them in the third. Unable to get a consistent arm slot, Payano battled control issues, as well as the umpire’s strike zone. A stolen base and a dropped fly ball in right by Jose Almonte led to two unearned runs. Payano was clearly unhappy on the mound as he’d walk around the mound and go to the rosin bag frequently before slamming it down. Yet, he gathered himself and eventually got through five innings with only the two unearned runs allowed.
Payano followed up that outing with a one-hit shutout of Greensboro.
“He does a pretty good job of staying within himself,” said Crawdads pitching coach Jose Jaimes. “He doesn’t let things that he can’t control to get in his mind.”
Part of the letting go for Payano has been the past. He didn’t want to get into events that occurred, which kept him in the DSL for a fourth season. He is fully focused on what he needs to do now and where he wants to go later. On that journey, Payano brings along a love of a late-grandfather who pushed him to become a pro ball pitcher.
Below is some excerpts of the interview I did with Payano.
What’s your first memory of baseball?
Payano: I was six years old, yeah and I dunno, I was fat, but I loved baseball.
You were fat?
Payano: Yeah, that was my first memory of baseball and I hit a long hit and I just make it to second because I was very slow.
So how big were you at six years old, how fat?
Payano: SO fat, I dunno, SO fat.
So you had the long hit, the double and what’s that memory sort of get you started to wanting to play more and more?
Payano: I don’t know, because I was born with baseball. When I was a little kid I have a lot of pictures with a bat and with a ball, you know. I love baseball.
When did you start getting serious about playing baseball?
Payano: I was like 13 years old and somebody tell me that you have a lot of passion for the game and you (should) keep going and keep playing. And then somebody tell me you going to go to academy and then I started to take it seriously.
Were you hitting then, or doing more pitching?
Payano: I was a hitter and then when I was like 14-years-old, somebody tell me, “Come, you’re going to pitch,” and I kept pitching.
What position did you play when you were a hitter?
Payano: I was left field.
When did you stop being fat like me?
Payano: I was skinny when I was 12.
Did you work with somebody or just grow out of the baby fat.
Payano: When I was grown, I was skinny.
You said you went to academy – obviously you played baseball, but was that like a high school or just all baseball?
Payano: In the Dominican Republic academy is like, you live there, and you have a cage, a gym, and you have a field like 30 minutes away, but you live there. I was there Monday through Friday and then went home for the weekend.
What is your memory for when it was getting serious and you might go play sign with a pro team?
Payano: When I was 14 I didn’t throw hard, but I had a good curve ball and good change-up, somebody tell me I’m going to be a good pitcher and you know I just keep going.
So when people are telling you at 14 that you have the chance to go pro, did you ever think that you’d get to that point when you were taking those pictures when you were a little kid?
How weird is that for you at that point?
Is that a dream for a lot of kids growing up in the DR to play pro baseball? Yes, a lot.
What do you think set you apart from other kids – not everybody gets the chance to play pro baseball. What set you apart?
Payano: You just have to be positive. If you just think positive things, it’s going to come for you. Just keep going and work hard, that’s the key.
Who was somebody who helped you get that positive attitude?
Payano: It was my grandfather –Ephraim Payano
What did he help you with as far as that positive attitude?
Payano: He died like 5 years ago. He always tell me, I want to see you playing baseball. I want to see you with a pro team and I keep that in my mind.
What do you think he would say about you now, if he were alive what would he say about you now playing baseball?
Payano: He’d be very proud of me.
There are a lot of times that the Rangers send somebody here at 19. You came along a little later. What was maybe in the development that took you a little longer to get here?
Payano: When I was in the Dominican Republic, I had a “short mind”. I was doing a lot of stupid things and that’s why I was kept there for 3-4 years. But I grew up, then they say, “Hey Payano is ready to go to the US.”
What were some of the things that kept you back?
Payano: I don’t remember
Did you put those things behind you?
Payano: Yes, I forgot that
Was it on field, off field or both?
What maybe helped you grow up?
Payano: I grow up, maybe because I don’t like being in the Dominican. Nobody knows you there. So when we start to move, step by step, it is here in the U.S. So I say, I need to get to the U.S., so I have to make that approach in my mind.
You came here last year and nobody knew who you were. Who’s Pedro Payano? You pitched so well at the end of last year and now top prospect. You start reading that Payano is this, Payano is that How fast is this all moving for you?
Payano: I don’t think that it’s moving very fast, but I’m working for that. I was waiting and working and doing a good job.
What clicked for you on the mound? What clicked for you when you came here, what took you to the next level on the mound?
Payano: I just tell myself that I’m going to do the same. I’m going to do the same that I was doing in Arizona, throwing the ball for strikes and having a good tempo and just that.
What are your goals for this year?
Payano: To move up, championship, I just want to move to the next level
What do think you have to do to move to Frisco or the High Desert?
Payano: Just keep going
What are coaches having you work on to get to the next level of better hitters and such?
Payano: I just have to throw all my pitches for strikes and I’m going to move real fast. As you know, I have a good curve ball and changeup and my fast ball is pretty good. So if I have these pitches for strikes, I’ll have a good year.
Later on, when you get a call saying “Pedro, you’re going to the big leagues”, what is your first reaction going to be do you think?
Payano: I don’t know, say, “Thanks God” and then say, “Thanks grandpa, this is for you.” Then I’ll call my family
Do you think when you take the mound for the first time in the major leagues, you’ll think of your grandpa?
Payano: Yeah, sure – every time I go to the mound I think of my grandpa.
What do you do?
Payano: This is going for you
Do you think he’s smiling?
Payano: Yeah, for sure.
I had the chance to sit down with Andy Ibanez, as well as a translator, about a month ago in order to prepare a feature writeup for the Hickory Daily Record. Because this is very much a part-time gig for me, my schedule on completing it didn’t come together as well as I’d hoped.
Finally, my schedule was going to allow time to write it up for publication next week, but then Ibanez got promoted. Such is the life of a part-time beat writer.
At the time of the interview, Ibanez was tearing up the South Atlantic League, bashing opponents in April at a .402/.479/.659 clip. The cry at the time was to get him moving to AA Frisco; the game was too easy for him at Hickory.
Mike Day, Texas Rangers Senior Director of Minor League Operations said in a recent interview that the club did have internal discussions about an early promotion. Yet, the group decided to be patient.
“Obviously, he was outstanding there in April,” said Daly. “But it’s a five-month season here at the minor league level and it’s a grind each and every day. Andy will definitely have his time at the higher level and it’ll probably come sooner rather than later. I think for the foreseeable future, right now he’ll be right here in Hickory and really getting that first year under his belt.”
Perhaps the bat was too advanced for Class Low-A, but there were parts of Ibanez’s overall game that needed work. The most obvious was the baserunning, which saw Ibanez get picked off easily. He’d also run into easy outs and at times look confused on set plays such as a double steal. (One such play had him return to first, even as the other runner scored on a throw home.)
Several of the Rangers brass also made it clear that there was work to do at second base. Hickory Crawdads manager Steve Mintz said the eye-opener that Ibanez was making progress to that end came during a May series at Charleston S.C..
“Our infield coordinator Kenny Holmberg was in Charleston with us,” said Mintz. “He made a couple of plays and I walked up to Kenny and I said, ‘He don’t make that play in spring training.’And he said, ‘You’re right.’ His angles and reading balls off the bat and different things like that, we’re tickled to death with.”
Ibanez is looking to adjust to baseball in the U.S. and learn the terminology and get used to the style of play, the greater emphasis on structure, and the constant running that he says they don’t do in Cuba.
But perhaps the biggest adjustment Ibanez had to make was simply living on his own in the United States – to make long bus road trips and live away from home and the Rangers Arizona complex for the first time in an area in which you don’t speak the local language. It’s hard enough for a kid who does speak English to make that adjustment, but even moreso for a guy who only recently told his parents he was leaving Cuba, because he wanted to be like the former Cuban players he saw on TV.
In a country that oozes baseball, Ibanez wants to be among those players he saw on a grainy picture screen broadcast to Cuba, even as it has cost him his home life, especially his parents.
In the following interview, Ibanez speaks about his early season successes, the process of coming to the U.S., and his hope for a face-off with a specific top Major League hurler.
First of all, let me ask you, obviously your season has started well. How do you feel about your start here with Hickory?
Ibanez: I’m really thankful for the outcome of the season. I’m really happy with that. This season is coming because of the training that I had in Miami with Texas Rangers coach Jose Fernandez, who has helped me train in order prepare to get ready for the season.
What have you learned in that training that has prepared you to play baseball here that maybe was different from playing in Cuba?
Ibanez The game passion for the game is pretty much the same here and there. For me, there is more equipment and more resources. There’s more organization of the time schedule for practices. That is the big difference. But, the passion for the sport is still the same.
You played in the World Baseball Classic with Cuba. Did you feel like that environment helped you grow up? You were very young then (18 years old). Did that make you grow up quicker with the expectations to play well in an international setting?
Ibanez: I think that being exposed to so many good people at that early age, it really made me learn from them and the experiences. I had the opportunity to talk to people and to get their advice and apply it to become better.
What made you decide when you were little to play baseball in Cuba?
Ibanez: I started when I was six years old. Everybody in Cuba plays baseball. Although my father did not play, everybody in Cuba is exposed to the sport. Everybody begins to play at a certain time and I started very early.
At what age or circumstances do you begin to figure out that maybe you could play baseball professionally?
Ibanez: I was a child that always liked sports. I played basketball, soccer and baseball. When I was 11 years old I represented my province (Isla de la Juventud, Island of Youth) and I felt that this was my passion and that this is what I would do the rest of my life. That was my turning point.
You played professionally with Cuba?
Ibanez: There’s a difference between what you call leagues in Cuba. You do not call them professional, you call them amateur, because you don’t really get paid to that level. I reached the highest level (Isla de la Juventud) that you can play in Cuba and I played at that level for three years.
What’s it like to play baseball in Cuba? We hear stories of the passion that the people have for baseball. Take me to a game where you’re playing and the fans are into the game?
Ibanez: It’s a celebration in Cuba. They have congas that people will be playing; people are dancing and cheering you up. But I don’t want to make a comparison because each place has a different life or dynamic. I want to point out that I actually appreciate that the fans here are quiet and they let you play. If you make a mistake, you still have a chance to keep pushing to do things right. In Cuba, if you happen to fail, they actually call you out and the fans yell at you and say not really nice stuff all the time. I don’t quite miss that. Here, the fans still support you and show you more respect.
What were the circumstances of your decision to defect from Cuba and leave home?
Ibanez: When I was in Cuba, I used to watch baseball from the big leagues in the states and I always wondered, “Why can I not take advantage of it? Why can I not give myself an opportunity?” I had seen on TV how many Cubans had done a terrific job in baseball, so I wanted to take the chance.
I did everything how it was to be done. I first talked to my parents and they said “Okay, we’ll support you.” So, I decided to move to the states with his girlfriend Yisel when he was 20 years old.
What were the sequence of events or the circumstances by which you were able to say, I defect? Were you here in the states, somewhere else?
Ibanez: First, I had to ask his local baseball to resign – to tell them I didn’t want to play anymore. I was also playing with the national team. So, I went to the central office and I had to ask for my resignation. When you’re with that team, you cannot get a passport. You cannot buy one. I had to wait for two months after I was approved to resign. Once I got the resignation approved, then I qualified to get a passport. Once I got the passport, then I could file for a tourist visa to travel to the Dominican Republic, not to the states.
So you traveled to the Dominican and then you decide not to travel home to Cuba? How does that work?
Ibanez: Once I got there, I started training. Not to play with any kind of team or league, but I just started training. My intention was to reach anybody, any scout that would be out there at the showcases where they’re trying to get the best baseball players. So I trained six months for it, because that was my goal, to be in a showcase and be picked.
Finally, last year on July 10, I signed a contract with the Texas Rangers. After I signed, I got a work visa with which I was able to come to the states through that visa and work here.
So we see stories in this country about getting on a boat or sneaking away, but that was not the case for you?
Ibanez: No, I did everything in the right way and I’m thankful to God that I didn’t have to go through that. It happens to a lot of people that I know that made it here, but not in my case.
So, in doing everything the right way, you are able to go home to Cuba?
Ibanez: I can go back to Cuba and I want to, but the problem is that my visa gives me a year. According to the immigration law, as a Cuban, I have to be out of Cuba for one straight year without returning in order to qualify to become a resident of the United States. If I return to Cuba, no one is going to shut the door from me, but I would not qualify to carry on with the visa that I have. So, I have to be out of Cuba for a year so I can I petition for the residency status, and then eventually become a citizen.
So you hope to become a U.S. citizen?
Ibanez: I am willing to. I think it’s a great goal. Why not?
Are you able to talk to your parents, or call home?
Ibanez: I call them twice a week and I am able to communicate. Nowadays, actually my parents have access to email through their phone, so it’s a lot easier for them to keep that communication going.
You started well here. What did the Rangers say they wanted you work on before you promotion?
Ibanez: I’m thankful to God for the outcome of the season. I’ve not been told a particular skill that I have to work on. I’ve just been told to keep doing my best though this season so I’ll be ready when I do move.
Are there things in the American game that you have to learn that are different than what you might do in Cuba?
Ibanez: In Cuba, they play really good baseball, but I acknowledge that here is the best baseball in the world. I notice that here, no matter what, you’re running all the time. Whether you’re batting or fielding constantly, you run all the time, which I really enjoy. Even if you hit a fly ball, you still run the bases out.
It’s really well organized and disciplined and I appreciate that.
One thing that we’ve noticed is that running the bases has been an issue, whether it’s been pickoffs our getting caught stealing. What are you working on related to that?
Ibanez: Absolutely. Part of the training is to watch video and see if you can predict the move the pitcher will make during the game. Also during the game, we’re trying to see what’s going on. Even though I’m not on the field, the team is trying to see what the moves will be.
Who is your favorite baseball player?
Ibanez: Jose Abreu of the White Sox. I had the opportunity to play with him in the National League in Cuba and I had the opportunity to know him as a person. He was always willing to give me advice and the way he way he gives himself to the game and the training. So I’ve seen him in all those instances as a person, as a human being, and as a baseball player. I seem him as a role model to follow.
Do you feel challenged here in Hickory? You’re doing so well with hitting. Is it too easy here at this level?
Ibanez: No. I consider baseball as a discipline. It’s a serious business. Whenever I play, I take it seriously. I give myself to the game every time. I don’t underestimate anybody. I take it seriously. I set myself every day a goal to do better, based on what I can give. I always want to get better every day.
How anxious are you to get to the big leagues?
Ibanez: That’s my dream. Anybody who feels the passion of baseball, that’s where you want to go. So yeah, that’s what all the drive and persistence and the commitment to work are for me. I want to go there with Texas and I see that happening.
You get the call that you are going to the big leagues, whether it be with Texas or elsewhere. What do you think that will be like for you?
Ibanez: (smiling with a long exhale). I have imagined that day and I know that it’s going to be a really happy day for me. I’m working for it every day and I’m committed to it. Any baseball player has to sacrifice a lot to make it there. It’s been hard for me because I have given away my family and my parents. That weighs more because I have to miss my parents birthdays and Christmas and other holidays. Being away from all that sometimes hurts, but I’m committed to it because I want to make it happen.
I watched this movie in which you picture good stuff happening in your life and you pull them towards you by the work you do.
What pitcher do you want to face most?
Ibanez: Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Ibanez: Because he’s good. He’s a good player, so he’s a good challenge and he’d love to take it.
The South Atlantic League announced the all-star rosters for the annual mid-season exhibition game that will take place on Tuesday, June 21 at Lexington, Ky. Included on the Northern Division roster will be four members of the Hickory Crawdads.
The lone starter from Hickory is shortstop Yeyson Yrizarri. In 51 games this season (through June 8), Yrizarri, 19, has posted a .256/.278/.387 slash with 16 extra-base hits and stolen 12 bases. The native of Puerto de Ordaz, Dominican Republic will be a part of his second straight league all-star game. Yrizarri was also picked on the Northwest League All-Star team that played against the Pioneer League in an exhibition game in 2015. He has also been adept in the field, as Yrizarri has committed just eight errors in 273 chances. He is the first Crawdads shortstop to start a SAL all-star game since Hanser Alberto was tabbed to do so in 2012.
The other position player from the Crawdads to make the Northern Division squad is catcher Tyler Sanchez. The native of Port St. Lucie, Fla. has posted a .265/.374/.412 slash in 39 games with four homers and 23 RBI. Sanchez, 23, was the Texas Rangers 17th round pick in 2015.
Two of the Crawdads starting pitchers will be a part of the Northern Division roster, as Pedro Payano and Erik Swanson parlayed strong first halves in to an all-star spot.
Payano, 21, is second in the SAL in ERA (1.47), opponent batting average (.182) and is seventh in WHIP (1.04) over 55 innings. The native of San Pedro de Macoris, D.R. threw a one-hitter earlier this season against Greensboro and has struck out 57 to just 22 walks.
Swanson, 22, is fifth in the SAL in WHIP (1.01) and tenth in ERA (2.45) in his first pro season as a starter. The native of Terrace Park, Ohio has struck out 48 and walked 12 over 51.1 innings of work.
This is the final installment of an interview I did with Mike Daly, Texas Rangers Senior Director of Minor League Operations.
He discusses the progress of prospects Brett Martin, Jonathan Hernandez and Pedro Payano, as well as a few other pitchers making their way onto the parent club’s radar.
In case you missed it: Part I focused on the Crawdads top hitting prospect (at the time) Andy Ibanez and the top pitching prospect Dillon Tate
Part II looked at the Crawdads hitting prospects, including Eric Jenkins and Yeyson Yrizarri.
I was surprised to see Brett Martin come back here. When I talked with him at the start of the season he said there was a checklist essentially: first pitch curve ball for strikes; work on the secondaries deeper in the count, getting through hitters a little bit quicker rather than running up count. How is he doing with the checklist as far as you can tell?
Daly: I think it’s been real good for Brett. Brett came in here last year, I think he was with that group of Yohander Mendez, Ariel Jurado, Luis Ortiz, and now he came back to Hickory being one of the lead guys. I think some of the challenges for him last year was to go out there, get deep in games and get guys out. Now, he’s taken like a step and it’s a little bit about pitch development. It’s about throwing that breaking ball when you’re behind in the count. It’s about getting guys out in three or four pitches or less. I think it’s been like a challenge for Brett and we think that it’s something that’s ultimately going to be helpful for him as he starts to move up the ladder.
I think there are a lot of discussions at the end of spring training about challenging him there at high A, or do we have him back to Hickory. We felt there were a number of challenges that he could go through here in Hickory that would prepare him better to go to High A, ultimately AA and on up to the Major leagues. Where Brett’s at, it’s been a challenge, but a very good one and something that we see as helping his career up to this point.
Jonathan Hernandez is somebody I’m beginning to enjoy more and more watching him pitch. He’s a young guy at 19. In his first start at Kannapolis, he was falling all over the place and he’s toned that down a lot. He seems to learn quickly into what he needs to do to make the next step.
Daly: He also comes from a baseball family. His father pitched in the minor leagues for a number of years. He actually was born in the states when his father was playing for Memphis. His father is also a pitching coach in the Dominican Winter League for Aguilas down there. So Jonathan has grown up in baseball and he’s always been a very focused young man.
I give Jonathan a lot of credit. When we signed him, he was very, very skinny. He’s put on a lot of good weight. He’s put in a lot of time in our Dominican complex. He pitched for two years for our Dominican Summer League team. He’s a young man that has some weapons. He can really mix all of his pitches. He has a very good I.Q. and aptitude of what he’s trying to do out there on the mound. It’s been real exciting to see him grow both physically and mentally over the past few years that he’s been in the organization.
Pedro Payano has been at the top of the rotation, when you run them out there one through six. He’s always going to give your five or six innings. He had the one-hitter. In a lot of ways, he came out of nowhere for us when he came here in August last year.
Daly: I think that Pedro is another guy that has a very good I.Q. He’s very good in terms of being able to read what the other hitters are trying to do. He’s able to attack them based on what the hitters are trying to read; so, he’s able to read bats. He’ll throw the breaking ball behind in the count. He’ll throw his changeup in any count. He can throw the fastball up to 92-93 and has good deception.
He’s a guy that took a couple of years in out Dominican Summer League program to kind of get himself going, but he’s been on a rocket ever since. He’s a guy that started 2015 in the Dominican Summer League, jumped to Arizona and then ended up here and was a huge part of the championship team for the Hickory Crawdads. We see a guy that has a very, very bright future.
Erik Swanson is another one that has taken another step forward after not throwing much last year.
Daly: It’s another credit to our scouting department. We get him in the eighth round out of Iowa Western and that was a good job by our scouts to even dig him up.
He’s a young man that has a very, very good arm. He’s really invested in what he’s doing off the field. He’s really invested in the strength and conditioning program and has done an outstanding job with Wade Lamont and Dustin Vissering, our strength and conditioning coach and our trainer, in terms of our arm care program that got derailed last year with some injuries. But he’s a guy that’s come in here this year and taken the ball each and every time that he’s gotten it, and it’s been very impressive.
He’s got a very heavy fastball, sneaky fastball and really pounds the strike zone. He’s a guy that we’ve been really excited about over the first couple of months, and that’s a real credit to Swanny and the investment he’s made in the strength and conditioning program.
Who are we not paying enough attention to on the pitching side, someone who’s not on the radar and then all of a sudden, there he is?
Daly: I think anytime you’re six-foot-seven and left-handed, I think Adam Choplick is a guy that is someone to keep an eye on. He throws up to 94 with a slider.
We got a real interesting guy in Matt Ball in the trade there with the Chicago White Sox for Anthony Renaudo. Again, a good job there by our scouting department to identify him – a 6-foot-4 pitcher with a 94, 95 mile-an-hour fastball and a slider. He’s been real impressive in the short amount of time that he’s been here so far.
I think Jeffery Springs from right up the road here (Appalachian State) is a guy whose fastball has taken a couple of steps up. He’s got a plus changeup. He can throw that changeup at any time in any count. He’s a left-hander with a really good makeup.
According to unnamed sources, the Texas Rangers are expected to announce on Tuesday that Hickory Crawdads second baseman Andy Ibanez has been promoted to AA Frisco (Tex.).
The native of Havana, Cuba played in 49 games for Hickory this season and posted a .324/.413/.546 slash with 18 doubles and seven homers. In club history, among players with 150 or more plate appearances, Ibanez is ninth overall in on-base percentage.
Ibanez leaves the South Atlantic League leading the circuit in slugging pct. He is second in total bases (101) and OPS (.959), third in doubles, fourth in RBI (35) and on-base pct.
After a hot start, during which he was named the SAL hitter of the week (4/17/16), Ibanez scuffled in May (.214/.333/.345), as he struggled to adjust to secondary pitches for a time. He seemed to make the adjustment recently and is leaving on the heels of an eight-game hit streak (12-for-29).
With the recent uptick at the plate, Mike Daly, the senior director of minor league operations for the Texas Rangers, seemed to indicate in a recent interview that Ibanez was nearing a promotion. When asked about a possible promotion, Daly responded, “We had some of those discussions. Obviously, he was outstanding there in April, but it’s a five-month season here at the minor league level and it’s a grind each and every day. Andy will definitely have his time at the higher level and it’ll probably come sooner rather than later.”
During his time with Hickory, Ibanez was tasked to work on his defense as well as learning the game in a U.S. organization setting.
“Andy’s is a little bit of a unique situation,” said Daly recently. “He had not played baseball in a number of years. Trying to bring him into a new country having not playing baseball for a couple of seasons, we felt like it was best to start him here in Hickory.”
This is part two of a lengthy interview I did with Texas Rangers Senior Director of Minor League Operations Mike Daly during the last homestand.
In part one, we talked about two of the higher profile prospects, Hickory Crawdads second baseman Andy Ibanez and starting pitcher Dillon Tate.
Part two is a look at the Crawdads hitters, with a longer look at 2015 second round pick, outfielder Eric Jenkins, as well as at shortstop prospect Yeyson Yrizarri.
Eric Jenkins struggling now. The speed doesn’t go into a slump and he’s been able to use that some, but a bit of a work in progress at the plate. We’re noticing sometimes he’s having difficult in fastball counts being able to be ready for those pitches. He seems to be seeing the breaking ball a little bit better. How is his progress as you see it at this point?
Daly: Any time that a young player, especially a high school kid, comes out and plays his first full season here in the South Atlantic League, it is a challenge. It is a grind of 140 games. It’s something that these guys have never gone through before. So understand that each and every night, no matter if you’re in a slump or if you’re hot, you have to be ready to play at 7:00 in front of fans with the scoreboard on. That’s a great challenge.
Eric’s got tremendous speed. He has a game-changing type speed. He’s a plus defender in the outfield. But these guys, as they start to play teams, professional pitchers that know how to attack hitters, that have scouting reports on Eric and other players it becomes like a big challenge for these guys. Eric, Yrizarri (Yeyson), (Ti’Quan) Forbes, they need to make adjustments and understand that when the league adjusts to you, you need to adjust to the league.
So where Eric’s at, we think that it’s just him going through the first year of playing each and every day. His speed tool is great. It allows him to bunt. It allows him to put the ball on the ground and make some of the infielders really hustle in terms of having to throw to first base. Frankly with that speed, it should never be a prolonged slump, but I think with Eric, the fact that each and every day he’s healthy, he’s on the field and getting through that first year grind here in Hickory.
I have some people asking, “Why are they keeping him at the top of the order, why not drop him down?” And my response has been he’s got to learn how to hit lead-off and this is the place to do it. Have the Rangers basically wanted to see that through. at least at this point?
Daly: Most definitely, I mean it’s game-changing type speed. He’s a guy that had some success last year when we drafted him right away out in Arizona and was a part of the championship team here last year. We’ve got a lot of confidence in Eric. He’s going to have some struggles, but Eric needs to work through that and he needs to know that the organization is behind him and he has the confidence to go up there and try to set the table for the meat of the lineup.
We want him to feel that pressure, if you will, batting leadoff. We want him to go up there and find a way to get on base and identify what the pitcher is throwing that night. So, we think it’s really good for Eric and he’s going to be at the top of the lineup here for some time to come.
I’ve enjoyed watching Yeyson Yrizarri play. I love defense. I loved watching Michael De Leon play shortstop the last two years. You guys have run some guys through the last two years that can flat out play defense and (Yrizarri) is certainly at the top of the list for me. He’s very well put together for a 19-year-old and does some things well for his age and his level. Let me ask you about his progression.
Daly: He’s a strong and durable young man. Obviously, he’s got some strong blood lines there, being the nephew of Deivi Cruz. He was a guy that had a really strong body when we signed him. It’s been step-by-step. He started out in the Dominican Summer League and he earned his way to Arizona. Last year, he played under the lights out there in Spokane.
You’re right, he’s here in a long line of shortstops that we’ve been lucky enough to send here to Hickory. It’s a cannon. It’s a bazooka over there at shortstop. He loves to play. I think it’s the same kind of thing that Eric Jenkins is going through – the grind of playing each and every night, playing against teams that have seen him multiple times and have an idea of how to pitch you and have an idea what some of your weaknesses are. It’ s a great challenge for Yeyson to make some adjustments with the bat. But he shows some power at the plate. He’s a plus shortstop with an absolute bazooka.
He seems like at the plate to be somebody that is a little bit more advanced than a Jenkins or a Forbes or other 18, 19 year olds. He’s able to work deeper into counts. He may eventually strike out or hit a week groundball, but he seems to have a better idea of how to go about an at-bat at this point.
Daly: Definitely, and I think it’s a credit to him. Yeyson has a very good aptitude and he’s also in a situation in where he signed in July of 2013, where Eric signed in June of 2015. So, Yeyson’s had a little bit more at-bats. He’s been in the organization almost two years longer. He’s been through more games in Arizona and Spokane, so I think that might be a little bit of a difference in terms of just a little bit more experience for Yeyson Yrizarri versus a guy like Eric Jenkins. But I think both those guys have great aptitudes and it’s exciting to see them go through their first full season here together. Yeyson has a clear idea of what he’s trying to do at the plate and it’s exciting to see.
Who is somebody at the plate that is maybe under the radar that a fan might want to pay attention to that is otherwise not being talked about?
Daly: I say, it’s like a few guys. I think it’s been a really good catching tandem with Chuck Moorman and Tyler Sanchez. I think those guys have really invested in our pitchers. They’ve done a really good job behind the plate and put together some really nice at-bats.
Dylan Moore playing first base, second base, shortstop and third base as been a really good player right in the middle of the lineup there for Steve Mintz. He’s a guy that brings a lot to the table and is able to bring lots of versatility for Steve Mintz every night to be able to play him at a lot of different positions.
I think Ti’Quan Forbes over there at third base is another guy that played next to Yrizarri last year at Spokane and the year before that in Arizona. He’s a guy that continues to get bigger and stronger and put together good at-bats and he’s been real exciting.
Eduard Pinto is a guy that certainly the Hickory fans have had some experience with and they see how he’s come back from the tragedy that was going on in his life. He’s a guy that’s been in the organization for four or five years, but always puts together a good at bat.
LeDarious Clark is an interesting guy that really lit it up last year in Spokane and is as athletic as they come, and has tools, and just being able to see how he’s gone about it each and every game and how he’s continued to get more and more experience and he’s starting to tie in his physical attributes with what he’s learned here on a daily basis.
I think all of the position players are very interesting at this point for the Crawdads.
Do you like how the team is developing with the speed game?
Daly: Definitely. I think it’s a credit to Steve Mintz to push our guys to run and to give a lot of them green lights and not to hold them back. I think it’s about development and how these guys are learning what they’re capable of doing and to see them have a lot of success. We have some speed on the team and it’s good to see these guys be aggressive and to take chances on the base paths and to see the success that they’re having.
It’s a dog fight. Hagerstown is a really good team and this whole South Atlantic League is really good. It’s good to see these guys compete and battle to try and win the first half.
Last weekend, I had the chance to sit down with Mike Daly, the Texas Rangers Senior Director of Minor League Operations and get an overview of the current roster of the Hickory Crawdads. The interview turned lengthy with a bunch of good information.
I decided to break the interview up rather than put the entire interview into one blog entry and have the reader’s eyes glaze over.
Fully one-third of the interview was spent on arguably the two most highly watched players on the Crawdads squad: second baseman Andy Ibanez and starting pitcher Dillon Tate. Below is that portion of the interview.
The first thing that I get questions about when people ask me about the team is Andy Ibanez. He’s the first person that people ask me about. I think that’s cooled off a little bit, as he’s cooled off in May. But the question that people ask most is, “Why isn’t he at Frisco?” My response has been, “he’s where he needs to be because he needs to work on things.” Where is that progression as far as what the Rangers were asking him to do?
Daly: I think, first and foremost, is the really job by our international scouting department. Gil Kim was our international director, who’s now at Toronto. He was a guy that was really on Andy in the scouting process and he did a really nice job of scouting him and working with other scouts to be able to bring him into the organization.
Andy’s is a little bit of a unique situation. He had not played baseball in a number of years. Trying to bring him into a new country having not playing baseball for a couple of seasons, we felt like it was best to start him here in Hickory. We felt really good about putting him down here in this environment. We felt really good with Francisco Matos, a bi-lingual hitting coach with experience up and down the minor league level, a guy who was in the major leagues himself. We felt really good being able to start Andy here in Hickory kind of not knowing what to expect, since it’s been a number of years since he had played. But Andy’s been great. We’re really happy with where he’s at. He’s working hard defensively to really tighten up some things at second base from a defensive standpoint.
I think we’re in a good spot organizationally with Travis Demeritte, who was a former first round pick and a former Crawdad, who’s really taken a nice step this year, leading the California League in home runs, and he’s playing second base on an everyday basis. And then another young man, Evan Van Hoosier, he was in the Arizona Fall League, he’s now in AA playing second base on an everyday basis, another former Crawdad. So, we’re pretty strong with second basemen up and down the system right now. We feel really good with Andy getting his at-bats and getting acclimated to baseball here in the states and being with a really good hitting coach in Francisco Matos. Andy’s time to move will come. We just feel like right now the best spot for him to be to work offensively and defensively is here in Hickory, N.C.
Was part of the process was to see how he would deal with failure at this level and not have the pressure of, he’s got to be at AA and have the results at that level that maybe you’re not worried as much about here at this level?
Daly: Absolutely, and I think that’s a great point. You definitely want to see how a guy adjusts, how he’s able to go through adversity, how he’s able to deal with failure. I think the other thing that we’ve learned, too, is maybe there’s little bit of a lean toward holding them back if they’re having success can be a good thing at the lowest levels and really get that foundation built, understand the adversity, understand what it’s like to be in the Texas Rangers organization, understand what it’s like to play a full season. Once we feel good that a player has established himself and has an understanding of what it’s like to go through a full-season adversity, then we’ll take the training wheels off, if you will, then we’ll be a little bit more aggressive in terms of promoting the guy once we feel that he’s mastered a level.
So there was no – when (Ibanez) was leading the world in everything in April – sense of hitting the accelerator?
Daly: No, we had some of those discussions. Obviously, he was outstanding there in April, but it’s a five-month season here at the minor league level and it’s a grind each and every day. Andy will definitely have his time at the higher level and it’ll probably come sooner rather than later. I think for the foreseeable future, right now he’ll be right here in Hickory and really getting that first year under his belt.
Dillon Tate started well, then had the hamstring injury and then hit some bumps in the road, maybe a little bit unexpectedly given his pedigree and the level. Give me your feedback on what you’re seeing with Dillon.
Daly: It’s been a little tough for Dillon since he’s signed. He’s had a couple times that he’s had to go on the DL and I figure that’s held back some of his time on the mound. I think that Dillon continues to build a very strong routine. There’s a lot that goes into being a starting pitcher, both on the field and off the field: throwing program, weight program, conditioning program. I think what we’ve seen over the past couple of starts is that Dillon’s had the ability now and he’s kind of gotten past all those injuries to be able to get on the mound and to go deep in games.
I saw the game here the other night. The first inning was a struggle, but in his last batter he made a really good pitch on a 3-1 count and got a double play ball. From that point forward, he was able to help his team and was able to get five innings. You saw the development of the slider and of the changeup. He’s getting more confident throwing all of his pitches.
It’s something where, I know Dillon’s frustrated with some of those injuries and it’s something where it seems he’s able to get past and is able to spend more time on the mound and working on his craft as a pitcher.
On a development level with somebody like Dillon, maybe with all of the guys, but somebody like Dillon, who’s had success at the college level and has come here, are you more interested in seeing them do well, or to see how they rebound from having a struggle?
Daly: I think that you’re looking at all those aspects. The college game is very different from the pro game and very different from the major league level. There was a reason that Dillon Tate was a fourth overall selection. He’s a very talented young man who had a lot of success there at Cal-Santa Barbara. So, when we brought him into the organization, we wanted to see what type of pitcher he was, how he threw, where he had his success before we started talking to him about making some of those adjustments.
Like I said, I think some of the injuries have held him back just a little bit, but we’re excited that he seems to be past those, even facing some of those injuries that are a part of the adversity that any pitcher has to go through in their career. Obviously, Dillon has dealt with it early on in his career.
You obviously want your pitchers or position players to have a lot of success, but you’re obviously about adding to their repertoire, adding certain weapons – the ability to hold runners, the ability to throw offspeed pitches behind in the count, the ability to make your start every five days. Those are the things that we’re working on with Dillon, understanding that it’s a long process. He’s going to A ball to high-A to AA to AAA. It’s a process. It’s a ladder to make it to the major league level. Dillon’s going through some things now that I think will be a really good foundation for him to go through and learn as he continues in his career.