It is said that “necessity is the mother of invention”. In the business world, necessity can also create a situation in which separate entities are put together and the results are better than imagined. Such is the case between the Hickory Crawdads and the Texas Rangers.
In the fall of 2008 after ten seasons of an affiliation with the then parent-club Pittsburgh Pirates, the Hickory Crawdads were looking for a new major-league team. The Pirates wanted an affiliation with a class Low-A team closer to home, so they hooked up with the West Virginia Power, while the Milwaukee Brewers, who were with the Power, went closer to home and joined up with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. That left three Low-A affiliates – Hickory, Clinton, Iowa and Savannah, Ga. – to tie into three big league clubs – the Texas Rangers, the Seattle Mariners and the New York Mets.
The Rangers expressed an interest to get back into the warmer climate of the South Atlantic League and leave behind the Clinton Lumberkings of the Midwest League. That meant either Savannah or Hickory.
The Crawdads expressed interest in the Mets, which decided to stay put in Savannah. For fans at the time, neither Texas or Seattle had much appeal given the distance but at the end of the day the remaining minor league clubs and major league clubs left in the shuffle have to dance, so in came the Texas Rangers.
The partnership has been a good one from the start. The product on the field has been tremendous. At one point, the Crawdads had 14-straight, winning half-seasons and were annually in contention for playoff spots. To date, 51 players plus two others that were previously major leaguers have suited up for the Crawdads. Investments by the Rangers in weight rooms and batting cages, and investments by the city of Hickory into refurbishing L.P. Frans Stadium have made the partnership a strong one. So strong, in fact, that after nine seasons as an affiliate, the Rangers purchased the Crawdads during this past off season.
During the offseason, the field was replaced for the first time since it originally was put into place in 1993 and a new scoreboard was erected after the old one built in 2004 finally went kaput. There is much optimism around for what the future holds for baseball in Hickory.
Last week, Rangers general manager Job Daniels took in a pair of games at L.P. Frans Stadium to get an overview of the club. Now in the tenth anniversary season of the affiliation, Daniels looked back at what made the partnership work, as well as his perspective about the current product on the field.
First of all, it’s the tenth anniversary season of the Rangers and Crawdads affiliation. My memory from back when this started is that there were a couple of minor league clubs left to dance and a couple of major league teams left to dance and they sort of fell into each other. Now, ten years later the Rangers purchased the club. Let me ask out that relationship over the ten years.
Daniels: From our side it’s been a hundred percent positive. A lot of young players that started here in our system, from a full season standpoint, have reached the big leagues. I think 15 players from that 2013 club started here. We have a big-league coach that was one of the managers here (2009 manager Hector Ortiz). We have Corey Ragsdale as our field coordinator. So, this has proven not just a kind of a development ground for our players but for our organization and our staff as well. There are a lot of good memories here for us and I really feel like we are just scratching the surface.
What has been some of the positives that have made this relationship between Hickory, and the ballclub here and the city to where the Texas Rangers would want to invest?
Daniels: Well, I think the ownership there with Don Beaver and Charles Young and that group was really accommodating from day one. A lot of times you have to build up a relationship before there is some give-and-take. From day one, it was more of a familial type of feeling and there was a trust early on. The same goes with the city and with some of the improvements that both groups have facilitated us making here with the cages and the weight room and things of that nature. So, it’s a much more functional spot, with the field this year. The field looks fantastic, it’s the best it’s looked in the ten years since I’ve been coming. I just think about that relationship and that trust from day one rather than having to earn it over a period of five or ten years. It was there day one and it’s continued to stay there.
What made the Rangers want to buy in?
Daniels: I think with the minor leagues, sometimes big-league clubs have the tendency to look for the shiniest new object. We have, in our experience, found that the right community, the right affiliate, the right ownership, the right employee group, organizational culture is so important to the development of our players. With the improvements that we’ve made here – this is as nice a field as you’re going to get – and we didn’t want to go back to the Midwest League, and we felt like our ownership group was willing to buy in here, and it allows us to know that we’re going to be here a long time. We did the same with Kinston, so we know we’re going to have two Carolina-based affiliates real close to each other. It’s makes it great for player movement, for coach movement. It’s a great part of the country, from a development standpoint, from a weather standpoint – this week’s cold notwithstanding. So, there was a ton of positives for us and we just said, “let’s anchor in here, we don’t want to go anywhere else.”
You mentioned Kinston and the player movement, it has to be a lot easier for you now, rather than having to ship a guy out to High Desert or having to skip High Desert because of this situation or that. I guess you get a truer sense of player development now from level to level.
Daniels: Yeah, we don’t have to play any games there. We’re not worried about the ballparks or the communities or the atmospheres or the fields. You do get some of the places in the California League where you literally have to stop for 20 minutes to let the sun set because otherwise the players can’t see the ball. It’s not the kind of baseball that we want our young players to develop in. We don’t want our pitchers to be afraid to throw changeups because popups are going out of the ballpark. That’s a big piece and them having them so close together really makes it convenient for our staff to be able to work at both facilities and both clubs in a short period of time.
Looking at this club this year, a lot of prospect with Pedro Gonzalez probably the top one right now. I know you see snippets and keep tabs on a lot of different things but give me a general overview of what you see with this club early on.
Daniels: I know that the record early is not great, but I think this club is going to be in the thick of it from a winning standpoint. I think the talent is really good and I think the staff is really, really good. Matt (Crawdads manager Matt Hagen) and Chase (pitching coach Chase Lambin) and Jose (hitting coach Jose Jaimes) and Turtle (assistant coach Turtle Thomas), this might be, top to bottom, one of our best staffs. A ton of energy, really positive, a lot of teaching going on, and that’s what you need.
We’ve got a really young group here, but there are a lot of prospects. Pedro is a guy we’re excited about. We really have three catchers here that we think are all legit prospects in (Yohel) Pozo, (Melvin) Novoa and (Sam) Huff. I’m not sure that they realize quite how good they can be or how talented they are because they’re so young. Some of the other outfielders, (Eric) Jenkins and (Chad) Smith and (Miguel) Aparicio. Yonny Hernandez is a good player. There’s quite a few guys here and I’m leaving some out.
The pitching staff is pretty intriguing, too. Tyree Thompson can really pitch. He can really command the baseball – four pitches for strikes. I think he’s going to have a lot of success in this league. He doesn’t maybe draw some of the attention because he’s not quite as big and physical as some of the other guys who are lighting up the radar gun. But he can really pitch and I think that plays and he’s smart and he’s already figured some things out.
Tyler Phillips took a big jump last year and he’s really filled out physically. The delivery is a lot better. Obviously, we took a big hit with (Cole) Ragans getting hurt. He would’ve been here otherwise. There’s a lot of guys here. We look back on the 2013 club and how many guys got to the big leagues in four or five years. We’ll see where we go from a numbers standpoint, but even though this group isn’t quite as heralded as that group was from a prospects standpoint, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we’re close to that number at the end of the day.
It’s a group that the pitching staff is a bit older than what we’ve had in the past and we were a little surprised not to see Bubba Thompson and a little surprised not to see Chris Seise – and I understand he has a shoulder issue. I’ve heard a little talk of the Rangers being not quite as aggressive in some of their assignments here for younger guys. Is that some you guys are making adjustments to?
Daniels: I think, just in general, we’re looking to tap the brakes a little bit. Not to an extreme, but we want to the give the players time and we also want to give our coaches time. We have a lot of good, young coaches at a lot of the lower levels and we’ve got to give them the opportunities to have the reps and the at-bats and the innings to work with these players before we push them up through the system. So, we will probably be a little more conservative than we have been in the past, but I don’t think overly so.
Seise probably had a good chance to be here but he had the shoulder tendinitis. He’ll be okay and he’s started hitting again at extended and he may still get out here. Bubba had a little bit of a knee deal last year, so we’re taking it a little more slowly with him and he could very well get out here, but we’re still deciding some of those things.
Tyreque Reed, another guy that I like, could get here but with the three catchers we need some of the at bats for them at first base. Tyreque is a guy that on his own, probably on merit, very well could’ve been here; it’s just how many at bats you have for everybody and some of those things.
Matt Whatley, he was originally scheduled to come here. We probably would’ve had him come here, too, but we already had three catchers, younger, so we’re going to push him a little bit. There are some extenuating circumstances in general. We’re trying to find at bats for everybody, but generally we’ll probably be a little more conservative than we were three to five years ago.
Looking ahead to the relationship with the Rangers and the Crawdads, what are some of the things that the two sides are looking at in the future?
Daniels: I think Mark Seaman does a tremendous job. We’ve been thrilled working with him in the past as a partner and now to be on the same team. I think that those are things that we’ll really defer to Mark on and the ideas he has on how to grow the business. One of the things that, from the Rangers standpoint, back in Arlington we try to be as fan friendly and fan conscious as can be, and very family oriented, which I think dovetails very well with the kind of the values here. I think you’re see a lot more consistency in that area.