The Hickory Crawdads began the 2018 season with six straight losses and were 1-8 before winning two straight for the first time. The season took a big turn in the second half as the pitching, which struggled mightily early on, carried the team.
Matt Hagen will take the reins of the team for the second time and there are high expectations for a group that will have six of the Texas Rangers top-30 prospects, according to MLB.com. Five of those are position players, which will also have four more teammates that were once on that heralded list.
However, the expectations aren’t simply because of the pedigree of the players that will start the year here. The expectations are there because Hagen and his staff has raised the bar of accountability that he admitted wasn’t present until several weeks into 2018.
The Crawdads will be young in the field, older on the mound and it could be an interesting combination as they go forward.
I talked with Hagen on Tuesday a day after his team’s exhibition win over Lenoir-Rhyne.
You and I talked late last year and this January at the hot stove banquet about setting up accountability right off the bat. You start this year at Lakewood with the long bus trip and the weather that’s up there in April. With that in mind, let me ask you about the start of the season and hitting the ground running.
Hagen: I think we get some adversity right away with the long bus trip and some cold weather. But, at the end of the day, these guys are going to be better off facing some adversity. With that said, we want to push them simply hold them to a higher standard and level of accountability right out of the gate.
You face the league runner-up (Lakewood, N.J.)– and I know there is turnover and such, but traditionally it’s a strong club that always has good pitching. You’ve got a lineup that looks like, on paper, a good group of prospects that you’re going to put up there every night.
Hagen: Our team, opening day, the depth of our lineup is one of our strengths. On any given night, our four-hole (hitter) could be batting eighth and the next night our eighth-hole could be batting fourth. There’s not a differentiation between the two. So, we have some length in the back half of our lineup, which is, on paper, a good look.
You’ve got Chris Seise, J.P. Martinez, (Jonathan) Ornellas. You’ve got, at least from MLB’s point of view, five prospects that are in the top-30. To run five out every night, that’s a nice group to play with.
Hagen: I think it’s more the names you didn’t mention that are going to be a big deal for us. You’re talking about Matt Whatley, who is coming off a year where he was misdiagnosed and was battling illness all year and was a Johnny Bench award winner coming out of college. You’ve got Jose Almonte, who had a heck of a year here before he got hurt. He’s been spending the last two years just getting healthy to get back to Hickory. You’ve got Pedro Gonzalez, who showed some electrifying stuff last season and has a chance to come back here and start off with some familiarity.
So, I think it’s nice to have guys that are on prospect lists, but at the end of the day, a prospect list just means you haven’t done anything yet. You’re a guy who has the potential to someday do something. We try to drive that point home to them that you don’t get to make it to the big leagues because you are on a prospect list in Low-A. You’ve still got a lot of work to do.
You do have some guys that were on that top-30 list: Matt and Pedro and Miguel (Aparicio). It’s almost a group that has something to prove to get back into that conversation.
Hagen: When Miguel came back last year after going to Spokane for a little bit, we saw a different player in terms of his preparation, his effort and his hustle on the field. From that time, which I want to say was July, all the way through Instructional League, through the winter programs in the Dominican, through spring training, that’s the guy we’ve seen. So, I’m excited to see that same guy for a whole five months, now.
Is this a similar situation to Pedro? Like you said, there were spurts when he would electrify in the lineup, but there were times he was out for injuries. Was there disappointment for that last year, or was it more of a luck of the draw that he couldn’t stay healthy?
Hagen: I think it’s par for the course for athletic players, who happen to be 6-foot-5 and possess a lot of power. They’re going to get pitched like a AA hitter would get pitched in Low-A baseball. They’re not, “here’s three fastballs within the at-bat” with something to hit. It’s right away, “we don’t want to give in, let’s see if we can get you to chase” and take something off. It doesn’t matter if Pedro bats third or hits eighth or ninth, him and guys like Sam Huff and Curtis Terry are going to get pitched the same, no matter what, because everybody knows what they can do with one swing of the bat.
So, it’s just part of the education process for Pedro. If he can add one base hit for week over the course of a season for him, you add 20 hits in there and all of a sudden, he’s a uber-prospect, when he has 20 more hits over the course of 500 at-bats. So, just making those little adjustments where he becomes a little more patient on getting a pitch that he can hit. I think that’s just part of the natural process of all hitters.
Chris Seise is healthy?
Hagen: He’s healthy and ready to go. He’s really excited. He spent a whole year in the training room himself, which for a young kid is frustrating. He wants to be out there every day. He’s healthy and I think that some of the game clock things are going to have to come back to him, because he’s had time off. And Almonte taking a couple of years off is going to have to have the game clock come back to him. But, two three weeks into the season, I think they’ll be right back to where they were before.
What have you seen from J.P. so far?
Hagen: A superior athlete. When he gets on base, it’s really fun to watch. I put him in that Eric Jenkins, LeDarious Clark mold – guys in our organization that can change the game on the basepaths. He can go get it in the outfield. Then at the plate, if you’re not careful, you might look and realize this guy not only can defend and run, but it turns out he can hit the ball pretty hard for a guy that’s his size. The sky’s the limit for him and it’ll be exciting to see him get four or five bats every game, probably at the top of the order.
Apostel – he’s a big kid, for some reason he’s not what I was expecting. I was thinking he would be a smaller guy for a third baseman.
Hagen: A tall kid for a third baseman, but he can play the position. Just seeing the amount of adjustments he made over the course of spring training, working on his feet to get them better. He’s got a strong enough arm and he’s starting to get better angles on his ground balls. At the plate – he’s only 19 or 20 years old – the maturity of his at-bats and the inner confidence that he brings is beyond his years. We’re going to plug him in the middle of the order.
Ornellas looks like he was pretty smooth last evening.
Hagen: Johnny is going to be all over the field for us because he’s just that athletic. That allows a manager, like myself, to plug him wherever I want. He can play third base one night. He can play centerfield, left, second, short, right field. His role on this team will be mostly to bounce around and be that super-utility guy for us, just because that’s what we need with this particular group of guys. He’s smart enough and athletic enough to handle that.
I think we’ve mentioned all the prospects, but there’s one guy who is not on any of the prospect lists and it’s the guy Curtis Terry who was the MVP of the Northwest League last year, Curtis Terry. You lose Tyreque Reed from last year and now you plug another one in.
Hagen: I’m surprised they didn’t find him a house and sign him to a long-term contract in Spokane. Two years ago, he led the league in home runs. He went back to repeat last year simply because we have a log jam at first base with Tyreque. He goes back and winds up winning the MVP. So, you look at guys, that prospect status is what it is, but track record is more important to me. And his track record says, based on his last two years, the dude hits. He puts up his number. Just read the baseball card – the baseball cards don’t lie. You are what you are. So, you look at the back of his baseball card, you get excited for what he can potentially do over 140 games.
Looking at the roster, usually when you look at this level it’s been the tendency for the Rangers to bring in a bunch of young guys, but have a couple of college guys. You don’t have that his year, other than Matt behind the plate. Does that concern you to have so many young guys around the infield? Is the expectation for the guys to grow up on their own a little bit?
Hagen: Yeah, they’re going to have to learn on the fly. Luckily, Matt has the leadership skills to count as two or three people. He really does. Then, if you watched (Frainyer) Chavez last night, his inner clock that he plays with is so under control. There’s no panic. He plays like a kid that’s been playing infield professionally for six years, and it’s only his second season. That’s a bright spot for me.
We’ll lean leadership wise on the guys who have been here in the past, and also on our two catchers. We’ve Sam’s maturity and Matt’s been at a higher level. They both possession good leadership skills.\
One of the worries from last year was getting the guys that were here enough playing time as catchers, getting repetition. Right now, how do you see that playing time shaping up?
Hagen: I think 50-50 coming out of it. They’re both guys that need to play. They’re both guys that are going to be instrumental to the success of our club. Sam was an all-star here last year and he’s earned the right to play every day. Matt was arguably our best hitter two years ago at Spokane and had some adversity last year. He’s also earned the right to play a lot, too. They are two guys in the organization the organization is high on for good reason. So, one of those guys will be catching and the other guy will probably be DH-ing most nights.
What is your general impression of what you have among the pitching staff? You, obviously, have Hans Crouse at the top and Jean Casanova who was here last year. Everybody else is pretty spanking new to this level.
Hagen: (Pitching coach) Jose (Jaimes) and I were talking about this just the other day. It’s a stark contrast to what we had last year. We had a lot that were lighting up the radar gun early in the season, but not the strike zone. This year, we have more guys that, I think, have the ability to throw more strikes – more pitchers than throwers. Last year, we started the season with more throwers and we had to make them pitchers. To have guys that can throw a couple of pitches in the zone to start the season. I think it’s encouraging, as we learn the value of free bases and not walking guys every night. It gives our defense a chance to make plays.
It’s the first group I can recall that doesn’t have a teenager on the pitching staff. I know the Rangers have put together a program in which the high school guys they drafted last summer were shut down until instructionals. Is this older group of pitchers a part of that intentional process by the Rangers?
Hagen: Yeah, I think it’s a hundred percent intentional. When we signed the American kids out of high school, we want them on our program, doing things our way. Sometimes that means you have to take a step back and get them back to neutral as an athlete. Then, we can take two or three steps forward. You have to be willing to have the patience to give that a year to take place, so therefore you don’t have kids that are 19, but now they are 20. I think it’s a plan that has the player’s best interest at heart long term.