As the rosters were announced in Major League Baseball in late March and in the minor leagues the following week, those who once wore the uniform of the Hickory Crawdads were well represented at nearly every level of full-season, affiliated competition.
At the start of the season, 135 former Crawdads players and field staff were with a major or minor league team as a player, manager or coach with a full-season team. Of that group, 35 were on major rosters as players and 10 more were named as field staff. A total of 108 were still playing in affiliated ball, 27 more managing or coaching.
Below is the entire list:
ALUMNI ASSIGNMENTS (135)
MAJOR LEAGUES (35)
American League (20)
Baltimore: Hanser Alberto, Richard Bleier; Boston: Steve Pearce (10-day DL); Chicago White Sox: Ryan Cordell, Leury Garcia; Cleveland: Neil Ramirez; Detroit: Reed Garrett, Jordy Mercer; Minnesota: Martin Perez; Oakland: Jurickson Profar; Seattle: Dylan Moore; Tampa Bay: Wilmer Font; Texas: Joey Gallo, Ronald Guzman, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Jose Leclerc, Nomar Mazara, Rougned Odor, Jeffrey Springs, Yohander Mendez (DL)
National League (15):
Atlanta: Luke Jackson; Nick Williams; Chicago Cubs: Carl Edwards, Jr.; Cincinnati: Zach Duke, Jared Hughes; Miami: Jorge Alfaro, Lewis Brinson, Neil Walker; Milwaukee: Alex Claudio; Philadelphia: Odubel Herrera, Andrew McCutcheon, Pittsburgh: Keone Kela; St. Louis: Drew Robinson; San Diego: Robbie Erlin; San Francisco: Tony Watson
MINOR LEAGUES (73):
International League (6):
Gwinnett (Atlanta): Travis Demeritte, Luis Marte; Lehigh Valley (Philadelphia): Jerad Eickhoff; Norfolk (Baltimore): Luis Ortiz; Rochester (Minnesota): Tomas Telis; Syracuse (Mets): Rajai Davis
Pacific Coast League (10):
Memphis (St. Louis): Drew Robinson; Nashville (Texas): Wes Benjamin, Nick Gardewine, Ariel Jurado, Brett Martin, CD Pelham, Jose Trevino; Oklahoma City (LA Dodgers): Justin Grimm; Round Rock (Houston): Akeem Bostick; Tacoma (Seattle): Erik Swanson
Eastern League (4):
Bowie (Baltimore): Dillon Tate; Harrisburg (Washington): Luis Sardinas; Portland (Boston): Luke Tendler; Richmond (San Francisco): Sam Wolff
Southern League (4):
Birmingham (Chicago White Sox): TiQuan Forbes; Chattanooga (Cincinnati): Victor Payano; Mississippi (Atlanta): Ben Rowen; Mobile (LA Angels): Dario Beltre
Texas League (22):
Frisco (Texas): Josh Altmann, Edgar Arredondo, Blake Bass, Preston Beck, Jairo Beras, LeDarious Clark, Andretty Cordero, Brendon Davis, Michael De Leon, Jonathan Hernandez, James Jones, Charles Leblanc, Jake Lemoine, Emerson Martinez, Chuck Moorman, Josh Morgan, Joe Palumbo, Pedro Payano, Juremi Profar, Walker Weickel; Midland (Oakland): Brallan Perez; Springfield (St. Louis): John Fasola
HIGH A (27):
Carolina League (26):
Carolina (Milwaukee): Chris Dula; Down East (Texas): Josh Advocate, AJ Alexy, Reid Anderson, Joe Barlow, Noah Bremer, Ryan Dorow, Alex Eubanks, Demarcus Evans, Peter Fairbanks, Kaleb Fontenot, Yonny Hernandez, Eric Jenkins, Michael Matuella, Sal Mendez, Clay Middleton, Melvin Novoa, Yanio Perez, Tyler Phillips, Yohel Pozo, Tyreque Reed, Leody Taveras, Anderson Tejeda, Tyler Thomas, Bubba Thompson; Winston-Salem (Chicago White Sox): Yeyson Yrizarri
Florida State League (1):
Daytona (Cincinnati): Reiver Sanmartin
FIELD STAFF (27)
MAJOR LEAGUES (10):
American League (6)
Chicago White Sox: Curt Hasler – assistant pitching coach; Detroit: Dave Clark – 3B coach; LA Angels: Josh Paul – bench coach; Texas: Tony Beasley – 3B coach, Oscar Marin – bullpen coach, Hector Ortiz – 1B coach
National League (4):
Cincinnati: JR House – 3B coach
Philadelphia: Dave Lundquist – assistant pitching coach; Pittsburgh: Ray Searage – pitching coach; Washington: Bob Henley – 3B coach
MINOR LEAGUES (17)
International League (2)
Charlotte: (Chicago White Sox): Frank Menechino – hitting coach; Columbus (Cleveland): Tony Mansolino – manager
Pacific Coast League (3):
Fresno (Washington): Brad Holman – pitching coach; New Orleans (Miami): Justin Mashore – hitting coach; Reno (Arizona): Chris Cron – manager
Southern League (2):
Biloxi (Milwaukee): Bob Milacki – pitching coach; Jackson (Arizona): Jorge Cortes – assistant coach
Texas League (1):
Frisco (Texas): Jason Hart – hitting coach
HIGH A (8):
Carolina League (6):
Down East (Texas): Corey Ragsdale – manager; Steve Mintz – pitching coach; Chase Lambin – hitting coach; Turtle Thomas – assistant coach; Frederick (Baltimore): Justin Lord – pitching coach; Myrtle Beach (Chicago Cubs): Steve Lerud – manager
Florida State League (2):
Charlotte (Tampa Bay): Steve Watson – pitching coach; Clearwater (Philadelphia): Chris Heintz – hitting coach
LOW A (1):
South Atlantic League (1):
Kannapolis (Chicago White Sox) Ryan Newman – manager
Today is the unofficial start of the baseball season. I know it’s a cold January day, but with the Hickory Crawdads hosting the Texas Rangers Winter Caravan today, the occasion is a reminder that games begin in a few short months.
For the past three years, the caravan has been an occasion for the Rangers to bring back some of the former players to Hickory. This year, Jose Trevino and Jeffrey Springs return to the city where they helped win the 2015 South Atlantic League title.
The event is especially meaningful for Springs. Here is a 30th-round pick as a senior out of Appalachian State and, before that, South Point High in Belmont, about an hour drive from Hickory. Not many 30th rounders get to the major leagues. Not many senior signees get to the major leagues. Not many alums of App State get to the major leagues – in fact, only seven have. Yet, the left-hander defied the odds and last July he made his MLB debut on July 31 with the Texas Rangers in Arlington.
My memory of Springs was a guy that really was too good for this league. A sharp-cutting slider – I’d swear it was a curveball at times – accentuated his low 90s fastball and made it seem even faster. In parts of two seasons with the Crawdads, Springs posted a 1.05 ERA in 34.1 innings pitched (20 games) with 46 strikeouts and nine strikeouts.
With his arsenal, the Rangers had Springs return to the starting role he had at Appalachian State. With mixed results, he jumped back to bullpen work and showed enough at AA Frisco and AAA Round Rock to get a look-see with the Rangers over the final two months of the season.
So, when Springs comes back to Hickory today it will be as a big leaguer. In itself, that is something the left-hander had little imagination for this time last year when he was working for the YMCA in Charlotte, trying to supplement his minor-league income. The whole idea of Springs coming home this fall as a major leaguer was surreal to him. But now, he is in a position to make that surreal dream an annual reality.
It is that mindset that this interview with Springs begins.
What was it like going home this fall, after the season, being a big leaguer?
Springs: It was kind of surreal thinking back on the season. You kind of reflect a little bit when you get home, because you’ve been going at it since February. Kind of looking back, it was unbelievable how quickly it happened. I was just taking it one step at a time. I was hoping it would go well at AA and, obviously, trying to end the year there. Before I knew it, I was in AAA and then the next thing I knew, I was getting called up to the big leagues. I mean, it was everything you could think about. It’s crazy to think about.
The first couple of months at home, it was kind of hard to think that I could call myself a big leaguer.
Do you have a different mindset this winter than when you went home last year from Kinston, or when you went home from Hickory, etc.?
Springs: I was hungrier, I guess, looking at it in the sense of I got there. Now, it’s a matter of really establishing myself and staying around and making a career of it. It’s one goal to get there, but then once you get there, you only want to play there. It kind of opens your eyes to the competition, to the lifestyle, and the teammates. It motivates me more that I want to stay there. Like I said, I want to be a part of the team. I had a little bit of success and I feel like I can compete at that level. That was a big takeaway that I had from those two months, that I can pitch at that level and I can have success.
How did you find out you were going to Texas?
Springs: I was actually sitting at my apartment in Round Rock on an off day doing laundry. I knew the trade deadline was coming up, or whatever, but I didn’t look too much into it.
I was on the phone with my mom, calling her and touching base. I saw Paul Kruger’s (Texas Rangers assistant director of player development) name popped up on my phone. So I told her that I’ve got to go real quick. He answered the phone and he was like, “Hey, hold on just a second, you’ve got the Triple-A manager on the phone.”
He asked, “what are you doing?” I was like, ‘I’m doing laundry.’ He said, ‘Stop doing that and get to the field and get to the airport. You’re meeting the team in Arizona. You just got called up. Congratulations.’
After he said that, I blacked out almost, because I really didn’t know what to say back to him other than thank you. He was like, “You’ve got about an hour-and-a-half to get to the field and get to the airport. So hurry up.”
I was running through the airport trying to make the flight because I was scared I was going to miss it. On the whole plane ride, it was, “is this really happening?” I showed up to the park at about 5:45, six o’clock. I played catch with the pitching coach and the next thing that I knew I was in the game that night. It was a hectic day, but I would do it over and over again if I had to.
Did you fly with wet clothes?
Springs: No (laughing). I had some clothes, but he was like, ‘just wear whatever you wear to the ballpark because you’re going to turn around and fly right back home that night.’ I was only there that night, because it was their last game in Arizona.
So, I flew in with the team and then I caught a flight back to Austin and drove my car back to Arlington because it was an off day the next day. It was pretty crazy; it really was. Like I said, I was nervous that I was going to miss the flight, because if I missed the flight, I wasn’t going to be at the game. It all worked out, that’s for sure. Like I said, I would do it over and over again if I had to for that experience.
What was your first moment in the big leagues where you said, “okay, this is for real”?
Springs: I feel like the first outing, it was so surreal that I didn’t really register what was going on the first inning. Once I got that out of the way, I felt like I got back to pitching. Once I was able to strike out the first guy of my career, I felt like it was, “Hey, it’s just baseball. You’ve just got to make pitches.” and things like that. They’re just a little bit better hitters. I guess, after that, it was three or four outings into it that I realized, “Ok, I can do this.” It’s a matter of doing what I do and executing pitches.
Who was the first hitter you faced where you really got a sense that this was a surreal moment? You see them on TV and you hear about them and read about them, and there you are.
Springs: Probably with Arizona. They had A.J. Pollock, and Paul Goldschmidt and John Jay – I remember facing him when he was rehabbing at Lake Elsinore (High-A San Diego) out in the California. These are guys you see on TV all the time. Paul Goldschmidt is unbelievable. Pollock was on the All-star team. All these guys that you watch. Probably the first couple of hitters with Arizona. Facing guys like Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen and people like that, it’s pretty crazy.
The last time you and I talked was two years ago just after you were selected for the South Atlantic League All-Star game. What clicked for you from your time at Hickory until your callup? What was the period of time where you began to think, maybe I can get there?
Springs: I think, maybe, throughout the year in Kinston. I had some ups and downs as a starter, but I think I realized how to read swings a little bit better, and really what I did well and what I didn’t do so well, so I could pitch to my strengths. I really focused in on that. This is where I can go to get hitters out. This is where I can go to get ground balls or popups. It was really understanding what I could do and sticking to that and always pitching to my strengths, unless the situation calls for something different. Understanding that if you’re going to get beat, you’ve got to get beat with your best pitch with a hundred percent conviction.
So, once I kind of understood, hey, this is what I’m good at and this is how I pitch, this is what I need to do to have success, and really focusing in on my reading swings. Kind of watching how other guys attack hitters and thinking to myself, “what would I do in that situation?”
As a starter, you would have to sit up in the stands and chart the game. I think that really helped me a lot understanding the swings. It’s something that I never really focused on. I was just out there trying to make my pitch. Once I kind of realized why you’re trying to make that pitch, I think that helped me out tremendously.
Obviously, there’s a lot of room to improve, but I think I have a pretty good understanding of what I do well, and I just continue to work on it as I move forward.
I looked back and remembered that you had pitched for South Point in the state 3A title series. If I remember reading this right, you were a hitter. How did you decide to go to App to be a pitcher instead of a hitter? You had quite a series in the championship.
Springs: My first year, my coaches didn’t like the young guys to hit, he wanted them to focus on pitching. So, I hit a little bit then – obviously, I hit in my career before that. But, the days I pitched, I didn’t get to hit. So, I played first base.
I had committed to college – I think, my sophomore or junior year. I had committed early as a pitcher. I was a decent hitter my junior year, but I was already committed to be a pitcher. So, my senior year, since I knew it was going to be my last year hitting, I really worked on it in the offseason. I just kind of clicked, because I knew there wasn’t any pressure in it. I knew I was going as a pitcher and I probably wouldn’t get to swing the bat very much. I was just having fun and enjoying that last year in high school.
Do you go back to South Point very much?
Springs: Every once in a while. I went back and signed autographs at one of the football games. They asked me to come out and do that for a little recognition thing. But, I’ll go back to the high school a couple of times. They’ll do their winter workouts and stuff. I don’t want to impose, so I’ll throw on my own and stuff like that, because they have a limited amount of time that they can do their workouts and stuff, so I don’t want to bother them too much. I kind of follow them and stuff and my parents still live in Belmont.
You had the chance in the last year to be an opener, which is a new thing going on in the major leagues. How have you embraced that role and how has that been different from what you’ve done in the minor league as a traditional reliever?
Springs: Honestly, I treated it the exact same. I went out there, obviously, a little earlier. As a bullpen guy, you don’t have to get out there quite as early. The first one I did in Arlington, I went out to the bullpen before people were even out there. I just kind of sat down there and did my normal routine. I sat there by myself a little bit and then I got up and started stretching. By that time that catcher and the pitching coaches were coming out because the game was about to start in 15-20 minutes, as opposed to a traditional starter, who gets out there 30-40 minutes early.
I went through my stuff. I had played catch earlier that day with the relievers, so I was going to treat it like a normal day. I’m just coming into the game earlier. Basically, I’m starting it. I just got up on the mound and went through the routine and then went into the dugout. I treated it as close to my normal routine as possible, because I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it by overthinking. I treated it the exact same. I had a little success with it, so I did that the next time in Oakland and it worked out okay. I think it went pretty well.
Do you have a sense of doing something different and unique that is on the ground level of this sort of thinking with the opener? Not many people have the opportunity to do something that is different and outside of the box?
Definitely, I was very fortunate they allowed me to do that, the few times that they did. I kind of just embraced it with an open arm and open mind. For me, whether I’m pitching in the first inning as an opener, or the ninth inning as a closer, I’m focusing on three outs, one inning at a time and putting up zeros.
I try not to look too much into it. I like to keep it as simple as possible, but it’s just I have to go out there and do my job whether it’s as an opener or facing one hitter. I just try to treat it the same as possible. It is pretty cool and I’m pretty fortunate to be a part of that, if that’s what they continue to do. It’s pretty neat.
What were you doing this time last year?
Springs: This time last year, working part time jobs and kind of getting back into shape and try to get ready to go to spring training.
Where did you work?
Springs: The YMCA in Charlotte.
So now, you’re doing Winter Caravan with a major league team?
Springs: Yeah (laughter). It’s a little different, because, you know, this the time I always come home and try to work part time, because money is not great. It is what it is, so it’s a little different this year for sure.
No part-time jobs this offseason?
Springs: No, part-time jobs. I’m pretty booked up with the wedding and all that. Other than I teach a lesson to a young kid and stuff like that. That’s not really for money, it’s just to help him out and try to teach him some things that I wish I had have learned younger.
Being a 30th-round pick and you were a senior sign to the major leagues, how surreal is that whole journey, where most of you guys don’t make it?
It’s pretty crazy; I mean, really thinking about that, like you said. From that first year in Spokane, just thinking about the guys that I played with that were very good and were much higher draft picks, and things like that, it didn’t necessarily work out for them, even after that year, to where I am now, it’s pretty crazy. It’s definitely really crazy to hear. I don’t really think too much about it except for when people bring it up. It’s very humbling and an amazing experience, that’s for sure.
We don’t get many current or former major league players to play at Hickory.
There are other teams in the South Atlantic League that are close enough to get occasional visitors from their parent major league clubs. Rome (Ga.) is an hour drive from Sun Trust Park, the home of the Atlanta Braves. Lakewood (N.J.) is an hour and 15 minutes from Philadelphia, while Hagerstown (Md.) is about 90 minutes out from Nationals Park in Washington.
However, Hickory has never been anywhere close to its major league affiliate. To have a major leaguer rehab here, it’s about as rare as the sightings of Big Foot. So, when the Rangers announced that Martin Perez is scheduled to pitch here today, the excitement for fans in our corner of the baseball world is amped up.
Should Perez make the start, he will become the tenth former big leaguer to play here, the third after David Lundquist and Jurickson Profar to return to Hickory after playing here previously. I thought I’d take a moment to give fans a little history of previous major league players that have donned a Crawdads uniform.
Chicago White Sox affiliation
Jason Bere (1996 and 1997) The right-hander pitched in the American League Championship Series in 1993 and followed that up with an all-star appearance in 1994, during which he finished the strike-shortened season at 12-2 in 24 starts. He was never really the same after that and he experienced elbow problems in 1995 that eventually led to a Tommy John surgery late in 1996. As part of a series of rehab starts with several of the White Sox affiliates prior to the surgery, Bere threw a three-hitter over five shutout innings and struck out five. Following the surgery, he returned for another rehab start the next July. This start wasn’t as sharp as he gave up two runs on four hits over three innings.
Jim Abbott (’98): One of the baseball’s most inspirational players, the left-hander was trying to work his way back to the major leagues after the California Angels released him in spring training of 1997, following a 2-18 season. After spending time away from the game, the White Sox signed him in May 1998 and Abbott came to Hickory soon after for his first minor-league start. Over four innings, Abbott gave up a run on three hits, walked two and struck out two. Abbott went on to pitch for the White Sox and finished up his career in 1999 with Milwaukee.
Josias Manzanillo (’02): The right-hander made his big-league debut two seasons before the Crawdads played their first game in 1993. Strictly a reliever, Manzanillo pitched for six different clubs before the Pirates picked him up in 2000. Manzanillo became a free agent after the 2001, but after he was unable to sign with another team, the Pirates resigned him. However, under the rules of that time, Manzanillo was unable to pitch for the major league club until May 1. So, Manzanillo took to the hill with Hickory for an outing. In his two innings of relief, he gave up three runs (two earned) on five hits and struck out one. Manzanillo returned to the Pirates on May 1, but got hurt and sat out six weeks before coming back to the mound. The Pirates later released him and he pitched for two more big-league seasons before calling it quits in 2005.
Bob Henley (’02): Henley was the first big-league position player to come to Hickory. Very little is known about his signing and no date is available for the game in which he played. A catcher, Henley played just 41 games in the majors in 1998 with the Montreal Expos. An elbow injury cut short his tenure in the majors and after abbreviated seasons in 1999 and 2000, the Expos cut him in spring training 2001. Pittsburgh signed him in 2002 but the only appearance he made with the organization was with Hickory. He went 0-for-3 with a walk and a strikeout as the team’s DH. It turned out to be the final game as a player. Henley is currently in his fifth season as the Washington Nationals third-base coach.
David Lundquist (’04): Lundquist has several unique contributions to Crawdads history. He is the only player to suit up for Hickory as a part of two different affiliations. Lundquist is the first player to later return as a coach, as he led the pitchers in 2006 and 2007. He is also the first to return to Hickory after playing in the big leagues. The right-hander made 27 starts for the team in 1994 as a part of the White Sox days. Lundquist went on to make his big-league debut for Chicago in 1999 and later pitched in 2001 and 2002 with the San Diego Padres. Lundquist was a minor-league free agent signee with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2004, After struggling at AA Altoona, Lundquist was sent to Hickory and he became a crucial part of the team’s championship run. He posted a 0.93 ERA in ten relief outings and posted 21 Ks in 19.1 innings. His stint with Hickory was the last stop as a player. He is currently in his third season as the pitching coach for AAA Lehigh Valley (Philadelphia).
Adam LaRoche (’08): The slugging first baseman came to the Pirates in 2007 from the Atlanta Braves in a trade that involved two other Hickory Crawdads. Jamie Romak also came to the Pirates and suited up for Hickory that April. Brett Lillibridge, a shortstop on the 2006 squad, went to Atlanta. An intercostal strain put him on the disabled list in July 2008 and it was at Hickory that he played three games before rejoining the Pirates in mid-August. In his first game with the Crawdads, LaRoche crushed one of the longest home runs ever hit by a lefty. The blast one-hopped the service road the runs beyond the right-field fence. LaRoche went 6-for-10 with a double and the home run. He went on to play seven more seasons and retired during spring training of 2016 with the White Sox.
Daniel Bard (’14): The combination of “Steve Blass” disease – the inability to throw a baseball accurately – and surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome derailed the pitching career of Bard. A month after the procedure, the Texas Rangers took a flier on the right-hander when they signed him to a minor-league deal in February 2014. He made four appearances for the Crawdads from June 5 to June 15 and recorded two outs. The yips raged for Bard has he hit seven batters, walked nine. The Rangers released him on June 18. The Cubs, Cardinals and Mets each had a go at fixing what ailed Bard before he officially retired during the previous offseason.
Jurickson Profar (’15): Shoulder injuries cost the former top major league prospect two full big-league seasons. Once Profar resumed baseball activities following a surgery for a torn labrum in early 2015, he joined his brother Juremi at Hickory in late August 2015 to start his rehab assignments. The 2011 South Atlantic League’s MVP went 9-for-33 as the Crawdads DH with a double and a homer over nine games. Profar is currently with the Rangers.
James Jones (’16): The former fourth-round pick of the Seattle Mariners made his major-league debut with the club in 2014. Jones was traded to the Texas Rangers in November 2015 and then released two weeks later. The Rangers re-signed him eight days later and decided to convert Jones to be a pitcher. He first saw game action on the mound with the AZL Rangers rookie affiliate before joining Hickory. Jones’ debuted with Hickory on August 9 and was pulled after giving up four runs on four hits and a walk over 2/3 of an inning. It was soon found that Jones needed “Tommy John” surgery and was out for a year. Jones returned this year with High-A Down East and is currently on the roster at AA Frisco.
The 2018 Major League Baseball season has begun and across the landscape former Hickory Crawdads dot the big-league rosters. Thirty-two former players are on 16 different teams, including 11 with the Texas Rangers, the parent club of the Crawdads.
Below is an overview of where former Hickory players will start the 2018 season:
Alex Claudio: The 2013 Crawdads reliever will bring his changeup to the Rangers for his fifth season at Arlington. Claudio posted 11 saves and a 2.50 ERA over 70 games (8th in the AL) last year. He again is expected to be a key member of the Rangers bullpen.
Joey Gallo: The Crawdads single-season home run record holder joins the Rangers for his fourth season in the majors. A third baseman for the 2013 team, Gallo will start at first for Texas. He is coming off a season in which he hit 41 homers (third in the AL) and slugged .537 (9th).
Keone Kela: Another Crawdads reliever from the 2013 club returns to the Rangers for his fourth big-league season. Kela is expected to be the closer for the Texas, one season after posting a 2.79 ERA and struck out 51 in 38.2 innings (39 games).
Jose Leclerc: A third reliever off the 2013 Crawdads squad will be in his third season with the Rangers, but his first on the opening-day roster. He appeared in 47 games out of the Texas bullpen in 2017 and put up a 3.94 ERA. Opposing hitters hit just .145 against Leclerc, who struck out 60 in 45.2 innings.
Nomar Mazara: The Crawdads right fielder in 2013 and 2014 will be in his third season with Texas to start the season. Mazara posted a .253/.323/.422 slash in 2017 with 20 homers and 101 RBI (9th in the AL). He opens the season as the Rangers starting right fielder.
Rougned Odor: The Crawdads 2012 second baseman suits up for Texas in his fifth season as the club’s starter at the same position. Though he hit 30 or more homers for his second straight season, Odor struggled at the plate with a .204/.252/.397 slash.
Martin Perez: The 2009 Crawdads starting pitcher will begin the season on the disabled list (right elbow) but is expected to make his first start for the Rangers on April 5. Now in his seventh season, Perez went 13-12 in 32 starts in 2017. He’s looking to improve on a 4.82 ERA and a .301 opponents batting avg.
Jurickson Profar: The 2011 Crawdads shortstop is now in his fifth season with the Rangers after spending much of last year at AAA Round Rock. Profar hit .172/.294/.207 in 22 major league games in 2017. He will play a utility role for Texas.
Drew Robinson: The 2012 Crawdads third baseman is in his second season with the Rangers after making his debut with the club last April. Sent down to AAA Round Rock shortly after his debut, Robinson returned mid-season and hit .224/.314/.439 in 48 games with Texas. He starts the season as a utilityman.
Ricardo Rodriguez: The 2014-2015 pitcher for the Crawdads will start the 2018 season on the disabled list with biceps tendinitis. Rodriguez made his big-league debut with the Rangers last August. In 16 relief appearances, he had a 6.15 ERA in 13 innings.
Ryan Rua: The 2013 Crawdads second baseman is in his fifth major league season with the Rangers and is the team’s starting left fielder. Rua split last season with Texas and AAA Round Rock. With the Rangers, he had a .217/.294/.333 slash with nine extra-base hits in 144 plate appearances.
Richard Bleier: A starting pitcher at the beginning of the 2009 season, the lefty is in his third major league season, the second with the Orioles. Bleier was called up to stay with the Orioles in May 2017 and became a key part of the team’s bullpen. In 57 games covering 63.1 innings, Bleier went 2-1 with a 1.99 ERA to go with an opponents batting average of .257 and a 1.18 WHIP.
Chicago White Sox:
Leury Garcia: The Crawdads shortstop from 2009-2010 is in his sixth major league season with 215 his 240 big-league games coming with the White Sox. Garcia hit for a MLB career high .270 in 87 games with nine homers and 33 RBI. He will play a utility role, mostly as a fourth outfielder.
Rajai Davis: The Crawdads 2003 center fielder – he also played a handful of games with the team in 2002 – begins his 13th big-league season by rejoining the Indians. Signed by Cleveland to a minor league contract in the offseason, Davis had a strong spring to make the team. Davis stole 43 bases for Cleveland in 134 games in 2016 and his eighth-inning, three-run homer against Aroldis Chapman in game seven of the 2016 World Series tied the game at the time. He played in 100 games with Oakland last season before going to the Boston Red Sox in a late-season trade. Davis posted a .235/.293/.348 slash and stole 29 bases last year. He will be a fourth outfielder this year for the Indians.
Kansas City Royals:
Justin Grimm: A 2011 starting pitcher for Hickory is now in his seventh major league season, the first with Kansas City. The Royals signed him after the Chicago Cubs released him in spring training. Grimm went 1-2 with a 5.53 ERA in 50 relief appearances last year with the Cubs.
Zach Duke: A starting pitcher for the Crawdads in 2003, Duke is now in his 14th season in the major leagues and will begin his tenure with the Twins this season out of the bullpen. Coming off 2016 “Tommy John” surgery, Duke made 27 relief appearances for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2017 with a 3.93 ERA and a .197 OBA in 18.1 innings. He’s expected to be a left-handed specialist for Minnesota.
New York Yankees:
Neil Walker: The 2005 Crawdads catcher is in his 10th major league season, his first with the Yankees after signing a free-agent contract with the club in March. After seven seasons as the starting second baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Mets, Walker moved around the diamond in 2017, first with the Mets and then with the Milwaukee Brewers after a midseason trade. At the plate, Walker posted a .265/.362/.439 slash with 14 homers and 49 RBI. He is expected to play first and second with the Yankees.
Toronto Blue Jays:
Steve Pearce: The 2007 Crawdads first baseman is in his 12th major league season, the second with the Blue Jays. Last year, Pearce was the right-handed part of the Blue Jays platoon in leftfield and is expected to play in the same role in 2018. He hit .252/.319/.438 with 13 homers and 37 RBI in 92 games last year.
Carl Edwards, Jr.: A member of the Crawdads starting rotation in 2013, Edwards is now in his fourth season as a reliever with the Cubs. In 73 games last season, Edwards had a 2.98 ERA with an opponents batting average of .134 on 66.1 innings. His 25 holds last year was second in the National League. He is expected again to be a key member of the Cubs bullpen.
Jared Hughes: A starting pitcher for the Crawdads in 2006 and 2007, Hughes enters his eighth season in the big leagues, his first with the Reds after signing a two-year contract in the offseason. Last season with the Milwaukee Brewers, Hughes with 5-3 with a 3.02 ERA and one save. Hughes will pitch out of the bullpen for the Reds.
Los Angeles Dodgers:
Wilmer Font: A starting pitcher for the Crawdads in 2009 and 2010, Font is in his fourth major league season, the second with the Dodgers. Font spent much of 2017 at AAA Oklahoma City where he put together a strong season that led to his selection as the Pacific Coast League pitcher of the year. Font pitched in three games with the Dodgers after rosters expanded in September and gave up seven runs in 3.2 Innings. He’ll pitch out of the bullpen for the Dodgers.
Lewis Brinson: The Crawdads starting center fielder in 2013 and 2014, Brinson has a full-fledged opportunity for the same role in the majors after Brinson was traded to the Marlins in the offseason. Brinson made his big-league debut last summer with the Brewers and went 5-for-47 in 21 games.
Tomas Telis: The Crawdads catcher from 2011 is in his fifth major league season, the fourth with the Marlins. He spent much of 2017 at AAA New Orleans but posted a .240/.279/.367 slash in 48 big-league games. Telis will be the starting catcher for the Marlins due to an injury to J.T. Realmuto
Jorge Alfaro: The Crawdads catcher from 2012 and 2013 will be on his first opening-day roster after parts of two seasons with the Phillies. A midseason all-star at AAA Lehigh Valley, Alfaro hit .314/.360/.514 in 29 games at Philadelphia. He will split time with Andrew Knapp behind the plate.
Jerad Eickhoff: The Crawdads starting pitcher in 2012 is in his fourth season with the Phillies, though he starts the season on the disabled list with a strained right lat. In 24 starts last season, Eickhoff went 4-8 with a 4.71 ERA.
Odubel Herrera: The starting second baseman for Hickory in 2011, Herrera is now cemented as the Phillies center fielder for the fourth straight season. In 138 games in 2017, he hit .281/.325/.452 with 42 doubles – the third most in the NL – 14 homers and 56 RBI.
Nick Williams: The 2013 starting left fielder for Hickory is in his second season with the Phillies after he made his major league debut for the team last June. Williams went on to hit .288/.338/.473 with 12 homers and 55 RBI in 83 games with the Phillies. He is the starting right fielder.
Jordy Mercer: The starting shortstop the second half of the 2008 season with the Crawdads is the final member remaining with Pittsburgh from the former Hickory affiliation with the Pirates that ended in 2008. Now in his seventh season – the sixth as the Bucs shortstop – he is likely on the move in what is his final contract year with Pittsburgh. With the Pirates in 2017, Mercer hit .255/.326/.406 with 14 homers and 58 RBI in 145 games.
San Diego Padres:
Robbie Erlin: The 2010 South Atlantic League’s ERA champ while with Hickory is now in his fifth season with the Padres. Tommy John surgery cost the left-hander much of the 2016 and all of the 2017 season. Erlin will likely be in the San Diego rotation.
Christian Villanueva: The 2011 Crawdads third baseman made his big-league debut with San Diego last September in grand style after hitting four homers and going 11-for-32 in 12 games. Villanueva returns to the Padres as a utility infielder after he made his first opening-day roster.
San Francisco Giants:
Andrew McCutchen: The 2006 Crawdads center fielder is in his tenth major league season, but after an offseason trade, he’ll suit up for another club other than the Pittsburgh Pirates for the first time. The 2013 National League MVP now patrols right field for the Giants after nine seasons as the Pirates center fielder. In 156 games last season, McCutchen hit .279/.363/.486 with 28 homers and 88 RBI.
Tony Watson: A starter in his brief stint with the Crawdads in 2007, the left-hander is now in his seventh major league season as one of the game’s best left-handed setup relievers. After five full seasons with the Pirates, he was dealt in a midseason trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers, with whom he made his first World Series appearance. In 71 games last season, he was 7-4 with ten saves and a 3.38 ERA in 66.2 innings. Watson signed a two-year contract with the Giants in the offseason.
Luke Jackson, the 45th player overall taken in the 2010 first-year-player major league draft by the Texas Rangers, made his pro debut with the Hickory Crawdads in May 2011, in the middle of a playoff drive. He and 2010 second-rounder Cody Buckel – both sporting Justin Bieber-inspired coifs – were both inserted into the Crawdads starting rotation.
The native of Ft. Lauderdale, then just 19, sported a mid-90s fastball and a sharp-breaking curve when he joined the Crawdads. But in many ways, he was like a toddler with a toy tool set. The ability there could be fantastic, but it the results could also be ugly. Jackson admitted at that stage of his career, he had no idea what he was doing.
He had mixed results with the Crawdads. He took the ball every five games and got his first pro win in his fifth start – a one-run, two-hit, five-inning outing at Lexington on June 11. However, it is the next start on June 16 that I will remember most. For it showed what kind of pitcher Luke could be; it also had the chance to be a disaster.
Facing Charleston (S.C.) to start a four-game series to close out the first half – with the team holding a half-game lead in the standings – Jackson was brilliant through four innings. He had struck out eight of the first 12 batters and took a 3-0 lead into the fifth. Gary Sanchez – now with the Yankees – led off the inning with a moonshot homer to the leftfield corner. Jackson sandwiched outs between a single, but then walked two and in the process uncorked a wild pitch that crashed into the plexiglass window in the netting behind home to load the bases. With action in the bullpen, manager Bill Richardson and pitching coach Storm Davis decided it was time to “see what the kid’s got.” Jackson rewarded the trust with a flyout and the Crawdads went on to win 5-1.
In a lot of ways, that outing summed up Jackson’s career of living on the edge. Jackson came back to Hickory in 2012 to figure some things out and then at Myrtle Beach the following year, he soared. He was the starting pitcher in the Carolina-California all-star game in 2013 and MiLB.com named him the Rangers organizational all-star.
Jackson had similar success at AA with Frisco, but after getting toasted at AAA, the Rangers moved him to the bullpen in 2015. Texas brought him up for a taste of the big leagues in 2015 and 2016, but then shipped him in the offseason to Atlanta, where he is currently pitching out of the Braves bullpen.
Jackson’s personality is perhaps a better fit for the bullpen and it could be that his 2011 teammates knew that then when the “Crawdads Bullpen” – a group that included Ben Rowen, Jimmy Reyes, Jorge Marban, Ben Henry among others that still maintain a social media presence – made him one of their group. The highlight of their antics included an ill-advised swim in the dugout.
It is that story with which I began the interview with Luke in the Atlanta Braves dugout at Sun Trust Field. As it turned out, it was the afternoon prior to his first major league win.
There’s been a few bridges since we talked last time. I talked with Ben Rowen last year and there was a certain picture of you guys in the dugout and there was a flood.
Jackson: Yes, I have some great memories with those guys. The bullpen down there was quite hilarious. That was the day when there was a light little rain shower that filled up the dugout to about the brim – so about 4 feet deep – and we decided that we were going to go swimming and do laps, race across the dugout doing laps. Once we realized the toilet was under water, we realized it was a horrible idea and then covered our body with hand sanitizer and took showers. It was pretty funny while it was happening.
So nobody got e-coli
Jackson: No, we lived – barely – but, we lived. It was pretty interesting.
That was an interesting year as far as the whole bullpen crew, and they accepted a starter as a part of that.
Yeah, I actually lived with three of them. That bullpen had some of the funniest antics and routines and things they did throughout the year. I think just because I lived with them they always tried to include me in them and to this day we still – it’s call the Crawdads Bullpen Group Chat – still a text message group that is lively to this morning it was going on – same guys, pretty impressive.
Did you guys get under Bill Richardson’s skin?
Jackson: We were playing well at the time when that all started going on so he didn’t say much, but I guarantee it definitely irked him a little bit. Bill’s a great guy.
Here you are in the major leagues – what was the call-up like when you went to Texas?
Jackson: In ‘15 yeah, I get called up in July or early August and it was pretty surreal. It was probably the best memory I have of baseball. My whole family got to come up to see me in Seattle. It was awesome. I didn’t pitch in the Seattle series. We ended up going to Anaheim after that I debuted, but it was nothing like I can explain. Then in ’16 playing the big leagues and now this year playing with the Braves.
I mean, I got the chance to play with two different teams. The group here is absolutely amazing: coaching staff, players. The first seven years I spent in the same organization and then I come here and I feel like I’ve been with them for seven years. All unbelievable guys and just all for the same goal of getting better and winning games.
There was a hashtag that went around #CanLukepitchnow. Did you get wind of that?
Jackson: (Laughing) Of course, Tepid is one of my favorite guys ever. Michael, I would always see his tweets. He’s a super fun guy and I would always like the way he wrote about guys. He’s super positive and just encouraging. I would always see stuff like that and that would make me laugh. My parents would ask, “Are you going to throw today?” I was like, “I don’t know, I’ve got to do it how it works.” He’s the man; I think he started all that off. He’s a special guy to have on your side.
Did you ever wonder if you were going to pitch?
Jackson: There was a point where I was like, “Maybe I’m just here as a prop, or something, just hanging out.” That was kind of funny. It took a little while, but I think expected.
What is the memory of you getting called up? What did you do? How did you respond? Who did you call?
Jackson: I was in New Orleans. Actually, my girlfriend had just gotten there. I was just sitting in the hotel room. I had gotten back from the field and I got a phone call and Woody (Round Rock manager Jason Wood) was like, “Hey, I’d just like to be the first one to tell you, congratulations, you’re going to the big leagues.” I was like, “Oh wow, I’m actually going up to the big leagues.”
I called my mom four times, but she didn’t answer. I called my dad a couple of times and he didn’t answer. I was like, “Hmm, maybe I’ll just call in the morning.” But I was like, “I’ve got to tell them.” So, I called my sister because she would wake mom and dad up. So, I called her and she walked over and woke them up and put it on speaker phone. I said, “Hey, I just want to tell you guys that I’m going to the big leagues.” They were pretty pumped; mom was crying.
It was pretty surreal to see stuff like that work out. Every time you see somebody called up for the first time, you know what they’re going through. It’s one of the coolest feelings. You worked your whole life to get to this focal point of your career. Now that you’ve made it, the goals start from here for you to stay.
What was your reaction when you got traded?
Jackson: I heard it every year in the middle of the year, even when I was at Hickory. I’d go to high-A I’d hear, “Hey, you’re getting traded at the deadline.” And then next year, “Hey, you’re getting traded at the deadline.” At Frisco, I was hearing the same thing, “you’re probably going to get traded.” My agent calls and tells me, “There’s actually a good chance you’re going to get traded.” I was like, “Every year is something like that.”
So, I get a call from (Texas Rangers general manager) Jon Daniels and he said, “I just wanted to let you know you’ve been traded. Best of luck with your endeavors. Thank you so much.” Jon, to this day, is an amazing guy. Whenever I’d talk with him and have a conversation, he was genuine as all get out. He just told me I was going and wished me the best of luck. Then I got a call from (John) Coppolella (Atlanta Braves general manager) and he told me “You’re coming to the Braves. Congratulations and get ready to get the season going.”
It was kind of a surreal whirlwind the night I was traded. I was kind of, “Wow.” I called my parents and told them, “I think I’m with the Braves.” I knew I was, but I wasn’t really sure that how it worked then. It was pretty cool and I’m happy to be here.
What do you think about the ballpark?
Jackson: Unbelievable. It’s spectacular. They kind of took the best of every part they found and jumbled it into one and this is what you get. It’s high end, first class: the dugouts, locker rooms, the stadium. The Battery in the outfield is beautiful. Everything they did is just top of the line.
Who is the current or former major leaguer that you’ve met that you’ve said, “man, I can’t believe I’m talking to this person”?
Jackson: Bartolo Colon.
Last year, when I was rehabbing in ’16 to start the year. The only people hurt in camp were me and Josh Hamilton. So, I spent every waking day of four weeks riding the bike next to him and talking life and getting to know him. That was a surreal moment in my career. I read his book prior to meeting the guy in high school. There I am rehabbing with him and that was pretty awesome.
And then having PFP groups this spring training with a guy that’s been in the league for 21 years. He’s an unbelievable human being and one of the best teammates you could have in Bartolo. That was pretty awesome.
Just every day, just getting to see people and meet people and come across people and ex-high school teammates and seeing people you came up in the minor leagues with is all so fun to do.
What are your expectations for the year?
Jackson: You always set the bar as high as you can and then go out there and post as many zeroes and see how many games this team can win. I think this squad is good and when everything starts to click, I think it’ll be a pretty good run.
When you and I had a conversation back in your second year in Hickory and you accepted that you needed to come back to find things. What did you learn out of that experience now that you’ve gotten here?
Jackson: Oh wow. Just looking back at those years, I would say that I didn’t even know what I was doing. The first year out of high school, actually my first year out of high school was low-A, coming in, I didn’t know how to pitch at all. I was just trying to throw the baseball to the plate.
Looking back on it, I think my second year at Myrtle Beach was when I figured I started pitching. Brad Holman helped me a lot with that. I had Storm Davis mentally getting me prepared for all that. That was pretty awesome. The group of coaches and the staff we had along my career, I can’t thank them enough for everything they’ve done.
During the playoff run that took the Hickory Crawdads to the 2015 South Atlantic League championship, circumstances put first rounders Luis Ortiz and Dillon Tate into the bullpen as part of a bridge crew between consistent strong starting pitching and closer Scott Williams.
Ortiz had missed much of the second half with a shoulder injury, but then returned the final week of the regular season to allow one hit over three innings. Tate was held to short appearances after a heavy workload in college prior to being drafted by the Texas Rangers.
In game two of the Northern Division series, Tate threw two scoreless innings with two Ks. One night later with Hickory holding a 1-0 lead in the decisive game three, Ortiz threw two perfect innings, striking out four to set up Williams to close out the series.
Three nights later, Ortiz closed out his 2015 season in game two of the championship series. Pitching the seventh and eighth innings, Ortiz allowed one hit and fanned three. Tate pitched a scoreless inning in game three to help Hickory finish the 3-0 series sweep.
“The playoff atmosphere, it’s going to happen,” said Ortiz looking back at his performance in the 2015 Sally League playoffs. “It’s very tense at the moment, so basically you try to get it and get it done.”
Performances aside, baseball – especially minor league baseball – is a sport where things change fast and for Ortiz those changes came out of nowhere. Nearly eleven months after their playoff heroics, Ortiz and Tate were both traded on the same day in separate deals. Tate struggled with control issues and was sent to the New York Yankees for Carlos Beltran. Ortiz, along with another former first rounder, 2013-2014 Crawdads outfielder Lewis Brinson, was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers as part of a deal that brought catcher Jonathan Lucroy to Texas.
“I was sitting in the training room in Frisco (AA club of the Rangers),” recalled Ortiz on learning of the trade. “I had a bullpen that day. It was me, Brinson and a couple of other guys in there. I was getting ready to go outside and (pitching coach) Brian Shouse comes up to me and tells me, ‘We’re not going to go out there until the trade’s over.’
“So, I kind of knew there was something going on. From right there, I just waited for my name to be called. Brinson already knew. So, it was basically a matter of time when it was going to happen.”
Ortiz had a strong start to the 2016 season, pitching in the ballpark of doom at High-A High Desert in the California League. The ballpark, located in Adelanto, CA, was a hitter’s paradise with its high altitude, arid conditions and favorable wins. But with his family located within a short drive in Sanger, CA, Ortiz adapted nicely to the conditions, posting a 2.60 ERA and fanning 28 in 27.2 innings.
“It was awesome being in California and being a couple of hours from home,” Ortiz said of his Cal League stint. “I had family come out all the time and it was amazing. I already knew how to pitch in California. Every talks about High Desert. ‘High Desert’s this.’ If you can pitch, you can pitch. If you can pitch straight out, you can pitch there.”
After seven appearances (six starts), Ortiz got a promotion to AA Frisco, where the change of scenery and tougher hitters found Ortiz looking for answers.
“When I got to AA, it was basically knowing how to pitch to hitters,” said Ortiz, who posted a 4.08 ERA over 39.2 innings with a .296 OBA. “I struggled with Texas at AA. I struggled and I struggled. I know you’re going to have your downfalls, but (you’re) learning from it.”
His final outing with Frisco was a benign two-inning start during which he allowed a one run on two hits and K’d four on just 34 pitches. Three days later, he was a Milwaukee Brewer and a surprised Ortiz struggled to make sense of what was happening.
“My reaction was basically like everyone else that got traded,” recalled Ortiz. “I just thought I had a good start. At first I was thinking, ‘What did I do wrong?’… Now it’s a new start for me and a better opportunity for me.”
Ortiz has seized that opportunity with the Brewers and it started soon after joining their AA team at Biloxi. He posted a 1.93 ERA over 23. 1 innings, though his WHIP took a hit a 1.54.
In getting a chance to speak with Ortiz last week, he’s matured physically since he was a Crawdad. He now sports facial hair that his 19-year-old baby face wouldn’t support during that 2015 playoff mastery. Ortiz also has a one-year-old son named Santiago, in honor of Luis’s late grandfather, who played a huge role in his life growing up.
With growing maturity under his belt, Ortiz also sees the opportunities of bigger things ahead, some of what was made possible by the trade.
“Texas developed me very well and now they gave me an opportunity with a new team, the Milwaukee Brewers,” said Ortiz. “I take it as a new start. Right now, I’m loving it.”
The 2017 season opened with 104 former Crawdads on the roster of a Major League or an affiliated Minor League Baseball Team. Thirty-three other former players are currently in extended spring training due to injury or are inactive and are awaiting an assignment to a team.
Debuts at new levels
Drew Robinson is the lone former Crawdad to make his major league debut at the start of the season, as he begins his career with the Texas Rangers
Luis Marte is the only former Crawdad to make his debut at the Class-AAA level, as he suits up for the Rangers AAA club at Round Rock.
At Class AA, 10 former players step up to a Class-AA roster for the first time. Most of those are with the Rangers affiliate at Frisco. Travis Demeritte has joined the Atlanta Braves club at Mississippi.
At the class high A level, nine former Crawdads will play at this level for the first time, all of those at the Rangers new affiliate at Down East.
Several former Crawdads are playing in foreign leagues, as well as independent leagues. Indy ball will start in late-April or mid-May and more will be added to those rosters as the season approaches.
Want to keep up with where former players are? Clink on the following links during the season:
The list below in order of class level, then team name. [Current Club, (Parent Club): Name (s).] Asterisks indicate players debuting at their current level when the season opened.
Major Leagues (29)
American League (16)
Boston Red Sox: Robbie Ross; Chicago White Sox: Leury Garcia; Kansas City Royals: Chris Young; Oakland Athletics: Rajai Davis; Texas Rangers: Hanser Alberto (DL), Alex Claudio, Joey Gallo, Jose Leclerc, Nomar Mazara, Rougned Odor, Martin Perez, Jurickson Profar, Drew Robinson, Ryan Rua; Toronto Blue Jays: Jose Bautista, Steven Pearce.
National League (13)
Chicago Cubs: Carl Edwards, Justin Grimm; Milwaukee Brewers: Jared Hughes; New York Mets: Neil Walker; Philadelphia Phillies: Jared Eickhoff, Odubel Herrera; Pittsburgh Pirates: Andrew McCutchen, Jordy Mercer, Tony Watson; San Diego Padres: Robbie Erin (DL), Luis Sardinas; San Francisco Giants: Neil Ramirez. St. Louis Cardinals: Zack Duke (DL).
International League (10)
Gwinnett Braves (Atlanta): Luke Jackson; Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs (Philadelphia): Jorge Alfaro, Nick Williams; Norfolk Tides (Baltimore): Richard Bleier, Andrew Faulkner; Rochester Red Wings (Minnesota): Matt Hague, Nick Tepesch; Toledo Mudhens (Detroit): Chad Bell, Dustin Molleken, Alex Presley
Pacific Coast League (16)
Colorado Sky Sox (Milwaukee): Lewis Brinson, Ryan Cordell; El Paso Chihuahuas (San Diego): Jamie Romak; Las Vegas Stars (NY Mets): Wilfredo Boscan, Ben Rowen; New Orleans Baby Cakes (Miams): Tomas Telis; Oklahoma City Dodgers (LA Dodgers): Fabio Castillo, Wilmer Font; Round Rock Express (Texas): Preston Beck, Ronald Guzman, Keone Kela, Luis Marte*, Nick Martinez, Jimmy Reyes, Jose Valdespina; Salt Lake Bees (LA Angels): Cody Ege.
Eastern League (1)
Bowie Bayox (Baltimore): Jefri Hernandez
Southern League (7)
Biloxi Shuckers (Milwaukee): Luis Ortiz; Birmingham Barons (Chicago White Sox): Will Lamb; Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp (Miami): Victor Payano; Mississippi Braves (Atlanta): Travis Demeritte*, Dylan Moore; Mobile Bay Bears (LA Angels): Cody Buckel, Abel De Los Santos
Texas League (19)
Frisco RoughRiders (Texas): Jose Cardona*, Michael De Leon, Nick Gardewine*, Reed Garrett, Andy Ibanez, Ariel Jurado, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, David Ledbetter*, Shane McCain*, Yohander Mendez, Juremi Profar*, Connor Sadzeck, Ryne Slack, Luke Tendler*, Kevin Torres*, Jose Trevino*, Collin Wiles*, Sam Wolff; Springfield (St. Louis): Daniel Bard
High A (21)
Carolina League (21)
Buies Creek Astros (Houston): Akeem Bostick; High Desert Mavericks (Texas): Josh Altmann, Blake Bass*, Wes Benjamin*, Jairo Beras, Adam Choplick*, LeDarious Clark*, Frandy De La Rosa*, Peter Fairbanks*, Omarlin Lopez*, Brett Martin, Luis Mendez, Chuck Moorman, Josh Morgan, Joe Palumbo*, Pedro Payano*, Austin Pettibone, Eduard Pinto, Jason Richman, Ricardo Rodriguez, Jeffrey Springs.
Low A (1)
Midwest League (1)
Ft. Wayne Tin Caps (San Diego): Marcus Greene, Jr.
Extended Spring (not assigned to a full season affiliate):
Detroit: Jake Brigham, Jorge Marban, Los Angeles Angels: David Perez; New York Mets: Tom Gorzelanny; New York Yankees: Kellin Deglan, Eric Swanson, Dillon Tate; Pittsburgh: Greg Williams; San Diego Padres: Christian Villanueva; San Francisco: Bryan Morris; Texas: Carlos Arroyo, Matt Ball, Tyler Davis, Darius Day, John Fasola, Joe Filomeno, Eric Jenkins, James Jones, Johan Juan, Steve Lerud, Frank Lopez, David Lyon, Adam Parks, Brallan Perez, Tyler Sanchez, Jacob Shortslef, Luis Silva, Christian Torres, Xavier Turner, Evan Van Hoosier, Kelvin Vasquez, Scott Williams Cole Wiper
Independent Leagues (19)
American Association (4)
Kansas City T-Bones: Joe Jackson; Lincoln Saltdogs: Trever Adams, Chris Garia; St. Paul Saints: Mark Hamburger
Atlantic League (7)
Bridgeport Bluefish: Jonathan Albaladejo; New Britain Bees: Joe Beimel; Somerset Patriots: Chris Grayson; Southern Maryland Blue Claws: Zach Cone, Edwin Garcia; Sugar Land Skeeters: Luis Pollorena; York Revolution: Joe Van Meter
Can-Am League (2)
Rockland Boulders: Joe Maloney, Hector Nelo
Frontier League (4)
Joliet Slammers: Joseph Ortiz; Lake Erie Crushers: Adam Quintana; Normal Cornbelters: Shawn Blackwell; Southern Illinois Miners: John Werner
Foreign Leagues (14)
Dutch Professional League (1)
Amsterdam Pirates: Nick Urbanus
Italian League (1)
ASD Nettuno: Ronald Uviedo
Mexican League (6)
Acereros del Norte: Nyjer Morgan; Leon Bravos: Matt Nevarez; Saltillo Saraperos: Carlos Pimentel; Tabasco Olmecas: Rodolfo Aquirre; Tijuana Toros: Danny Gutierrez; Yucatan Leones: Jairo Asencio.
Nippon Professional Baseball (Japan) (6)
Hanshin Tigers: Roman Mendez; Hiroshima Carp: Brad Eldred; Orix Buffaloes: Matt West; Tokyo Yakult Swallows: Josh Lueke; Yokohama Bay Stars: Phil Klein, Joe Wieland
Free Agents unsigned:
Affiliated Leagues: Arizona: Matt Capps; Boston: Anyelo Leclerc; Chicago White Sox: Josh Richmond; LA Dodgers: Vin DiFazio; Miami: Trey Lambert; Philadelphia: Sean Burnett; Texas: Garrett Brummett, Frank Carvallo, Chris Dula; Sherman Lacrus, Ryan Ledbetter, London Lindley, Tripp Martin; Connor McKay, Francisco Mendoza, Jose Monegro
Independent/ Foreign Leagues: Jose Castillo, Yefry Castillo, Janluis Castro, Brandon Chaves, Humberto Cota, Cody Eppley, Teodoro Martinez, Luis Munoz, Ronny Paulino, Ryan Rodebaugh, Rock Shoulders, Johan Yan
When I spoke with 2012 Hickory Crawdads hitting coach Josue Perez about the opening of that season, I asked him the question about who would be the run-producers. For that season, Perez mentioned the college guys, Trever Adams, Jeremy Williams and a physically imposing Jordan Akins. He then mentioned the young guns Jorge Alfaro and Rougned Odor, both of who were 18 then. Perez then added, “(Drew) Robinson is a sleeper.”
One could argue that Robinson’s minor-league career has been in sleeper mode and not very sexy at all. He’s moved around the diamond, struck out a lot, hit for a mediocre average. But Robinson has worked and persevered and survived the climb up the organizational chain and can forever call himself a major leaguer.
My memory of Robinson at Hickory was a kid that was okay at the plate (123 Ks in 507 PAs) and in the field (28 errors in 103 games at 3B). Yet, there are kids who have the work ethic to learn the game and to make themselves into an indispensable piece of an organization. Robinson did that and he is now a big leaguer as he will start the 2017 season with the Texas Rangers.
There were a couple of things that stood out for me about Robinson in 2012: the ability to be patient and to come up big in pressure situations. He didn’t start out that way, and early on it looked like he might never get there.
One must remember that he was 19 on opening day 2012 and most kids take time to figure it out at the pro level. It can certainly be frustrating to not have the same results a player at high school.
After posting a .163/ .266/ .265 slash over 45 games at short-season Spokane and starting at .189/ .283/ .340 after 15 games at Hickory, Robinson admitted at the time that he was still learning to slow the game down and make the necessary adjustments.
:It’s been a rough start,” said Robinson during a late-April interview. “I went through this a little bit last year. Just having a good mindset will help with a lot of things. I was down a lot last year and I never really got out of it. We have a good team right now and the coaching staff is sticking with me, so I just have to stick with it right now.”
What turned out to a key in Robinson’s development that season was the ability to let the game come to him more.
“Right now they’re working on my pitch selection and trying to slow the game down,” said Robinson in an interview I did with him in late April 2012. “I get a little amped up at times when I get a big opportunity, a big RBI on second base. Just slowing the game down and hitting my pitches rather than swinging at the pitcher’s pitches.”
Whatever lessons Perez and others taught him that year, Robinson learned them well. He went on to walk 86 times that year – still the second most in a season by a Crawdad – which led to a .409 on-base percentage, the fifth highest in team history.
“We try to teach that,” said then Rangers director of player development Tim Purpura of Robinson’s strike-zone discipline. “But honestly, I don’t know if you can teach that. When we emphasize it, we push it, but, some guys get it and some guys don’t… I think as a general philosophy, if you control the strike zone, you’re going to get better pitches to hit. Guys like Drew are a rare breed. Some guys, it just clicks early.”
Robinson also had a knack to be in the middle of late-game, clutch situations. During the 2012 season, Hickory had eight walk-off wins. Robinson was involved in five of them, including three game-ending RBIs in a ten-day span and was named the South Atlantic League’s hitter of the week on June 11, 2012.
As Robinson moved up the ladder, he had to continually make adjustments on how he might get to the majors. He was the fourth-round pick of the Texas Rangers in 2010 out of Silverado High School in Las Vegas, listed as a shortstop. However, with names such as Leury Garcia, Jurickson Profar, Hanser Alberto and Luis Sardinas at short, as well as Elvis Andrus establishing himself in the majors, Robinson was shifted to third
After moving up to play third at High-A Myrtle Beach in 2013, the drafting and subsequent rising of uber-prospect Joey Gallo necessitated a position change. After playing third full-time from 2011 to 2013, he’s played just 46 games there since. Robinson’s played a lot of outfield, dabbled around at first and second – he filled in for Rougned Odor at Hickory after Odor suffered a dislocated shoulder – whatever it’s taken to get him on the field.
Back in 2012, Pupura hinted that might be Robinson’s path to get to the majors someday.
“I will say that one of our (Texas Rangers) philosophies is to make sure that guys have some versatility,” said Pupura. “That they learn how to play other positions … Here, I want guys to become proficient at a primary position, but also have a secondary or in some cases have a third position that they’re good at. All it does is create more opportunities for them to get playing time as they move up the ladder.”
*Robinson’s promotion by the numbers at Hickory:
*He is the 151st former Crawdads player to get to the major.
*He is the 43rd player during the Rangers affiliation to go to the majors
*He is the 10th member of the 2012 team to get to the majors (Hanser Alberto, Jorge Alfaro, Jerad Eickhoff, Andrew Faulkner, Luke Jackson, Phil Klein, Nick Martinez, Rougned Odor, Luis Sardinas)
*He is the 10th Crawdads third baseman to eventually play in the majors (Greg Norton, Pete Rose, Jr., Carlos Lee, Joe Crede, Yurendell DeCaster, Jose Bautista, Matt Hague, Matt West, Joey Gallo)
*98 of the 151 players came through the draft, 33 of them high schoolers.
*107 of the 151 players were U.S. born, five from Nevada (Rocky Biddle, Steve Lerud, Joe Wieland, Joey Gallo)
*He is the Crawdads sixth fourth-round draft pick (out of 16) that came to Hickory then went to the majors (Jeff Abbott, Jeff Keppinger, Brent Lillibridge, Jared Hughes, Joe Wieland).
Chris Tremie a catcher on the inaugural 1993 Hickory Crawdads squad, holds a unique place in the team’s history. On July 1, 1995, the former Hickory backstop became the first Crawdad to go on to the major leagues when the Chicago White Sox called him up from AAA Nashville.
The native of Houston, Texas went on to have brief major league stints with the White Sox, Rangers, Pirates and finally the Astros before calling it quits after the 2005 season.
Tremie then signed on with the Cleveland Indians minor league system to begin his coaching career in 2006 as the hitting coach at short-season Mahoning Valley. His first managerial gig came the next season with then South Atlantic League rival Lake County (Ohio), which brought Tremie back to Hickory for the first time since 1993.
After he led Akron (AA) to the Eastern League title in 2012, Tremie, 46 moved up to manager at AAA Columbus and he is in his fourth season as the Clippers manager. Under his leadership, the Clippers made the playoffs the last two seasons and won the International League championship in 2015.
With his club in pursuit of another playoff spot this season, Tremie was named the manager of the International League team for the Triple A All-Star Game, which will be played tonight (July 13) in Charlotte.
I had a chance during the all-star workout in Charlotte to speak with Tremie about his memories of Hickory in the early days, as well as about his current success with the Clippers.
You were on the original 1993 Crawdads team, looking back 23 years ago, what do you remember about that season?
Tremie: It was a great experience for me. It was my first full season of professional baseball. Hickory was a brand new stadium, a very nice stadium. It wasn’t quite done when we got there, so that’s one of the memories I had. We didn’t have a locker room right at the beginning of the season, but it came in a little bit later. Just a lot of good memories and the town and the people that were there, and also the fans that came out.
One of the highlights of that season was the fan base with a lot of sold out games. I’m guessing the town was pretty well taken with the new club and baseball coming to town.
Tremie: They seemed to be really excited there. Like I said, it was my first professional season. At the time, I didn’t really know what to expect, kind of going into it new. Now, after being around, both managing and playing for a while, it was pretty special being there. Fans were really excited, the people in town were really nice when we were around and if they noticed us. They opened their arms to us as players and as a team in that city. It was good.
You got to play with Magglio Ordonez, who was there the first couple of years. What do you remember about playing with him at 18, 19?
Tremie: He was young, as you mentioned – 18, 19 years old – extremely talented. It was fun watching him play, even at that age and at that experience level. We knew he was going to be good in the future and obviously that rung true and he had a great career. It was a time I got to be around him when he was just a kid starting out. It was great to watch his career as the years went on.
You got to play for Fred Kendall, who had a long career both as a player and has a coach and manager. How did that come together for you, as far as looking ahead to your career as a manager and such?
Tremie: A good experience. He had been around a lot of experiences and Mark Salas was there as well throughout the early part of my career. Both of those guys taught me a lot. Things that I remember from those times I actually still use today, sometimes. I’ve very grateful for those experiences.
Best memory from 1993, or maybe a funny memory.
Tremie: Probably, my first professional home run, I hit in Hickory that year. I was really struggling at the plate at them time. That probably sticks out as one of the highlights. But also, being around the guys and dressing in the trailers for the first month was kind of funny. But we got it done. The facilities came along and finished up and they were really nice. I have nothing but good things to say about Hickory.
You were the first Crawdad to get to the major leagues. I don’t know if you remember that, or not. What was that experience like when you were called up?
Tremie: I didn’t know that. It was just like any other person that goes up for the first time. I was very excited but a little surprised at the time when it happened. I was not expecting it at that point in my career, given the kind of season I was having. Very exciting.
You got to come back as a manager to Hickory when you were with Lake County in 2007. What was it like coming back as a manager?
Tremie: It’s kind of funny. It was good memories, going to the ballpark and remembering what it was like when I was a player, and then going back there 14 years later. It was my first year managing, too. So, it’s kind of ironic that first year playing and the first year managing I was able to go to that ballpark.
Now, you’ve been with Columbus four years now and won the International League title last year. Describe what that experience has been like for you?
Tremie: First of all, I’m grateful for the players that I’ve been fortunate enough to be around the last few years with the Indians organization. We had a great group of guys that have played hard. It’s been a fun experience, especially at the AAA level all the years I’ve been there. Last year was special in the fact that we ended up winning the league, but the year before that we were in the playoffs and had a really good team, as well. Overall, it’s been a great experience being around quality people and quality players and watching them grow.
Looking ahead, are you looking toward a major league gig for you, or are you of a mindset of taking it as it comes?
Tremie: I just go about doing my job and enjoying myself and enjoying being around these players. I just do what I enjoy doing and whatever happens in the future, that’s what happens. Right now, I just take it day by day.
The 2013 Hickory Crawdads were arguably the most talked about team throughout the minor leagues that season. As the years pass by, the talent from that team continues to evolve as arguably the most iconic group to ever take the field at L.P. Frans Stadium.
Already nine players have ascended up the ladder to become major league players with several more likely to join them in the future. One of those from that 2013 team on the cusp of a major league callup is left fielder Nick Williams, currently with AAA Lehigh Valley in the Philadelphia Phillies organization.
Williams joined the Crawdads the next season after the Texas Rangers took him in the second round of the 2012 draft out of Ball High School in Galveston, Tex. Some observers considered Williams as a sure top-round pick. However, a subpar high school senior season dropped him to the Rangers as the 93rd overall selection .
It was that drop that perhaps allowed him to fly under the radar with the 2013 team that had two first round draft picks in Lewis Brinson and Joey Gallo, as well as two mega bonus-baby international free agent signees in Nomar Mazara and Ronald Guzman.
Then 19-years old in his first 140-game marathon season, Williams worked around a pair of injuries to post a .293/.337/.543 slash. He became the first – and still only Crawdads player – to post double-digit totals in doubles (19), triples (12, which is tied for the club record for a season) and homers (17), despite playing in only 95 games. His .543 slugging pct. is the ninth best season in club history among qualifying hitters (378+ plate appearances).
Williams went on to postseason all-star status at class Low-A South Atlantic League (2013), high-A Carolina League (2014) and AA Texas (2015). MiLB.com named him a Rangers organizational all-star the past three seasons and Baseball American tabbed him on its AA All-Star team in 2015.
But with a glut of several developing outfielders in the Rangers upper minor leagues, combined with a chance to get Philadelphia Phillies ace Cole Hamels, it was Williams that was included in a blockbuster trade last summer.
Williams has spent the entire 2016 season with Lehigh Valley and he has put up respectable numbers with the Iron Pigs. In 75 games (through July 6), the 22-year-old has a .289/.326/.463 slash with 20 doubles and eight homers. He is currently in the midst of an eight-game hitting streak and has a hit in 19 of his last 20, as well as 26 of the last 29.
In its publication posted on July 7, Baseball Prospectus has Williams as the No. 23 overall prospect in the mid-season rankings. Quite simply, with the Phillies sliding out of the picture in the National League playoff chase, Williams is likely to get a shot at the major leagues soon.
I had a chance recently (ok it was a month ago, and I finally had time to transcribe it) to speak with Williams about the 2013 squad and what he remembers about that group. I also asked him about the trade to the Phillies, as well as looking forward to making that final jump to his dream of being a big leaguer.
First of all, you were a part of that killer 2013 team that had Gallo and Brinson and Mazara and (Jorge) Alfaro and just a ton of talent. What was being a part of that team like that season?
Williams: It was amazing, especially being drafted with those guys, playing with them at rookie ball and winning it all, and then going to Hickory the following year and playing our first full season there. It was a lot of fun, especially the young guys hitting all those home runs. It made pro ball seem like, wow!
Did you guys at that time realize, I don’t want to say, how good you were, but how good the potential was with all of those individual parts that made up that team?
Williams: Yeah, for sure, because really you’re on this team, I would fully believe it by at least five years. A group of young guys to put up numbers, the crazy sets that we did, we knew something special was going to happen.
What was the best part of that season for you personally?
Williams: Playing in the game. I missed a lot. I missed 45 games that year. When we were all healthy, that was the funnest part, because we all had fun. You’d never see us down. We just had fun and picked each other up. We just had a good team bond.
Did you guys just sit back and watch each other, especially with Gallo who can hit things to the moon?
Williams: For sure. We made it a competition sometimes just to see who could hit the ball the farthest at that time of day. It was fun. The best part was not just B.P., but showing off the long ball during the game. That was just great, just not being a five o’clock hitter, but doing it during the game. It was fun.
For all the hitting you guys did, you guys could throw some arms out there as well with C.J. (Edwards), (Connor) Sadzeck, who won the ERA title that year, (Alex) Claudio, who’s gone on to the major leagues. Did you guys push your pitchers as much as you pushed each other as the hitters?
Williams: When I think of hitters and position players, we normally don’t, I don’t want to say we don’t get along, but it’s a different group. C.J., we hung out with little C.J. a lot. C.J. was one of us. He was a position player in my eyes. We’d push each other because everybody wanted to be the best at what they did. C.J. would see us hitting and he’d be like, “They have a chance to move up, why can’t I?” I tell myself that pitching and hitting is different, but when you think of stats, if his ERA is 2 and I’m hitting .330, it all comes around. I would think so, that we push each other because we all wanted to be the best at what we do.
Were you guys disappointed at not making the playoffs that year?
Williams: Yeah, we were.
People look back at that team and ask, “How did they miss the playoffs? You had a chance that last game of the first half and things fell apart. Was there disappointment for you guys?
Williams: It was, but we were a young team and we didn’t really know what to expect. It was hard in some situations. I don’t want to say that we were outsmarted, but it was something anyway and it was a long season. None of us were used to that.
Along with the home runs that season were the strikeouts, and that’s the other thing that team will be remembered for. Looking ahead, you guys seemed to have learned from that. Gallo’s cut his strikeout rate, Brinson has cut his, you’ve cut yours. What did you figure out from that experience?
Williams: Not to swing as much. We swung. There were times that I wondered why a pitcher even threw us a strike, because we were up there taking monster hacks. It was just barreling up things all the time. I just sat there and thought, when I saw that I’d only walked 12 times that year, I said, “Why did they throw to us?” It’s funny to laugh at that, but at the higher levels, pitchers, they look at that – and, I learned that in high-A in a hurry – they’ll see that and notice that, so I had to make adjustments. I struggled in my first month-and-a-half, two months there in high-A and I had to force myself to just sit back and learn the game.
What was it like to be with (hitting coach) Justin Mashore? What did you guys learn from him that year?
Williams: Ah, Mashore. I always said that him and Coolie (Scott Coolbaugh) were the two best hitting coaches I’ve ever had. He knows his stuff.
What did you pick up from him that you are continuing now?
Williams: He couldn’t have said it enough, to use my hands. When all else fails keep your head down – use your hands. He kept it simple. He never got difficult. He never changed everybody up. He just did a minor like – try this or tweak that. It was just everything going good, so fast, where the slumps really didn’t last as long. The man knew his stuff.
I remember talking with him about you guys. He didn’t let you guys settle for just a single. You’d hit the ball hard, but he kind of saw in most of you guys the potential to hit the ball gap-to-gap and out of the ballpark. Is that fairly fair?
Williams: Oh, for sure, because there was times when some players would say, “Man, my average is .200 or .220.” A lot of players’ averages were low that year, but the home runs were up.
He could see that some were swinging for singles and he would be just like, “Swing”. Hitters are going to hit – all the tools were there. He just said, “Stay true to yourself. Don’t change yourself the way you are.” You just have to fix the overaggressive swinging and learn the counts and things like that – the simple things. In rookie ball, at 50 games you’re trying to know the player and who he is. You couldn’t really do too much there. It was our first full season and he just had to stress to stay the course. Don’t try to change anything, just learn.
Were you disappointed to be traded?
Williams: I was a little bit. I loved Dallas and I have a lot of family there. They got their big league outfielders and they got Desmond this year, after I was traded, so that’s cool.
Gallo – he’s my boy – he’s an infielder and they made him an outfielder and he went up there as an outfielder. So, I was like, you know what, I was thinking and stressing that, “Man, I might get traded before spring training.”
I was thinking, “Man, get me out of here. I’ll go anywhere where a team wants me.” I want to be able to compete, and now I have an equal chance. When I first got traded I was a little disappointed, because I live in Texas and I’ve been there my whole life. But my new scenery did not affect me at all.
Has there been any change in what you do or have the Phillies just let you be who you are with maybe a minor tweak here and there?
Williams: Yeah, I just stayed consistent. That’s the whole thing right now. Just stay consistent as possible right now. Everyone, no matter how good they are in the big leagues or anywhere, they all have to work at something, at everything. Everything needs a tweak, so I really just worked on all my craft, like base running, cutting balls off down the line, or anything. I just work on something every day just to stay moving and stay ready.
Are you at the point where you can taste the major leagues at this point?
Williams: You know, I talked to somebody else about that. I just said, “Some days I feel like, man, I could go up tomorrow.” And then some days I feel like, “I’m gonna be here all year, and maybe all next year.”
Is it superstitious right now to talk about it?
Williams: No, I don’t believe in superstition or good luck, or anything like that. I feel like everything happens for a reason. That’s out of my control, but I do my best to play hard and plead my case that I know I can compete there when I do get called up.
When you get the call, what do you think that’s like for you?
Williams: You know, I’ve thought about that and I can’t even explain it. I wouldn’t even know. To get the call, to know you’re playing at the highest level you could ever play at, that’s just a dream come true and a blessing. I don’t know if I’ll be called up soon or a year from now. No matter what, I’m going to play hard and plead my case.
You guys have a nice little infusion of Rangers between you and Alfaro at (AA) Reading and (Jerad) Eickhoff is dealing up at Philly and (Jake) Thompson and (Odubel) Herrera. You guys have got to feel like you got some decent training at the lower levels to get to this point.
Williams: Yeah, for sure
I mean that the Phillies are wanting Rangers players in a lot of ways.
Williams: The Phillies – I can’t stress it enough – want you to be a complete player. I mean we work. Some teams will cheat you a little bit out of your career, but here they get their money’s worth. They’ll get you better. I like it. They stay on me. You see all the players around you working hard and things like that and it pushes you and it makes you think, “Why am I this way?” We’re all grinding. Alfaro, he’s killing AA.
I know it all depends on spots and when they come open and the whole business side. Us from the Rangers, they have a good group, because we play to win and we’d do anything.
Of the guys that you were with in Hickory, who do you keep in contact the most?
Williams: I lived with Alfaro mostly when we are together. If I would say, who do I keep in touch with the Rangers still the most, I talk to (Lewis) Brinson here and there, (Ryan) Rua, Gallo and (Nomar) Mazara. I still talk to those guys.
(This is the first in what I plan to be an occasional series of interviews with former Hickory Crawdads players and field staff as they continue their careers in baseball.)