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.)
Former Hickory Crawdads Rougned Odor had a playoff debut to remember on Thursday in game one of the American League Division Series with the Texas Rangers against the Toronto Blue Jays. Odor’s day was punctuated by a solo home run solo home run in the seventh; he was also hit twice and scored three runs as the Rangers took a 5-3 win.
Odor, now 21, grew up in Maracaibo, Venezuela and is the nephew of current minor league hitting coach Rouglas Odor, himself an eight-year minor leaguer.
Odor came upon the radar screen of the Texas Rangers while playing for Venezuela during the 2009 World Youth Baseball tournament in Taiwan. The Rangers signed him as a 16-year-old in 2010 and after skipping the Dominican Summer League, Odor made his pro debut with short-season Spokane in 2011 at the tender age of 17.
He certainly wasn’t overmatched on the field in the Northwest League, as he posted a .262/.352/.352 slash with a 37-to-13 walk-to-K ratio in 58 games. Generously listed at 5-11, 170 lbs. at Hickory in 2012 – likely smaller at Spokane – Odor didn’t back down from anything, as was seen when he was the spark in a major benches-clearing brawl during a game against Vancouver.
His tough-nosed attitude was a hallmark of his play during the 2012 season at Hickory. In fact, the style of the 18-year-old caught the eye of then-Crawdads manager Bill Richardson at spring training in Arizona.
“This kid won my heart in spring by the way he plays the game,” said Richardson in an interview prior to the start of the season. “He plays it hard. He’s not the biggest stature, but being probably one of the younger kids in the Sally League again, I think he could have an all-star type season.”
Odor certainly got off to a big start in the first half, highlighted by his selection as the South Atlantic League hitter of the week from May 21 to 27. During that week, he was 8-for-22 (.364) with a home run, five doubles, seven runs scored and four RBI.
“He was above the line for a good stint there and I’m really pleased that he got player of the week, because he did a lot a good things,” said Richardson. “He is a special player; let’s call it what it is. Hopefully we can keep it going.”
What surprised observers was Odor’s ability to put the ball out of the ballpark as he drilled ten homers to go with 23 doubles in 109 games.
“He’s got pretty good legs,” said 2012 Crawdads hitting coach Josue Perez. “That’s where his power comes from is his legs. He’s good a pretty good smooth, sweet swing. He’s able to backspin the ball a little bit. Another thing is, he goes up there to hit. He doesn’t go up there to take too many pitches.”
He owned a .293/.357/.482 slash through June 3 when he dislocated his shoulder on a slide into third, costing him a likely South Atlantic League all-star selection. A bigger hit was to the Crawdads, which at the time was digging for a potential SAL playoff berth.
“He’s one of our leaders,” Richardson said of Odor after the injury. “We know that he’s just a gritty, hard-nosed kid. He never gets hurt. For him to have this, it definitely hurts when you take one of your heart-and-soul guys out. I think he had good enough numbers to be on that all-star team.”
Once he came back, he treaded water for a while before the North Carolina heat of August sapped his body and Odor finished at .259/.313/.400. It was apparent that the teenaged Odor had work to do to build his stamina for marathon seasons to come.
“I think the main thing with Odor is channeling that energy and putting that energy into his focus.” said Jayce Tingler, the 2012 Rangers minor league field coordinator. “Staying more disciplined, he’s got great ability to hit. He’s got great ability to defend and learning the process of playing 140 games, channeling that into concentration of what he needs to do at bat-by-at bat and also pitch-by-pitch eventually.”
I did an interview with Odor for a column in July of 2012. While abnormally assured of himself on the field, at the time, he seemed surprisingly shy during the conversation I had with him. As I look back now at the interview three-plus years later, I think Odor had more of a mindset in which he wondered what the big deal was concerning his ability as a major league prospect. Odor was simply playing well because that’s what he was born to do.
Odor was among the most confident players I have seen come to Hickory. As I see him now with Texas, there is still the air of, “What’s the big deal? I’m just playing baseball.” He expects to succeed – just like when he was at Hickory.
The one quote I will always remember about Odor came from a National League scout, who simply said, “Rougned Odor is good and here’s the thing, he knows he’s good.”
Below are excerpts of the interview I did with Odor in July of 2012, through the translation of 2012 Crawdads assistant coach Humberto Miranda.
What was it like to grow up in Maracaibo?
Odor: When I was little, I started playing baseball when I was two years old. I would go to class and practice when I was growing up and hanging out with friends.
Was your uncle instrumental in getting you started in baseball?
Odor; Not just him, but my dad was instrumental in getting me started in the game.
What was your first memory in organized baseball?
Odor: When I was 10, I was playing in a tournament, my uncle came to see me, and I hit a home run that particular day. I was so happy about it.
When did you start thinking seriously about playing pro baseball?
Odor: About 12 or 13-years-old.
How did you get started in that direction?
Odor: My dad was a big part of him keeping me on the right path – practicing every day, putting me in tournaments or leagues with teams that were older than me. I also represented Venezuela a couple of times and that helped me out with pressure and situations with fans and all that.
Did you travel to other countries to play?
Odor: Guatelemala, Dominican, Mexico, Cuba, Taiwan
What was Taiwan like?
Odor: It was great because I saw things that I never saw before. It was a great experience learning that culture.
How did you and the Rangers get together?
Odor: The Rangers had been following me a lot. Before I signed, they went to Taiwan to see me play. They saw me play in Maracaibo, where I’m from and I even flew over to the states to have a try out.
What’s it like to go from Venezuela to Spokane at 17?
Odor: I felt really fortunate to go to that league so young, even though I didn’t play rookie ball. I felt fortunate that all the work paid off. All the work that I did with my uncle and my parents, it paid off. I give my 100% every day to make my goal.
What was the biggest thing that your dad and your uncle did to help you growing up?
Odor: They always talked a lot about baseball. They talked to me about how to deal with pressure or failure and also when you have good games, how to handle it and how to play the game overall.
What did they teach you about dealing with pressure?
Odor: They always told me to respect the game, whether you do good or bad. If it goes bad, I’m working at it. It’s part of the game.
What was the hardest thing about going to Spokane?
Odor: Nothing about baseball, but learning English was a big factor. But I’ve been able to pick it up.
What’s it like being 17 and living on your own?
Odor: It wasn’t that hard, because when I was little, I traveled a lot. I always got used to being by myself away from my family and home. So, it wasn’t that hard to adapt to it.
Are you surprised at how quick you are moving up? Does anything surprise you yet?
Is this an easy game for you?
Odor: I don’t feel surprised. The game is not easy, but I work hard enough to slow it down. I was happy to come over here. I do just do my best and it’s showing up.
What are you working on for the rest of the year?
Odor: Just keeping the focus day in and day out and just to improve in every area that I can. Now, it’s not physical, it’s more mental. I have to talk care of my mental routine to bring it every day. It doesn’t matter if I have 60%, 40% or 20% of me. That day, I’m going to give my 100% of what I have that day.
What did your family teach you about failure?
Odor: Failure is part of the game, so I’m going to keep my routine going and work harder. It’s part of the game. If you 70%, you’re still successful in this game. I don’t see it as failure; I see it as a learning experience.
What is the biggest thing you have to work on between now and the big leagues?
Odor: Keep focusing day in and day out. That’s the biggest difference between a major leaguer and a being in the minor leagues. Keep working on my defense, turning double plays. I’ve been working hard and I’m getting better. My hitting is going to come along, because I’ve always hit. Just bring it every day.
How soon do you want to get to the big leagues?
Odor: My goal is to get to the big leagues by 21 or 22-years old.
What sticks out about Odor compared to the other middle infielders (at the time, the Rangers system had middle infielder prospects Leury Garcia, Hanser Alberto, Jurickson Profar, Odubel Herrera and Luis Sardinas?
Odor: I think the big difference between them and me is I play the game every day. No matter what the score is, no matter the situation, I play the game hard. They’re good players, and I’m taking nothing away from them, but they’re them and I’m me.
“He is almost like an orchestral conductor sweeping a baton across his body. But when the ball connects solidly with the barrel of the bat, the loft of the ball doesn’t so much streak through the air as it ascends like a white dove in an air current.” Hickory Daily Record article published June 20, 2013
Today, it was announced that Joey Gallo would make his big league debut with the Texas Rangers Tuesday night in a game against the Chicago White Sox.
Now a consensus top-ten, major league prospect, the Las Vegas native was as struggling A-ball minor leaguer. On June 5, 2013, Gallo had a slash line of .211/.316/ .485 with 90 strikeouts in 56 games. His season turned over the next five games when he went 11-for-18, which included a three-homer game at Hagerstown. Gallo went on to finish with a Crawdads single-season club records of 38 homers and a .610 slugging pct.
I interviewed Gallo about a week after his June hot streak in preparation for a feature article I wrote about him. He talked about the struggles of the first two months of the season, as well as the development of his powerful swing. Following the interview are some quotes by several of the Crawdads and Rangers player development staff.
How did you get started in baseball?
Gallo: I’ve been playing baseball ever since I literally can remember. My parents said I just kind of picked up a bat and just started swinging and ever since then, the rest is history. I just started playing. I didn’t ever play any other sports, but just stuck to baseball and had that one goal in mind to play pro baseball and hopefully make it to the major leagues. I’ve been playing baseball since I was three years old.
Was there a moment where you said, “I’d like to do play major league baseball?”
Gallo: It was always major league baseball. There was not one second of my childhood that I didn’t think “maybe I don’t want to play major league baseball.” It’s always been my goal throughout my whole childhood.
What positions did you play in high school?
Gallo: I played short and then my senior year I played third for the draft.
How did it come about that you would be a position player rather than pitch?
Gallo: Some teams wanted me as a pitcher. Actually half of them wanted me as a pitcher and I just didn’t want to. I always wanted to hit and play every day and be on the field every day. I love to be out there and helping the team win, not every five days, but every single day. I just always loved hitting. Obviously, hitting home runs is fun and I didn’t want to give that up. In the long run, if things turn and maybe I can’t be a major league baseball player as a hitter, I can always switch to pitching.
What are some of the highlights you had at Bishop Gorman?
Gallo: We won seven (state championships) in a row, including the four years I was there. Obviously, every time you win a state championship it’s a huge highlight and it’s great. My freshman and senior year we ended up being national champions. That’s probably the two biggest highlights of my time there. Winning a state championship every year is not easy. Every time you dogpile on the field at the end of the year is a great feeling.
How did you go about developing your swing?
Gallo: Ever since I could swing and understand how to be taught how to hit, my hitting coach has been a guy by the name of Mike Bryant. He son was just drafted second overall – Kris Bryant – in this last draft. Me and him used to hit together all the time, so he was my hitting coach since I was five years old all the way up until I graduated from high school. Mike’s the person that has had the biggest influence on my swing today. He really helped me put that swing together.
How did the power develop?
Gallo: He helped me out a lot with that. His son, too, has tremendous power. He led college baseball in home runs this year. It’s been kind of weird because we’ve both been compared to each other. He’s a righty and I’m a lefty, but even though we’re on different sides of the plate we have the same package of power.
It’s hard to tell people how you hit for power. I’ve just always been able to hit for home runs, ever since I was eight years old and I hit my first one. Ever since then, I could always hit home runs. Maybe it’s my leverage or hand strength or arms. I’m not really sure; I just know I can drive the ball.
In watching you take batting practice, even in games, it’s not like you have a violent swing. It seems so easy and flowing.
Gallo: Obviously, being a big guy helps you out, too. You really don’t have to swing as hard as you can to hit the ball out. I don’t really ever swing as hard as I can. I just usually try to get the barrel to the ball. If I’m fortunate enough to get it over the fence, then it goes over the fence. I don’t really like to tense up and swing hard. That’s going to prevent you from hitting the ball farther. I just use the hands to get the barrel to the ball.
You had signed a commitment to go to LSU, but I’m guessing with your potential draft position that was never really a possibility of going there, was it?
Gallo: There was actually a very, very strong possibility that I was going to go to LSU. Absolutely, I was committed to going there and getting a college education. That was actually really big to me. That’s something that when draft time came around that maybe some teams started to get scared off a little bit because I was very interested into going to LSU. Obviously, going to the College World Series with a great program and stuff like that. I wasn’t signed there just because I had to sign and go to a school. I really wanted to go there.
What prompted you to come out?
Gallo: The Texas Rangers organization had a really big influence on it. They’re developing players everywhere and they’re coming out of nowhere with all of these great players. There’s not really a better team to play for than the Texas Rangers at the major league level. So I had to sit down and say, do I want to risk it again in three years, or do I want to take the opportunity to make the best of it with an organization like the Texas Rangers. That was probably the biggest thing.
What would you major have been?
Gallo: Sports management.
What are some adjustments that you’ve had to make in the past year since high school?
Gallo: Obviously being away from home. That’s a huge adjustment, especially for teenaged kids. That’s probably the biggest one. It just being able to live on your own now and not having the college campus right there and taking care of ourselves now.
Playing every day and getting your body ready to play all the time. That’s always the toughest thing is to be mentally prepared every day to play and to be physically prepared to play at a professional level every single day.
Who’s been the biggest help for you in the past year?
Gallo: My parents (Laura/ Tony) have been the biggest help to me. They are always there for me. When I hit a slump, they’re always there picking me up. They watch videos on me all the time to see if they can point out something. They’ve been with me for the last 19 years and they know me better than anyone else.
Mashore (2013 Crawdads hitting coach Justin Mashore) has been a huge help to all of us. And our teammates, without them this isn’t fun. They’ve been the biggest help in picking each other up and having fun together. Most of the time, you see us out there having fun and smiling. We get along.
Let me ask you about this current group being together the past year. How much have you all leaned on each other the past year?
Gallo: A lot, because we’re going through the same stuff. Most of the time, we’re going through the same struggles. It’s always better to have somebody who’s been through it with you at the same age that you get along with. That’s the biggest thing with us, we’ve known each other for the last year. We’ve been a team for almost two years now. That’s the good part about us is that we know each other’s weaknesses and strengths. We know how to help each other out, like when we see each other’s swing go wrong.
A guy like Lewis Brinson can tell me, “You’re doing this wrong,” and will just automatically help me out. Other than a guy that I just started playing with this year can’t really tell me too much because he hasn’t seen me as much.
Was the first six weeks more of a struggle than you expected?
Gallo: It was definitely a struggle and was probably the worst baseball I’d play in my life. I don’t want to say that I didn’t expect it, but obviously making a jump to full-season ball there’s going to be a little jump where maybe the average comes down. But you’ve got to make adjustments to that. I’m starting to do that now and starting to get the hang of it and getting my swing down. I wasn’t too impressed with how I was doing, so I wasn’t too happy about what was going on. I just had to keep my head up and keep going at it and see things get turned around.
When can you tell when things are going to start clicking for you?
Gallo: I think the biggest thing that I can tell that things are turning around is when I start hitting balls to centerfield and line drives and hitting balls the other way and not just pulling balls. It’s almost like, sometimes when I go up there, like the last couple of days, I felt like whatever this guy throws, I’m going to hit it hard and maybe hit it out. That’s the biggest thing with me is if I go up there with confidence I feel like I can be better than anybody else up there. I think that’s the biggest thing, that if I see balls go to centerfield hard and I’m sitting back on off-speed and have an idea that I’m in a good hitting position, then I know that I’m doing things right.
I talked with scouts to hear what they say about you. One scout compared you to Adam Dunn, in a power sense. What goes through your mind when you hear or read stuff like that?
Gallo: First of all, it’s very humbling. That’s pretty special to be named like that in a power sense. But it doesn’t really mean much to me because you’ve still got to go out there and prove it.
It’s obviously a great honor to be named and for a scout to say that, but still, you’ve still got to go out there and prove that you can do that and prove that you have power. It’s pretty cool to hear things like that and obviously it’s what you work for to be named in groups like that and for scouts to say stuff like that. That’s pretty cool.
You had the big three home run night at Hagerstown the other night. How special was that for you and what do you take from that?
Gallo: It’s very special. It was a pretty cool day. It was good after that, because I felt like I was confident again and I can turn my season around and maybe start helping my team win a little more and hit hitting the ball out a little more and getting a few more hits a game.
What is the biggest thing for you to work on between now and the majors?
Gallo: Probably just consistency. Coming out there and having my best at bats every game and not just having games where I go 0-for-4 with four Ks. Instead of being 0-for-4 with four Ks, I get a hit in between there or go 2-for-4 and coming out here consistently and having my swing every single day and not letting that go away and throwing away an at bat.
Become a complete player is important for you, isn’t it?
Gallo: That’s something I’ve worked on my entire life. Swinging the bat can only get you so far. Sometimes in order to help your team win every day you’ve got to be able do the little things well like field ground balls and make plays that maybe some other people couldn’t make and run the bases the right way. That makes a difference in the game.
In a one-run game, it’s who can run the bases better, not always about who’s going to hit more home runs that game. So, I’ve always prided myself in being an all around good player, not a good hitter or a power hitter.
Quotes about Gallo:
Tim Pupura, 2013 Texas Rangers Director of Player Development
I think he’s outstanding. He is the one player here that we did push last year. He had already won the home run title in the Arizona League. We felt like he had kind of conquered the competition there, so we decided to challenge him and send him up to Spokane for the last few weeks and get him exposed to a little bit higher level of pitching, a different quality of competition. To his credit, one of the things he told us this spring was he realized that we sent him up there for a reason, and that was to show him how difficult it is as you move level from level. I think it was a great experience for him, because he learned about failure.
Even though he had had great success he went up there and he struggled. I think it was a great lesson for him and I think it was a great lesson for the rest of these guys. Even though you win a home run championship in one league, moving up to the next league doesn’t insure that you’ll automatically step up and be successful. You’re going to have to adjust; you’re going to have to get better as the talent gets better above you.
Joey’s a great kid. He has a great family and is from a big sports-oriented school. There was a lot of good training that he got and he’s got some natural ability. He’s got the ability to hit with power. To me, you learn a lot about power, but a lot of it’s God-given to be able to hit balls like he can hit them. He’s fun to watch and he had a great spring, so we feel really good about him here.
Hickory Crawdads manager Corey Ragsdale
What have you seen in Gallo’s development over the past year?
I think just the maturity factor on a day-to-day basis. I’m sure a lot of people will want to talk about his ability and stuff like that, but we knew he was a special player last year when we got him. But, I just think on a day-to-day basis about how he goes about his business, the routines that he’s settled into and learning how to be a professional I think more so than anything.
On Gallo’s defensive:
To be as big as he is he’s a very good athlete and has very good speed. He can more around as good as any of them to be honest. He’s just learning how to get into a better position more consistently and be ready for the ball to be hit to him. It’s kind of a focus deal learning how to focus for a full game over there. Sometimes, especially as a young kid, they haven’t had a ball hit to them in a few innings and it probably gets a little monotonous over there. Learning to keep their focus and to stay into it, because sooner or later you are going to get one and you’ve got to be ready for it.
As far as raw power goes, who have you seen that compares to Gallo?
Nobody!. Eighteen, nineteen-years-old the last two years, not at that age, especially, anywhere near that age. It’s obviously pretty special. It’s pretty cool to see him hit b.p. every day and see a kid that can hit one in the lights and all that stuff. That don’t happen very often.
2013 Hickory Crawdads hitting coach Justin Mashore:
What have you seen in his improvement over the last year?
When he got to us last year, he was put together very well. There wasn’t a whole lot of adjustments made to his swing, besides to what he was thinking at the plate and trying to get used to pitchers challenging him with the fastball and not always throwing breaking balls to him. We haven’t really wavered from that.
He got off to a slow start here, but I never really had a doubt that he was going to do what he did last year and then some. When you see somebody do what he did last year, you’re kind of, you know it’s in there and it’s just a matter of time before his mind and his body sync up and he takes off.
What contributed to his slow start?
I just think the huge expectations that the outside world, or himself, or anything else puts on a kid like that, or for that matter, most of these guys. They got here and they’re all young and they’re going through the same things.
2013 Texas Rangers Field Coordinator Casey Candaele:
I think defensively he’s been playing real well for me. He’s 6-foot-5 at third. He moves well real and he’s agile. I just try getting him to get a little bit of movement before the ball crosses the plate so he can get that big frame moving. Basically, the big thing for him is to have a wide base so he can get down and field the ball. Guys of that stature, you’ve got to make sure they use their legs a lot in the field.
He’s got good hands. He can handle third. He’s obviously got a lot of things to work on, but I’m pleased with the way he’s playing defense. He’s a very good instinctual baseball player. He runs the bases really well for a big man. When you see those kinds of things in a player, those are special traits that a lot of guys don’t have.
Back in 2012, Hanser Alberto, in many ways, was an afterthought in the infield. Three years later, he is a major leaguer.
At the time that Alberto came to Hickory in April 2012, the Crawdads had Luis Sardinas, who was to be the starting shortstop. However, because of injuries to Sardinas in 2011 – and the wish to keep a prized prospect healthy for a full season – Alberto was here to split time with Sardinas, as well as spell regular third baseman Drew Robinson.
By putting up a .337/.385/.463 slash line in 62 games, Alberto made the South Atlantic League All-Star Game roster and then received a promotion to Myrtle Beach after the first game of the second half. In the locker room the night of that bump-up, he was grinning ear-to-ear and hugging everyone he could find, myself included. I can only imagine what the scene was in Round Rock, Texas when he was told he was going to Arlington.
I thought fans might enjoy some of what was said about Alberto when he was a 19-year-old kid in Hickory back in 2012.
Here is a feature write-up I did on Alberto for the Hickory Daily Record in May 2012, followed by a couple of other quotes from the Crawdads field staff at the time
Prospects in minor league baseball sometimes are hidden. An organization may have such a wealth of players at a particular position that an otherwise decent prospect may get lost in the shuffle.
The Texas Rangers, the parent club of the Hickory Crawdads, have such a problem at shortstop. At the big league level, Elvis Andrus is fast becoming an elite shortstop in the American League. Other names at short include 2011 Crawdads shortstop Jurickson Profar – currently among the elite prospects overall in the minors – and Luis Sardinas, currently one of two shortstops with the Crawdads and a top-20 prospect with the Rangers.
But there is hiding in the wings at Hickory is another shortstop: 19-year old Dominican Hanser Alberto.
Over the first six weeks of the season, the native of San Francisco de Macoris, D.R has been among the most consistent player for the Crawdads. With that he has begun to make waves within the Rangers organization.
He got his start in baseball like most kids in the Dominican, playing pickup games with other kids around town. But it was his father – a public address announcer at a local stadium – that saw the potential in Alberto to become a pro.
“My dad was always watching me and whatever I did in the field,” said Alberto through the translation of Crawdads assistant coach Humberto Miranda. “He had me thinking that I had a chance…Since he was an announcer, he taught me how to play the game. I learned how to field and how to hit just being around the coaches.”
Alberto was signed to a local baseball academy at age 13. A few years later, in 2008, he was part of a team that played in Chicago as part of a tournament set up by Major League Baseball.
“After that, I started taking baseball more seriously because I had a chance to make it as a pro” Alberto said.
His exploits on the field garnered the attention of several teams, including Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Kansas City before signing with the Rangers, who Alberto felt offered him a better chance to achieve his dream of playing in the big leagues.
“I liked the way that Texas played the game,” he said. “They way the chemistry is with the team and all that… I liked the way they worked and the way they played. I saw there was a chance that if I kept doing the right thing I could move up.”
He made his pro debut with the Rangers’ Dominican Summer League team in 2010. After starting slow due to a groin injury, Alberto caught fire for the Rangers leading his team to a playoff berth. He led the league with a .358 batting average, collecting 64 hits in 50 games.
The Rangers decided to challenge their young shortstop by having him skip the rookie level in the Arizona Summer League and move up to short-season A-ball in Spokane (Wash.). The combination of an ankle injury, plus making the adjustment in moving from the Dominican Republic to eastern Washington made for a tough season, relatively. Against competition often three to four years older, he hit.267 with the Indians and committed 20 errors at short in 53 games.
“Whenever I got back to 100% and I got back (in the lineup), I struggled a little bit and I couldn’t find myself,” Alberto said. “I went to Josue Perez to get help on the hitting side. I had to work on my defense too.”
Perez, who served as the hitting coach at Spokane last season before coming to Hickory this season, said that Alberto had to learn to experience things different than what is in the Dominican.
“When he came over here, it was a little bit of a different animal,” Perez said. “He didn’t know what to do on some pitches. In the Dominican at their age, they don’t see that good two-seamer and that good changeup at different counts. He was dealing with that last year.”
Coming into this season, Alberto feels that he has made the adjustments and the results have kept him in the top ten South Atlantic League hitters with a .326 average, while defensively he has made only seven errors.
“I’m very happy where Alberto is right now,” said Rangers field coordinator Jayce Tingler. “To see him make the transformation from Spokane last year, he’s learning how to go about his work before the game. He’s able to concentrate a little more in the game. He’s controlled the strike zone. Those are all the steps you want to see in the first four or five weeks.”
With the log jam at shortstop, Alberto is spending some time at third base and may experiment some at second to stay in the lineup as much as possible now and in the future.
“He wants to do anything it takes to help the team,” says Miranda, who works as the infield coach for Hickory. “If he has to play third, or if he has to play second, he’s going to do it. He’s fundamentally sound that he can play any position in the infield.”
For his part, Alberto is not afraid of the competition that he is a part of in the Rangers organization. When asked about what he looks to do to set himself apart, Alberto responds:
“(I’m) being blessed by God, first of all and my work ethic, where I give my 100% every day. That’s what I think is setting me apart from everybody else.”
Quotes about Alberto:
“Defensively, at shortstop, I didn’t know what we had until he started taking ground balls. He takes care of all the routine ones. He’s kind of a bigger shortstop and you think he’s not going to get to it and you look at where the other shortstops are, and he is.” 2012 Crawdads Manager Bill Richardson.
“A couple of years ago, when we signed Profar and Sardinas and all those guys, he was part of it, too. Obviously we couldn’t have them all at the same spot, but we always talk about having waves. So, okay, here’s the first wave and then the second wave and he’s part of the next wave. But we never thought about him as he’s behind them. No, he’s right there with them.” 2012 Crawdads hitting coach Josue Perez about how Alberto fit in among the other Rangers’ infield prospects at the time.
“Hanser is a nice sleeper. When I first got into this organization and saw all the middle infielders, I liked the way he played the best. He played with energy. He was always talking, always communicating. He played the game hard, always ran balls out. He played the game, from my perspective, the way it’s supposed to be played.” Casey Candaele, who was the Rangers infield coordinator in 2012.
“It’s a God-given ability. You don’t teach that. I just try to keep doing what Josue tells me to do. Get on top of the ball and find the pitch that I’ve been looking for and hit it. Now, when I get to two strikes, I think about putting the ball in play. Before two strikes, I try to find that pitch that I want.” Hanser Alberto, when asked how he learned to hit.
As the Delmarva Shorebirds visit L.P. Frans Stadium this week, a familiar face from years ago returns to Hickory. Current Shorebirds pitching coach Blaine Beatty served in the same role for Hickory in 2000.
Since leaving the Crawdads after the season, Beatty returned to Hickory on the South Atlantic League circuit with Capital City (S.C.) in 2003 and 2004, as well as with Delmarva in 2009 when he served in the same role with the Shorebirds.
“To come back in here – it’s been a while since I’ve been here, I guess it as ’09 since I was last with (Delmarva),” Beatty said. “It’s always good to come back and see some of these towns and some of these places. It brings back a lot of good memories.”
Beatty’s 2000 team went on to send four pitchers and two catchers to the major leagues. The most highly-touted member of the group was David Williams, who still holds the Crawdads’ single-season mark in strikeouts (193) and Ks-per-nine innings (10.22). Williams went on to pitch for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds and New York Mets during a six-year, big league career.
“The biggest thing was that I had a really good relationship with him and his wife,” said Beatty. “The baseball, though, just to see him go on and go to the major leagues, that’s probably the most rewarding part of being a coach is to be a part of that.”
Another former big league pitcher that Beatty continues to stay in touch with is D.J. Carrasco, who went on to pitch in eight major league seasons with five different clubs. Beatty said he recently had an opportunity to help Carrasco with a teaching venture in New Zealand.
“He gave a lot of baseball instruction this past in New Zealand, where he traveled around and tried to get baseball integrated into their society there,” said Beatty. “I had sent him charts and stuff like that. So, I am very close to him… We stay in touch with DJ and his wife Autumn.”
Beatty says he still keeps in touch with the two catchers – J.R. House and Ronny Paulino – that went on to have major league stints.
“I had Paulino a couple of seasons ago,” said Beatty. “We (the Orioles) signed at the AA or AAA level. We had him at the AAA level. I spent some time with him, so it was good to reminisce…Once again, it’s really neat to rehash old times and we talk about those all the time.”
One of those old times with Paulino involved a game against the Charleston (S.C.) RiverDogs.
“We got into a rain delay and they wanted to pull the tarps, because they were winning,” recalled Beatty. “Ronny Paulino was up to bat and I think they (the umps) were trying to get through it. He ended up hitting a home run to right field and then they pulled the tarp, so it ended up a tie game. We ended up playing it later and ended it up winning the game.”
Many of the group from the 2000 club went on to Lynchburg (Va.) with Beatty in 2002 and winning the Carolina League championship that season.
Beatty said, “We had a lot of guys go to the major leagues: Sean Burnett (’01), of course Ronny was with me then, DJ Carrasco, Jeff Bennett (’99-’00), Mike Johnston (’00-’01) and some of those names that I had then that came through here…It’s kind of neat to see those guys and to be a part of their careers and revel in as a coach.”