Just under a year after the 2017 MLB draft, Texas Rangers first-round pick Bubba Thompson and undrafted free agent Justin Jacobs were teammates in Hickory, NC., each chasing a dream to become a big league player in the future.
My interest in talking with the two of them was their perception of the expectations placed upon them, as well as the expectations they have of themselves. They both expect to get there some day. Their current manager expects them to make it as well.
There are two interviews below. The first is a side-by-side discussion between the two about their memories of coming to the Rangers and what those expectations are of themselves as pro players chasing the dream.
I also got some feedback from Hickory manager Matt Hagen – himself a 12th-round draft pick – about how members of the player development staff approach players with vastly different expectations and financial investments.
This is the week of the draft. Last year you were a first-round pick. What do you remember about last year?
Thompson: It was a life-changing moment. Leading up to it, I had to work really hard. I wasn’t really a first rounder. I had to show some different tools and all that good stuff leading up to me. In my senior year, I think I showed what they were looking for and I kept it going. Once that day came, I was ready for it. I ended up getting picked 26th overall. Ever since then, I’ve been having to grind and trying to stay healthy, and I try to keep my skills up each and every day, because every day is a grind. You play every day. You get just a few off days, so I’ve really got to maintain my skills and my health each and every day.
Where were you at when they called your name?
Thompson: New York.
Did your family come with you?
Thompson: They did and we had a good old time up there and everybody treated us well. I’m here now trying to chase my dream.
What was it like to put the jersey and put the hat on?
Thompson: Like I said, it was a life-changing moment. Just the name on the back and trying to represent that each and every day, and the name on the front, also.
You were not drafted. What was draft week like for you?
Jacobs: Well, I didn’t really know for sure if I was going to get drafted, or not. I had some pretty good calls, so I figured there was a chance that I could. I had talked to a few teams that said there was a possibility that I could go late, or not, or whatever. Then, basically, the draft came up and I was sitting there waiting for my name to get called. It never got called.
Leading up to that I was coaching summer ball, so I figured that if I was done playing I would be coaching summer ball. I was actually thinking about working grounds crew for the Spokane Indians, which is our short-season team.
My coach from Gonzaga was actually good friends with the owner of the Spokane Indians and was able to get me a tryout the day before the draft. The tryout was with two of the coaches now here. Matt Hagen and Chase Lambin basically went up to Spokane and threw me some b.p. and had me take some ground balls. The next day, I didn’t get drafted and then after that I was offered a free agent deal.
Was there disappointment that your name wasn’t called?
Jacobs: A little bit disappointed, because that’s obviously what I’d been working forever since I was playing in high school and college, and what not. I was just happy that I was able to get the opportunity to come down here and play.
Did you guys go to Arizona together or did you go straight to Spokane?
Jacobs: No, we played in Arizona together last year.
You guys meet each other – the first rounder and the free agent – what was the meeting like?
Jacobs: Honestly, I thought Bubba really was a humble kid. If you didn’t know him at all, you wouldn’t know if he was a first-round pick or a 40th-round pick or a free agent. He kind of just holds himself to the same level as everyone else.
Would you agree with that coming in and meeting some of the other guys? You come in from all over the country, what was meeting some of the other guys like?
Thompson: It was good, man. J.J. came and worked hard, and it, like, came naturally to him. He loved playing the game. Each and every day I would see him laugh and I would see him give his all. I think he’s a very good player.
A lot of guys would say, okay, he’s a first rounder and he’s got it easy. You’ve got an easy ticket to the major leagues. That’s not necessarily so, is it?
Thompson: It’s not, because if you go out there and you barely hit and you don’t take it serious; you go on the field and you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, this game is going to catch up to you. I try to give my all, to shag, b.p., just do the little things. I try not to slack and give it 100 percent each day.
Do you have a sense that your path to the big leagues is a harder one?
Jacobs: Not necessarily. Obviously, on the way in, he’s going to have more money than I do, but I feel like, no matter what, you have to compete and prove yourself to get to the next level. If you come out and play well, no matter if you’re a first-round pick or a free agent, you’re going to have the opportunity to move up if you play well and compete every day.
Do you think there is more pressure on you because you are a first-round pick?
Thompson: That’s what I feel like. There’s a lot of pressure, like he said, kind of the money hype. So that’s why I try to grind every day and do what I’ve got to do, so I don’t have any regrets when I get older. That’s the main part.
I don’t ask this as a loaded question, but do you feel like the Rangers do enough to make it an equal situation, or is there a hierarchy at first? Bubba shows up and a second-rounder shows up, and so on. Do you sense there’s a hierarchy before you get a chance to prove yourself?
Jacobs: To be honest, no not really. I think our organization does a pretty good job of treating everyone pretty equally. I think it’s good that they don’t come and treat the first rounders like they’re famous, because then those guys might not work as hard. I think they’ve treated us all the same and held us all to a higher standard so everyone has to come out and prove themselves, no matter if you’re a first rounder or a 40th rounder, or whatever.
What do you appreciate about somebody like Bubba, who could’ve played football and is obviously very talented athletically?
Jacobs: A lot of times you think of a first rounder, you think of a kid that comes in and is cocky and doesn’t work hard, and they fall down the hill really quick because they’re full of themselves. They’ve signed for a lot of money, so sometimes they don’t think they have to work as hard as someone else. I think he does a good job of coming in every day and just treating himself like everyone else, and working just as hard, if not harder, than everyone else here, which is going to give him an edge, I think.
With the college guys coming in, do you have an appreciation of somebody that’s been grinding with four years of college?
Thompson: We did something today. I asked J.J., “Can we bunt off the machine?” because that’s something I’ve been working on. So, he didn’t say, “Aw, man.” He said, “Yeah, we can do that. Do you really want to do it?” And I said, “Yes.” So, we came in here to the cage right when we got here. He fixed the machine up for me and all that good stuff, and he was feeing me some tips. Also, the other coaches were feeding me some tips and I was just working on my bunting.
I appreciate him taking the time out from his day to come out here and feed the machine for me. I know he’s got a lot of tips, being a four-year college guy. Usually, the three-year and four-year college guys really know how to bunt. I’ve seen him bunt plenty of times, so I was trying to feed off of his mind.
He’s 22 and you’re 20. Do you look at some of the older guys that went to college and have grown up a bit, while you’re still maturing?
Thompson: I’ll ask him here and there about his approach at the plate and stuff like that, at the plate. I’m just trying to get little tips and add them to my game.
What about living life and so on? You’re now going out and having to pay bills once a month. You’re not at home anymore.
Thompson: Everybody really helps us with that kind of stuff. since we got here in May. It’s really been the first time I’ve had to pay rent, but they’re really helping us out with that.
Jacobs: He needs to be helping me out with my rent.
When I talked with Hayden Deal, when he came here with Rome (Ga.) – he and Hunter Harvey went to high school together – I asked him did he think he would have a greater appreciation to get to the major leagues than Hunter did. So, I’ll ask the same thing. Do you think you will have a greater appreciation of getting to the major leagues than a first rounder, or somebody else?
Jacobs: I don’t know, necessarily. I think both of us will obviously have a great appreciation for that because either way, making it to the major leagues is huge. The ultimate goal for a baseball player is making it there. So, I think, either way, whether he makes it, or whether I make it, or we both make it, I think we’ll both have an appreciation for that. It’ll be a satisfying road either way.
When you get the call up, what’s that phone call like for you?
Jacobs: That would probably be the greatest day of my life. I’d probably call my parents and my girlfriend and I would be pretty happy that I made it there, but I’d want to get out there and win.
When you get the call up, what’s that phone call like for you?
Thompson: Really joyful, I feel like. There’s going to pressure off my back, but more pressure added on. As you get the call, they want you to go out there and provide and do your job. I feel like, like he was saying, we share the same amount of time at the field. So, I feel like it’s going to be the same feeling for everybody. Everybody here is on the bus ride, the long bus ride. Ain’t nobody on the plane, we’re all on the buses and working each and every day. So, whoever gets the call, that feeling is going to be epic.
I know you have a great appreciation for Bubba and all your teammates, so this question is not meant to be about them. But do you ever get a sense that somebody from another team who was a high pick isn’t giving an effort. Does that ever enter your mind to where you say, “come on, dude.”
Jacobs: I mean honestly, I have seen that with other teams, but not on our team. It just kind of bugs me because they have a great amount of talent and it’s a great opportunity for them and the situation they’re in.
It sucks to see a guy go about his business like that, because I know in his situation, if he were to work hard and do his thing every day, he’s got a good chance of making it. I mean, there’s nothing you can really do about it. If someone wants to hurt themselves and not help themselves out in that situation, there’s nothing I can tell him then.
Now, if it’s my teammates, I’m going to get on them and make sure they keep working.
You’ve got a first-round pick here in Bubba Thompson and he gets here and there’s a ton of expectations. And then you have a guy here like Justin, who wasn’t drafted. I guess that, maybe, he feels that every game he gets he gets is borrowed time, although he’s played well, and he’s worked himself into the equation to get playing time. As a manager and as coaches, what are the expectations when you have two guys coming in as widely varied expectations of ability and pedigree?
Hagen: I think, first and foremost, the expectations they have for themselves are exactly the same. They both expect to come out and get the most out of there abilities and they both have the same level of expectations of themselves to play in the big leagues. If they didn’t, then they shouldn’t be here. Of course, that’s probably geared more towards J.J.
Obviously, when a kid is a first round pick, an organization makes a financial investment in that kid, he’s going to have some bigger expectations placed on him from within the organization. But that doesn’t mean that we have less expectations from J.J., in the sense that we expect him to be a big leaguer one day, too.
I think it can be a blessing and a curse to be a kid that is a first-round pick because the expectations are so high for you, that when you come to the ballpark every day people expect you to do first-rounder type of things. So, it’s part of my job and the rest of the coaching staff to get both of these guys to realize and live up to their level of abilities, whatever their ceiling may be individually. We want to get the most out of them. It doesn’t matter if you’re a free-agent pick or a first-round pick or everybody who’s in between that. They’re all the same to us.
Justin gave Bubba a lot of praise for being a kid that didn’t appear to be full of himself or cocky, where you get the stereotypical guy that comes in and has the money and now he doesn’t pull his weight. That’s probably rarely the case, but Bubba does appear to have handled himself well as far as getting in here and doing what he’s supposed to do.
Hagen: Yeah, and you’ve got to give credit to the people that raised Bubba. You give credit to his family and you give credit to the scouting department for doing the research on Bubba to find out, not only the kind of player he is, but what kind of person he is, because he can be cancerous to come in with that high-and-mighty type of attitude. It’s not a good way to endear yourself to your teammates. Whereas, Bubba, he’s been the exact opposite. He’s come and he’s one of the guys. He works his tail off and he’s a very humble person by nature, which makes him coachable and likeable and easy to work for.
How hard is it – and you went through this in your case where you didn’t sign or were not a high pick like Ryan Dorow or Sal Mendez – to bide your time to get your playing time and get your opportunity? The opportunity is always there, but they have to bide their time.
Hagen: Somebody explained it to me this way the best. The reality of it is everybody has a window to make it to the big leagues. Depending when you signed and what you signed for, your window might be bigger than somebody else. But they still have a window. If your window is small because you signed at an older age, or you didn’t get as much of a signing bonus, you still have a window and it’s your responsibility to capitalize on that window. And you can make your window bigger by playing well, and you can make your window smaller by not performing well.
So, we try to stress that to those kids, that you’re here because somebody in our scouting department, or otherwise, believe that you have the ability to be a major league baseball player one day. So, do the most of your window, and if you perform, you window is only going to get bigger.
Justin mentioned that you and Chase tries him out at Spokane. What did you guys see in him to say, “hey, we need to sign this guy and give him an opportunity.”
Hagen: First of all, he had good bat control and he has a good feel for his body. When he takes batting practice, he can hit the ball where it’s pitched. It’s a mature approach. It’s not a kid who’s trying to hit the ball as hard as he can on every swing. You give him something away, he’ll hit the ball the other way. If you make a mistake in, he’ll pull it for a base hit. Then the ability to make routine plays. If you hit him 20 ground balls in a row, he catches all 20.
It’s not the flashiest thing. He’s not going out there looking like a guy that runs a 4.4 40 as he goes to cover ground balls. If he gets to it, he catches it and is accurate with his throws. We say sometimes in the minor leagues that a guy is more of an athlete than a baseball player, and sometimes we have guys who are more a baseball player than an athlete. J.J., I think, falls into the realm of there’s a whole lot of baseball player in J.J. I mean, obviously, as a huge compliment. You’re always looking for guys that have a whole lot of baseball player in them, because they’re not going to hurt you. They’re going to help you in a lot of ways.
Prior to Thursday night’s game at Kannapolis, the Hickory Crawdads hit the quarter mark of the 2018 season. Since losing the first seven games to start the season, Hickory has been right around the .500 mark and is currently at 14-22.
Over the past week, the entire outfield got a makeover. Eric Jenkins was promoted to high-A Down East, Miguel Aparicio went to extended spring and Pedro Gonzalez. Up came 2017 first-round pick Bubba Thompson – along with first baseman Tyreque Reed – and suddenly the Crawdads are 5-3 since.
The three-headed monster behind the plate went to two as Rangers minor league player of the month Melvin Novoa went to Down East. The pitching staff is looking for consistency and two of the early season sparks have come in the former of utility players Justin Jacobs and Ryan Dorow. All in all, the Crawdads are in a better spot than they were in mid-April and with a tweak here and there, they could be a team to watch later this half and all of the second half.
I took a few moments to chat with Crawdads manager Matt Hagen at the end of the last homestand on Tuesday about the first 35 games of the season and what the hopes are for the next 35 games as the season churns along.
It’s the quarter point of the season and, record aside, I know this is about development. First, I want to get an overview of the positives you see in the development side?
Hagen: Record aside, we are trying to develop the ability to win games, too. We put ourselves in such a hole early on the way we came out. We did not swing the bats real well early in the season. The weather was cold and the ball wasn’t carrying. You look at the games we’d win, typically there were some home runs involved.
I think that all three of our catchers have gotten better, that’s why one of them moved up. Infield play has been one of our strengths this season, making the routine plays.
We had the ability to promote an outfielder that had been here for two years, so the work he’d put in paid off.
Our starting pitchers have been better the last few outings If you look at Tyree (Thompson), there’s a few things. AJ Alexy as been throwing the ball better the last few starts. So, we’re definitely getting better on the pitching side. Then I look at the way (Joe) Barlow threw today, (DeMarcus) Evans threw the ball well his last time, Sal’s (Mendez) been throwing lately and the way (Alex) Speas threw yesterday. Those are things to get really excited about from a pitching perspective.
There are a lot of changes that can happen at this level and suddenly you have a whole new outfield.
Hagen: The guys that have shown up have contributed right away. Getting a little fresh blood was great for us and when we get Pedro (Gonzalez) back and healthy – at some point in the future – he’s only going to make us better, too.
And Miguel was sent down, what is he going to be working on at this point?
Hagen: Well, at this point, he’s going to be working on a little bit of everything. He does a lot of things that the organization values, but just like everybody else, he’s got things to work on and hopefully he will make the most of his time down there.
You mentioned at the beginning of the year that you had a lot of hope for the two utility players – Justin Jacobs and Ryan Dorow – and both have really contributed some good innings for you?
Hagen: They’ve been awesome, the ability to plug both those guys in anywhere. JJ might play second one day, first, third, or right field the next day. Ryan, for me, has been a plus infielder no matter what position we’ve put him in. Like I said, they’re both hitting over .300. So, they’ve given us a lot of value and we’re not going to go anywhere without those two guys.
Next step that you’ve got to get to in this second-half of the first half
Hagen: I think we’re just looking for some consistency. We had some games in the first month, or whatever, where we weren’t in the game; we weren’t competitive. I looked over the past week, most of them we’ve been competitive in every game. I think that’s kind of the standard now, is to be in every game when you look up in the seventh, eighth, or ninth inning, and feel like we have a chance to win.
I will not be partial here. I love catchers. For me, the position is greatly undervalued. The good ones not only swing the bat and play the position almost flawlessly, but they are also full-time field generals and part-time psychiatrists. Most World Series teams have a guy behind the plate that is the heart, the soul, the pulse, the lifeblood, etc. of the team: Buster Posey, Yadier Molina, Jorge Posada, Salvador Perez to name a few.
When the Texas Rangers were in the midst of their 2016 playoff run, they chose to give up prospects Lewis Brinson, Luis Ortiz – both former first-round pics – and Ryan Cordell to the Milwaukee Brewers for catcher Jonathan Lucroy. It was hoped that Lucroy would play a big role handling the pitching staff and bring another consistent bat into the lineup and put the Rangers in World Series contention.
Part of the need for Lucroy was because the Rangers had not developed their own catcher. A possible starter, Jorge Alfaro, was used in a trade in 2015 to get pitcher Cole Hamels. The lack of a homegrown catcher is something that Rangers catching coordinator Chris Briones wants to see rectified.
Since joining the club in 2015 as the catching coordinator, Briones is helping the Rangers build a stable of young catchers in the minor-league system that may one day put “THAT GUY” in the forefront of leading the team. According to MLB.com, among the Texas Rangers top-30 prospects six are catchers at least part-time.
Crawdads catcher Sam Huff is a part of that top-30 group, but two others that started the season at Hickory are perhaps not far behind the list. Yohel Pozo hit .338 for Hickory in the second half of 2017 and Melvin Novoa showed good defensive skills (threw out 5 of 6 base stealers with Hickory) with a bat that was quickly deemed too good for this level and his now at high-A Down East. The three started the year at Hickory and rotated catching duties, then played first or DH’ed when not behind the plate, so as to keep the bat in the lineup.
Briones was in the area this week to check on his pupils and, as he calls his visits, to refill the tanks. I had a chance to talk with him about the Hickory catching situation, but also touch on the state of the Rangers catching prospects.
You had a three-headed monster here and now it’s down to two. I know it wasn’t the perfect scenario for what you wanted, but you had to get guys at bats. The three of them that were here, Novoa, Huff and Pozo, how did you see them working through that together?
Briones: It was a really unique situation to where you had three young catching prospects that are the same age and they needed to play. Like you said, the three-headed monster were going to get 45 games apiece for the season, rotate through at first base, rotate through as the designated hitter, and days they weren’t catching they were going to get the extra work with (coach) Turtle (Thomas). It was a challenge. As you think about it, was it going to be enough to consider really developing three catchers? And it was working out well.
The fact that Melvin came out swinging the bat really well, it created an opportunity to move him up and the opening up at Down East was there for him to basically slide in and split some time up there with Matt Whatley. In my opinion, it just creates a better opportunity for Sam and Pozo to get more reps. The more that they’re back here, I think the more opportunity there is to develop.
The game action is the most important thing to get versus the drills and all the practice. The more games and innings that they can add to that line, that’s where they get to develop – the game action.
I’ll just go through one at a time. Sam Huff, who I just talked to. He seems like a kid that just wants to win, period. He mentioned several times ”I just want to win, I just want to win.”
Briones: Absolutely. He actually gets that from Jose Trevino. He has a really good relationship with Jose. Jose’s bottom line is to win. He won here and Jose won at the next level. They spent a lot of time together in spring training. If that’s the goal, to win, then everything else will take care of itself. The way that Trevino went about his business, Sam is trying to follow in his footsteps.
What are some of the examples that Trevino set that Sam and some of the other guys are trying to follow? Are they the intangibles or other areas?
Biones: Definitely the intangibles, paying attention to the opposing team. Everything that we ask of the catchers, Trevino did: From taking care of the pitching staff, knowing the opposing hitters, just knowing everything that he could possibly know. From a catcher’s standpoint, that’s what I’m asking them all to do. Pay attention to all the little things, and create relationships, and have good communication with his pitching staff, have good communication with his manager and pitching coach. I always looked at the catcher as another part of the coaching staff, to where they need to know everything that is going on.
To have the opportunity to have Trevino my first year and to see what he was like, he set the bar for all the young catchers extremely high. I use him as the example for the Pozos, the Novoas, the Sam Huffs, the Matt Whatleys. It’s like, this guy does it the way that you want to do it. Watch how he does it. He’s got his second Gold Glove a couple of weeks ago. In a short period of time, he’s got a tremendous resume and Sam looks at that. All of the other kids look at that and see how he does what he does. He’s got a great game plan and recipe for success.
What is Sam working on now? What do you see him working on for the remainder of year? Well, let me refocus, this is such an evolving position, what is he working on at this point?
Briones: From the defensive standpoint, just getting the innings and playing.
It’s the first time that he’s out of the complex. He’s an Arizona kid. He had the ability to go home every evening. Every Saturday, he could jump in his car and drive 40 minutes to go home and see Mom and Dad. This being his first opportunity to be away from home, I’m constantly checking on him to make sure he’s not homesick.
What is he working on the field? Every aspect you could possibly think of: running a pitching staff, learning to communicate, learning to pace himself with the grind of playing every single day and having one or two days off a month. This is something that he’s never done. In Arizona, they play 10:30 games and then they have the rest of the day off. Here, he’s got to learn how to time manage and know how to get everything that needs to be done in a day done, and be ready to play. We try to keep an eye on his workload, and keep an eye on his fatigue, and keep an eye on his diet and hold him accountable to do all of that also, and make sure he shows up ready to play every day.
Pozo. He came here and had a tremendous second half with the bat. A little slower to start this year, is part of that was, last year he was catching a lot in the second half last year, where as this year he is having to split more of that time?
Briones: He’s splitting the time but he’s still in the lineup with the innings at first base and the innings as a designated hitter. So, he’s getting his at bats. It’s a little harder to get the rhythm defensively. The defense for me has been fine.
Offense, that’s a tricky one. It comes and goes. He’s getting his at bats. It’s not like he’s catching and hitting, and then getting two days off, and then catching and hitting, and then getting two days off. He’s still getting the consistent at bats. That’s how this game goes with scouting reports to where, they have last year’s scouting reports to go off of and they have an idea on how to pitch him. Whether you are in A-ball or AA or AAA, they’re going to find out what your scouting reports are – whether you are aggressive, if he chases. Repeating this level, they have notes on him and what he can do and what he looks for. That’s what scouting reports are for.
What is he working on at this point?
Briones: Learning to love the work of defense. That’s where Turtle Thomas comes in on a daily basis. The kid loves to hit. He loves to hit. We’d love for him to get to where he loves the defensive side and the practice that goes into it. Running a staff and just working like Sam did last night – work his but off for nine innings and be able to separate the offense from the defense. Pozo, we’re trying to get him to where he loves the defensive side as much as he loves the offensive side.
What are the biggest intangibles that catchers at this level have to pick up on? Catching is such an intangible position beyond the defensive and offensive skills?
Briones: The biggest one is building the relationships and learning the pitching staff. Having the consistency of 12 to 15 pitchers to work with on a daily basis and to know who are the ones you have to wrap your arm around and who are the ones you have to kick in the butt. That’s something that Sam and Pozo and Novoa, when he was here, that’s not a physical thing that we can practice, but that’s something that’s highly important.
That’s something with which Trevino did a great job. When you build that relationship, you’re going to build trust. When you have that trust and you get out on the field – last night there was trust built between Casanova and Huff. It started off shaky, but they fed off of each other and it was a beautiful game. That’s something that Sam’s gotta learn. When you’re in Arizona as a catcher, there’s fifty pitchers there and it’s hard to build trust and a relationship when you have a pitching staff that’s huge.
You look at almost every World Series team they have that catcher, the Poseys, and Yadier Molina, and Varitek and Posada. For the average fan, and probably for the average me, what is the thing behind the scenes that most fans don’t see that really goes into that position to make a major league team successful?
Briones: The fact is that all the names that you mentioned, they are homegrown. I think that is something that is a key for a championship team. You mentioned the Buster Poseys, the Posadas, the Yadis, they all came through the system. They’ve known the system from the first time that they signed a professional contract. That’s something that we need to develop.
I look at the wave of catchers that we have from Trevino to Chuck Moorman to Novoa to Matt Whatley, who is the newest one in the mix. We have five, six, seven, eight guys that are in the system that are all homegrown. Now, we just need to graduate one and the first one, that hopefully we’ll graduate, will be Trevino. Actually Brett Nicholas was one of the first homegrown ones, but we need to create that. They know the system. They know what we’re looking for. They know they’ve got that trust with all their pitchers throughout the organization. We have waves of it. Every age bracket, we have them coming.
Trevino ready to take the next step forward?
Briones: Behind the plate, for me defensively, absolutely. Defensively, he can do the job. In the industry, the way he’s swinging the bat, he’s a backup catcher. He just came back from the disabled list and in his first game back he went 2-for-2 with two homers.
Pitching has gotten better as he got to AA. It’s going to get better at AAA and it’s better in the big leagues. I think he can hit. I’ve seen him hit and we’ve just got to keep him healthy and get his bat right. If his bat is correct and it improves, he’s a front line, every day catcher. If the bat doesn’t improve, he’s a really good backup catcher.
Who’s behind him in your system right now?
Briones: Josh Morgan, who you saw as an infielder. He’s like the sleeper because it took a couple of years for him to agree to do the job and put the gear on and get there.
A guy who’s already in the big leagues who could do it, who I would love to see, is Kiner-Falefa. Kiner-Falefa, I mean, I could name 10 names right now of catchers that are in the wave. But Kiner-Falefa is 23-years-old, he’s two years younger than Trevino. If he gets the opportunity to catch, he’s going to hold his own and it would be wonderful. And he swings the bat.
You’ve got Trevino, 25, Kiner-Falefa, 23, Josh Morgan, 22, Chuck Moorman, 24, all these guys, given the opportunity, they can catch. So, there’s a lot of “next guy’s up”.
It is said that “necessity is the mother of invention”. In the business world, necessity can also create a situation in which separate entities are put together and the results are better than imagined. Such is the case between the Hickory Crawdads and the Texas Rangers.
In the fall of 2008 after ten seasons of an affiliation with the then parent-club Pittsburgh Pirates, the Hickory Crawdads were looking for a new major-league team. The Pirates wanted an affiliation with a class Low-A team closer to home, so they hooked up with the West Virginia Power, while the Milwaukee Brewers, who were with the Power, went closer to home and joined up with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. That left three Low-A affiliates – Hickory, Clinton, Iowa and Savannah, Ga. – to tie into three big league clubs – the Texas Rangers, the Seattle Mariners and the New York Mets.
The Rangers expressed an interest to get back into the warmer climate of the South Atlantic League and leave behind the Clinton Lumberkings of the Midwest League. That meant either Savannah or Hickory.
The Crawdads expressed interest in the Mets, which decided to stay put in Savannah. For fans at the time, neither Texas or Seattle had much appeal given the distance but at the end of the day the remaining minor league clubs and major league clubs left in the shuffle have to dance, so in came the Texas Rangers.
The partnership has been a good one from the start. The product on the field has been tremendous. At one point, the Crawdads had 14-straight, winning half-seasons and were annually in contention for playoff spots. To date, 51 players plus two others that were previously major leaguers have suited up for the Crawdads. Investments by the Rangers in weight rooms and batting cages, and investments by the city of Hickory into refurbishing L.P. Frans Stadium have made the partnership a strong one. So strong, in fact, that after nine seasons as an affiliate, the Rangers purchased the Crawdads during this past off season.
During the offseason, the field was replaced for the first time since it originally was put into place in 1993 and a new scoreboard was erected after the old one built in 2004 finally went kaput. There is much optimism around for what the future holds for baseball in Hickory.
Last week, Rangers general manager Job Daniels took in a pair of games at L.P. Frans Stadium to get an overview of the club. Now in the tenth anniversary season of the affiliation, Daniels looked back at what made the partnership work, as well as his perspective about the current product on the field.
First of all, it’s the tenth anniversary season of the Rangers and Crawdads affiliation. My memory from back when this started is that there were a couple of minor league clubs left to dance and a couple of major league teams left to dance and they sort of fell into each other. Now, ten years later the Rangers purchased the club. Let me ask out that relationship over the ten years.
Daniels: From our side it’s been a hundred percent positive. A lot of young players that started here in our system, from a full season standpoint, have reached the big leagues. I think 15 players from that 2013 club started here. We have a big-league coach that was one of the managers here (2009 manager Hector Ortiz). We have Corey Ragsdale as our field coordinator. So, this has proven not just a kind of a development ground for our players but for our organization and our staff as well. There are a lot of good memories here for us and I really feel like we are just scratching the surface.
What has been some of the positives that have made this relationship between Hickory, and the ballclub here and the city to where the Texas Rangers would want to invest?
Daniels: Well, I think the ownership there with Don Beaver and Charles Young and that group was really accommodating from day one. A lot of times you have to build up a relationship before there is some give-and-take. From day one, it was more of a familial type of feeling and there was a trust early on. The same goes with the city and with some of the improvements that both groups have facilitated us making here with the cages and the weight room and things of that nature. So, it’s a much more functional spot, with the field this year. The field looks fantastic, it’s the best it’s looked in the ten years since I’ve been coming. I just think about that relationship and that trust from day one rather than having to earn it over a period of five or ten years. It was there day one and it’s continued to stay there.
What made the Rangers want to buy in?
Daniels: I think with the minor leagues, sometimes big-league clubs have the tendency to look for the shiniest new object. We have, in our experience, found that the right community, the right affiliate, the right ownership, the right employee group, organizational culture is so important to the development of our players. With the improvements that we’ve made here – this is as nice a field as you’re going to get – and we didn’t want to go back to the Midwest League, and we felt like our ownership group was willing to buy in here, and it allows us to know that we’re going to be here a long time. We did the same with Kinston, so we know we’re going to have two Carolina-based affiliates real close to each other. It’s makes it great for player movement, for coach movement. It’s a great part of the country, from a development standpoint, from a weather standpoint – this week’s cold notwithstanding. So, there was a ton of positives for us and we just said, “let’s anchor in here, we don’t want to go anywhere else.”
You mentioned Kinston and the player movement, it has to be a lot easier for you now, rather than having to ship a guy out to High Desert or having to skip High Desert because of this situation or that. I guess you get a truer sense of player development now from level to level.
Daniels: Yeah, we don’t have to play any games there. We’re not worried about the ballparks or the communities or the atmospheres or the fields. You do get some of the places in the California League where you literally have to stop for 20 minutes to let the sun set because otherwise the players can’t see the ball. It’s not the kind of baseball that we want our young players to develop in. We don’t want our pitchers to be afraid to throw changeups because popups are going out of the ballpark. That’s a big piece and them having them so close together really makes it convenient for our staff to be able to work at both facilities and both clubs in a short period of time.
Looking at this club this year, a lot of prospect with Pedro Gonzalez probably the top one right now. I know you see snippets and keep tabs on a lot of different things but give me a general overview of what you see with this club early on.
Daniels: I know that the record early is not great, but I think this club is going to be in the thick of it from a winning standpoint. I think the talent is really good and I think the staff is really, really good. Matt (Crawdads manager Matt Hagen) and Chase (pitching coach Chase Lambin) and Jose (hitting coach Jose Jaimes) and Turtle (assistant coach Turtle Thomas), this might be, top to bottom, one of our best staffs. A ton of energy, really positive, a lot of teaching going on, and that’s what you need.
We’ve got a really young group here, but there are a lot of prospects. Pedro is a guy we’re excited about. We really have three catchers here that we think are all legit prospects in (Yohel) Pozo, (Melvin) Novoa and (Sam) Huff. I’m not sure that they realize quite how good they can be or how talented they are because they’re so young. Some of the other outfielders, (Eric) Jenkins and (Chad) Smith and (Miguel) Aparicio. Yonny Hernandez is a good player. There’s quite a few guys here and I’m leaving some out.
The pitching staff is pretty intriguing, too. Tyree Thompson can really pitch. He can really command the baseball – four pitches for strikes. I think he’s going to have a lot of success in this league. He doesn’t maybe draw some of the attention because he’s not quite as big and physical as some of the other guys who are lighting up the radar gun. But he can really pitch and I think that plays and he’s smart and he’s already figured some things out.
Tyler Phillips took a big jump last year and he’s really filled out physically. The delivery is a lot better. Obviously, we took a big hit with (Cole) Ragans getting hurt. He would’ve been here otherwise. There’s a lot of guys here. We look back on the 2013 club and how many guys got to the big leagues in four or five years. We’ll see where we go from a numbers standpoint, but even though this group isn’t quite as heralded as that group was from a prospects standpoint, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we’re close to that number at the end of the day.
It’s a group that the pitching staff is a bit older than what we’ve had in the past and we were a little surprised not to see Bubba Thompson and a little surprised not to see Chris Seise – and I understand he has a shoulder issue. I’ve heard a little talk of the Rangers being not quite as aggressive in some of their assignments here for younger guys. Is that some you guys are making adjustments to?
Daniels: I think, just in general, we’re looking to tap the brakes a little bit. Not to an extreme, but we want to the give the players time and we also want to give our coaches time. We have a lot of good, young coaches at a lot of the lower levels and we’ve got to give them the opportunities to have the reps and the at-bats and the innings to work with these players before we push them up through the system. So, we will probably be a little more conservative than we have been in the past, but I don’t think overly so.
Seise probably had a good chance to be here but he had the shoulder tendinitis. He’ll be okay and he’s started hitting again at extended and he may still get out here. Bubba had a little bit of a knee deal last year, so we’re taking it a little more slowly with him and he could very well get out here, but we’re still deciding some of those things.
Tyreque Reed, another guy that I like, could get here but with the three catchers we need some of the at bats for them at first base. Tyreque is a guy that on his own, probably on merit, very well could’ve been here; it’s just how many at bats you have for everybody and some of those things.
Matt Whatley, he was originally scheduled to come here. We probably would’ve had him come here, too, but we already had three catchers, younger, so we’re going to push him a little bit. There are some extenuating circumstances in general. We’re trying to find at bats for everybody, but generally we’ll probably be a little more conservative than we were three to five years ago.
Looking ahead to the relationship with the Rangers and the Crawdads, what are some of the things that the two sides are looking at in the future?
Daniels: I think Mark Seaman does a tremendous job. We’ve been thrilled working with him in the past as a partner and now to be on the same team. I think that those are things that we’ll really defer to Mark on and the ideas he has on how to grow the business. One of the things that, from the Rangers standpoint, back in Arlington we try to be as fan friendly and fan conscious as can be, and very family oriented, which I think dovetails very well with the kind of the values here. I think you’re see a lot more consistency in that area.
The first half of the 2017 Hickory Crawdads season was a tough one to watch. Most of the games were blowouts early as pitchers were under an organizational mandate to throw fastballs and learn how to use the pitch before infusing secondary pitches. Some of them figured it out and moved on – Kyle Cody being the best example – others struggled with the concept and went down to Spokane for more seasoning.
Of the pitchers to start the 2018 season, eight spent time at L.P. Frans Stadium last year. Tyler Phillips and Demarcus Evans figured out some things at lower levels and are back again with Phillips snagging a top-30 prospect ranking along the way.
With the returnees and a healthy load of college pitchers, the 2018 version could – and should? – be better equipped to handle what is being asked of them: place the fastball correctly, throw strikes and get outs. A group of eight of them did that during Monday night’s exhibition game against Catawba Valley Community College. Save for a second-inning hiccup by Alex Eubanks, the group that pitched threw gas and made quick work of the overmatched JUCO club.
Starting with Phillips on Thursday at a hitter’s park at Greensboro, we’ll begin to see where he and the Crawdads are to start the 2018 season.
I interviewed Crawdads pitching coach Jose Jaimes about the pitching staff and basically went down the list to get a sense of where everyone is at the start. At least until he had to get to on-field workouts before we could finish.
So below is an overview of many, but not all, of the Crawdads pitchers to start the season.
That was impressive last night. There was no gun, but I’m guessing you ran guys out there throwing 93, 94, 95 pretty much all along the line last night.
Jaimes: Yeah, it was exciting. We have a pretty exciting group. Starting with our rotation, our rotation is a little more experience than last year, so that’s going to make a difference. We’ve got a few college guys and that’s going to help the young kids. Then, when you look to the bullpen, everybody’s around the mid-90s, which is exciting. Hopefully, they can do what you saw yesterday and keep getting better.
There was a lot of talk last year about the Rangers wanting the guys to work fastball, fastball, fastball. They had to spot it so many times, or whatever percentage was set before they started to bring in the secondaries. Are they staying with that or is it being tweaked any?
Jaimes: It’s still going to be a priority to control the fastball. That’s still the number one thing, so we’re going to keep preaching that. Definitely, we’re making some adjustments on the plan, but for the most part it’s going to stay the same. It’s fastball and they’ll learn how to use it and learn how to get outs with it and learn to how to play with it. You’ve got basically six pitches with the fastball – going down and away, down and in, up and in, up and away, middle – so you can do anything you want with your fastball. That’s going to be the main focus again this year. I think with the group that we have this year, they have more experience and a little better command than last year.
Will it be as strict the first time through the order as it was last year?
Jaimes: (hesitating) No, no, no.
I don’t mean to have you give away things, but it at almost seemed like last year, “You will throw the fastball to everybody pretty much the first time through the order.” Like you said, it’s six pitches, but still guys are sitting on it.
Jaimes: Yes, it was tough and you saw it. But it’s a great plan and we saw it pay off towards the end of the year in the second half. Guys learned how to use their fastball and learned how to get outs with it and once they implemented the other pitches, it made a huge difference. I think that was one of the biggest turnarounds that we had in the second half of last year, because they were able to pitch with it. They relied too much on their secondary stuff, so again, that’s going to be a main thing.
The rotation, is it still going to be six guys?
Jaimes: Yes, it’s still a six-man rotation. Tyler Phillips will be our opening-night guy. Alex Eubanks will be our second guy. AJ Alexy, that you saw last year, Noah Bremer. Reid Anderson is going to join the rotation and then Tyree Thompson will be the sixth guy.
I’m just going to go down the list and if you can give me a little bit about their stuff and your expectations for them. I’ll just start with Tyler. He just seemed overmatched here last year when he started. Like Miguel (Aparcio), he seemed overmatched and then found himself when he went to Spokane. What do you see from him coming back here that he learned from last year?
Jaimes: I think last year was a big learning year for him. He had a good spring training. He showed up this spring stronger, bigger, but most important, more mature. So, I’m expecting him to lead the rotation and be that guy that’s going to teach the young kids. Stuff wise, I was watching down in Arizona, he was 94-95 (mph) fastball. He’s got a really good changeup and a breaking ball. I think he’s come really far physically and mentally and I’m expecting good things about him this year.
Jaimes: Curveball and it’s improved a lot since last year.
Jaimes: A strike thrower. He’s a very mature guy. I love the way that he handles himself on the mound. It seems like nothing bothers him when he doesn’t have his best stuff. You saw him last night, the second inning he gave up three hits in four pitches. He never lost his composure; he stayed within himself and minimized the damage. So, that’s him. He’s going to be that guy that’s going to be able to bounce back quick. I love the stuff that he brings. He has good movement on his fastball and a really good changeup, cutter and slider. Good command of every pitch.
AJ, he came here and was pretty impressive for a guy who got bounced from his first organization all of a sudden. He had some moments, but all in all not a bad August.
Jaimes: No, he was actually one of our best guys in August. We’re going to continue to build onto what he did towards the end of the year. He had a good spring training, too, so again he’s another guy that’s bigger and stronger, which is good for him. Command wise, it definitely has improved from last year. Again, it’s another guy that we have a lot expectations for.
Curveball for his breaking ball, if I remember?
Jaimes: Yes, curveball and it’s a pretty good one and a really good fastball, which is mid-90s that looks harder than what it is.
Jaimes: He’s a funky guy delivery wise. He hides the ball really well – I think that’s his biggest weapon – the hitters don’t really get a good pickup of the ball. Again, he’s another gut that can play with his fastball on each side of the plate. He has a really good changeup and a nice breaking ball, too. He’s kind of like what you’re going to see from Eubanks; they’re pretty similar guys.
Reid Anderson. He pitched better in the second half, but he always seemed to be the guy that had the one quirky inning or the one quirky moment that would fell him. He’d get 5 2/3 and we could see you’re trying to get him through six and he’d have that one moment where the guy would hit the ball out of the ballpark and you’d be like, “doggone it.” Did he grow up from that last year?
Jaimes: I think so. In spring training at one of his last games, it was the first time he was going to five innings. He got through four innings without any issues, really good. He got to the fifth, the first two pitches he spiked the fastball and threw one over the catcher’s head and went to 3-0. I’m thinking, maybe it’s going to happen what happened last year and he’s not going to get through the fifth and he’ll lose everything. But he did. He went to a 3-0 count and then came back with two good fastballs and struck the guy out and then retired the next two guys with no issues. The next outing, he went six innings without any problem.
So, again, he’s another guy that learned a lot from last year. He knows that he needs to keep the game simple. He knows that he’s preparing himself not to pitch five innings; he’s preparing himself to pitch nine innings. I think that was his main issue last year; he knew that he was about to be done and doubt set in and he couldn’t control it. He’s doing a better job with it.
Remind me of his stuff:
Jaimes: Fastball, changeup, curveball and a cutter.
Jaimes: He’s a real competitor. I love what he brings. I love that he’s a strike thrower. Maybe he’s not that big of a stuff guy, but he’s a pitcher with a fastball, curveball and a changeup. His biggest weapon is that he competes no matter what the situation is. So, I’m excited about having him on the staff and I think he’ll be a big part of it.
Tell me about Alex Speas. I read the stuff about his big fastball, but he doesn’t always know where it’s going. After getting used to things last night, he settled in and pitched a good inning.
Jaimes: I think by him being in the bullpen he’s going to be able to keep the game simple. Definitely, he has some command issues at times, but I think he has improved a lot since last year. He had a really good year in Spokane when he went to the bullpen. Yesterday with the first guy, he was guiding the ball, then he just let it go and you saw it, he had really good stuff. He has a good fastball and a really, really good slider. I think he’s going to be a big part of the back end of the bullpen for us.
Sal Mendez is back. When you and I talked at this same time last year, I asked you who had the best secondary stuff among your staff. You said Sal Mendez’s changeup. How is his progression from last year and what is he coming back to do?
Jaimes: He’s going to be helping to be the leader of the bullpen. He’s going to have the same role that he played last year – a long man, then he’ll spot start here and there. He’s a big changeup guy, but this year’s it’s going to be more of finding a breaking ball. I think it’s doing better, but I think that’s going to be his priority, having the breaking ball to face left-handed hitters.
Going down the list of who was here last year. Joe Kuzia had a cup of coffee and got hit around a bit, but like Phillips, once he got back to Spokane he found himself in the bullpen. He seems like he will be a key bullpen guy that will give you some innings.
Jaimes: Yeah, I’m excited about him. Like you said, when he came up I felt like he wasn’t ready for the competition here. He went down to Spokane and worked on some reliever’s stuff and he got back into a rhythm and had a really good spring training. He’s ready to go.
As you have time, run down a quick couple of things about the bullpen guys.
Jaimes: Demarcus Evans. We had him last year.
He looked more controlled last night, as far as his delivery.
Jaimes: Yeah, I think he’s going to be our guy. I’m excited for him and I think it’s going to be a good thing for him now to be a part of the bullpen and being able to pitch more often is going to help him. Definitely, command wise, it is the main thing that needs work, but he’s doing better. I’m excited to work with him because I know that whenever he finds it, he’s going to be pretty special.
The 2018 Hickory Crawdads start the season Thursday night at Greensboro and the assembled roster of position players had a chance to get their feet wet Monday night in an exhibition game against Catawba Valley Community College after arriving from the Texas Rangers spring training complex at Surprise, Ariz. last weekend.
The game itself was a blowout (12-2 Hickory), but it gave the hitters a chance to see the ballpark for the first time, get some cuts in during a live-game setting and to give local fans a taste of what’s to come at L.P. Frans Stadium.
At first glance, it’s a group that seems to have a decent balance between power and speed, perhaps exemplified best by Miguel Aparicio. Sam Huff had the highlight with a light-tower blast to left center and Yonny Hernandez scampered around the bases impressively. Yohel Pozo slapped the ball around the field and Melvin Novoa hit as low liner for a homer. It was a lot to nod yes at, but the real action begins Thursday.
We got a glimpse of what should be the everyday lineup – though there will be some moving parts as will be discussed below – and the tools each of the players should bring to the field.
In the afternoon following the exhibition I had a chance to sit down with Crawdads manager Matt Hagen and walk through many of the individual players currently on the roster and some of the expectations for 2018. I also explored briefly the absence of both Rangers 2017 first-round picks and the presence of long time college coach Turtle Thomas on the staff.
How was spring training?
Hagen: Spring training was good. You get down to the last week or so and the pitchers are getting their innings in and trying to keep guys healthy and rested for the grind that is our 140-game season.
The lineup looks like it’s going to be a good one. You’ve got some guys that can put the ball on the bat and drive it well, and there looks to be a good mix of speed and power and guys that can put the ball in play.
Hagen: We have a lot of guys that have a lot of potential, which is a nice way of saying, “You haven’t done anything, yet.” Some guys have one or two good months to their name, so far. So, this is their first opportunity to actually go out and put together five full months of good baseball. Some guys have had a good rookie ball season or a good year in the Dominican, which is only 50 games. Some guys had a great year in Spokane last year, but they only played in 60-something games. Now, we’re talking about doubling that workload. It’s really the first true test for a lot of them.
Looking at the roster, you have four catchers, but you’re obviously not going to use all four catchers – usually you put someone on the inactive to be ready on the spot. But there’s some pieces your going to have to move around with Novoa and Huff and Pozo. How do you see that mix playing out?
Hagen: It’ll be a revolving door. Those guys are all going to get playing time. These three that are going to be on the roster are getting a lot of playing time. They’re going to have to get some at bats in the DH spot and some at bats at first base. We’re going to ask some kids that haven’t played a lot at first base to play first base. At the end of the year, they’ll be ready to become better hitters just by getting better at bats. We don’t care if it comes as a DH, first base, catcher or whatever. We’ll let those guys catch a couple of times a week, but try to at least play four or five times a week.
Do you see one or two of the three guys doing the regular catching duties, or will split it among all three?
Hagen: It’s probably going to be split between all three, which is kind of rare. All three deserve a chance to play. They all bring different and unique things to the table. Some are a little bit more offensive minded and others are more defensive minded. But they all bring enough to the table to make themselves a prospect.
Huff looks like a hoss (6-4, 215 lbs) – a big kid.
Hagen: The scary thing is he’s not even close to being done growing. He’s going to continue to fill out. Heck, he’s 20-years-old. I still grew another inch after I was 20-years-old, so who knows how big he’s going to be. The ball he hit last night was pretty special. There’s not a lot of guys playing that can hit the ball that far. So, it’s just trying to help him to remember that he doesn’t need to do that every night. He’s just got to put the bat on the ball.
Yohel was pretty cool to watch last year. Pretty athletic behind the plate, he looked like he had a plan of how to put the ball into play. What do you see him doing this year?
Hagen: I think Pozo is one of the tougher outs in our whole organization. He makes adjustments at the plate. He can hit offspeed pitches. He hits to all fields. It’s pretty hard to get him off balance. In fact, there’s a lot of things that he does naturally as a hitter that others have to work really hard to do. So, I would look to see him plugged into the middle of our order somewhere, every day that he’s available.
Novoa showed what he had with a one-iron to left that I’m not sure went more than ten feet off the ground.
Hagen: Melvin is a lot of what you look for when you look at catchers. Compact, strong body, great arm, very physically and mentally tough. He will take a beating and keep coming back for more. His raw strength enables him to do what he did yesterday, which is basically hit a line drive that went out of the ballpark.
So, hence the reason that all three of those guys are getting playing time.
(Yonny) Hernandez was kind of a pest last night and was impressive. Given the competition, it’s hard to judge, but he can run a little bit and drove the ball to the wall and looked sharp at short with the few plays he had. He was intriguing to watch.
Hagen: He’s probably the most fun player to watch on our team. He’s going to be the captain of that infield, no doubt about it. He makes the routine plays and he makes some really exciting plays. He’s a very intelligent player, which you want from your shortstop, obviously.
At the plate, (hitting coach) Chase (Lambin) came up with a new nickname for him; he calls him “The Mosquito”. At the end of the of the day, you’re out there in the jungle and you’re worrying about the lions getting you. It’s the mosquito at the bottom of the order that does it.
At the end of the game, he’s made nine plays at shortstop. He got a bunt down to move a runner over and ends up beating it. He’s pesky and the kind of guy you love to have on your team. You hate to pitch against him because he’s not an easy out. He can bunt. He can hit-and-run. He can slash. He’s going to do a good job for us.
Admittedly, (Tyler) Ratliff is a name I’ve read, but I know nothing about. What can you tell me about him?
Hagen: Defensively, he is, even from last last year at Spokane until now, he’s vastly improved. He’s got raw power. He’s got a great arm that you’ll see when he needs to show it to you. Otherwise, he just makes routine throws and then when he has to let it go, he’s really got a strong arm. He’s got a chance to be that prototypical third baseman with a good glove, a strong arm and some power in his bat.
Hagen: Kole is going to play a lot at second base for us this year. He’s a switch-hitter, which is great to have in the lineup because it gives you some flexibility. You don’t have to worry about taking him out against a righty or a lefty. From last year to this year, you can tell he’s put a lot of work into his swing. It’s a lot shorter. He’s put in a lot of hard work and I’m excited to see what he does.
Will he play some short or third?
Hagen: He may play a little bit at third, but he’s going to be our everyday second baseman.
Hagen: J.J. is a jack-of-all-trades. He puts together quality at bats from the left side, which is nice to plug in. He can play anywhere on the field. He’s average to above average anywhere you put him. He can play the corner outfield spots. He can make the routine plays at short, at third and second.
Hagen: He’s a player I hadn’t seen at all until spring training this year and he’s a pleasant surprise for me. I was like, “Who is this guy?” I didn’t really have any expectations. He turns the double play really well at second base. He has a very strong arm. We got to see him a little bit last night at third base with a couple of throws. And that laser beam he hit to left last night that the guy ended up dropping. He’s got a nice stroke. He’s a kid that came out of college with the reputation of, “this guy hits, no matter what level you put him at.” So far, he’s doing the job and he’s going to be guy that’s going to bounce around a little bit, too, to give the other guys a little bit of rest.
The three guys that you had in the outfield last night, how hard is it going to be to hit a ball into the gap?
Hagen: It’s three centerfielders. It’s a luxury that every manager wishes he had and every pitching coach wishes he had. You hear loud contact as a pitching coach and you think, “Oh no.” Then you look up and you see these three gazelles in the outfield just running balls down. We have a chance to have a pretty special outfield.
Is this this a crucial year for Eric Jenkins? It’s his third full season here, but he was hurt last year and had the full year here the year before that.
Hagen: I would say that it’s Eric’s year. The expectations now are going to be what Eric puts on himself, and I mean that in a healthy way. Last year, kind of being hurt, up and down, the year before being the young guy in the league. Now he comes into Hickory going, “I know this level. I know I can be successful at this level.” He’s just got to go out and prove it.
My expectations for him are to lead the world in stolen bases. Every time he gets on, I want him thinking he can impact the game with his feet. What you saw last night with the home run – not that we’re looking for a ton of home runs from him. Actually, the two-strikes single up the middle is more what we want, when it’s easy to give up plate appearances and be a little bit pesky and bunt a little bit more.
That was my next question: the first pitch of the game, he squared around and drew in the third baseman. I’ve thought for a couple of years, I wish he’d do that more.
Hagen: I think he’s opened up to it more. I think he understands now that it’s got to be a part of his game. Other guys may have to slug their way to the big leagues. He doesn’t have to. He needs to get on base and be a disrupter. He can really do that if he can get on base. The ability to bunt, whether for a hit or to move a guy over really creates value for him.
Pedro Gonzalez, the 190 pounds looks a little light for him. He looks more like 200 to 210 and he appears to be able to carry another 20 or 30 pounds.
Hagen: He’s another one that’s growing. He’s a premium athlete playing center field. He’s just starting to grow into his body and into his power, and he’s only going to mature more. Like you said, I think the frame will probably carry another 20 or 30 pounds at some point. The 190 is probably what he weighed in at two years ago.
He can impact the game with all five tools. He’s that kind of player.
What is the tool he will need to work on this year?
Hagen: You know, he’s only been playing outfield for a couple of years, but already he’s shown the ability to make some quick adjustments out there and learn pretty quickly. He’s shown some good power this spring as he’s gotten stronger. He can steal some bases. He was really excited when he looked at big league guys, when he was at spring training and around these guys. Pedro kind of walked through and physically he’s of that mold – big and fast and strong athlete.
What tool of his is the loudest right now to you?
Hagen: He’s a center fielder that can hit. In the minor leagues, most center fielders can defend but maybe they can’t hit. He can actually do both. You were spoiled last year with Leody, who can do the same thing. It’s kind of fun to watch both those guys in spring training competing against each other in outfield drills, because they both want to be the best guy. They kind of push each other when they’re on the same field and it’s kind of fun to watch. A true center fielder that can hit is pretty special.
Miguel (Aparicio) was here a little bit last year and was a bit overmatched. Obviously, he got well with you over in Spokane. When he got to you, was there a sense that he had something to put behind him or was there a sense of, “Let’s go, I’m where I belong”?
Hagen: Last spring training, he was on fire and couldn’t do anything wrong, which is why he came to Hickory. Then, as young players do when they start struggling a little bit, he put some pressure on himself and felt like he was going to get himself through that slump with every swing. He came down to Arizona and then he came to Spokane with us and kind of got a clean slate and a fresh start after the experience of being here for almost a month. He took off and really excelled. He’s got the ability to put the bat on the ball at his age better than most kids his age can.
What will stand out about him for folks seeing him for the first time?
Hagen: The power for him kind of came on the second half of the season at Spokane, really the last month of the season because the season is so short. The last month, he started to drive the ball a little better and he carried that over into spring training. So, we think he’s going to drive the ball better than he did last year.
In the area of base running, he’s an athletic kid that is learning how to run the bases and learning what his limits are. His mistakes are, fortunately, on the aggressive side. He’s starting to do a better job of running with his head up and being more aware of what’s going on on the field. He just needs reps. He needs to be on base with guys on with him. He needs to be on base when a guy hits a ground ball. He needs reps stealing bases and getting jumps. “Was that a good jump or a bad jump and why?” He’s a pretty athletic kid, but his stolen bases numbers last year didn’t show. Hopefully this year, we can get him a little bit closer to understanding when to steal.
Hagen: Chad, before he got hurt last year at Spokane, might have been our best player. I think he might have led our team in stolen bases, even though he was hurt the last month of the year. He hit a bunch of doubles last year, so he can hit for some power. He can steal some bases. A left-handed bat, which is nice to be able to put into the order. He’s got a pretty good eye and can go deep into counts, which can lead to some strikeouts but it can also lead to walks. He’s going to be that swing man in the outfield for us. He might play two days a week in left and two days a week in right and DH when we need him.
I want to ask you about a couple of guys that we were hoping to see this year that weren’t assigned here. The first is Bubba Thompson. Usually, when the Rangers have drafted first-rounders, we see them the next spring. Right now. he’s unassigned. Are the Rangers looking to delay guys a little bit to slow the aggressiveness of the assignment or are there too many outfielders here?
Hagen: I think part of it is who’s already here. The fact is that Bubba didn’t get a whole lot of playing time last year at Arizona. So, they want to get him some at bats and let him go down there and play every day instead of coming up here where we already have four outfielders. He’s there and he’s going to play every day. Whenever they decide the time is right for him to move, they’ll move him.
It is our goal in the organization to challenge our kids to play against older competition because in the long run it helps them become better, quicker going against those guys.
Chris Seise is another player that did not advance here, though I understand there is a shoulder injury. Is he someone we may see later in the year, or like Bubba, will he need some more playing time?
Hagen: Playing time and the health. We want to make sure he’s fully healthy before they send him anywhere. I had Chris the last two or three weeks last year at Spokane and he’s a heck of an athlete. He’s fun to watch. He’s another guy where the sky is the limit for this guy.
If fact, I think that he and Bubba have a chance to be really special athletes and that’s why they were taken so early in the draft. We’re going to give them a little more seasoning before they come on up.
There is always one guy that sticks out and makes a run, maybe not quite to a big league level, but takes some steps to begin standing out. Who is that for you?
Hagen: I would say our two utility infielders (Dorow and Jacobs). They’re going to get playing time. They’re a little bit under the radar – even though they have great track records of producing at every level they’ve been at. They won’t come into the season getting a ton of at bats, but as you know, sooner or later somebody goes some place and one or both of them are going to step into a role and get a ton of playing time.
What are your expectations this year for these guys? You get some year like 2013 where the power is off the charts and 2016 where guys were all over the bases. This looks a bit more balanced.
Hagen: We’ve got some pop in our bats and that’s Chase’s department and he does a great job with the guys as far as staying with the reps and staying with the plan. We’ve got a few guys that can run, but the depth of our lineup and the depth of our rotation and bullpen is really going to be our strength. We have guys that are going to hit seventh or eighth one night and then will be batting third or fourth the next night. We’re just that deep. There’s not a huge drop off between our three-hole hitter and our eight-hole hitter. The guy batting ninth – Yonny – could be batting first or second for a lot of teams. We just happen to have two pretty good 1-2 guys.
The guys that come off the bench are not your typical play-the-guy-once-a-week bench players. They have a lot to offer.
In our six-man rotation this year, our sixth man, Tyree Thompson, was second in the league (Northwest League) last year in ERA. So, we have a lot of expectation for those guys.
What you saw from our bullpen last night, where it was a lot of really hard fastballs, one guy after another. If we can just get those guys lined up, if we’re getting close or have the lead, I expect to those guys to be pretty tough to score on late in the game, as long as they’re throwing strikes.
I want to ask you about one of your coaches, and that is Turtle Thomas, who had a long career as a head coach and the Rangers have brought him on. What are you and the Rangers looking to do as far as a guy that has seen a lot of baseball?
Hagen: I know the Rangers are cashing in on a lifetime of baseball experience. Usually, your four coaches are guys like myself, who a couple of years ago were just getting into the pro game as a coach. We’re going to help out with whatever you can help out with.
Turtle comes in here with more experience than anybody and his catching is really his specialty. So, he’ll spend a lot of time with the catchers and coaching first base. At the same time, you can say, “Hey Turtle, can you take the first basemen and work with them and the outfielders?” And he’s got an encyclopedia worth of drills that he can use with these guys.
We bounce things off of him a lot of times to get his perspective that we don’t have because we’re in our up-to-date, greatest, latest craze when it comes to analytics and sabermetrics. We’ll get his perspective of something he learned coaching 20 or 30 years ago that we’ve forgotten or don’t know. We’ll sit here and go, “Yeah, that was a really good point.”
A case in point, we’ll run a team fundamental in spring training, and say we’re doing rundowns for example. We’ll hit all nine points of the rundown points. And you’ll go, “Turtle, do you have anything to add?” And he’ll draw out two pieces of gold right there that didn’t even cross our minds.
To have him as a fourth coach, I think puts us slightly ahead of everybody in our league.
What are you looking for this year, as far as your growth? You’re like everybody else in wanting to move up the ladder and at some point get to the big leagues. What is your marker?
Hagen: You don’t want to look back at the end of the year and see guys didn’t get better. That’s where I’ll feel like it’s been a bad year or I’ll have been a failure, if there are guys in the clubhouse that didn’t take steps to get to the big leagues. There is no staying put. You’re either taking a step back or taking a step forward. So, if I can look up and down that roster of 25 guys and say that all of them took that one step, or two or three steps, whatever the case may be to get to the big leagues, then I’ll feel like our staff has done our job.
There are so many other things that are completely out of your control. You don’t know what the circumstances are going to be, as far as who gets moved up, who gets moved down, injuries that happen, guys that overperform, guys that underperform. If they play hard every day and they learn to love the process of the game, not just the three hours of the game, but the three hours that lead up to it, then I’ll feel like we’ve been successful.
The Hickory Crawdads had a rough start at the plate. April rains in the area often limited the hitters work to the batting cage and on the field the Crawdads as a unit struggled to put an offense together other than homers.
Hickory jumped to the South Atlantic League’s lead in homers in April and still remain near the top. However, hitters too often missed in-game opportunities during individual at bats and wasted scoring chances as a team.
But, the season is long and as the sunshine returned to the area, the team perked up as well, especially during a late-April series against Columbia (S.C.). Yanio Perez tortured Fireflies pitching and won the Sally League hitter-of-the-week award as a result of that work and hasn’t looked back. Leody Taveras – the Texas Rangers top prospect – has been as advertised. He went through a 15-game stretch during which he had more hits (20) than swings-and-misses (15). Yeyson Yrizarri woke out of a 1-for-39 slump and has had two four-hit games this month. Anderson Tejeda has cut his strikeout rate.
The talent is here and, more importantly, it is developing. I had a chance to speak with Crawdads hitting coach Kenny Hook during the recent home stand about the young hitters and how that development is coming along.
Let me ask you first of all, the team, started really slow. You and I talked a little bit on the side about all the rain we had and guys not being able to get into a routine. Suddenly, a lot of guys have found a stroke of genius that you’ve given them, or whatever. What about that turnaround and where the guys have come from?
Hook: The weather and not being able to spend a lot of time out on the field. The main thing is, you can get kind of fooled inside a cage sometimes. Being out on the field and seeing the flight of the ball offers you some pretty valuable feedback. So, that did play a factor, but some of it is being able to get locked in on a routine, develop more of a plan and an approach at the plate, and then getting a good understanding of how they’re going to get pitched in certain situations.
I think that’s been the biggest thing is the ability to get a better pitch earlier in the count, to not be afraid to get deep into a count, then be a little more refined in a two-strike approach. I think you saw that really with our last road trip. That was really good with two outs and two strikes was a big difference.
One of the things I noticed up front – and that turned around in the second home stand – is when guys would get in hitter’s counts, they almost seemed jumpy to try and do something, rather than waiting on the next pitch. That 2-1 or 3-0 pitch wasn’t the one you wanted and they weren’t ready for a fastball. That seems to have come around.
Hook: Yeah, I think some of that is having to do with their youth. I think a lot of them really want to get big hits instead of just getting a good pitch and putting a good swing on it. They’re trying to do too much at those times. I think they get excited and a little anxious when they work themselves into good counts. They kind of anticipate something good is coming pitch wise and then maybe they chase a little bit and swing at a pitcher’s pitch in those counts.
That’s gotten a lot better. We’ve slowed it down and allowed pitchers to make mistakes more often. But, I think that’s going to come and go because we’re young. These guys get really high and then they get down on themselves because they all want to perform and they put a little too much pressure on themselves at the plate in certain situations. They’ll get better at the more games and the more times they are in those situations.
I’m going to do a little name association and start with Leody Taveras. As an 18-year-old, he brings a lot. I know you’ve watched the twitter things I’ve posted of him having more hits that missed bats over the last couple of weeks. For an 18-year-old, that’s pretty rare.
Hook: You know what, I would say, other than his baseball skills, I’ve been most impressed with just his preparation, how intense he is. He shows up and performs every night and he is really locked in as far as playing one pitch at a time. He really understands what he needs to do in certain situations in the game. He understands that guys aren’t just going to just attack him and allow him to get good pitches in certain situations.
I think the switch to the three hole has really kind of changed his mindset there. He’s been more patient and he’s really refined his play, as far as looking for a really small zone early in the count, something he can do some damage on, and then later in the count being able to use the whole field. I think shrinking the zone early has allowed him to work into deeper counts and get ahead in counts, and then trust that he can drive the ball the other way later in counts is huge for him.
You mentioned his preparation, what does he do differently than the average 18-year-old that stands out to you?
Hook: I think it’s just mentally. I don’t think it’s something you can really see as far as that. I think all the guys prepare physically. I think he has a certain way, as far as his demeanor and really processing whatever it takes to win. He’s a fierce competitor. I think a lot of them are competing and are great competitors, but he just has a knack for being able to stay in the moment and not get too outside of himself or try to do too much in certain situations. Where I think he’s built a little different, as far as being able to control his emotions at such a young age, is what stands out for me the most.
Yanio Perez started slow, but man did he find a stick in the Columbia series. He pretty much tortured anything they threw up there. He was one of those that seemed a little jumpy in hitter’s counts early, but has found a groove.
Perez: For him, I think it’s just his mind set as a hitter. He’s so good at kind of being able to hit breaking balls and offspeed pitches up the middle and the other way to where, he was seeing a lot of them and he was just giving up on fastballs and looking to drive the breaking stuff the other way and get his hits that way.
What you saw in the Columbia series, and kind of the ongoing thing with him as far as what he needs to improve on, and what we’re preaching is, stay on the fastball timing all the time. Because, at any point, he recognizes well enough to where he can still hit the offspeed the other way. What you saw in that series is, he was looking fastball and he was committed to it, so when they did hang a slider or offspeed, you saw him get the bathead out and pulled more baseballs in that series. When he gets extended and pulls the ball, obviously you’re going to do more damage. So, you saw big power numbers in that series.
When Andy Ibanez came here last year, one of things that the Rangers wanted him to do was having him get used to how baseball is played here. How has Perez coming here and playing here made those adjustments at this level, in this country, at this setting, etc.?
Hook: I think he’s done a really good job, especially for a guy that’s played multiple positions and is getting moved around a lot. He’s transitioned pretty well. Offensively, that’s been the easiest aspect. The defensive stuff at first base – he may be in right field, left field, third base, first base – I think that’s something that’s his biggest asset, as far as being able to move around. But at the same time, it does take a certain understanding that you have to get your groundballs during BP, you have to get fly balls. There’s a lot of work to stay ready to play those positions.
I would say is, what you’re seeing is that he’s a pretty sound defender when he’s on the dirt and he can always go play corner outfield, but I think being able to do both is a huge asset, I would think in the industry as a whole and obviously, for our club.
Ti’Quan Forbes has gone the opposition direction. He started real hot and has cooled off. But the thing I noticed about him last year and the start of this year is that his confidence is so much above when he started here last year. What you do you see in him, even now when he is slumping, what he is bringing to the plate?
Hook: What I think is that it’s a trust in himself and maturing and understanding his body and his swing, and he realizes if he sticks to his plan and stays and gets ready to hit fastballs, he’s athletic enough to where good things are going to happen. That confidence and I think it’s a matter of maturing.
As kids mature, they start to understand what kind of player they are, what’s important for them to have success. You’ve seen that and even through not getting hits, he’s still hitting the ball hard every night. He’s still a threat in our lineup. He spent a lot of time in that four hole where you go into a series and you put that batting average and those power numbers up on the board, they’re going pitch him a little different. I think he’s shown how much he’s grown up by the way he’s handled that.
He’ll come out of it and they’ll start falling. He hit two balls last that were right on the barrel and hit them over 90 miles an hour. That’s all you can ask for as a hitter is hard contact and eventually those are going to turn into hits.
It doesn’t look like it’s hurt him defensively and it didn’t last year. He doesn’t take it to the field.
Hook: He’s got a great routine and he realizes how important his defense is. So, I think that’s one other aspect of his maturity. He understand that once it’s time to play defense, he really focuses on that and doesn’t let his offense affect his defense and vice versa. It’s just a matter of being a well-rounded play and understanding his role and his job.
Where does Anderson Tejeda get that power? He’s still a bit of a scrawny guy and not much bigger than my 15-year-old?
Hook: Well, I think it’s what he generates in his swing. He’s got a big leg kick and he really gets a lot of separation, and there’s a ton of bat speed in there. He’s a guy who’s at bats have gotten a lot better because he’s been able to control his body a little bit. He’s another guy that understands that people aren’t going to throw fastballs inside, because that’s his strength. So, he’s been able to be more selective. He can hit the ball out to any field. I think trusting that has been the key for him. He doesn’t have to pull the ball to do damage. He’s just a talented, gifted hitter that, at his age, is pretty impressive.
Yrizarri came back and for me, that was a bit of a surprise. He came back here and struggled at the start, but has seemed to find himself again. Did he struggle with all of this coming back and trying to figure out what he’s doing here and moving positions?
Hook: I think there’s probably something to that, as far as feeling a little disappointed that he didn’t move up from here. You know, I think he understands at this point that’s what’s best for him. He’s got to take it for what it’s worth, but come out and improve on what he did last year here and play a little more second base and being able to control the strike zone better and really get more of a well-round game. I think what you’ve seen with him lately is he’s got a lot of two-strike hits. He’s not chasing as much.
I think what you saw early on was a guy who felt like: I was one swing away every time I went up there, getting big hit and then getting moved out of here as fast as possible. You’ve just got to do what you can and stay in the present every time and that stuff will take care of itself.
I’m really happy with his work ethic through all his struggles. He’s been at it every day and his mindset hasn’t changed. He’s a great kid that puts a ton of pressure on himself. He’s very emotional and cares so much about the team and about his performance that sometimes to a fault. Keeping an even keel is probably the biggest challenge and will directly affect his success.
What happened with Eric Jenkins? He came here and had really good at bats the first couple of games. But there was the Columbia series where the team had a tight game in the ninth, and he had a chance for a big hit and the uppercut swing came back. What mindset do you see with him so far?
Hook: I think it’s a work in progress. I think he was on to some really good things and having some plate discipline in there. I think, as it is with any hitter, if you don’t start to see the results, as any human would do, you revert back to what you know and what you’re comfortable with.
I expect him to go down there (extended spring) and work and be back here soon. He’s very talented and a very likable kid and he’s got a lot of tools. So, I think it’s a matter of giving him a chance to step back and just understand what he needs to do to develop his game. He’ll be back here, I’m sure pretty soon.
Who has surprised you the most to this point of the season?
Hook: To this point, I think Ricky Valencia. I’ve known, but I haven’t seen Ricky, though this is my fourth year with Texas. Ricky has never been in a situation where he’s been a frontline guy, in my time with the Rangers. His leadership – he’s a little bit older – but his ability to hit and to understand having a plan, and being that guy that can teach the younger Latin kids. He’s a great role model and a great leader for them. He’s a solid, solid guy. Every night, you know what you’re going to get. Whether he’s 0-for-4 or 4-for-4, he’s pretty much the same.
He’s probably been the most impressive because I’ve never seen him in that role and it looks like he’s talking full advantage of that chance and opportunity.
Kowalczyk is taking advantage of his opportunity.
Hook: Yeah, he’s a big strong kid that can obviously generate some bat speed. He just needs experience, I think, learning how to call a game and learning the catching position at this level. He’s been impressive since he’s gotten here with the bat.
What do we look for in Aparicio?
Hook: A guy that is a lot like Tejeda. He’s got a little pop. He can really play the outfield and has a really good and a really food competitor. He’s a guy that sprays the ball around. I think he’s got some real tools. He can run. He’s got the hitability. I think we’re getting a player that’s exciting, a lot like that players we have here right now, so he should fit in great.
Tim Tebow is easily the biggest larger-than-life figure to come to Hickory as an athlete in at least a decade. When South Caldwell product Madison Bumgarner pitched for Augusta (Ga.) against Hickory in April 2008, the Crawdads drew a crowd of 4,805 for a Thursday night game. As I type this, already three of the four games for the series to begin today are sold out, with the Sunday game having only a couple of hundred tickets left. Without having records prior to 2005 to back it up, I’m guessing it’ll be the most-attended four-game series at L.P. Frans Stadium since the 1990s.
There is quite the fervor with Tebow. When I attended the game on April 10 at Columbia, S.C. Tebow jerseys were everywhere. When he came to bat in the seventh with runners on, the chant of “Te-bow, Te-bow” reverberated throughout Spirit Communication Park. It was a fascinating scene to watch rabid SEC fans in Columbia that hate everything non-Gamecocks, especially the vitriol they have for things University of Florida football, celebrate Tebow.
Love him or hate him, there’s been nothing like him to come to the South Atlantic League and this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for fans to see a transcendent athlete that for most they have only seen on a TV screen.
The expectation from some is that Tebow will rise quickly to the New York Mets. That’s not how baseball works. It’s called a grind for a reason. Sure, there is the occasional homer, but there is also the baserunning blunder – he overran second and was caught in a rundown in the game I saw.
The big story is Tim Tebow being in the league and is one of the biggest figures to come to the South Atlantic League since at least Bryce Harper played with Hagerstown. First of all, what was your reaction and what was your team’s reaction would you found out you were going to have Tebow on the roster this year?
Leger: To me, as a manager, it’s a challenge, because we’re speaking of an athlete that has had some success in a different sport and now coming to playing baseball, and being a little new to him, due to the fact that he was away from the game for such a long time.
So, I say a challenge because it’s my job to try and get him better and try to get him to the next level. I know that just as it is a challenge for us to get all the players better. For me with him it was going to be, okay, I’ve got to get him better, but I’ve also got to make sure that he knows the little things about the game that he probably hasn’t gone through in the past couple of years: game situations, base running, how to approach different leads, his rhythm at the plate, his throwing, the everyday grind and opposed to when you’re in football you play once or twice a week. I knew it was going to be a challenge.
The reaction of the fans and the city and the other players has been great. I know the other players get a lot out of him due to a guy having such a good career in a sport like football and being a leader in another sport, and bringing that leadership with him, and for them to see his work habits. Guys can see that and were looking forward to this. The city was actually looking forward to seeing him playing baseball. The excitement we had this past week has been awesome. It’s been a great experience.
He’s had a career where he’s had pressure – a big time SEC quarterback at Florida, winning the Heisman Trophy, going into the NFL. Is there a different kind of pressure for him coming into this at 29 and playing a different sport, or is he – in the time you’ve been around him – been impervious to that?
Leger: I don’t think there’s pressure at all. He’s enjoying what he’s doing. He’s taking it day by day. He’s working very hard and he’s already seeing progress and we are seeing progress. So, it’s going to be a journey and he’s enjoying it. He’s going day by day to see what happens. He’s trying to control the things within his control, within his reach.
I think he’s not worried about it. There’s no pressure at all. He’s done a lot already, showing that he can hit a little bit – he’s hit two home runs in this past series. He’s getting better defensively and I think the sky’s the limit on him getting the best out of his ability.
Is he in a situation where he can help your guys with pressure – with the pressure of playing in a full 140-game season? For a lot of these guys, it’s their first full season and the bus rides and all that comes with that. Do you see him having a role in dealing with that pressure?
Leger: Yes, he could be “that guy” that the guys look up to, just because he’s leads by example and the things he does. Right now, as we speak, he’s in the cage hitting with our hitting coach. He was here early shagging balls on the field while three other players were getting extra work. So that tells me, he didn’t need to be there, but he wanted to be out there catching extra fly balls. And now he’s taking extra swings in the cage.
Yeah, he knows he’s got some catching up to do, but he’s doing his best and the guys see this. So, the guys see that this guy is working hard and say, “Who am I not to work hard?” So, he leads by example and he always says the right things to the guys. Every now and then when he talks to the guys, you don’t even notice it, but he’s getting everybody’s ear on how to go about their business and how to be a professional.
A lot of guys, this is their first 140-game season and they’re getting on that bus ride to Lakewood, N.J. and Delmarva (Md.) and all of those places that you guys have to go this year. Is he more prepared for that sort of grind than maybe the average 19 or 20-year old that’s starting out in a full season?
Leger: What can I say, I don’t know. We shall see how he’s going to respond to that. I know the guys see his body and his built – he’s very strong. So, I don’t think there’s a concern about his body holding up and being able to go through the bus rides and then wake up the next day and go and /play baseball. It is a challenge for everybody. It’s hard for me as a manager and I don’t play.
I know it’s going to be a little tough for some of these young kids as well, and the travel and all that. It’s a game of adjustments and we’re going to be ready for that. I know that Tim’s got to go through the travels and it’s some of the grind that you’ve got to go through when you’re in the minor leagues.
What’s the biggest thing at this point that Tebow will have to go through? You mentioned it -a little bit, as far as the intricacies that he’s had to deal with, that you don’t deal with as a high school player. Give me some examples of what he’ll have to pick up at this level.
Leger: I think his base running and getting more reps in the outfield. If you think about when he played in high school, it was aluminum bats and the ball coming off the bat and it’s a different read, because you kind of go off the sound. The same thing you do in baseball with wooden bat and I think he’s still getting used to it.
I think the more reps he gets in the outfield and base running and knowing when to run and when not to run, and all this. The more he plays at this level, the better he’s going to feel. The more reps he gets, the better he’s going to get.
The guy is smart and he gets it. He knows that it’s a matter of paying attention and just going through it and doing drills and all that. Hopefully, at the end, he understands, “this is how I’ve got to run the bases. This is what I need to do defensively.” Once he puts it all together, I think it’s just going to be going to the next level and start doing the same thing.
One of the things that kills a lot of people at this level is they can hit fastballs, but then struggle once they face pitchers that can spin the baseball a little bit. How has he adjusting to that, so far?
Leger: He’s done well. He’s seeing the breaking ball. He’s taken some good breaking balls in the dirt for balls and he hasn’t swung. His strike-zone vision has been actually pretty good. I think it’s, like I said, just a matter of repetition for him.
For all the guys, you and the Mets have goals where you’d like to see this player at A, B and C at the end of the year. What are the goals for Tebow by the time he’s going home from wherever in September?
Leger: We don’t have like stats or numbers set for him in order to move to the next level. We’re kind of paying attention to the little details like, talking the proper path in the outfield, knowing where to throw the ball in different situations – when to throw to second or when to throw to the plate to keep the double play in order – running the bases, all these little details. Once you see that, okay, he can go up. You check boxes. Okay, so, he’s doing this right, he’s doing this right.
On top of that, his at bats, the consistency of his at bats at the plate. The more consistency we see with the strike zone, the better chance he has. Once he accomplishes all that, I think they’re going to move him to the next level. I don’t know if it’s sooner or later. He might be here with me the whole time or he might be gone the next month. It’s not my call. My job is to try to get him better. But, I think that’s what they’re looking at. They’re looking at him getting better in those areas and hopefully getting him promoted soon.
There has been football players that have come in – guys that were good two-sport athletes that decided to play baseball and not football coming out of high school – and they struggled with putting the athletic ability to baseball ability. What’s the thing Tebow will have to figure out as far as putting that baseball ability with the athleticism?
Leger: I’ve had players like this. Last year, I had a player Ivan Wilson, who was good at football and baseball. You see him practice and he was impressive, but he never translated to the game and he decided to retire. I had another player in Bradley Marquez for two years at Kingsport (Tenn.) and it was the same thing. Sometimes, the ability doesn’t translate to the sport, but you’ll never find out until you throw him into the fire to see what he’s got. So far, he’s proven that he can play. I think that time is going to dictate that.
With the first full week completed, the Hickory Crawdads go into an off-day on Easter at 5-6 following a split of Saturday’s doubleheader with Kannapolis.
The opening series at Greensboro was a wild one for the pitching staff, as the combined for 37 walks over the first five games, which had much to do with a 1-4 start. Over the last six, that number was cut to 14 and the team’s record is 4-2 in that stretch.
On Friday, I had a chance to catch up with Crawdads pitching coach Jose Jaimes about the team’s start and to ask about some of the names that started the season at Hickory.
First, let me get your overview of the season’s first week on the pitching staff. Control has been a bit of an issue, but for some guys it’s starting to come around a bit. Let me get your assessment of that first week.
Jaimes: Those first four games, we had a tough time finding the zone. Some guys just walked too many guys, especially the starters early in the game. We couldn’t locate our fastball. But, if feel like it’s coming and getting a lot better, especially these last four games in Columbia and yesterday. I feel like guys are starting to make some adjustments. To be honest, the fact that we couldn’t practice before the season and we couldn’t play, I think that had some effect on some guys. They couldn’t face hitters for almost a week. That had a big factor on what happened those first four games.
That was my next question, how much did the rain affect your guys who couldn’t throw side sessions, etc?
Jaimes: Yeah, especially that exhibition game was going to be huge, especially for the starters. Obviously, we couldn’t play and they ended up throwing bullpens, but it’s not the same as throwing to a catcher in a game. I think it was one reason why they couldn’t find the zone as quick as they wanted. But, it’s getting better.
Jonathan Hernandez is back here for another year and honestly, I was a little surprised to see him back as he finished so strong last year. What are the Rangers wanting to see him accomplish starting here a second year?
Jaimes: Consistency with the fastball. Last year, like you said, he finished strong. He put together five good outings towards the end of the year. We just want to see that on a consistent basis. We got to see that in the last outing at Columbia. That’s what we’re looking for. He’s working ahead on the count on every hitter the first time through the lineup. So, that’s the main thing for him, his fastball command. Hopefully, at some point, we’ll get to see him move up.
Jake Lemoine is a name some folks have asked me about. I saw him the first outing at Greensboro. At first, he had a little struggle finding a feel, but then had a strong second inning. Coming off the shoulder troubles, what’s sort of things are ahead for him?
Jaimes: He dealt with a lot of bumps the last few years. He last pitched two years ago. I’m actually pretty impressed, especially with his last outing in Columbia where he pounded the zone. He’s a guy that has a feel for the baseball. He controls his fastball and has pretty good control with his secondary pitches. So, I think he’s going to be a big part of the team. Hopefully, he can stay healthy and let the talent play. A great guy.
Is he going to be getting bite-size outings?
Jaimes: For right now, we’re going to try to keep it to three innings, just because of what happened the last two years with him. He’s going to be a guy that’s going to pitch every two or three days.
Let me ask you about Kyle Cody. Like everybody else, had a rough first outing, then pitched in and out of trouble the last start.
Jaimes: The two outings have been almost the same, Kind of erratic the first two or three innings, but then once he gets it going he gets a lot better. Last night, we saw that. The fourth and fifth innings, he did a really good job of mixing his pitches. His fastball command was a lot better. That was his main issue the first three innings: a lot of deep counts, a lot of 2-1 counts and guys were able to put the barrel to the baseball. A 6-7 guy that’s a really good talent and I’m pretty excited for him. He’s one of our main guys this year, so hopefully he’ll stay healthy. I think once he gets it going, he’s going to keep getting better.
Somebody I’m looking forward to seeing, based simply on the stats from the Dominican – this is his first stateside assignment – is Edgar Arredondo. He had a 56 Ks and 4 walks last year. Like everyone else the first week, he had that wrinkle, but I’m looking forward to seeing what he has to offer based on the stats sheet.
Jaimes: He’s a strike thrower. He’s a guy that’s going to feel through it some. He’s going to attack here. It was the first time he was pitching in front of fans and lights. So, I was kind of expecting that, but I after that I saw his first inning, I was really excited. He pounded the first inning 1-2-3. I think he got a little upset when he gave up the first hit on an 0-2 count and then he lost his concentration and couldn’t get it back. Again, he’s a guy that’s going to throw strikes. That was not the Arredondo that I know. I don’t even worry about him. He had a really good bullpen session yesterday. He’s a guy that commands his pitches: fastball and a really good changeup and a really good curve.
Tyler Ferguson hasn’t thrown. What’s happening with him?
Jaimes: He couldn’t make the Greensboro series because he got sick, so we just kept him at home. We didn’t want anybody else to get sick. Then coming back, he had to play catch at least three days. He threw a bullpen a couple of days ago and now he’s ready to go.
Of the guys that I haven’t mentioned yet – there’s so many guys that come in and out – who’s somebody that you’re looking at as someone that will step forward?
Jaimes: I’ve got one guy and that’s going to be Sal Mendez. He’s been a guy that had a really good spring training. A guy that goes out there and competes. He has average stuff, but the way that he throws the ball with the conviction that he has, he makes it look better. In his last outing at Greensboro when he went 4.2 innings. He’s going to command all three pitches coming from the left side. He has some sink and a really good changeup. I think he’s going to be our sleeper.
Emerson(Martinez) is pitching tonight. I know you don’t care about wins and losses, but it seemed that he pitched in a little tough luck when he got into the starting rotation last year. He had a good outing last time.
Jaimes; Actually, we almost made a big deal of it because last year he went 0-6. It seemed like every time he didn’t pitch we’d score a lot of runs. Then every time he’d pitch, we didn’t score. When he got his first win, he was all pumped up. He said, “It’s a new year and a new beginning and I’m going to help the team.” He grew up a lot last year for us. I had him two years ago when I worked in Spokane. He was kind of timid and he didn’t trust his stuff. That was something that last year he realized that his stuff was good enough to get people out. He showed that in his first game. He went out there and just pounded. I’m really happy with what he’s doing.
I’ve seen Tyler (Davis) pitch both in Columbia and here last night and showed some good stuff. Had some good outings here last year before he got bumped up. Doesn’t throw hard, but he spots well and throws a decent slider.
Jaimes: He’s a pitcher, though. He goes out there and pitches. He knows what he has. He knows that he doesn’t have power stuff, so he goes out there and just locates it. He locates his fastball; he locates his changeup, slider. He knows how to pitch. Everybody loves Tyler. When he got here last week, I was pretty excited to have him a part of the team. He not only brings his stuff, but he’s around the bullpen helping me with these kids. I’m really happy for him and having here with me.
Christian Torres is back. Another (Alex) Claudio clone, maybe?
Jaimes: You’re hoping for that. Claudio is one of those guys that knows what he does. Claudio is a little bit bigger, but I can see a little bit of Claudio in Torres. Decent sinker, really good changeup. They’re pretty close.
Best fastball on the staff right now.
Jaimes: Kyle Cody.
Best secondary stuff right now:
Jaimes: Sal Mendez.
Best Breaking ball:
Jaimes: Emerson Martinez and Tyler Davis.
The Hickory Crawdads begin its 25th anniversary season with a bang on Wednesday, January 10 by hosting the 2017 Texas Rangers Winter Caravan at Rock Barn Golf and Spa in Conover, N.C. The Rangers made a two-stop tour of their North Carolina minor league affiliates, as the caravan was part of an event last evening at the new affiliate in Kinston.
On hand from the Rangers were Neil Leibman, chairman of the Rangers ownership group, assistant director of player development Paul Kruger, manager Jeff Banister and 2017 Crawdads manager Spike Owen. Also attending were major league field coordinator Josh Bonifay – who played and coached at Hickory during the Pittsburgh Pirates affiliation – as well as pitchers Tony Barnette and Nick Martinez. Martinez pitched for Hickory in 2012. Rangers radio voice Matt Hicks emceed to post-luncheon event.
Prior to the lunch, I had a chance to interview several of the participants, including Banister. The Rangers manager previously hopped into Hickory while in his role as the Pirates minor league field coordinator late in the last decade. During the interview, we talked about his time as a rover in the minors and the importance of Low-A ball in the future development of major leaguers. We also talked about what he expects Owen will bring to Hickory, as well as Bonifay’s addition to the staff. This is the first of four interview’s from Wednesday’s event.
If I remember right, you came here as a rover with the Pirates not that long ago. It seems like not that long ago, but 10-15 years ago. Now, you come back here as a major league manager.
Banister: Yeah, first of all, I came here as a minor league manager in 1995, when I was with Augusta, and then back again as a field coordinator for Pittsburgh, all the years that Pittsburgh was here. So, I think the last time I was here was in 2008. Somewhere around that time frame.
You know, it’s fun to come back. As I flew into the airport and flew over the stadium (L.P. Frans Stadium), it was fun to see that stadium. I hadn’t really seen it this time of the year before with snow on the ground. It’s feels good to see a lot of people and recognize faces – there are some that I know better than others.
I spent a lot of time here. There were times that I had to manage here. When Jeff Branson (Crawdads manager in 2005-2006) was here and had to take a leave of absence, and Dave Clark (2004 manager) was here and had to take a leave of absence. So, I have a lot of fond memories of Hickory and this ballpark. It was always one of my favorite stops.
How different a world are you in now than in Low-A baseball? Are there times you wish you think, maybe it might not be too bad to come back to a lower level with less pressure, etc.?
Banister: You know what, I’ve been a minor league guy, a development guy at heart, really. That’s who I am. The opportunity to manage the big leagues is obviously spectacular, all the superlatives that you can put on it and think about. However, understanding the grassroots level, where you come from, the paths of people, are all woven into what I do every single day. I never forget that.
One of the things that you look at in putting the staff that I put together at Texas, they’re all long-time, minor league guys that understand the development side of this game and what we do. The teaching process is still a part of our life at the major league level. It’s impacted by the stadiums we play in, the travel and the number of people. But, it’s still baseball.
Spike Owen was your third base coach last year, and he had to fill in for another former Crawdads Tony Beasley. He’s coming here to manage this year. What have you seen with Spike over the last year that you think he will bring to this position here at Hickory?
Banister: Well first of all, I’ve known Spike for a long time, even all the way back to his University of Texas days. This is a guy who was a highly competitive player. He loved to play the game – a tremendous knowledge of how to play the game.
I would say that he’s a guy that over the years has learned and transitioned himself into the understanding of teaching the game. He’s a guy that has great patience with players and has a teacher’s mindset and a servant’s heart. A guy that I think is going to be great on the development side and has had success already on the development side.
One, that gives me great comfort to know that our players are getting the best of what I consider both worlds – the teaching aspect of it, but also the knowledge of what it takes to be a major league player. He’s a long time major league player himself and has a great understanding. He refreshed that this past season being on the major league staff. He’s got a fresh set of eyes on what it takes to be a major league player.
From your time as a field coordinator, managing, etc., what is the biggest thing that a player in Low-A needs to learn that will serve him well when he gets to the major leagues?
Banister: First of all, that you’re still going to make mistakes. This is an imperfect business and it’s an imperfect game, as much as we’d like to think that it’s a perfect game. You’re not always going to be successful. It’s an extremely negative game. You’re not going to have production that stands out on paper, visible for everybody to see, but there are contributions that can be made. You have to be able to finish your game off, in a sense that, if you’re a home run hitter and you’re facing a guy that doesn’t hit home runs, what do you have in your skill set that can help a team offensively. Can he run the bases well? Can he play defense?
The thing in today’s game, we have so much knowledge, so much information, understanding the game plan, where you need to play, the tendencies of other players. It’s no longer just a sport of roll out the balls and bats and go perform. There’s an education process of who you’re playing, how you’re playing, and what you need to do to beat this team. Because the bottom line, teams show up every spring training with the thought process and idea to win, and they know everything about you as the opposing team.
What adjustments can you make to have some measurable success day in and day out. You’re not always going to have huge successes every single day. So, it’s small incremental success where you’ve got to build your career on. If you’re looking for huge increments every single day, this game will eat you up, spit you out and put you back in the minor leagues.
Josh Bonifay, who played here with the Pirates and coached here with the Pirates, is now going to be your field coordinator. What did the Rangers see in him to be able to hire him to fill that position?
Banister: First of all, I’ve known Josh since he was probably 10 or 11 years old. I had developed a relationship with him, not only as a person, but also as a player, when he played for Pittsburgh, then transitioning to the coaching side of it. And then I watched him from afar as he became a highly successful manager.
The thing that I looked for in this position is one, the administrative side of it. Can you put together the things that myself, the scouting staff and the coaching staff want, so that we can put a day together for individual players – how are they going to get better every day individually – but also collectively. Also, we’re look for a guy that had outfield experience, teaching outfield, and baserunning experience and being able to teach baserunning.
He fit that role and he’s had success with players over in the Houston organization. He had success with the Pirates organization. So, that in itself, and how he relates to players, and how can he relate to the other coaches. But also, the thing, for me, is that he’s an open book. A guy that’s not coming in with, “hey, I’ve got all the answers, this is what I’m going to do to put a stamp on this. He’s a guy that’s coming in with a clean slate and wants to learn, but add value to each one of us coaches.