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.
This is the final installment of an interview I did with Mike Daly, Texas Rangers Senior Director of Minor League Operations.
He discusses the progress of prospects Brett Martin, Jonathan Hernandez and Pedro Payano, as well as a few other pitchers making their way onto the parent club’s radar.
In case you missed it: Part I focused on the Crawdads top hitting prospect (at the time) Andy Ibanez and the top pitching prospect Dillon Tate
Part II looked at the Crawdads hitting prospects, including Eric Jenkins and Yeyson Yrizarri.
I was surprised to see Brett Martin come back here. When I talked with him at the start of the season he said there was a checklist essentially: first pitch curve ball for strikes; work on the secondaries deeper in the count, getting through hitters a little bit quicker rather than running up count. How is he doing with the checklist as far as you can tell?
Daly: I think it’s been real good for Brett. Brett came in here last year, I think he was with that group of Yohander Mendez, Ariel Jurado, Luis Ortiz, and now he came back to Hickory being one of the lead guys. I think some of the challenges for him last year was to go out there, get deep in games and get guys out. Now, he’s taken like a step and it’s a little bit about pitch development. It’s about throwing that breaking ball when you’re behind in the count. It’s about getting guys out in three or four pitches or less. I think it’s been like a challenge for Brett and we think that it’s something that’s ultimately going to be helpful for him as he starts to move up the ladder.
I think there are a lot of discussions at the end of spring training about challenging him there at high A, or do we have him back to Hickory. We felt there were a number of challenges that he could go through here in Hickory that would prepare him better to go to High A, ultimately AA and on up to the Major leagues. Where Brett’s at, it’s been a challenge, but a very good one and something that we see as helping his career up to this point.
Jonathan Hernandez is somebody I’m beginning to enjoy more and more watching him pitch. He’s a young guy at 19. In his first start at Kannapolis, he was falling all over the place and he’s toned that down a lot. He seems to learn quickly into what he needs to do to make the next step.
Daly: He also comes from a baseball family. His father pitched in the minor leagues for a number of years. He actually was born in the states when his father was playing for Memphis. His father is also a pitching coach in the Dominican Winter League for Aguilas down there. So Jonathan has grown up in baseball and he’s always been a very focused young man.
I give Jonathan a lot of credit. When we signed him, he was very, very skinny. He’s put on a lot of good weight. He’s put in a lot of time in our Dominican complex. He pitched for two years for our Dominican Summer League team. He’s a young man that has some weapons. He can really mix all of his pitches. He has a very good I.Q. and aptitude of what he’s trying to do out there on the mound. It’s been real exciting to see him grow both physically and mentally over the past few years that he’s been in the organization.
Pedro Payano has been at the top of the rotation, when you run them out there one through six. He’s always going to give your five or six innings. He had the one-hitter. In a lot of ways, he came out of nowhere for us when he came here in August last year.
Daly: I think that Pedro is another guy that has a very good I.Q. He’s very good in terms of being able to read what the other hitters are trying to do. He’s able to attack them based on what the hitters are trying to read; so, he’s able to read bats. He’ll throw the breaking ball behind in the count. He’ll throw his changeup in any count. He can throw the fastball up to 92-93 and has good deception.
He’s a guy that took a couple of years in out Dominican Summer League program to kind of get himself going, but he’s been on a rocket ever since. He’s a guy that started 2015 in the Dominican Summer League, jumped to Arizona and then ended up here and was a huge part of the championship team for the Hickory Crawdads. We see a guy that has a very, very bright future.
Erik Swanson is another one that has taken another step forward after not throwing much last year.
Daly: It’s another credit to our scouting department. We get him in the eighth round out of Iowa Western and that was a good job by our scouts to even dig him up.
He’s a young man that has a very, very good arm. He’s really invested in what he’s doing off the field. He’s really invested in the strength and conditioning program and has done an outstanding job with Wade Lamont and Dustin Vissering, our strength and conditioning coach and our trainer, in terms of our arm care program that got derailed last year with some injuries. But he’s a guy that’s come in here this year and taken the ball each and every time that he’s gotten it, and it’s been very impressive.
He’s got a very heavy fastball, sneaky fastball and really pounds the strike zone. He’s a guy that we’ve been really excited about over the first couple of months, and that’s a real credit to Swanny and the investment he’s made in the strength and conditioning program.
Who are we not paying enough attention to on the pitching side, someone who’s not on the radar and then all of a sudden, there he is?
Daly: I think anytime you’re six-foot-seven and left-handed, I think Adam Choplick is a guy that is someone to keep an eye on. He throws up to 94 with a slider.
We got a real interesting guy in Matt Ball in the trade there with the Chicago White Sox for Anthony Renaudo. Again, a good job there by our scouting department to identify him – a 6-foot-4 pitcher with a 94, 95 mile-an-hour fastball and a slider. He’s been real impressive in the short amount of time that he’s been here so far.
I think Jeffery Springs from right up the road here (Appalachian State) is a guy whose fastball has taken a couple of steps up. He’s got a plus changeup. He can throw that changeup at any time in any count. He’s a left-hander with a really good makeup.
This is part two of a lengthy interview I did with Texas Rangers Senior Director of Minor League Operations Mike Daly during the last homestand.
In part one, we talked about two of the higher profile prospects, Hickory Crawdads second baseman Andy Ibanez and starting pitcher Dillon Tate.
Part two is a look at the Crawdads hitters, with a longer look at 2015 second round pick, outfielder Eric Jenkins, as well as at shortstop prospect Yeyson Yrizarri.
Eric Jenkins struggling now. The speed doesn’t go into a slump and he’s been able to use that some, but a bit of a work in progress at the plate. We’re noticing sometimes he’s having difficult in fastball counts being able to be ready for those pitches. He seems to be seeing the breaking ball a little bit better. How is his progress as you see it at this point?
Daly: Any time that a young player, especially a high school kid, comes out and plays his first full season here in the South Atlantic League, it is a challenge. It is a grind of 140 games. It’s something that these guys have never gone through before. So understand that each and every night, no matter if you’re in a slump or if you’re hot, you have to be ready to play at 7:00 in front of fans with the scoreboard on. That’s a great challenge.
Eric’s got tremendous speed. He has a game-changing type speed. He’s a plus defender in the outfield. But these guys, as they start to play teams, professional pitchers that know how to attack hitters, that have scouting reports on Eric and other players it becomes like a big challenge for these guys. Eric, Yrizarri (Yeyson), (Ti’Quan) Forbes, they need to make adjustments and understand that when the league adjusts to you, you need to adjust to the league.
So where Eric’s at, we think that it’s just him going through the first year of playing each and every day. His speed tool is great. It allows him to bunt. It allows him to put the ball on the ground and make some of the infielders really hustle in terms of having to throw to first base. Frankly with that speed, it should never be a prolonged slump, but I think with Eric, the fact that each and every day he’s healthy, he’s on the field and getting through that first year grind here in Hickory.
I have some people asking, “Why are they keeping him at the top of the order, why not drop him down?” And my response has been he’s got to learn how to hit lead-off and this is the place to do it. Have the Rangers basically wanted to see that through. at least at this point?
Daly: Most definitely, I mean it’s game-changing type speed. He’s a guy that had some success last year when we drafted him right away out in Arizona and was a part of the championship team here last year. We’ve got a lot of confidence in Eric. He’s going to have some struggles, but Eric needs to work through that and he needs to know that the organization is behind him and he has the confidence to go up there and try to set the table for the meat of the lineup.
We want him to feel that pressure, if you will, batting leadoff. We want him to go up there and find a way to get on base and identify what the pitcher is throwing that night. So, we think it’s really good for Eric and he’s going to be at the top of the lineup here for some time to come.
I’ve enjoyed watching Yeyson Yrizarri play. I love defense. I loved watching Michael De Leon play shortstop the last two years. You guys have run some guys through the last two years that can flat out play defense and (Yrizarri) is certainly at the top of the list for me. He’s very well put together for a 19-year-old and does some things well for his age and his level. Let me ask you about his progression.
Daly: He’s a strong and durable young man. Obviously, he’s got some strong blood lines there, being the nephew of Deivi Cruz. He was a guy that had a really strong body when we signed him. It’s been step-by-step. He started out in the Dominican Summer League and he earned his way to Arizona. Last year, he played under the lights out there in Spokane.
You’re right, he’s here in a long line of shortstops that we’ve been lucky enough to send here to Hickory. It’s a cannon. It’s a bazooka over there at shortstop. He loves to play. I think it’s the same kind of thing that Eric Jenkins is going through – the grind of playing each and every night, playing against teams that have seen him multiple times and have an idea of how to pitch you and have an idea what some of your weaknesses are. It’ s a great challenge for Yeyson to make some adjustments with the bat. But he shows some power at the plate. He’s a plus shortstop with an absolute bazooka.
He seems like at the plate to be somebody that is a little bit more advanced than a Jenkins or a Forbes or other 18, 19 year olds. He’s able to work deeper into counts. He may eventually strike out or hit a week groundball, but he seems to have a better idea of how to go about an at-bat at this point.
Daly: Definitely, and I think it’s a credit to him. Yeyson has a very good aptitude and he’s also in a situation in where he signed in July of 2013, where Eric signed in June of 2015. So, Yeyson’s had a little bit more at-bats. He’s been in the organization almost two years longer. He’s been through more games in Arizona and Spokane, so I think that might be a little bit of a difference in terms of just a little bit more experience for Yeyson Yrizarri versus a guy like Eric Jenkins. But I think both those guys have great aptitudes and it’s exciting to see them go through their first full season here together. Yeyson has a clear idea of what he’s trying to do at the plate and it’s exciting to see.
Who is somebody at the plate that is maybe under the radar that a fan might want to pay attention to that is otherwise not being talked about?
Daly: I say, it’s like a few guys. I think it’s been a really good catching tandem with Chuck Moorman and Tyler Sanchez. I think those guys have really invested in our pitchers. They’ve done a really good job behind the plate and put together some really nice at-bats.
Dylan Moore playing first base, second base, shortstop and third base as been a really good player right in the middle of the lineup there for Steve Mintz. He’s a guy that brings a lot to the table and is able to bring lots of versatility for Steve Mintz every night to be able to play him at a lot of different positions.
I think Ti’Quan Forbes over there at third base is another guy that played next to Yrizarri last year at Spokane and the year before that in Arizona. He’s a guy that continues to get bigger and stronger and put together good at-bats and he’s been real exciting.
Eduard Pinto is a guy that certainly the Hickory fans have had some experience with and they see how he’s come back from the tragedy that was going on in his life. He’s a guy that’s been in the organization for four or five years, but always puts together a good at bat.
LeDarious Clark is an interesting guy that really lit it up last year in Spokane and is as athletic as they come, and has tools, and just being able to see how he’s gone about it each and every game and how he’s continued to get more and more experience and he’s starting to tie in his physical attributes with what he’s learned here on a daily basis.
I think all of the position players are very interesting at this point for the Crawdads.
Do you like how the team is developing with the speed game?
Daly: Definitely. I think it’s a credit to Steve Mintz to push our guys to run and to give a lot of them green lights and not to hold them back. I think it’s about development and how these guys are learning what they’re capable of doing and to see them have a lot of success. We have some speed on the team and it’s good to see these guys be aggressive and to take chances on the base paths and to see the success that they’re having.
It’s a dog fight. Hagerstown is a really good team and this whole South Atlantic League is really good. It’s good to see these guys compete and battle to try and win the first half.
There are figures who get into managing after being groomed for the position as players. St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny entered the job with no coaching or managerial experience. Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, whose prior coaching experience was leading Team Israel for three seasons in international competition. Both, however, were seen as students of the game as long-time major league catchers.
However, most get into managing pro clubs after lengthy careers as coaches. Case in point: new Hickory Crawdads skipper Steve Mintz.
Mintz is a baseball lifer. Now 47, the native of Leland, N.C. was originally drafted as a catcher by the Dodgers out of Mt. Olive College. The Los Angeles Dodgers quickly converted him to the mound and his playing career took off. After spending time with the Dodgers and Boston Red Sox organizations, it was with the San Francisco Giants that Mintz made his big-league debut in 1995. After the proverbial cup of coffee and tenures with the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Diego Padres systems, Mintz got another brief chance with the Anaheim Angels in 1999. He played out his career with the Angels AAA farm team at Salt Lake in 2001 before signing on as a short-season pitching coach with the Angels to finish out the 2001 season. He then spent ten seasons as a pitching coach in the Minnesota Twins organization before coming to the Texas Rangers chain in 2012.
With the Rangers, Mintz has spent the last three years as the pitching coach at high-A Myrtle Beach and High Desert. He was slated for a promotion to AA Frisco to start this season. However, when Texas Rangers third base coach Tony Beasley was diagnosed with cancer, the wheels went into motion throughout the organization. Spike Owen, originally assigned to manage the Crawdads this season, replaced Beasley in Arlington and Mintz was assigned in late February to manage at Hickory.
Mintz had his first taste of managing this offseason with the Adelaide Bite of the Australian Baseball League. With former Crawdads players Travis Demeritte and Chris Dula on the roster, Mintz led the Bite to a 30-26 record and a spot in the ABL’s championship game.
But now, after 12 seasons as a player, 14 seasons as a pitching coach in 20 different cities altogether, Mintz will finally get his first gig as a stateside manager with Hickory. He comes into the job with a host of connections from around baseball and Mintz will quickly tell you that a lot of good baseball people had a hand in preparing him for his first managerial job. But Mintz is looking forward to creating his own style on the field and in the clubhouse.
Mintz is married to his wife Cathi, with whom they have three children: Abby, Hunter and Jacob.
(Mintz’s connection with Beasley is an interesting one to note with Mintz coming to Hickory in light of Beasley’s health issues. Not only is Beasley a former Crawdads manager (2002-2003), but both Mintz and Beasley played junior college ball at Louisburg (N.C.) College.)
This is the first time managing after 14 years, other than the Australian thing?
Mintz: I’m super excited. I thank the Lord every day. I’m a blessed man for the opportunity that the Texas Rangers have given me. Not just this, but in the previous three years in the things they’ve let me do to get better at managing, to understand managing and allowing me to go to Australia and the different things they’ve let me do. I’ve been preparing for this a long time, hoping that I would get one some time or another. Then, with the situation that took place with the organization, and then overnight, it happened. I’m very excited and very blessed and grateful, and I’m looking forward to the season. I’m ready to get started.
And you get to do this close to home?
Mintz: That’s icing on the cake, as they say. Especially last year, being in California and then going to Australia. I think I was away from my wife and kids over nine months last year, in just the one year. My wife was able to come out here this weekend and help me get set up, and being able to spend those things with her. My daughter’s at North Carolina State, so she’s two-and-a-half hours away and she can come whenever she wants. Obviously, that’s a plus with the job, but I would have took wherever it was at.
But the fact that it was back in North Carolina, and going to Louisburg Junior College and then to Mount Olive College, and all the people that I know around here, and the support and the excitement of a lot of friends and family have shown has been overwhelming at times. You just keep doing your job and try to get better in different areas and stuff, and you never know when something’s going to pop up. You just feel like, I’ve been prepared and I guess I’m going to find out if I am.
How did you find out you were coming here and how quick was the whirlwind when Spike had to go to Arlington and here you are?
Mintz: It all started with Tony Beasley, when he got his diagnosis and, obviously for health reasons, making sure that he was doing what was best for him and his family. Then they went through the process of who they wanted to be the third base coach. Spike was the one that they chose.
Knowing my desire to manage and what I had did in Australia, from what they relayed to me, it was an easy decision to offer me the position, knowing that I wanted to do it. I had managed instructional league and during the season, if the manager left, I would take over. Or, if they got ejected in a game, I would take over.
Doing the duties in and out for the last three years with the Rangers, I guess it kind of showed them that I at least had an idea of what was going on. Then Mike Daly got to come over to Australia and see the operations over there and what I was doing and such. I’m sure that helped me out a lot, him being able to come out and see exactly what we were doing over there. Obviously, when the position arose they said, “Hey, this is available. Is this something you’d like to do?” I said, “Yes, sir.” That was kind of how it happened. We had a 5:30 meeting in the morning and they sent me a text to be there. I was there already, but I didn’t really understand what it was. When they told me, I was super excited, I can tell you that. I had waited a long time for somebody to say that.
What is the biggest adjustment you will have to make as a manager? Obviously, you did some of this in Australia and got some of that under your belt, but being a pitching coach as opposed to a manager. There’s not really a lot of pitching coaches that go that route, essentially.
Mintz: What a lot of people don’t know about me is that I caught my whole life. I got drafted as a catcher by the Dodgers, and so being able to see the whole game from both sides of the plate, I think, has helped me over the last 27 years.
I think the biggest thing, for myself is, the game, I have no problem with the game. I’ll make a wrong pitching change, or I’ll put on a hit-and-run when I’m not supposed to. All those things, I’m not worried about that. Now, you basically get to take over 25 guys, as opposed to 12 or 13. Doing those relationships with the guys and making sure they understand what we’re doing, kindness and harshness, and all the things that come with being the manager and in charge of everything, and obviously letting my staff do their job – Frankie with the hitting and Jaimes’ got the pitching, and Hagen will work with the catching the most – but basically overseeing and making sure that, as an organization, the things that we have in place are being taken care of.
Obviously, you have to be the bad guy from time to time, but then encouragement and staying positive, especially with these young kids, and not getting in any kind of panic and making sure that they understand that we’re behind them one-hundred percent. They’re going to make mistakes and this is a hard game, and making sure they understand that. But, those aspects are where I will have to work maybe a little more to make sure that everything is happening as it is supposed to be, as opposed to looking at just the pitching and making sure that it is right. You’re in charge and if it’s not going right, it’s all on you and nobody else.
Is there somebody, maybe at the start that you look to and say, “I want to pattern myself as a Jim Leyland or Ned Yost, or whomever?”
Mintz: I guess I’ll have my own style. I guess I’m more of a laid-back guy. I don’t like to yell a lot. I don’t curse, that’s just some things that I don’t do. When my voice goes from here to hollering, there’s no doubt about it; I’ll just put it that way.
Guys that I came up with: Jerry Royster is obviously one of my favorites; he coached me when I was playing. A couple of years ago when I interviewed for a managing job with the Rangers, that was the first person I called; I called Jerry Royster and I asked about the interview process and what I should do. Then I played with Garry Templeton; he was another manager of mine when I was in AAA, and the wisdom and stuff that he gave me. Another huge guy is Dusty Baker. When I was in the big leagues for him, we got to be pretty good, buddy pals. Him being over with the Nationals now, I’ll call and talk with him from time to time.
I’ve had some really, really good people in my life, as far as managing and learning and understanding this game. Once again, I’ve very blessed for the people that have been in my life, playing and coach. Another guy that really gave me a lot of what I have now is Rick Knapp; he used to be the big league pitching coach for the Detroit Tigers. He was the guy that hired me on with the Twins as a pitching coach, when my shoulder went out. The things that he taught me for 8, 9, 10 years with the Twins, not so much just from the pitching standpoint, but baseball itself. The players and the caring and what you need to be able to do to develop these players and things, I owe him a ton. Even now, he’s with the Dodgers as their pitching coordinator, I still call him a lot and bounce things off him. I’ll ask for his advice for different things. Those handful of people have been instrumental on me.
If we want to go back further, Carl Lancaster back here at Mt. Olive College. I learned a great deal from him just playing one year of college baseball with him. He’s one of my best friends, even to this very day. He was one of the guys most excited about me getting this position. I’ve had a ton of people in my life that have actually helped me along the way and preparing me for this day.
What’s the biggest piece of advice that you’ll bring with you into this?
Mintz: Oooh, the biggest piece of advice? (Laughing) I’ve got a lot of them. I guess talking to Jeff Banister, our big league manager. I guess me and him got a little closer this spring training. I knew him from the past and obviously last year. I spent a lot of time talking to him this year, not so much always on baseball things, but I, myself, am big on, we’re trying to develop these guys as baseball players, but first and foremost, I want them to be good human beings. I want them to be able to be in society.
They’re going to have to be husbands. They’re going to have to be fathers. They’re going to have life after this baseball field. I spent a lot of time on that. I want to make sure that the guys are growing up and that they’re turning into men, and not just ballplayers.
But me and Banny had a talk about that one day and making sure that, we’re pouring baseball into these guys, but we’re also pouring in humility and humbleness and all these things into these guys, so they know how to react in the world when everybody’s not screaming their name out on the baseball field. That aspect, for me, is huge, being in the position that I’m in now and being able to have these guys watch me and my actions and how I go about doing stuff each day, it’s very important to me.
I have three kids that watch it every day, also. Hopefully, I’ve had the same impression on them as I have the players that I’ve been around the past 14 years in coaching. But that’s one thing, I guess as far as advice goes, is to continue doing that, even though I’m a manger, but continue pushing these things into these guys’ heart and soul, and making sure that they understand that you have to be a decent human being.
It has been well-documented that the Texas Rangers organization seeks talent from anywhere at any level. Over the past several years, the Hickory Crawdads have benefitted from that philosophy.
Rangers pitcher Nick Martinez came to the Crawdads in 2012 after throwing only 26 innings in college. Former manager Bill Richardson – who led the team to two playoff spots – was a high school coach at the time the Rangers hired him.
On this year’s squad, the Crawdads have several individuals that are further examples of finding individuals in one field to do a specific job in another. Catcher Jose Trevino was a shortstop his final season at Oral Roberts. Pitcher Scott Williams was a junior college catcher that threw ten innings in 2014. He had ten saves in the second half of this season.
But arguably the biggest impact such a person has made for this year’s team has been pitching coach Oscar Marin, who was just named the South Atlantic League’s (SAL) coach of the year.
A native of Southern California, Marin, 32, played college ball at L.A. Valley College (LAVS) before moving up to Arkansas-Little Rock. After his playing days ended, he stayed on as an assistant for a year in 2005 before returning to LAVC as its pitching coach for two seasons. Marin then was the pitching coach in 2008-2009 for Harvard-Westlake High in North Hollywood.
The Rangers hired Marin in 2010 and he worked his way up to low-A Hickory for the first of two seasons starting in 2014.
Marin has put in tremendous work this season and the results showed. The Crawdads had six pitchers – four starters – selected for the mid-season SAL all-star game, with Marin himself picked as the pitching coach. The staff finished the season with club records in ERA (3.19) and WHIP (1.21), and were just two homers shy of setting a club mark in that category.
In the interview below, Marin talked about the work his pitchers did this season, and he spoke of the process of becoming a pro coach without pro-playing experience.
You got chosen as the South Atlantic League coach of the year. Where you surprised?
Marin: Yeah, I was surprised. It’s something you don’t expect. But, it’s a great honor to know that your peers think that much of you. A lot of it’s due to the pitching staff that we’ve had that has given me the opportunity to do the things that we did this year. I’m just really excited about it and really happy about the award. I’m just thanking some of the people like our coordinator Danny Clark, Mark Connor that’s been with us, and Jeff Andrews have really kind of helped me throughout my career along the way here with the Rangers. A lot of credit goes to them too, but I’m really happy about it and blessed that I was able to get an award like that.
Your guys have set the club ERA mark and the club WHIP mark. That’s probably a testament to your work and some of the coordinators that you’ve mentioned. What have you been able to instill in these guys this year as a total staff?
Marin: I think as a team staff – and one of the things that we keep reminding these guys of – is how aggressive we started in the season after the first week. After the first week, we didn’t do so well. It took us until a series in Asheville to really get going. From that series in Asheville, we really started pitching off our fastball, attacking off our fastball and demanding that inner part of the plate. I think that was a big testament to what these guys did throughout the year and are still trying to do.
That’s one of the things we engrained in these guys and part of the things that we have in the Texas Rangers organization is attacking the zone, winning your 1-1 counts, throwing your first-pitch strikes. Those little philosophies might seem simple, but if these guys can execute those things they’ll probably be on the winning end of games.
What’s been the biggest surprise for you this year, even for somebody that maybe even started slow and has really come on that jumps out for you?
Marin: Ariel Jurado. You bring him in from the AZL the year before, you don’t really have expectations of what you might get. For him to suffer his first loss not too long ago, to be 12-1 and have the composure that he did on the mound and to be able to have the feel that he does, it’s a big surprise. Like I said, you don’t what’s going to happen, but when a guy like that comes in the first year and does something like that, it has to surprise you. How could it not? After watching a while and having for a certain amount of time, you get to see why he’s doing the things that he’s doing.
The whole staff in general: how they’ve stayed together as a unit and they’ve backed each other up. That was huge. You don’t have many staffs that do that kind of stuff, but when they do they’re special. I think this is a special group. That’s why these guys did a good job of keeping together and holding each other accountable the whole year.
You have so many guys that have come in and out this year, whether it’s promotions or injuries, or whatever. What has helped you to be able to individualize lessons and development for Jurado and Williams and Wiles and so on?
Marin: I think it’s more of an environment that you put out there around these guys. I know that every guy is different. We don’t cookie-cut anybody for what they do. We work with what that have. In general, what we teach these guys, while these guys are together, is basically in the same idea. We put things in terms of the same idea with everybody and creating that dynamic about, this is what we do, this is what we’re all about. So whether you leave or whether you come in, that dynamic stays the same, even with the guys that are leftover.
We lost several guys, especially from the bullpen. From those guys that are left, there’s a little of the philosophy behind, and these guys have taken it over and are teaching the guys coming in. I think that’s the biggest difference as to why we’ve been able to do the things we’ve done this year. You come in or you leave, everybody’s getting, “this is what we do here.” I think that’s the biggest thing that’s helped.
What were the adjustments, or maybe the biggest adjustments you had to make going to the pro level as opposed to the amateur level?
Marin: I think the biggest adjustment for me was, at the high school level or at the junior college level, you get who you get. You’re kind of stuck trying to recruit in high school and guys get into the school or they don’t. They show up and there’s a tryout and that’s what you get.
Here, the amount of talent that we get brought in, it was a lot easier to teach guys that might have more of that ability and not really have to go around and do different things to try and teach somebody. The learning curve is a lot easier. I think that was one of the biggest adjustments.
The other thing was you have that first rounder, second rounder and different type guys. You’re used to teaching; this is how we do it- this one way. Because of the people I’ve been around and the guys that I’ve already mentioned – like coordinator Danny Clark – you learn different ways on how to teach different guys. Not everybody’s going to be the same. I think that was the biggest adjustment coming into pro ball. Everybody has their own personalities and you find the best way to try to teach those personalities.
Did you have to earn respect coming into the pro game? Did you have to learn a certain level of being listened to?
Marin: I think everybody tries to earn that respect. The best thing about this organization is you earn that respect by working hard and making sure you’re doing the things to get guys better. That’s how you earn their respect.
There wasn’t really too much of that, “this guy didn’t play professional baseball.” I never saw that. I think that’s one of the best things that our organization does. There’s not bad talk about, “this guy never played.” Everybody just came together. If you’re here to get somebody better, that’s what they care about and that’s why I love this organization.
You’ve been here two years now. What do you know now in September of your second year that you maybe didn’t know in April of 2014?
Marin: I think the biggest thing is – going from short-season ball, where I was at before, whether it was the AZL or at Spokane – limiting what these guys do. Throughout the year, you might start of doing certain things, working heavier with guys on certain things, whether it’s mechanics or a certain pitch and stuff like that and you keep doing it throughout the year. But over time, if they keeping doing those, those guys are going to wear down. Over time, just training responsibly and having those guys keep doing the things that they need to do to get better. Instead of overworking, just more quality work than anything else.
Looking ahead, what do you see yourself doing in three to five years? Do you look to keep moving up, or do you have a niche here?
Marin: This is a great place and I love coaching here. This isn’t a bad place to coach, whatsoever. But like anybody else, just like the players do, you have those thoughts of moving up. You have those thoughts of eventually, just like everybody else, having an idea of coaching in the big leagues and getting to the big leagues in whatever capacity it is.
That’s what I want to be. I want to keep growing as a person. I want to keep growing as a pitching coach and try to move up as much as much I can and try to succeed at some of the things you wanted. One of the other things is eventually – I guess you can call it a five-year plan –be a pitching coordinator. I want to keep growing and I want to keep growing in whatever capacity that’s gets me moving up to the next level.