I will not be partial here. I love catchers. For me, the position is greatly undervalued. The good ones not only swing the bat and play the position almost flawlessly, but they are also full-time field generals and part-time psychiatrists. Most World Series teams have a guy behind the plate that is the heart, the soul, the pulse, the lifeblood, etc. of the team: Buster Posey, Yadier Molina, Jorge Posada, Salvador Perez to name a few.
When the Texas Rangers were in the midst of their 2016 playoff run, they chose to give up prospects Lewis Brinson, Luis Ortiz – both former first-round pics – and Ryan Cordell to the Milwaukee Brewers for catcher Jonathan Lucroy. It was hoped that Lucroy would play a big role handling the pitching staff and bring another consistent bat into the lineup and put the Rangers in World Series contention.
Part of the need for Lucroy was because the Rangers had not developed their own catcher. A possible starter, Jorge Alfaro, was used in a trade in 2015 to get pitcher Cole Hamels. The lack of a homegrown catcher is something that Rangers catching coordinator Chris Briones wants to see rectified.
Since joining the club in 2015 as the catching coordinator, Briones is helping the Rangers build a stable of young catchers in the minor-league system that may one day put “THAT GUY” in the forefront of leading the team. According to MLB.com, among the Texas Rangers top-30 prospects six are catchers at least part-time.
Crawdads catcher Sam Huff is a part of that top-30 group, but two others that started the season at Hickory are perhaps not far behind the list. Yohel Pozo hit .338 for Hickory in the second half of 2017 and Melvin Novoa showed good defensive skills (threw out 5 of 6 base stealers with Hickory) with a bat that was quickly deemed too good for this level and his now at high-A Down East. The three started the year at Hickory and rotated catching duties, then played first or DH’ed when not behind the plate, so as to keep the bat in the lineup.
Briones was in the area this week to check on his pupils and, as he calls his visits, to refill the tanks. I had a chance to talk with him about the Hickory catching situation, but also touch on the state of the Rangers catching prospects.
You had a three-headed monster here and now it’s down to two. I know it wasn’t the perfect scenario for what you wanted, but you had to get guys at bats. The three of them that were here, Novoa, Huff and Pozo, how did you see them working through that together?
Briones: It was a really unique situation to where you had three young catching prospects that are the same age and they needed to play. Like you said, the three-headed monster were going to get 45 games apiece for the season, rotate through at first base, rotate through as the designated hitter, and days they weren’t catching they were going to get the extra work with (coach) Turtle (Thomas). It was a challenge. As you think about it, was it going to be enough to consider really developing three catchers? And it was working out well.
The fact that Melvin came out swinging the bat really well, it created an opportunity to move him up and the opening up at Down East was there for him to basically slide in and split some time up there with Matt Whatley. In my opinion, it just creates a better opportunity for Sam and Pozo to get more reps. The more that they’re back here, I think the more opportunity there is to develop.
The game action is the most important thing to get versus the drills and all the practice. The more games and innings that they can add to that line, that’s where they get to develop – the game action.
I’ll just go through one at a time. Sam Huff, who I just talked to. He seems like a kid that just wants to win, period. He mentioned several times ”I just want to win, I just want to win.”
Briones: Absolutely. He actually gets that from Jose Trevino. He has a really good relationship with Jose. Jose’s bottom line is to win. He won here and Jose won at the next level. They spent a lot of time together in spring training. If that’s the goal, to win, then everything else will take care of itself. The way that Trevino went about his business, Sam is trying to follow in his footsteps.
What are some of the examples that Trevino set that Sam and some of the other guys are trying to follow? Are they the intangibles or other areas?
Biones: Definitely the intangibles, paying attention to the opposing team. Everything that we ask of the catchers, Trevino did: From taking care of the pitching staff, knowing the opposing hitters, just knowing everything that he could possibly know. From a catcher’s standpoint, that’s what I’m asking them all to do. Pay attention to all the little things, and create relationships, and have good communication with his pitching staff, have good communication with his manager and pitching coach. I always looked at the catcher as another part of the coaching staff, to where they need to know everything that is going on.
To have the opportunity to have Trevino my first year and to see what he was like, he set the bar for all the young catchers extremely high. I use him as the example for the Pozos, the Novoas, the Sam Huffs, the Matt Whatleys. It’s like, this guy does it the way that you want to do it. Watch how he does it. He’s got his second Gold Glove a couple of weeks ago. In a short period of time, he’s got a tremendous resume and Sam looks at that. All of the other kids look at that and see how he does what he does. He’s got a great game plan and recipe for success.
What is Sam working on now? What do you see him working on for the remainder of year? Well, let me refocus, this is such an evolving position, what is he working on at this point?
Briones: From the defensive standpoint, just getting the innings and playing.
It’s the first time that he’s out of the complex. He’s an Arizona kid. He had the ability to go home every evening. Every Saturday, he could jump in his car and drive 40 minutes to go home and see Mom and Dad. This being his first opportunity to be away from home, I’m constantly checking on him to make sure he’s not homesick.
What is he working on the field? Every aspect you could possibly think of: running a pitching staff, learning to communicate, learning to pace himself with the grind of playing every single day and having one or two days off a month. This is something that he’s never done. In Arizona, they play 10:30 games and then they have the rest of the day off. Here, he’s got to learn how to time manage and know how to get everything that needs to be done in a day done, and be ready to play. We try to keep an eye on his workload, and keep an eye on his fatigue, and keep an eye on his diet and hold him accountable to do all of that also, and make sure he shows up ready to play every day.
Pozo. He came here and had a tremendous second half with the bat. A little slower to start this year, is part of that was, last year he was catching a lot in the second half last year, where as this year he is having to split more of that time?
Briones: He’s splitting the time but he’s still in the lineup with the innings at first base and the innings as a designated hitter. So, he’s getting his at bats. It’s a little harder to get the rhythm defensively. The defense for me has been fine.
Offense, that’s a tricky one. It comes and goes. He’s getting his at bats. It’s not like he’s catching and hitting, and then getting two days off, and then catching and hitting, and then getting two days off. He’s still getting the consistent at bats. That’s how this game goes with scouting reports to where, they have last year’s scouting reports to go off of and they have an idea on how to pitch him. Whether you are in A-ball or AA or AAA, they’re going to find out what your scouting reports are – whether you are aggressive, if he chases. Repeating this level, they have notes on him and what he can do and what he looks for. That’s what scouting reports are for.
What is he working on at this point?
Briones: Learning to love the work of defense. That’s where Turtle Thomas comes in on a daily basis. The kid loves to hit. He loves to hit. We’d love for him to get to where he loves the defensive side and the practice that goes into it. Running a staff and just working like Sam did last night – work his but off for nine innings and be able to separate the offense from the defense. Pozo, we’re trying to get him to where he loves the defensive side as much as he loves the offensive side.
What are the biggest intangibles that catchers at this level have to pick up on? Catching is such an intangible position beyond the defensive and offensive skills?
Briones: The biggest one is building the relationships and learning the pitching staff. Having the consistency of 12 to 15 pitchers to work with on a daily basis and to know who are the ones you have to wrap your arm around and who are the ones you have to kick in the butt. That’s something that Sam and Pozo and Novoa, when he was here, that’s not a physical thing that we can practice, but that’s something that’s highly important.
That’s something with which Trevino did a great job. When you build that relationship, you’re going to build trust. When you have that trust and you get out on the field – last night there was trust built between Casanova and Huff. It started off shaky, but they fed off of each other and it was a beautiful game. That’s something that Sam’s gotta learn. When you’re in Arizona as a catcher, there’s fifty pitchers there and it’s hard to build trust and a relationship when you have a pitching staff that’s huge.
You look at almost every World Series team they have that catcher, the Poseys, and Yadier Molina, and Varitek and Posada. For the average fan, and probably for the average me, what is the thing behind the scenes that most fans don’t see that really goes into that position to make a major league team successful?
Briones: The fact is that all the names that you mentioned, they are homegrown. I think that is something that is a key for a championship team. You mentioned the Buster Poseys, the Posadas, the Yadis, they all came through the system. They’ve known the system from the first time that they signed a professional contract. That’s something that we need to develop.
I look at the wave of catchers that we have from Trevino to Chuck Moorman to Novoa to Matt Whatley, who is the newest one in the mix. We have five, six, seven, eight guys that are in the system that are all homegrown. Now, we just need to graduate one and the first one, that hopefully we’ll graduate, will be Trevino. Actually Brett Nicholas was one of the first homegrown ones, but we need to create that. They know the system. They know what we’re looking for. They know they’ve got that trust with all their pitchers throughout the organization. We have waves of it. Every age bracket, we have them coming.
Trevino ready to take the next step forward?
Briones: Behind the plate, for me defensively, absolutely. Defensively, he can do the job. In the industry, the way he’s swinging the bat, he’s a backup catcher. He just came back from the disabled list and in his first game back he went 2-for-2 with two homers.
Pitching has gotten better as he got to AA. It’s going to get better at AAA and it’s better in the big leagues. I think he can hit. I’ve seen him hit and we’ve just got to keep him healthy and get his bat right. If his bat is correct and it improves, he’s a front line, every day catcher. If the bat doesn’t improve, he’s a really good backup catcher.
Who’s behind him in your system right now?
Briones: Josh Morgan, who you saw as an infielder. He’s like the sleeper because it took a couple of years for him to agree to do the job and put the gear on and get there.
A guy who’s already in the big leagues who could do it, who I would love to see, is Kiner-Falefa. Kiner-Falefa, I mean, I could name 10 names right now of catchers that are in the wave. But Kiner-Falefa is 23-years-old, he’s two years younger than Trevino. If he gets the opportunity to catch, he’s going to hold his own and it would be wonderful. And he swings the bat.
You’ve got Trevino, 25, Kiner-Falefa, 23, Josh Morgan, 22, Chuck Moorman, 24, all these guys, given the opportunity, they can catch. So, there’s a lot of “next guy’s up”.
After a brutal season-opening road trip that saw the team score 10 runs in six games, the Hickory Crawdads scored four runs in the first on the way to a 6-2 victory over the West Virginia Power Thursday night. It was the team’s initial win of the season.
The Crawdads came home holding up the bottom of the South Atlantic League in most offensive statistics. The .182/.239/.251 slash was easily the worst in the league in all three categories. Yet, in talking with the coaches, the collective feeling is that the team performed well overall and they were in a period where they couldn’t catch a break.
As one looks at where the team is at the plate, the big picture of how they will perform ultimately at the plate is still coming into focus and it will develop over a longer period of time than a week. The bad start perhaps has skewed perception of what this team will be eventually. Put the slump in the middle of July and the average fan will shake it off as a bad week. Yet, we see the numbers what they are and panic.
Fans must remember that class Low-A is a laboratory of minor league baseball. The guys have showed potential at rookie and short-season level – that’s why they are even at Hickory – but now the real work begins: the process of becoming a professional hitter.
I took some time Thursday to talk with Crawdads hitting coach Chase Lambin about the mindset of the hitters coming off the road trip and about “The Process” of learning about hitting at a professional level.
I know it’s a long season and I know this isn’t the way you wanted to start, but you and I talked prior to this, that it was a little bit of a perfect storm with Delmarva (Md.) throwing some guys, the cold weather, etc. Take me through the week of your hitters and the mindset of where they are at the moment.
Lambin: Yeah, it was tough. It’s challenging for them and it’s even challenging for us as a staff. Through it, it was remarkable to see the resilience the guys had and how their work didn’t change and how their attitude didn’t change.
We had some meetings where guys said powerful things and every day the energy in the dugout and the clubhouse was strong. It’s a resilient bunch, but it’s a young bunch. So. They’re going to have their bumps, especially early. Maybe, we didn’t expect it to be this early and this big of a bump, but it’s part of it and part of the process. It’s part of what the maturation process is about and learning how to handle adversity and especially in an environment they’ve never been in.
You guys always talk about “the process”. Jose Jaimes (Crawdads pitching coach) will talk about “the process” and (Crawdads manager Matt) Hagen, and so on. What is the biggest part, as far as your hitters, of getting them to understand the process of getting from here to the next level and on up to Arlington, or wherever they are going?
Lambin: It’s understanding the routine, understanding their body, understanding their mind and all those things have to come together. If one is missing, you’re going to struggle. You’ve got to know what you’re doing before the game. You’ve got to have a plan in your approach when you go to the plate. You’ve got to understand your movements. It takes time to learn those things.
They’ve all been successful at lower levels, but that level doesn’t ask you to do as much. Each level you go up has new challenges where you have to be a little more dialed in with each one of those things. That’s what they’re doing. They’re young. They’re 18, 19-years-old and they’re trying to figure out themselves and their approach and their plan, and they will because they’re tremendous athletes.
What’s the biggest hurdle in getting them to trust that process?
Lambin: The adversity that baseball puts on them, and the doubts and fears and anxiety that the game puts in your mind. I mean the game is a great equalizer and it will challenge you and it will rip your guts out and make you feel miserable. So, how do you take that pain and turn that into good?
On the other side of pain is growth. That pain is a part of it, like you’re being hardened from the inside-out. You have to explain it like, “I don’t want you to struggle, but this is a part of it and it’s better now than in Arlington.”
This is what you have to do and the game will expose you. It’s exposing some of them that they don’t have a clear plan. They don’t have a clear approach. They don’t trust the routine. They don’t understand their swing. This will show you that you need to make these adjustments because until then, if they’re batting .330 every year, they’ll be like, “This coach doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
Who is the person right now – and I get it, it’s six games in – that has the best understanding of where they are in that process?
Lambin: That’s a good question. There are some cerebral guys that are good thinkers. (Kole) Enright has been pretty good in the conversations I’ve had with him mid-game. Pedro Gonzalez is a sharp tack. He talks through what he’s feeling, what he’s seeing from the pitcher and what he going to do in the next at-bat. Chad Smith is another smart one. Justin Jacobs and (Ryan) Dorow are the college kind of veterans. They are the guys that are lower end on talent but they’re higher end on approach and plan and the mental toughness. So, combining all those together, they each have their shortcomings, but they’re all getting better.
Who is the person right that you think in the long run will get through that process? Maybe they don’t understand right now, but you talk to them and you see – maybe it’s not the ability necessarily – but you see they’ll have a chance to work through that?
Lambin: I think Pedro is a combination of talent and the mind and the deliberate work ethic. He asks questions and he’s hungry to learn and he’s humble enough to know that he needs to learn.
Some of these guys are so talented that that humility hasn’t hit yet. This six-game losing streak and batting .180 will give you some of that humble pie. Pedro stands out for me. (Miguel) Aparicio’s got a really good feel for hitting. (Yohel) Pozo is a tremendous, instinctual hitter. He’s still learning the thought process that goes behind it, but he’s the type that is just going to hit and hit and hit. He’s an unbelievable barrel finder.
There’s a lot of guys on this team. For me, my job is not to pick who’s going to be a big leaguer. Some are more advanced that others, but my job is to teach them up to be big leaguers.
What’s the biggest hurdle for you as a coach to help them get over that?
Lambin: Building trust as a coach is always difficult. I feel like that’s one of my strong suits. I teach with empathy and kindness and service, and I’m not a dictator.
I get with them on their level. I understand the struggles they’re in, I’ve been through it. I’ve been down that road and back 100 times. This game has ripped my guts out. So, I get on their level and I let them know this is going to be hard, but I also know how to work. I show them how to get after it and to have clarity and to have the right intentions with their work and in their process. In doing so, they start to listen to me more.
It’s challenging because they’re still young and their retention level. They may understand it for one day, but to get them to understand it the next day, it’s like they forgot everything when they fell asleep. It’s like a blank slate again the next day. It’s like, “Man, I need you to remember what I told you yesterday.” But at this level, you’ve got to tell them over and over again.”
Is there a point as a coach were you guys as coaches step back and let the failure be a part of the process? You see what they’re doing and let them get the golden sombrero.
Lambin: Failure is a gift. It’s part of being a baseball player. It’s going through the failure and rebuilding, fail, rebuild. The way you’re rebuilding your mind, and then your body and your routine.
Yeah, it’s hard, because I want them all to go bat .330 from start to finish and have a great year. But, the reality of it is that you sometimes have got to let them – it’s just like a young kid learning how to walk. If you’ve never let them fall, then they’ll never learn how to walk. You got to let them fall like a parent would let a child fall. They’re like my children in that sometimes I want to make it easy on them and make the fall stop, but sometimes pain is a great teacher. Nobody wants to go to its class, but pain will let you know.
It’s hard on me sometimes, because every time they get out, I feel it in my heart. It hurts me, but I want to grow and get better, too.
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.
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.
According to unnamed sources, the Texas Rangers are expected to announce on Tuesday that Hickory Crawdads second baseman Andy Ibanez has been promoted to AA Frisco (Tex.).
The native of Havana, Cuba played in 49 games for Hickory this season and posted a .324/.413/.546 slash with 18 doubles and seven homers. In club history, among players with 150 or more plate appearances, Ibanez is ninth overall in on-base percentage.
Ibanez leaves the South Atlantic League leading the circuit in slugging pct. He is second in total bases (101) and OPS (.959), third in doubles, fourth in RBI (35) and on-base pct.
After a hot start, during which he was named the SAL hitter of the week (4/17/16), Ibanez scuffled in May (.214/.333/.345), as he struggled to adjust to secondary pitches for a time. He seemed to make the adjustment recently and is leaving on the heels of an eight-game hit streak (12-for-29).
With the recent uptick at the plate, Mike Daly, the senior director of minor league operations for the Texas Rangers, seemed to indicate in a recent interview that Ibanez was nearing a promotion. When asked about a possible promotion, Daly responded, “We had some of those discussions. Obviously, he was outstanding there in April, but it’s a five-month season here at the minor league level and it’s a grind each and every day. Andy will definitely have his time at the higher level and it’ll probably come sooner rather than later.”
During his time with Hickory, Ibanez was tasked to work on his defense as well as learning the game in a U.S. organization setting.
“Andy’s is a little bit of a unique situation,” said Daly recently. “He had not played baseball in a number of years. Trying to bring him into a new country having not playing baseball for a couple of seasons, we felt like it was best to start him here in Hickory.”
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.
Last weekend, I had the chance to sit down with Mike Daly, the Texas Rangers Senior Director of Minor League Operations and get an overview of the current roster of the Hickory Crawdads. The interview turned lengthy with a bunch of good information.
I decided to break the interview up rather than put the entire interview into one blog entry and have the reader’s eyes glaze over.
Fully one-third of the interview was spent on arguably the two most highly watched players on the Crawdads squad: second baseman Andy Ibanez and starting pitcher Dillon Tate. Below is that portion of the interview.
The first thing that I get questions about when people ask me about the team is Andy Ibanez. He’s the first person that people ask me about. I think that’s cooled off a little bit, as he’s cooled off in May. But the question that people ask most is, “Why isn’t he at Frisco?” My response has been, “he’s where he needs to be because he needs to work on things.” Where is that progression as far as what the Rangers were asking him to do?
Daly: I think, first and foremost, is the really job by our international scouting department. Gil Kim was our international director, who’s now at Toronto. He was a guy that was really on Andy in the scouting process and he did a really nice job of scouting him and working with other scouts to be able to bring him into the organization.
Andy’s is a little bit of a unique situation. He had not played baseball in a number of years. Trying to bring him into a new country having not playing baseball for a couple of seasons, we felt like it was best to start him here in Hickory. We felt really good about putting him down here in this environment. We felt really good with Francisco Matos, a bi-lingual hitting coach with experience up and down the minor league level, a guy who was in the major leagues himself. We felt really good being able to start Andy here in Hickory kind of not knowing what to expect, since it’s been a number of years since he had played. But Andy’s been great. We’re really happy with where he’s at. He’s working hard defensively to really tighten up some things at second base from a defensive standpoint.
I think we’re in a good spot organizationally with Travis Demeritte, who was a former first round pick and a former Crawdad, who’s really taken a nice step this year, leading the California League in home runs, and he’s playing second base on an everyday basis. And then another young man, Evan Van Hoosier, he was in the Arizona Fall League, he’s now in AA playing second base on an everyday basis, another former Crawdad. So, we’re pretty strong with second basemen up and down the system right now. We feel really good with Andy getting his at-bats and getting acclimated to baseball here in the states and being with a really good hitting coach in Francisco Matos. Andy’s time to move will come. We just feel like right now the best spot for him to be to work offensively and defensively is here in Hickory, N.C.
Was part of the process was to see how he would deal with failure at this level and not have the pressure of, he’s got to be at AA and have the results at that level that maybe you’re not worried as much about here at this level?
Daly: Absolutely, and I think that’s a great point. You definitely want to see how a guy adjusts, how he’s able to go through adversity, how he’s able to deal with failure. I think the other thing that we’ve learned, too, is maybe there’s little bit of a lean toward holding them back if they’re having success can be a good thing at the lowest levels and really get that foundation built, understand the adversity, understand what it’s like to be in the Texas Rangers organization, understand what it’s like to play a full season. Once we feel good that a player has established himself and has an understanding of what it’s like to go through a full-season adversity, then we’ll take the training wheels off, if you will, then we’ll be a little bit more aggressive in terms of promoting the guy once we feel that he’s mastered a level.
So there was no – when (Ibanez) was leading the world in everything in April – sense of hitting the accelerator?
Daly: No, we had some of those discussions. Obviously, he was outstanding there in April, but it’s a five-month season here at the minor league level and it’s a grind each and every day. Andy will definitely have his time at the higher level and it’ll probably come sooner rather than later. I think for the foreseeable future, right now he’ll be right here in Hickory and really getting that first year under his belt.
Dillon Tate started well, then had the hamstring injury and then hit some bumps in the road, maybe a little bit unexpectedly given his pedigree and the level. Give me your feedback on what you’re seeing with Dillon.
Daly: It’s been a little tough for Dillon since he’s signed. He’s had a couple times that he’s had to go on the DL and I figure that’s held back some of his time on the mound. I think that Dillon continues to build a very strong routine. There’s a lot that goes into being a starting pitcher, both on the field and off the field: throwing program, weight program, conditioning program. I think what we’ve seen over the past couple of starts is that Dillon’s had the ability now and he’s kind of gotten past all those injuries to be able to get on the mound and to go deep in games.
I saw the game here the other night. The first inning was a struggle, but in his last batter he made a really good pitch on a 3-1 count and got a double play ball. From that point forward, he was able to help his team and was able to get five innings. You saw the development of the slider and of the changeup. He’s getting more confident throwing all of his pitches.
It’s something where, I know Dillon’s frustrated with some of those injuries and it’s something where it seems he’s able to get past and is able to spend more time on the mound and working on his craft as a pitcher.
On a development level with somebody like Dillon, maybe with all of the guys, but somebody like Dillon, who’s had success at the college level and has come here, are you more interested in seeing them do well, or to see how they rebound from having a struggle?
Daly: I think that you’re looking at all those aspects. The college game is very different from the pro game and very different from the major league level. There was a reason that Dillon Tate was a fourth overall selection. He’s a very talented young man who had a lot of success there at Cal-Santa Barbara. So, when we brought him into the organization, we wanted to see what type of pitcher he was, how he threw, where he had his success before we started talking to him about making some of those adjustments.
Like I said, I think some of the injuries have held him back just a little bit, but we’re excited that he seems to be past those, even facing some of those injuries that are a part of the adversity that any pitcher has to go through in their career. Obviously, Dillon has dealt with it early on in his career.
You obviously want your pitchers or position players to have a lot of success, but you’re obviously about adding to their repertoire, adding certain weapons – the ability to hold runners, the ability to throw offspeed pitches behind in the count, the ability to make your start every five days. Those are the things that we’re working on with Dillon, understanding that it’s a long process. He’s going to A ball to high-A to AA to AAA. It’s a process. It’s a ladder to make it to the major league level. Dillon’s going through some things now that I think will be a really good foundation for him to go through and learn as he continues in his career.
The Hickory Crawdads passed the one-quarter mark of the season last weekend during the series against Rome (Ga.) Entering Thursday night’s game at West Virginia, the team is at 26-13 and sit in second place, one-half game behind Hagerstown (Md.) in the South Atlantic League’s Northern Division.
The expectation entering the season was that the team would be built around a strong starting rotation that featured four returnees from last season, along with a lineup that was built for speed. For the most part, those expectations have been met. The team ERA of 3.27 is third in the SAL with the squad staying in most games because of overall strong starting pitching. On the bases, Hickory has 90 steals this season, more than the total steal attempts of any other South Atlantic League team.The 43 caught stealing attempts are more than the successful steal attempts of 10 other SAL teams.
I caught up with Crawdads manager Steve Mintz last weekend to get an overall picture of the squad in mid-May.
Now you’re at the quarter pole, so to speak. Standing wise you’re in a good position. Although I know you want to win and all of that, but development is the name of the game. How are things with development as a whole?
Mintz: I think it’s good. The team, they’re getting to know each other better. As far as the team meshing, we’re pretty happy with the direction that it’s going. As far as the pitching, we’ve seen really good signs, both starting and our bullpen. We have our little hiccups here and there, but things we’re able to address and fix quickly.
Defensive wise, I think we’re catching the ball and throwing it very well. There’s a few instances where we don’t get outs that we should get, maybe turning a double play when we’re too slow to the ball, or different things like that that are fixable. The main things that we’re looking for is ready position, and fielding, and angles and all those things are getting better.
Obviously from the baserunning side of it, we’re trying to understand the scoreboard, understand what we’re doing, the pitchers and catchers and what the other teams are trying to do, the times to the plate, can the catcher throw and different things like that.
I think in a nutshell, we’re on pace exactly where we’d like to be, as far as the development side of it. Obviously, winning baseball games helps that out tremendously, being able to address things while you’re winning, instead of not.
I’m guessing you’re pleased with effort. If you’re in first place at this point of the season, the guys see the standings and you don’t really have to address effort very much.
Mintz: There’s different times where we’ve seen the guys go out there and battle and come back from deficits and win. There’s other times when we get a lull there in the dugout and maybe take an at-bat to the field and different things like that. Those are things we can simply address and talk to them about. But for the most part, the effort and the work that they’re putting in before the games, and then obviously the 27 outs that we’re trying to get during the game, no real concerns there.
You said coming into the season that you were going to run and run and run, and you certainly have run and run and run. What are the things that you address as far as trying to teach these guys the running game?
Mintz: First and foremost, where we start at is the scoreboard. We direct every attempt and every decision that we’re making at the scoreboard. Our position is if we’re tied, we’ve got the lead, or we’re down a couple of runs, we’re staying aggressive. We want to continually put pressure on the defense. On the reverse side of that, we don’t want to run into outs.
What we’re starting to see now with the guys is they’re studying the pitchers more. They’re having an idea of their times to the plate. They understand the catcher. They’re understanding, “Do I need to get to second base or do I need to get to third base, or can I wait a couple of pitches and let (Andy) Ibanez drive me in or (Tyler) Sanchez drive me in?” All those things, you’re starting to see those come out.
We’ve still got a lot or work to do in the area. The biggest plus of it all is that they’re going. We’ve told them since the first day of spring training, “We want you to run; we want you to run and I’m not going to be the guy that’s stops you.” The guys that have the green lights; the (other team’s) managers can look at me all they want. I’m not putting on any signs over at third base. I’m watching them (his players) and seeing what they’re doing with their jumps and their leads and their secondaries and all that stuff that they’re supposed to be doing on the bases.
So far, I’m satisfied. Not that we’re where we want to be, but we’re learning. We’re taking a good look at the scoreboard and that’s my biggest thing for them to look at. Look at the scoreboard and you decide is it a time that we need to do this, or is it a time that we don’t need to do this.
Is that the biggest part of correction is to learn when to take those chances or not?
Mintz: The scoreboard and the pitchers. We had one stretch there that were throwing 1.2s, 1.25s to the plate and we were running. They were bang-bang, but we were still out. I’m trying to get them to understand that in those situations that we have to look for pitches. We have to maybe try to pick a 0-2 count, or if we can see a catcher’s sign and go on a breaking ball. So they’re learning things those things. So, if the pitcher gets 1.4 and over, they’re going. They’re going out and trying to get their leads and trying to get the best jump that they can get and go. That’s what we want them to do.
If they understand all those factors and they go and get thrown out, I’ll put them on the behind as they go back to the dugout. That’s what we want them to do. They have to learn how to steal bases. You’ve got Jenkins, Garia’s here now, Clark, De La Rosa, Moore – I think everybody sleeps on him, I don’t know why. But they have to learn how to steal bases.
Coming into the season, you had a strong rotation – at least on paper – with (Dillon) Tate, (Brett) Martin, (Pedro) Payano. (Jonathan) Hernandez has added some nice innings for you after a little bit of a bumpy start. Benjamin and Swanson are split off for now. For the most, your starters have run out some good innings.
Mintz: And they have to. I don’t care if you’re in little league or in the big leagues. Your starting pitching is what carries you. You’re not going to win without it and it’s been proven over and over again. You can’t outhit bad pitching. They’ve given us a chance to win in most of the ballgames that we’ve had. I even talked to the guys today. There’s been two ballgames that we’ve been blown out and they were right here against Greenville. All the other games, we’ve either won them or we’ve been in them. It’s not been some runaway mess, except for the two games. Our starters are doing their job and they’re getting us into the games and giving us an opportunity to score, get leads and even come back late in ballgames. That’s all we can ask from them.
The development side for them and what (pitching coach) Jose Jaimes is doing with them, learning swings and counts and pitch sequences, all are things that come with it. These kids are still learning on how to do. We’re happy to this point. They’ve each had a hiccup here and there, which is fine. We don’t expect them to go out there and have 30 outstanding starts. Where we’re at and what they’re doing, we’re happy. They’ve got more work to put in and more things to learn. It’s all a process, but we’re happy with where they’re at.
For you, who has taken the biggest step forward in the first six weeks?
Mintz: I’m not going to lie about it. (Jose) Almonte has been…
Now, you mentioned him before the season. I’m going to ask you about him. You look at the stats coming into this season at the DSL he didn’t hit much and then he skipped levels to come here. You said back then, “He swings the bat like a man.” Everything I saw and read, I went, “OK”. He’s really made you a prophet here.
Mintz: I might have told you or somebody else at the beginning of the year that I thought he was going to be a wildcard for us coming in. Not a lot going on to this point, but I’ve watched him in the last two or three spring trainings and some instructional league. I mean, the kid’s 18, 19 years old. What he’s been able to do for us in the bottom half of that lineup, being able to drive in runs and I think he’s got four or five home runs. He’s hitting .290, or whatever it is. It gives you that added little punch in your lineup knowing you’ve got a guy there that can hit it out and drive in runs. And he plays a great right field and has a good arm and he runs around out there good.
Maybe not so much a surprise to me. I’m happy for what he’s doing, but I guess I did say he was the wildcard of the bunch. You’ve got some of the other ones that you’ve got expectations for, but with limited expectations for him, I thought he would do what he’s doing.
Martin and Tate came into the season with a checklist. How are they progressing with what you wanted to see from them?
Mintz: I’m not all the way up on what we’re trying to do with them. Obviously, quality starts and offspeed pitches for both of them was a high priority and commanding the zone with their fastballs. Martin coming back in a repeat role and maybe dominate the league for three or four starts and then see what happens.
They’ve both had spots. Tate’s coming back and he’s doing all the stuff that he needs to do to make sure that he’s 100 percent go on everything. They’re pretty close to being on track. As I said, they’re all going to have their little sideways days, but you can’t get too hung up on that. You’ve got to look at the whole body of work and what they’re trying to do. We’re happy where they’re at. There’s no red flags or anything that’s had us so, “oh gosh, we’ve made the wrong decision.”
How much longer does Ibanez get to stay here?
Mintz: I have no idea (laughing). I reckon he’ll be here until they call me and tell me that he needs to get on a plane. Stuff like that is out of my control. I’m just going to mess with him while he’s here and have him do the things he needs to do to be prepared to go to that next step when they ask him to.
When you and I talked before the season, you said there were two things he needed to do: Get used to USA ball and work on some fielding issues. Are both of those progressing as you’d hope?
Mintz: No doubt. I think playing baseball in America, he’s acclimated himself very well to that. His second base play has grown leaps and bounds. Our infield coordinator Kenny Holmberg was in Charleston (S.C.) with us. He made a couple of plays and I walked up to Kenny and I said, “He don’t that play in spring training.” And he said, “You’re right.”
His angles and reading balls off the bat and different things like that, we’re tickled to death with. Obviously, he’s swinging the bat and leading the world in doubles. Everything we’ve wanted him to do, he’s accomplished to this point.
Today, I take a look at the position players on the roster that will open the 2016 season with the Hickory Crawdads. There are currently 28 players on the roster with Hickory likely to start the season with 13 or 14 pitchers, leaving a bench of just two or three players. So a couple of the players listed below will be deactivated.
Unlike the roster of pitchers that I discussed in the previous post, the list of position players are much more in tune with what we are used to seeing on a Crawdads roster over the past seven seasons: A young group of infielders with the occasional stud phenom in the outfield. Sprinkle in a makeshift first baseman and add a couple of college-aged outfielders and you have the prototypical Hickory roster.
Shortstop Yeyson Yrizarri is the latest in the long line of young Texas Rangers shortstops to receive an aggressive assignment to Hickory at a young age. The 19-year-old Venezuelan native comes advertised with a cannon of an arm, but at 175 lbs on a 6-foot frame, and a developing strike zone, he’ll be a work in progress at the plate. As is always the case, can he slow the game down enough to showcase his skills in the South Atlantic League.
Given his pedigree from his playing days in Cuba, where he won a Golden Glove award at second and played with Team Cuba in the World Baseball Classic as an 18-year-old , I didn’t expect to see Andy Ibanez here with Hickory on a roster that also includes Dylan Moore and Frandy De La Rosa. However, with this being his U.S. pro debut and the uncertainty of the playing situation at High Desert, as well as the adjustment of playing outside the Rangers complex for the first time, it could be that the Rangers wanted a bit more of a stable situation to live a day-to-day existence. At 23, Ibanez will have the opportunity to dominate the South Atlantic League once he settles in. I’m guessing the hope will be that he makes a jump to AA as the season progresses.
The Rangers are usually aggressive with assigning their young high-draft picks, but with Josh Morgan at third last year, Ti’Quan Forbes (2nd round 2014) spent last year with Spokane. At 6-3, 188 pounds as a 19-year-old, there is still room to fill out and develop some power. He’s yet to homer as a pro and has just 17 extra-base hits in 107 pro games. Drafted as a shortstop, he has 31 errors in 91 games at third. The ability to slow the game down and to manipulate his 6-foot-3 body will determine whether or not he stays at third, or perhaps moves to the outfield to take advantage of his arm strength.
Eric Jenkins, the Rangers second-round pick in 2015, opened eyes in Hickory with his speed after a late-season promotion. He showed quick hands at the plate to go with the speed, and gap-to-gap power, despite a smaller frame. At times, the game at low-A seemed a bit fast for him, but Jenkins appeared to be a quick learner.
I was more than a little surprised to see Dylan Moore back to Hickory, after a stellar cameo the final week of the regular season and in the playoffs. However with Travis Demeritte and Michael De Leon moving up to High Desert, and Moore not ready for AA, he is here at Hickory. I’m wondering if Moore gets look-sees all around the infield, including at first-baseman, where there is not really a true first baseman on the roster (both catchers Chuck Moorman and Tyler Sanchez have played first in the past). Moore certainly showed he could handle the bat at this level during the brief time he was here.
Eduard Pinto has two batting titles to his credit, so he has the ability to slap the ball around the field. However, with two DL stints last year and a .249/.337/.306 slash in the second half, this season could be more about gaining stamina, as he seemed to wear down. Pinto showed marked progress in seeing the ball at the plate and taking pitches. The hit tool is there, but can his 5-11, 150-pound frame stay on the field for an extended period.
Chuck Moorman and Ricky Valencia both come back as catchers, though I’m guessing that Valencia will resume his role as a pseudo-third catcher while spending time on the inactive or disabled list. Both bring a defense-first mentality to the plate.
Frandy De La Rosa, who came to the Rangers in an off-season trade with the Cubs, should also see some time at second, after playing 61 games there with short-season Eugene last season… Tyler Sanchez will likely split the catching duties and first base with Moorman…. LeDarious Clark burst onto the pro scene with an 18-game hitting streak at Spokane and is likely the best power threat (27 XBH in 257 ABs). He along with Pinto and Darius Day will likely man corner outfield positions around Jenkins, with the odd man out DH-ing.
CHUCK MOORMAN (B-T: R-R, 5-11, 216)
2015 Pro Season: 32 games at Hickory, Frisco and Round Rock, 7 R, 13 H, 3 2B, 1 HR, 7 RBI, 5 BB, 30 K, .143/.210/.209.
About Moorman: A native of Lakeside, Calif., Moorman, 22, was the Rangers 17th round pick in 2012 out of El Capitan (Calif.) High. Played mostly as a backup with Hickory in the second half of last season, Moorman made spot appearances at AAA Round Rock (1-for-2 in two games) and AA Frisco (0-3 in 1 game).
TYLER SANCHEZ (B-T: R-R, 6-3, 236)
2015 Pro Season: 43 games at Spokane, 24 R, 32 H, 15 2B, 6 HR, 25 RBI, 17 BB, 44 K, .215/.318/.436.
About Sanchez: A native of Point St. Lucie, Fla., Sanchez, 22, was the 17th round pick of the Rangers in 2015 out of St. John’s (N.Y.) Univ. Played one season at Hillsborough (Fla.) CC.
RICKY VALENCIA (B-T: R-R, 6-0, 185)
2015 Pro Season: 15 games AZL Rangers, Hickory, High Desert (Calif.), Frisco, 3 R, 6 H, 1 2B, 3 RBI, .146 AVG.
About Valencia: The native of Valencia, Venezuela, Valencia, 23, was signed by the Rangers as an international free agent in 2011. Went 4-for-13 in four games for Hickory in 2015.
FRANDY DE LA ROSA (B-T: S-R, 6-0, 170)
2015 Pro Season: 62 games at Eugene (Ore.), 32 R, 70 H, 20 2B, 2 3B, 0 HR, 30 RBI, 11 SB, .15 BB, 64 K, .273/.315/ .367.
About De La Rosa: A native of San Isidro, D. R., De La Rosa, 20, came to the Rangers via a trade with the Chicago Cubs on Nov. 20, 2005 in exchange for major league reliever Spencer Patton. Played second base for the Cubs short-season team at Eugene (Ore.) in 2015. Led Northwest League in errors and double plays, was named a post-season league all-star.
TI’QUAN FORBES (B-T: R-R, 6-3, 188)
2015 Pro Season: 59 games at Spokane, 25 R, 57 H, 11 2B, 1 3B, 0 HR, 19 RBI, 2 SB, 14 BB, 54 K, .263/.315/ .323.
About Forbes: A native of Columbia, Miss., Forbes, 19, was the Rangers second round pick in 2014 out of Columbia High. Played third base for Spokane in 2015. Named by MLB.com as the Rangers 30th best prospect. As a pitcher and shortstop, led Columbia to Mississippi Class 4A state title. Had originally committed to Ole Miss before signing with Texas.
ANDY IBANEZ (B-T: R-R, 5-10, 170)
2015 Pro Season: Did not play.
About Ibanez: A native of Havana, Cuba, Ibanez, 23, signed with the Rangers as a free agent in 2015. Was the youngest member of Cuba’s World Baseball Classic team in 2013. Played with Cuba’s Serie Nacional in 2011 as an 18 year old. Will make his U.S. pro league debut with Hickory as a second baseman. Currently, Baseball America has Ibanez ranked as the Rangers eighth-best prospect, while MLB.com has him at No. 16.
DYLAN MOORE (B-T: R-R, 6-0, 197)
2015 Pro Season: 65 games at Spokane and Hickory, 39 R, 65 H, 21 2B, 1 3B, 7 HR, 37 RBI, 15 SB, 32 BB, 65 K, .271/.376/.454
About Moore: A native of Yorba Linda, Calif., Moore, 23, was the Rangers seventh round pick in 2015 out of Central Florida. Named to the Northwest League All-Star Team while at Spokane. Hit .583 in four regular-season games after a late-season promotion to Hickory, then went 6-for-22 in six postseason games with two doubles and three RBI. Was second-team American Athletic Conference as a junior at Central Florida. As a sophomore, led Cypress College to the California Community College state title.
YEYSON YRIZARRI: (B-T: R-R, 6-0, 193)
2015 Pro Season: 71 games at Spokane and Round Rock, 29 R, 74 H, 11 2B, 2 3B, 2 HR, 33 RBI, 8 SB, 7 BB, 51 K, .266/.291/.342.
About Yrizarri: A native of Puerto de Ordaz, Venezuela, Yrizarri, 19, was signed by the Rangers as a free agent in 2013. Named to the Northwest League All-Star team while at Spokane in 2015. Hit in seven of nine games while filling in as the shortstop at AAA Round Rock. MLB.com has him as the Rangers 12th best prospect, while Baseball America lists him at No. 27. He is the nephew of former major league shortstop Deivi Cruz.
JOSE ALMONTE (B-T: R-R, 6-3, 205)
2015 Pro Season: 48 games at DSL Rangers and AZL Rangers, 20 R, 29 H, 7 2B, 1 3B, 0 HR, 15 RBI, 2 SB, 14 BB, 45, K, .165/.254/ .216.
About Almonte: A native of Santo Domingo, D.R., Almonte, 19, signed with the Rangers as a free agent in 2013. Played in the Perfect Game World Showcase and named to the Dominican Prospect League All-Star Game in 2013.
LEDARIOUS CLARK (B-T: R-R, 5-10, 188)
2015 Pro Season: 65 games at Spokane, 46 R, 71 H, 12 2B, 7 3B, 8 HR, 24 RBI, 29 SB, 26 BB, 73 K, .276/.354/ .471.
About Clark: A native of Meridian, Miss., Clark, 22, was the Rangers 12th round pick in 2015 out of West Florida. Named to the Northwest League All-Star Team and played in the NWL-Pioneer League All-Star Game, where he went 2-for-5 and finished second in the home run derby. Had an 18-game hit streak while at Spokane. Played football and baseball at SE Lauderdale High, winning a state title in baseball as a senior.
DARIUS DAY (B-T: L-L, 5-11, 172)
2015 Pro Season: 54 games at Spokane, 26 R, 49 H, 8 2B, 1 3B, 1 HR, 18 RBI, 13 SB, 23 BB, 68 K, .261/.349/.330.
About Day: A native of Chicago, Ill., Day, 21, was the 23rd round choice of the Rangers in 2014 out of Simeon Carver Academy (Ill.). Had committed to Arizona before signing with Texas.
ERIC JENKINS (B-T: L-R, 6-1, 170)
2015 Pro Season: 56 games at AZL Rangers and Hickory, 38 R, 51 H, 5 2B, 6 3B, 0 HR, 14 RBI, 28 SB, 24 BB, 61 K, .262/ .348/.349.
About Jenkins: A native of Jacksonville, N.C., Jenkins, 19, was the Rangers second round pick in 2015 out of West Columbus High. The speedster stole 28 bases in 56 games as a pro. Came to Hickory at the end of the 2015 regular season and went 7-for-18 in five games. Named Perfect Game, Second Team All-America as a high school senior, during which he led his school to the East 1A Regional final. Currently named by Baseball America as the Rangers sixth-best prospect, while MLB.com has him at No. 7.
EDUARD PINTO (B-T: L-L, 5-11, 150)
2015 Pro Season: 98 games at Hickory, 39 R, 91 H, 12 2B, 5 3B, 2 HR, 36 RBI, 2 SB, 34 BB, 21 K/ .261/.329/.341.
About Pinto: A native of Valencia, Venezuela, Pinto, 21, signed with the Rangers as a free agent in 2011. Starting at Hickory for a third straight season. Pinto had disabled-list stints in May (wrist tendonitis) and July (left femur strain). Won the Northwest League batting title (.335) in 2014 and the Dominican Summer League batting title (.396) in 2012.