Results tagged ‘ 2018 season ’
Quite honestly, the Hickory Crawdads were a dreadful team to watch much of the first half. There were a few early successes – Catcher Melvin Novoa’s hot April that earned him a promotion and the season-long consistency of Crawdads opening day starter Tyler Phillips – but overall, the team didn’t hit well, didn’t pitch well, couldn’t hold leads, and so on. However, for me, what I will remember about this team is the ability for players to grind through the season and endure the process of development. Several players turned in big second half-seasons and kept the Crawdads in the playoff hunt until the final few days of the season.
The Crawdads came out of the South Atlantic League all-star break at 30-38, and promptly were swept at home in three straight by West Virginia to drop to its low point of the season at 30-41. But the Crawdads bounced back with a sweep of Augusta (S.C.) and then began to piece together series wins. An 18-10 July put the team within the .500 mark, which the Crawdads reached for the first time on August 4 at Hagerstown (Md.).
Hickory stayed within range of first-half Northern Division winner Lakewood (N.J.) for the second-half race and were within 2 1/2 games of the BlueClaws, when they traveled to L.P, Frans Stadium for a series on August 10. Lakewood took 3-out-4 to surge ahead, but a 5-2 road trip by the Crawdads followed and got the team again within 2.5 games of the BlueClaws. Lakewood returned to L.P. Frans for another series and again asserted its dominance with a 3-1 series win to put a bow on the second-half division title. Left with an outside shot at a wildcard slot – something unthinkable when Hickory finished sixth in the first half – the Crawdads took three-of-four at Delmarva (Md.) and the first game of the series finale against Greensboro. However, a loss to the Grasshoppers the next night officially knocked the Crawdads out three games from the end of the season. It was the second straight season in which Hickory was eliminated during the final weekend of the season.
The 70-68 record was the eighth time in ten seasons as the Texas Rangers affiliate the Crawdads had a winning record.
What changed? The hitting improved. The pitching improved. However, in talking with manager Matt Hagen, he was adamant that none of that would’ve occur had the accountability of the squad and their expectations had not changed. In talking with him the first half, there was a constant mantra of being one play short. A big hit in a key spot was missed. One pitch in a key spot wasn’t made. One ball wasn’t caught.
The attitude changed in the second half and the confidence came with it.
During an interview with Matt Hagen prior to the final game of the season on Monday, he talked about that shift in the mental approaches that occurred, as well as highlights of the season with some of the individual players.
Considering where you guys started, 0-6 and 1-8, that was a heck of a turnaround in the second half. What are some things you contribute that to?
Hagen: Our coaches did a really good job of getting the players better. The players got better, and I think we raised the accountability level and the expectation level. Some of the things we were doing early on, as far as not just not playing with the right level of focus and intensity, we challenged them to be accountable to it.
We flat out just played better. We had a 4.6 ERA in the first half and a 3.2 in the second half. Some of those guys that were hitting .190 at the break ended up hitting .260. So, we had several guys hit over .300 for the second half. So, that was a pretty good deal.
Was there a tipping point at some time in the middle of the season, maybe late June or early July? That time period was a point where there seemed to be a gear shift. You went on a long road trip right after the (July) 4th.
Hagen: It was our first series in Hagerstown (Md.). We had a team meeting and we talked about raising expectations and making sure that guys are completely switched on when they walk in the door, and when they walk out the door to go to the field. From that point on, we won a lot more games than we lost.
The pitching staff, what a turn around: DeMarcus (Evans), Tyler (Phillips), who pretty much had it all year, AJ (Alexy), he finished strong.
Hagen: Reid Anderson.
What were some of the things that you guys were able to figure out?
Hagen: I would give credit to (pitching coach Jose) Jaimes. He’s out there every day sweating in that bullpen with those guys.
Tyler, I think, was more of a continuation of the success he had last year in Spokane.
To see the transformation of Reid Anderson, who won only one game last year. His demeanor on the mound was better. His presence was better. His conviction was better. His belief was better. His confidence was better.
I think AJ has just completely progressed as a pitcher, everything from his preparation to his mentality to his repertoire, his control, his attitude. Everything has gotten better.
And then our bullpen, my goodness, our bullpen was probably one of the best one in the league in the second half. If we had a lead in the seventh inning, we held on to it.
You mentioned the bullpen, what a luxury to have DeMarcus and Joe (Barlow). I talked with him and he talked about the walks to the point of saying I’m not going to use the word. (Joe) Kuzia had a good second half. (Josh) Advocate, when he was healthy, had a good second half. Did you get a sense that those guys got together to change the attitude of the bullpen?
Hagen: I think they took a lot of pride being in the bullpen. They saw it as kind of a brotherhood down there. It’s a great collection of guys. They joke around a lot and they pick on each other, but it’s like a family and they hold each other accountable, too.
DeMarcus, his numbers tell the whole story; he was lights out. He and Joe Barlow were like 1 and 1A; take your pick. Statistically, they were two of the best three relievers in the league. You can’t even argue that. The other guys you named were really good down the stretch, too.
So, I think there was a confidence that kind of grew when one or two guys started having some success, and I think it got contagious down there.
Tyreque (Reed) was another guy that when the calendar turned to July, he found something. He talked about his approach going up the middle and going away, and he added the power back. What did you see with him, as far as flipping that switch?
Hagen: He came in right away and his first at-bat was a walk-off home run. Then, having not played at an affiliate yet, I think the rigors of playing against better competition, the hotels, the bus rides, the fans, playing under the lights, that kind of stuff caught up to him a little bit. Once he and Bubba (Thompson) kind of realized, hey, not only do we belong here, we can excel here, you just handed the keys over to them at that point. When Bubba was clicking in the leadoff spot, he was a guy that hit over .300 in the second half. Then, Tyreque, more or less, carried the middle of our lineup for the entire last month. If he were here all year, who knows where his numbers end up. We’d be talking a potential league MVP had he been here all year.
To watch those guys and to know the conversations that (hitting coach) Chase (Lambin) was having with those guys every day, making sure they stayed logged in, making sure they stayed confident and got their work in every day. It was a pleasure to high five those guys as they came around the base.
Bubba (Thompson) had a little hitch and then in July, he found a switch. It just seemed like a bunch of you found a switch at the same time.
Hagen: Bubba is a really talented kid and he can beat you in a lot of ways. One night, he’d go out – you talk about trying to leave your fingerprints on the game in a positive way – he may have gone 0-for-4 at the plate, but he might have made two or three plays in the outfield that might have won us the game. As young players do, they get locked in on the fact that maybe they didn’t have a great day at the plate, but you can still walk, you can steal two bases, you can still make plays in the outfield. He’s a special kid and not a lot of people can beat you in that many ways.
Yonny (Hernandez), I just like watching him play. You said it in the first meeting you and I had where you called him “The Mosquito”. He’s another guy that had a strong second half. You put him second in the lineup and that seemed to be a good niche for the guy with he and Thompson at the top of the order.
Hagen: The expectations were, we know he can play defense and we know he can run the bases a little bit. The question was, is he going to hit. You look up and he’s second in the league in walks and second in the league in stolen bases. He hit over .300 in the second half and raised his batting average over 70 points. Pretty special. He’s a disruptor, too. He gets on the bases and gets the pitchers thinking about him instead of the hitter. The next thing you know, the pitcher leaves a pitcher over the middle that (Ryan) Dorow or Tyreque and three runs are on the board.
He’s just a fun kid to watch. You just let him go out and do his thing. He attacks the game very aggressively.
The three-headed monster at catcher wound up being two with (Yohel) Pozo and (Sam) Huff. Please with their progress this year?
Hagen: Yeah. The goal was to get them both over 400 at-bats and they both got their 400 at-bats. Two guys that made an all-star team. Obviously, Melvin was doing good enough to get promoted. He was on fire early.
From a defensive standpoint, they both finished the season, hopefully with winning records <Note: Yohel Pozo was 30-30 entering the final game of the season. Pozo caught the game, which Hickory lost to Greensboro.>
To see those guys mature, to where the pitchers have confidence in them – you’ve got to give them a lot of credit for the success the pitchers had in the second half, too. Because, they got better in calling the game and controlling the game. Two guys that can throw pretty well and I think they both finished in the top two or three in the league in receiving metrics. They’re getting pitches that are strikes called strikes, and stealing a few strikes here and there.
Was there any disappointment that Miguel (Aparicio) didn’t have the year I think folks were expecting from him, and maybe Pedro (Gonzalez), as well? Any concerns on their progress for this year?
Hagen: No, if we look it up, Pedro’s run production is the third best on the team, as far as scoring runs and driving in runs. The only downside there is the batting average is down a little bit. The slugging pct. is good. He’s had some leg issues that kind of plagued him all year, so his stolen bases weren’t as high as he wanted them to be. Earlier in the season, he was stealing bases when he was healthy. For me, I think Pedro actually had a good year.
Miguel was just up-and-down. He was player of the week one week, and then the next week you see a 19-year-old kid who’s going to struggle. He’d struggle to stay in his approach and then the next week he’d get hot again. Obviously, the power is there, as evidenced by the home run he crushed a couple of days ago over the advertisements there. For him, it’s just finding a way to be consistent.
The glue of the team all year, for me, was Dorow. Is that a fair read for you?
Hagen: That’s a bull’s eye right there. We came in talking about somebody needing to step up to surprise you. I knew Dorow could catch a ground ball if it was hit to him, but I had no idea that he could catch every ground ball within running range and then throw guys out from any arm angle. What he did at the plate, he’s two away from 30 doubles, 12 home runs and right around .300 most of the year.
He really exceeded a lot of people’s expectations and he’s been a pleasure to watch run out and play and go about his business. You just plug him into the lineup and let him go. He has a very mature approach and a very tough kid mentally, and a very tough kid physically. He’s a manager’s dream.
When you look back at this team in a couple of years, what’s going to stick out for you?
Hagen: I think just the turn around from where we were in the first half to where we finished up. The way they came together and started worrying less about themselves and started playing for each other a lot more, which is hard to do in this game, because everybody wants to get to the big leagues. They were able to take the focus off of their individual success and started thinking about what the team was doing.
They learned how to win, so when they get to the next level, or the guys that get to the big leagues, they don’t get there and go, “Well, I’m a big-league player, but I don’t know how to win.” They’re learned how to win and what it takes to win. That’s invaluable.
What did you learn this year as a manager?
Hagen: Ooooo, that’s a good question. Something new every day. I think knowing and continuing to learn when to push the guys and when to just pat them on the back. I think I would’ve liked to have held them to a higher level of expectation, earlier on. But there was a lot of getting to know one another still going on at that point.
Definitely letting my staff do their job. That’s been a luxury for me. Knowing when to speak up and when to stay out of the way and let Chase do his thing, or Jaimes do his thing, or Turtle (Thomas). I’m really fortunate to have three really good coaches, and that extends to the weight room, too. I didn’t have to monitor anything there. I’d stick my head in once in a while. Adam (Noel) does a great job with those guys. But, just trusting those guys to do their jobs and letting them do them was a big part of our success.
Just under a year after the 2017 MLB draft, Texas Rangers first-round pick Bubba Thompson and undrafted free agent Justin Jacobs were teammates in Hickory, NC., each chasing a dream to become a big league player in the future.
My interest in talking with the two of them was their perception of the expectations placed upon them, as well as the expectations they have of themselves. They both expect to get there some day. Their current manager expects them to make it as well.
There are two interviews below. The first is a side-by-side discussion between the two about their memories of coming to the Rangers and what those expectations are of themselves as pro players chasing the dream.
I also got some feedback from Hickory manager Matt Hagen – himself a 12th-round draft pick – about how members of the player development staff approach players with vastly different expectations and financial investments.
This is the week of the draft. Last year you were a first-round pick. What do you remember about last year?
Thompson: It was a life-changing moment. Leading up to it, I had to work really hard. I wasn’t really a first rounder. I had to show some different tools and all that good stuff leading up to me. In my senior year, I think I showed what they were looking for and I kept it going. Once that day came, I was ready for it. I ended up getting picked 26th overall. Ever since then, I’ve been having to grind and trying to stay healthy, and I try to keep my skills up each and every day, because every day is a grind. You play every day. You get just a few off days, so I’ve really got to maintain my skills and my health each and every day.
Where were you at when they called your name?
Thompson: New York.
Did your family come with you?
Thompson: They did and we had a good old time up there and everybody treated us well. I’m here now trying to chase my dream.
What was it like to put the jersey and put the hat on?
Thompson: Like I said, it was a life-changing moment. Just the name on the back and trying to represent that each and every day, and the name on the front, also.
You were not drafted. What was draft week like for you?
Jacobs: Well, I didn’t really know for sure if I was going to get drafted, or not. I had some pretty good calls, so I figured there was a chance that I could. I had talked to a few teams that said there was a possibility that I could go late, or not, or whatever. Then, basically, the draft came up and I was sitting there waiting for my name to get called. It never got called.
Leading up to that I was coaching summer ball, so I figured that if I was done playing I would be coaching summer ball. I was actually thinking about working grounds crew for the Spokane Indians, which is our short-season team.
My coach from Gonzaga was actually good friends with the owner of the Spokane Indians and was able to get me a tryout the day before the draft. The tryout was with two of the coaches now here. Matt Hagen and Chase Lambin basically went up to Spokane and threw me some b.p. and had me take some ground balls. The next day, I didn’t get drafted and then after that I was offered a free agent deal.
Was there disappointment that your name wasn’t called?
Jacobs: A little bit disappointed, because that’s obviously what I’d been working forever since I was playing in high school and college, and what not. I was just happy that I was able to get the opportunity to come down here and play.
Did you guys go to Arizona together or did you go straight to Spokane?
Jacobs: No, we played in Arizona together last year.
You guys meet each other – the first rounder and the free agent – what was the meeting like?
Jacobs: Honestly, I thought Bubba really was a humble kid. If you didn’t know him at all, you wouldn’t know if he was a first-round pick or a 40th-round pick or a free agent. He kind of just holds himself to the same level as everyone else.
Would you agree with that coming in and meeting some of the other guys? You come in from all over the country, what was meeting some of the other guys like?
Thompson: It was good, man. J.J. came and worked hard, and it, like, came naturally to him. He loved playing the game. Each and every day I would see him laugh and I would see him give his all. I think he’s a very good player.
A lot of guys would say, okay, he’s a first rounder and he’s got it easy. You’ve got an easy ticket to the major leagues. That’s not necessarily so, is it?
Thompson: It’s not, because if you go out there and you barely hit and you don’t take it serious; you go on the field and you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, this game is going to catch up to you. I try to give my all, to shag, b.p., just do the little things. I try not to slack and give it 100 percent each day.
Do you have a sense that your path to the big leagues is a harder one?
Jacobs: Not necessarily. Obviously, on the way in, he’s going to have more money than I do, but I feel like, no matter what, you have to compete and prove yourself to get to the next level. If you come out and play well, no matter if you’re a first-round pick or a free agent, you’re going to have the opportunity to move up if you play well and compete every day.
Do you think there is more pressure on you because you are a first-round pick?
Thompson: That’s what I feel like. There’s a lot of pressure, like he said, kind of the money hype. So that’s why I try to grind every day and do what I’ve got to do, so I don’t have any regrets when I get older. That’s the main part.
I don’t ask this as a loaded question, but do you feel like the Rangers do enough to make it an equal situation, or is there a hierarchy at first? Bubba shows up and a second-rounder shows up, and so on. Do you sense there’s a hierarchy before you get a chance to prove yourself?
Jacobs: To be honest, no not really. I think our organization does a pretty good job of treating everyone pretty equally. I think it’s good that they don’t come and treat the first rounders like they’re famous, because then those guys might not work as hard. I think they’ve treated us all the same and held us all to a higher standard so everyone has to come out and prove themselves, no matter if you’re a first rounder or a 40th rounder, or whatever.
What do you appreciate about somebody like Bubba, who could’ve played football and is obviously very talented athletically?
Jacobs: A lot of times you think of a first rounder, you think of a kid that comes in and is cocky and doesn’t work hard, and they fall down the hill really quick because they’re full of themselves. They’ve signed for a lot of money, so sometimes they don’t think they have to work as hard as someone else. I think he does a good job of coming in every day and just treating himself like everyone else, and working just as hard, if not harder, than everyone else here, which is going to give him an edge, I think.
With the college guys coming in, do you have an appreciation of somebody that’s been grinding with four years of college?
Thompson: We did something today. I asked J.J., “Can we bunt off the machine?” because that’s something I’ve been working on. So, he didn’t say, “Aw, man.” He said, “Yeah, we can do that. Do you really want to do it?” And I said, “Yes.” So, we came in here to the cage right when we got here. He fixed the machine up for me and all that good stuff, and he was feeing me some tips. Also, the other coaches were feeding me some tips and I was just working on my bunting.
I appreciate him taking the time out from his day to come out here and feed the machine for me. I know he’s got a lot of tips, being a four-year college guy. Usually, the three-year and four-year college guys really know how to bunt. I’ve seen him bunt plenty of times, so I was trying to feed off of his mind.
He’s 22 and you’re 20. Do you look at some of the older guys that went to college and have grown up a bit, while you’re still maturing?
Thompson: I’ll ask him here and there about his approach at the plate and stuff like that, at the plate. I’m just trying to get little tips and add them to my game.
What about living life and so on? You’re now going out and having to pay bills once a month. You’re not at home anymore.
Thompson: Everybody really helps us with that kind of stuff. since we got here in May. It’s really been the first time I’ve had to pay rent, but they’re really helping us out with that.
Jacobs: He needs to be helping me out with my rent.
When I talked with Hayden Deal, when he came here with Rome (Ga.) – he and Hunter Harvey went to high school together – I asked him did he think he would have a greater appreciation to get to the major leagues than Hunter did. So, I’ll ask the same thing. Do you think you will have a greater appreciation of getting to the major leagues than a first rounder, or somebody else?
Jacobs: I don’t know, necessarily. I think both of us will obviously have a great appreciation for that because either way, making it to the major leagues is huge. The ultimate goal for a baseball player is making it there. So, I think, either way, whether he makes it, or whether I make it, or we both make it, I think we’ll both have an appreciation for that. It’ll be a satisfying road either way.
When you get the call up, what’s that phone call like for you?
Jacobs: That would probably be the greatest day of my life. I’d probably call my parents and my girlfriend and I would be pretty happy that I made it there, but I’d want to get out there and win.
When you get the call up, what’s that phone call like for you?
Thompson: Really joyful, I feel like. There’s going to pressure off my back, but more pressure added on. As you get the call, they want you to go out there and provide and do your job. I feel like, like he was saying, we share the same amount of time at the field. So, I feel like it’s going to be the same feeling for everybody. Everybody here is on the bus ride, the long bus ride. Ain’t nobody on the plane, we’re all on the buses and working each and every day. So, whoever gets the call, that feeling is going to be epic.
I know you have a great appreciation for Bubba and all your teammates, so this question is not meant to be about them. But do you ever get a sense that somebody from another team who was a high pick isn’t giving an effort. Does that ever enter your mind to where you say, “come on, dude.”
Jacobs: I mean honestly, I have seen that with other teams, but not on our team. It just kind of bugs me because they have a great amount of talent and it’s a great opportunity for them and the situation they’re in.
It sucks to see a guy go about his business like that, because I know in his situation, if he were to work hard and do his thing every day, he’s got a good chance of making it. I mean, there’s nothing you can really do about it. If someone wants to hurt themselves and not help themselves out in that situation, there’s nothing I can tell him then.
Now, if it’s my teammates, I’m going to get on them and make sure they keep working.
You’ve got a first-round pick here in Bubba Thompson and he gets here and there’s a ton of expectations. And then you have a guy here like Justin, who wasn’t drafted. I guess that, maybe, he feels that every game he gets he gets is borrowed time, although he’s played well, and he’s worked himself into the equation to get playing time. As a manager and as coaches, what are the expectations when you have two guys coming in as widely varied expectations of ability and pedigree?
Hagen: I think, first and foremost, the expectations they have for themselves are exactly the same. They both expect to come out and get the most out of there abilities and they both have the same level of expectations of themselves to play in the big leagues. If they didn’t, then they shouldn’t be here. Of course, that’s probably geared more towards J.J.
Obviously, when a kid is a first round pick, an organization makes a financial investment in that kid, he’s going to have some bigger expectations placed on him from within the organization. But that doesn’t mean that we have less expectations from J.J., in the sense that we expect him to be a big leaguer one day, too.
I think it can be a blessing and a curse to be a kid that is a first-round pick because the expectations are so high for you, that when you come to the ballpark every day people expect you to do first-rounder type of things. So, it’s part of my job and the rest of the coaching staff to get both of these guys to realize and live up to their level of abilities, whatever their ceiling may be individually. We want to get the most out of them. It doesn’t matter if you’re a free-agent pick or a first-round pick or everybody who’s in between that. They’re all the same to us.
Justin gave Bubba a lot of praise for being a kid that didn’t appear to be full of himself or cocky, where you get the stereotypical guy that comes in and has the money and now he doesn’t pull his weight. That’s probably rarely the case, but Bubba does appear to have handled himself well as far as getting in here and doing what he’s supposed to do.
Hagen: Yeah, and you’ve got to give credit to the people that raised Bubba. You give credit to his family and you give credit to the scouting department for doing the research on Bubba to find out, not only the kind of player he is, but what kind of person he is, because he can be cancerous to come in with that high-and-mighty type of attitude. It’s not a good way to endear yourself to your teammates. Whereas, Bubba, he’s been the exact opposite. He’s come and he’s one of the guys. He works his tail off and he’s a very humble person by nature, which makes him coachable and likeable and easy to work for.
How hard is it – and you went through this in your case where you didn’t sign or were not a high pick like Ryan Dorow or Sal Mendez – to bide your time to get your playing time and get your opportunity? The opportunity is always there, but they have to bide their time.
Hagen: Somebody explained it to me this way the best. The reality of it is everybody has a window to make it to the big leagues. Depending when you signed and what you signed for, your window might be bigger than somebody else. But they still have a window. If your window is small because you signed at an older age, or you didn’t get as much of a signing bonus, you still have a window and it’s your responsibility to capitalize on that window. And you can make your window bigger by playing well, and you can make your window smaller by not performing well.
So, we try to stress that to those kids, that you’re here because somebody in our scouting department, or otherwise, believe that you have the ability to be a major league baseball player one day. So, do the most of your window, and if you perform, you window is only going to get bigger.
Justin mentioned that you and Chase tries him out at Spokane. What did you guys see in him to say, “hey, we need to sign this guy and give him an opportunity.”
Hagen: First of all, he had good bat control and he has a good feel for his body. When he takes batting practice, he can hit the ball where it’s pitched. It’s a mature approach. It’s not a kid who’s trying to hit the ball as hard as he can on every swing. You give him something away, he’ll hit the ball the other way. If you make a mistake in, he’ll pull it for a base hit. Then the ability to make routine plays. If you hit him 20 ground balls in a row, he catches all 20.
It’s not the flashiest thing. He’s not going out there looking like a guy that runs a 4.4 40 as he goes to cover ground balls. If he gets to it, he catches it and is accurate with his throws. We say sometimes in the minor leagues that a guy is more of an athlete than a baseball player, and sometimes we have guys who are more a baseball player than an athlete. J.J., I think, falls into the realm of there’s a whole lot of baseball player in J.J. I mean, obviously, as a huge compliment. You’re always looking for guys that have a whole lot of baseball player in them, because they’re not going to hurt you. They’re going to help you in a lot of ways.
Four new players joined the Hickory Crawdads this week. Two games in, each member of the quartet has contributed to the lineup as the Crawdads won the first two games of the current three-game series against Columbia (S.C.).
On Wednesday, Cristian Inoa walked with the bases loaded and scored during a six-run sixth, then one inning later he singled and scored. Austin O’Banion started the same sixth inning on Wednesday with a single and last night he reached three times, including two singles, and stole a base.
However, the big names to join the Crawdads were first baseman Tyreque Reed and 2017 first-round pick Bubba Thompson, who will play center.
Reed made his presence felt on the team immediately. His first at-bat on Wednesday was in a pinch-hitting role to lead off the ninth. On a 2-1 pitch, Reed hit a one-iron like shot that carried over the fence off the Pepsi sign in left center that gave the Crawdads a walk-off 11-10 victory.
“It felt great,” said Reed of his heroics. “I was great being out here and getting called up. When I got my chance, it was great to do something good.”
After putting up big numbers in the Arizona Summer League in 2017 (.350/.455/.617 in 35 games) Reed is expected to provide pop in the middle of the lineup.
The Rangers eighth-round pick in 2017 out of Itawamba Community College (MS) was expected initially to join the team out of spring training. However, with three good catching prospects on the Crawdads roster that needed at-bats – and thereby rotating at first and DH-ing – Reed had to bide his time at extended spring in Arizona.
“Definitely disappointed not to be here at the start,” Reed responded when asked about staying back at Surprise, AZ. Yet, rather than sulk, the took the time to sharpen his skills. “I knew there were some areas I needed to work on and I’m glad I stayed back and got them polished up.”
Reed said he specifically worked on his defense at first and is expecting to make his first start there on Friday.
Last, but certainly not least, is Leslie A. Thompson, otherwise known as Bubba. Thursday night, he joined Reed in the home-run column with a line shot down the right field line and the ball found a pocket in the corner just over the RF fence. He added a double that one-hopped the center field fence to bring in a run. So far in two games, Thompson is 4-for-9.
Crawdads manager Matt Hagen has positive reviews of the 19-year-old, thus far.
“From a player’s perspective, you get the call to come out of Arizona and you get the opportunity to come play at night in front of fans,” said Hagen. “That’s pretty energizing in itself. Sometimes, it can be a bit overwhelming for guys, because it’s new. But it doesn’t seem to faze Bubba at all.”
In the initial look, Thompson appears to have the ability to cover the plate quite well. On Wednesday, Thompson singled to left and later in the game, he stayed on a 1-2 curveball and got enough on it to steer it into the 3-4 hole and into right. Thursday’s homer was a fastball off the plate and the double was a fastball that caught the heart of the plate.
“I try to work on that kind of stuff in the cage, so I can hit both sides of the plate,” Thompson said of his early success. “Tonight, I just trusted my eyes and my hands and I ended up hitting a home run the other way.”
Like Reed, Thompson was also disappointed not to be on the Crawdads opening-day roster. In an interview in April, Rangers general manager said Thompson was recovering from a minor knee injury from last year.
Thompson said he feels well and, like Reed, used the time to hone skills.
“I also needed a little help on my defense here and there,” said Thompson. “So, I think that time back there helped me and now I’m ready to lock and load. I’m healthy and I’m just ready to win some games.”
In an interview after Thursday night’s win, Hagen was in full agreement with his center fielder.
“I think getting some new blood in helped. It’s always invigorating when new guys come in and they contributed right away, which is great.”
At a game that begin with the temperature at 50 degrees and the wind gusting in the neighborhood of 20 mph, starting pitchers Reid Anderson of the Hickory Crawdads and Andres Sotillet of the Lexington Legends did everyone a favor. They threw strikes.
Hickory scored two in the third and made them stand up for a 2-1 win in a game that lasted two-hours, 15 minutes at L.P. Frans Stadium Monday night.
Anderson, a native of New Egypt, N.J. had no issues with the frigid temperatures that dropped into the upper 30s by game’s end with light snow flurries swirling as fans left the ballpark.
“I’m used to Northeast baseball,” said Anderson. “I love pitching in this. It makes hitters a lot more tentative, so I just attacked them.”
Attack he did, as Anderson put together arguably his best start over the two seasons of his Crawdads career. The right-hander was the story for much of the game as he retired the first 15 hitters on his way to the longest outing of the season to date for a Crawdads starter. Lasting 6.1 innings, Anderson gave up one run on three hits and struck out six.
“He looked really strong and was rested,” said Crawdads manager Matt Hagen. “His tempo was tremendous. He was like, ‘Give me the ball’, throw a strike, ‘Give me the ball’, throw a strike, which is something that we preach. When you see a guy go out there and create tempo, it’s fun to watch.”
Working quickly, Anderson, who had just two three-ball counts, used a fastball/ changeup mix with an occasional curve thrown in. The game plan was keep the hitters back on their heels.
Said Anderson, who threw 86 pitches (58 strikes) “We had a plan to go in and just not trying to nitpick pitches but going right at them.”
With only 56 pitches tossed over the first five innings, it was a curious question as to just how long Anderson would be allowed to take a stab at a perfect-game bid if it developed deeper. As the game approached the middle innings, the thought of that rare accomplishment began to creep into Anderson’s mind.
“It’s hard to not think about it,” he said. “It’s always in the back of your head, but you’ve got to push that away and focus on the next batter at hand.”
Although the Crawdads committed three errors for the game, the Crawdads play in the field had much to do with Anderson’s success.
The first challenge to Anderson’s perfect-game came on back-to-back plays in the fourth. Marten Gasparini lifted a high fly ball that carried to the track in straight-away center. Fighting the wind, Pedro Gonzalez cruised back, turned his body twice before twisting against himself to make an over-the shoulder, basket catch. With the Crawdads shifted to the right side, the next batter, Nick Pratto sliced a pitch into left that Eric Jenkins sprinted to and made a diving catch.
“Jenkins almost overran the ball,“ Hagen said. “The wind pushed it back so much. Give those guys credit, it was not an easy night to be an outfielder.”
On the infield, third baseman Tyler Ratliff handled a bad hop on the backhand and threw to first. Later, Justin Jacobs had a mini-bad hop as he went to field a grounder and step on first.
“Those guys did a great job, said Anderson. “They had my back all night and they made incredible plays behind me. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Lexington countered with Sotillet, who was nearly Anderson’s equal. The right-hander pounded the strike zone to the tune of 49 strikes out of 63 pitches. On the way to striking out six, he threw first-pitch strikes to 19 of 20 hitters.
“Their starter did a great job, too,” Anderson said of the pitching duel. “That definitely helps you focus in and it helps you really bear down because you know you don’t have much room to work with. I think everyone would prefer having a big lead and pitching in that, but tight games really help you lock in.”
The only troublesome inning for Sotillet came in the third with the help of an odd defensive play. With one out, Yonny Hernandez was hit by a pitch. Jenkins lifted a ball into shallow center that Gasparini charged and then attempted a diving catch. The umpire immediately ruled the ball in play, but thinking he had made the catch, he fired to first for a double play attempt and thereby missing a chance to catch the lead runner Hernandez at second for a force play. Miguel Aparicio hit a seeing-eye single to right that scored Hernandez and Jenkins scored when right fielder Seuly Matias’s throw home went to the backstop.
The Legends opened the sixth with their first base runner, a single to left by Oliver Nunez. Sebastian Rivero blooped a single to right and a wild pitch moved both up. One out later, a contact play resulted in Nunez getting caught in a rundown trying to score. Anderson got out of trouble with a groundout by Gasparini.
Lexington’s only run came in the seventh when Matias doubled. A wild pitch bumped him to third and Matias scored on MJ Melendez’s sac fly.
The Legends threatened in the eighth and ninth innings. Facing DeMarcus Evans in the eighth, Rivero got a four-pitch walk and went to third when Evans fielded Ricky Aracena’s sac bunt and threw wildly past first. Cal Jones struck out and then Gasparini flew out to Jenkins in shallow left with Jenkins easily throwing out Rivero at home trying to score.
The suspense built again in the ninth when with one out Matias reached second on an infield hit and a throwing error. Alex Speas struck out Melendez, but a wild pitch put runners on the corners. Speas gathered himself and fanned both Guzman and Nunez to end the game.
***The fastball from Alex Speas has been as advertised. We don’t yet have a speed-gun reading available at the ballpark, but judging by the swings from the hitters during the two outings I’ve seen him it has life and it gets there in a hurry. However last night, it was the breaking ball that did a lot of the dirty work among the nine missed bats in his inning. It appeared to have that falling-off-the-table sink, one of which Melendez flailed at and catcher Melvin Novoa had to chase down near the Crawdads dugout.
He didn’t panic with a runner at third and one out but continued to throw the pitch and trusted Novoa to make plays if needed. Speas then set up Nunez for a fastball on the inside corner for a called third-strike that ended the game.
Said Hagen of Speas: “You take the error away and then the wild pitch that got away from Melvin, it was a tremendous inning. Either way he ended up with four strikeouts. Watching him from last year to this year, and to see the progress and the maturation has been really fun to watch. To go from where he was at as a starter to coming in as a reliever and hoping for a good result to coming in as a reliever and knowing that you’re going to get really good results coming into the game.”
*** This is a game Anderson likely loses in 2017. He would have games like this where he would dominate for several innings but a quirky inning or a bad pitch would get away and cost him the game. In a preseason interview, pitching coach Jose Jaimes said Anderson is better prepared this season to go deep into games. Anderson agrees and talked about his mindset on the mound this season.
Anderson said, “Mainly it’s just not trying to think ahead. Last year, I would go out there I would be in the first inning and I’d already be thinking about the sixth. This time, I’m just focusing batter to batter, pitch to pitch and not trying to get ahead of myself.”
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.
Hickory Crawdads (Texas Rangers) (0-3) at Delmarva Shorebirds (Baltimore Orioles) (4-0)
The Crawdads play the second series of a two-city, season-opening road trip with three games at Arthur W. Purdue Stadium in Salisbury, Md.
If you plan to go:
GAME TIMES: Games Monday and Tuesday are at 7:05 p.m., then Wednesday morning at 10:35 a.m. All games are streamed live on the web through milb.com or the Delmarva Shorebirds website.
TICKETS: Ticket prices range from $8-$13 in advance, $1 more on game day. Upper reserved are $2 on Monday.
PARKING: Parking at the ballpark is $4.
CONCESSIONS: Purdue Stadium offers standard ballpark fare (hot dogs, peanuts, popcorn, etc. The Bird’s Eye Café has BBQ sandwiches, crab dip and shrimp salad. The Angus Stand serves Angus Burgers, BBQ sandwiches and steak subs. Vegetarian, gluten-free options are also available.
Where is it?:
From Salisbury, take U.S. 50 east towards Ocean City. Turn right onto Hobbs Rd.
Monday: RHP Reid Anderson vs. LHP Zac Lowther
Tuesday: RHP Tyree Thompson vs. LHP DL Hall
Wednesday: RHP Tyler Phillips vs. RHP Michael Baumann
Recent Series History:
Hickory took the 2017 season-series 7-4, which included a 4-3 advantage at Purdue Stadium. During the Crawdads affiliation with the Rangers, Hickory is 72-45 overall, 33-26 at Delmarva. The Crawdads have lost one season series to Delmarva since 2009. Oddly that came in 2015, the season Hickory won the SAL title.
Entering the series:
While Hickory was swept by Greensboro in a rain-shortened, three-game series over the weekend, Delmarva punished Asheville in a four-game sweep by a 40-17 margin. The 40 runs are the most scored by a SAL team over the weekend while the Crawdads scored a SAL- low of 7. Four of the seven runs by Hickory came on homers.
Prospects to watch- Hickory:
CF Pedro Gonzalez (No. 10): 2018 stats: 4-for-12, two-run HR, 7 Ks. Came to the Rangers in a trade for C Jonathan Lucory. Originally signed with Rockies in 2015. Native of Santo Domingo, D.R.
RHP AJ Alexy (No. 17): 2018 stats: 1 start, 4 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 4 BB, 4 K. Joined the Crawdads after a trade that sent Yu Darvish to the Dodgers. Originally 11th round pick of Dodgers out of Twin Valley HS, Elverson, Pa.
RF Miguel Aparicio (No. 18): 2018 stats: 4-for-14, 2 K. Signed with the Rangers in 2015. Native of San Carlos, Venezuela.
RHP Alex Speas (No. 23): 2018 stats: 1 game, 1.1 IP, 1 H, 3 BB, 2 K. Second round pick of Rangers in 2016 out of McEachern HS (Powder Springs, GA).
C-1B Sam Huff (No. 25): 2018 stats 1-for-7, 1 HR, 2 K. Seventh round pick of Rangers in 2016 out of Arcadia HS (Phoenix, Ariz.).
Others to watch – Hickory:
RHP Tyler Phillips: 2018 stats: 1 start, 3.2 IP, 6 H, 5 ER,l 2 BB, 4 K. Native of Lumberton, N.J. 16th round pick in 2015 by the Rangers out of Bishop Eustace, Pennsauken , N.J.
C/1B Yohel Pozo: 2018 stats: 3-for-12, 2B, 2 K. Native of Maracaibo, Venz.
LF Eric Jenkins: 2018 stats: 4-for-12, 1 BB, 4 K, 2 SB. Second round pick of the Rangers out of West Columbus HS, Cerro Gordo, N.C.
2B Kole Enright: 2018 stats: 3-for-10, 2 doubles, 1 HR, 1 BB, 2K. Third-round pick of the Rangers out of West Orange, HS, Winter Garden, Fla.
RHP Reid Anderson: 2017 stats: 28 games (13 starts) 88.1 IP, 32 BBs, 65 Ks, 5.30 ERA, .272 OBA, 1.45 WHIP with Hickory. 17th round pick of the Rangers in 2016 out of Millersville Univ.
RHP Tyree Thompson: 2017 stats: 13 games (all starts) 68.2 IP, 22 BBs, 44 Ks, 3.15 ERA, .245 OBA, 1.24 WHIP at Spokane. 26th round pick by Rangers in 2016 out of Edna Karr HS in New Orleans, La.
Notes of interest: This was the second-straight season the Crawdads lost 3-for-4 in the opening series of the year at Greensboro,
Prospects to watch-Delmarva:
LHP D.L. Hall (No. 5): 2017 stats: 5 games (all starts), 10.1 IP, 10 BBs, 12 Ks, .263 OBA, 1.94 WHIP with rookie GCL Orioles. First-round pick (21st overall) of the Orioles in 2017 out of Valdosta (Ga.) High. Signed away from a commitment to Florida St.
RHP Brenan Hanifee (No.10): 2017 stats: 12 games (all starts), 68.2 IP, 12 BBs, 44 Ks .249 OBA, 1.12 WHIP at SS-A Aberdeen. Fourth-round pick of the Orioles in 2016 out of Ashby High in Bridgewater, Va. Signed away from a commitment to East Carolina. Named to New York-Penn League All-Star Game and tabbed as an Orioles organizational all-star by MILB.com.
RHP Michael Baumann (No. 15): 2017 stats: 11 games (10 starts), 42.1 IP 19 BBs, 43 Ks .175 OBA, 1.09 WHIP between GCL Orioles and Aberdeen. Third-round pick of the Orioles in 2017 out of Jacksonville Univ. Native of Mahtomedi, Minn. and pitched in HS there. In his opening night start, threw four-hit shutout over five innings with 10 Ks and a walk.
LHP Cameron Bishop (No. 16): 2017 stats: 9 games (all starts), 37.2 IP, 16 BBs, 39 Ks, .162 OBA, 0.98 OBA between GCL Orioles and Aberdeen. Was 26th-round pick of Orioles in 2017 out of Univ. of California-Irvine. Attended Brea-Olinda HS (Calif.). Allowed two runs (1 earned) on four hits and three walks with 6 Ks over 6 innings on Friday. Named Atlantic Sun Conference pitcher of the year in 2017.
LHP Zac Lowther (No. 17): 2017 stats: 12 games (11 starts) 54.1 IP, 11 BBs, 75 Ks, .182 OBA, 0.85 WHIP at Aberdeen. Was Orioles second pick in competitive balance round in 2017 out of Xavier. Was Baseball America short-season all-star and New York-Penn League All-Star. Led Big East in Ks in 2017.
RHP Gary Fenter (No. 23): 2017 starts: 11 games (all starts), 30.1 IP, 10 BBs, 34 Ks, .187 OBA, 0.99 WHIP. Seventh-round pick of the Orioles in 2015 out of West Memphis (AR) High. Signed away from commitment to Mississippi St.
SS Mason McCoy (No. 29): 2017 stats:.301/.382/.409 slash with 15 XBHs in 53 games at Aberdeen. Sixth-round pick in 2017 out of Univ. of Iowa. Named to New York-Peen A native of Peoria, Ill.
RHP Matthew Dietz (No. 30): 2017 stats: 26 games (all starts) 129.2 IP, 50 BBs, 92 Ks, .282 OBA, 1.50 WHIP at Delmarva. Second-round pick of Orioles out of John A. Logan CC (Ill.). In first start on Saturday: 5.1 IP, 8 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, 6 K.
Others to watch-Delmarva:
C Ben Breazeale: 2017 stats: .318/.428/.467 slash with 19 XBHs in 57 games at Aberdeen. Seventh-round pick of Orioles in 2017 out of Wake Forest. New York-Penn player of the month in July 2017. All-Star game selection in that same league and named Baseball America SS-A all-star.
1B Ryen Ripken: 2017 starts .287.323/.378 slash with 11 XBHs in 51 games at Aberdeen. Signed free agent deal with Orioles in 2017. Played previously in SAL with Hagerstown (Washington) in 2016. Son of Cal Ripken, Jr.
RF Zack Jarrett: 2017 stats: /.201/.252/.288 slash with 8 XBHs in 45 games at Aberdeen. 28th-round pick of the Orioles in 2017 out of UNC Charlotte. Played his high school ball at Hickory High.
Notes of Interest: Both of the Shorebirds assistant coaches have ties to the Crawdads. Hitting coach Bobby Rose served in the same role with Hickory in 2014. Justin Lord made two starts for the Crawdads in 2004…Shorebirds manager Buck Britton is the brother of Orioles close Zach Britton. Buck was the hitting coach for Delmarva in 2017…TJ Nichting was a teammate of Jarrett at UNC Charlotte. Will Robertson played college ball at Davidson… Delmarva’s sweep over the week is the first to open the season since at least 2005. However, it is the 10th time in 14 seasons the team won at least 3 games in the opening series of the season.
When Tyler Phillips last pitched for Hickory, it was at home against Greensboro on May 14. The pitching line for that game: 3.2 innings, 4 H, 5 R (2 ER), 3 hit batters, 1 BB, 3 Ks and a wild pitch. Of the 40 pitches he threw, 25 went for strikes.
Fast forward to the South Atlantic League opener on Thursday, against Greensboro on the road. The pitching line: 3.2 IP, 6 H, 5 R (all earned), 2 BB, 4 K, 68 pitches, 45 strikes.
While the pitching lines are similar, where Phillips is in comparison to the 2017 season is far different.
“I think last year was a big learning year for him,” said Crawdads pitching coach Jose Jaimes in an interview earlier this week. “He had a good spring training. He showed up this spring stronger, bigger, but most important, more mature.”
The Rangers 16th-round pick in 2015 seemed almost out-of-place with the Crawdads and there seemed to be a timid approach to hitters by the then 19-year-old hurler. In 25.1 innings, he struck out just 15, but walked nine, hit five more and the SAL hit .280 against him.
There was none of that at Thursday night’s opener as he attacked hitters from the start.
In comparing the two circumstances from last year to this, Phillips feels more of a sense of belonging on the Crawdads roster this season.
“Yeah, it’s a lot different than last year,” said Phillips. “I came in and wasn’t really expecting to be here in Hickory. This year, I came in here and I was the opening-day starter, so it was pretty cool.”
After his re-assignment from Hickory, Phillips put the struggles behind him and put together a strong short-season at Spokane. With the Indians, he posted a 3.45 ERA in 73 innings with 78 strikeouts to just 11 walks.
The changes since leaving Hickory last May, Phillips said, were twofold.
Going to Surprise, Ariz., Phillips looked to re-center himself mechanically. Listed at 6-5, 200 pounds, he worked to find control of a fastball that ranged from 92-94 mph on Thursday. With the aid of Rangers pitching coaches at the team’s extended spring training complex, Phillips found some answers on video.
“What I did find out was at the beginning at Hickory,” Phillips said. “I got away from my routine and I changed a bunch of things with my mechanics. I got around the ball, around the side of it. So, I did fix my fastball; I got more on top of the ball and I was able to bring it down. My changeup has always been there. The curveball has always been a work in progress; I changed my grip up a little bit. So, I’m always trying to improve something.”
Mechanics and repertoire aside, there was perhaps an underlying issue at hand: believing he pitch.
“When I went back to Spokane, honestly, it was a big mindset thing,” said Phillips. “Just going out and being more confident with every pitch that I had, knowing that I could get guys out, knowing that I was good. I definitely found out that baseball is just a game and you’ve got to make it fun.”
With tools and a new outlook, Phillips took to the mound on Thursday and went after hitters. Of the 68 pitches he threw, 18 missed bats, including all three pitches during a second-inning plate appearance by Eric Gutierrez, and on two of the three pitches thrown to Isael Soto, who was caught looking in the third.
Phillips said that as his mechanics improved, the increase in swings-and-misses increased.
“It kind of just started when I got to Spokane,” he said. “A lot of those are the changeup. I kind of developed that, keeping the same arm speed as my fastball. The fastball, this year, it’s harder because I got into my lower half better, so that’s another thing I’m fiddling around with.”
So, while the numbers between the final start with Hickory the first are the similar, Phillips left Thursday’s start feeling more assured of where he is as a pitcher.
“The results, obviously, were not what I wanted them to be,” Phillips said. “But I feel like I accomplished the things I wanted to work on.”
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 Texas Rangers announced the initial roster for the 2018 Hickory Crawdads. A total of 28 players are on the list with three to be pared off before opening day begins on Thursday, April 5 at Greensboro.
Six of the 28 players assigned to Hickory are currently on the Rangers top-30 prospect according to MLB.com. They include outfielders Pedro Gonzalez (No. 10) and Miguel Aparicio (18), catcher Sam Huff (25), and pitchers A.J. Alexy (17), Alex Speas (23), and Tyler Phillips (30).
Twelve of the 28 listed on the initial roster spent some time at Hickory last season, including eight pitchers.
Among the pitchers, five of them – Alexy, Phillips, Reid Anderson, Demarcus Evans and Sal Mendez – made starts for the Crawdads in 2017. Also returning are Dario Beltre, Joe Kuzia and Grant Zawadzki.
The four position players returning to Hickory are catcher Yohel Pozo, infielder Ryan Dorow – his only game with the Crawdads was a start in the final game of the 2017 season – Aparicio and Eric Jenkins, who will spent at least part of a fourth season in Hickory.
Below is a brief look at all 28 players on the initial roster:
Josh Advocate (6-1, 195 lbs., 24 y/o) RHP
The native of Mohave Valley, Ariz. pitched in 18 pro games (1-3, 3.63 ERA) out of the bullpen with rookie-affiliate Arizona Summer League (AZL) Rangers and short-season Spokane (Wash.) after his 20th round selection out of Long Beach State. Was a first-team All-Big West Conference pick in 2017. Played one season at Cochise (Ariz.) College and was a first-team Small School All-American in 2012 while at River Valley (Ariz.) High. Also played football in high school and was a first-team All-State pick as a free safety.
A.J. Alexy (6-4, 195, 19) RHP
The native of Honey Brook, Pa. was obtained by the Rangers last summer as part of a four-player deal that sent Yu Darvish to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Assigned to Hickory after the trade, he made five starts (1-1, 3.05) and struck out 27 in 20.2 innings. Held opponents to a .180 batting average, the third-lowest among all full-season minor league pitchers (min. 90 innings). Originally drafted by the Dodgers in the 11th round in 2016, he was signed away from a commitment to Radford. Was a catcher before switching to the mound in his junior season in high school (Twin Valley, Elverson, Pa.). Also wrestled in high school. Currently the No. 17 Rangers prospect according to MLB.com.
Reid Anderson (6-3, 185, 22) RHP
The native of New Egypt, N.J. made 28 appearances (13 starts) for Hickory in 2017 (1-11, 5.30). Was a starter almost exclusively in the second half of the season. The 17th round pick of the Rangers in 2016 out of Millersville Univ. (Pa.) in 2016, he attended college as an outfielder and moved to the mound during his sophomore season. Went 8-1 in 2016 and made three relief appearances during Millersville’s run to the Division II final. Played baseball and basketball at New Egypt High.
Joe Barlow (6-3, 195, 22) RHP
The native of Riverton, Utah made 16 relief appearances (6-1, 2.00) for Spokane in 2017. An 11th-round pick of the Rangers out of Salt Lake Community College in 2016, he struck out 64 of the 158 batters faced (40.5%) in 45 innings. Barlow was second in the Northwest League in opponents batting average (.177) and fifth in Ks-per-9-innings (12.80). A two-way player in college, he also caught 25 games in college. Pitched in high school at Riverton.
Dario Beltre (6-3, 210, 25) RHP
The native of San Juan de la Maguana, Dominican Republic made his first full-season appearance last year since signing as an international free agent contract with the Rangers in 2010. Made 11 appearances with Hickory (1-0, 2.60) with 19 Ks in 17.1 innings before ending the season on the disabled list with a right elbow strain. Missed the 2016 season due to elbow surgery. Fanned 173 in 153.1 innings during his pro career.
Noah Bremer (6-5, 200, 21)
The native of Berkeley, Calif. was the sixth-round pick of the Rangers in 2017 out of the University of Washington. Ranks third in innings, sixth in strikeouts and tied for sixth in starts among all hurlers in school history. In his pro debut with the AZL Rangers and Spokane, he made 12 relief appearances (1-0, 2.61) with 30 Ks and four walks in 20 innings. Held opponents to a .152/.211/.212 slash. Was an All-Pac 12 pick in 2017. Pitched in high school at Berkeley.
Jean Casanova (6-3, 155, 21) RHP
Was the 35th-round pick of the Rangers in 2016 out of Waukegan (Ill.) High. Spent both pro seasons with the AZL Rangers. Made 11 appearances (five starts) with the rookie affiliate in 2017 (5-2, 2.70) and 47 Ks in 36.2 innings. Moved to the U.S. in fifth grade from the Dominican Republic. His cousin Raul played in the majors from 1996 to 2008.
Alex Eubanks (6-2, 180, 22) RHP
The native of Moore, S.C. made 10 of his 11 appearances with Spokane (3-0, 1.17) after his 14th-round selection by the Rangers out of Clemson last June. Struck out 25 and walked just two in 16.1 innings. Made 16 starts for Clemson as a redshirt sophomore last year and walked just 1.73 per nine innings with the Tigers. Was an all-state as a senior at Byrnes (S.C.) High.
Demarcus Evans (6-4, 270, 21) RHP
The native of Petal, Miss. started the 2017 season with Hickory. A shoulder strain placed him on the disabled list in May and he rejoined the club after a rehab assignment with AZL Rangers. Finished the season at Spokane. With the Crawdads (2-5, 4.85), the Rangers 2015 25th-round pick (Petal High) made 12 appearances (six starts) with 46 Ks in 29.2 innings. Held opponents to a .170/.250/.250 slash in five starts at Spokane. As a high school senior, chosen as one of baseball’s “Dandy Dozen” by The Clarion-Ledger.
Joe Kuzia (6-4, 196, 24) RHP
A free agent signee of the Rangers in April 2017, the native of Cape Coral, Fla. had a four-game stint with Hickory last summer (1-1, 12.79). Spent the rest of 2017 with Spokane where he made 16 appearances. Had the lowest walk-per-9 inning rate (0.86) among Northwest League relievers to go with a 12.93 K-per-9 inning rate. Previously pitched professional with Garden State in the independent Can-Am League, as well as Bridgeport and New Britain in the independent Atlantic League. Was first-team All-Big East at St. John’s in 2014. Pitched in junior college at Herkimer County (N.Y.) CC and at Seymour (Ct.) High. where he also lettered in basketball, football and indoor track.
Sal Mendez (6-4, 185, 23) LHP
The native of Weehawken, N.J. made 25 appearances (6-6, 4.71), including nine starts, with Hickory in 2017. Spent part of August on the disabled list with a strained quad. Was the Rangers 40th round pick in 2013 out of Weehawken High. Missed first two pro seasons with an elbow injury. Threw a no-hitter in high school. Signed away from a commitment to Howard (Tex.) College. Father Sabah played two seasons in the New York Yankees system and one year with the Minnesota Twins chain in the 1970s.
Tyler Phillips (6-5, 191, 20)
The native of Lumberton, N.J. started the 2017 season with Hickory and struggled (1-2, 6.39 in his seven appearances (four starts) before an assignment to Spokane. With the Indians, the Rangers 2015 16th round pick out of Bishop Eustace Prep (N.J.) had 12 Ks in his final start of the season. Had an 18-0 career record in high school and posted a 1.02 ERA his senior season.
Alex Speas (6-4, 180, 20) RHP
The native of Powder Springs, Ga. made 16 appearances (7 starts) for Spokane (1-6, 6.15) in 2017 with 45 Ks in 33.2 innings. Was ranked the 12th-best prospect in the Northwest League by Baseball America. The Rangers drafted him in the second round of the 2016 draft out of McEachern (Ga.) High and signed him away from a commitment to Auburn. Threw 8.1 scoreless innings with the AZL Rangers in his pro debut season in 2016. Was an Under Armour All-American. Baseball America had him as the 11th-best high school pitching prospect before the 2016 draft. Signed away from a commitment to Auburn. Currently the Rangers No. 23 prospect according to MLB.com
Tyree Thompson (6-4, 165, 21) RHP
The New Orleans native made 13 starts (5-1, 3.15) for Spokane in 2017 and was second in the Northwest League in ERA, fourth in WHIP (1.24). The Rangers 26th-round pick in 2016 was the first player drafted by MLB out of Edna Karr (La.) High, where he threw six no-hitters and two perfect games in his high school career. Signed away from a commitment to play baseball and basketball at Northwestern St. (La.)
Grant Zawadzki (5-10, 200, 25) RHP
The native of Shrewsbury, Mass. signed a free-agent contract with the Rangers in February 2017. Split time with Spokane, Hickory and high-A Down East last season. Made seven relief appearances with Hickory (0-1, 7.71). Previously pitched in the San Diego Padres organization as well as with Lancaster and Southern Maryland in the independent Atlantic League. Played collegiately at Cleveland State (Tenn.) CC and Bryan College (Tenn.). Went to St. John’s High (Shrewsbury).
Sam Huff (6-4, 215, 20) B-T: R-R
The native of Phoenix spent both pro seasons with the AZL Rangers after his selection in the seventh-round of the 2016 draft out of Arcadia High. Posted a .249/.329/.452 slash in 49 games last season. Tied for the AZL lead with nine homers and was fourth in total bases. Named to the post-season AZL All-star team. Reached base safely in 24 of 28 games in 2016. Named to Arizona Republic’s All-Arizona baseball team in 2016 after hitting .554 with 14 homers and 49 RBI. Signed away from a commitment to Grand Canyon Univ. Currently the Rangers No. 25 prospect according to MLB.com
Clay Middleton (6-0, 205, 24) B-T: R-R
The native of Oviedo, Fla. spent both pro seasons with Spokane, splitting time behind the plate and at first last season. Posted .263/.323/.415 slash in 39 games with four homers and 17 RBI last season. Was the 22nd-round pick of the Rangers in 2016 out of Bethune-Cookman University. Named first-team All-Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in 2016. Played high school ball at Hagerty (Fla.) High.
Melvin Novoa (5-11, 215, 21) B-T: R-R
The native of Nandaime, Nicaragua signed an international free agent contract with the Rangers in 2013. When he appears in a game for Hickory, Novoa will be the first Nicaraguan to play for the Crawdads. Hit for a .281/.338/.467 slash with four homers and 15 RBI in 38 games last season at Spokane. Was suspended for the 2016 season after testing positive for PED.
Yohel Pozo (6-0, 201, 20) B-T: R-R
The native of Maracaibo, Venezuela signed an international free agent contract with the Rangers in 2013. In his first full-season assignment last season, posted .338/.373/.465 slash with two homers and 15 RBI at Hickory. His .338 batting avg. is the eighth highest in Crawdads history for a player with a minimum of 150 plate appearances. Opened the 2017 season with Spokane before joining Hickory in July. Threw out 35.1% of baserunners for the Crawdads in 2017. Named to 2016 post-season AZL All-Star Team after hitting .341 for the AZL Rangers.
Ryan Dorow (6-0, 195, 22) B-T: R-R
The native of South Haven, Mich. played in the final game of the 2017 for Hickory (1-3, double) after suiting up for 40 games with the AZL Rangers. A 30th-round pick last June out of Division III Adrian College (Mich.), he posted a .296/.382/.384 slash. Named MVP of Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association three straight seasons. He is the first player drafted by MLB out of Adrian since 1974 (Sherwin Rogers by Baltimore). Played baseball, soccer and basketball at South Haven. Named to all-state baseball team his senior season.
Kole Enright (6-1, 175, 20) B-T: S-R
The native of Winter Garden, Fla. was the third-round pick of the Rangers in 2016 out of West Orange (Fla.) High. After posting a .313/.378/.420 slash with the AZL Rangers in his first pro season, played in 67 games at Spokane last season when he hit .233/.314/.323 with three homers and 20 RBI. Named to the Orlando Sentinel all-area team in his senior season. Signed away from a commitment to Stetson Univ.
Yonny Hernandez (5-9, 140, 20)B-T: S-R
Signed as an international free agent in 2014, he made his stateside debut as a pro last May with AA Frisco (Tex.), where he went 0-for-3. The native of Planta, Baja, Venezuela spent much of the season with the AZL Rangers (32 games) before ending the season at Spokane (18 games). Hit his first pro homer in three seasons with Spokane last year.
Justin Jacobs (6-1, 195, 22) B-T: L-R
The native of Spokane, Wash. signed with the Rangers as a non-drafted free agent in 2017 after playing college ball at Gonzaga. Played in 48 games with the AZL Rangers posting a .326/.438/.431 slash. Was second in the AZL in hits (59) and on-base percentage (.438), sixth in batting avg. Named a JUCO All-American at Lower Columbia College (Wash.). Played high school ball at Auburn Riverside (Wash.).
Tyler Ratliff (6-2, 210, 22) B-T: R-R
The native of Port St. Lucie, Fla. played mostly with Spokane in his initial pro season after his selection by the Rangers in the 17th round out of Marshall Univ. last June. After hitting .500 in eight games with the AZL Rangers, Ratliff hit .264/.330/.421 with the Indians six homers and 25 RBI. Named to the Northwest League All-Star Team. Was a Louisville Slugger National Player of the Week during his sophomore season. Played in high school at T.C. Williams (Va.).
Miguel Aparicio (6-0, 175, 19) B-T: L-L
Signed as an international free agent in 2015, the native of San Carlos, Venezuela struggled as an 18-year-old during a 25-game stint (.176/.255/.247) with Hickory last season in his stateside pro debut. Re-assigned to Spokane, he put together an all-star season with the Indians (.293/.333/.395). Was second in the Northwest League in hits (86), fourth in runs (47) and the third-hardest player in the league to strikeout. Named by Baseball America as the 13th-best prospect in the NWL. Currently the Rangers No. 18 prospect according to MLB.com.
Pedro Gonzalez (6-5, 190, 20) B-T: R-R
The native of Santo Dominguez, Dominican Republic was obtained by the Rangers from the Colorado Rockies last August in a deal for catcher Jonathan Lucroy. Originally signed by the Rockies as an international free agent in 2014. Went 0-for-17 with Spokane in six games after the trade. Before the trade, he put up a .321/.388/.519 slash with 25 extra-base hits in 45 games with the Rockies rookie affiliate at Grand Junction (Colo.). Named the seventh-best prospect in the Pioneer League by Baseball America. Originally a shortstop in the Rockies organization, moved to centerfield in 2016. Currently the Rangers No. 10 prospect according to MLB.com.
Eric Jenkins (6-1, 170, 21) B-T: L-R
The lone North Carolina native (Cerro Gordo) on the Crawdads roster was drafted by the Rangers in the second round of the 2015 draft out West Columbus High. After playing in 51 games with the AZL Rangers in his pro debut season, he hit .389/.421/.444 with the Crawdads in the final five games of 2015 and started in left during the playoffs. Led the South Atlantic League with 51 steals in 2016. Started the 2017 season with a hamstring injury before rejoining Hickory last May. Hit .216/.266/.310 in his final 60 games with the Crawdads. Also played basketball in high school. Signed out of a commitment to UNC Wilmington.
Chad Smith (6-2, 193, 20) B-T: L-L
The native of Snellville, Ga. played for Spokane (.277/.354/.447) for a second-straight season in 2017 before a shoulder injury shut him down for the season after 39 games. A fifth-round pick of the Rangers in 2015 out of South Gwinnett (Ga.) High, he was as Northwest League all-star in 2016. Named a Perfect Game second-team All-American as a high school senior. Signed away from a commitment to the Univ. of Georgia.