Tuesday night, it was the last place (Northern Division) Hickory Crawdads against the first place (Southern Division) Greenville (S.C.) Drive. So of course, the Crawdads won 2-1 at L.P. Frans Stadium.
The win was the third straight (23-35) for Hickory and sent the Drive (34-23) to their third loss in a row. However, the loss didn’t harm Greenville in the chase for the first-half Southern Division title. It remains 2 ½ ahead of second-place Rome (Ga.), which lost at Augusta (Ga.). However, Columbia (S.C.) moves to three games out with 12 to play.
Four Crawdads pitchers combined to hold the Drive to seven baserunners and Ti’Quan Forbes drove in both runs, including the go-ahead tally in the eighth.
Michael Matuella retired nine of the first ten hitters he faced before Santiago Espinal hit a sharp grounder up the middle. Espinal stole second and scored when Ryan Scott lined a hard single to center to chance Matuella.
Hickory got even in the bottom of the inning against starter Bryan Mata. Yanio Perez singled with one out and moved to second on a wild pitch before Forbes singled him in.
Mata held the Crawdads in check through the sixth innings as he allowed just the one run on four hits, one walk, and fanned six.
Kaleb Fontenot quelled further damage by Greenville in the fourth and went on to pitch three scoreless. He struck out three and allowed a walk and a hit.
Hickory’s Matt Smoral and Matthew Gorst matched scoreless seventh innings before action for both sides in the eighth determined the final score. Smoral walked Chris Madera to start the eighth and that prompted manager Spike Owen to bring in Reid Anderson. Espinal failed at two sacrifice attempts before Anderson got him looking. Scott then bounced back to the mound and Tyler Hill flew out to right to end the threat.
Gorst retired the first two hitters in the eighth before the Crawdads put together three hits. Miguel Aparicio lined to right, Perez followed with an opposite field liner to right. Forbes then singled to left to score Aparicio.
Roldani Baldwin singled to start the ninth and moved to second with one out on a wild pitch. Anderson then struck out Isaias Lucena and got Mitchell Gunsolus to ground out to second and end the game.
“We haven’t had a lot of those from the standpoint of solid pitching, good defense and timely hitting,” said Owen. “That was a fun game. A 2-1 game, obviously, you want to be on the winning side of it, but that’s all we’re looking for is good baseball. That was a good baseball game.”
Forbes back to April?:
Ti’Quan Forbes was a pleasant surprise when he cranked out a bunch of homers and hits to start the season. Then, what seemed like a hitch showed up in the swing in the latter part of April and was it made him late on fastballs. He also swung through a ton of breaking balls.
During the last homestand, Forbes seemed to have an approach of taking everything up the middle and away and was able to pick up the breaking pitches better, but was still able to stay on the fastball.
Mata chewed him up with breaking pitches (looked like sliders) in the second for a strikeout. In the fourth, Forbes waited back on the curveball and bounced it along the line and past third. In the eighth, he sat dead-red and ambushed a fastball to left.
He now has a six-game hitting streak (8-for-24). Over a longer stretch, he has hits in 15 of the last 18 games, five of those with two hits. More importantly for him, he has just 10 Ks in that stretch over 69 plate appearances (14.4%). Forbes whiffed 27% of the time in April. He still needs to work the occasional walk, but he’s seeing the ball better and making contact.
Matuella no-match for the Drive:
The Rangers pitch trackers had him at 96-98 mph and most of his secondaries were changeups. There seemed to be a few sliders mixed in, but I was told they were changes. He needed only 38 pitches (27 strikes) to get through the third and so having him go to the fourth seemed to be an easy call. The first sign of trouble got him pulled.
“He had a good fastball and threw some changeups,” Crawdads manager Spike Owen said. “He’s still on a pitch limit and once action started happening in the fourth, we went ahead and went to the pen.”
As good as his stuff is, whether Matuella is tiring or hitters are adjusting to him, the few times he faces the lineup the second time through the order, he is getting hit. Both hits tonight came the second time through the order and both were smacked hard. He’s faced the order a second time in four starts and thus far hitters are 6-for-15 (2 Ks) with two doubles, a hit batter and a sac fly. There are adjustments to be made on Matuella’s part as to what he offers the hitters.
Fontenot signaling he is ready to become a DEWD?:
He throws 91-92 with a slider, change and curveball. When he is on, the fastball is spotted well and he can befuddle hitters with the breaking stuff. His 12.54 Ks per 9 innings (52 Ks in 37.1 IP this season) is the fifth best among SAL relievers.
Over the last four outings, he has allowed two hits, hit two, walked three and struck out 14 over 11.2 innings.
“Fotenot’s been outstanding all year,” said Owen. “He can flat out pitch. He throws harder than you think and he can put it where he wants. He’s got a good changeup and slider he can throw at any time in the count, so he’s able to keep them off balance. He’s not afraid to throw an offspeed pitch behind in the count. He’s been really good.”
Smoral and Anderson:
Smoral’s fastball was at 85-87 with iffy command which led to two walks of the five hitters he faced. He was able to get the slider to miss bats and it accounted for the lone K. His delivery out of the stretch is glacially deliberate and it led to his removal Smoral walked the leadoff hitter in the eighth with the game tied.
“He could’ve went more, but his situation was once he walked the leadoff guy, we wanted to be able to control the running game better,” said Owen. “He’s slow to the plate and we didn’t want to ask him to do something he’s not comfortable doing right now.”
The outing for Anderson was a needed one, as tonight was just the fourth scoreless outing in 13 appearances (2 starts). He attacked the strike zone with the fastball, pounding 17 of his 23 pitches for strikes.
“I’m happy for him and I hope he can gain some confidence off that in a tight game, coming in with a go-ahead run at first base and doing what he did,” said Owen. “Then once we took the lead, coming back and attacking the strike zone.”
The Drive entered Tuesday night’s game on the heels of two straight shutouts, the last a 17-0 pasting on Sunday by Charleston. So, when Drive CF Lorenzo Cedrola (Red Sox No. 15 prospect) jogged unenthusiastically to first on a 4-3 grounder to start the game, it was not received well. 1B coach Wilton Veras gave him an earful as he returned to the dugout and manager Darren Fenster took out the lineup card in the third-base coach’s box.
Surprisingly, Cedrola took the field in the bottom of the first, though he did not return for the second.
What’s the Mata?:
The 18-year-old from Maracay, Venezuela has impressed in his first three stateside starts. The Red Sox No. 27 prospect has now 16 Ks in 15 innings with 11 hits and five walks allowed. On Tuesday, he was clocked in the 90-92 mph range with which he was able to paint the corners for punchouts. Add in a curveball that had some bite and found the strike zone, Mata was tough to solve at times. However, the curve could be loopy and Forbes was able to wait on one long enough for an RBI single in the fourth.
From what I saw, there’s a lot for Red Sox fans to be excited about.
The Charleston RiverDogs entered Thursday night’s game with a South Atlantic League high .319 batting avg. in May. The Hickory Crawdads have the league’s worst pitching statistically. That’s proved to be a bad combination over the last two nights and on Thursday, the result was a 14-4 thrashing by Charleston in front of 2,525 fans at L.P. Frans Stadium.
For the second straight night, Charleston (17-17) scored the first nine runs of the game and cruised to victory. The Crawdads (12-21) have been outscored 25-6 over the first two games of the three-game series.
Charleston put the first five runners aboard and eventually sent ten to the plate in the first inning to open a 6-0 lead. Poor defense and poor pitch execution by starter Michael Matuella went hand-in-hand. (More on the defense later.)
Matuella had little command of the fastball in his lone inning, which started with a four-pitch walk to Estevan Florial. After a dubious bloop single to center by Isaiah Gilliam, Hoy Jun Park tripled in both runners. Blake Rutherford singled in Park. Oswaldo Cabrera’s sac fly got a run and Diego Castillo’s two-run single capped the scoring and ended Matuella’s night.
The RiverDogs treated lefty Sal Mendez no better in the second as they sent eight more to the plate and scored three. Gilliam reached on an error and after Park replaced him on a fielder’s choice, Donny Sands singled him in. Cabrera added two more with a single.
Brian Keller kept the Crawdads without a baserunner until the fourth before Miguel Aparicio’s grounder went through the infield. Hickory finally got on the board one inning later as Isaiah Quiroz singled in two.
Alex Kowalczyk (2-for-4) hit a two-run homer in the sixth to cut the Crawdads deficit to 9-4.
However, RiverDogs tacked on three in the eighth and two in the ninth, all against Jake Lemoine, to account for the final margin.
“They have a good hitting ballclub, no doubt,” said Crawdads manager Spike Owen. “We just have to find a way pitching wise to limit the damage and make better pitches. That’s the bottom line. We’re not doing it. We’re not getting it done. The last two nights, we’ve not given our offense a chance to do anything.”
Crawdads pitching beginning to look historic… and not in a good way.
As a team, the Crawdads 5.72 ERA and 1.59 WHIP are the worst in the Sally League. They also have allowed the most hits, runs, and earned runs. With the quarter of the season two games away, one begins to look at how they stack up to Crawdads club records. They’re chasing a few.
Hickory has had just two seasons with an ERA over five, which came in back-to-back seasons in 2007 (5.13) and 2008 (5.02). The club record for the worst WHIP in a season is 1.54 in 2007. The Crawdads are also on pace to set club records for the most hits, runs and earned runs allowed.
Defense was offensive:
While Matuella didn’t have his best stuff, some of the first inning struggles could be laid at the feet of the defense.
After Florial walked, Gilliam hit a short fly to center that appeared to be an easy can of corn for Leody Taveras. Meanwhile, shortstop Anderson Tejeda and second baseman Yeyson Yrizarri were pulling a double-play decoy on Florial running hard to second. The decoy worked beautifully except… Taveras couldn’t pick up the ball and with no fielders pointing out the ball, eventually it fell harmless to the turf. So what could’ve been a double play with Florial totally fooled at second turned into a 1st & 2nd situation with no outs.
Later in the inning, a routine double play turned into one out when Tejeda’s throw to first went wide of Yanio Perez’s stretch at first.
And still later in the inning, 3B Ti’Quan Forbes took his time on a grounder by Ben Ruta. Forbes circled around to make the play, but as he appeared in no particular hurry to complete the play, Forbes throw to first was beaten by the hustling Ruta.
A frustrated Owen spread the blame around equally between hurlers and defenders.
“It accumulates and everything when you don’t make plays,” said Owen. “But, we talk to (the pitchers) all the time that sometimes you’re going to have to get four outs and sometimes five outs in an inning. You’re even going to do that in the big leagues. Obviously, not nearly as much, because they are big league infielders, but they have to overcome those things. They sooner they learn that and figure it out rather than say, ‘I should’ve been out of the inning’ or whatever. It is what it is out there….”
Owen later added, “We’ve got to clean it up all the way around, especially the pitching and defense. We’ve been working really hard during the last four defensively and cutting b.p. time saying ‘Let’s have a clean game.’ We haven’t been able to do that.”
Better Call Sal:
Once Mendez got settled, he went on to retire the last 14 batters he faced and fanned 6 over 5.1 innings. His work allowed the Crawdads offense to chip away at the lead and take some momentum into the late innings.
The two parts of his outing show just how careful he has to be with his stuff. His changeup is a formidable pitch, at least at this level, and had 7 or 8 missed bats. That with his fastball at 90-91, if he keeps his pitches down, he’s tough.
“I thought Mendez did a really nice job,” Owen said. “His first inning of work he left some balls up and he paid for it. Then he comes out and puts up zeroes from that point on. That’s a good adjustment by him.”
The way that Charleston starter Brian Keller mowed through the first three innings, it looked like history was in the making. He fanned six of the first ten hitters, which included a 10-pitch, three-strikeout third inning. The second time through the order, Keller started missing his location and the Crawdads hitters adjusted to the breaking ball.
Owen: “The guy that started was impressive and did exactly what you’d want to see with a guy that’s got a nine-run lead in popping and pounding the zone. We made some adjustments. It’s good to see that you’re down nine runs and still have competitive at bats from our side.”
Smoral on the Fire:
Lefty Matt Smoral made his Crawdads and Rangers affiliate debut on Thursday. A tall presence at 6-8, a SLOW delivery seemed to make his fastball even faster as it whipped from his left hand to the plate. However, the delivery never seemed in control as he flailed about the mound. There’s a lot of moving parts to the motion.
Smoral walked two and threw quite the wild pitch to the back stop. Control has been the issue for the former Toronto Blue Jays first-round pick as he has walked or hit 122 batters in 107.2 innings as a pro
Who was that Lemoine’s jersey?
There seemed to be a body language on the mound that said, “here ya go, hit it if you can.” And Charleston did: Five runs on six hits – all hit hard – over two innings of relief. Fastball straight as an arrow and it went to the wall harder. Throw in a walk and two wild pitches and you have a RiverDogs lineup fattening their stats.
Meanwhile, It’s the second poor outing in a row for the right-hander, who allowed two in a walkoff loss at Hagerstown (Md.) last Saturday.
The Hickory Crawdads played just nine innings, but picked up two wins over the Columbia (S.C.) Fireflies on Friday. The first was awarded Friday morning when the South Atlantic League office declared Hickory the winner of a suspended game Thursday night. The umpires suspended the game in the bottom of the eighth due to fog with the Crawdads leading 8-7.
The second win came when Hickory picked up six runs in the first and used that to again defeat the Fireflies 11-7.
Hickory (8-14) improved to 2-3 during the current homestand, which continues Saturday night at L.P. Frans Stadium. Columbia (12-11) has lost three of four and five of its last seven games.
What happened on Thursday?:
Two expected stories converged at L.P. Frans Stadium on Thursday, but Mother Nature decided to make her presence felt and she played the ultimate role in the game’s outcome.
Former University of Florida and NFL quarterback Tim Tebow came to L.P. Frans Stadium and many of the 4,225 in attendance were there to see the football-turned-baseball player.
The Crawdads had their own story in the form of Duke University product and Rangers third-round pick Michael Matuella. A potential first-overall pick in the 2015 draft before suffering problems and then undergoing Tommy John surgery, the 6-6 right-hander made only his second pro appearance on Thursday. And he didn’t disappoint.
A persistent rainstorm delayed the start 97 minutes before the teams finally took the field.
After play resumed, Matuella used a fastball staying in the 94-96 mph range to work around a one-out double and fan the side. He struck out two more in the second – including a 94 mph pitch on the outside corner to catch Tebow looking – but Columbia touched him for a run. Reed Gamache led off the inning with a double to the wall. Two outs later, Desmond Lindsay’s broken-bat blooper went far enough to clear the infield and bring in Gamache.
Matuella threw 46 pitches, thirty for strikes before he was pulled after two innings.
The Crawdads took the lead for good in the third with six runs. Kevin Scott double to left and advanced to third on Yeyson Yrizarri’s single to left. Anderson Tejeda lofted a fly ball to center that Gene Cone tracked down and then lost. Scott scored and Tejeda reached on the error. Eric Jenkins walked to load the bases and they remained loaded after Franklin Rollin bounced to third, which turned into a force play at home. Ti’Quan Forbes saved the rally when he steered a bouncer past the bag at first for a two-run double. One out later, Yanio Perez lined a two-run single to center to complete the scoring.
Two Fireflies errors allowed Hickory to add two runs in the fifth. Rollin reached on an error and Forbes doubled him to third. With two outs in the inning, Perez bounced a single to short. Taveras scored on the play and Forbes rumbled home after Michael Paez’s throw got away at first.
Down 8-1, Columbia took a chunk out of its deficit in the sixth. Dash Winningham and Milton Ramos singled to lead off the inning. After Tebow popped to third, Jose Medina topped a bouncer to Anderson Tejeda at short. Tejeda fielded the ball and threw to third, but Forbes dropped the ball, allowing the runners to advance.
Sal Mendez walked Lindsay before Ali Sanchez singled in two more.
Mendez, who replaced Matuella in the third, pitched into the eighth before running out of gas. With fog drifted onto the field, Mendez hit Tebow with a pitch and Medina lined a single to center. After Matt Ball replaced Mendez, Lindsay clubbed a three-run homer to center that Leody Taveras never saw, nor responded to.
At that point, Crawdads manager Spike Owen got the umpires to stop play until the fog cleared 21 minutes later. When play again resumed, Jake Lemoine replaced Ball and Sanchez greeted him with a single. Sanchez moved to second on a wild pitch, but Lemoine stemmed the rally, the final out on a strikeout of Michael Paez.
Preston Scott reached on an infield hit before the umpires again halted play. After 20 more minutes, the umpires suspended play.
The next morning, the South Atlantic League office awarded the Crawdads the win. In an email sent to the teams, league president Eric Krupa stated:
“Last night’s game in Hickory was suspended in the bottom of the 8th inning due to fog with Hickory leading 8-7.
“Fog is a weather event, not a darkness event.
“Therefore, according to the Official Baseball Rule 7.02 (b)(4)(A), this game is an official/ regulation game with Hickory being declared the winner.”
“That was crazy,” said Crawdads manager Spike Owen. “That fog rolled in and the umpires thought we could suspend it because of darkness, because fog is not in the rule book… It’s a win and obviously we’ll take it.”
What Happened Friday?:
The Crawdads bats picked up where they left off Thursday with a six-run first inning, aided by a key defensive miscue.
With one out, Rollin got a broken-bat single to leftfield, moved to second on a wild pitch and scored on Leody Taveras’ single to right. The key play of the inning came when a potential inning-ending double play blew up as the throw by Ramos at third short-hopped the bag at second and allowed both runners to advance. Ricky Valencia and Perez each had RBI singles before Yrizarri cleared the bases with a homer to left-center.
Tebow singled ahead of Lindsay’s second homer in two days to cut the Fireflies deficit to 6-2. They got another run back in the third on Winningham’s RBI single.
Perez’s two-run blast in the third pushed Hickory ahead 8-3.
An errant pickoff by Hickory’s Kaleb Fontenot led to Ramos’ RBI single in the fourth. However, Columbia repaid the favor in the bottom of the inning when pitcher Blake Taylor’s throw to third on a sacrifice attempt sailed into left field and allowed two runs to score.
The Crawdads eventually made it 11-4 before Paez’s two run homer in the seventh and Ramos’ RBI triple accounted for the final runs.
Crawdads bats dry out and charge up:
As a group Hickory scored 22 runs over 10 home games entering the season. The Crawdads have scored 19 the last two nights.
“It’s good to see the bats come alive and scoring some runs.” said Owen after Friday’s game. “We needed every one of them last night and tonight. It got a little closer than we wanted it to.”
In talking around the cage with hitting coach Kenny Hook, he mentioned the long layoff, due to the past week’s rainstorms, set some of the hitters back because of the inability to get onto the field. Owen agreed with that assessment.
“We went five consecutive days without doing anything on the field,” said Owen. “We did get some ground balls a couple of days ago, but with all the rain and the weather, it’s been tough at home. That’s really where you get your extra work in, not only hitting wise, but on the field, as well, with fundamental stuff. We just haven’t been able to do it because of the weather.”
One of the frustrations of the team has been the inability of hitters to take advantage of counts and situations when the hitters have the advantage. That has improved in recent days.
“We’ve had a lot better at bats the last couple of nights,” said Owen. “That’s all we’re looking for is quality at bats. They’re young and they’re chasing hits, which you can’t do in this game. You’ve just got to put a good at bat together and hit a ball hard somewhere. It’s young and they’re looking at averages and things, which is human nature and part of the game. But, they’ll get it.”
The Hickory Crawdads and Greensboro Grasshoppers open the 2017 South Atlantic League season with a four-game series at First National Bank Field in Greensboro.
If you plan to go:
GAME TIMES: Games Thursday through Saturday are at 7:00 EDT with a 4 p.m. start on Sunday.
TICKETS: Ticket prices range from $7-11.
PARKING: Parking at the ballpark is $5. There are independently operated parking lots nearby that charge a varied amount. Metered parking about a block away from the outfield is free after 6 p.m. on weekdays and is free on weekends.
CONCESSIONS: First National Bank Field is more of a AA park and so the concession offerings are a vast upgrade from what a smaller Low-A ball park provides. Other than basic ballpark fare, there is a BBQ stand, Sausage Shack, Philly Steaks Sandwiches, Mexican fare, and a Burger of the Month. There are also veggie options. Here is the entire menu.
Where is it?:
From Hickory, take I-40 East to exit 218 B / Freeman Mill Road. That will turn into Edgeworth St. and the ballpark will be on the right. (Edgeworth and Bellemeade St.)
Thursday: RHP Jonathan Hernandez vs. RHP Jordan Holloway
Friday: RHP Kyle Cody vs. RHP Alejando Mateo
Saturday: RHP Emerson Martinez vs. RHP Dustin Beggs
Sunday: RHP Edgar Arredondo vs. LHP Dylan Lee
rRecent Series History:
Hickory took an 12-9 season-series win vs. the Grasshoppers in 2016, which included a 7-4 mark at then-called NewBridge Bank Park. Since the stadium opened in 2005, Greensboro is 55-42 at home vs. the Crawdads, 35-34 during the Rangers affiliation (since 2009).
Prospects to watch- Hickory:
RHP Jonathan Hernandez (No. 17 MLB.com and Baseball America): Given the strong finish by Hernandez in 2016, it was a little surprising to see the right-hander back donning the Hickory uniform again. After an 8.87 ERA and a .305 OBA in July, the 20-year old gave up just 10 ER over his final 28.2 innings in August/ September (3.14 ERA) and opponents hit just .210 in that stretch. Development of his changeup and keeping his delivery under control was under the agenda last year. Now as the “senior” member of the staff, Hernandez may be primed to step forward as a more dominant force on the mound. He can rack up Ks (10 in a game vs. Lexington last May), but his success comes with groundball outs (1.19 GO/AO).
RHP Tyler Ferguson (No. 30 Baseball America): The big righty (6-4, 225) had a dominant tenure with Spokane (1.78 ERA, 46 Ks/ 10 BBs 30.1 IP), then struggled to find his command after he joined Hickory for the final month of 2016 (10 Ks/ 18 BBs 13.1 IP). Brings an overpowering fastball/ slider, but the Vanderbilt product’s goal is simple to start the season: find the plate.
CF Leody Taveras (No. 1 MLB.com and Baseball America): Observers say he has an intriguing combination of power and speed, along with a good makeup for an 18-year-old. Had an adequate K/BB ratio (55 K/ 25 BBs over 333 plate appearances) and 21 extra-base hits in 73 games last year. The curious thing will be to see how he adjusts to SAL pitchers that spin the ball. For former top-end, 17-18-year-old Crawdads outfielders that spent two seasons here (Lewis Brinson, Nomar Mazara, Jairo Beras for example), the first year was frustration personified as each racked up Ks swinging at breaking balls off the plate. Patience with the process could be needed by fans.
SS Anderson Tejeda (No. 8 MLB.com, 16 Baseball America): Over the first 24 seasons of Crawdads baseball, only 2013 OF Nick Williams put together a season that had double-digit totals in doubles, triples and homers. Tejeda did that over three levels last season when he had 14 doubles, ten triples and ten homers in just 66 games. Will need to work on plate discipline (73 Ks in 269 ABs), but his gap-to-gap approach at a young age is certainly an interesting proposition to monitor as he gets older and wiser. Played exclusively at shortstop last year and will have to work on slowing the game down as he made 17 errors in 45 games.
2B Yeyson Yrizarri (No. 17 MLB.com): Seems strange to type 2B by his name as he led all SAL shortstops in fielding last year. Shows good range and the arm is a cannon. At the plate, showed good power for a young player. But, Yrizarri could be frustrating to watch. Seemed to take his time in the field in making plays, though his arm bailed him out. He also swings at EVERYTHING. Does make decent enough contact, but had ONLY 9 WALKS. Hopefully the second season will be the charm on developing plate discipline.
RF Jose Almonte (No. 29 MLB.com): The biggest hurdle for the 20-year-old last year was staying on the field. A bit of surprise when he was assigned to Hickory last year, Almonte made the player development folks look smart when he put up a .278/.343/ .444 slash and popped eight homers in 57 games. Missed a lot of the 2016 season with injuries to both shoulders. He worked in the offseason to strengthen his upper body. Like Yrizarri, plate discipline will be a key for him as well (55 Ks/ 8 walks with Hickory).
Others to watch – Hickory:
3B Ti’Quan Forbes: Started slow, but gained confidence and seemingly strength as the season wore on. Came to Hickory with a reputation of the game being too fast for him in the field, he was as solid defender as there was in the league last year. In the first half, he hit for a .239/.299/289 slash. The second half, it went to .261/.316/.376. Twenty of his 28 extra-base hits came in the second half. Will be interesting to see if that confidence continues to build in his second season with the Crawdads.
C Ricky Valencia: Played just 41 games last year – 22 behind the plate – the organizational soldier will get a chance to play on a fulltime basis for the first time in his pro career. Brings a power bat to the lineup, but how much he can hold up through the rigors of catching in the heat of North Carolina summers will be something to watch.
RHP Jake Lemoine: The 2015 fourth-round draftee will make his pro debut with Hickory after struggling with a shoulder injury. The Univ. of Houston prospect will start the season in the bullpen with bite-sized game appearances for now.
Prospects to watch-Greensboro:
RHP Jordan Holloway (No. 15 Baseball America, 16 MLB.com): After a solid short-season with Batavia in 2015, he took a step backwards when he struggled with control with the Grasshoppers (15 walks/ 31 innings over eight starts) then was shut down with a triceps injury after a demotion back to Batavia. MLB.com has his fastball and curve both at 60 on the 20-80 scale, but can he control it?
RHP Sam Perez (No. 18 MLB.com, 23 Baseball America): A reliever for Missouri State, Perez may get a chance to start in the Marlins system, though he is not expected to do so in this series. Scouting publications note his durability (91 innings over 36 games his senior season) as well as his intelligence. The combination may serve him well vs. the younger players of the SAL. He may get a chance to move up the ladder quickly if the Marlins decide to keep him in the pen.
2B Justin Twine (No. 26 MLB.com, 28 Baseball America): An athletic kid that played several sports in high school, the Falls City, Tex. native – the second-round pick of the Marlins in 2014 – has struggled to put that into baseball ability. Has K’d 276 times over 970 ABs and works very few walks. Drafted as a SS, the Marlins moved him to 2B where he led the SAL in fielding last year. This will be the third year with the Grasshoppers, and although he is still just 21, time is pressing for him to put things together.
Notes of Interest: Holloway is the Grasshoppers youngest player and one of just two 20-years-olds on the roster. Eleven of the Crawdads 25-man roster are younger than Holloway, five of those are expected to be in the lineup this evening (Almonte, Forbes, Taveras, Tejeda, Yrizarri) … Hickory manager Spike Owen was originally slated to be the team’s manager last year. However, Owen became the Rangers interim third-base coach when Tony Beasley (Hickory manager in 2002) was diagnosed with cancer and left the team to receive treatment… Grasshoppers manager Todd Pratt, a 14-year major league veteran, played for the old Greensboro Hornets in 1986, then an affiliate with the Boston Red Sox. Owen played shortstop for the Red Sox in that season’s World Series… Crawdads RHP Edgar Arredondo is the youngest player ever to appear in a Mexican League game. He was 15 when he suited up for Quintana Roo in 2013.
Over the next 152 days, 25 players that will start the season at Hickory seek another step on their individual journeys toward what they each hope will end at the major leagues. But for now, they are all teammates and will work towards the common goal of winning games and hopefully playoff spots.
As the season’s first pitch is thrown, the Crawdads roster will have eight returning players from the 2016 squad, including tonight’s starting pitcher Jonathan Hernandez and his batterymate Ricky Valencia.
Three 2016 starting position players will rejoin the squad at the start, including third baseman Ti’Quan Forbes and shortstop Yeyson Yrizarri – who will play more at second this season. – and right fielder Jose Almonte.
Other pitchers returning to the mound are Emerson Martinez, Luke Lanphere and Tyler Ferguson.
The Crawdads top prospects are led by the Texas Rangers No. 1 overall prospect CF Leody Taveras. Others include SS Anderson Tejada (No. 8 MLB.com), Yanio Perez (No. 15) – who will play OF and 1B – Yrizarri (17), Hernandez (18) and Almonte (29).
Here is the expected lineup for the Crawdads to start the season: C Ricky Valencia, 1B Yanio Perez or Preston Scott, 2B Yeyson Yrizarri, 3B Ti’Quan Forbes, SS Anderson Tejada, LF Travis Bolin, CF Leody Taveras, RF Jose Almonte. Perez and Scott are both expected to see some time in outfield. Yrizarri and Tejeda will switch spots on occasion with Yrizarri likely to also see some time at 3B. Forbes may get some reps at 1B. Isaias Quiroz will back up Valencia behind the plate.
The starting rotation announced so far: Jonathan Hernandez, Kyle Cody, Emerson Martinez, Edgar Arredondo, Argenis Rodriguez and a tandem of Tyler Phillips and Demarcus Evans in the sixth slot.
The collection of bullpen arms are as follows: Reid Anderson, Tyler Ferguson, Kaleb Fontenot, Luke Lanphere, Jake Lemoine, Sal Mendez and C.D. Pelham.
Below is a snapshot view of each player that will start the season at Hickory.
2017 HICKORY CRAWDADS PLAYER CAPSULES
REID ANDERSON (RHP, 6-3, 185)
2016 Pro Season: 14 games (2 starts) at Spokane (Wash.), 36 2/3 IP, 1 HR, 20 BB, 18 K, 3.44 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, .238 OBA.
About Anderson: A native of New Egypt, N.J., Anderson, 21, was the Texas Rangers 17th-round pick in 2016 out of Millersville (Pa.) Univ., where he was a Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Scholar Athlete. Pitched two innings in Division II College World Series championship game. Entered college as outfielder, began pitching while a sophomore.
EDGAR ARREDONDO (RHP, 6-3, 230)
2016 Pro Season: 12 games (12 starts) at Dominican Summer League (DSL) Rangers 1, 62 IP, 0 HR, 4 BB, 56 K, 3.97 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, .260 OBA.
About Arredondo: A native of Novalato, Sinaloa, Mex., Arredondo, 19, signed with the Rangers as an international free agent in 2013. Appeared for Quintana Roo of the Mexican League in 2013, the youngest ever to debut in a Mexican League game at 15 years old. Had elbow surgery in November 2013 and missed all of 2014.
KYLE CODY (RHP, 6-7, 245)
2016 Pro Season: 12 games (9 starts) at Spokane, 47 1/3 IP, 4 HR, 13 BB, 53 K, 5.13 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, .293 OBA.
About Cody: A native of Chippewa Falls, Wisc., Cody, 22, was the Rangers sixth-round pick in 2016 out of the University of Kentucky. Was 4-1 with a 2.77 ERA in ten SEC starts in 2016. Drafted in the second by the Minnesota Twins in 2015 but returned to the Wildcats for his senior season. Was the 2012 Gatorade Wisconsin High School player of the year.
DEMARCUS EVANS (RHP, 6-4, 270)
2016 Pro Season: 14 games (12 starts) between Arizona Summer League (AZL) and Spokane, 55 IP, 3 HR, 37 BB, 75 K, 2.95 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, .193 OBA.
About Evans: A native of Petal, Miss., Evans, 20, was the 25th round pick of the Rangers in 2015 out of Petal High School. Allowed fewer than two runs in 4 of 6 starts in the AZL before a promotion to short-season Spokane on 8/3.
TYLER FERGUSON (RHP, 6-4, 225)
2016 Pro Season: 23 games between Spokane and Hickory, 43 2/3 IP, 2 HR, 28 BB, 56 K, 3.92 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, .190 OBA.
About Ferguson: A native of Fresno, Calif.., Ferguson, 23, was the Rangers sixth-round pick in 2015 out of Vanderbilt. Named to the Northwestern League All-Star Team while at Spokane, he struck out 37 percent (46 of 124) of the batters he faced in the circuit. Made several relief appearances for Vanderbilt en route to the 2014 College World Series title. Three-time Southeastern Conference Honor Roll.
KALEB FONTENOUT (RHP, 6-1, 180)
2016 Pro Season: 19 games (3 starts) at Spokane, 36 2/3 IP, 3 HR, 16 BB, 41 K, 4.17 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, .266 OBA.
About Fontenout: A native of Ville Platte, La., Fontenout, 23, was the Rangers 21st round pick in 2016 out of McNeese St. Was an All-Southland Conference starter his senior season at McNeese St., set a school record with 28 straight scoreless innings.
JONATHAN HERNANDEZ (RHP, 6-2, 173)
2016 Pro Season: 24 games 2 starts) at Hickory, 116 1/3 IP, 14 HR, 49 BB, 85 K, 4.56 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, .252 OBA.
About Hernandez: A native of Santiago de los Caballos, D. R., Hernandez, 20, signed with the Rangers as a free agent in 2013.Baseball America has Hernandez as the 17th best Rangers prospect, while MLB.com has him at No. 18. His father, Fernando, pitched briefly for the Detroit Tigers during a 14-season pro career.
LUKE LANPHERE (RHP, 6-2, 198)
2016 Pro Season: 13 games at between Spokane and Hickory, 71 2/3 IP, 9 HR, 22 BB, 57 K, 3.64 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, .272 OBA.
About Lanphere: A native of Highland, Calif., Lanphere, 21, was the Rangers 21st round pick out of Citrus Valley (Calif.) High School in 2013.Was promoted to Hickory on August 4.
JAKE LEMOINE (RHP, 6-5, 199)
2016 Pro Season: Did not pitch.
About Lemoine: A native of Bridge City, Tex., Lemoine, 23, was the Rangers fourth round pick in 2015 out of Univ. of Houston. Suffered a should injury in 2015 while at college and has not pitched professionally. Had rotator cuff surgery March 2016. Named to USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team in 2014. Rangers picked him the 21st round in 2012, but Lemoine opted to attend Houston.
EMERSON MARTINEZ (RHP, 6-1, 199)
2016 Pro Season: 24 games (6 starts) between Hickory and AA Frisco (Tex.), 64 2/3 IP, 3 HR, 28 BB, 53 K, 3.48 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, .249 OBA.
About Martinez: A native of Guigue, Venezuela., Martinez, 22, signed with the Rangers as an international free agent in 2013. Completed six or more innings in four of six starts with Hickory. His twin brother Kevin is a catcher in the Milwaukee Brewers system.
SAL MENDEZ, (LHP, 6-4, 185)
2016 Pro Season: 14 games (9 starts) at Spokane, 57 2/3 IP, 5 HR, 24 BB, 46 K, 3.75 ERA, 1.51 WHIP, .276 OBA.
About Mendez: A native of Weehawken, N.J., Mendez, 22, was the Rangers 40th round pick in 2013 out of Weehawken High. Had Tommy John surgery in 2014, made his pro debut in 2015 and posted a 2.58 ERA over 52 1/3 innings with the AZL Rangers. Tossed a no-hitter while a senior in high school.
CD PELHAM (LHP, 6-6, 238)
2016 Pro Season: 16 games (7 starts) at Spokane, 38 IP, 0 HR, 43 BB, 50 K, 6.16 ERA, 2.08 WHIP, .243 OBA.
About Pelham: A native of Lancaster, S.C., Pelham, 22, was the Rangers 33rd round pick in 2015 out of Spartanburg (S.C.) Methodist College. Drafted in the 25th round by the Milwaukee Brewers in 2014, but he opted to attend college.
TYLER PHILLIPS (RHP, 6-5, 191)
2016 Pro Season: 13 games at Spokane, 58 2/3 IP, 2 HR, 20 BB, 57 K, 6.44 ERA, 1.67 WHIP, .307 OBA.
About Phillips: A native of Lumberton, N.J., Phillips, 19, was the Rangers 16th round pick in 2015 out of Bishop Eustace Prep (N.J.). Went 18-0 in his high school career, including a 9-0 mark with a 1.02 ERA in his senior year. Was to attend Manatee CC (Fla.) before opted to sign a pro contract.
ARGENIS RODRIGUEZ (RHP, 6-3, 192)
2016 Pro Season: 14 games (9 starts) at AZL Rangers, 56 2/3 IP, 4 HR, 5 BB, 54 K, 4.76 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, .272 OBA.
About Rodriguez: A native of La Vega, D.R., Rodriguez, 21, made his stateside debut last season and walked just two percent of the batters he faced, the second-lowest among all qualifying minor leaguers in 2016. Threw 17 scoreless innings as a reliever.
SHAQ MATTA (B-T: S-R, 5-8, 175)
2016 Pro Season: 6 games at Frisco (Tex.), 1-for-14, 6 K.
About Matta: A native of San Juan, P.R. signed with the Rangers in 2015 as an international free agent. Made is stateside debut in 2016 with the Rangers AA squad. Spent 2015 with DSL Rangers. He will start the season on the disabled list.
ISAIAS QUIROZ (B-T: R-R, 5-10, 210)
2016 Pro Season: 25 games at AZL Rangers, 6 R, 16 H, 2 2B, 2 HR, 10 RBI, 9 BB, 27 K, .222/.332/.333
About Quiroz: A native of Bergenfield, N.J., Quiroz, 20, was the Rangers 20th round pick in 2014 out of St Joseph’s High (N.J.). Spent all three previous pro seasons in the AZL, had 18 starts behind the plate in 2016. Had committed to Howard (Tex.) JC before signing with the Rangers.
RICKY VALENCIA (B-T: R-R, 6-0, 216)
2016 Pro Season: 41 games at Hickory, 12 R, 31 H, 5 2B, 4 HR, 21 RBI, .244/.342/.378.
About Valencia: The native of Valencia, Venezuela, Valencia, 24, was signed by the Rangers as an international free agent in 2011. Split time behind the plate and a first in 2016, played in a career-high 41 games last year. Went 4-for-13 in four games for Hickory in 2015. Had a brief stint at AA Frisco (Tex.) in 2015.
TI’QUAN FORBES (B-T: R-R, 6-3, 188)
2016 Pro Season: 120 games at Hickory, 50 R, 107 H, 16 2B, 4 3B, 4 HR, 44 RBI, 6 SB, 25 BB, 106 K, .252/.316/ .335.
About Forbes: A native of Columbia, Miss., Forbes, 20, was the Rangers second round pick in 2014 out of Columbia High. In 2016, led all SAL 3B in fielding pct., assists and double plays. Made just 16 errors at the position over 108 games. Had originally committed to Ole Miss before signing with the Rangers.
BLAINE PRESCOTT (B-T: R-R, 5-10, 181)
2016 Pro Season: 54 games at Spokane, 33 R, 64 H, 16 2B, 3 3B, 5 HR, 26 RBI, 11 SB, 20 BB, 50 K, .282/.345/.447
About Prescott: A native of Amarillo, Tex., Prescott, 21, was the Rangers 28th round pick in 2015 out of Midland (Tex.) College. Finished 2016 ranked among Northwest League leaders in doubles, OPS and homers. Missed all of 2015 pro season and much of the college season with hamstring injury. Played in 2014 JUCO World Series and named to All-Tournament Team. Drafted in 16th round by Los Angeles Angers in 2014. Had committed to Texas Tech before signing with the Rangers.
About Tejeda: A native of Bani, D.R., Tejeda, 18, was signed by the Rangers as an international free agent in 2014. Named by Baseball America as the number four prospect in the Northwest League and No. 11 in the Arizona League. Had the most triples of any Rangers minor leaguer in 2016.
YEYSON YRIZARRI: (B-T: R-R, 6-0, 193)
2016 Pro Season: 118 games at Hickory, 53 R, 121 H, 27 2B, 3 3B, 7 HR, 53 RBI, 20 SB, 9 BB, 91 K, .269/.292/.389.
About Yrizarri: A native of Puerto de Ordaz, Venezuela, Yrizarri, 20, was signed by the Rangers as an international free agent in 2013. Named to South Atlantic League All-Star game in 2016. Led all SAL shortstops in fielding percentage, assists and total chances. Named to the Northwest League All-Star team while at Spokane in 2015. Hit in seven of nine games while filling in as the shortstop at AAA Round Rock. He is the nephew of former major league shortstop Deivi Cruz.
JOSE ALMONTE (B-T: R-R, 6-3, 205)
2016 Pro Season: 61 games at AZL Rangers and Hickory, 33 R, 54 H, 8 2B, 1 3B, 8 HR, 27 RBI, 8 SB, 9 BB, 59, K, .277/.341/ .451.
About Almonte: A native of Santo Domingo, D.R., Almonte, 20, signed with the Rangers as an international free agent in 2013. Had two shoulder injuries in 2016 that limited his playing time. MLB.com rates him as the 29th best prospect in the Rangers system. Played in the Perfect Game World Showcase and named to the Dominican Prospect League All-Star Game in 2013.
TRAVIS BOLIN (B-T: R-R, 5-11, 208)
2016 Pro Season: 34 games at AZL Rangers and Spokane, 18 R, 33 H, 8 2B, 4 3B, 1 HR, 19 RBI, 7 SB, 12 BB, 41 K, .270/.350/ .426.
About Bolin: A native of Berrien Springs, Mich., Bolin, 22,was the Rangers 32nd round pick in 2016 out of Davenport Univ. (Mich.). Named NAIA All-American and Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference player of the year in 2016.
YANIO PEREZ (B-T: R-R, 6-2, 205)
2016 Pro Season: Did not play.
About Perez: A native of Havana, Cuba, signed with the Rangers in 2016 as an international free agent. Played on Cuba’s 18 and under team at the World Cup in Taiwan. Currently resides in Mexico City.
PRESTON SCOTT (B-T: R-R, 6-2, 210)
2016 Pro Season: 47 games at Spokane, 28 R, 39 H, 6 2B, 1 3B, 0 HR, 14 RBI, 3 SB, 30 BB, 49 K, .239/ .382/.288.
About Scott: A native of Hanford, Calif., Scott, 23, was the Rangers 34th round pick in 2016 out of Fresno Pacific Univ. (Calif.). Named first-team All-Pac West in 2016. Played one season at Fresno City College and was first-team all CVC. His father Tim played major league baseball with San Diego, Montreal, San Francisco and Colorado.
About Smith: A native of Tenares, D.R., Taveras, 18, was signed by the Rangers as an international free agent in 2015. Named by Baseball America as the top prospect in the Arizona League and the Northwest League in 2016. Cousin of former major league outfielder Willy Taveras.
SPIKE OWEN (Manager)
2016 Pro Season: Was the interim third base coach for the Texas Rangers. Originally named to manage at Hickory in 2016 before going to Arlington.
About Owen: A native of Cleburne, Tex., Owen,, 55, is currently in his ninth season with the Rangers organization. He was the manager at High-A High Desert (Calif.) in 2015 and led the Mavericks to the semifinal round of the California League playoffs. Before managing, Owen was a coach at AAA Round Rock and the system’s infield coordinator. Owen had a long major league playing career, suiting up with Seattle, Boston, Montreal, the New YorkYankees, California and Texas. He played in the World Series with Boston in 1986. In college, Owen played in the College World Series with Texas in 1981 and 1982, picking up a selection to the All-Tournament team in 1982. He also received All-Southwest Conference honors both seasons.
JOSE JAIMES (Pitching Coach)
2016 Pro Season: Was pitching coach at Hickory.
About Jaimes: A native of Caracas, Venezuela, Jaimes, 32, is currently in his ninth season as a coach in the Rangers organization. He has spent time with the Rangers AZL and DSL clubs before moving up to Spokane for the past two years. Jaimes signed with the Rangers as a player in 2001 and pitched for six years in the system. He and his wife Karina had their first child Stephanie this past offseason.
KENNY HOOK (Hitting Coach)
2016 Pro Season: Was the hitting coach at Spokane.
About Hook: A native of Kansas City, Mo., Hook, 46, is in his fourth season with the Rangers, which has also included two seasons at AZL Rangers. Prior to joining the Rangers, Hook was the manager of the Kansas City T-Bones of the independent American Association. Other coaching stops include Benedictine (Kan.) College and Odessa (Tex.) College. He played professionally at Amarillo in the independent Texas-Louisiana League.
SHARNOL ADRIANA (Assistant Coach)
2016 Pro Season: Coached at AA Frisco (Tex.)
About Adriana: A native of Willemstad, Curacao, Adriana, 46, is in his second season as a coach in the Rangers system after a long playing career. Adriana played eight seasons of affiliated baseball in the Toronto Blue Jays chain before bouncing 14 seasons in Mexico. He also has international experience with the Netherlands national team in =three Olympic games and two World Baseball Classics. He was the captain of the Dutch team in the 2008 Olympics at Beijing.
DUSTIN VISSERING (Trainer)
About Vissering: A native of East Peoria, Ill., Vissering, 28, is in his second season with Hickory and his fourth overall with the Rangers. He was previously at Spokane in 2015 and the AZL Rangers in 2014. Vissering has also worked in the Kansas City Royals organization. He did his undergraduate work at Illinois St. and has a master’s degree from Western Illinois.
ADAM NOEL (Strength & Conditioning)
About Noel: A native of Joplin, Mo., Noel, 27, is in his second season with the Rangers after he served in the same role for the AZL Rangers. He earned a Masters of Art in Kinesiology while working as a grad assistant at San Jose State. He graduated from Cal State Fullerton in 2012 with a Bachelors of Science in Kinesiology.
Spike Owen was all set to be the manager at Hickory for the 2016 season. That was until late February when Texas Rangers third base coach Tony Beasley was diagnosed with cancer and began treatment. So, into the gap stepped Owen.
The experience for Owen with the major league club was a valuable one for him, as he was able to watch big league manager Jeff Banister on a daily basis.
“I was appreciative to be on the major league staff,” said Owen during the 2017 Texas Rangers Winter Caravan held by the Crawdads at Rock Barn Golf & Spa in Conover, N.C. on Wednesday. “I learned much more from him (Banister) than he did from me. He made things easy for his staff, which is what I intend to do with my staff…”
“His dugout presence was unbelievable and I think that’s so important at whatever level, how to react at what’s going on in the game at a given situation and how you handle yourself.”
The reset button has been set and Owen – at least for now – is scheduled to try his hand at managing the class Low-A Crawdads. Banister – who said on Wednesday he’s known Owen since Owen’s playing days at the University of Texas – was impressed with how his long-time friend handled the responsibility given to him last year. Confident in Owen’s abilities as a player developer, Banister said the former big league infielder should be a perfect fit for Hickory.
“He’s a guy that has great patience with players and has a teacher’s mindset and a servant’s heart,” said Banister. “A guy that I think is going to be great on the development side and has had success already on the development side.”
I had a chance for an interview with Owen prior to the luncheon on Wednesday. Here is some of what he had to say.
You were set up to come here last year and things have a way of, in baseball, I guess like the rest of life, having a change of plans.
Owen: As in everyday life, with baseball it’s about making adjustments. Obviously, I found out late that Tony Beasley, our third base coach, had cancer and so Banny had called me to ask if I would fill in for the year at third base. (It was) a great experience, obviously being in the big leagues again – I hadn’t been there since ’95 – and that was a great experience and I’m very thankful that I was chosen to do that.
Now that Tony was healthy, I was looking forward to getting back into my managing career. I’ve only managed for one year in 2015.
I’m a little bit familiar with Hickory, when I was roving in 2009-2010 so I’ve been in and out of Hickory for those two years and enjoyed it when I came in. I’m looking forward to spending the summer up here.
Are you more pleased to be managing or would you rather stay in the Majors in some capacity? I know the goal is to always get to the Major Leagues, but you want a managing career as you said.
Owen: It’s a tough question, as you said, because when I first got into coaching in the Minor Leagues, I wasn’t quite sure what direction and I think there’s probably a lot of guys that are like that. But the more that I’ve been in it, and now experiencing the big league level last year as the third base coach, it gives me more motivation to try to get back there in whatever capacity.
But, I’m very excited about managing again. Like I said, I haven’t done it a lot and I enjoyed it and I enjoyed being the guy in charge on the bench. So, with this opportunity opening back up for me to manage is something that I’m excited about.
What’s the biggest adjustment you’ll have? You were getting the first-class treatment last year. Is there going to be an adjustment getting back on that bus and going to Lakewood (N.J.) and Hagerstown (Md.)? How do you make that adjustment?
Owen: You know, you just get on the bus and roll. It is what it is. Obviously the things in the big leagues are first class as they should be. But to me, the travel is part of the gig. The fun part is working with the players – the young men and young kids – and trying to help their development to reach their dream of going to the big leagues.
So, I know that my time in High Desert managing, I didn’t know what to expect from High Desert all the way to this first year managing and that age group. I’ve been in Triple-A for a long time and I loved it.
From everything that I’m hearing, I actually don’t know the guys on our team and we won’t know until the end of Spring Training. But with me being in the big leagues last year and not down at the minor league Spring Training, and not being around the younger guys, I’ve got to get acquainted with them and obviously will in Spring Training pretty quick.
I know you won’t know until late March early April and the guys actually get the tickets to fly out here, but one name we’re hearing a lot is Leodys Taveras – the outfielder that everybody is assuming that he’s going to come and play at center field at some point in 2017. What do you hear about him and his tools? Everything that I’ve read is that his tools are off the chart for him being so young.
Owen: I’d have to agree with what you’re saying, because I haven’t seen him also. I have read a little bit about him and obviously the skill set that he brings. So, it’ll be exciting to see him at Spring Training. Again, if he’s slotted to come to us I’d obviously love to have him, but we’ll kind of see how that plays out.
What’s the biggest thing you’re looking for as far as being in Hickory full time?
Owen: I look forward to being in North Carolina and this part of the country. I haven’t spent much time here except my time roving. The Sally League – getting a new league – it’s all going to be new to me. I think just seeing the country and hopefully having a solid year for the Crawdads. I look forward to the baseball side of it – obviously, that’s what I’m here to do – and getting these young guys ready and hopefully have a great year.
What’s an adjustment you’ve made as far as being in one spot as opposed to roving? Do you like one over the other or does one have more of an advantage?
Owen: Well, when I was roving you get to get home more, which is a huge advantage of doing that job. Going in and out of your affiliations for three or four days and being on the road, and then being able to go home for three, four, or five days.
When you’re in full season you pack up and go to Spring Training and you don’t get home until September. Obviously we have an All-Star break and a few days off, but with me being in Texas, that’s a pretty long flight. So roving that’s really the main thing.
But to me, there’s something about being with the club from the start to the finish that I really enjoy to seeing, because when you rove, you don’t get to see the development like you do when you’re with them every day and see the progress that they’re making. You may come in and not come back in for a month or so. Yeah, they’ve played a really good three days , but you see them for three games and then you’re gone again. So, just kind of starting from the beginning and finishing it off and seeing the progress that they’re making.
The Hickory Crawdads begin its 25th anniversary season with a bang on Wednesday, January 10 by hosting the 2017 Texas Rangers Winter Caravan at Rock Barn Golf and Spa in Conover, N.C. The Rangers made a two-stop tour of their North Carolina minor league affiliates, as the caravan was part of an event last evening at the new affiliate in Kinston.
On hand from the Rangers were Neil Leibman, chairman of the Rangers ownership group, assistant director of player development Paul Kruger, manager Jeff Banister and 2017 Crawdads manager Spike Owen. Also attending were major league field coordinator Josh Bonifay – who played and coached at Hickory during the Pittsburgh Pirates affiliation – as well as pitchers Tony Barnette and Nick Martinez. Martinez pitched for Hickory in 2012. Rangers radio voice Matt Hicks emceed to post-luncheon event.
Prior to the lunch, I had a chance to interview several of the participants, including Banister. The Rangers manager previously hopped into Hickory while in his role as the Pirates minor league field coordinator late in the last decade. During the interview, we talked about his time as a rover in the minors and the importance of Low-A ball in the future development of major leaguers. We also talked about what he expects Owen will bring to Hickory, as well as Bonifay’s addition to the staff. This is the first of four interview’s from Wednesday’s event.
If I remember right, you came here as a rover with the Pirates not that long ago. It seems like not that long ago, but 10-15 years ago. Now, you come back here as a major league manager.
Banister: Yeah, first of all, I came here as a minor league manager in 1995, when I was with Augusta, and then back again as a field coordinator for Pittsburgh, all the years that Pittsburgh was here. So, I think the last time I was here was in 2008. Somewhere around that time frame.
You know, it’s fun to come back. As I flew into the airport and flew over the stadium (L.P. Frans Stadium), it was fun to see that stadium. I hadn’t really seen it this time of the year before with snow on the ground. It’s feels good to see a lot of people and recognize faces – there are some that I know better than others.
I spent a lot of time here. There were times that I had to manage here. When Jeff Branson (Crawdads manager in 2005-2006) was here and had to take a leave of absence, and Dave Clark (2004 manager) was here and had to take a leave of absence. So, I have a lot of fond memories of Hickory and this ballpark. It was always one of my favorite stops.
How different a world are you in now than in Low-A baseball? Are there times you wish you think, maybe it might not be too bad to come back to a lower level with less pressure, etc.?
Banister: You know what, I’ve been a minor league guy, a development guy at heart, really. That’s who I am. The opportunity to manage the big leagues is obviously spectacular, all the superlatives that you can put on it and think about. However, understanding the grassroots level, where you come from, the paths of people, are all woven into what I do every single day. I never forget that.
One of the things that you look at in putting the staff that I put together at Texas, they’re all long-time, minor league guys that understand the development side of this game and what we do. The teaching process is still a part of our life at the major league level. It’s impacted by the stadiums we play in, the travel and the number of people. But, it’s still baseball.
Spike Owen was your third base coach last year, and he had to fill in for another former Crawdads Tony Beasley. He’s coming here to manage this year. What have you seen with Spike over the last year that you think he will bring to this position here at Hickory?
Banister: Well first of all, I’ve known Spike for a long time, even all the way back to his University of Texas days. This is a guy who was a highly competitive player. He loved to play the game – a tremendous knowledge of how to play the game.
I would say that he’s a guy that over the years has learned and transitioned himself into the understanding of teaching the game. He’s a guy that has great patience with players and has a teacher’s mindset and a servant’s heart. A guy that I think is going to be great on the development side and has had success already on the development side.
One, that gives me great comfort to know that our players are getting the best of what I consider both worlds – the teaching aspect of it, but also the knowledge of what it takes to be a major league player. He’s a long time major league player himself and has a great understanding. He refreshed that this past season being on the major league staff. He’s got a fresh set of eyes on what it takes to be a major league player.
From your time as a field coordinator, managing, etc., what is the biggest thing that a player in Low-A needs to learn that will serve him well when he gets to the major leagues?
Banister: First of all, that you’re still going to make mistakes. This is an imperfect business and it’s an imperfect game, as much as we’d like to think that it’s a perfect game. You’re not always going to be successful. It’s an extremely negative game. You’re not going to have production that stands out on paper, visible for everybody to see, but there are contributions that can be made. You have to be able to finish your game off, in a sense that, if you’re a home run hitter and you’re facing a guy that doesn’t hit home runs, what do you have in your skill set that can help a team offensively. Can he run the bases well? Can he play defense?
The thing in today’s game, we have so much knowledge, so much information, understanding the game plan, where you need to play, the tendencies of other players. It’s no longer just a sport of roll out the balls and bats and go perform. There’s an education process of who you’re playing, how you’re playing, and what you need to do to beat this team. Because the bottom line, teams show up every spring training with the thought process and idea to win, and they know everything about you as the opposing team.
What adjustments can you make to have some measurable success day in and day out. You’re not always going to have huge successes every single day. So, it’s small incremental success where you’ve got to build your career on. If you’re looking for huge increments every single day, this game will eat you up, spit you out and put you back in the minor leagues.
Josh Bonifay, who played here with the Pirates and coached here with the Pirates, is now going to be your field coordinator. What did the Rangers see in him to be able to hire him to fill that position?
Banister: First of all, I’ve known Josh since he was probably 10 or 11 years old. I had developed a relationship with him, not only as a person, but also as a player, when he played for Pittsburgh, then transitioning to the coaching side of it. And then I watched him from afar as he became a highly successful manager.
The thing that I looked for in this position is one, the administrative side of it. Can you put together the things that myself, the scouting staff and the coaching staff want, so that we can put a day together for individual players – how are they going to get better every day individually – but also collectively. Also, we’re look for a guy that had outfield experience, teaching outfield, and baserunning experience and being able to teach baserunning.
He fit that role and he’s had success with players over in the Houston organization. He had success with the Pirates organization. So, that in itself, and how he relates to players, and how can he relate to the other coaches. But also, the thing, for me, is that he’s an open book. A guy that’s not coming in with, “hey, I’ve got all the answers, this is what I’m going to do to put a stamp on this. He’s a guy that’s coming in with a clean slate and wants to learn, but add value to each one of us coaches.