Results tagged ‘ Texas Rangers ’
Today is the unofficial start of the baseball season. I know it’s a cold January day, but with the Hickory Crawdads hosting the Texas Rangers Winter Caravan today, the occasion is a reminder that games begin in a few short months.
For the past three years, the caravan has been an occasion for the Rangers to bring back some of the former players to Hickory. This year, Jose Trevino and Jeffrey Springs return to the city where they helped win the 2015 South Atlantic League title.
The event is especially meaningful for Springs. Here is a 30th-round pick as a senior out of Appalachian State and, before that, South Point High in Belmont, about an hour drive from Hickory. Not many 30th rounders get to the major leagues. Not many senior signees get to the major leagues. Not many alums of App State get to the major leagues – in fact, only seven have. Yet, the left-hander defied the odds and last July he made his MLB debut on July 31 with the Texas Rangers in Arlington.
My memory of Springs was a guy that really was too good for this league. A sharp-cutting slider – I’d swear it was a curveball at times – accentuated his low 90s fastball and made it seem even faster. In parts of two seasons with the Crawdads, Springs posted a 1.05 ERA in 34.1 innings pitched (20 games) with 46 strikeouts and nine strikeouts.
With his arsenal, the Rangers had Springs return to the starting role he had at Appalachian State. With mixed results, he jumped back to bullpen work and showed enough at AA Frisco and AAA Round Rock to get a look-see with the Rangers over the final two months of the season.
So, when Springs comes back to Hickory today it will be as a big leaguer. In itself, that is something the left-hander had little imagination for this time last year when he was working for the YMCA in Charlotte, trying to supplement his minor-league income. The whole idea of Springs coming home this fall as a major leaguer was surreal to him. But now, he is in a position to make that surreal dream an annual reality.
It is that mindset that this interview with Springs begins.
What was it like going home this fall, after the season, being a big leaguer?
Springs: It was kind of surreal thinking back on the season. You kind of reflect a little bit when you get home, because you’ve been going at it since February. Kind of looking back, it was unbelievable how quickly it happened. I was just taking it one step at a time. I was hoping it would go well at AA and, obviously, trying to end the year there. Before I knew it, I was in AAA and then the next thing I knew, I was getting called up to the big leagues. I mean, it was everything you could think about. It’s crazy to think about.
The first couple of months at home, it was kind of hard to think that I could call myself a big leaguer.
Do you have a different mindset this winter than when you went home last year from Kinston, or when you went home from Hickory, etc.?
Springs: I was hungrier, I guess, looking at it in the sense of I got there. Now, it’s a matter of really establishing myself and staying around and making a career of it. It’s one goal to get there, but then once you get there, you only want to play there. It kind of opens your eyes to the competition, to the lifestyle, and the teammates. It motivates me more that I want to stay there. Like I said, I want to be a part of the team. I had a little bit of success and I feel like I can compete at that level. That was a big takeaway that I had from those two months, that I can pitch at that level and I can have success.
How did you find out you were going to Texas?
Springs: I was actually sitting at my apartment in Round Rock on an off day doing laundry. I knew the trade deadline was coming up, or whatever, but I didn’t look too much into it.
I was on the phone with my mom, calling her and touching base. I saw Paul Kruger’s (Texas Rangers assistant director of player development) name popped up on my phone. So I told her that I’ve got to go real quick. He answered the phone and he was like, “Hey, hold on just a second, you’ve got the Triple-A manager on the phone.”
He asked, “what are you doing?” I was like, ‘I’m doing laundry.’ He said, ‘Stop doing that and get to the field and get to the airport. You’re meeting the team in Arizona. You just got called up. Congratulations.’
After he said that, I blacked out almost, because I really didn’t know what to say back to him other than thank you. He was like, “You’ve got about an hour-and-a-half to get to the field and get to the airport. So hurry up.”
I was running through the airport trying to make the flight because I was scared I was going to miss it. On the whole plane ride, it was, “is this really happening?” I showed up to the park at about 5:45, six o’clock. I played catch with the pitching coach and the next thing that I knew I was in the game that night. It was a hectic day, but I would do it over and over again if I had to.
Did you fly with wet clothes?
Springs: No (laughing). I had some clothes, but he was like, ‘just wear whatever you wear to the ballpark because you’re going to turn around and fly right back home that night.’ I was only there that night, because it was their last game in Arizona.
So, I flew in with the team and then I caught a flight back to Austin and drove my car back to Arlington because it was an off day the next day. It was pretty crazy; it really was. Like I said, I was nervous that I was going to miss the flight, because if I missed the flight, I wasn’t going to be at the game. It all worked out, that’s for sure. Like I said, I would do it over and over again if I had to for that experience.
What was your first moment in the big leagues where you said, “okay, this is for real”?
Springs: I feel like the first outing, it was so surreal that I didn’t really register what was going on the first inning. Once I got that out of the way, I felt like I got back to pitching. Once I was able to strike out the first guy of my career, I felt like it was, “Hey, it’s just baseball. You’ve just got to make pitches.” and things like that. They’re just a little bit better hitters. I guess, after that, it was three or four outings into it that I realized, “Ok, I can do this.” It’s a matter of doing what I do and executing pitches.
Who was the first hitter you faced where you really got a sense that this was a surreal moment? You see them on TV and you hear about them and read about them, and there you are.
Springs: Probably with Arizona. They had A.J. Pollock, and Paul Goldschmidt and John Jay – I remember facing him when he was rehabbing at Lake Elsinore (High-A San Diego) out in the California. These are guys you see on TV all the time. Paul Goldschmidt is unbelievable. Pollock was on the All-star team. All these guys that you watch. Probably the first couple of hitters with Arizona. Facing guys like Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen and people like that, it’s pretty crazy.
The last time you and I talked was two years ago just after you were selected for the South Atlantic League All-Star game. What clicked for you from your time at Hickory until your callup? What was the period of time where you began to think, maybe I can get there?
Springs: I think, maybe, throughout the year in Kinston. I had some ups and downs as a starter, but I think I realized how to read swings a little bit better, and really what I did well and what I didn’t do so well, so I could pitch to my strengths. I really focused in on that. This is where I can go to get hitters out. This is where I can go to get ground balls or popups. It was really understanding what I could do and sticking to that and always pitching to my strengths, unless the situation calls for something different. Understanding that if you’re going to get beat, you’ve got to get beat with your best pitch with a hundred percent conviction.
So, once I kind of understood, hey, this is what I’m good at and this is how I pitch, this is what I need to do to have success, and really focusing in on my reading swings. Kind of watching how other guys attack hitters and thinking to myself, “what would I do in that situation?”
As a starter, you would have to sit up in the stands and chart the game. I think that really helped me a lot understanding the swings. It’s something that I never really focused on. I was just out there trying to make my pitch. Once I kind of realized why you’re trying to make that pitch, I think that helped me out tremendously.
Obviously, there’s a lot of room to improve, but I think I have a pretty good understanding of what I do well, and I just continue to work on it as I move forward.
I looked back and remembered that you had pitched for South Point in the state 3A title series. If I remember reading this right, you were a hitter. How did you decide to go to App to be a pitcher instead of a hitter? You had quite a series in the championship.
Springs: My first year, my coaches didn’t like the young guys to hit, he wanted them to focus on pitching. So, I hit a little bit then – obviously, I hit in my career before that. But, the days I pitched, I didn’t get to hit. So, I played first base.
I had committed to college – I think, my sophomore or junior year. I had committed early as a pitcher. I was a decent hitter my junior year, but I was already committed to be a pitcher. So, my senior year, since I knew it was going to be my last year hitting, I really worked on it in the offseason. I just kind of clicked, because I knew there wasn’t any pressure in it. I knew I was going as a pitcher and I probably wouldn’t get to swing the bat very much. I was just having fun and enjoying that last year in high school.
Do you go back to South Point very much?
Springs: Every once in a while. I went back and signed autographs at one of the football games. They asked me to come out and do that for a little recognition thing. But, I’ll go back to the high school a couple of times. They’ll do their winter workouts and stuff. I don’t want to impose, so I’ll throw on my own and stuff like that, because they have a limited amount of time that they can do their workouts and stuff, so I don’t want to bother them too much. I kind of follow them and stuff and my parents still live in Belmont.
You had the chance in the last year to be an opener, which is a new thing going on in the major leagues. How have you embraced that role and how has that been different from what you’ve done in the minor league as a traditional reliever?
Springs: Honestly, I treated it the exact same. I went out there, obviously, a little earlier. As a bullpen guy, you don’t have to get out there quite as early. The first one I did in Arlington, I went out to the bullpen before people were even out there. I just kind of sat down there and did my normal routine. I sat there by myself a little bit and then I got up and started stretching. By that time that catcher and the pitching coaches were coming out because the game was about to start in 15-20 minutes, as opposed to a traditional starter, who gets out there 30-40 minutes early.
I went through my stuff. I had played catch earlier that day with the relievers, so I was going to treat it like a normal day. I’m just coming into the game earlier. Basically, I’m starting it. I just got up on the mound and went through the routine and then went into the dugout. I treated it as close to my normal routine as possible, because I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it by overthinking. I treated it the exact same. I had a little success with it, so I did that the next time in Oakland and it worked out okay. I think it went pretty well.
Do you have a sense of doing something different and unique that is on the ground level of this sort of thinking with the opener? Not many people have the opportunity to do something that is different and outside of the box?
Definitely, I was very fortunate they allowed me to do that, the few times that they did. I kind of just embraced it with an open arm and open mind. For me, whether I’m pitching in the first inning as an opener, or the ninth inning as a closer, I’m focusing on three outs, one inning at a time and putting up zeros.
I try not to look too much into it. I like to keep it as simple as possible, but it’s just I have to go out there and do my job whether it’s as an opener or facing one hitter. I just try to treat it the same as possible. It is pretty cool and I’m pretty fortunate to be a part of that, if that’s what they continue to do. It’s pretty neat.
What were you doing this time last year?
Springs: This time last year, working part time jobs and kind of getting back into shape and try to get ready to go to spring training.
Where did you work?
Springs: The YMCA in Charlotte.
So now, you’re doing Winter Caravan with a major league team?
Springs: Yeah (laughter). It’s a little different, because, you know, this the time I always come home and try to work part time, because money is not great. It is what it is, so it’s a little different this year for sure.
No part-time jobs this offseason?
Springs: No, part-time jobs. I’m pretty booked up with the wedding and all that. Other than I teach a lesson to a young kid and stuff like that. That’s not really for money, it’s just to help him out and try to teach him some things that I wish I had have learned younger.
Being a 30th-round pick and you were a senior sign to the major leagues, how surreal is that whole journey, where most of you guys don’t make it?
It’s pretty crazy; I mean, really thinking about that, like you said. From that first year in Spokane, just thinking about the guys that I played with that were very good and were much higher draft picks, and things like that, it didn’t necessarily work out for them, even after that year, to where I am now, it’s pretty crazy. It’s definitely really crazy to hear. I don’t really think too much about it except for when people bring it up. It’s very humbling and an amazing experience, that’s for sure.
We don’t get many current or former major league players to play at Hickory.
There are other teams in the South Atlantic League that are close enough to get occasional visitors from their parent major league clubs. Rome (Ga.) is an hour drive from Sun Trust Park, the home of the Atlanta Braves. Lakewood (N.J.) is an hour and 15 minutes from Philadelphia, while Hagerstown (Md.) is about 90 minutes out from Nationals Park in Washington.
However, Hickory has never been anywhere close to its major league affiliate. To have a major leaguer rehab here, it’s about as rare as the sightings of Big Foot. So, when the Rangers announced that Martin Perez is scheduled to pitch here today, the excitement for fans in our corner of the baseball world is amped up.
Should Perez make the start, he will become the tenth former big leaguer to play here, the third after David Lundquist and Jurickson Profar to return to Hickory after playing here previously. I thought I’d take a moment to give fans a little history of previous major league players that have donned a Crawdads uniform.
Chicago White Sox affiliation
Jason Bere (1996 and 1997) The right-hander pitched in the American League Championship Series in 1993 and followed that up with an all-star appearance in 1994, during which he finished the strike-shortened season at 12-2 in 24 starts. He was never really the same after that and he experienced elbow problems in 1995 that eventually led to a Tommy John surgery late in 1996. As part of a series of rehab starts with several of the White Sox affiliates prior to the surgery, Bere threw a three-hitter over five shutout innings and struck out five. Following the surgery, he returned for another rehab start the next July. This start wasn’t as sharp as he gave up two runs on four hits over three innings.
Jim Abbott (’98): One of the baseball’s most inspirational players, the left-hander was trying to work his way back to the major leagues after the California Angels released him in spring training of 1997, following a 2-18 season. After spending time away from the game, the White Sox signed him in May 1998 and Abbott came to Hickory soon after for his first minor-league start. Over four innings, Abbott gave up a run on three hits, walked two and struck out two. Abbott went on to pitch for the White Sox and finished up his career in 1999 with Milwaukee.
Josias Manzanillo (’02): The right-hander made his big-league debut two seasons before the Crawdads played their first game in 1993. Strictly a reliever, Manzanillo pitched for six different clubs before the Pirates picked him up in 2000. Manzanillo became a free agent after the 2001, but after he was unable to sign with another team, the Pirates resigned him. However, under the rules of that time, Manzanillo was unable to pitch for the major league club until May 1. So, Manzanillo took to the hill with Hickory for an outing. In his two innings of relief, he gave up three runs (two earned) on five hits and struck out one. Manzanillo returned to the Pirates on May 1, but got hurt and sat out six weeks before coming back to the mound. The Pirates later released him and he pitched for two more big-league seasons before calling it quits in 2005.
Bob Henley (’02): Henley was the first big-league position player to come to Hickory. Very little is known about his signing and no date is available for the game in which he played. A catcher, Henley played just 41 games in the majors in 1998 with the Montreal Expos. An elbow injury cut short his tenure in the majors and after abbreviated seasons in 1999 and 2000, the Expos cut him in spring training 2001. Pittsburgh signed him in 2002 but the only appearance he made with the organization was with Hickory. He went 0-for-3 with a walk and a strikeout as the team’s DH. It turned out to be the final game as a player. Henley is currently in his fifth season as the Washington Nationals third-base coach.
David Lundquist (’04): Lundquist has several unique contributions to Crawdads history. He is the only player to suit up for Hickory as a part of two different affiliations. Lundquist is the first player to later return as a coach, as he led the pitchers in 2006 and 2007. He is also the first to return to Hickory after playing in the big leagues. The right-hander made 27 starts for the team in 1994 as a part of the White Sox days. Lundquist went on to make his big-league debut for Chicago in 1999 and later pitched in 2001 and 2002 with the San Diego Padres. Lundquist was a minor-league free agent signee with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2004, After struggling at AA Altoona, Lundquist was sent to Hickory and he became a crucial part of the team’s championship run. He posted a 0.93 ERA in ten relief outings and posted 21 Ks in 19.1 innings. His stint with Hickory was the last stop as a player. He is currently in his third season as the pitching coach for AAA Lehigh Valley (Philadelphia).
Adam LaRoche (’08): The slugging first baseman came to the Pirates in 2007 from the Atlanta Braves in a trade that involved two other Hickory Crawdads. Jamie Romak also came to the Pirates and suited up for Hickory that April. Brett Lillibridge, a shortstop on the 2006 squad, went to Atlanta. An intercostal strain put him on the disabled list in July 2008 and it was at Hickory that he played three games before rejoining the Pirates in mid-August. In his first game with the Crawdads, LaRoche crushed one of the longest home runs ever hit by a lefty. The blast one-hopped the service road the runs beyond the right-field fence. LaRoche went 6-for-10 with a double and the home run. He went on to play seven more seasons and retired during spring training of 2016 with the White Sox.
Daniel Bard (’14): The combination of “Steve Blass” disease – the inability to throw a baseball accurately – and surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome derailed the pitching career of Bard. A month after the procedure, the Texas Rangers took a flier on the right-hander when they signed him to a minor-league deal in February 2014. He made four appearances for the Crawdads from June 5 to June 15 and recorded two outs. The yips raged for Bard has he hit seven batters, walked nine. The Rangers released him on June 18. The Cubs, Cardinals and Mets each had a go at fixing what ailed Bard before he officially retired during the previous offseason.
Jurickson Profar (’15): Shoulder injuries cost the former top major league prospect two full big-league seasons. Once Profar resumed baseball activities following a surgery for a torn labrum in early 2015, he joined his brother Juremi at Hickory in late August 2015 to start his rehab assignments. The 2011 South Atlantic League’s MVP went 9-for-33 as the Crawdads DH with a double and a homer over nine games. Profar is currently with the Rangers.
James Jones (’16): The former fourth-round pick of the Seattle Mariners made his major-league debut with the club in 2014. Jones was traded to the Texas Rangers in November 2015 and then released two weeks later. The Rangers re-signed him eight days later and decided to convert Jones to be a pitcher. He first saw game action on the mound with the AZL Rangers rookie affiliate before joining Hickory. Jones’ debuted with Hickory on August 9 and was pulled after giving up four runs on four hits and a walk over 2/3 of an inning. It was soon found that Jones needed “Tommy John” surgery and was out for a year. Jones returned this year with High-A Down East and is currently on the roster at AA Frisco.
It is said that “necessity is the mother of invention”. In the business world, necessity can also create a situation in which separate entities are put together and the results are better than imagined. Such is the case between the Hickory Crawdads and the Texas Rangers.
In the fall of 2008 after ten seasons of an affiliation with the then parent-club Pittsburgh Pirates, the Hickory Crawdads were looking for a new major-league team. The Pirates wanted an affiliation with a class Low-A team closer to home, so they hooked up with the West Virginia Power, while the Milwaukee Brewers, who were with the Power, went closer to home and joined up with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. That left three Low-A affiliates – Hickory, Clinton, Iowa and Savannah, Ga. – to tie into three big league clubs – the Texas Rangers, the Seattle Mariners and the New York Mets.
The Rangers expressed an interest to get back into the warmer climate of the South Atlantic League and leave behind the Clinton Lumberkings of the Midwest League. That meant either Savannah or Hickory.
The Crawdads expressed interest in the Mets, which decided to stay put in Savannah. For fans at the time, neither Texas or Seattle had much appeal given the distance but at the end of the day the remaining minor league clubs and major league clubs left in the shuffle have to dance, so in came the Texas Rangers.
The partnership has been a good one from the start. The product on the field has been tremendous. At one point, the Crawdads had 14-straight, winning half-seasons and were annually in contention for playoff spots. To date, 51 players plus two others that were previously major leaguers have suited up for the Crawdads. Investments by the Rangers in weight rooms and batting cages, and investments by the city of Hickory into refurbishing L.P. Frans Stadium have made the partnership a strong one. So strong, in fact, that after nine seasons as an affiliate, the Rangers purchased the Crawdads during this past off season.
During the offseason, the field was replaced for the first time since it originally was put into place in 1993 and a new scoreboard was erected after the old one built in 2004 finally went kaput. There is much optimism around for what the future holds for baseball in Hickory.
Last week, Rangers general manager Job Daniels took in a pair of games at L.P. Frans Stadium to get an overview of the club. Now in the tenth anniversary season of the affiliation, Daniels looked back at what made the partnership work, as well as his perspective about the current product on the field.
First of all, it’s the tenth anniversary season of the Rangers and Crawdads affiliation. My memory from back when this started is that there were a couple of minor league clubs left to dance and a couple of major league teams left to dance and they sort of fell into each other. Now, ten years later the Rangers purchased the club. Let me ask out that relationship over the ten years.
Daniels: From our side it’s been a hundred percent positive. A lot of young players that started here in our system, from a full season standpoint, have reached the big leagues. I think 15 players from that 2013 club started here. We have a big-league coach that was one of the managers here (2009 manager Hector Ortiz). We have Corey Ragsdale as our field coordinator. So, this has proven not just a kind of a development ground for our players but for our organization and our staff as well. There are a lot of good memories here for us and I really feel like we are just scratching the surface.
What has been some of the positives that have made this relationship between Hickory, and the ballclub here and the city to where the Texas Rangers would want to invest?
Daniels: Well, I think the ownership there with Don Beaver and Charles Young and that group was really accommodating from day one. A lot of times you have to build up a relationship before there is some give-and-take. From day one, it was more of a familial type of feeling and there was a trust early on. The same goes with the city and with some of the improvements that both groups have facilitated us making here with the cages and the weight room and things of that nature. So, it’s a much more functional spot, with the field this year. The field looks fantastic, it’s the best it’s looked in the ten years since I’ve been coming. I just think about that relationship and that trust from day one rather than having to earn it over a period of five or ten years. It was there day one and it’s continued to stay there.
What made the Rangers want to buy in?
Daniels: I think with the minor leagues, sometimes big-league clubs have the tendency to look for the shiniest new object. We have, in our experience, found that the right community, the right affiliate, the right ownership, the right employee group, organizational culture is so important to the development of our players. With the improvements that we’ve made here – this is as nice a field as you’re going to get – and we didn’t want to go back to the Midwest League, and we felt like our ownership group was willing to buy in here, and it allows us to know that we’re going to be here a long time. We did the same with Kinston, so we know we’re going to have two Carolina-based affiliates real close to each other. It’s makes it great for player movement, for coach movement. It’s a great part of the country, from a development standpoint, from a weather standpoint – this week’s cold notwithstanding. So, there was a ton of positives for us and we just said, “let’s anchor in here, we don’t want to go anywhere else.”
You mentioned Kinston and the player movement, it has to be a lot easier for you now, rather than having to ship a guy out to High Desert or having to skip High Desert because of this situation or that. I guess you get a truer sense of player development now from level to level.
Daniels: Yeah, we don’t have to play any games there. We’re not worried about the ballparks or the communities or the atmospheres or the fields. You do get some of the places in the California League where you literally have to stop for 20 minutes to let the sun set because otherwise the players can’t see the ball. It’s not the kind of baseball that we want our young players to develop in. We don’t want our pitchers to be afraid to throw changeups because popups are going out of the ballpark. That’s a big piece and them having them so close together really makes it convenient for our staff to be able to work at both facilities and both clubs in a short period of time.
Looking at this club this year, a lot of prospect with Pedro Gonzalez probably the top one right now. I know you see snippets and keep tabs on a lot of different things but give me a general overview of what you see with this club early on.
Daniels: I know that the record early is not great, but I think this club is going to be in the thick of it from a winning standpoint. I think the talent is really good and I think the staff is really, really good. Matt (Crawdads manager Matt Hagen) and Chase (pitching coach Chase Lambin) and Jose (hitting coach Jose Jaimes) and Turtle (assistant coach Turtle Thomas), this might be, top to bottom, one of our best staffs. A ton of energy, really positive, a lot of teaching going on, and that’s what you need.
We’ve got a really young group here, but there are a lot of prospects. Pedro is a guy we’re excited about. We really have three catchers here that we think are all legit prospects in (Yohel) Pozo, (Melvin) Novoa and (Sam) Huff. I’m not sure that they realize quite how good they can be or how talented they are because they’re so young. Some of the other outfielders, (Eric) Jenkins and (Chad) Smith and (Miguel) Aparicio. Yonny Hernandez is a good player. There’s quite a few guys here and I’m leaving some out.
The pitching staff is pretty intriguing, too. Tyree Thompson can really pitch. He can really command the baseball – four pitches for strikes. I think he’s going to have a lot of success in this league. He doesn’t maybe draw some of the attention because he’s not quite as big and physical as some of the other guys who are lighting up the radar gun. But he can really pitch and I think that plays and he’s smart and he’s already figured some things out.
Tyler Phillips took a big jump last year and he’s really filled out physically. The delivery is a lot better. Obviously, we took a big hit with (Cole) Ragans getting hurt. He would’ve been here otherwise. There’s a lot of guys here. We look back on the 2013 club and how many guys got to the big leagues in four or five years. We’ll see where we go from a numbers standpoint, but even though this group isn’t quite as heralded as that group was from a prospects standpoint, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we’re close to that number at the end of the day.
It’s a group that the pitching staff is a bit older than what we’ve had in the past and we were a little surprised not to see Bubba Thompson and a little surprised not to see Chris Seise – and I understand he has a shoulder issue. I’ve heard a little talk of the Rangers being not quite as aggressive in some of their assignments here for younger guys. Is that some you guys are making adjustments to?
Daniels: I think, just in general, we’re looking to tap the brakes a little bit. Not to an extreme, but we want to the give the players time and we also want to give our coaches time. We have a lot of good, young coaches at a lot of the lower levels and we’ve got to give them the opportunities to have the reps and the at-bats and the innings to work with these players before we push them up through the system. So, we will probably be a little more conservative than we have been in the past, but I don’t think overly so.
Seise probably had a good chance to be here but he had the shoulder tendinitis. He’ll be okay and he’s started hitting again at extended and he may still get out here. Bubba had a little bit of a knee deal last year, so we’re taking it a little more slowly with him and he could very well get out here, but we’re still deciding some of those things.
Tyreque Reed, another guy that I like, could get here but with the three catchers we need some of the at bats for them at first base. Tyreque is a guy that on his own, probably on merit, very well could’ve been here; it’s just how many at bats you have for everybody and some of those things.
Matt Whatley, he was originally scheduled to come here. We probably would’ve had him come here, too, but we already had three catchers, younger, so we’re going to push him a little bit. There are some extenuating circumstances in general. We’re trying to find at bats for everybody, but generally we’ll probably be a little more conservative than we were three to five years ago.
Looking ahead to the relationship with the Rangers and the Crawdads, what are some of the things that the two sides are looking at in the future?
Daniels: I think Mark Seaman does a tremendous job. We’ve been thrilled working with him in the past as a partner and now to be on the same team. I think that those are things that we’ll really defer to Mark on and the ideas he has on how to grow the business. One of the things that, from the Rangers standpoint, back in Arlington we try to be as fan friendly and fan conscious as can be, and very family oriented, which I think dovetails very well with the kind of the values here. I think you’re see a lot more consistency in that area.
It’s always fun for me – and for most minor league observers, those who are paid to do this and those who are not – to try and figure out which players from a Low-A roster will get to the major leagues. Looking at the 2012 Hickory Crawdads roster and trying to guess who from that squad would make is a fascinating exercise in hindsight
The 2012 Hickory Crawdads roster featured FOUR first-round selections and only one – Luke Jackson – made it past AA. Nick Martinez, who threw 26 innings at Fordham University, a program which hadn’t had a former pitcher in the majors since 2001, started the 2012 season in the Crawdads bullpen. He went on to make the South Atlantic League All-Star Game, then put together a strong 2013 season that catapulted him to a major league debut with the Rangers at the start of the 2014 season.
Martinez, now looking to his fourth MLB season, has a key stretch coming up during which he is trying to make the team either as a fifth starter or a bullpen arm.
The first full season for Martinez was somewhat average for the then-21-year-old. He posted a 4.83 ERA over 117 2/ 3 innings, though he did strike out 109 batters to just 37 walks. The native of Miami, FL admitted that 2012 was one in which he was learning to become a professional.
In the interview below – done during last week’s Texas Rangers Winter Caravan held at Rock Barn Golf & Spa in Conover, N.C., Martinez talks his rise to the major leagues with Texas and what helped him along the way.
When you were here in 2012, did you ever think that you’d be coming back here in 2017 as a major league pitcher?
Martinez: No, I couldn’t look that far ahead down the road. It is good to be back. The memories are coming to me. I used to play many golf rounds out here at Rock Barn and I had a lot of great memories playing for Hickory.
What is the biggest memory you can recall from that season?
Martinez: Baseball wise, it’s an interesting year because it’s your first full season. You get to learn a lot about yourself mentally and physically. Obviously, that’s one of the milestones of playing a full season. Off the field, though, it’s a chance to really bond with your teammates. We had a lot of great memories playing here at Rock Barn.
You had come out of college, and if I remember right, you had thrown something like 26 innings in college. Who or what circumstance gave you the confidence that you could pitch at a professional level?
Martinez: My father, since high school, kind of prepared me just in case I ever became a pitcher. He had me go to some pitching lessons, so it wasn’t completely bazaar for me to make that transition. I was okay with making that transition before it even happened. In college, I just wanted to play professional baseball. Once the Rangers gave me that chance as a pitcher, I was all in and eager to learn and get better. I still am.
You had pretty much a quick rise when you left here and debuted in 2014. What flipped the switch and gave you the confidence that you could do this on a major league level?
Martinez: 2013 was probably my best minor league season. I was more consistent. I knew what I needed to do to keep that consistency. I was clear mentally and I knew what I needed to do. Obviously, when you transfer up to the major league level, it doesn’t exactly equal the same amount of mental pressure and mental consistency. I went through my ups and downs in 2014, but once you get over that hump, it makes things a lot easier. Again, once you know what you need to do, you kind of establish a work ethic and things to help you maintain that.
Who is somebody that had a big influence for you to get to that level, that you could do this at the major league level?
Martinez: Every pitching coach I came across in the minor league system, as well as the pitching coordinator. I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with coaches that have made me better at every level and taken my game to the next step and prepare myself mentally and physically.
What was it like to step on a major league mound for the first time?
Martinez: Surreal. It’s crazy. Obviously, you’re anxious and nervous and stuff like that, but it’s kind of an anxiousness and nervousness that you can work with, because I felt prepared. I felt like I was ready for this. Obviously, it’s something you train for your whole life. It’s something you dream of and I felt like I belonged on the mound and I was ready to go. I was very fortunate, also, to be pitching in my home state, so my family was able to drive up and watch my debut.
Who was the first hitter that gave you the reality check that you were in the major leagues?
Martinez: Evan Longoria. The reality check that said, “this is the show; this is the big leagues.” In my debut.
Did he hit you hard or something?
Martinez: He smoked a ball. I got him out, but he smoked a ball somewhere. I think it was right at someone. Thank God, he got a good handle on it. (Note: In the second inning of Martinez’s debut, Longoria grounded sharply off Martinez for a 1-4-3 putout.)
Who was the first hitter you faced that was a dream hitter. Maybe somebody, when you were in high school, that you said, “I’d like to face this guy.”
Martinez: 2014, Derek Jeter’s last year in the major leagues. I got to face him at Yankee Stadium and once again at home in Arlington. It’s just something I’ll never forget, obviously. He does his whole pre-pitch routine in the box. It’s something that you see on TV and on video games, and now he’s doing it to you and letting you know he’s ready. It was a dream come true. It was wild.
Looking ahead to this year, I know the Rangers are looking to solidify the number-five spot. What are you looking for, as far as getting your foot in that door and keeping that spot?
Martinez: Competing. I’m going to go into spring training competing for that fifth spot in the rotation. I’m still in the part of my career where being in the major leagues at all is a goal. I’m going to be competing for the fifth spot, but if a bullpen spot opens up, I’m also going to be eager to land that spot. My main goal, first, is to be in the major leagues, but, obviously, I set my goals a little higher. I know I can help this team at the start.
I meant to ask this earlier, what did (pitching coach) Storm Davis mean to you for that 2012 in Hickory?
Martinez: Storm played a huge part in that mental game of baseball and what to expect in your first full season, mentally and how your body is going to feel physically – how tired you’re going to get and ways to grind through it. He helped me out a lot with different sequences and what to look for in hitters.
Part of the fun of the minor leagues is to play the guessing game of whether this player or that one will make it to the major leagues. However, we rarely consider the same about the managers and coaches. Like the players, they, too, have major league dreams. Josh Bonifay will begin to live his out for the Texas Rangers this season as the team’s major league field coordinator.
Bonifay, who played second for Hickory for all of 2000 and part of 2001 and then returned as a coach in 2008, has put together an impressive resume as a coach and manger in recent years. He was named the South Atlantic League coach of the year in 2012 while the hitting coach with the Houston Astros low-A affiliate at Lexington. One year later, Bonifay was the manager of the year in the Appalachian League while guiding the Greeneville (TN) Astros to the championship series. In 2015 he took home the same honors from the Midwest League while at low-A Quad Cities, which went 88-50.
Bonifay’s work in developing players in the Astros chain caught the eye of the Rangers and his connections with from the Pittsburgh Pirates days played a role in his hiring by the Rangers. During Bonifay’s playing days in the Pirates system (1999-2005), he had the opportunity to play under the tutelage of Tony Beasley at AA Altoona in 2004-2005. The field coordinator at the time was Jeff Banister, now the manager at Texas, for whom Beasley is the third base coach.
“…I’ve known Josh since he was probably 10 or 11 years old,” said Banister of Bonifay. “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 a far as he became a highly successful manager.”
A longer connection has also served Bonifay well – the connection with his father, Cam Bonifay, who was the Pirates general manager from 1993 to 2001. Through that relationship, Josh, now 38, has seen the inner workings of the game at its roots.
From bat boy to player to coach to minor league manager, all of that has prepared him for his first taste of the major leagues as the Rangers field coordinator. He, along with his wife Tiffany and their two daughters are ready to embrace the challenge ahead, which will include a move to Arlington.
In the interview below, Bonifay talks about some of the challenges he faces as he gets ready for spring training.
There have been big changes for you, not just your growing family, but professionally for your career. Let me first ask you about all the changes you’re going through right now.
Bonifay: It’s just a very exciting time for my family and myself. This was just an opportunity that came about. I was at Disney World when I got a phone call from Houston saying the Texas Rangers had asked for permission. After they got permission, I talked to Banny (Jeff Banister) just for a minute and then talked with (Rangers general manager) Jon Daniels about going out for an interview. Everything was kind of a whirlwind. It went really, really quickly, but it’s just extremely exciting and I’m very happy to be a part of the Rangers family. They’re tremendous people and I’m looking forward to working with Banny and Beas (Tony Beasley) again. All these guys are just phenomenal people and it’s a phenomenal organization. I’m just very excited.
Not very many people go from managing short-season ball to the major leagues. What’s the biggest adjustment you think you will have to make in that huge step?
Bonifay: The thing is just getting to know the players. Once you get to know the players and you understand them on a personal level, then you can start to teaching baseball. Baseball is a sport that, even if you are in the lower levels, you’re still teaching the game a certain way. It’s not that you’re going to teach a different way than you would a player in the big leagues – you’re trying to prepare them for the big leagues. So, you’re going to teach baseball a similar way. Just really getting to know their personalities and know who they are and what makes them tick, understanding what their bodies do and how they do it. Just developing personal relationships with them. I think if you get their trust and you develop the relationships, then you can teach them the game of baseball.
What is your role going to be with the Texas Rangers? I’m familiar with what a minor league field coordinator does, but what a major league field coordinator do?
Bonifay: My responsibilities will be running spring training, developing the schedules through Banny, and through (Rangers pitching coach Doug) Brocail and all the pitching guys, through (Rangers hitting coach Anthony) Iapoce and the hitting guys, and just developing a schedule so all the guys will know where they are going and know their responsibilities. During the season, I’ll be working with outfielders and baserunners.
Is your family going to move with you, or are they staying here in the area? This is a big deal for all of you.
Bonifay: I think we are going to move to Arlington. We’re going to put our house on the market in the next week or two and then we’re going to make the move out to Arlington. We’re very excited. We’re all in as a Texas Ranger. We want to be a part of it. We want to be involved in that community. We want to be involved the team heavily. We’re going to make that move to do that.
Longer term, what are you looking to do, as far as your baseball career? Obviously, you’re getting a major league taste, which you didn’t get as a player? That’s got to entice you for bigger and better things down the road.
Bonifay: I’ve always said this, as I’ve been going up. I really don’t have any personal goals of what I really want to do. This was a goal to get to the big leagues, because I didn’t make it as a player. But, this is just something to be a part of a staff to help players get better and helping the organization to win a championship. There’s really no personal goals. I just want to be involved in baseball. My family has been in it over 150 years combined. We love the game. We love teaching it. We love being a part of it and enjoy the opportunity that we get to teach and we get to part of it and make a living.
What’s the biggest thing that you’ll have to do, in maybe cutting your teeth, where you didn’t get to the majors as a player? Now, you’re here as as field coordinator. You’ve been around guys that have played and coaches and such that have seen the ropes in the majors.
Bonifay: I don’t have personal experience, but I sort of do. My dad was a GM for 10 years, so I grew up in the major league clubhouse. I grew up on the charter flights. I grew up as a bat boy, so I know what they do, the work ethic. I know the toughness, the grind that they go through, having to show up every single day. Long flights, playing a night game, than having to turn around and fly overnight and then play a day game. So, I know the rigors of that, just because of my experience with my father. In terms of that, I understand the complexities of those types of different things.
On a personal level, no, I’ve never been there. I’ve never fully experienced it personally, as a player. You know, it’ll be a challenge, but it’s good that I do have some background.
How wild is that you played here two years, you came back and coached here with the Pirates, now you’re back here in a whole different circumstance?
Bonifay: My wife and I really – she is from Lenoir – we grew up the last five years here. We really enjoyed the area. We loved that our in-laws are really close. We loved that our kids get to see their grandparents very often. But, I think with the move – if we want to get more involved with the Rangers, so we’re going to be closer – that we can spend more time at the ballpark and I can see my kids in the morning before I go to the field. That’s the big key is taking care of my kids.
What is the thing that enticed you about the Rangers?
Bonifay: The people, the organization. It phenomenal. Their success has been tremendous in developing players that also are at the big league level. And also enticing is being able to work with Banny and Beas. It’s a people organization. They care about people and their players.
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.