Welcome to the second edition of Prospect Previews for the 2014 season. Last week we looked at Luis Tejada, Franchy Cordero, Ryan Miller, Josh VanMeter and Erik Shoenrock.
This week, we’ll continue with five more players who could potentially make an impact in Fort Wayne under Manager Michael Collins in 2014. Here’s this week’s group:
Perez is a third baseman from Chula Vista, California, who graduated from high school early in order to play at the collegiate level. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s what Bryce Harper did (ESPN.com):
“Fernando Perez is one of the few people we have heard of following the “Bryce Harper” junior college route to professional baseball. In an interview today at the Arizona Senior Fall Classic, Perez told us that he would be forgoing his senior spring semester to attend Central Arizona Community College. This will allow Perez to be draft eligible come the MLB first year players draft in June of 2012.
Currently playing third base for Otay Ranch (Chula Vista, Calif.), Perez is an outstanding ball player who runs, hits and fields well. In the 60-yard dash he consistently runs a 6.9-7.0 second dash, he hits for good power and swings for a solid average. Down the line we can see his power increasing as he fills in his frame (currently 6-foot-1, 190 pounds) as he still seems to be growing. In the field he plays a solid third base with good arm strength across the diamond.”
Unlike a lot of TinCaps players, Perez wasn’t drafted last year. He was taken in the third round in 2012, which gives him another year of experience in the system. Here’s more from U-T San Diego:
“We like the bat,” Padres scouting director Jaron Madison said while discussing Perez. “He’s been on the scene a couple of years. To come out of high school like he did and hit No. 3 at Central Arizona says something about his ability.”
The 18-year-old Perez was scheduled to play as a senior at Otay Ranch High this spring. But in December, a review of Perez’s transcript from when he transferred from Mexico as a sophomore showed he had more completed more credits than he was originally credited for.
“Fifth-year seniors can’t compete in athletics in our district,” said Otay Ranch High coach Bob McCurdy. “It was a strange situation. Fernando was ahead of where everyone thought he was.”
Because he was ineligible at Otay Ranch, Perez decided to transfer to a community college. Central Arizona offered him a stipend that was unavailable locally.
“Fernando is a great hitter,” said McCurdy. “He hits for power and he’s still growing and getting stronger. He also has a good arm. And he’s smart.”
If he does end up at third base for the TinCaps this year, it would give them a more polished option than they’ve had in either of the last two seasons with Duanel Jones in 2012 and Gabriel Quintana in 2013, two players who were born in the Dominican Republic. In 2011, Fort Wayne had then-25-year-old Jake Blackwood who had been signed out of independent ball. Perez hasn’t shown a ton of power just yet, hitting six home runs in 278 career at-bats. Last year at Eugene, he played in 59 games hitting .213 with three home runs and 27 RBI. He led the team in at-bats (211), RBI (27), and strikeouts (68).
Last season the Great Lakes Loons featured one of the youngest players ever to pass through the Midwest League–16-year-old Julio Urias. The young pitcher took the league by storm, drawing internet observers galore (because it’s not like Midland, Michigan is on the way to anywhere) every time he took the mound, not only for his age but also his talent. So, what does Urena have in common with Urias other than that their last names both start with the 21st letter of the alphabet? Well, they are both from Mexico and at one point played for the Mexico City Red Devils, a Mexican League team. The Mexican League is classified as Triple-A, although the true level of the competition, based off of what I’ve heard, is somewhere around Double-A to Triple-A. Either way, the average age is well above 16.
It’s not as though any teenager is necessarily a perfect fit for that league, but it seems to be more a product of the way baseball business works in Mexico, where players are funneled through Mexican League teams to MLB teams (via Baseball America):
‘“Young, talented and qualified Mexican baseball players are forced to contract with the Mexican leagues and cannot directly sign with Major or Minor league baseball simply because the Mexican leagues want to exclusively get their fingers into the pie and secure unwarranted, obscene and excessive commissions when these players are sold to Major League Baseball.”
“Mexican players are not required to be affiliated with a Mexican League club before signing, though it is definitely the custom, and if a player signs directly with a major league team then he is banned from playing in the Mexican League. The Phillies, for example, signed catcher Sebastian Valle directly. However, most Mexican signings are done through a Mexican League team, which typically keeps as much as 75 percent of the player’s bonus. Blue Jays righthander Roberto Osuna, Dodgers lefthander Julio Urias and Padres outfielder Jose Urena are among the notable prospects the Red Devils have sold to major league teams. Pirates righthander Luis Heredia, who signed for a Mexican record $3 million, had been with Veracruz.”
Osuna was also in the Midwest League with Lansing last season.
Last year was Urena’s first season in the United States, and he spent it with the rookie-level Arizona League Padres. He was just 18 last year and hit .257 with nine home runs and 34 RBI in 49 games. The outfielder drew high praise from Director of Player Development Randy Smith (U-T San Diego)- “Jose has big power,” said Smith. “He has the ability to hit to all fields. Defensively, a plus arm.”
Baseball America, in its 2014 prospect guide, ranks Urena as the #29 prospect in the Padres farm system. They write, “He led the Rookie-level Arizona League with nine home runs in 2013, and among the system’s lower-level prospects he may have the most power, owing to quick hands, above-average present strength and high rate of hard contact…Urena played a lot of left field in the AZL, though the Padres view him as a right fielder long term, based on average range and solid-average arm strength….Urena will bat in the middle of the order at low Class A Fort Wayne in 2014.”
Back in 2008, the Cincinnati Reds made a splash in the Venezuelan market by signing Yorman Rodriguez, an outfield prospect, to a then-record $2.5 million bonus, the most ever given to a Venezuelan player. Rodriguez signed in 2009, and when I first saw him in 2011 he was shaky, and ended up leaving the team before the season was over to return home. This year at age 21, he’ll start in Double-A and might see Cincinnati by the end of the year.
Every prospect is different, though, and the Padres gave a good sum of money–$1.1 million–to a catcher named Jose Ruiz, back in 2011 to begin his professional career at age 16.
In the fall of 2012, one writer who saw Ruiz had this to say about him: “The current 17 year old soon to be 18 year old has starting catcher upside in my eyes based almost solely on his catch and throw ability. Ruiz played the 2nd half of the game and threw out 2 baserunners with pop times of 1.91 and 1.87. 1.9 is the MLB average… He features a 7 arm and a quick release. These times will only continue to improve, as he has issues with his receiving and can be lazy behind the plate. Offensively, he projects to have avg bat speed in a swing that needs to make some adjustments. He is a pull heavy hitter who struggled to keep his lower and upper halves in sync. But, for a 17 year old, this kid has all the tools you want.”
In 89 career games (55-DSL Padres, 33-AZL Padres, 1-Lake Elsinore), he has shown little power, hitting one home run and driving in 28 runs.He carries a lopsided strikeout-to-walk ratio of 69 to 8 (8.6 to 1). Right now, with his October birthday, he’ll be 19 for the entire season. It looked like, at the end of 2013, that Rodney Daal would start at catcher for the TinCaps in 2014. However, since he’s had Tommy John surgery, he’s out for the year. I don’t know who the starting catcher will be opening day, but my senses tell me that Ruiz is a likely candidate to start in the Arizona league and make his way to Parkview Field at some point in 2014.
New TinCaps Manager Michael Collins’ Padres managerial career has taken him from the Dominican Summer League Padres in 2012, to the Arizona League Padres in 2013, and now to Parkview Field in 2014. One of his outfielders might be following the same path. Get to know the name Franmil Reyes:
Baseball America‘s Ben Badler wrote a terrific article on the value of instructional league for international prospects, and mentioned both Reyes and Padres Director of Player Development Randy Smith. The piece was written in 2012, prior to Reyes’ AZL campaign, but it’s still got some good nuggets in it:
“Players need to adjust both on and off the field, and for many teams, bringing players to instructional league is a way to expedite the assimilation process. Yet whether a player signed a 2013 contract on July 2 or just spent the year in the Dominican Summer League, team officials say one of the most common problems they run into with international players at their first instructional league is that they treat it like it’s another tryout.
“For many of them, it’s an out of body experience,” said Padres vice president Randy Smith, who is in charge of San Diego’s farm system and international scouting. “When they first get here, they think they have to do everything better than what they did to get here. They try to hit the ball farther, run faster and throw harder. When you try to do that, you actually perform below your capabilities.”’
‘“It’s a combination of look at what you have that is stateside already in terms of who needs to go to instructional league and who doesn’t,” Smith said. “Some years there’s more room than others based on the playoffs and injuries. It gets guys a taste of Arizona, where they’re going to be, and gives them a bit of a head start for the upcoming season to get acclimated to the surroundings.”
The Padres brought over one of the bigger groups of international players to their instructional league. Carlos Belen, a 16-year-old Dominican third baseman signed for $1 million on July 2, is with the team in Peoria, Ariz., for his introduction to pro ball in the U.S. Mexican outfielder Jose Urena, Dominican outfielder Franmil Reyes, Dominican shortstop Franchy Cordero and Venezuelan catcher Jose Ruiz—recipients of four of San Diego’s five biggest bonuses for international signings in 2011—all played in the Dominican Summer League this year and made the trip to Arizona for instructs. Ivan Marcano, a 21-year-old Dominican righthander who is coming off his third trip through the DSL, also joined them.”
“Smith said San Diego’s group of first-year international players adjusted as well as any group he could remember to their first exposure to the U.S., both in terms of their use of English and their acclimation to a new environment. The comfort level allows the players to relax, which sometimes is the key to allowing their natural talent to show on the field.
“Slow it down and realize what you did to get here was impressive,” Smith said. “It’s almost a second tryout. (Players think), ‘Now I’m here, I’ve got to show I deserve to stay,’ and the reason they’re here is they do deserve to stay.
“Usually the first few days, guys have trouble doing a lot of things. It seems they just forget stuff. The sooner they can slow it down, the better they can perform.”’
That extra stateside experience seemed to pay off for Reyes last season, as he hit .315 with three home runs and 30 runs batted in over a 45-game season in the AZL. The Padres, given the value Reyes provided last year, and the value they paid for him ($700,000) seem to have put a priority tag on the 18-year-old Reyes. At that age, he’d still be a tad young for the Midwest League, although it’s not unprecedented, as Joe Ross began his TinCaps career at that age.
Reyes is among many prospects (the aforementioned Urena and Ruiz included) to be invited to the Padres minicamp, which began last month in Peoria, Arizona. From Padres.com:
“For some of these guys, it will be their first Spring Training, so they’ll come here and this gives them a chance to get to know the staff,” (Randy) Smith said. “I just think it’s an easy way to transition them in to their first spring and give them a head start to their season.”
The roots of the minicamp date back to the late 1980s, when Tom Romenesko was the Padres’ Minor League director and Smith was scouting director. The goal was simple: Give players a head start with thorough instruction.
Before Smith started the minicamp five years ago, the team had a hitting camp for a select group of Minor League players. But the current program includes everyone from position players to pitchers.
“When they’re here, they’re fresh, they’re hungry and whatever we teach them, adjustments they’ve learned, they can carry it into the season,” Smith said. “If you do it during instructional league … then they go home after and sit for five or six months.”
Austin Hedges, considered by many to be the best defensive catcher in the Minor Leagues, went through the minicamp in 2012. Now, in his second big league camp, Hedges can testify as to how beneficial his minicamp experience was.
“It was my first Spring Training, and you really don’t know what to expect. But to get a jump start with a smaller group of guys, I think it gave me an edge, an advantage over guys who didn’t get to do it,” he said. “Getting that one-on-one time with [former catcher Brad Ausmus] and the other instructors was very helpful.”
Smith said the minicamp has evolved over the years, including the addition of more players and also instructors from the Minor League side who will preside over the camp. Also, he said, there’s room for flexibility in the program, allowing the team to easily cater to the general makeup of the group.
“We make subtle tweaks every year in what we’re trying to do and accomplish,” Smith said. “Some of it is based on personnel, like this year we’re going to be pushing a pretty talented group to Fort Wayne that’s very young, so we want to give them as much of a head start as we can.”
One addition this year is the minicamp team will play two games against the French National Team on March 6 and March 8. That team is managed by former big league closer Eric Gagne.
But, really, the focus is on personalized instruction. The rest of the team’s Minor League players report on Feb. 28. By that time, the minicamp group will already be well on its way.
“It felt like we were already way ahead of them,” said pitcher Matt Wisler, who attended minicamp in 2012 and again last year. “When it’s over, you feel really good. I know I felt more ready.”
Hopefully, Reyes feels the same when camp breaks at the end of March.
If you’ve heard “You can’t teach height” in basketball, then consider “You can’t teach speed”…that cliche’s equal in baseball. When the TinCaps drafted Travis Jankowski and Mallex Smith in 2013, they picked up a speed boost to their system. Along with those two players (2012 and 2013, respectively), they also added Jalen Goree, a high school shortstop–who also played football–from Alabama. From MLB.com’s Corey Brock:
“A 5’10″, 175-pounder from Bibb County High School in Centreville, Alabama, Goree will most likely be a second baseman at the next level. The right-handed bat has made moves in the JUCO direction, signing with Northwest Florida State College in January, and joins comp pick Travis Jankowski and 5th-round pick Mallex Smith as top speed players joining the Padres system in (the 2012) draft.”
If you remember (and don’t worry if you don’t…I would find it kind of strange if you did), Goree made it into Prospect Previews last year, too:
“If you like speed, chances are you’ll like watching Jalen Goree. All accounts say that he’s a guy who can move on the basepaths and his accolades coming out of Alabama indicate he’s a talent. Goree, a sixth-round pick of the Padres last June, was named theClass-4A Player of the Year for the state of Alabama:
“Goree was picked for the All-State first team as a shortstop.
Goree hit .459 and drove in 36 runs during his senior season and led the Choctaws to the second round of the Class 4A playoffs. He had 10 doubles, two triples and seven home runs and stole 24 bases. Goree drew 39 walks and struck out only seven times in 122 at-bats.
As a pitcher, Goree posted a 5-3 record with a 1.67 ERA. He struck out 58 batters in 541⁄3 innings and threw one shutout.”
Let’s go Choctaws!
Goree is from Brent, Alabama, population 4,024. Fort Wayne (pop. ~250,000) might take some getting used to, but I’m sure he’ll have no trouble adjusting. Last season with the rookie-level Arizona League Padres, he hit .270 with one home run and 13 RBI in 30 games. He then wrapped up his first season as a pro in instructional league in Arizona. The Padres took him as a shortshop, and he could be the 2013 successor to Jace Peterson in the six-hole this season.”
Last year while fighting through hamstring issues, Goree played in only 22 games, hitting a combined .129 between the AZL Padres and short-season Eugene, With it looking like Josh VanMeter will be making up part of the middle infield, it’ll be interesting to see whether Goree starts here or in Arizona, looking to make up time lost to injury last season. I wouldn’t rule out a stay in Fort Wayne at some point in 2014, though.
Cream…take it away!
At Parkview Field the approach of Opening Day doesn’t just mean waiting for snow to melt off the field and the end of Johnny’s annual Canadian vacation, but it also means looking ahead to the players that might make up the TinCaps roster this season. As we did last year to critical acclaim (Thanks, Mom!) here on “It’s All Relative”, it’s “Prospect Previews” back by popular demand (Thanks again, Mom!). I’ll preview five prospects per week for the next five weeks through the end of March. There’s no particular order to these previews, whether by position or alphabetical order. If you have any questions on any players you think I left out or who you’d like to know more about ,please let me know via email (Couzens@TinCaps.com) or on Twitter, where I’m @MikeCouzens. Don’t forget…only 36 days until opening day.
The 2013 season was one of adventure for Luis Tejada, who was fresh off of a transition from being an outfielder to being a first baseman. In 2012, playing in 46 games with the Arizona League Padres, he primarily played first base, but the level of competition and short length of that league’s season don’t provide the same type of baseball climate as the Midwest League does. For the first two years of his career, Tejada, a native of the Dominican Republic, had been an outfielder, and this was his first full season at first base.
On the defensive side of things, it was nearly impossible for me to tell that Tejada was not a native first baseman. His instincts and defensive ability on balls hit his way were very good, making him a reliable, everyday option for Manager Jose Valentin.
The downside of Tejada came on offense where he hit a meager .227, the second-lowest mark among regular players. Only Brian Adams’ .211 had a lower average among everyday players. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Tejada start the 2014 season in Fort Wayne in an effort to improve his bat. The tough part of that, of course, is that hitters say it’s not easy to hit in the Midwest League in April with the frigid temperatures. Tejada, at worst, will be a good defensive anchor for the 2014 TinCaps.
Although there’s not much depth at shortstop in the Padres minor leagues (although 2012 TinCaps SS Jace Peterson does stand out), Cordero has shown quite a good bit of promise in his two years as a pro, especially with his bat.
The 19-year-old began his Padres tenure in 2012 with the Dominican Summer League team, managed by new TinCaps manager Michael Collins, and hit .270 with a .372 OBP. He also struck out 73 times in 61 games. In 2013 Cordero moved up to the Arizona League club, again with Collins, and raised his average to .333 with a .381 OBP and was 11-for-11 in stolen bases. His batting average was the fourth-highest in the AZL and he led his team in average, triples, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and stolen bases. MadFriars.com named him their 2013 Prospect of the year from the AZL, writing:
“Cordero, 19, may be the most exciting Padres Latin American prospect since Rymer Liriano came to the States. He led the AZL Padres in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and stolen bases with 11 in 11 attempts. The six-foot-three Dominican is considered to have the speed, quickness and hands to play shortstop. His stroke can get a little long, but he has more tools than the local Home Depot.”
And in the 2014 Prospect Handbook, Baseball America says he’s their choice for breakout prospect of 2014 in the Padres system: “…Rare lefty-hitting Dominican infielder shows quick-twitch athleticism and strong tools across the board.”
Going into the fall of 2013, all signs pointed to Rodney Daal, who was Fort Wayne’s starting catcher for 79 games last year, returning for a second season in the Midwest League. The multi-lingual backstop was just 19 last season, having celebrated his birthday in late March, and so another season in Fort Wayne certainly wouldn’t be viewed as a setback for him. He has work to do as a signal caller and defender. However, he had off-season Tommy John surgery, which requires a recovery time of 12 months, which means we won’t see him again until 2015.
Enter Miller, who was with the TinCaps for three games last year toward the end of the season (8/28, 8/30, 9/1). After being drafted last June out of San Bernadino (CA) Valley College, he went and played in Eugene for 43 games. His defense was strong, as he threw out 53% (35/66) of attempted basestealers, a mark that lead the Northwest League. He looks like a candidate to begin 2014 in green and white.
Although in franchise history there’s never been a Fort Wayne-born player to suit up for the team (There have been some from other teams, most recently Ryan Wright of Homestead High School (Dayton) and Kevin Kiermaier of Bishop Luers (Bowling Green)), there have been a few close calls. At the end of the 2012 season, the TinCaps had Leo native and left-handed reliever Brandon Alger join the team, but his propensity for getting batters out saw him spend 2013 above the Midwest League.
Last summer all eyes were on Norwell High School star Josh VanMeter, who was selected by the Padres during the fifth round of the 2013 draft. Would he sign? Would he go to Illinois State to play college baseball? That decision had to wait for one big moment in his life—a high school baseball championship game.
VanMeter, drafted by the Padres as a shortstop, pitched seven innings in that championship game against Jasper, leading Norwell to its first state title since 2007, when Jarrod Parker of the Oakland A’s was on the team. After winning the title he made his decision, and just a few days later he was off to Arizona to begin life as a professional baseball player:
“I guess a short term goal would be to end up in Fort Wayne next year,” he told WANE-TV in June. “I’m going to see where things fall into place. I’m going to go out there, work hard, and do what I’ve been doing for the last 18 years.”
We could expect to see him accomplishing that short-term goal in 2014.
In the 2014 Prospect Handbook, Baseball America rated VanMeter as its #31 prospect in the San Diego farm system, writing: “Upper Midwest area scout Mark Conner, the very same who recommended (2012 TinCaps star pitcher) Matt Wisler from Bryan, Ohio, in the 2011 draft, argued successfully for VanMeter in the fifth round in 2013. Hailing from the same Norwell High program that produced Athletics righthander Jarrod Parker, VanMeter opted to turn pro for $308,000 rather than become starting shortstop for Illinois State. The Padres’ player-development staff fell in love with VanMeter’s savvy, makeup and athleticism during the Rookie-level Arizona League season and instructional league in 2013. A two-way player on the high school diamond and also a standout on the basketball court, he showed sound bat-handling skill and a refined approach in his AZL debut, with nearly as many walks (24) as strikeouts (25). The Padres believe VanMeter can stay at shortstop in pro ball because he has solid-average speed, great instincts and enough arm to play the left side of the infield. They also think he’ll fill out his lean 5-foot-11 frame and develop gap power, giving him a chance for a few 50 tools, plus strong on-base skills and perhaps fringy power. VanMeter could join fellow AZL shortstop Franchy Cordero in a middle-infield timeshare at low Class A Fort Wane in 2014.”
If you asked farm directors around Minor League Baseball for one thing they’d like to have more of on their rosters, I’d bet a lot of them would say that they want quality left-handed pitching. When the Padres selected Memphis Tigers pitcher Erik Schoenrock in the 11th round last June, it looks like they got exactly that.
The Collierville, Tennessee, native, who played for his father, Daron, at Memphis, was named the Conference USA pitcher of the year in 2013. The southpaw has been gaining momentum in his career, following up a 2012 summer in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League with a 7-4 record and 3.02 ERA with the Tigers in 2013.
In an article in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, both father and son said being together for Erik’s college career was the right fit:
“He’s gone from a guy trying to figure out ‘Do I fit?’ as a college pitcher to being a professional prospect,” Daron said.
Daron said traditionally strong national programs like Vanderbilt, Baylor, Arkansas and Mississippi State expressed interest in his son coming out of Collierville High. “He was ready to go anywhere. He even took a visit to Vanderbilt.
“Then he took an official visit to see us. I told him this is who we are, this is what we do. I think the visit got him around our players on a more formal basis and he made a decision that he wanted to be part of that.”
Daron said he’s glad he got the opportunity to coach his son and watch his career unfold instead of hearing about it had he chosen another program.
Erik gives his dad a passing grade for handling what could be a difficult situation. But Erik has attempted to do everything he can to make it easy on his father.
“This year he’s seen I’m going to work hard and he treats me like everyone else,” Erik said. “I think he worries more about my grades and if my rent is paid on time.”
Erik said his father has played more the role of “dad than coach” this season, but adds “he balances out playing father and coach really well.”
Last season at Eugene, Schoenrock showed good control in 14 starts, striking out 52 batters and walking 15 in 57 1/3 innings. He also showed a propensity to get ground-ball outs, with a 3.51-to-1 ratio of ground balls to fly balls.
Considering the TinCaps worked with only two lefties last year—starter Max Fried and reliever Chris Nunn—the addition of Schoenrock would be a boost for new skipper Michael Collins.
Having recently received my 2014 copy of Baseball Prospectus in the mail, I was very interested to read Geoff Young’s write-up on the Padres, especially his take on the minor leagues. The Padres are, relatively speaking when compared to the Yankees, Red Sox and top-of-the-mountain teams, a low-budget team when it comes to the amount of money they have available to spend on free agents. Thus, they must build from within and make smart, economical decisions. Young writes:
“The Padres must constantly replenish their system by drafting and developing better players. Questionable choices have undermined recent efforts…Their lat decent first-round pick was Tim Stauffer in 2003. Khalil Green, taken a year earlier, enjoyed a few good seasons. Before that? Sean Burroughs in 1998. Ben Davis in 1995, another disappointment. Dustin Hermanson, 1994? He landed the Padres Qulvio Veras. Derrek Lee, 1993? He fetched Kevin Brown in a trade….We can’t yet judge 2011 to 2013, but the last 10 years are ugly. A team that relies on developing its own cost-controlled talent cannot burn draft picks like matchsticks. Some of this is bad luck, but some is bad process.”
Young includes a table of the last ten first-round picks by San Diego:
Over that ten-year stretch, the franchise has seen three different general managers: Kevin Towers, Jed Hoyer, and now Josh Byrnes, who took over in 2011.
Young goes on to remind readers of players like Jedd Gyorko, Chase Headley, Will Venable, Tommy Medica, Burch Smith, Matt Stites (traded to Arizona), Austin Hedges, and Matt Wisler, who have been successful, despite not being first-round picks.
“All of this doesn’t undo a decade of damage, but it’s a start,” Young writes.
In the Midwest League, having a star player or two certainly helps, but as my counterpatr Tom Nichols in Dayton wisely tweeted:
“That being said, you win or lose in the Midwest League because of roster depth up to and including the 25th man on the club. Everyone plays.”
Martin Garrix…take it away!
Welcome to the fifth installment of our new series here on “It’s All Relative”, From Fort Wayne to Fruition, a look at players that have spent time during their minor league careers with either the Wizards or the TinCaps and then have gone on to play Major League Baseball. The word fruition, according to Merriam-Webster, is defined as ”the state of being real or complete”, and for our purposes that’s very fitting. Players reaching the majors have their dream come to fruition, although by no means does that mean their journey is complete. Some of the players in this series have had storied MLB careers, while others have only seen a few games of time in the show. However, the odds of ever making it onto a Minor League Baseball roster, let alone an MLB one, are slim, and so it’s worth recognizing those who have been fortunate and talented enough to reach the apex of professional baseball in the United States.
I’m going to go in no particular order with any of these players, but if you do have any requests, please do let me know and I’ll be happy to accommodate you. (You can reach me at Couzens@TinCaps.com or on Twitter, @MikeCouzens.) As of today, the list of former Fort Wayne players to have reached the majors stands at 118. Some of the more notable alums include LaTroy Hawkins, AJ Pierzynski, Torii Hunter, and David Eckstein, while some names you may not be as familiar with, like Mike Baxter or George Kottaras. Each one of them has a story–where they’re from, how they got to Fort Wayne and, ultimately, how they got to play in Major League Baseball.
Just imagine…Mean Girls is one of the most popular movies in America, George Bush has just been re-elected for a second term in office, Lance Armstrong has won his sixth Tour de France title, and George Kottaras is playing catcher for the Fort Wayne Wizards. Obviously, one of these events is significantly less important than the other (sorry, Lindsay Lohan).
Kottaras was selected by the Padres in the 20th round of the 2002 MLB draft as a draft-and-follow, and he spent the next year at Connors State College in Warner, Oklahoma. If you’re not familiar with what the draft-and-follow refers to (it’s a since-eliminated option for drafted players), here’s Baseball-Reference.com to explain:
“A draft-and-follow is a player selected usually in the later rounds of the amateur draft by a team that does not intend to offer him a contract immediately . The typical draft-and-follow pick will be attending a junior college or will be a college player with at least a year of eligibility remaining as a player. The team that drafts him has a year to decide whether to offer him a professional contract before the player becomes eligible for the next year’s amateur draft. This allows the drafting team to see him play for another season before making this decision.”
(Much more on the elimination of draft-and-follow can be found here http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20070531&content_id=1997066&fext=.jsp, including thoughts from former Padres Vice President of Scouting and Player Development Grady Fuson.)
Kottaras signed with the Padres and headed to Idaho Falls (now a Royals affiliate) for the 2003 season, playing in 42 games with the Padres’ rookie-level club.
The next season Kottaras opened the year with Manager Randy Ready and the Fort Wayne Wizards. Statistically speaking, the catcher put up good numbers: .310, 7 HR, 46 RBI in 78 games. He also did something that most players will never get to do, and that’s represent their “country” in the Olympics. The Canadian-born player has Greek lineage, which allowed him to represent the host country that year:
“Baseball is not big in Greece,” Brewers catcher George Kottaras said. “They’re kind of learning about it. They’re trying to learn the game, basically.”
Kottaras should know. The Canadian played first base and caught for Team Greece seven years ago.
Not surprisingly, Kottaras was one of the very few guys on the team who could actually speak Greek.
“There were only about one or two others,” Kottaras said. “I’m fluent so I was kind of like the tour guide. They wanted me to talk to people for them. It was kind of cool.”
Kottaras’ parents immigrated to Toronto from Greece, but not together. They met in that beautiful international city and George was born almost 28 years ago in Scarborough, Ontario. His heritage and baseball skills made him eminently qualified for the Greek Olympic baseball team.
“I think one of your great-grandparents or something had to be born there,” Kottaras said. “Both of my parents were born there. They were just trying to find people who could play. We had an OK team. It was a good experience for us.”
Not as good as for the Cubans, who won gold, or the Australians, represented by former Brewers Dave Nilsson and Graeme Lloyd, who finished second. But it was certainly better than the Americans, who didn’t even qualify for the Olympics at their own game.
But for two Greek players and a whole bunch of North Americans, it was an encouraging start. Kottaras, who was listed as American-affiliated because he was playing for the Fort Wayne Wizards at the time, had a three-hit game against Italy in the only tournament victory for Team Greece.
What he cherishes most, though, was the goose-bump raising sensation caused when he was part of the Greek delegation that entered the stadium last on opening night to thunderous, emotional cheers of “Hellas, Hellas.”
“The greatest experience was going to the opening ceremonies,” he said. “Everyone was just going nuts. It was a bone-chilling experience I’ll never forget, for sure.”
The lone Greek victory came against Italy that year. Team Greece also had Baltimore Orioles outfielder Nick Markakis on the roster.
Kottaras missed about a month of the season for the Olympics, with a gap in his MiLB stats from July 31st to August 30th. He closed out the season with the Wizards, playing the final eight games of the year with the club.
His progression following that season was much quicker, as he reached Double-A Mobile in 2005, and Triple-A Portland in 2006.
During the middle of the 2006 season, he talked with Baseball America regarding his physical size and defensive skill:
“BA: How about your defense behind the plate? Is there anything you’ve been working on defensively?
GK: I’ve been trying to get my transfer and release down a little better. It’s been tough–like it’s tough to do it in the games because everything’s happening so fast and there are so many factors that can go wrong. So I just try to stay positive with it and look at it as an uphill climb. I just want to keep getting better and climbing uphill.
BA: You take it as a personal challenge when someone tries to steal a bag from you?
GK: Definitely. Everything’s personal. They’re up against you. There’s the pitcher’s speed in how quick he is to the plate–that’s just one factor to consider–but I get mad when someone steals on us. And when someone does, that just re-focuses me for the next time and it kind of fires me up more to get the next guy who tries it.
BA: Some scouts have knocked you in the past because of your size (Kottaras is listed at 6-foot, 190 pounds) at your position. How do you feel your size affects your ability to not only catch, but to also be a productive hitter with power?
GK: I think the size thing is people tend to question my longevity and durability in going through a whole season. Last year was the first time I played an entire full year of full season ball. I worked out probably more this past offseason than I had before to prove that I could do it–to prove that I belong where I am, and I think my numbers both offensively and defensively will speak for themselves when it’s all said and done.”
On August 31,, 2006, he was traded to the Padres in a deal for David Wells, who the Padres hoped would boost their chances for a playoff run. (They got eliminated in the first round by St. Louis.) Here’s what an ESPN.com article said of Kottaras at the time:
“Kottaras, 23, was rated San Diego’s No. 2 prospect by Baseball America before this season. He has a smooth swing and excellent plate discipline, and he posted an exceptional .392 on-base percentage in his first three seasons in the minors.
The main criticisms of Kottaras: He’s a bit undersized for a catcher at 6-0 and 185 pounds, and some baseball talent evaluators question his durability. While Kottaras has a strong throwing arm, his accuracy also comes and goes at times.
Kottaras grew up in Canada and got a late start playing baseball, so the Red Sox think he has some room to refine his game. The Padres, who have Josh Bard and Rob Bowen on their roster along with Mike Piazza, are convinced they’re covered at the catching position for the foreseeable future.
Kottaras began this season hitting .276 in 78 games with San Diego’s Double-A affiliate in Mobile.”
(Side note: Who remembered that Mike Piazza went to the Padres for a year? Even as a Mets fan, I forgot about that.)
At age 24, Kottaras spent his 2007 season at Triple-A Pawtucket (Red Sox), splitting playing time with Kevin Cash. (If you’ve never been to McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, I highly recommend you make the trip. It’s an older venue, but one of the best in Minor League Baseball, in my opinion.)
The 2008 season saw Kottaras again travel the International League, until it all came to fruition on September 13 when he made his MLB debut against the Toronto Blue Jays. At the time, he was one of four catchers on the Red Sox roster, which presented a bit of a dilemma for then-Manager Terry Francona:
“How he gets into games, or if . . . I really don’t know,” Francona said. “The opportunity may present itself at some point. . . . You’re always trying to strike a balance and trying to stay ahead of everything so that if something comes up you don’t miss an opportunity to maybe get a Kottaras an at-bat. But I don’t know how you can game plan how to get four catchers in a game. Something’s either going to go wrong or terribly right . . . but even if he’s working in the bullpen with Tuck, it’s an exciting time for him.”
When 2009 rolled around, Kottaras made the Red Sox as a backup to Jason Varitek, and was primarily used as the personal catcher for knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.
“Twice a day, Kottaras fields a bucket of balls shot through a pitching machine meant to mimic a knuckleball. Those sessions take place with only bullpen coach Gary Tuck and a few fellow catchers watching. This was different. The go-ahead run stood 90 feet away, under the lights, and in front of 11,113 fans, a record for Steinbrenner Field.
“Just trying not to have the anxiety of letting it go by you,” Kottaras said. “Just taking as it is, like with nobody on, basically. Still trying to catch them all and keep them in front.
“You can only work on it so much. Once you’re in the game, it’s a different feel, because you don’t know what the ball is going to do.”
And Wakefield had saved some of his most devilish knuckleballs. He threw one that started at Damon’s stomach and dived to his feet as Damon swung over it. Kottaras stabbed at it, his mitt rubbing the dirt, and caught it. The next knuckler followed a similar trajectory. Again Damon swung through it, and Kottaras caught the ball.
Damon fouled a pitch off and then dribbled an infield single; Gardner scored anyway, but Kottaras’s performance imbued Wakefield with confidence, which Kottaras had been doing all night.
“I’m as comfortable with him as I am with [Kevin] Cash last year,” Wakefield said.”
After that season he was released by the Red Sox and picked up by the Brewers, where he played in 2010, 2011, and 2012. He played for Oakland (27 games) in 2012, too, after being traded for pitcher Fautino De Los Santos. In 2013, he was claimed off waivers by the Royals and played in 46 games for Kansas City. Then, in November of last year he was traded to the Cubs for cash, marking the fourth MLB team he’ll have played for.
This year it looks like the Cubs will aim to have Wellington Castillo as their #1 catching option, with Kottaras as a possible backup:
“Last year veteran Dioner Navarro was an important mentor to Castillo, and he also had a career year at the plate, batting .300 with 13 homers.
Navarro signed with Toronto this off-season, and the Cubs have turned to another veteran, George Kottaras. The 30-year-old Kottaras has played for Boston, Milwaukee, Oakland and Kansas City, putting up a career hitting line of .214/.324.406 with 29 homers.”
Here in Fort Wayne, we’ll continue to follow Kottaras’ career, as we fondly observe the career of the 77th Fort Wayne player to reach the big leagues.
If you have any memories of Kottaras, please feel free to share them in the comments below.
Red Hot Chili Peppers…take it away!
UPDATE: Only the magnet schedules remain. Thanks to everyone who emailed!
When it comes to surprises, not every one you get is a good one. Nobody wants to find out they’ll need a new transmission when they were only going in for an oil change. On the flip side, though, sometimes a surprise can be a good thing. Last week a piece of mail showed up addressed to TinCaps President Mike Nutter. Nothing out of the ordinary, as he gets plenty of mail each day. However, it was the contents of this particular parcel that sparked some chatter around the office.
While this baseball team has been the TinCaps since the 2009 season, the majority of the franchise’s history is as the Fort Wayne Wizards, which existed from 1993-2008. Surely, many baseball fans young and old have fond memories of the team, the players, and summer trips to Memorial Stadium. And we now know that there is at least one fan out there who collected some of those memories and has held onto them…until last week when they showed up in a box at Parkview Field. However, this box did not come with a return address, and that is where our mystery begins.
This box contained oodles (yes, oodles) of Fort Wayne Wizards memorabilia–some of it autographed. And I ask for your help in finding out who our mystery Wizards (and hopefully TinCaps) fan is. Are you, one of the readers of this blog, the mystery fan? Do you maybe know someone who’d been holding on to some Wizards goodies? I’d like to thank this person for sharing some of the franchise’s baseball past. And, in turn, I will share it with you, as I will be giving away some of the Wizards gear. So please let me know (Couzens@TinCaps.com) if you know who sent this over to us.
Here’s what was in the box:
There are also assorted buttons from the 1990 season including those featuring: Barry Bonds (on the Pirates!), Bo Jackson, Dwight Gooden, Howard Johnson, Alan Ashby, Pedro Guerrero, Tom Brunansky, Kevin Elster, Steve Sax, and Chet Lemon.
So, if you want any of these things, shoot me an email Couzens@TinCaps.com, and I’ll either set them aside for you to pick up at the ballpark, or mail them to you–although the bobbleheads will probably break in the mail, so those will have to stay local. It’s my way of saying thank you to anyone who ventures to this section of the internet. With all the cute cat videos and BuzzFeed lists you could be reading instead, I’m flattered that you spend some time with me.
Until next time…put your Sherlock Holmes hat.
Mozes and the Firstborn…take it away!
After yesterday’s post on the Top-100 Rankings of former TinCaps Max Fried, Austin Hedges, Hunter Renfroe and Matt Wisler, I received an email to the It’s All Relative inbox (Couzens@TinCaps.com) from reader Brian S., a friend of the blog, who wanted to know more about the 20-80 scale mentioned in the article. He writes:
“If I might make a suggestion, it might be worth describing the 20-80 scale a bit more for future publications. I know Keith Law includes the following:
“I use the 20-80 grading scale in these comments to avoid saying “average” and “above average” thousands of times across the 100 player comments. On that scale, a grade of 50 equals major league average, 55 is above average, 60 is plus, 45 is fringy or below average and so on. Giancarlo Stanton has 80 raw power. David Ortiz has 20 speed. Carlos Gomez is an 80 defender. An average fastball for a right-hander is 90-92 mph, with 1-2 mph off for a lefty.”‘
Great suggestion, Brian.
For more information on the 20-80 scale used by baseball evaluators, I employed the help of a National League scouting executive familiar with the Midwest League. Here’s his breakdown of the system, including some evaluations of two 2013 TinCaps players, Zach Eflin and Hunter Renfroe:
The 20 – 80 scale provides a contextualized framework for comparison in scouting. For decades, it has been ingrained as a scouting industry standard for grading, much like “A – F” has been established in elementary schools. 20 – 80 grades can be digested as ordinal data; by its very nature a 70 is better than a 60, which is better than a 50, so on and so forth.
The most important feature of the scale is that it establishes a clear baseline for Major League Average – 50. As a scout, your ability to comprehend Major League Average and identify/assess what it looks like is of paramount importance. In scouting, the characteristics of an outfielder’s throw or a pitcher’s curveball are best communicated by how they compare to average.
The Major League Scouting Bureau has defined each grade as follow:
70: Very Good
50: Major League Average
40: Below Average
30: Well Below Average
In scouting, we do not solely make an assessment on the overall player, but rather we grade his tools in isolation. This is done to depict a more accurate representation of a player’s abilities. At a minimum, a scout will grade out each of a position players tools – hit, power, throw, field, speed. For pitchers, a scout would assess each pitch type in a repertoire as well as his command of those pitches. As the saying goes, we like to break the player down, before building him back up. There are much more advanced concepts in regards to mechanics, performance, projection, development, but to purely “fill in the boxes” – a scout must be able to assess the tools on a 20 – 80 scale.
Scouting is not the only industry in which the 20 – 80 scale has been adopted. We also see the scale used in the SAT Reasoning Test administered to High School students seeking higher education. Each interval between grades represents a gap of one standard deviation from average, assuming the population approximates a normal distribution.
A key feature of a scouting report is that the tools will be assessed with two values – a present grade, and a future grade. The present grade is traditionally interpreted as how a specific tool would play in the Major Leagues today. Younger players, whom still have development ahead of them, will typically have present tool grades below Major League Average. For example, RHP Zach Eflin’s slider would be graded out as a 40/50. Although it shows glimpses of being a quality breaking ball, present inconsistencies of shape, tilt, spin, and break would lead one to assess it as a present below average slider. With normal development, Eflin should become increasingly comfortable throwing the pitch – mastering it so to speak, and one could envision it developing into Major League Average breaking ball in the future.
The need for development and disparities between present/future grades becomes even more evident with hitters. For example, Tincaps OF Hunter Renfroe demonstrates the swing mechanics necessary to be an above average hitter at the Major League level. That being said, his success in the Major Leagues will depend greatly upon his ability to adjust to more advanced pitching as he escalates through a minor league system. If Hunter were to be promoted to the Major League team today, he may very well be overmatched by the overall quality of Major League pitching. One would be hard pressed to believe that at the current stage of his career, Hunter would be anything better than a below average hitter at the Major League level. While he accrues at bats and slowly becomes introduced to better pitching, Hunter should hone in and improve his skills such as pitch recognition and at bat management. Pair that development with his present tools, and undoubtedly Hunter should have the ingredients necessary to be an above average Major League hitter in the future.
Hopefully that helps you in your understanding of what scouts and talent evaluators mean when they grade a player. The last paragraph of this write-up is the most important one when it comes to understanding and grading the Midwest League, in my opinion. Without a future grade, every player in the Midwest League would seem to be unfit for the Major League Baseball level. When drafting and scouting, it’s finding the ones that have the tools to make it work four or five years down the road that can help a franchise.
That’s it for now. Hope you’re enjoying the weather today, wherever you may be. Here’s what’s going on at Parkview Field:
Gavin DeGraw…take it away!
As we wade through the chilly, snow-filled days of February, we look outside and cringe–ice-covered sidewalks, snowbanks taller than the elementary school children that stand next to them, waiting for the bus to arrive…if there is school that day.
But fear not, friends, as of today, February 4th, Opening Day for the 2014 season is just 58 days away, and the warmth of summer nights at the ballpark is not far off. And to get you a bit closer, at least in your mind, to the baseball season, I present good news: three former TinCaps were recently named to MLB.com’s Top 100 Prospects List. They are:
#24 Catcher Austin Hedges
#43 Left-handed Pitcher Max Fried
#78 Right-Handed Pitcher Matt Wisler
Both Hedges, who is regarded by many as the top defensive catcher in Minor League Baseball, and Wisler, came through Fort Wayne in 2012. Fried was here for all of 2013.
As you read these rankings, keep in mind that the standard scouting scale runs 20-80, with 20 being the worst and 80 being the best. Here’s what MLB.com had to say about each player.
“Scouting Grades: Hit: 50 | Power: 50 | Run: 40 | Arm: 65 | Field: 65 | Overall: 60
Even coming out of high school, Hedges was known as an elite defender behind the plate. He may be the best defensive catcher in the Minor Leagues, and he has shown he has the tools to impact the game on both sides of the ball. He reached Double-A San Antonio in 2013, his second professional season, and ended the year with a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League.
Hedges is the complete package behind the plate, with quiet hands, good footwork and a strong arm. He is not an all-glove, no-bat player, however. His balanced swing produces line drives to all fields and he has good raw power. Like most catchers, he is a below-average runner.
Hedges still has room to develop on both sides of the ball, but he is well on his way to reaching his projection as an everyday catcher in the Major Leagues.”
“Scouting Grades: Fastball: 60 | Curveball: 65 | Changeup: 50 | Control: 50 | Overall: 60
Fried was teammates with Lucas Giolito in high school, and when injury befell Giolito in their senior season, Fried became the top high school pitcher selected in the 2012 Draft. He spent his first full professional season in Class A Fort Wayne, where his 7.6 strikeouts per nine innings ranked second among starters in the Midwest League.
All three of Fried’s pitches project to be at least Major League-average offerings. His fastball sits in the low 90s and routinely touches 95 mph. Scouts believe there is still projection in his wiry frame. His power curveball is his best offspeed pitch, and his changeup has improved since his amateur days.
Fried has a good pickoff move and earns high marks for his athleticism. He has had some control problems as a professional, but he should be able to straighten those out as he gets more experience.”
“Scouting Grades: Fastball: 60 | Curveball: 45 | Changeup: 60 | Control: 60 | Overall: 55
Due to his Ohio State commitment, Wisler was a difficult sign in the 2011 Draft. But the Padres went well-above slot to get a deal done with their seventh rounder and are now reaping the benefits. He reached Double-A San Antonio as a 20-year old in 2013 and is one of the fastest rising pitching prospects in baseball.
Wisler throws his fastball in the low- to mid-90s with good movement. His slider is his best secondary pitch and he also throws a changeup and curveball. He commands all of his pitches very well, walking 2.2 batters per nine innings in his first two full Minor League seasons.
Wisler earns praise for his poise and work ethic. He has already pitched his way onto the fast track and has the Padres excited to see how good he can be.”
The MLB.com rankings did not include 2013 first-round draft pick Hunter Renfroe, taken 13th overall out of Mississippi State University by San Diego, who played with the TinCaps this year, but Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com did address that in a Q&A:
“One of the things I love the most about doing these rankings is the passion fans show for certain organizations or specific players. Invariably, we get a lot of “How could Prospect X not be on this list?” kind of comments. Patrick, to be fair, seems to be just asking for an explanation.
I don’t think Renfroe is that far off. I could have mentioned him in the question above, but I knew this one was coming. And I did include the Padres’ 2013 first-round pick in my Beyond the Top 100 discussion on my blog. If Renfroe gets off to a good start in his first full season, I could easily see him climbing into the Top 100 as the year progresses.
The tools are definitely all there. I think everyone just wants to see how it translates to the pro game — against more advanced pitching — before completely buying into Renfroe as a Top 100 guy. There have been some questions about his bat, whether he’ll hit enough for his other tools to come into play, but a solid first full campaign should quiet those doubts.”
Over on ESPN.com (Insider Subscription Required $$$), Keith Law did put Renfroe in his Top 100. Here’s how his rankings and analysis panned out:
“The minors’ premier defensive catcher is one of the best bets on the list to have a long MLB career, although it remains to be seen what kind of role he has. His glove will keep him playing as long as he’s healthy, regardless of whether or not he hits, but he has the raw power to become an impact bat for the position as well.
Hedges is as natural and smooth a receiver as any in the minors, with one of the strongest and most accurate arms as well. At the plate, he’s reduced his stride and is more balanced than he was a year ago, still showing big-time rotation and loft in his swing, but his power wasn’t evident on the field this year, only in BP, although some of that may have been a hangover from getting hit on the left hand with a pitch in early May. His contact rates are very strong for a hitter so young, as he was well below the Cal League median for strikeout rate despite being the second-youngest position player in the league after Addison Russell, so it’s about getting into better counts to drive the ball, not an inability to hit.
He’s ranked here because I see 20-25 homer power potential with a .250-.260 average, which, with plus defense, would make him an All-Star.”
“The Padres’ seventh-round selection in 2011 had a solid full-season debut in 2012, but last year was his coming out party as he improved in just about every possible way, from stuff to command to confidence on the mound.
Wisler works with two plus pitches already, a fastball at a legit 93-96 mph and a slider that’s a grade 60 or a 70, working consistently in the bottom of the zone and showing no fear when attacking hitters on the inner half or even when falling behind in the count. The main knock on Wisler is his delivery, as he doesn’t use his lower half as much as he should and he pronates his pitching arm late, with his front foot already touching the ground. That leads to some inconsistency in his slot, but he hasn’t had any trouble yet with command or control, only with his feel for his changeup, which he can’t turn over properly when his arm drifts down.
He’s an 80-grade competitor and a diligent worker, giving him a better chance than most pitchers to reach his ceiling, which for him is a No. 2 starter who can handle 200-plus innings a year.”
“Fried had a good but not ideal first full year in pro ball, showing improved stuff and staying healthy but struggling more with command than anyone might have anticipated.
He worked in the low 90s all year but showed he can reach back for 96 when he needs it, and both his curveball and changeup will show plus, with the curveball a solid 65 or 70 on the 20-80 scale. Fried is extremely athletic with a loose if slightly long arm action, taking a good long stride toward the plate and turning over his pitching hand in plenty of time to bring it forward. He can repeat his delivery, but has a habit of nibbling as if he didn’t have power stuff, trying to be too fine when he should try to blow a hitter away with velocity or a curveball breaking down and away from a left-handed hitter.
He’s very competitive with great makeup, so no one doubts he’ll make this adjustment in time and cut his walk rate as he moves up; he’ll have to do so to continue to project as a future No. 2 starter.”
“Renfroe had two nondescript seasons at Mississippi State before breaking out in the spring of 2013, which helped push him to the top half of the first round of the draft once he had some results to go with his plus power and speed tools.
He is broad-shouldered with a solid build and has the plus-plus power you’d expect from a guy that size. His swing is very rotational, with a good stride into the ball and excellent follow-through to generate all of that power. He lifts his back foot off the ground at contact, which isn’t ideal since it means he’s hitting entirely off his front foot, something a few good big league hitters have done but that most don’t.
He’s a plus runner with a strong arm and should be an excellent defender in right, saving up to 10 runs per season between his glove and his arm. The question on Renfroe, and it’s a significant one, is his pitch recognition and the resulting trouble he has making contact; he doesn’t pick up spin that well, and pitchers can change speeds on him to get him off balance, all of which (plus fatigue) seemed to catch up to him in his very brief time in low Class A last season.
Right now, he projects as a low-average, power-speed guy, a No. 5- or 6-hole hitter who adds a lot of value on defense and on the bases — but he’ll have to improve his contact rates to get there.”
Having watched each of these players, I agree more with Law’s analysis than with MLB.com’s. I don’t have the expertise to evaluate players like scouts do, but I certainly think Law’s notes on Hedges’ receiving ability, Wisler’s competitiveness and Fried’s accuracy are spot-on.
Whatever value you give to these rankings (20? 80?), it’s a good sign that former TinCaps are being recognized on a national level. It means that future MLB talent is funneling through Fort Wayne and at a rate higher than it does in most other minor league cities. The Padres place a high value on having their prospects play at Parkview Field because of the large crowds, which simulate a big-league envionrment, the great facilitiy, and the high level of play in the Midwest League. Dating back to 1999 when Fort Wayne began its affiliation with San Diego, Renfroe is the 26th supplemental first round or first-round pick of the Padres to be sent to Fort Wayne.
And remember…Opening Day 2014 at Parkview Field is just 58 days away!
Of Monsters and Men…take it away!
Welcome to the fourth installment of our new series here on “It’s All Relative”, From Fort Wayne to Fruition, a look at players that have spent time during their minor league careers with either the Wizards or the TinCaps and then have gone on to play Major League Baseball. The word fruition, according to Merriam-Webster, is defined as ”the state of being real or complete”, and for our purposes that’s very fitting. Players reaching the majors have their dream come to fruition, although by no means does that mean their journey is complete. Some of the players in this series have had storied MLB careers, while others have only seen a few games of time in the show. However, the odds of ever making it onto a Minor League Baseball roster, let alone an MLB one, are slim, and so it’s worth recognizing those who have been fortunate and talented enough to reach the apex of professional baseball in the United States.
I’m going to go in no particular order with any of these players, but if you do have any requests, please do let me know and I’ll be happy to accommodate you. (You can reach me at Couzens@TinCaps.com or on Twitter, @MikeCouzens.) As of today, the list of former Fort Wayne players to have reached the majors stands at 118. Some of the more notable alums include LaTroy Hawkins, AJ Pierzynski, Torii Hunter, and David Eckstein, while some names you may not be as familiar with, like Mike Baxter or George Kottaras. Each one of them has a story–where they’re from, how they got to Fort Wayne and, ultimately, how they got to play in Major League Baseball.
And today we do take a look back at Cliff Bartosh, who was a member of the Wizards during the 1999 and 2000 seasons, and most recently in his pro baseball career served as the strength and conditioning coach for the TinCaps during the 2012 season.
The following is a story that I wrote on Bartosh during that summer, with an update on his current whereabouts at the end:
It took two weeks for the phone to ring. Nearly 14 days had gone by before Cliff Bartosh found out he had been selected in the 29th round of the 1998 Major League Baseball draft by the San Diego Padres. Bartosh had aspirations of playing professional baseball, but wasn’t sure he’d be headed down that road. A phone call from late Padres scout Jim Dreyer changed Bartosh’s plans. He was scheduled to head to Texas Tech on a baseball scholarship, but instead chose to follow his dream and report to the Padres training complex in Peoria, Arizona.
“I started out as a first baseman and pitched a little bit (in high school). My junior year I might’ve thrown 12 or 13 innings for our varsity team. My senior year, maybe about 20 innings,” Bartosh said one afternoon while sitting in the home dugout at Parkview Field. “(Dreyer) said he never saw me pitch in high school, he only saw me take infield. So he only saw me throw the ball from first base, and he drafted me off of that. I didn’t know when the draft was.”
Cliff Bartosh’s life in baseball has revolved around other people dictating his path.
He made his way through the minor leagues with the Padres, and played at Memorial Stadium with the Fort Wayne Wizards in both 1999 and 2000. Although he was in the San Diego organization from 1998 until 2003, he didn’t make the big leagues with the Padres.
“After the ’03 season, (the Padres) sent me to the Arizona Fall League. I probably had the worst Arizona Fall League that anybody’s ever had in the history of that league. I just did absolutely terrible. (The Padres) end up with maybe a week left in the Arizona Fall League, and they take me off the 40-man roster and I’m picked up by Detroit. I go into the off season a Detroit Tiger. About December, I get a call from the Cleveland Indians saying, ‘We just claimed you off of waivers.’ I didn’t even know I had been placed on waivers,” Bartosh vividly recalls.
Cleveland, under then-General Manager Mark Shapiro, called Bartosh up from Triple-A Buffalo to make his major league debut on May 15, 2004, against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. In March of 2005, Bartosh was traded to the Chicago Cubs for pitcher Ronald “Bear” Bay. Once again, Bartosh’s destiny fluttered in the wind.
Bartosh pitched in the big leagues for the Cubs in 2005, but eventually underwent surgery for a torn labrum and rotator cuff, and by August of 2006 he hadn’t thrown a baseball in a year.
“I went home to Texas and my wife got a job teaching. I had no college at that point, and started going to school,” Bartosh says. “It’s weird because to that point, I had done (the baseball routine) for eight to nine seasons. It was the only quote-unquote job I had to that point. I had a wife and a son at that time, and I felt like I can’t just sit and wait for my arm to get better.”
While staying at home to be with his son, Bartosh took online classes at Dallas (Texas) County Community College. He studied government and history, and later transferred in 2008 to the University of Texas at Arlington, enrolling in the exercise science program.
“I got that degree when I was 30, and most guys (in school) were 18 to 22,” Bartosh says. “I got that degree and then decided, ‘Maybe I don’t want to be a strength coach.’ I got an alternative teaching certification. I took some tests to get a science endorsement, an ESL endorsement and a health endorsement.”
He became Mr. Bartosh, teaching at a middle school in his hometown of Duncanville, Texas.
“I taught a class called ‘Skills for Success’. I really don’t know what it was about. I had a set curriculum that I was supposed to teach and I did. My wife made fun of it because there was a chapter in the book that was on how to use a microwave. I didn’t have to teach that one; I didn’t feel it was necessary,” he remarks with a grin.
It was after that stint, and some time spent as an 8th grade science instructor, Bartosh decided to pack up his house, his belongings and his life, and head in a different direction.
“I’m sitting there teaching, and I’m feeling like I’m not really making an impact on these kids. I have a house and I’m living very comfortably. The more I read the gospels, the more I realized we’re maybe not supposed to be that comfortable. In the book of Mark, there’s the parable of the rich, young ruler. Christ says, ‘Sell everything, give to the poor and follow me.’”
“I’ve got a good house, a great job that pays the bills and all that, and we decided that we’re gonna sell our house and I started reaching out to people in baseball and I was fortunate that the big league strength coach here in San Diego, Jim Malone, was a minor league coordinator in Cleveland. I sent them my resume and they were crazy enough to hire me,” he says, mesmerized.
In his first year as the strength and conditioning coach with the TinCaps, Bartosh has a connection with the players that not many do—he’s one of their kind. He knows what it’s like to give up the game-tying home run, or to feel like your pitches just don’t work. He’s been there time and time again, but on someone else’s calendar. He’s now deciding his own fate, and making a difference on his time. No longer Mr. Bartosh, he’s just Cliff.
“It was very refreshing to get rid of everything that ties you down to an area. So now that I have no ties anywhere, really. Someone asked me where I was going to live in the off-season. I have no idea. I really don’t know where I’ll end up. I’m enjoying this. This is great. You get to develop relationships with players, with coaches, with other staff and hopefully that leads to lifelong friendships.”
At the end of the 2012 season, with about a week to go, Bartosh had another change of heart, deciding that the baseball route wasn’t where he was meant to be, and he decided to move back home to Texas. For those uninitiated with the Midwest League schedule, it entails playing 140 games in 152 days, and off days are more often used for laundry and sleep than anything else (at least from my experience). Bartosh had moved his family (wife and child) to Fort Wayne, and found that even with them in town, he was away too often for his own liking, and probably theirs, too.
From a personal standpoint, I was disappointed to see him leave the team. Cliff was one of the most well-spoken and thoughtful people I’ve met in my time in baseball, and he was a good person to chat with, especially on bus rides, where we sat across from one another. Seating on the team bus is a bit like seating in a college classroom–once you pick your seats for the first road trip, that’s your seat for the rest of the season. He had some pretty good stories from his playing days, too. In this game, friendship is a hard balance. Our human tendency is to gravitate toward those who are similar to us and become friends with them, and to become close. But baseball makes one wary of that choice, with the possibility that injury, promotion, demotion, or any variety of other reasons could mean that friend is gone the next day.
It took a few different Google searches to track down his current whereabouts, but I found him back at his alma mater in Duncanville, Texas, where he is both a teacher and baseball coach. Through email, he told me that he is teaching construction, “mostly residential carpentry with some electrical,” he wrote. He’s also an assistant coach for the high school’s baseball team.
It seems as though with Bartosh, there are no lingering “What if?” questions. What if I’d made it to the big leagues? What if I’d stayed healthy? What if….
Those questions all have answers, and now he’s happy at home, with his family, and doing what he enjoys.
Paramore…take it away!
Signing up to play professional baseball means that you expect to fail.
You expect to fail in the field.
You expect to fail at the plate at least 70% of the time.
And worst of all, you are expected to fail in your pursuit of playing Major League Baseball, as nearly 90% of players in Minor League Baseball will never reach the majors.
Statistically speaking, former Fort Wayne TinCaps infielder Tyler Stubblefield, who has officially retired from playing baseball, is among the 90%, but by no means would he consider himself a failure.
The 2013 Fort Wayne TinCaps season came to a close September 9, 2013, with a playoff loss against the South Bend Silver Hawks at Coveleski Stadium. The only things that stood between the players and their trips home were a two-hour bus ride and the cleaning out of their lockers the next day.
Stubblefield, who’s now 26 years old, was on the first shuttle out of Fort Wayne the next day. He was in his car by 7 a.m. and driving home to Georgia, where he was born and where he played his college ball at Kennesaw State University. Other than home, he wasn’t quite sure where he was headed. Until his phone rang…
The 2013 season was an up-and-down ride for the fourth-year pro. He opened the year like he had each of the previous three seasons—at Spring Training in Arizona. Except this season, the day before players broke camp to head to their respective assignments, Stubblefield was cut by the Padres. He was a player without anywhere to play. It was then, he started to learn, that baseball is not only a business, but it’s also a game that is built around relationships.
When Stubblfield played for the TinCaps in 2011, the first of his three seasons in Fort Wayne, he was managed by Shawn Wooten. Stubby, as most everyone in baseball knows him, had a great relationship with Wooten who, for the last two seasons was the manager of the Lake Elsinore Storm, the Advanced-A affiliate of the Padres. (This year Wooten will be the hitting coach for the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts (Dodgers), which will be managed by former Great Lakes Loons skipper Razor Shines.) Wooten told Stubby that he’d help find him somewhere to play, and he came through for his former player. With the help of TinCaps hitting coach Morgan Burkhart, who had previously been a manager in the Frontier League, Wooten landed Stubblefield a spot with the Southern Illinois Miners. It wasn’t affiliated baseball, but it was a gig.
While Stubblefield was getting settled at Rent One Park in Marion, Illinois, the home of the Miners, Stephen Carmon, a shortshop out of the University of South Carolina-Aiken, had locked down the starting gig for Jose Valentin’s team. Then, one day about three weeks into his stay with the Miners, Stubblfield got a text message from the man in charge of the minor leagues for San Diego’s system — Padres Director of Player Development Randy Smith.
“What league are you in,” it said.
“Frontier League. What’s up?” Stubblefield wrote back.
“Would you be interested in being a Padre again?” the reply read.
“Tomorrow would be fine,” an interested Stubblefield typed in response.
Carmon had gone down with a season-ending injury, and the TinCaps were in need of a shortstop. Stubblefield was back.
On the other end of that early-morning phone call was Stubblefield’s college hitting coach, Ryan Coe, now a scout for the Texas Rangers. Coe had given Stubblefield one opportunity—the chance to play college baseball—and was about to present him with another.
“He told me, ‘You’re 26 years old and you’re in Low-A. Why don’t you stay in the game and keep making money?”
Coe had heard that there were some open scouting positions within the Padres organization, and made a call to recommend Stubblefield for one of those spots.
Stubby, who’d always been one of the most cerebral and well-liked players on the teams he played for in Fort Wayne, wasn’t quite sure about leaving the game just yet.
“My plans for after the season depended on how I did. If I got there and had an average year and got benched, I was gonna be done,” he said. “I had the best statistical year through the Frontier League and playing in Fort Wayne. I was leaving there and thought I felt like I bought myself another year to ply. I’ll never know if I did or not.”
The next day, Stubblefield got a phone call from Chip Lawrence, who is the Southeast regional scouting supervisor for the Padres.
“He put me through a little interview process on the phone,” Stubblefield said. “At first I was a little shocked and he was like, ‘Ok thanks.” I thought (the chance to work for them) was over. I was deer hunting a week later and I was in the deer stand and I saw a phone call pop up from San Diego. It ruined my hunt but it was (Padres Director of Scouting) Billy Gasparino and (the PadreS) were going to have me out to interview in Nashville.”
Stubblefield has always “gotten it” when it comes to baseball. He knows what it takes to get a starting job and be on the field every day. He knows that doing interviews with local media and team broadcasters is part of the gig, like it or not. He knew the tricks of the trade. However, he wasn’t used to formal settings.
“I’ve never done any (job) interviews. Any interview I’ve ever done in my life has been on a baseball field. I was nervous, I was shaking, sweating,” Stubblefield said, thinking back to his suit-and-tie meeting with the Padres in Nashville.
With some of the team’s most important player development personnel in the room, Stubblefield realized he was still talking his favorite language: baseball. The interview wasn’t formal at all, he said, but more of a round-table discussion with questions targeted toward how he might fare as a scout:
-What are you going to do when you’re driving through the boondocks on a Tuesday night at 12 a.m. on the way to see another player?
-Will you be confident enough in yourself to stand up for a player you think is going to make it to the big leagues?
After the questions were done, Stubby got the answer he wanted to hear—the Padres liked his baseball knowledge and he was set to begin the next chapter of his baseball career as a scout.
When I caught up with Stubblefield, he was just leaving a hotel in North Carolina. The top two players in next year’s draft, North Carolina State’s Carlos Rodon and East Carolina University’s Jeff Hoffman, are both there and he was in the area for a visit. Sure, the Padres don’t pick until the 13th spot, but they’ve got to be prepared for everything.
“I’ve spent seven nights in a hotel in the last eight days. It’s Minor League Baseball except I’m driving and I make my own schedule. Six months of tearing the roads up, putting miles on your car and stressing over paperwork,” is how Stubblefield describes his new profession.
“I love the game of baseball. I’m gonna attack scouting like I attacked playing. I was an overachiever on the field. I never should have played at the levels I played at. I’m going to take my overachievability and outwork other guys. I just came off the field with players who are at the Low-A level so I know what a pro athlete looks like and what these players look like. I can compare a lot of these guys to what I saw.”
While he’s gotten to making up new words like “overachievability”, he’ll have to get used to an entire dictionary of new scouting terms. He says that, along with the paperwork for player evaluations, will be the biggest adjustments.
“It’s an artwork to sit down at a computer at night and paint a picture with words for your general manager and your scouting director to read and like. For me it’s a huge learning process, and if I don’t get it, it will hinder me from being the scout or employee that I want to be. I think I see the same things that more veteran guys see–they can write a little check mark and write a paragraph off of that. I have to write the whole paragraph and then go back and make it longer and better to make it understandable for my bosses.”
Stubblefield’s territory covers Northeast Georgia, all of South Carolina and all of North Carolina. He’s again signed up for a thankless existence, one that comes with even less recognition and accolades than playing in the Midwest League, and most days even that’s not saying much, unless you’re playing in Fort Wayne.
“What I’ll remember most is how awesome the fans were and the field and the atmosphere that we got to play in every night,” Stubblefield said of his time in a TinCaps uniform. “I’ve done three in-home visits with high school kids and the first thing I talk about is how much of an impact the fans and the atmosphere Fort Wayne brings to the table.”
He’ll still be eating fast food, still be watching baseball, but now he’ll be getting paid more than he was as a player. But when your paycheck is $1,100 per month, as it is in the Midwest League, it’s not hard to go anywhere but up.
“Right now,” Stubblefield says, “the decision is easy. I thought it would be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It still might be come April 1st when all of my buddies break camp, but right now for me it was being 26. I want to be able to have a family or have money and start a life and actually have something to put in the bank and sit back on. It’s time to start.”
After much waiting and anticipation, the big day finally came Tuesday afternoon when the San Diego Padres announced who would succeed Jose Valentin after his two seasons as manager of the Fort Wayne TinCaps. That successor is Michael Collins, who, at 29 years old, becomes the youngest manager in the history of the Fort Wayne franchise.
Collins may at first seem an unconventional choice–young, no major league experience–but that would belie what he brings to a dugout and a clubhouse, according to those who have worked with him and played under him.
For the last two winters, Collins has been the manger of the Canberra Cavalry of the Australian Baseball League. (When it’s winter here in the United States, it’s summer in Australia.) This past season he brought unprecedented success to the franchise, bringing them their first-ever Claxton Shield, the championship trophy of the ABL. Collins, also known as “Tubby” (still trying to get to the bottom of that nickname..stay tuned!) also played two seasons for the Cavalry. In fact, one of the members of his staff this past season was former TinCaps pitcher (2010) Hayden Beard, also a native of Australia.
From people I know within the Padres organization, I’ve heard that Collins is a great leader of men, and also someone who is very easy to work with and get along with. Another plus, I’m told, is that he is fluent in Spanish, a skill that is almost a must these days in baseball. Although the TinCaps will have athletic trainer Ricky Huerta, who speaks Spanish, it can only be a positive for a manager to communicate with his Spanish-speaking players directly.
“Tubby says he’s excited to head to the Midwest because, much like Canberra, they have fans who are incredibly devoted to the team.
“Managing the TinCaps will be a great opportunity,” Tubby said. “They will have a talented young team on the field to go with great community support and involvement much like the Cavalry but on a much larger scale.”
The Cavalry have the second-best attendance in the league and draw an average of 1,314 fans per game. The TinCaps, on the other hand, averaged 5,766 fans per game during the 2013 season, which saw the most fans ever pass through the gates in the history of Fort Wayne baseball.
More from the Cavalry:
Tubby says he’s really excited to be a part of the organization and their mission to win the title, but it will all come down to how they can do as a team.
“Success will come down to the players’ development,” Tubby explained. “As coaches we will give them everything to prepare and they will need to apply it to their individual games.”
Tubby joins hitting coach Morgan Burkhart and pitching coach Burt Hooton. After coaching at a rookie level last year, this will be the highest level Tubby has ever taken on and he’s ready for the challenge.
“We are very proud of Michael,” Cavalry General Manager Thom Carter said. “He has a great baseball IQ and has amazing leadership abilities. Watching him manage our team over the last two seasons, you can see how players want to be their best for him. The players, management, and fans in Fort Wayne are lucky to have him.”
Collins is no stranger to the Midwest League, having played in this circuit during both the 2004 and 2005 seasons with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, which were then an affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. In 2005, Collins hit .320 with the Kernels, good for the third-best average in the league. He spent eight seasons with the Angels organization, and played two with the Padres, playing at every level with the exception of Fort Wayne. His playing experience also includes two seasons in the Australian Baseball League. During the 2010-2011 season, he hit .360 and was the batting champion of the ABL.
Collins is certainly a change from Jose Valentin, who spent 16 years in the majors, and brought plenty of perspective and experience with him. Collins, on the other hand, never played in the major leagues and will be anywhere from 7-10 years older than some of the players he’s managing. For the last two seasons, Collins has also managed in the Padres system, working with the Dominican Summer League Padres in 2012 and the Arizona League Padres in 2013. Early prognostications seem to indicate that a good chunk of that Arizona League roster may make up Fort Wayne’s squad in 2014. Collins’ lack of MLB experience shouldn’t be viewed as a negative, though. He’ll bring a fresh perspective as someone who has recently “been there, done that” and can relate to the players. Not to mention the rest of his staff–Burt Hooton and Morgan Burkhart–bring a collective 18 years of MLB time, along with Hooton’s World Series ring. Interstingly, Hooton (63 years old) is more than twice as old as Collins. The beauty of baseball is that, as Hooton told me many times last year, it’s a simple game, and the teaching lessons can be delivered by those young and old.
Here’s a look at every manager in Fort Wayne history, and respective ages for those skippers while they were here:
Mike Boulanger – 1997 – Age 47
Craig Colbert- 2000 – Age 34
Michael Collins – 2014 – Age 29
Doug Dascenzo – 2007, 2008, 2009 – Ages 42, 43, 44
Jim Dwyer – 1993, 1994 – Ages 42, 43
Jose Flores – 2010 – Age 36
Gary Jones- 2003 – Age 41
Tom Lawless- 2001 – Age 42
Jose Marzan – 1998 – Age 32
Randy Ready – 2004, 2005, 2006 – Ages 44, 45, 46
Dan Rohn – 1995, 1996 – Ages 39, 40
Dan Simonds – 1999 – Age 33
Jose Valentin – 2012, 2013 – Ages 42, 43
Don Werner – 2001 – Age 47
Tracy Woodson – 2002 – Age 39
Shawn Wooten – 2011 – Age 38
As you can see there, the previous youngest manager was Jose Marzan, who was here for all of one season in 1998, the team’s last year of affiliation with the Minnesota Twins.
Collins chatted via email with The Journal Gazette telling the newspaper he believes his relative youth will be a positive:
“In regards to relating with players, I guess I’m not far removed from playing with a quick transition into coaching, so I’m closer in age than other coaches and spending 10 years all in the minors, I understand what these players are going through,” he wrote.
His predecessor, Jose Valentin, was a fiery guy. What will Collins be like?
“My managing style,” he wrote, “(is) I like to let the players play. Try to line them up in the best position to succeed and let them be aggressive. Early days right now, but there are a lot of great young players in the organization, should be a good mix of young talent.”
I think TinCaps fans should be excited for Collins to come to Parkview Field. He brings high praise, a great managerial track record, experience in the Midwest League, and more than a decade of playing experience to the clubhouse, and also worked with many future TinCaps last year in Arizona. In what was a busy off-season for Padres Director of Player Development Randy Smith, Collins looks to be a great hire. Smith had to make many hires with the departure or re-assignment of many members of his minor league staff.
Former roving pitching coordinator Mike Cather, who is very popular among players, is the new pitching coach for Triple-A El Paso. Gary Jones, a former Wizards manager, who was San Diego’s minor league infield coordinator, left to become the third-base coach of the Chicago Cubs. Jones is extremely well liked around baseball, especially here in Fort Wayne. Other new hires that had to be made included the following minor league positions:
San Antonio (Double-A) Hitting Coach
Lake Elsinore (Advanced-A) Manager, Hitting Coach
Eugene (Short-Season A) Manager, Hitting Coach
Arizona League (Rookie) Manager
(For more on all of those personnel changes, take a look at the news story on Padres.com.)
Why is having the right manager important? From the outside, it might just seem like he fills out a lineup card, makes pitching change during the game, and gets after it with the umpires when he feels they’ve made a poor call. But I can tell you that it’s a lot more than that. A manager at this level has a great impact on players who are in their first or second years of professional baseball–how they carry themselves, their punctuality, their attitudes (which vary greatly with the successes and failures of a 140-game season), how they take care of their bodies, how they dress when they travel for road games–all of which are crucial, but many times unseen, aspects of having what it takes to continue rising through the ranks of professional baseball. These players come from high school or college programs where they were the best player on the team, and the rules didn’t always apply. Now, it’s once again a level playing field, and those most open to the instruction they receive at this level are most often the most likely to succeed.
As I write this on Friday, January 17th, we are just 76 days away from Opening Day 2014, when the TinCaps play host to the Great Lakes Loons. If you haven’t heard, individual tickets go on sale January 30th. If you make your purchase that day between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. in the Suite Level Lounge at Parkview Field, we’ll even throw in lunch for free. Sounds like a good deal to me!
Nappy Roots…take it away!
Welcome to the third installment of our new series here on “It’s All Relative”, From Fort Wayne to Fruition, a look at players that have spent time during their minor league careers with either the Wizards or the TinCaps and then have gone on to play Major League Baseball. The word fruition, according to Merriam-Webster, is defined as ”the state of being real or complete”, and for our purposes that’s very fitting. Players reaching the majors have their dream come to fruition, although by no means does that mean their journey is complete. Some of the players in this series have had storied MLB careers, while others have only seen a few games of time in the show. However, the odds of ever making it onto a Minor League Baseball roster, let alone an MLB one, are slim, and so it’s worth recognizing those who have been fortunate and talented enough to reach the apex of professional baseball in the United States.
I’m going to go in no particular order with any of these players, but if you do have any requests, please do let me know and I’ll be happy to accommodate you. (You can reach me at Couzens@TinCaps.com or on Twitter, @MikeCouzens.) As of today, the list of former Fort Wayne players to have reached the majors stands at 118. Some of the more notable alums include LaTroy Hawkins, AJ Pierzynski, Torii Hunter, and David Eckstein, while some names you may not be as familiar with, like Mike Baxter, George Kottaras or Cliff Bartosh. Each one of them has a story–where they’re from, how they got to Fort Wayne and, ultimately, how they got to play in Major League Baseball.
Contestant number three in our series is Michael Cuddyer, who is currently a member of the Colorado Rockies, just the second team he’s played for in his 13-year major league career.
Cuddyer was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and went to high school in Chesapeake, Virginia. Although throughout Minor League Baseball we’ve become accustomed to seeing the best players come from locations that have climates conducive to year-round baseball (Florida, California, Georgia, etc.), Virginia isn’t necessarily what you’d think of as one of those baseball hotbeds. However, in the years since Cuddyyer was drafted by Minnesota in 1997 (1st round, 9th overall), many more high-level players have emerged from the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, such as brothers BJ and Justin Upton, Mark Reynolds, David Wright and Ryan Zimmerman.
The draft is held annually in June, but Cuddyer didn’t sign his contract with the Twins until August of ’97, meaning that he missed any chance of playing for an MiLB affiliate that season. However, under the most recent revision of the collective bargaining agreement, draft picks must be signed by mid-July, which means they’ll get on the field, even with a rookie-level affiliate, much sooner.
Cuddyer played with the Wizards in 1998, appearing in 129 games. He hit .276 with 12 home runs (he would’ve been the team leader each of the last few years), and 81 runs batted in. He had a .364 on-base percentage, and also stole 16 bases in 1998. He saw time around the infield during his time in the minors. Unfortunately for Cuddyer, he holds a mark in the Fort Wayne record books that may never be broken—most errors in one season. He committed 61 errors during the 1998 season. The highest single-season error total by one player in the TinCaps’ five-year tenure is 43 by shortstop Jonathan Galvez in 2010.However, Cuddyer’s 81 runs batted in are also the fourth-most by any player in a single season, and his 37 doubles are fifth-most.
In 1999, at age 20, he moved on to Advanced-A Fort Myers, where he saw all of his major numbers improve. He hit .298 with 16 home runs and knocked in 82. In 2000, he moved up to Double-A New Britain, playing 138 of a possible 142 games. He repeated the level in 2001, missing just one game and hitting an impressive 30 home runs, while driving home 87 runs and hitting 36 doubles. His stellar play at Double-A, much more a breeding ground for top-level prospects than Triple-A is, earned him a trip to the big leagues in 2001 as a late-season call-up for the Twins, and he made his MLB debut on September 23, 2001 against the Cleveland Indians.
Cuddyer started the 2002 season with the Edmonton (Alberta, Canada) Trappers of the Pacific Coast League. This is the field they played on:
(Side Note: There is currently only one Minor League Baseball team in Canada , the Vancouver Canadians, Short-Season affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. The last affiliated team to leave Canada was the Ottawa Lynx, which became the Lehigh Valley IronPigs (Phillies) in 2008.)
He made his way back into the majors late in the 2002 season after playing 86 games in the Pacific Coast League. 2003 saw him split time between Triple-A Rochester (N.Y.) and the bigs, with 2004 being his first full season with Minnesota.
The 6’2″, 220-pounder has played the majority of his MLB games at third base (355 games), but has seen time at a variety of spots including outfield (130 games), shortstop (122 games), first base (68 games), second base (nine games) and right field (four games). During the 2011 season, he became the first Twins position player to pitch in 21 years, and fans even made a Facebook page petitioning the team to play him at all nine positions in one game. He has hit double-digit home runs in nine of his 13 seasons in the majors, and in December 2011, the last remnant of Fort Wayne’s association with Minnesota to still be with the Twins, he signed a three-year, $31.5 million contract with the Rockies. In exchange for losing Cuddyer, the Twins got two supplemental first-round draft picks. One of those picks, Jose Berrios, ended up playing against the TinCaps this past season as a member of the Cedar Rapids Kernels, Minnesota’s affiliate in the Midwest League.
In 2013, Cuddyer had a career season and won the National League Silver Slugger Award:
“Cuddyer, 34, won his first career batting title by leading the National League with a .331 mark in what was his second season in Colorado. He finished with a .311 road average to tie for the sixth best mark in the National League.
Cuddyer was named to his second career All-Star team in 2013 and finished the season with a batting line of: .331 average, 162 hits, 31 doubles, 3 triples, 20 home runs, 84 RBI, 74 runs, .389 on-base percentage, .530 slugging percentage.
The Norfolk, Va. native set career highs in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS (.919) this season.”
He has one year, the 2014 season, remaining on his contract with Colorado.
When Cuddyer made his debut in 2001, he became the 27th Fort Wayne alum to reach Major League Baseball.
Lupe Fiasco and Ed Sheeran…take it away!