Feature: Fort Wayne’s First Rounders

The following story by John Nolan aired on The FAN 1380 during our Hupe Insurance Services Pregame Show on Saturday, April 20. 

Everyone in the Midwest League has had to battle with the cold so far this April. But possibly no one’s had it worse than Dane Phillips.

“You know, in this cold weather, there’s nothing you can do for your hand,” Phillips says. “You just wear it. You know it’s gonna hurt a little bit. It’s gonna sting a little bit. And you just have to get used to it.”

That’s because Phillips plays catcher for the TinCaps.

“I don’t think I’ve caught a fastball below 91-92 miles an hour,” Phillips says.

Such is the struggle when you’re the backstop for one of the most talented pitching staffs in all of minor league baseball.

“I don’t think I can ever recall seeing four first round guys on one team anywhere,” says Lake County Captains manager Scooter Tucker.

Tucker probably wishes he’d still never seen it after losing to three of them in one series last weekend. But indeed, the TinCaps 2013 pitching staff features four 19-year old starters who were selected in the first or supplemental first round of the 2011 and 2012 Major League Baseball Drafts. No other team in minor league baseball can say the same. (And only the Cardinals, Dodgers, and Giants can boast that in the big leagues.)

Photo by Samuel Hoffman, The Journal Gazette.

From left to right: Joe Ross, Max Fried, Zach Eflin, and Walker Weickel. Photo by Samuel Hoffman, The Journal Gazette.

“I think that’s awesome,” says Zach Eflin, the 33rd overall pick of the Padres in 2012. “Walker Weickel mentioned to me one time when we were back home, we might be the next Glavine, Smoltz, and Maddux.”

It may sound like a bold goal for Eflin, but when you consider the potential he and his fellow draft classmates Max Fried and Walker Weickel have, plus 2011 pick Joe Ross, it’s worth shooting for. Although at this stage, that doesn’t mean Fort Wayne pitching coach Burt Hooton is necessarily impressed.

“Well, I’ve been a big league pitching coach before,” Hooton says. “Those guys were pretty good.”

Yet even the former NLCS MVP and ex-Astros pitching coach has to admit it’s a unique opportunity to handle a staff like this.

“I’m impressed with the poise they have at the age they have and the experience level they have,” says Hooton, who once threw a no-hitter for the Cubs in 1972. “There are a lot of good things there to build upon — just the raw stuff.”

So the way Hooton sees it, it’s his job to enrich that stuff.

“You can pull crude oil out of the ground, but it’s not very useful until you refine it,” Hooton says. “And same thing with a lot of these guys with a lot of talent. Talent doesn’t get people out. It certainly helps, but it needs to be refined and gotten under control so you can use it efficiently, and effectively, and consistently to get hitters out.”

Ross and Weickel say that learning process is expedited by having each other to learn from.

“It’s good because we all are learning at the same pace pretty much, making mistakes and learning from them, and watching each other,” says Ross, who was selected 25th overall in 2011. “I mean besides Fried, we’re all fairly tall righties that throw decently hard with breaking pitches, and change-ups, and things like that.”

“Through our first couple professional starts in the Arizona League, and even into our first spring training, just watching each other bounce back, whether it be from success or adversity — no matter what the occurrence may be — I think that’s a building block for all of us, not just an individual,” Weickel, drafted 55th overall in 2012, says.

It’s a building block for a bunch that’s bonding together. Without any overwhelming ego unhappy with a lack of individual limelight, Fried says there isn’t a feeling of competition as much as there is one of motivation.

“It’s been unbelievable,” Fried says. “Joe, Walker, Zach — they’re all amazing pitchers and to be able to be on the same team as them, and being able to just hang out with them off the field, ’cause they’re all great people, and they’re all great competitors. So for me to see them working hard every day, it just motivates me to get better with them.”

And as far as that off-field dynamic goes, despite Fried and Ross hailing from California, with Eflin and Weickel coming from Florida, their catcher Phillips sees similar traits uniting them together.

“I’d say Ross is more lax. Fried’s a Cali boy. Walker’s kind of a redneck from Florida. Eflin, he’s relaxed too. They’re all great guys,” the Texan says. “And they’re all good, hard workers. I look forward to spending the whole summer with them.”

So while the dream of pitching together in Padres uniforms looms large, Ross and the rest of the TinCaps’ first-round pitchers have another focus for as long as they’re here in Fort Wayne.

Says Ross: “Our main goal, obviously, is to make it to San Diego, but we have business to take care of this season, so hopefully we can win a championship this year.”

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