Instructs Abroad, Top TinCaps, On the Road

Greetings and Salutations, TinCaps fans of America!

Checking in from the corner of Ewing and Brackenridge, here’s an update at what’s going on in the world of TinCaps baseball. Since the season ended on September 9th, most players have returned home but some have shipped out to Instructional League, less formally known as “instructs”. It’s a chance for players to get more formal instruction than they do during the regular season, where on-field drills can only take place a few hours a day.

While instructs is usually held at the Padres facility in Peoria, Arizona, this year it’s being held in the Dominican Republic due to ongoing renovations at the Arizona facility. Corey Brock, the Padres beat reporter for MLB.com, wrote a feature on the camp’s temporary move and the role reversal it’ll present for English-speaking players traveling out of the country.

“It was born out of necessity, but one of the benefits of it is it will be a fantastic experience, baseball and otherwise, for everyone involved,” said Randy Smith, the Padres’ vice president of player development and international scouting.

“We will have everyone at the complex all day, we’ll be able to work with them and then we’ll also get them out to do some work in the community. We want to make this something they’ll remember. And they’ll get to see where many of their teammates come from.”

Most of the players are still in the lower levels of the Padres’ system, including two of the Padres former first-round Draft picks, left-handed pitcher Max Fried (2012) and outfielder Hunter Renfroe (2013).

Fried is considered the Padres’ top prospect, according to MLB.com. Renfroe comes in at No. 8.

Under Smith and his staff, the Padres have been out front on bridging the gap between Latin American players and their American counterparts. The team offered English language classes for players, which isn’t unusual, but has actually offered Spanish classes for staff and coaches to help communicate with players.

Now the Padres are taking many of their top prospects, roving instructors and coaches to their facility in Najayo, San Cristobal, to their 15-acre complex, which opened in 2008 at a cost of $8 million.

For many of the American-born players, this will be the first trip out of the country. That holds true for 18-year-old infielder Josh Van Meter, who was drafted in the fifth round this past June. Van Meter has only been to his native Indiana, Arizona and Florida before now.

“It’s going to be a humbling experience. A great experience, not just for baseball but culturally as well,” said Van Meter, who is from Ossian, Ind. “We ask the Dominican guys to come to America, now we get to see what their life is like.

“I think that that we grow up in a pretty good environment compared to a lot of those guys. It will show us what they have to go through to get here.”

According to Smith’s Twitter account, Van Meter, who could be in a TinCaps uniform next season, was hitting leadoff in the first instructional league game.

The Dominican Academy the Padres have serves as a crucial tool in trying to develop future Major League talent, and it’s an asset that not every Major League Baseball team has. It’s even more important for a team like San Diego to have this type of resource, since they can’t be big players in the free agent market every offseason.

What seems like a great experience, as Smith and VanMeter said, is for the English-speaking players to get to travel to the Dominican Republic and understand where many of their teammates come from. We rarely pause to consider how difficult it is for Spanish-speaking players to come to the United States and try to immerse themselves in our culture, all while trying to become better baseball players.

2013 TinCaps second-baseman Maxx Tissenbaum is at instructs this year and is in the process of being transitioned into a catcher. Last fall Tissenbaum was being auditioned at the corner infield spots, but he dropped weight during the winter with a strict dietary regimen and workout plan, and saw time at both shortstop and second this season.

He keeps a regular blog at Maxx54Padres.wordpress.com, and he’s started to chronicle his experiences down in the Dominican Republic.

First, I should show you this picture because the facility looks like it’s in a pretty scenic area. Please note the water on the horizon of the picture. (all photos credited to Maxx Tissenbaum):

pic 3

Here are a few excerpts from his most recent post:

“It was weird seeing the guys I’ve worked with for the longest time head out one way while I lumbered up a hill in gear to the bullpen.  I took the third mound in and settled in behind the plate as the pitchers walked over and slowly picked a mound to throw off of.  Somehow with all the guys I knew, both English and Spanish speaking, I ended up catching a kid I’ve never met before and a guy who speaks extremely limited English.  Afterward I asked Bryan Rodriguez what the kids name was and found out it was Jaimito Lebron.  He threw hard and relatively straight which was nice considering it was the first time I’d ever been in an environment where a line of pitchers fired balls to the catchers a la a firing squad.”

pic 1

“I caught Bryan Rodriguez, one of the guys from Fort Wayne, and the only pitcher who specifically wanted to throw to me, albeit for a strange reason.  Ever since he found out I was going to catch, B-Rod has wanted to throw to me to see if he could “break you thumb,” as he says.  B-Rod throws hard and has natural arm side run, which is a pitch catchers can get in trouble with if they don’t rotate their wrist properly, its the pitch we get our thumbs jammed on.  I managed to remember to roll my wrist and he was unsuccessful in his quest to break my thumb, but when he finished he came over and shook my hand (all bullpens finish this way) and gave me a pat on the shoulder and told me “good job man. You good as catcher.”  I was pretty happy to hear that from a guy who had a very solid year in FW, and seems to be on the rise in our system.

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After practice today all of the “American” (yes I throw myself in there, it’s more just the English speaking group) guys headed to the beach.  Vladimir De La Cruz and Wilmer Santos acted as our local guides and came with us.  De La walked us through the small village right near our complex, and I was amazed by the way we just sort of walked through the local peoples lives, we got to be in their world for the half an hour as we passed through.  We saw children playing in the dirt, men playing cards and drinking outside of the little bodegas, and people just hanging around listening to music with nowhere to go and nothing to do.” 

Although this re-location was born out of geographic necessity, I think it’s a great move by the Padres to bring players to the Dominican Republic to help foster a sense of empathy between teammates. English-speaking players will begin to learn more Spanish and will understand where their teammates grew up, while Spanish-speaking players will enjoy sharing their culture and the fact that their teammates now have to learn their language. I’m looking forward to more dispatches from Maxx over the next month.

Elsewhere in prospect-land…

Baseball America has released its list of the 2013 Top 20 Midwest League Prospects (you will need a subscription to read it) and the TinCaps were represented well with Max Fried (8), Zach Eflin (11) and Joe Ross (14). Even though you need to be a subscriber to read the whole piece, here’s what BA said on all of the Padres guys:

Fried

Fort Wayne boasted the most talented rotation in the league with four starters who are solid prospects. A 6-foot-4 lefthander, Fried has the highest upside of the four and he also may be the closest to the majors as well.

A high school teammate of Nationals righthander Lucas Giolito, Fried has a plus fastball that sits 91-93 mph and touches 95. His curveball was one of the best in the league and his changeup shows flashes of being an average pitch. He had the second-best strikeout rate among MWL starters at 7.6 per nine innings.

“I don’t think he’ll take long. He’ll shoot through the minors,” a second AL scout said. “He doesn’t have all that much to work on.”

Eflin

Fried stood head and shoulders above the other pitchers in the Fort Wayne rotation, but Eflin might have been No. 2. Scouts were undecided. He combines a plus fastball with an above-average changeup and better feel than Joe Ross—though Ross has better pure stuff.

Eflin doesn’t show plus velocity as consistently as Ross, but at 88-94 mph, he has more than enough velo and he touched 97 in the past. His ability to sink, cut and run his fastball makes it an even more effective pitch. His changeup was one of the best in the league, with excellent arm speed that sells the deception. His breaking ball is an effective chase pitch, but he’ll have to prove he can throw it for strikes more often and keep it from getting too loopy.

Ross

Where Eflin likes to manipulate his fastball’s movement to get out of jam, Ross is more likely to simply hump up and throw a little harder. That run-through-a-wall approach leads some scouts to see Ross as a power reliever, but others see a future mid-rotation starter.

Ross’ 92-97 mph fastball is a plus pitch. He does a good job of getting downward plane on his fastball and working down in the zone, though it’s more of a pitch that generates groundballs than swings and misses presently.

Ross, whose older brother Tyson pitches in the majors for the Padres, matches that with a slider that shows good bite at its best and could end up as a plus pitch, but he also sometimes flattens the pitch out to where it has more of a cutting action. His changeup is less developed and adds to questions about whether he can stick as a starter. He also has to prove he can maintain his stuff deep into starts.

While I don’t agree that Fried stood out “head and shoulders” above the rest of the rotation, I think the rest of the assessments are pretty accurate. That’s not to take anything away from Fried, either; I just don’t think any pitcher was the clear ace for the duration of the season. Statistically speaking, Eflin had the best second half of any pitcher on the team with a 2.13 ERA and 42 strikeouts with 13 walks in 63.1 innings compared to Fried’s 3.38 ERA, 50K and 27BB in 64 innings.

Elsewhere, MadFriars, a Padres blog, named its player and prospect of the year for the TinCaps and surprisingly, there wasn’t a pitcher named to either spot. The player of the year? Alberth Martinez. And the top prospect (by majority decision)? Rodney Daal.

“MadFriars’ 2013 Fort Wayne TinCaps Player of the Year: Alberth Martinez

Top Prospect: Rodney Daal - David Jay and Ben Davey

Martinez is more likely to reach the majors – his versatility and defensive skills in the outfield make his path clearer – but Daal has a special bat that could help him be a better big-leaguer, if he gets there. The 19-year-old will need to put in the work to be able to stay behind the plate, but he has the tools to do it. As he gets more advanced coaching on footwork, his strong arm will play better in games. Watch for him to put up some impressive numbers in the Cal League as the Storm’s everyday catcher in 2014.”

On a traveling note, I made my first-ever visits to both Ohio State and Penn State to call volleyball for Big Ten Network. Here are a few shots:

Rec Hall at Penn State

Rec Hall at Penn State

St. John Arena at Ohio State

St. John Arena at Ohio State

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That’s all for now. More news as it comes in, of course.

I’m headed to Bryan, Ohio, Wednesday afternoon to speak to their Kiwanis Club, and I’m expecting to see 2012 TinCaps pitcher Matt Wisler, who just won a Texas League Championship with the San Antonio Missions.

Thanks for reading. If you’d like to get in touch, you can reach me at Couzens@TinCaps.com or on Twitter @MikeCouzens.

MCsig

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