The Interview Vault: Beltre and Kirkman
It’s a two-for-one Cyber Tuesday special for today’s installment of “The Interview Vault”, and for good reason. First, it makes up for next week when I will be unable to post a new (or in this case, old) interview as I will be at the Baseball Winter Meetings in Orlando. Second, it’s to honor newly-minted Texas Rangers’ Minor League players of the year Engel Beltre and Michael Kirkman. Third, both of their interviews are rather short, so pairing them gives you more to listen to.
Beltre was named the Tom Grieve Minor League Player of the Year yesterday, while Kirkman took home the Minor League Pitcher of the Year accolades, named after Rangers’ president and Hall-of-Famer Nolan Ryan. They both played together in Clinton in 2008 and each had pivotal, if not contrasting, seasons with the LumberKings.
Beltre, an 18-year-old centerfielder from Santo Domingo was heading into his first full season as a Rangers farmhand after being acquired from Boston in a four-player deadline deal that shipped Eric Gagne to the Red Sox. He had played briefly in the AZL and Spokane while still only 17, but his expectations heading into 2008 were lofty as Baseball America named him the #10 prospect in the Texas system. His season needed to be one about making good on those expectations.
Meanwhile, the 22-year-old left-handed Kirkman was just hoping to prove worthy of his 2005 fifth-round selection what was already his fourth season in the system. After a solid first stint in the AZL (3-1, 3.44 in 14 games), he battled through 2006 and 2007 seasons that saw setbacks in the form of injuries (hamstring in ’06) and inconsistency (88 walks compared to just 66 strikeouts and an ERA around 8.00 in 30 outings). His season needed to be one about getting back to basics and gaining confidence.
Both would do that with Mike Micucci’s LumberKings. Beltre was the electrifying catalyst to the league’s top offense, hitting .283 with 26 doubles, nine triples, eight home runs, 47 RBI, 31 steals in 42 attempts and a league-best 87 runs scored. Despite finishing third in the Midwest League in total bases (228), he was neither a mid-season nor post-season All-Star. Kirkman would have his bounce-back year, going 4-3 with a 4.36 ERA in 15 games, 14 starts. A 2-0, 1.38 month of July including a .195 opponent average showed the Rangers (including pitching coach and later Minor League Pitching Coordinator Danny Clark) a glimpse of the dominance they had hoped for.
Just two seasons later they’ve both become rising stars in the Texas system. Kirkman was the PCL’s top pitcher while with triple-A Oklahoma City and earned a late-season call-up to the Rangers that included three post-season appearances. After starting his pro career with nine-straight scoreless innings (third-longest by a rookie reliever in Texas history), he went on to post a 1.65 ERA and a .161 opponent average in 14 games.
Beltre was added to the 40-man roster to avoid a possible Rule 5 selection. He’s never had quite the same production as ’08, but he is hitting for average (.300, 133-for-444 between high-A Bakersfield and double-A Frisco) and still can put the ball out of the yard (6 HR) or swipe a base (18 steals) when he needs to. Plus, he’s done it all and an accelerated pace. The 21-year-old was the youngest position player in the Texas League last season and third-youngest overall. The 2011 season will already be his fifth, and he won’t turn 22 until next November.
Getting now to the interviews. I spoke with both Beltre (who at the time was called EN-yel, but now prefers to be called Angel) on a date I can’t pinpoint during that ’08 season and Kirkman on July 6, 2008 after what had been his best start to date, a seven-inning blanking of Burlington. Beltre talks about going from Santo Domingo to New York and back before getting signed by Boston as a teenager, advice he gained from David Ortiz, his thoughts at the time of the trade to Texas and other topics. Kirkman speaks about his outing against the Bees, some of the setbacks he faced in ’06 and ’07, his mental changes leading to success and more.
The next edition of “The Interview Vault” will be on Tuesday, December 14. Stay tuned for that! Also, keep an eye out for another “Top 10 of ’10″, coming later in the week.