January 2011

2011 Hot Stove Wrap-up

2011 Hot Stove Group.jpgFront row (left-to-right): Head Groundskeeper Dusty Krogman, Accountant Ryan Marcum, myself, Director of Operations Mitch Butz.  Middle row: PA Announcer Brad Seward, Athletic Trainer Jake Naas, Manager Eddie Menchaca, General Manager Ted Tornow.  Back row: Clubhouse Manager Tyler Hildreth, Assistant GM Nate Kreinbrink.

A synopsis of the 2011 Hot Stove Banquet, held at Eagle Point Lodge this past Saturday, is online now at LumberKings.com.  Through ticket sales, a silent auction and a raffle, we were able to raise over $1,700 to benefit the Friends of Riverview Stadium non-profit group.

If you missed the event, I encourage you to check out the photo gallery here:  http://www.minorleaguebaseball.com//gen/clubs/t500/photogallery/standard/year_2011/month_01/day_31/cf16536636.html

Thanks to all the fans and supporters that came out, it was definitely the most fun of the three banquets I’ve hosted.  While we’re due to get another blizzard here in Clinton, I can feel the season just around the corner.

Menchaca’s LumberKings will take the diamond in just 66 days.  Believe me, there’s plenty to do here in the office before then!


The Interview Vault: Ian Gac

gac interview vault.jpgIn the last 20 seasons, no Clinton Baseball record has been more mythologized — or challenged, for that matter — than Dick Kenworthy’s single-season home run record of 22 in 1961.  After slugging corner infielders like Samone Peters, Jonathan Greene and Mauro Gomez and future Major Leaguers like John Mayberry Jr. and Mitch Moreland take runs at the record only to fall short, we finally saw Kenworthy’s mark eclipsed last season by a lanky 19-year-old shortstop with a sweet swing, Nick Franklin.

Franklin’s season was definitely one for the ages, as he belted a Midwest League-best 23 home runs to finally overtake Kenworthy in his final regular-season game as a LumberKing.  Still, it’s not the most impressive power we’ve seen in recent seasons.  Many fans will tell you that the record should not only have been broken — but obliterated — by first-baseman Ian Gac in 2008.

Originally drafted in the 26th round of the 2003 draft out of Edmonds-Woodway High School in Edmonds, Washington, the powerful Gac first came to Clinton in 2005 as a 19-year-old and held his own, hitting a solid .240 with 24 doubles, 12 home runs, 57 RBI and a .717 OPS in 91 games.  Unfortunately, his career would not take off from there.  A promotion to high-A Bakersfield in 2006 yielded a .188 average in 55 games, and he’d hit .197 in the second half of the season back in Clinton after switching places with first-baseman Freddie Thon.

The 2007 season saw Gac start in extended Spring before again joining the LumberKings in late May.  He’d play in just three games, going 1-for-11 with six strikeouts and would finish up the year re-tooling his whole approach under the guidance of Tim Hulett in short-A Spokane.  His .237 average in the Northwest League didn’t turn heads, but a league-high 17 home runs and 45 RBI in 70 games certainly kept Gac on the Rangers’ map.  His renewed value to Texas showed further when they sent him to the Hawaii Winter League, where he’d hit .303 with seven homers and 19 RBI for the Oahu CaneFires.

Despite the ’07 turnaround, Gac still entered 2008 believing it was his last chance to prove himself with the Rangers.  He’d return for a fourth stint with the LumberKings hoping just to cut down on strikeouts and hit his way back to Bakersfield, but he’d do so much more than anyone could predict.

Gac made his opening statement on Opening Night, mashing a three-run homer all the way to the player parking lot for the main highlight in a 10-6 loss to Cedar Rapids.  Just two nights later, he’d record his first multi-homer game, lifting solo blasts to pace a 4-3 win.  Gac closed the four-game series with yet another homer, this time a two-run clout in a 7-6 extra-inning win.

Through just four games, Gac had homered four times to drive in seven runs.  That turned out to be just the beginning of his torrid first month.  The week ending April 20, Gac earned his first Midwest Leage Player of the Week award, hitting .426 with four homers and eight RBI.  By month’s end, he was the league leader in home runs (9), RBI (24), on-base percentage (.485), slugging percentage (.802), extra-base hits (16) and runs scored (23), while also posting the league’s second-best batting average (.395).  All of those statistics made him an easy choice for the Texas Rangers’ Offensive Player of the Month.

Entering an afternoon tilt on May 4 at Kane County, Gac was surprisingly on a seven-game homer drought.  That temporary skid would end with his most impressive offensive display as a LumberKing.  Victimizing Cougars’ right-handers Jamie Richmond and Leonardo Espinal for three-run homers in the third and ninth innings, Gac combined to go 2-for-5 with six RBI in Clinton’s 11-4 beatdown of the Cougars.  We wouldn’t see another LumberKing enjoy a multi-homer, six-RBI game again until Blake Ochoa did it in a seven-RBI performance at Lansing last July.

Today’s edition of “The Interview Vault” revisits my interview with Gac following that game.  We talked about ending the mini slump, what the Rangers’ Player of the Month award meant to him, getting pitched around after the hot start, the lineup around him including Moreland and Tim Smith, his goals for the season and more. 

Ian Gac (following 2 HR, 6 RBI game on 5.4.08).mp3 

Gac’s May and June months wouldn’t be quite as blistering, but he’d continue to hit for power and drive in runs.  He’d go into the All-Star Break with 17 homers and 52 RBI in just 229 at-bats, only five clouts away from tying Kenworthy’s record with a half-season under his belt.  While some minor excitement brewed in Clinton over Gac’s proximity to the record, most hardcore fans realized that his days as a LumberKing were numbered.

After a spectacular performance in the Home Run Derby at Great Lakes in which he hit 16 majestic homers before falling to Fort Wayne’s Felix Carrasco in the finals, Gac returned for one more week with the LumberKings before finally getting the much-deserved call back up to Bakersfield.  He’d finish his final Clinton stint with a .310 average, 19 homers and 60 RBI in just 255 at-bats, taking home the MWL Post-Season All-Star award at DH despite playing in only 67 games.  The 19 blasts are still tied alongside Dale Rohde (1961) and Bobby Smith (1959) for eighth-most in Clinton franchise history, while his 38 career home runs with the LumberKings are most likely amongst the top five in team history.

So what happened to “Gac Blast Fever” following mid-season ’08?  He’d finally have some success in the Cal League in the second half, hitting 13 more homers and driving in 49 RBI while batting .257 for the Blaze.  All told for 2008, Gac hit .284 (142-for-500) with 32 home runs and 109 RBI, leading the entire Rangers’ organization in RBI and finishing second to Nelson Cruz (37) in homers.

Gac hit 22 more roundtrippers for the Blaze in 2009, but reverted to a .238 batting average and drove in just 55 runs in 104 games.  After seven seasons of varying success, none above high-A, the Rangers let him go.  He resurfaced in the Chicago White Sox organization last year, hitting .276 with 20 home runs and an impressive 91 RBI with the Kannapolis Intimidators, a low-A entry in the South Atlantic League.

Now 25 years old and a nine-year veteran of professional baseball, the mighty Gac still hopes to advance to the elusive double-A level.  While he continues to fight for that achievement in his second organization, Clinton fans will not soon forget his four stints as a LumberKing including his legendary 2008 season. 


Baron and Beavan invited to Spring Training

In a press release issued by the Mariners today, former LumberKings catcher Steven Baron (’10) and right-hander Blake Beavan (’08) have been invited to Spring Training, set to begin February 19 in Peoria, AZ.

The 20-year-old Baron, a supplemental first-round pick in 2009, hit .182 with three doubles, a home run and 14 RBI in 45 games with the LumberKings last season.  He also spent 53 games with short-A Everett, batting .253 with 12 doubles, three homers and 22 RBI for the eventual Northwest League champs.  Baron was named to the NWL All-Star Team following the year.

Beavan, originally a first-round pick by the Texas Rangers in 2007, went 2-1 with a 5.00 ERA in double-A West Tenn and 2-2 with a 6.47 ERA in triple-A Tacoma after being acquired by the Mariners in the deal that sent Cliff Lee to Texas.  The 22-year-old made his professional debut with the Kings in 2008, going 10-6 with a 2.37 ERA in 23 starts.

Beavan was recently featured in an online video produced by the Mariners.  The link is up over at LumberKings.com.  Definitely a must-watch interview.


The Interview Vault: K.C. Herren

herren interview vault.jpgBack in the fall of 2007, when James Jones was still a left-handed pitcher at Long Island University, Nick Franklin was just beginning his sophomore year at Lake Brantley High and Tom Wilhelmsen was still bartending around Tucson, there was a LumberKings’ playoff hero of decidedly less stature, outfielder Karl Christopher Herren.

Better known as “K.C.”, Herren was a 2004 second-round pick with plenty to prove heading into his second season in Clinton in ’07.  By year’s end, he’d emerge as the most consistent piece of the LumberKings’ offense and would deliver the team’s biggest hit of the postseason.

Herren’s pro career started in the late summer of 2004 after he graduated from Auburn High School (WA) and passed on a chance to walk on as either a receiver or defensive back for the nearby University of Washington.  At 18, his future looked bright as he hit .297 (55-for-185) in 46 games with the AZL Rangers, earning a post-season All-Star award.

The next season saw a promotion to the Northwest League, where he hit .264 with 14 doubles, four homers and 27 RBI in 57 games with the Spokane Indians.  He’d get his first taste of the playoffs with the eventual NWL champs, hitting .316 in five games.

Like everyone else on the ’06 Clinton club not named John Mayberry, Herren struggled in his first season in the black and green.  Still only 19 and already in his third season with the Rangers, K.C. struggled to hit a mere .221 with 15 extra-bas hits (10 doubles, two homers) and 21 RBI in 87 games…roughly the same production, albeit with far worse average, as his output in 46 games in ’04.  Herren wouldn’t make it to the finish line with the LumberKings that year as he returned to Spokane for the final 31 games (.268, 3 doubles, 3 triples, 3 HR, 13 RBI).

The 2007 season was the make-or-break year for Herren, and surrounded by guys like John Whittleman, Omar Poveda and Zach Phillips who also had much to prove, the outfielder thrived.  Call it sophomore maturity or the guidance of manager Mike Micucci, but Herren took off like a rocket, batting Whittleman for the Midwest League’s top batting average all the way through May.  On the strength of the league’s fifth-best average (.329) in the first half, Herren helped lead the Kings to the first-half West Division Wild Card.  He’d also join seven teammates in the MWL All-Star Game at Kane County, but would go hitless in the game.

The second half proved unkind to the LumberKings as promotion and reduced production took their toll.  While Whittleman and Poveda earned their tickets west to Bakersfield, Herren fell into the latter category, hitting just .225 (52-for-231) the rest of the way.  Still, he finished the year with his most productive statline ever…a team-best .274 average, 48 extra-base hits including 30 doubles, 12 triples (second-most in the MWL) and six homers and a career-high 49 RBI.

Herren was the veteran voice of the club heading into a first-round playoff series against second half West champion Cedar Rapids, and so he was my natural choice for the series preview interview.  We talked about Micucci’s philosophy on winning series carrying over into the playoffs, he and the rest of the offense getting hot down the stretch of the second half, the ’07 success meaning more to he and that night’s starter Phillips and more.

K.C. Herren (2007 Playoffs).mp3 

Herren’s bat would be silent that night as he went 0-for-4 in Clinton’s 4-1 loss to the Kernels.  That would be the only game the CR arms would keep him in check.  In game two, he went 2-for-4 with two runs scored and an RBI, including a single that scored Marcus Lemon to ignite a four-run fifth inning in Clinton’s 8-2 win.  The next night, he put the team on his back.

The Kings trailed game three at home, 3-0 heading into the bottom of the third.  Herren was again the catalyst as he delivered an RBI single scoring Renny Osuna for the second run of a three-run frame.  After lining out to strand Manny Pina in the fourth, he got another chance in the sixth with the score tied, 4-4.

He extended his hands on Barrett Browning’s pitch, sending an opposite-field grounder between Kernels’ third-baseman Abel Nieves and shortstop Wil Ortiz. Lemon, who had tripled to start the inning, raced home for a 5-4 Clinton lead.  A lead that would stand up over the final three innings thanks to the relief work of Jeremiah Haar and Josh Lueke, sending the Kings to the West Division Championship Series.

Listen to the hit: 
Herren game winning single vs. Cedar Rapids 9-7-07.mp3

Herren’s hit will always be my lasting memory of the 2007 season.  Unfortunately, it proved to be a closing chapter on his career.  The Rangers sent him to the Hawaii Winter League, a place for valued A-ball prospects following his career year in Clinton, but he’d last just one more season on the Texas farm.  A .188 average and .295 on-base percentage in 89 games with Bakersfield in 2008 was the last action he saw.  The Rangers released him in 2009, ending the once-promising career for the two-time LumberKing.


Monday Morning Self Promotion

For the second-straight offseason, Lonnie Mathis of MarinerCentral.com asked me to be a part of his “10 Questions with…” series highlighting different figures in the Mariners organization.  My interview was posted last week.

Head on over to Lonnie’s post to read my thoughts on the 2010 Midwest League Championship Series, Nick Franklin, potential 2011 LumberKings and more.


2011 Hot Stove Banquet Announced

124x70 2011 hotstove copy.jpgIn case you missed it over at LumberKings.com, tickets for the 2011 Hot Stove Banquet on Saturday, January 29 at Eagle Point Lodge are now on sale.  Tickets ($25 for adults, $15 for kids 12 and under) can be purchased via a LumberKings’ board member or by calling the main office at 563-242-0727.

Manager Eddie Menchaca will be the keynote speaker this season.  You’ll also get to hear from General Manager Ted Tornow, Assistant GM Nate Kreinbrink and myself.

If that’s not enough to lure you, we’ll also be holding a silent auction and raffle with proceeds going to Friends of Riverview Stadium.  Amongst items available for either bid or raffle will be a bat autographed by Hall-of-Famer Ryne Sandberg, a signed picture of 2010 Midwest League Home Run Champion and Seattle Mariners first-round pick Nick Franklin, a 2010 team signed baseball and a lot more.

The doors open at 6 PM for social hour, with the program beginning at 7 PM.  Hope to see you there.



The Interview Vault: John Whittleman

whittleman interview vault.jpgIn the five-year span I’ve been in Clinton, I’ve been fortunate to watch players that have already become Major Leaguers (John Mayberry, Mitch Moreland, Neftali Feliz, Derek Holland to name a few) and players that seem on track to be Major Leaguers, if not stars at that level (Nick Franklin, James Jones and Erasmo Ramirez come to mind). 

Yet, as you often hear about Minor League Baseball, there’s always surprises when it comes to who achieves the dream and who flames out.  There’s guys like left-hander Michael Kirkman, who rose quickly through the Texas system after an injury-plagued and inconsistent start to his career, making the Rangers’ roster in time for the postseason last year.  On the other end of the spectrum, there’s a guy like infielder John Whittleman, seemingly a sure-fire future Ranger when drafted in the second round in 2005, yet still buried on the Texas system depth charts somewhere between Bakersfield and Frisco.

Say what you will about the hype surrounding Franklin when he arrived in Clinton, but Whittleman, for a time, was that same caliber of star for the LumberKings in 2007.  Coming off a disappointing 2006 as a 19-year-old (.227, 9 HR, 43 RBI, .656 OPS and 34 errors at third base), the Houston native returned to Clinton in 2007 and got off to maybe the best offensive start in the Midwest League that season.

Whittleman hit .343 with three home runs and 12 RBI in the first month of the season, also showing off a new patient eye (14 walks compared to just 15 strikeouts) as he captured the Rangers’ Minor League Player of the Month award for April.  He hit .343 yet again in May, ramping up the power production with six homers and 18 RBI and claiming the MWL Player of the Week award on May 7.

A cooling trend in June still couldn’t impact his tremendous first-half numbers as he entered the All-Star Break with a .320 average, 20 doubles, 12 home runs, 43 RBI and a .989 OPS.  Despite still struggling with the glove at times, Whit was named the starting third baseman for the West in the 2007 Midwest League All-Star Game in Kane County.  He went 1-for-2 with a walk and a run scored in the game, batting in the three spot.

That game was just the prelude to an even bigger showcase.  Not long after, Whittleman was selected to represent the Rangers and the USA in the 2007 MLB Futures Game in SanFrancisco, becoming the first (and only thus-far) active LumberKing to appear in the July 8 game.

whit futures game.jpg
Whittleman made the most of his opportunity, taking a 3-2 pitch from then-Mets prospect Deolis Guerra deep to the right-field seats at AT&T Park to cut the USA deficit to 4-2 in the fifth.  Future Major Leaguers Joey Votto (World) and Justin Upton (USA) also homered in the game, a 7-2 win for the World squad.

Returing to the LumberKings in the midst of a series at Burlington, there was no question that Whittleman was riding high.  It was prior to a July 9 game at Community Field that I spoke with him on an extended pregame interview about the Futures experience.  He talks about the surreal feeling of hitting the home run, the honor of being chosen for the game, connecting with fellow Futures players like Upton, Jay Bruce, Colby Rasmus, Cameron Maybin and Jacoby Ellsbury, dealing with the media frenzy surrounding the game and more.

John Whittleman Post Futures Game Interview (2007).mp3

So what’s happened since then to Whittleman?  Unfortunately, not the fast track to the Rangers’ corner infield like many (including myself) had expected.  His second-half production dipped drastically and he ended the Clinton portion of his season hitting .271 with 14 homers and 57 RBI.  He still finished second in the league in slugging (.476) and fourth in on-base percentage (.382) and was promoted to high-A Bakersfield at the end of July.

We saw Whit for the last time as we boarded a bus bound for Great Lakes, and I figured the next time I’d see him was in a Rangers uniform.  That turned out to be somewhat correct as I saw him with Texas in a Spring Training game in 2009, a game in which he made the most of his opportunity, homering in his first at-bat.  He appeared just in two games in last year’s Cactus League action, drawing a walk in his only at-bat.

Aside from those stints in Spring, Whittleman has yet to advance past double-A Frisco.  He’s appeared with the RoughRiders in 2008 (.258, HR, 5 RBI in 9 games), 2009 (.224, 28 doubles, 10 HR, 57 RBI in 127 games) and 2010 (.201, 5 HR, 30 RBI in 74 games).  A bulk of his last season was also spent back in Bakersfield for the first time since ’08.  He hit .248 with seven blasts and 23 RBI in 33 games, earning a promotion back to Frisco for the end of the year.  The one thing he’s been able to maintain despite the low average has been the propensity to draw walks — he drew 81 free passes in 118 games with Bakersfield in ’08, then followed up with 80 more in 127 games with Frisco in ’09.  While his career average sits at a mere .242, his .353 on-base percentage shows a strike zone discipline he’s always been known for.

The 2011 season will be make-or-break for the now first baseman, who is no longer near the top of any Texas prospect lists.  Whittleman is due to be a six-year Minor League free agent after the year and will need to prove to both the Rangers and other potential suitors that he has the eye and the power to be a big-league contributor.  If he can regain some of that 2007 magic we witnessed here in Clinton, he’ll hopefully be able to do just that.


The LumberBlog: 47th in 2010

There hasn’t been much LumberKings-related news to pass along lately (although we’ll be announcing our Hot Stove Banquet sometime in the near future), but here’s some good news from MLBlogosphere.

The LumberBlog ranked 47th in total pageviews amongst the ProBlogs category for the year of 2010.  You can check out the full list here:  http://mlblogs.mlblogs.com/archives/2011/01/2010_latest_leaders.html.

Thanks again for reading!  A new installment of “The Interview Vault” is coming up tomorrow.


Another New Offseason Feature

The History File.jpgHead on over to LumberKings.com or click the direct link to check out a new weekly feature called “The History File”, featuring recovered articles detailing past events, players, coaches and more from the 75 years of Clinton Baseball Club, Inc. history.

This week’s entry is an article from the Clinton Herald on Riverview Stadium’s May 9, 1937 dedication.  The article talks in great detail about the amenities of the ballpark, many of them cutting edge for the time.

New editions of “The History File” will be out every Friday leading up to the 2011 season.


The Interview Vault: Jason Hart

hart interview vault.jpg

If there’s anything I’ve learned in the last five seasons here in Clinton, it’s that baseball managers and coaches are never cut from the same cloth.  There’s no “prototype” background necessary for teaching the game, no resume that’s perfect for guiding a team.  I’ve worked with former Major Leaguers like Brian Dayette, Lance Painter and John Tamargo and similarly worked with guys like Mike Micucci, Danny Clark and Scott Steinmann who had zero big-league service time.  Yet, they all

Tamargo’s staff was the oldest in the Midwest League last year.  This season, the LumberKings will be helmed by potentially the youngest manager in the league in Eddie Menchaca (who will be freshly 30) and an equally-youthful pitching coach Rich Dorman (who is only 32).  Of course, they’ll be balanced out by returning hitting coach Terry Pollreisz, who turned 64 yesterday.

In preparing to work with a guy like Menchaca who is just three seasons removed from playing in the Mariners’ minor league system himself, I have found myself thinking back to 2008 when a 30-year-old former Major Leaguer named Jason Hart joined the LumberKings as an assistant coach under interesting circumstances.

Hart ended an eight-year career in 2006 and was out of the game for just one season before contacting the team that gave him his cup-of-coffee, the Texas Rangers, about a job in coaching.  With Dayette slowly returning from off-season shoulder surgery, the former power-hitting first baseman was given a shot to come to Clinton as a fourth coach.

His presence on the team was instantly unique from any other coach I’ve observed.  While the intense Micucci was the unquestioned leader of the club and Clark was the no-nonsense teacher of the pitching staff, Hart was more like a laid-back veteran teammate.

His career path, filled with twists and turns, helped him relate to just about every kind of player.  Oakland’s fifth-round pick in 1998 out of Southwest Missouri State, Hart literally powered his way through the low levels of the A’s system.  In 2000, he hit .326 with 44 doubles, 30 homers and 121 RBI for the double-A Midland RockHounds and was on just about every post-season All-Star list possible.  Prior to 2001, Baseball America ranked him the 59th-best prospect in all of Minor League Baseball.

A January, 2002 trade sent him to Texas along with Gerald Laird and Ryan Ludwick in exchange for Carlos Pena and Mike Venafro.  After hitting .263 with 25 blasts and 83 RBI for triple-A Oklahoma City, the 24-year-old Hart earned a 10-game call-up to the Rangers in early August, his only Major League stint.  He played in just 10 games, hitting .267 with three doubles.

Hart would never again make a big-league roster, but he would hang on in the Rangers’ minor-league system before finishing his career in the Minnesota organization in 2006.  He’d spend only one year away from the game, but felt baseball calling once again when Texas offered to send him to Clinton as a sort of coaching “intern”.  While with the LumberKings, the man nicknamed “Diesel” would be able to relay his experiences on to the likes of Mitch Moreland, Engel Beltre, Tim SmithJonathan GreeneIan Gac and the rest of the Midwest League’s top offense.

And now for the interview.  I caught up with Hart fittingly in the home of Oakland’s low-A affiliate, at the time, Kane County.  He spoke about being drafted by his hometown Athletics in 1998, his time playing alongside Cougars’ manager Aaron Niekula, getting a chance to coach for the first time, learning from the likes of Micucci and Dayette, relating to the players and more.

Jason Hart Interview (2008).mp3

As you’ve noticed in the final question, Hart said at the time that his goal was to be a full-time hitting coach rather than a manager.  The Rangers made that dream a reality in 2009 when they named Jason as their AZL hitting coach.  A year later, he’d be promoted to the same position with low-A Hickory.  After guiding the Crawdads’ hitters to the South Atlantic League’s third-highest home run total (97) and eighth-best team batting average (.256) in 2010, Hart will be back on manager Bill Richardson’s staff again in 2011.

“Diesel” also earned national television recognition in the past year.  He and the Crawdads were featured in ESPN’s “It’s not crazy, it’s sports” ad campaign in a very memorable commercial that shows Hart handing out signs from his first-base coaches’ box.  It was definitely one of the better ads run on ESPN in recent history.  Check it out here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2zQf6bxsZo