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.

Listen: 
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.

-DL 

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