Results tagged ‘ Dustin Ackley ’

The Interview Vault: Justin Smoak

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While everyone around baseball watches shockingly as Cliff Lee dons a Philadelphia Phillies uniform at a press conference sometime in the next few days, I’m focusing in on the centerpiece of the deal that sent the left-hander to the Texas Rangers last July 9.  He just happens to be a former LumberKing and is the feature of this week’s edition of “The Interview Vault”.

Switch-hitting first-baseman Justin Smoak was one of the four former Clinton players dealt by the Rangers in exchange for Lee and Mark Lowe prior to last year’s trade deadline.  Once the undoubted future of the middle of the Texas lineup, Smoak was deemed expendable to help the Rangers turn the corner in the immediate.  Now, the 2008 first-round pick (11th overall) finds himself as the cornerstone of Jack Zduriencik’s rebuilding project in Seattle.

Smoak was fresh off the fishing boat when he arrived in Clinton in August of 2008, rested from a drawn-out signing process that wouldn’t end until 15 minutes before the MLB deadline.  Anxious to play baseball again for the first time since he left the University of South Carolina, he’d still have to wait a day before making his professional debut in Peoria on August 18.

The featured interview today took place between myself and Smoak prior to that first action and was his first minor league interview.  We talk about his hectic first 48 hours, fitting in with the likes of fellow first-baseman Mitch Moreland (who hit a pair of home runs in the previous game vs. the Chiefs), getting ready to hit in the 5-spot in manager Mike Micucci’s order, his thoughts on the first round selection by the Rangers and more. 

Listen:   Justin Smoak, Prior to ’08 Pro Debut.mp3

Not long after the interview, Smoak would take the diamond for the first time as a pro, going 1-for-3 with a double off the right-center wall for his first pro hit.  He’d go on to register at least one hit in 13 of his 14 games as a LumberKing, hitting .304 with three doubles, three home runs and six RBI.

Since ’08, he’s accomplished a lot quickly.  Smoak ascended to the Major Leagues in just his second full season in 2010, making his big-league debut for the Rangers on April 23 vs. Detroit.  He’d hit .209 with eight homers and 34 RBI for Texas before being packaged for Lee, and would finish out the year bouncing between Seattle (.239, 5 HR, 14 RBI) and triple-A Tacoma (.271, 7 HR, 25 RBI).  Smoak teamed up with the red-hot Dustin Ackley to bring a PCL championship home to the Rainiers, winning the PCL’s Offensive Player of the Postseason award (.423, HR, 6 RBI) in the process.

With the likes of Ackley, Rich Poythress and Nick Franklin coming up alongside him, the future for Smoak should be very bright in the middle of the Mariners’ order.    

-DL

On the 40

wilhelmsen27.jpgThis isn’t breaking news, but in case you missed it, there were seven former LumberKings added to 40-man rosters over the weekend in order to protect them from December’s Rule 5 draft.

Right-hander Fabio Castillo (’08) and outfielder Engel Beltre (’08) were added by the Texas Rangers, while right-handers Maikel Cleto (’09), Josh Lueke (’07-’08), Yoervis Medina (’10) and Tom Wilhelmsen (’10, pictured left) were added by the Seattle Mariners.  Right-hander Evan Reed (’07-’08) was added by the Florida Marlins.

All but Reed and Medina (who is playing for John Tamargo’s Cardenales de Lara) appeared in the Arizona Fall League this year.

Speaking of which, AFL MVP Dustin Ackley and the Peoria Javelinas fell to Bryce Harper’s Scottsdale Scorpions in the Championship Game on Saturday.  Wilhelmsen took the loss with a run on two hits over an inning of work, while Lueke fared better with a scoreless final inning to keep it close at 3-2.  Nate Tenbrink (’09) went 0-for-1 as a pinch-hitter.

-DL

Day 6 – Video and Pictures

My Spring Training trip officially ended yesterday as the Seattle Mariners took on the Milwaukee Brewers in Maryvale.  Whoever said that Arizona never gets rain and is always scorching hot was wrong.  It was a damp, cold morning in which the area temperature was –get this — just six degrees warmer than Milwaukee.

Still, it was an enjoyable afternoon.  I got up close to Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder and company out by the batting cages, then ran into former LumberKings closer Ruben Flores (’09) on the practice fields.

“Flo” had the opportunity to suit up for the Crew as the emergency man in the bullpen and was hoping to face the team that drafted him.  Unfortunately for him (and me, as it would have made for great video), it didn’t happen.

My dream matchup was Flores against fellow former King Denny Almonte (’09), who was brought along as part of Seattle’s split squad that day.  Sadly, Denny also did not get into the game.

I did get some video on Dustin Ackley, who got the start at second base and went 1-for-5 with a triple.  The video I have wasn’t of the triple, but rather a frozen rope that would have dropped for a single if not for the ageless wonder Jim Edmonds, who made a shoestring catch to rob him.

By the way, the Brewers won, 6-2.

Video of my last day in the Cactus League can be found here:  “Scenes from Maryvale“.

Pictures:

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The Maryvale back fields.  It looks dreary, but that’s really only because of the weather.  The fields are each named after a famous Brewer.  I was somewhere between Paul Molitor Field, Rollie Fingers Field and Robin Yount Field.

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Field this way, clubhouse that way.

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Jim Edmonds stops to sign a few.  A Brewer this Spring, a Red or a Pirate next year?

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Ruben Flores suited up in Brewer blue.

 
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Flores in the Brewer bullpen.

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Denny Almonte on equipment bag detail.

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Almonte up close.

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Mariners’ GM Jack Zduriencik talking with Brewers broadcaster Bill Schroeder.  I used to be Bill’s research/stats guy.

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Dustin Ackley faces Brewers’ lefty Manny Parra.

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Maryvale, my last Cactus League stop this year.  I’ll be back.

And there you have it, five Cactus League games in six days (one rainout, unfortunately), five former LumberKings sighted and pictures/video of four different Spring Training facilities.  Every baseball fan needs to experience Spring Training at least once in their lives, and I highly recommend the Cactus League because of the close proximity and overall quality of the parks.

If you have just one day to spend in AZ, I’d recommend going to Camelback Ranch.  It’s the biggest of the Cactus League parks and has probably the best Southwestern feel and most unique back fields.  You also can’t go wrong with the laid-back atmosphere in Peoria, where the palm trees lining the berm make you feel like you’ve gone to a tropical locale.

Now, with under 30 days left until the start of the season, it’s back to Clinton.  See you there.

-DL

Spring Training, Day 3

Hello again from the hotel computer lab!

I’m still unable to load pictures and video (trust me, there’s plenty more), but I’ll give you a brief update of my day thus far.

I spent the afternoon back out at Peoria, this time checking out the back fields as the Mariners geared up for a 1:00 PM game against the San Diego Padres.  I didn’t run into any former LumberKings out there, but I did get the chance to see current Kings manager John Tamargo, Special Assistant John Boles, Director of Player Development Pedro Grifol and General Manager Jack Zduriencik.

I unfortunately missed the Felix Hernandez/Cliff Lee simulated game by just minutes, but I did get a nice souvenir.  Upon seeing JT, he handed me the last baseball used by Lee in his session.

I shot a few photos of Dustin Ackley getting some cuts and also got a good look at Eric Byrnes and Franklin Gutierrez as they took BP.

Following that, I met up with Jeff Evans and Fernando Alcala of the Mariners’ Media Relations staff and was able to talk shop and get a behind-the-scenes look inside their offices.  I also got my hands on my first Mariners’ 2010 Media Guide and a trip to the pressbox.

At the game, I was able to chat with former LumberKings right-hander Andrew Carraway (’09), the man scheduled for emergency duty out of the bullpen today.  I snapped a few pictures and got video of Carraway throwing in the pen, but unfortunately he did not get into what turned out to be a 9-3 Mariners’ loss.

As soon as I can, I’ll get pictures and video up on the Peoria back diamonds and Carraway’s big-league bullpen session.

Tomorrow, I venture out to Camelback Ranch to watch the Los Angeles Dodgers take on the Chicago White Sox.  Hopefully I’ll see Manny being Manny, some “he gone” action and more.

-DL

Greetings from Peoria, AZ

GreetingsfromAZ.jpgMy six-day journey through the Cactus League officially kicked off today at the Peoria Sports Complex in Peoria, AZ, and boy what a start it was.  Today’s game between the Seattle Mariners and San Francisco Giants featured all the great Spring storylines…a Cy Young award-winner getting roughed up, a host of new faces trying to make good first impressions, a late four-run rally, a future star tying the game in the bottom of the ninth, and a pair of former LumberKings getting hurled into some unexpected duty.

Where to begin?  Well, not more than 20 minutes after my arrival, I ran into some old friends.

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That’s left-hander Anthony Vasquez (left) and 6’10” right-hander Kenn Kasparek (right), both members of the Clinton starting rotation last season.  I spoke most with the 2009 Midwest League ERA champ Kasparek, who told me that he and Vasquez were essentially the “emergency” guys for the game.  For those of you unfamiliar with that term, various pitchers from minor league camp are asked to sit in the bullpen for big-league games in case the team burns through its scheduled pitchers or the game goes to extra innings.  More on that later.

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After catching up with Vasquez, Kasparek and former pitching coach Lance Painter, I settled in for the start of the game.  I shot some video on both the Peoria Sports Complex, the Mariners taking the field for the first time and right-hander Doug Fister’s first pitch of the Spring:

Fister didn’t fare well after that first-pitch strike, yielding a three-run homer to Aubrey Huff in the first inning for a 3-0 Giants lead.  That lead would be short-lived as the Mariners responded with a three-run home half on the strength of a Ken Griffey Jr. sac fly and a pair of RBI singles by Jose Lopez and Casey Kotchman.  By the way, all that damage came against an erratic ace in Tim Lincecum (pictured below, staring down Ichiro).

 

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The Giants built a 7-3 lead thanks in part to a two-run double by shortstop Emmanuel Burriss, but the Mariners fought back with two runs in the sixth and two more in the ninth.  Former Wisconsin Timber Rattler Michael Saunders doubled to help set up the late rally, and the game-tying run came across on an RBI groundout up the middle by super-prospect Dustin Ackley.

That’s when Kasparek was suddenly summoned to warm up.  Pitching coach Rick Adair had used all seven of his scheduled pitchers, leaving only former LumberKings in the pen for the 10th.  That meant it was Kenn’s turn to jog to a Major League mound for the first time.

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Despite Painter’s “just have fun” advice, Kasparek looked a bit nervous while struggling to find the strikezone.  He walked all three men he faced before getting the hook from Manager Don Wakamatsu.  The only arm left in the cupboard?  Vasquez.

vasquez.spring.debut.jpgThe other former King couldn’t strand the bases full, yielding the game-winning RBI single to pinch-hitter Jesus Guzman.  He did, however, execute a brilliant 1-2-3 double-play (unfortunately no video of this) to end the inning.  The Mariners then went quickly in the bottom of the 10th for the 8-7 loss.

Kasparek took the loss in his first pro appearance, but today still must have been a thrill for both he and Vasquez.  If not for them, it certainly was for me.  Any taste of the big leagues, even if it’s only an early-March Spring Training game, has got to be sweet. 

One “LumberBlog Programming Note” to pass along…

Unfortunately, due to $14.95 internet access here at the hotel in Scottsdale, I will likely be postponing the rest of my Cactus League blog updates until I return to Clinton.  Still, expect plenty more pictures and video, including more from Peoria as the Mariners take on the San Diego Padres this Friday.

-DL

Predicting the 2010 Roster (Part 2)

The second and final installment of my look at the potential 2010 roster finally makes its way to the LumberBlog today.  I had originally planned on getting it out before the Hot Stove, but last week was a busy one.

In a way, it’s nice to save this second part till now.  I had the opportunity to talk with manager John Tamargo about the team during our car trips to and from the Quad City Airport in Moline, IL.  It was good to pick his brain on some of the talent he had in Everett last year.

With that being said, I want to preface my following predictions.  At this time, we do not know the 25-man LumberKings’ roster for next year.  The Seattle Mariners will not finalize that until camp breaks in early April, and at that time we will know for sure.  It is common for changes to be made even after that point.  Many people didn’t know that Scott Savastano, the man who turned into the offensive MVP of the team last year, was a last-second add to the roster.  Two years ago, Mitch Moreland was scratched from our Opening Day roster because of a minor injury.  You just never know until the bus shows up.

A First-Rounder Not Named Ackley

In my post last week regarding the Top 10 Seattle Prospects as selected by Baseball
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America,
I mentioned a young man by the name of Nick Franklin (pictured right).  While Dustin Ackley has attracted most of the spotlight, Franklin is also a rising star.  The 18-year-old shortstop was Jack Zduriencik’s second first-round pick (taken 27th overall) out of Lake Brantley (FL) High and had a nice showing in six games with Tamargo’s AquaSox (.400, 3 XBH, 2 RBI in 20 at-bats).  Seattle scouting director Tom McNamara liked his confidence and fielding ability in a brief workout with the big-league club last August.  I don’t think you’ll see Ackley in Clinton next year, but Franklin could very well add some first-round flavor to the roster.

Franklin might not be the only talented shortstop to head here.  South African-born Anthony
Phillips
made 67 starts at short for Everett last season and put up some respectable power numbers at the plate.  The 19-year-old hit .247 with 8 doubles, 7 HR and 28 RBI over 68 games in the Northwest League last season.  Venezuelan shortstop Gabriel Noriega could also make the club, following an impressive second season at Pulaski.  Noriega hit .311 with 14 doubles, 4 HR and 26 RBI in 61 games last year. 

Avila Following the Gac Path?

Thumbnail image for avila.JPGStaying on the Everett infield, a lot of folks have asked me if Gerardo Avila (pictured left) might head to Clinton.  As Midwest League diehards already know, Avila is a three-season veteran with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (’06-’08), but never hit above .260 and had just one career homer in the league in 63 games.  Then, following the Ian Gac pattern, Avila went to High Desert in 2008 and found his way back to the Northwest League in 2009.  There, he finally went off for a league-high 13 HR while also finishing first in slugging (.582), second in RBI (54) and third in hitting overall (.333).  As Gac-like as this story is going, he could very well be in Clinton.  However, he could also go back to the Cal League, where he hit .303 in nine games two seasons ago as a Maverick.

If Avila heads back to High Desert, Jharmidy DeJesus could be the man to fill first base.  DeJesus was amongst my predictions for last year’s club and was the #8 prospect in the Mariners’ system prior to last year.  Hailing from Jose Vallejo’s hometown of Bani, Dominican Republic, DeJesus hit .249 with 7 doubles, 4 HR and 24 RBI in 48 games with Pulaski last year.  He made 30 starts at first base in a platoon situation with 11th round pick Tim Morris (.214, 4 HR, 24 RBI in 50 games).   

Rounding Out the Infield

Second-baseman Hawkins Gebbers, Seattle’s 33rd round selection hit .301 with 13 doubles, 2 HR and 21 RBI in 54 games with Everett last year.  Cesar Fuentes (.261, 4 HR, 20 RBI) and Fred Bello (.250, 5 triples, 2 HR, 12 RBI) each split time at second base in Pulaski.  Third-baseman and 10th-round pick Vincent Catricala led Pulaski with 40 RBI, hitting .301 with 14 doubles and 8 HR in 59 games.  Blake Trinkler played the utility role for Everett, hitting .229 with 18 RBI in 41 games.

The Backstops 

Headlining the group of potential Clinton catchers is certainly Steven Baron, Seattle’s supplemental first-round pick (#33 overall) out of Ferguson (FL) High School.  Baron struggled in his first pro assignment with Pulaski, hitting .179 with 2 HR and 13 RBI in 30 games.  However, his numbers slightly improved towards the end of the season.  Baron raised his average 39 points over his final seven games.  Taking into consideration that ’09 LumberKing Nate Tenbrink hit just .198 with Everett in 2008 prior to batting .282 with 10 HR and 59 RBI last year, it’s possible that Baron comes to Clinton and improves at the plate.  However, Tenbrink was older and more experienced than Baron will be heading into 2010.  Tenbrink also didn’t have the added responsibilities of working with a pitching staff like Baron has.

If no Baron, 2009 draft picks Trevor Coleman (9th round) and Brandon Bantz (30th round) could catch for the Kings.  Coleman struggled, hitting .184 in 32 games with Everett, while Bantz produced a solid .290, 3 HR, 15 RBI stint with the AquaSox.  Given the fact that Juan Fuentes, Tommy Johnson and Henry Contreras all saw limited time behind the plate in Clinton last year and could be back, it’s quite possible that none of these three arrive in ’10.

A Wealth of Potential in the Outfield

When looking at the outfield of both Pulaski and Everett, it’s hard not to get excited about the
Rivero.jpggroup that could be coming in.  The AquaSox had both James Jones (4th round) and Matt Cerione (13th round) in their outfield last year, in addition to Jose Rivero (pictured right).  Jones hit .311 over 45 games, mashing 3 HR and 24 RBI in that span.  Cerione flashed a little more power with 7 HR, hitting .266 with 14 RBI over 43 games.  Rivero finished third on the club in RBI behind Avila and Mario Martinez with 32, going along with his .251 average and 4 HR.

Brandon Haveman (29th round) was Pulaski’s standout outfielder thanks to a .339, 5 HR, 18 RBI campaign.  Jarrett Burgess (.187, 5 HR, 22 RBI), Mark McGonigle (.283, 2 HR, 14 RBI) and Greg Waddell (.195, 2 HR, 6 RBI) all saw time in the Mariners’ outfield as well.  Burgess is still trying to find his way after a 6th round selection in the 2008 June draft.

Much like the catching corps, it’s tough to say which of these players will be LumberKings this year.  It’s more likely that we see the return of Ryan Royster, Welington Dotel, Dwight Britton and others at least at the beginning of the season.

The Rotation:  A Tough Act to Follow

It’s no question that pitching was the key to success for the LumberKings last year, specifically starting pitching.  At times last year, at least three Kings’ hurlers ranked amongst the league’s Top 10 in ERA.  Kenn Kasparek finished the season as the ERA leader, Clinton’s first since Salomon Torres in 1991.  Quite simply, it’s going to be hard to top last year.

Stanton.JPGHere’s some of the new names that might try.  Right-hander Taylor Stanton (pictured left), Seattle’s 26th round pick in 2008, had a breakout year of sorts with Everett.  In 15 starts, he went 5-3 with a 3.50 ERA.  Most notably, he led the rotation in innings (87.1), WHIP (1.23) and wins (5).  Outside of Stanton, only two other pitchers made at least 14 starts for the AquaSox…Chris Kirkland (a LumberKing briefly last year) and right-hander Luke Burnett.  Like Stanton, Burnett was an ’08 draft pick (14th round) that finally saw action last year.  He went 2-4, 4.66 in 14 starts.

Righty Taylor Lewis (3-1, 7.82 in 5 starts) and left-hander Nick Czyz (2-2, 3.34 in 5 starts) were also brief members of the Everett rotation.  Lewis also logged one start for Pulaski.

Transitioning back to the Appalachian League, the Pulaski club featured four pitchers with eight-or-more starts.  Thirty-sixth round right-hander John Housey (3-2, 2.62) was the most successful of that bunch, posting a 1.10 WHIP and a .194 opponent batting average.  Righty Brandon Maurer (3-4, 3.61 in 12 starts, 1 CG) and Jean Tome (3-4, 5.18 in 10 starts) put up very similar numbers. Eighth-round lefty James Gillheeney is the top draft pick of the group (8th round), but he went 0-3, 4.84 over six games, four starts.

This is a resounding theme, but with Kirkland, Anthony Vasquez, Maikel Cleto, Andres Esquibel and Jon Hesketh all possible returnees, its not for certain who might join the rotation this year.  One thing is for sure, they have their work cut out for them to match last year’s league-leading 3.35 team ERA.

Can the Pen Get Any Mightier? 

Much like the conversation on the starting rotation, it’s fairly clear that next year’s bullpen will have big shoes to fill.  Last year’s staff featured All-Stars Ruben Flores and Cheyne Hann,staehely.JPG plus solid set-up in guys like Brandon JosselynJose Jimenez, Brian Moran and Matt Renfree.

Next year’s pen might very well consist of some of the pitchers mentioned in the above section, but here’s a few more to consider.  Right-hander Christian Staehely (pictured right) went 4-2 with a pen-best 3.16 ERA in Everett, striking out 40 while walking only nine over 31.1 innings.  Pulaski right-handers Jorden Merry (40th round in ’09) and Chris Sorce (26th round in ’09) were the most serviceable relievers in an otherwise lackluster pen.  Merry led the club in saves, converting 5-of-6 in addition to his 2-1, 3.06 statline.  Sorce was 2-1, 3.45 with a save in two chances over seven outings.

Some AZL Standouts

At about this point, I’m sure you’re thinking “what about the guys in Peoria?”.  Well, many of the players listed above (Franklin, Rivero, Housey, etc.) did spend some time in the Arizona League last year.  I’ll list a few more below who could see Clinton this year.

First-baseman Rich Poythress, last year’s second-round pick and a Golden Spikes finalist while at Georgia made his pro debut in AZ and hit .300 with a HR and 6 RBI over six games.  It’s very possible Poythress’s college experience (.376, 25 HR, 86 RBI as a junior) will help him move directly to High Desert like fellow second-rounder Dennis Raben did a year ago. First-baseman Evan Sharpley, Seattle’s final draft choice in 2009 (50th round) had a nice showing over 37 games, hitting .333 with 12 doubles, 7 HR and 29 RBI.  Second-baseman Kevin Mailloux (45th round) hit .311 with 14 doubles, 5 HR and 37 RBI before a brief call-up to Everett.

On the mound, Peoria’s most impressive man was their closer.  Right-hander Jeff Breedlove went 2-1 with a 1.52 ERA and converted 10-of-12 saves.  Opponents hit just .205 against him over his 20 appearances.  In the rotation, Miguel Celestino (5-3, 4.73) and Chris Kessinger (5-3, 2.45) were the only pitchers with at least seven starts.  Kessinger was a 37th-rounder last season.       

And there you have it, my preview is complete.  Again, this is all speculation and we won’t know until early April who has actually made the 25-man roster.  Once that announcement is out, you’ll see it here and on LumberKings.com before anywhere else.  Finally, as I said at the finale of Part One, if there’s anyone I’ve overlooked, any mistakes you’ve caught or any differing opinions you might have, feel free to add your thoughts/comments.

-DL

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