Results tagged ‘ The Interview Vault ’

The Interview Vault: Tim Smith

tim smith interview vault.jpgMy six-month journey through all of my old interview tapes culminates today in the final edition of The Interview Vault, at least for this offseason.

Most seasons in the Midwest League, a player who hits .300, belts 25 doubles and 13 home runs and drives in 70 runs would be one of the centerpieces of a lineup.  Those numbers would have led all of those offensive categories for the 2009 LumberKings.  However, the year prior in which they occured, they were largely overshadowed by the seasons of Ian Gac, Mitch Moreland and Jonathan Greene.

That statline belonged to LumberKings’ outfielder Tim Smith, the biggest overlooked piece to the offensive puzzle during the ’08 season.  He was tasked with moving over Engel Beltre and Renny Osuna while batting in the three spot early on in the season, setting the table for Gac.  After Gac’s promotion, he was asked to protect Moreland in the five spot and handled himself there as well.  Smith hit above .276 in every situational category, including .352 when leading off an inning and .311 with runners on base.  He committed just two errors in 81 games in the outfield, yet also took to the DH role, hitting .335 with five homers and 30 RBI when he didn’t have to play defense.  Simply put, Smith did everything manager Mike Micucci could ask for and more without much accolades.

The lack of a spotlight was probably nothing new to Smith, who after winning the High School Player of the Year award in his native Toronto in 2004 and setting numerous school records in two seasons at Midland Junior College (Midland, TX) had been just another solid player at Arizona State.  His .333 average and .446 slugging percentage would be overshadowed during that 2007 season by the likes of current Houston Astro Brett Wallace (.404, 16 HR, 78 RBI, Pac 10 Player of the Year), current Oakland Athletic Eric Sogard (.400, 11 HR, 62 RBI), Colorado Rockies prospect Kiel Roling (.356, 15 HR, 63 RBI), current New York Met Ike Davis (.349, 8 HR, 61 RBI) and current LA Angel Andrew Romine (.300, 41 RBI).

While he wasn’t a first-round selection like Wallace and Davis, Smith found his way to the Texas Rangers as a seventh-round pick in the 2007 draft.  He went on to Spokane that season and didn’t make a huge splash, hitting .284 with a home run and nine RBI in 23 games.

His start with Clinton was steady but unremarkable.  He hit .293 with 39 RBI in the first half, yet had slugged only two home runs.  Still, he was one of the franchise record nine LumberKings named to the 2008 Midwest League All-Star Game, joining Gac, Greene, Moreland, Osuna, Jose Felix, Neftali Feliz, Derek Holland and Kennil Gomez.  By the end of the two-day event, Smith would finally emerge from that group of budding stars to get his share of the attention.

The All-Star Game stood deadlocked at 4-4 from the fifth inning on and looked bound for the first tie since the North and South battled to a 6-6 draw in 1991.  Smith, the only non-starter amongst six Kings’ position players on the West roster, stepped to the plate to lead off the top of the 10th against a hometown pitcher in Great Lakes’ right-hander Miguel Ramirez.  Upon the 1-2 delivery, Smith lifted a towering drive down the right-field line that wrapped around the foul pole, giving the West a 5-4 advantage.  That lead would stand as the West snapped a three-game All-Star losing streak.  For his efforts, Smith was awarded the “Star of Stars” award for the game, becoming the first Clinton player to win it since Roger Miller in 1990.

Today’s feature interview is all about that magical June evening.  Smith weighed in on the home run, the “Star of Stars” selection and more on his All-Star experience. 

Listen: 
Tim Smith (2008 ASG Star of Stars).mp3

So what’s happened to Smith since then?  Plenty.  He finished the ’08 season even better than his All-Star-worthy start, hitting .307 with 11 home runs and 31 RBI in the second half.  His ’09 season was split between high-A Bakersfield and double-A Frisco, and he combined to hit .320 with seven blasts and 51 RBI in those two stops. 

At the end of that year, the prospect-heavy Rangers decided to move Smith to another team building through the draft and Minor League acquisition.  He and catcher Manny Pina joined the Kansas City Royals in exchange for the talented yet troubled right-hander Danny Gutierrez.

Now in a Royals’ system that Baseball America considers the best in all of baseball, Smith is again putting up great numbers while standing in the shadow of bigger-name prospects like Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer.  In 95 games with the double-A Northwest Arkansas Naturals last season, Smith hit .306 with 18 doubles, nine home runs and 50 RBI.  Assuming he stays healthy and has a solid spring, 2011 should be his first shot at triple-A Omaha.

He may never be the biggest name in baseball, but Smith has shown that he has the ability to hit consistently and could soon make his mark with the rest of the young Royals crop.  Until that time, he’ll continue to be remembered around here as Clinton’s last “Star of Stars.” 

-DL

The Interview Vault: Mike Micucci

micucci interview vault.jpgOf all the interview subjects I’ve had over the years, nobody has joined me on the pregame show more times than Mike Micucci.  The one-time Chicago Cubs minor-league catcher managed the LumberKings during the 2007 and 2008 seasons and always offered me great insight into his prospect-laden team and his own approach to the game.  As the wildly successful 2008 campaign winded down, Micucci himself became known a hot coaching prospect.

It was late August, and the first-half West champs were molding a new identity as the playoffs closed in.  All-Star pitchers Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz were already long gone to double-A Frisco.  The table-setting abilities of Renny Osuna and RBI production of Ian Gac were now aiding the high-A club in Bakersfield.  Mitch Moreland, Jonathan Greene and Tim Smith were more than shouldering the offensive load, while Blake Beavan and Michael Main were establishing themselves as front-line starting pitchers.  Roleplayers like Matt Lawson, Davis Stoneburner, Ryan Tatusko and Michael Kirkman were stepping up in new ways as well. 

Then, along came the switch-hitting first-baseman Justin Smoak, the Rangers’ first-round pick in the recent June draft and the new centerpiece to the who-do-you-pitch-to LumberKings’ lineup.  All of Texas and much of Minor League Baseball turned their attention to Peoria when Smoak made his professional debut against the Chiefs on August 18, a 1-for-3 performance in Clinton’s slim 6-5 loss.

Shortly after Smoak’s arrival, Micucci was able to steal back some of the spotlight. 

Baseball America named Micucci the top managerial prospect in the entire Midwest League in their annual “Best Tools” issue.  Maybe it was the league-best 70-54 record at that point in the year, maybe it was back-to-back first-half playoff berths, maybe it was the fast rise of core prospects like Holland and Feliz.  Whatever the reason, Micucci found himself outshining both established veterans (Great Lakes’ Juan Bustabad, Dayton’s Donnie Scott, South Bend’s Mark Haley) and the league’s biggest coaching name, Peoria’s Ryne Sandberg.

It was at this moment in time, with all these plotlines intersecting, that I recorded today’s feature interview.  In it, Micucci speaks about hype well deserved in Smoak, Moreland’s path to an MVP-like season (he calls him the “backbone” of the club), Holland and Feliz’s fast rise, the honor of the BA award (which he credits to the team’s success and his coaching staff) and more.

Listen: 
Manager Mike Micucci (2008).mp3

So what’s happened with Mike since the interview?  The LumberKings bowed out in just two games to Cedar Rapids in the first round of the playoffs, but his coaching stock didn’t drop one bit.  The Rangers gave him the Holland/Feliz treatment, sending him straight to the double-A Frisco bench where he managed to RoughRiders in 2009. 

Micucci would again manage 22 of his former players from the previous two years in Clinton, helping Moreland and Smoak repeat their ’08 success, guiding Craig Gentry and Chad Tracy into breakout offensive seasons and teaming with pitching coach Joe Slusarski to develop the arms of Beavan, Kirkman, Kasey Kiker and Omar Poveda.  The ‘Riders were competitive all season long — finishing second in the Texas League South division with a 72-68 record — but missed the postseason.

Micucci’s ability to groom prospects did not go unnoticed by Nolan RyanJon Daniels and the Rangers.  Prior to the 2010 season, he was promoted to the Minor League Field Coordinator position, where he joined former Clinton pitching coach and newly-named Pitching Coordinator Danny Clark as the men in charge of the entire system.

While he would probably again defer the credit to his players and support staff, there’s no doubt that Micucci’s own success aided the Rangers in their rise to relevance.  His outstanding two-year run as the LumberKings’ manager should not only be remembered by the fans here in Clinton, but should also be looked at as a vital component of the Rangers’ ascension to the 2010 American League pennant. 

-DL

The Interview Vault: Kyle Murphy

murphy interview vault.jpgMy original goal with The Interview Vault was to dig up recent interviews I’ve done with notable former LumberKings that were only heard once during a pregame show because they were on cassette tape (archaic, I’m aware). 

I had a few specific names in mind when I went searching back through my archives — guys like Justin Smoak, Blake Beavan, Mitch Moreland, Derek Holland, Engel Beltre, etc. who have either reached the Major Leagues already or are poised to do just that.  But as you’ve seen with the last two editions, the stories of guys like K.C. Herren and Ian Gac can be just as compelling — if not more interesting — than the guys who shot right up to the Show.

Today’s story, that of former LumberKings’ outfielder Kyle Murphy, isn’t based on a high round draft selection or a rapid rise up the system.  It’s about a unique story, one that captured the interest of nearly an entire town and even prompted a bobblehead.  We’ll get to that part later.

Murphy was the Texas Rangers’ 19th-round selection in the 2007 June draft following his best collegiate season at the University of Kansas.  The 22-year-old junior college transfer hit .332 with 50 runs scored and 28 RBI in just 56 games for the Jayhawks, also exibiting a knack for base stealing (16-for-17 in attempts).  His first pro assignment came shortly after his June signing, and he’d go on to hit a combined .165 with five doubles, two triples, 20 runs scored and 10 RBI in 39 games between short-A Spokane and the Arizona League.

He didn’t begin the 2008 season with the LumberKings, but arrived in late June to replace struggling outfielder David Paisano.  Murphy made an immediate impact, hitting .316 (6-for-19) in his first five games.

Then, he headed home.  Not to Spokane on demotion, not to Arizona upon release, but to his actual home of Beloit, Wisconsin.  Clinton headed north to Beloit for a four-game series on July 1, and only Murphy could have known what a spectacle he’d cause.

Despite the presence of top prospects like Beltre, Moreland and Neftali Feliz, Murphy was the man with top billing when the team arrived at Pohlman Field.  Several local TV crews showed up for batting practice to get a look at him.  Sportswriters from Beloit and Milwaukee lined up to get an interview.  The Beloit Snappers’ front office was already predicting a capacity crowd.  All for essentially a stand-in outfielder.

An outfielder who just happened to be a local legend, having achieved statewide accolades as a senior at nearby F.J. Turner High School.  Murphy hit .483 with five home runs, 24 RBI and 14 steals in just 20 games as he earned All-State honors.  His ties to the Snappers franchise ran even deeper — he spent several seasons as a batboy for the team in the mid-90’s.

Everything seemed to fall into place to allow Murphy that rare opportunity to play in front of friends and family.  Had Paisano not hit .130 in 18 games, he wouldn’t have been with the club.  Had Miguel Alfonzo avoided a slump, he might not have been in the lineup.  But those factors, included with the awareness of manager Mike Micucci, allowed Murphy to play in three of the four games that series.

The Pohlman Field crowd was dense with transplanted LumberKings fans that July 1 evening, and Murphy was in the starting lineup.  He’d go 1-for-4 with a single batting out of the #9 spot, but would provide a much bigger highlight with his arm.  With the Kings leading 4-2 in the fourth inning, Snappers’ right-fielder Mark Dolenc slapped a one-out single to right-center field.  Murphy came on from right field to cut the ball off and noticed Ozzie Lewis hustling around third.  He delivered a perfect strike to catcher Jose Felix, nailing Lewis at the plate and preserving the two-run lead.  Ultimately, Beloit would surge in the next three innings to win, 7-5.

My interview with Kyle, the subject of today’s post, followed the next day.  We talked about his opportunity to play in front of friends and family, literally sleeping in his own bed just minutes from the ballpark, his experiences as a Snappers batboy including memories of Milwaukee Brewers shortstop Jose Valentin’s rehab stint, his early time with the Kings and more.

Listen: 
Kyle Murphy Returns to Beloit (2008).mp3 

Murphy started in center field the next day and went 0-for-3 in a 2-1 loss, but would bounce back for the third game of the series.  Batting eighth, he singled twice in four at-bats and drove home Cristian Santana during a five-run ninth inning, giving the Kings a much-needed 7-2 victory. 

Micucci would rest Murphy for the final game, giving the start to Alfonzo.  He’d go on to seal a series split, hitting a solo home run in the second inning to support Beavan’s seven-inning gem in a 4-0 win.

So what’s happened to Murphy since that series?  Unfortunately, those three games were likely the highlight for him as he stepped back into a reserve role.  He hit .229 with four extra-base hits, eight runs scored, seven RBI and five steals in nine attempts over 42 total games during the regular season, then went 0-for-1 in one playoff game.  Following the year, the Rangers released him.

Murphy didn’t catch on elsewhere, but didn’t leave the game either.  In fact, he was present at Pohlman Field a year later to watch the LumberKings battle the Snappers during his own commemorative bobblehead night.

He joined me in the booth that day to talk about his new bobblehead immortality, what he’s been up to since leaving the Rangers system, his plans for the future and plenty more.

Listen to the interview for the first time since it aired live:
Kyle Murphy In-Game Interview 6.14.09.mp3 

As far as I’ve seen, Kyle hasn’t resurfaced in professional baseball since his time in Clinton.  Even if his pro career is over, his return to his hometown of Beloit will be remembered as one of the most unique and interesting stories in a 2008 season filled with them.

-DL

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. 

Listen: 
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. 

-DL

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.

Listen: 
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.

-DL

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 

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.

Listen: 
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

-DL 

The Interview Vault: Michael Main

main interview vault.jpgThe San Francisco Giants showed the world last year how far a young rotation can take you, riding the arms of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Jonathan Sanchez past the Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies and Texas Rangers on the way to the World Series title.  With eventual NL Rookie of the Year Buster Posey emerging as their catcher of now, the Giants were able to move veteran backstop Bengie Molina to the Ranger team they’d face for the title in exchange for a bright young arm from the Texas system.

That arm is 2007 first-round pick and 2008 LumberKings right-hander Michael Main.  The DeLand, Florida native was moved along with right-hander Chris Ray in exchange for Molina’s services on July 1.  No question Molina’s expertise aided both staffs tremendously in 2010, and his bat proved pivotal for the Rangers against the Rays and Yankees in the playoffs.

Ray was a proven relief commodity and would go 3-0 with a 4.13 ERA over 28 relief appearances with the Giants, but Main can still be considered the key piece of the deal.  The second of Texas’s two first-round picks in 2007 (24th overall, seven spots after Rangers-turned-Mariners prospect Blake Beavan), Main entered last season as the #21 prospect in the Rangers’ system according to Baseball America despite relatively average career numbers (9-10, 4.39 ERA, 68 walks, 153 strikeouts and a .258 opponent average in 148 innings) and a propensity to miss time (he’s been through a rotator cuff injury in high school, cracked ribs in 2008 and a two-month bout with mononucleosis in 2009).

Last season, Main looked to be on track to stay healthy and enjoyed his best season since 2008 with Clinton (2-2, 2.58 in 10 starts), going 5-3 with a 3.45 ERA, 21 walks, 72 strikeouts and a .250 opponent average in 91 innings with high-A Bakersfield.

Then came the trade.

Main was already headed to double-A Frisco when the Rangers moved him, so the Giants didn’t interrupt his promotion as they sent him straight to double-A Richmond.  Who knows if it was a change in pitching philosophy, lingering jet lag from changing coasts or just jitters with a new organization, but his time as a Flying Squirrel wasn’t positive.  He went 0-3 with a 13.83 ERA and walked twice as many as he struck out (14 walks compared to seven K’s) over just five games before injuring his hip in late July and missing the rest of the season.

What does the future hold for Main?  It’s uncertain if the highly-touted athlete can finally shake free of the injury bug and find the 96-97 mph fastball and power curveball that got him drafted so highly.  The Giants will certainly give him time to do both, probably inviting him to Major League camp before sending him back to Richmond for a full season.

While we wait to see what unfolds for the man we used to call “The Main Event”, let’s revisit the good old days in Clinton when he was part of a rotation that featured Beavan, Ryan Tatusko (also traded by the Rangers in 2010 to the Washington Nationals) and Michael Kirkman.  

The right-hander arrived from the AZL near the start of July, replacing right-hander Neftali Feliz, who jumped two levels to double-A Frisco.  Main really never encountered trouble over his 10 starts with the LumberKings, stifling opponents to a .228 average while never allowing more than three earned runs in any of his outings.  His signature start came on July 31 against South Bend when he worked six innings of three-hit, one-run baseball, walked none and struck out four.

My featured interview with him took place after his first Clinton start in West Michigan on July 10, a 4.2-inning effort in which he scattered seven hits and allowed just a run in a no-decision (a 6-1 LumberKings’ win).  We discussed the start, his fastball/curveball/change arsenal, rehabbing the fractured rib, teaming up fellow first-rounder Beavan in the rotation, learning to pitch under pressure while on the national stage with Team USA, his bat and more. 

Listen: 
Michael Main, Following First Start (2008).mp3

That’s all for The LumberBlog before the Christmas holiday, but keep an eye out for another entry of “The Interview Vault” on Tuesday, January 4.  Until then, happy holidays!

-DL 

The Interview Vault: Justin Smoak

smoak interview vault.jpg

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

The Interview Vault: Beltre and Kirkman

beltre kirkman interview vault.jpg

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.

Listen: 
Engel Beltre (2008).mp3
 / Michael Kirkman (2008).mp3

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.

-DL

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