One home stand late and two posts off the mark…a belated introduction

Baseball players thrive on rhythm and routine both on and off the diamond. The RoughRiders’ first home stand consisted of two rain-outs (including one on Opening Day), two doubleheaders and six games squished into a four-day span. Two of the games featured rehab appearances by big league hurler (and former RoughRider) Matt Harrison. The ‘Riders played three games in a 24-hour period from April 7-8. Simply put, neither rhythm nor routine were present during the first week of the season.

Fortunately, in a regular season that encompasses five months and 140 games, repetition is almost inevitable. The RoughRiders seem to have found at least a semblance of it in the Natural State on their first road trip of the season. The ‘Riders swept the Northwest Arkansas Naturals in three games, but their first game against the Arkansas Travelers was, as you may have guessed, rained out.

Regardless, back at the corner of Hicks & Diamond Drive, I too, have begun to settle into the ebb and flow of the baseball season. I couldn’t be happier, either. As Alex Vispoli’s Broadcasting & Media Relations Assistant, I am excited to help bring you RoughRiders baseball this summer. You can hear me on the air with Alex during every home game and on pregame/postgame coverage while the team is on the road. I look forward to the journey with the ‘Riders this season and I hope we can learn more about this team and the game of baseball together.

As Alex progressively introduced me to the staff at Dr Pepper Ballpark over the course of my first month in town, I consistently heard the phrase, “Welcome aboard.” My effort to reciprocate this friendly Texas welcome appears before your eyes now, regrettably late by one home stand and two blog posts. This is the 502nd post on the ‘Riders Insider Blog and I realize now I had a subconscious desire to publish the 500th. Alas, my dreams of attaining ‘Riders Insider immortality have been dashed (or at the very least, altered).

In an effort to amend my tardiness, I have included some worthwhile links. ‘Riders on the Record returns below as Alex Vispoli sits down on Opening Day with new ‘Riders skipper, Jason Wood. I also encourage you to listen to the first RoughRiders Roundtable of the season on the Dallas Sports Network with Alex, myself, and the usually uninformed Michael Tepid. Many thanks to Ted Price for his work on the production end.

Click here to listen to the 13th edition of RoughRiders Roundtable.

I am genuinely thrilled to climb on the saddle with the RoughRiders in 2014. Here’s to a great ride.

-Chris Vosters

‘Riders Rewind with Nick Martinez

Nick Martinez was very impressive in his short stint with the 'Riders last season. (Photo credit to Grant Nelson)

Nick Martinez was very impressive in his short stint with the ‘Riders last season. (Photo credit to Grant Nelson)

Yesterday the RoughRiders’ 2014 Opening Day roster was announced and there was a little confusion around the inclusion of Nick Martinez.  The right-hander was listed on Frisco’s roster, but was also announced as the Rangers’ #5 starter to begin the season.  The schedule of Texas’ rotation plans haven’t been completely finalized at the moment, but I’m guessing there’s at least a chance that the Rangers could do the same thing with Martinez as they did with Nick Tepesch a year ago.  In 2013, because the Rangers didn’t need a fifth starter until the second time through the rotation, Tepesch made a start with Round Rock before joining the big league club.

With the early season off-days the Rangers have, they could wait until April 9 in Boston (game #9 of the season) before needing a fifth starter.  That could allow Martinez to make a start for Frisco and then join Texas for as long as the Rangers need him.  I haven’t heard that formally announced, but it would make some sense.

As for Martinez himself, he’s a bit off the radar compared to the other pitching prospects you’ve probably heard about (i.e., Luke Jackson, Chi Chi Gonzalez).  The former Fordham second baseman has become a polished pitching prospect who throws a 91-94 mph fastball, an excellent curveball, a changeup and a slider.  He works quickly and is very athletic (as you would expect from a former middle infielder).  He was stellar in his month with the RoughRiders last season, going 2-0 with a 1.13 ERA (4 ER/32 IP).

Nathan Barnett, my broadcast partner from last season and the new Voice of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, interviewed Martinez last season and they talked a lot about his development as a pitcher.  It’s definitely worth a listen:

 

- Alex

The Dandy Dozen: The ‘Riders Turn 12

It's shaping up to be another great summer at Dr Pepper Ballpark.

It’s shaping up to be another great summer at Dr Pepper Ballpark.

This article originally appeared in the March 21 edition of SportsPage Weekly, which is a free publication available throughout the Metroplex.  To view the article in the online edition, click here.

There are very few “sure things” in life, but when it comes to local sports and entertainment options, the Frisco RoughRiders are just about as close to a sure thing as you can get.  Year after year, Dr Pepper Ballpark hosts exciting baseball action, premium prospects and fun for the whole family.  Ask anyone who has ever been to a RoughRiders game and they’ll tell you how memorable the experience is.

It’s almost hard to believe, but the RoughRiders will soon begin their 12th season on April 3 at home against the Northwest Arkansas Naturals (Kansas City Royals affiliate).  In honor of a dozen years of Frisco baseball, we present the top 12 reasons to catch the RoughRiders in action this season at Dr Pepper Ballpark.

#12 – A winning tradition

Everybody loves a winner.   And over the past decade the RoughRiders have been one of the most consistent winners in Minor League Baseball.  In 2013, Frisco finished with a 70-70 record, its eighth consecutive season with a .500 or better mark on the ledger.  The last time Frisco finished with a losing record was the only time in team history: back in 2005, when the team finished 58-82.  The streak of non-losing seasons is by far the longest in the Texas League; every other team in the circuit has had at least one losing season in the last three years.  The streak is the longest in Double-A and the third-longest among all 120 full-season minor league clubs, exceeded only by the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats (11 straight non-losing seasons) and the Advanced-A San Jose Giants (ten).  Including teams that play in short-season leagues, Frisco’s streak is the sixth longest; the Elizabethton Twins (25), Brooklyn Cyclones (13) and AZL Giants (13) have the longest such streaks in stateside Minor League Baseball.

#11 – History in the making

Baseball fans appreciate the sport’s history and tradition, and the Texas League plays an important role in the lineage of the game. The RoughRiders and their fans belong to a storied Texas League pedigree that dates back to 1888 (the American League was founded in 1901). A game at Dr Pepper Ballpark is more than just a chance to contribute to baseball’s history; it affords fans the opportunity to witness history as it happens. Notable Texas League alumni span the generations and include Major League Hall of Famers Roberto Alomar, Dizzy Dean, Joe Morgan and Whitey Herzog. It is a legacy furthered by many stars in the game today who also enjoyed success in the Texas League. Current Rangers Shin-Soo Choo and Elvis Andrus had All-Star seasons in the Texas League in 2004 and 2008, respectively. Outside the organization, an impressive crop of recent alumni continue to cultivate the Texas League brand as their big league careers flourish. The Texas League footprint extends across the Major League map and features young stars Mike Trout, Matt Adams, Matt Carpenter, Lance Lynn, Jean Segura and numerous others.

#10 – Rehabbing Rangers

Matt Harrison was one of 13 rehabbers who played with the 'Riders in 2013.

Matt Harrison was one of 13 rehabbers who played with the ‘Riders in 2013.

Players, coaches and fans dislike injuries, but they remain an inevitable component of any professional game. For a major league club, the inconvenience of an in-season malady is lessened—somewhat—when an affiliate team plays in the neighborhood. No one in Frisco hopes for a rehab assignment, but when a Rangers’ regular tweaks a calf or strains a wrist, Dr Pepper Ballpark provides a two-fold benefit for both the player and the fan. Players can stay in the Metroplex to nurse an injury and play in an atmosphere that approximates a big league ballgame. On the other hand, fans receive a unique opportunity to view their favorite Rangers in a more intimate setting and at an affordable cost. A total of 13 Rangers players donned a RoughRiders’ cap for a rehab assignment in 2013, including pitcher Matt Harrison, who unfortunately started as many games for Frisco (two) as he did for Texas. Rehab assignments rarely occur with much forewarning, but thanks to Derek Holland’s dog, Wrigley, the southpaw has likely already booked a stint with the RoughRiders in 2014. Make sure you’re in the stands when the Rangers’ rehabbers visit Dr Pepper Ballpark.

#9 – A new skipper

For the first time in five years, someone other than Steve Buechele will write out Frisco’s lineup card.  With Buechele managing the Rangers’ Triple-A club this season, Jason Wood steps into the role for the RoughRiders in 2014.  Wood, a five-year major leaguer and veteran of 18 professional seasons as a player, will begin his fourth season as a manager in the Texas farm system.  The 44-year-old spent the previous three years as the skipper for Advanced-A Myrtle Beach.  He led the Pelicans to the playoffs in all three campaigns and looks to get the ’Riders back to the postseason this year.  While Wood is a fresh face in the dugout, the rest of his coaching staff will remain in place from the last two seasons.  Jeff Andrews returns as the team’s pitching coach following a season in which Frisco’s hurlers collectively set numerous team records.  This past offseason, Andrews was honored the co-recipient of the Rangers’ annual Bobby Jones Player Development Man of the Year award.  Jason Hart will begin his third season as Frisco’s hitting coach and his instruction has been lauded for helping former RoughRiders Jurickson Profar, Mike Olt, Leury Garcia, Chris McGuiness and Engel Beltre all reach the major leagues over the past two seasons.

#8 – Affordability

One of the charms of Minor League Baseball is getting a big league experience without paying a premium price.  RoughRiders games are no different because the team strives to make sure everyone can afford to watch games at Dr Pepper Ballpark.  It can be a major strain on the wallet to attend other professional sporting events.  The average cost for a family of four to attend a Major League Baseball game is approximately $208; for an NFL game that number is $444, with the NBA checking in at $442 and the NHL at $355.  That figure for a Minor League Baseball game?  Just $61.  With RoughRiders tickets starting at just $7 (less than the cost of a movie theater ticket), attending a game at Dr Pepper Ballpark is very much accessible.  But say you’re interested in getting even more value at the ballpark.  The RoughRiders offer affordable ticket plans that include all-you-can-eat food and drink, and even packages that include alcohol.  These value-based ticket plans make attending games in Frisco possible without denting your bank account.

#7 – The other guys aren’t too shabby either

Tomorrow’s stars play today in the Texas League and 2014 is no exception. The RoughRiders will welcome a host of talent from around the circuit to Dr Pepper Ballpark this season, many of whom are ranked on the MLB.com Top 100 Prospects list. The Tulsa Drillers figure to field a strong pitching rotation bolstered by top 50 prospects Jon Gray (#14) and Eddie Butler (#41). Both pitchers bring high-octane velocity to the Drillers’ staff and can touch the upper 90s on the radar gun. Catcher Austin Hedges (#24) of the San Antonio Missions is rated as the second-highest prospect at his position by MLB.com. His strong arm and good footwork behind the plate will give would-be base stealers second thoughts. Kyle Zimmer (#25), the number five overall pick in the 2012 amateur draft, is expected to start the season with the Northwest Arkansas. The Royals promoted Zimmer to Double-A late last season where he held a 1.93 ERA through four starts with the Naturals. Position players to watch for elsewhere in the Texas League include speedy leadoff hitter Delino DeShields (#66) of the Corpus Christi Hooks, Jorge Bonifacio (#91) of the Naturals and gifted batter Stephen Piscotty (#98) of the Springfield Cardinals. Every mentioned player has big league potential.

#6 – You won’t be the only one cheering

The vocal and expressive fan will find a home at Dr Pepper Ballpark. For nine consecutive seasons, the RoughRiders have led all 30 Double-A teams in total and average attendance. More than half-a-million fans routinely fill Dr Pepper Ballpark every season and the team averages better than 7,000 fans per game.  Not only is that the best in Double-A, but it’s also higher than 17 Triple-A teams! On 21 occasions in 2013, the ’Riders drew crowds of more than 10,000. Frisco’s fan base is second to none and players say the crowds enhance the in-game environment more than anywhere else in the Texas League. Bring a sign, be loud and shout until your voice goes out. You won’t be cheering alone.

#5 – More than just peanuts and Cracker Jack

RoughRiders cuisine far outstrips traditional ballpark fare. Sure, fans can still fill up to the gills on foot-long hot dogs and brats from Smokie’s Sausage Shack, but Dr Pepper Ballpark serves something for any palate. The new Beer & Barbeque stand will cook in-house, smoked Texas barbeque favorites while Lone Star Pizza offers a wide range of personal style pies. Deep-fried Oreos grace the à la carte lineup for the first time this season, and for those in search of a healthy option, Greek yogurt is also available. Of course, many Frisco fan favorites will be back on the menu as well, from fresh-spun cotton candy and funnel cakes to snow cones and freshly squeezed lemonade. Of course, few things taste better on a hot Texas night than a cold serving of Dippin’ Dots. It’s never summer without great food, great drinks and RoughRiders baseball.

Luke Jackson figures to lead a very talented starting rotation this season.

Luke Jackson figures to lead a very talented starting rotation this season.

#4 – An arsenal of arms

For the best pitching this side of Yu Darvish and Arlington, Dr Pepper Ballpark is the place to be. The RoughRiders will rely on their mound men to bolster the franchise’s quest for an eighth playoff berth. Right-hander Luke Jackson is expected to lead the group in 2014. The fireballer started the previous season with Advanced-A Myrtle Beach and made his RoughRiders’ debut on August 4, 2013. He didn’t miss a beat in Double-A and finished the season with 134 combined strikeouts at both Myrtle Beach and Frisco and held the eighth-lowest ERA among all full season minor league pitchers (2.04). Those numbers were a big reason why the Rangers named Jackson the club’s 2013 Minor League Pitcher of the Year. Alex Claudio figures to take the reins from Jackson and the starters as a key piece in the RoughRiders’ bullpen in 2014. The deceptive Claudio fools batters with his changeup and was named the Rangers’ Minor League Reliever of the Year last season. Another burgeoning prospect, Alex Gonzalez, hopes to excite the Frisco faithful this year. Don’t call him Alex, though. Gonzalez prefers the nickname “Chi Chi,” given by a family member. Baseball America rates the 2013 first round draft pick as the number six prospect in the Rangers’ organization. Fans on the wild side will anticipate the return of eight-year veteran Kevin Pucetas as he unleashes his newly developed knuckleball pitch on the diamond this season. Other highly-ranked pitchers that are expected to see time in Frisco this season include Alec Asher, Nick Martinez and Jerad Eickhoff.

#3 – Rougned Odor

Top prospect Rougned Odor is expected to begin the season at second base in Frisco.

Top prospect Rougned Odor is expected to begin the season at second base in Frisco.

Because the makeup of minor league teams are up to the discretion of the parent club, you never know who will be on the Opening Day roster until very late in spring training.  That is typically the case with the RoughRiders, but one player who looks very likely to be with the team on April 3 is second baseman Rougned Odor.  The Venezuelan with the memorable name is the Rangers’ top-ranked prospect according to Baseball America and he showed why during a 30-game stint with Frisco at the end of the 2013 season.  Odor was promoted to Double-A in early August and hit .306/.354/.530 with six home runs, eight doubles, two triples and 19 RBI.  And he did all of that as just a 19-year-old, the youngest player in Double-A.  (Projecting those numbers out over a 140-game season, he would have hit 28 homers with 37 doubles, nine triples and 89 RBI.) Now 20, Odor spent the first half of spring training in big league camp and hopes to use that experience to further propel his ascension to the major leagues.  For the time being, however, the spunky infielder with the big bat is expected to ply his trade at Dr Pepper Ballpark.

#2 – Family-friendly entertainment

The RoughRiders are well-known for making trips to Dr Pepper Ballpark about more than just the game on the field.  The atmosphere on game nights is a blast, even for folks who aren’t big baseball fans.  The RoughRiders employ a full-time entertainment director whose sole job is to make sure that families have fun when visiting the ballpark.  From spectacular fireworks shows following every Friday night home game to a collection of more than 180 hilarious on-field skits and promotions that rotate throughout the season, there is something fun for everyone who comes to a game.  Dr Pepper Ballpark even features a pool in right field and two playgrounds (including one specifically designed for two-to-five-year-olds).  And for a lot of fans, their favorite RoughRiders aren’t ones you might see in Arlington someday – they are Deuce and Daisy, the team’s loveable mascots.

#1 – The home of future Rangers

With Odor and a tremendous pitching staff leading the way, there should be another impressive assortment of talent on display at Dr Pepper Ballpark this season.  This has been the norm in each of the RoughRiders’ first 11 seasons in Frisco, and with the Rangers’ relentless pursuit of building a winning organization from top-to-bottom, don’t look for that trend to change anytime soon.  Since 2003, 107 former RoughRiders have reached the major leagues, almost one-third of all Frisco players.  In 2013, ten former ’Riders made the big leagues, including Nick Tepesch, Beltre, Garcia and McGuiness.  One look at the Rangers’ 40-man roster shows that half of its members played in Frisco.  Elvis Andrus, Harrison, Alexi Ogando, Holland, Leonys Martin, Profar, Neftali Feliz, Mitch Moreland, Tanner Scheppers and Martin Perez are just a few of the Texas stalwarts who once wore a RoughRiders uniform.  Outside of the Rangers organization, All-Stars such as Ian Kinsler, Chris Davis, Adrian Gonzalez and C.J. Wilson all spent time in Frisco as well.

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With the RoughRiders, fans get winning baseball, exciting prospects, delicious food, affordable family fun and the future of the Texas Rangers on display.  It all shows that the Frisco RoughRiders continue to be a sure thing for families and sports fans across the Metroplex.

Frisco Futures: Checking in with Lewis Brinson

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Lewis Brinson (center) and Joey Gallo (right) were part of Jon Daniels’ hailed 2012 draft class.

If you follow the Rangers’ farm system, then it’s very likely you’ve heard of Lewis Brinson.  An athletic outfielder from Coral Springs, Florida, Texas drafted Brinson in the first round (29th overall) in 2012.  He played his first full season with low-A Hickory last year and was part of a Crawdads team that broke the South Atlantic League record for home runs in a single season (178).  Brinson’s individual season was a bit of mixed bag: he hit .237/.322/.749 with 21 homers, 52 RBI, 24 steals and 191 strikeouts.

On Saturday, Brinson got his first taste of big league action, pinch hitting for Michael Choice in the Rangers’ wild, 16-15 spring training win over the Athletics.  He doubled to center field on the first pitch he saw from 2013 Midland RockHound Ryan Dull in the seventh inning before flying out to right in the eighth.

Entering the 2014 season, ESPN.com’s Keith Law ranks Brinson as the Rangers’ fourth-best minor league prospect.  The right-handed outfielder won’t turn 20 until May 8 and figures to begin the year with either Hickory or Myrtle Beach.  While it’s unlikely he could reach Frisco this year, a great campaign could lead to a late season cameo with the RoughRiders.  While I was out in Surprise last week, I caught up with Brinson and we talked about spring training, last season in Hickory and his goals before breaking camp.

If you’d like to listen to the audio of the interview, click here.

Alex Vispoli: Lewis, this is your second spring training; what’s been the difference from what you came in to see last year and what you’ve been going through this year?

Lewis Brinson: Last spring training I was kind of in awe a little bit.  The whole spring training aspect of it with big leaguers around everywhere; guys that you grew up loving and now you’re training with them, stretching with them, hitting with them, getting to talk to them everyday.  But now I’ve gotten kind of used to it and I’m just trying to win a job here.  You’ve got a better idea of what you need to do to get ready for the season, so I’m just looking at it like that.

AV: Instead of being in awe of the big leaguers, are you trying this year to learn from them, watching what they do and how they go about their business?

LB: Yeah, definitely.  Anytime a big leaguer stops and talks to you, you listen.  I’m just watching them walk around, hitting, throwing, stretching, working out, talking.  Just getting used to knowing how they go about their business.  You want to be at that level one day so who cares if you copy them?  They’re big leaguers, they’re there for a reason, so why not be like them?

AV: A lot of folks looked at that Hickory team that you were on last year – you had Joey Gallo, Nomar Mazara, Ronald Guzman, Jorge Alfaro –a lot of really young guys that have had a ton of success early in their pro careers.  Was it fun to be a part of that group?  You guys are all about the same age, in the same boat, with the same experience level, playing together.

LB: Oh yeah, that was very fun.  Everybody looked at our home runs last year [with us being] a really young group and was asking “How did they hit that many home runs?  These guys must be freakishly talented or on something.”  But we have a great time together.  We’re all, like you said, the same age, so we love being around each other.  We all have the same goals; we all have the same work ethic and want to get to the big leagues around the same time and start our big league careers together, hopefully with the Texas Rangers.  We’re just out there having a good time.  I love those guys.

AV: Finally Lewis, what are your goals here for the next couple of weeks before you break camp?

LB: Just to get ready.  [Minor league spring] games start Thursday [March 13].  So just getting ready for the season.  It’s grind time, trying to make a team and trying to get your last bit of work in.  Just come here everyday with a plan, and plan to get better everyday.

AV: Well Lewis, best of luck here over the next couple of weeks.  Stay healthy and hopefully at some point down the line we’ll see you in Frisco.

LB: All right, see you there.

Thanks for reading.

-          Alex

First impressions: New RoughRiders manager Jason Wood

Wood_Marlins_bat

Jason Wood played for parts of five seasons in the big leagues, including 2006-08 with the Florida Marlins.

When I was out in Surprise this week I had the opportunity to interview the new manager of the Frisco RoughRiders, Jason Wood.  Jason replaces four-year skipper Steve Buechele, who takes the reins for the Rangers’ Triple-A affiliate in Round Rock this season.  Like Buechele, Wood is a California native and previously managed in High-A before coming to Frisco.  He led the Myrtle Beach Pelicans to the playoffs in three straight seasons and figures to take over a talented roster in 2014.  When I talked to him on Tuesday in Arizona, the minor leaguers were in the midst of playing intersquad games with mixed rosters.  We talked about the plan for spring training and his excitement for getting to Frisco.

If you’d like to listen to the interview, simply click here.

Alex Vispoli: You guys just finished up an intersquad game.  I bet it’s nice to just start playing real, or almost real, baseball here.

Jason Wood: It is, it absolutely is.  It seems like these young guys have been out here for about two weeks now.  To see some live pitching, to see some game action is something they’ve been chomping at the bit to do for the last two weeks.  The last couple of days have been good.  From what I’ve seen a lot of our hitters are starting to get on the fastball a little bit more and do some good things.  And pitchers are making some good pitches when they need to.  But all in all, it’s just nice to see everybody get in some game situations and we’re ready to get after it [when minor league games begin] on Thursday.

AV: And knock off a little bit of rust too.  I’m sure that’s part of this process, getting back into game mode and seeing live pitches, seeing breaking balls and getting the timing down.

Ryan Strausborger is one of the players who has impressed Jason Wood out in Surprise.

Ryan Strausborger is one of the players who has impressed Jason Wood out in Surprise.

JW: Yeah, that’s what it is.  You come out here and get you into spring training for the first couple weeks you’re just getting your hands working a little bit.  Working in the cage, as far as hitters go and seeing some soft toss and seeing some pretty easy BP.  But in game situations you start to amp it up a bit, get the blood flowing and guys are seeing some velocity.  All in all, from what I’ve seen on the field, the timing has been pretty good.  I’ve seen some guys that have been in Frisco in the past; Strausborger has been hitting the ball pretty hard.  Jared Hoying has taken off where he left off in a sense, he’s hitting the ball hard.  All in all, I think these guys have been putting in their work, the hard time and seeing them face some live pitching, they’re ready to go.

AV: What will be the next couple of phases these guys go through – the hitters and the pitchers – as you start getting into playing other organizations before breaking camp?

JW: Well, we’ll start to slow it down a little bit as far as our workload goes.  We’ll come out, and our position players will run through a short team fundamental in the morning and then we’ll go into batting practice and then basically get ready for the game.  The pitchers will still get on their scheduled routine as far as throwing every five days and relievers will probably throw every other day.  Basically, we’ll just start to tone it down and get into game situations, game scenarios.

AV: The players are pretty mixed up at this point.  Guys who were in A-ball last year are playing with guys who were in Triple-A last year.  Are you looking forward to getting your own group of guys at some point here in camp, the guys that you’ll be bringing to Frisco?

JW: I do, I really do.  Last year I was managing in Myrtle Beach and I was pretty fortunate to have my entire squad during the entire spring training, so that made it nice.  It doesn’t look like it’s going to be like that this year with me managing the Triple-A team here in spring training.  But hopefully with about a week to go in spring training we’ll have most of the group and we’ll get together as a unit and start to put in our defensive plays and get things going.  I don’t see that right away but everybody’s getting their reps, everybody’s getting their swings and we’ll just see how this club turns out.

AV: Finally, since you were officially named manager of the RoughRiders, what have folks told you about what to expect when you come to Frisco and what are you looking forward to when you’re managing in the Texas League?

JW: First and foremost, I hear the fan base is outstanding and that will be a pleasure to deal with.  The ballpark is second to none and the league itself is a pretty competitive league.  I’m just excited to get ready for some Double-A baseball and be a part of that RoughRider organization and put some good talent on the field.  I think that’s something that the Rangers do a very good job of.  With each of our affiliates, we put talent out there.  Our main focus is development but at the day’s end we want to win and we want to grind our wins, be a competitive team at the end and be a playoff contender.

AV: We’re just a few weeks away from opening day.  We’re looking forward to seeing you and the rest of the guys back in the Metroplex.  Thanks  for the time.

JW: All right Alex.  I appreciate it and thanks for having me.

Thanks for reading.

- Alex

Day Three in Surprise: Chi-Chi, Cacti and Camelback Ranch

Tommy Hansen faces the White Sox at beautiful Camelback Ranch.

Tommy Hansen faces the White Sox at Camelback Ranch.

This week I’m taking in my first visit to Surprise, Arizona for Rangers Spring Training, and I’m bringing you with me. Click the links if you missed the earlier recaps of my trip: Day One ….  Day Two.  

As I’ve mentioned before in this space, I had never been to Arizona prior to this trip (29 states down, 21 to go).  I had an expectation as to what it would be like out here, but I was a little bit jarred seeing cacti and palm trees almost equally share this suburban landscape.  Sure, I was expecting the saguaro, prickly pear and barrel cacti; but I didn’t know about the palm tree prevalence here.  The sight of such disparate plants juxtaposed with each other makes for a strange sight, but I guess there were some people who also thought it bizarre to combine soft serve vanilla and chocolate ice cream into a magnificent swirl of tasty goodness.

I might argue that baseball in the state of Arizona presents a bit of a dichotomy. Here you have a place that is mostly desert with its capital city receiving just eight inches of rain per year.  When you fly over the area, the predominant color is some combination of beige/brown.  A baseball field’s most striking color is green.  When people walk into a stadium for the first time, they don’t often remark about the infield dirt; it’s the lush green grass that catches the eye.  And the grass gets that green because groundskeepers need to regularly douse it with tremendous amounts of water.

I’m not trying to make some sort of environmental case against baseball in Arizona.  I’m just saying it’s always interesting when you see two things put together that don’t naturally seem to belong.  That was the theme I kept coming back to as I took in my final full day in the Valley of the Sun.

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Alex Rios waits for his turn to hit during batting practice.

Alex Rios waits for his turn to hit during batting practice.

9:15 a.m. - I get to the complex a little later this morning, which is no worry because the back fields are still empty by the time I arrive.  Fields 1 & 2, however, are a different story.  The big league club is active with batting practice and Ron Washington is holding court in an otherwise empty dugout at Nolan Ryan Field with a larger media contingent than we’ve seen the last few days.  The reason is two-fold: the Round Rock Express front office has just gotten into town and arrive with several members of their local media, hungry for information on the 2014 squad.  Also, Matt Harrison is making his spring debut in the “B” game this morning against the Royals.  There’s a definite buzz in the air that I hadn’t felt the previous two days here in Surprise.

As I attempt to poke my head into the media scrum, my attention is drawn away by Rangers PR man John Blake, who asks if I can help him with a media request involving minor leaguer and longtime RoughRider Guilder Rodriguez.  One of the DFW TV stations wants to do a story on a veteran player in the minors who helps teach the younger guys how to play the game and Guilder (pronounced “WHEEL-dair”) is the perfect candidate.  I’m happy to help, but I’m also struck by the unusual request.  With all of the great players in camp, some of them brand new to the Rangers (Fielder, Choo), this station wants to report on a 30-year-old Venezuelan utility man with two home runs in 13 professional seasons.  It’s not an easy story to sell the average fan back home, who will likely never see G-Rod play in a game.  Impressed by the request (I’ve never known TV sports guys to be the most enterprising of reporters…), I head to the back fields to tell Guilder that he will be interviewed later in the day.

Matt Harrison delivers to Eric Hosmer in the "B" game on Tuesday.

Matt Harrison delivers to Eric Hosmer in the “B” game on Tuesday.

10 a.m. - They let the fans in a little early today so they could catch the “B” game and Harrison’s start.  The “B” game is played on one of the Rangers practice fields and not in the main stadium.  It looks very much like a minor league spring game, given the spartan surroundings.  But this is no quaint exercise in pitchers simply getting their work in.  It can’t be when the Royals bring over prized big leaguers Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer, Danny Valencia and Mike Moustakas to play in the contest.  Over on Field 2, batting practice with some of the big leaguers is still going on while Harrison unleashes a fastball for strike one to get the contest started.  He retires the first batter thanks to a superb sliding catch down the right field line by second baseman Rougned Odor, gives up a hit, but retires the next two batters to complete his work for the day.   Harrison says after his outing that he felt good and the recovery into Wednesday will be key to determining the next step for him as he comes back from three 2013 surgeries.

Harrison is the only “regular” playing for the Rangers in this game; most of the others will be suiting up later in the day against the White Sox. Odor ends up providing all of the offense in the “B” game, stroking an RBI triple and a two-run home run off lefty Everett Teaford.  I wasn’t there to see it, but Odor allegedly flipped his bat after going yard.  In an unrelated note, the RoughRiders open the season against the Royals-affiliated Northwest Arkansas Naturals on April 3.

Rougned Odor and Engel Beltre strike a similar pose in the "B" game.

Rougned Odor and Engel Beltre strike a similar pose in the “B” game.

Greg and Mike Maddux get a good look at the pitchers along with the Royals coaches.

Greg and Mike Maddux get a good look at the pitchers along with the Royals coaches.

10:30 a.m. - I spy Alex “Chi-Chi” Gonzalez nearby and chat with him for a bit about his first Spring Training.  Because I want you to learn a little more about the Rangers’ 2013 first round draft pick, I recorded the interview so I could post it here.  I’ll transcribe it when I’m back in Frisco, but here’s a link to the audio for now.

11 a.m. - I head to the back fields for the start of more intersquad games between the Rangers minor leaguers.  Just like yesterday, the teams are mixed up pretty significantly, with Triple-A guys playing alongside short-season guys in some cases.  After the final out of each half inning is recorded, the team on offense sends up a player to bunt so that both sides can work on bunt execution.  The players seem to forget that they’re doing this every inning, so most of them begin running off the field after the third out is recorded, only to have about eight people yell “BUNT PLAY!” at them so they stay in their positions.

Alec Asher, a prospective 2014 'Rider, pitches to Nomar Mazara. Asher sat 94-95 with his fastball and looked sharp.

Alec Asher, a prospective 2014 ‘Rider, pitches to Nomar Mazara. Asher sat 94-95 with his fastball and looked sharp.

Many of the players found themselves away from their natural positions.  Travis Demeritte, a shortstop by trade, played at second base.  Ryan Rua, an infielder, was in left field.  Catcher Jorge Alfaro was at first base, as was outfielder Jared Hoying (who also saw time at second base in a “B” game earlier in Spring Training; he reportedly impressed Ron Washington with his performance).  The reasons for moving players around like this include building up a player’s versatility, experimenting to determine if a new position might be a better fit or protecting a player from injury.

Jared Hoying plays in on the grass at first base.  Jairo Beras lingers off the bag.

Jared Hoying plays in on the grass at first base. Jairo Beras lingers off the bag.

11:45 a.m. - I get permission to watch some of the games from up in the tower that sits between all four of the minor league fields.  Many of the coaches will shuttle between the observation tower and field level to watch the action.  It’s a great way to keep an eye on as much of the games as possible.  Some of the coaches who are up there with me include Field Coordinator Jayce Tingler, Infield Coordinator Casey Candaele, Special Assignment Hitting Instructor Harry Spillman and some guy named Ivan Rodriguez.  Yeah, I’ve never heard of him either.

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It won't be framed anywhere, but here's a good look at the view from the observation tower.

It won’t be framed anywhere, but here’s a good look at the view from the observation tower. (Click to see a bigger image)

Once the intersquad games are complete, I make one last lap around the facility and say my goodbyes to folks.  I fly back to Texas on Wednesday morning and won’t be back at Rangers camp on this trip.

Pudge is still a pretty popular guy with Rangers fans.

Pudge is still a pretty popular guy with Rangers fans.

A scout's view at Camelback Ranch.

A scout’s view at Camelback Ranch.

2:30 p.m. - Following a quick lunch, I make my way to Camelback Ranch, the Spring Training complex in Glendale that is home to the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers.  The Rangers are playing the Pale Hose in another Cactus League matchup and by the time I arrive, it’s 5-0 Sox in the sixth inning.  I saunter over to the scout seats behind home plate and find my friend Jason Cole.  Known to many Rangers fans as the publisher of “Lone Star Dugout” and a contributor to Baseball Prospectus, Jason was also the color commentator for our RoughRiders TV broadcasts the last few years.  During the off-season, the Tampa Bay Rays recognized his talents as an evaluator and hired him to be a professional scout (read more about it here).  Sadly, Jason will no longer be able to join me on the air, but I’m very excited for him and his new path in baseball.  He’ll still make it to Frisco every now and then to scout the Rangers (maybe picking out the pieces in a future David Price trade?), so there will still be future opportunities to make him laugh at my awful jokes when he’s up in the press box, as he’s dutifully done in recent seasons.

2:45 p.m. - I take a lap around the ballpark to see the sights of one of the newer facilities in the Cactus League.  It is located just south of University of Phoenix Stadium (the home of the Arizona Cardinals) and the land around the ballpark is mostly desert scrub.  If you look at the surrounding area on Google Maps, you see what appears to be a large river flowing near the complex.  Sadly, the Agua Fria River is completely dry.  Check out the same map through the satellite view and you’ll see what I mean.  It is not a picturesque area near the park, however inside the complex it looks and feels like a resort.  Man-made ponds, winding pathways and an elaborate collection of trees make Camelback Ranch feel quite different from the land around it.  I will say, it is a very nice facility and it has the most unique design of the three complexes I have visited on this trip.

Resort, or baseball complex?

Resort, or baseball complex?

This is the view you get when you walk into the ballpark from the center field gate.  You wouldn't even know it's a baseball stadium.

This is the view you get when you walk into the ballpark from the center field gate. You wouldn’t even know it’s a baseball stadium.

Bring a hat to Camelback Ranch, because there is very little shade for a vast majority of the seats.

Bring a hat to Camelback Ranch, because there is very little shade for a vast majority of the seats.

Looking in from left field.

Looking in from left field.

The Dodgers' offices are located beyond left field while the White Sox have an identical building beyond right.

The Dodgers’ offices are located beyond left field while the White Sox have an identical building beyond right.

Brett Nicholas (bottom left) and Wilmer Font (upper right), both 2013 RoughRiders, help man the Texas bullpen.

Brett Nicholas (bottom left) and Wilmer Font (upper right), both 2013 RoughRiders, help man the Texas bullpen.

The park looks empty, but most fans have flocked to the shade, leaving the tan seats baking in the sun.

The park looks empty, but most fans have flocked to the shade, leaving the tan seats baking in the sun.

One of the reasons I especially wanted to come to this game was the fact that the White Sox were the Rangers’ opponent.  Prior to

My former skipper Joe McEwing waves home a White Sox player.

My former skipper Joe McEwing waves home a White Sox player.

joining the RoughRiders, I spent two seasons as the broadcaster for the Winston-Salem Dash, the High-A affiliate of Chicago.  In addition to seeing many familiar players suit up for the White Sox, I recognized a few coaches.  The Dash’s manager in 2010, Joe McEwing, is now the third base coach for Robin Ventura’s squad, while the bullpen coach is former Winston pitching coach Bobby Thigpen.

During my walk around the park, I spy “Thiggy” in the home bullpen and call down to him during a lull in the action.  He’s happy to see me and we have a short chat that is interrupted by an usher.  He tells me to not stand next to the bullpen railing or converse with the coaches during the game.  I sheepishly say goodbye to Thiggy and then make my way back to the concourse, feeling like an embarrassed third grader who was caught talking during class.

3:45 p.m. - After the Rangers rally to take the lead in the top of the eighth, Chicago ties it in the bottom of the inning and then wins it in the ninth to send Texas to a 7-6 loss.  Afterwards I grab dinner with the Rays’ newest pro scout and bid adieu to Arizona baseball.  In the natural scheme of things, it might not make a lot of sense, but watching so much baseball in the desert this week was a blast and I’m already looking forward to another trip next year (not to mention Opening Day in about three weeks).

Getting over my palm tree-cactus complex.

Getting over my palm tree-cactus complex.

I’ll have more from my trip to Arizona over the next few days, but it’s back to DFW for now.  As always, thanks for reading.

- Alex

Back fields, bees and Buckel: Day Two in Surprise

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The all-seeing eye of the back fields, providing a prime view of four diamonds at once.

This week I’m taking in my first visit to Surprise, Arizona for Rangers Spring Training, and I’m bringing you with me. If you missed the recap of Day One of my trip, check it out right here.

From what I can gather, you go through a few different phases during Spring Training as a player,coach and executive.

1. There’s the initial burst of excitement over getting back to a baseball field and rediscovering your passion for the game you love.  This period is great – until you grow weary of the numerous of meetings, practices, simulated situations and other minutia that, while important, is not why anyone signed up to be a part of this game.  All during this time, you’re chomping at the bit to start playing something that at least resembles a game.

2. You eventually do move into this phase, but they’re not real games (granted, Spring Training games are not really like real games, but at least it’s somewhat close); they’re more like scrimmages that you play against the same people you’ve been practicing against for the last week or two.

3. Just when you get to the point where you’re mentally over the idea of facing the same opponent day after day, you start games against other organizations, which is a major refresher for the mind.

4. Then, you just get sick and tired of being in Arizona for up to two months and playing the role of “human sunny-side up egg” in the roasting desert sun.  You want to get the season underway and start playing games that count (with real stats too).

The big leaguers are in the midst of Phase 3, while the minor leaguers have just gotten to Phase 2, which I watched begin in earnest on Monday morning at the Rangers’ Spring Training complex in Surprise.  Along the way, I witnessed the start of a comeback, a rebirth, the long-term future and the bizarre before finishing the day with a Hall of Famer.

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Hypoderm Sunscreen & 99¢ Only Stores, two lifesavers.

7:45 a.m.  - As I alluded to at the end of yesterday’s post, I was not going to play the role of fool two days in a row (at least in this specific respect) and get microwaved by the southwest sun once again.  Upon the recommendation of the helpful hotel lobby person, I headed over the nearby “99 ¢ Only Store” (because dollar stores are considered too bourgeoisie here) to purchase some sunscreen.  Now, I was just as suspicious as you probably are reading this about buying 99-cent sunscreen.  “Wouldn’t splashing a layer of water on your skin be at least equally effective?”  Yeah, that ran through my head, but my faith in “Hypoderm Sunscreen” (Note to anyone who thought, “Why didn’t I think of an amazing name like that?”: it’s not a registered trademark, apparently) was rewarded. My burns from Sunday were reasonably contained and my skin did not start falling off at any point.  And I feel like a true bargain hunter after spotting this attempt on eBay to charge some poor sap $12.99+shipping for three of these babies. The whole episode felt a little like hitting a three-point bank shot that you didn’t call.

8:15 a.m. - Things are still fairly quiet by the time I reach the complex, probably due to the fact that fans won’t be let into the facility until 10 a.m.  There are a few hitters getting some early work in and some of the big leaguers are trickling in for the day.  The Rangers clubhouse is divided into two sides: one for the major leaguers and one for the minor leaguers.  The minor league clubhouse is a lot bigger, but more crowded because there are so many more players in that camp.  I am a bit surprised at how nice the minor league clubhouse is, however.  I wasn’t necessarily expecting Bull Durham or some high school level accommodations, but I wasn’t expecting it to be nearly equal in many respects to the big league side.  The lockers are made of wood (like the major leaguers) and are certainly an acceptable size, the flood is nicely carpeted and it has a welcoming tone to it.  It’s much better than many road stadium clubhouses (and some home ones too) I’ve seen in my baseball travels.

On this particular morning, I meet Alex “Chi-Chi” Gonzalez in the clubhouse and we talk about his outing in the big league “A” game the day before.  He allowed three of the four men he faced to reach base before being removed after hitting his 20-pitch limit.  A pair of meekly-hit grounders were able to sneak through for hits, so he isn’t overly negative about his performance even though all three men came home to score later in the inning.  As for his nickname (which he prefers to go by, by the way), Chi-Chi says it was given to him by his grandfather’s brother; he nicknamed Gonzalez’ two older sisters Nina and Nene, so Chi-Chi seemed to fit the bill for Alex.

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Uniform reinforcements are on standby outside the clubhouse.

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Lots of players in camp means lots of broken bats. There’s an overflowing cardboard box filled with them.

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Approximately one-sixteenth of the baseballs they’ve got in camp. These ones haven’t yet met a bat or blade of grass.

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It’s hard not to look forward to the future when you see a foursome like Joey Gallo, Nick Williams, Lewis Brinson and Nomar Mazara hitting together.

9 a.m. - Pockets of minor league hitters are taking batting practice out on the back fields (the big leaguers practice on the two fields closest to the stadium/clubhouse).  I stumble upon the BP group that folks who love prospects dream about: Joey Gallo, Nick Williams, Lewis Brinson and Nomar Mazara.  Like many, I’ve heard a lot about these players but have never seen them in person (Ronald Guzman and Jorge Alfaro are also among the super-prospects who are super-young and populated Hickory’s Avengers-like squad last season).  Like many, I am impressed at first glance.  I didn’t realize how big they all were.  At 6’3″, Brinson is the shrimp of the group.  The others are either 6’4″ or 6’5″ and aren’t just tall rods with pine tar on their batting gloves.  They’re built like stallions and we may see one or two gallop to Frisco by the end of 2014 if things go well.

I have a nice conversation about Cody Buckel with rehab pitching coordinator Keith Comstock, who says that Buckel is throwing the ball as well as he ever has.  Buckel, the Rangers’ 2012 Nolan Ryan Minor League Pitcher of the Year, suffered a bad case of the yips last season and spent most of the campaign rewiring himself mentally and mechanically.  I hadn’t heard much about Cody since the end of the season and am excited to see him pitch later in the day.

9:30 a.m. - The pitchers meet as a group with new farm director Mike Daly right next to the tall observation structure pictured at the start of the blog entry and it’s not long before Daly is about to give another talk to the hitters.  It’s recommended that I join the group if I want a cool history lesson.  Daly proceeds to educate the players about notable players from the 1966 MLB draft.  The first overall pick was Steve Chilcott by the Mets – a seven-year minor leaguer who never reached the show.  The second pick did slightly better.  His name is Reggie Jackson.  Daly tells the group about Reggie’s career and his epic performances in the World Series before finishing up by talking about the sixth overall pick from that draft: none other than Tom Grieve.  I later speak with Daly and we talk about his history lesson.  He’s concerned about the relative lack of knowledge many young players have about players who came before them, so he makes it a point to relay some history during camp through his own lessons and visits from legends like Pudge Rodriguez and others.  Hopefully Texas’ minor leaguers can avoid the fate of Josh Hart.

10 a.m. - After the meetings wrap up, it’s more practice time on the back fields. The four fields are filled with defensive drills, bunt plays and batting practice.  I’ll see infield work before games throughout the season, but never 20-30 minutes’ worth with every pitcher also taking part in these simulated situations.  These are the minor leagues, and the minors are all about development.  We see that over the course of the season, but the foundation is laid right here.

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Jason Wood hits grounders and calls out simulated scenarios for the fielders to respond to like they were in an actual game.

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Ryan Rua sizes up a Jason Wood pitch during BP.

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Greg Maddux about to hit a grounder back to Nick Tepesch as he joins Matt Harrison and Tommy Hanson for fielding work.

11:30 a.m. - Most of the big leaguers have left the practice fields to get ready for that afternoon’s game against the Reds, but not everyone has headed back to the clubhouse.  On the infield-only field, Greg Maddux is hitting ground balls back to Matt Harrison, Nick Tepesch and Tommy Hanson.  So not only the minor league guys work on fielding, and what better mound defender to learn from than Maddux, who only racked up a record 18 Gold Gloves during his Hall of Fame career.  With not a whole lot else going on, a crush of fans flock to get in prime autograph position for when the session is over (for Tepesch, obviously).

On my way back to the big league side, I have a short chat with Rangers manager Ron Washington who is about to drive his golf back to the clubhouse.  I wish him luck this season at the end of our conversation, to which he responds, “Well thank you baby!” and drives off.

12 noon - I meet Brandon Boyd, who is one of the Rangers’ clubhouse managers and also a former RoughRiders employee.  Brandon oversaw the ‘Riders clubhouse from 2005-09 before moving on to Arlington.  He takes me into the big league clubhouse, where I catch up with several familiar faces: Mitch Moreland, a RoughRider in 2009 and a rehabber in 2012 & ’13; Ryan Feierbend, a 2013 ‘Rider who would throw a scoreless inning in relief of Yu Darvish later in the day; and Brett Nicholas, Frisco’s best offensive player in 2013.  Nicholas has been with the big club for the spring, mostly as a catcher after spending nearly all of last year at first base. Most of the clubhouse is vacant, but that is probably because it is when media is allowed in for interviews (nobody likes the media, especially radio guys).

On my way back to the minor leaguers, I stop to talk to Harrison, who I met during his rehab stint with Frisco last summer.  Harrison will pitch for the first time in Tuesday’s game and says he feels completely healthy for the first time in a very long time.  He says 2013 was agonizing, but feels like he is in great shape and is ready to get back to what made him an All-Star in 2012.

12:15 p.m. - I return to the back fields to watch the three intersquad games being played (the start of Phase 2 of Spring Training).  Basically, all of the players in camp are mixed into random teams and pitted against one another for games that would last approximately five innings.  This is once of the coolest parts of the day.  On Field 5 I see Jorge Alfaro lace a Kevin Pucetas knuckleball to right-center for a triple.  Pucetas is reinventing himself as a knuckleball pitcher after toying with the pitch in Frisco last season.  Despite the Alfaro three-bagger, the knucklers dance enough that Pucetas does not allow another baserunner.

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Kevin Pucetas readies a knuckleball while warming up in the bullpen.

The lineups for one intersquad game.

The lineups for one intersquad game.

Wait a minute, let's get a better look at that Jason Wood baseball card.

Wait a minute, let’s get a better look at that Jason Wood baseball card.

When I turn to Field 4, I watch Alex Claudio end an inning with a pickoff at second base with Juremi Profar batting and later Jon Edwards hits 98 on the radar gun.  It is tough to keep up with all three games at once, so I miss some action but thoroughly enjoy what I did see.  And the players seem to enjoy playing in games for the first time since last season.  The minor league guys will play intersquad games on Tuesday and Wednesday before squaring off against other organizations beginning Thursday.

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Nomar Mazara attempts to square up a pitch during an intersquad game. That’s Jorge Alfaro behind the plate.

Soon enough, it’s Buckel’s turn to pitch and I am not disappointed.  Cody looks a lot like the 2012 Cody; the one who struck out 9.9 batters per nine innings and displayed impeccable control.  Buckel gets a strikeout and ultimately retires three of the four men he faces.  Afterwards, he tells me that it felt good to finally pitch in his first game action since a pair of early-August AZL contests.  He says he didn’t attack the strike zone the way he has in recent bullpens, but chalks that up to the long delay in facing live batters.

As an aside, I don’t want to make Buckel’s outing out to be more than it was.  It was a good step in the right direction after a nightmare 2013, not a guarantee that he will never struggle again on the mound in the minors.  I hope that he can string outings like this together and get his career back to where it was, and then beyond.  Monday was not a definitive answer to anything, but it certainly was encouraging to see.

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Cody Buckel looked completely different than the last time I saw him pitch in 2013, when he struggled to throw strikes.

2 p.m. - Following the intersquad games, I head back to Surprise Stadium, where the Rangers and Reds are well underway.  But before I can enter the stadium through the team offices, I encounter an obstacle I just am not expecting: bees.  Lots of them.  A stone column that sits between the office and the stadium concourse apparently gathered an enormous mass of bees over the span of an hour.  There was no hive there previously; they just all swarmed to that spot and just stayed.  I’m told it’s probably not safe to walk past them and that pest control is on its way.  I agree that missing an inning or so of a Spring Training game in exchange for avoiding hundreds of simultaneous bee stings is probably a fair trade.  It isn’t long before a group of close to a dozen people (including Rangers special assistant and former pitcher Darren Oliver) join me to watch the extermination.

A photo essay of the kill:

The swarm of bees were approximately the size of a basketball and it seemed to be growing.

The swarm of bees was approximately the size of a basketball and it seemed to be growing.

Nonchalant pest control showed up on a moment's notice.

Nonchalant pest control showed up on a moment’s notice.

You know it's memorable when even the exterminator is snapping photos. But he was crazy close without much face protection.

You know it’s memorable when even the exterminator is snapping photos. But he was crazy close without much face protection.

Getting to work. They put a tarp down to help collect the dead bees.

Getting to work. They put a tarp down to help collect the dead bees.

He's not spraying any sort of insecticide or poison; it's actually just soapy water, which apparently messes with the bees pretty badly.

He’s not spraying any sort of insecticide or poison; it’s actually just soapy water, which apparently messes with the bees pretty badly.

The whole group didn't fall at once.  The bees came out in fist-sized clumps.

The whole group didn’t fall at once. The bees came out in fist-sized clumps.

After about five minutes of spraying, the coast was clear and I dashed into the ballpark.

After about five minutes of spraying, the coast was clear and I dashed into the ballpark.

2:15 p.m. - The Rangers and Reds are in the fifth inning by the time I get past the bees and into the stadium.  Yu Darvish is finishing up his outing and both teams get ready to send in position players that 95% of the stadium has never heard of.  Now 11 years old, Billy Parker Field at Surprise Stadium holds up very well and seems to be an enjoyable place to watch a game.  There’s a big Monday crowd on hand; hopefully most of them do not leave with bee stings.

The second level view from right behind home plat.e

The second level view from right behind home plate.

A look from the third base concourse. The Rangers team offices are housed in the building in the back.

A look from the third base concourse. The Rangers team offices are housed in the building in the back.

Looking homeward from the outfield berm. That grass the fans are seated on is actually a plastic synthetic surface that feels and looks like real grass.  I had to pluck one from the ground to confirm it wasn't the real deal.

Looking homeward from the outfield berm. That grass the fans are seated on is actually a plastic synthetic surface that feels and looks like real grass. I had to pluck one from the ground to confirm it wasn’t the real deal.

Want to cool down after the game? There's a community aquatic center across the street from Surprise Stadium.

Want to cool down after the game? There’s a community aquatic center across the street from Surprise Stadium.

The Rangers bullpen is down the right field line. Under the screen you can see 2013 RoughRiders Randy Henry, Jimmy Reyes and Brett Nicholas.

The Rangers bullpen is down the right field line. Under the screen you can see 2013 RoughRiders Randy Henry, Jimmy Reyes and Brett Nicholas.

Kansas City's offices are located on the third base side of the park, exactly opposite (an equal, by all appearances) of the Rangers'. These kids must know that they could never be Royals.

Kansas City’s offices are located on the third base side of the park, exactly opposite the Rangers’. These kids must know that they could never be Royals.

New to me: a souvenir store in a ballpark tailored to women and children.

New to me: a souvenir store in a ballpark tailored to women and children.

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Team-themed coozies are among the specialty products for sale at the “women and kids” team store.

3:15 p.m. - Because I did not get the chance to see him on Sunday, I make a stop by the Rangers’ broadcast booth to see Eric

Eric Nadel (left) and Matt Hicks giving listeners every Josh Wilson detail they could ask for,

Eric Nadel (left) and Matt Hicks giving listeners every Josh Wilson detail they could ask for,

Nadel.  I’ve met Eric a few times at Rangers games and he has always been kind to me.  Rangers fans are lucky to have had him for so long and I wasn’t the only one who was very happy for his Hall of Fame election this past off-season.  I don’t want to take too much of his and Matt Hicks’ time during the game, but I congratulate Eric on the honor during an inning break and then scoot out of the booth.  In the radio booth right next door, fellow Hall of Fame broadcaster Marty Brennaman is broadcasting for the Reds’ radio network.  Eric calls Marty one of his career mentors.

3:40 p.m. - The Rangers wrap up an 8-2 win over Cincinnati as former RoughRiders Neftali Feliz and Nicholas form the game-ending battery.  It’s Texas’ first win since Thursday against San Diego and the last game I’ll see at Surprise Stadium during my stay in Arizona.  The team heads to Camelback Ranch in Glendale to play the White Sox on Tuesday and I’ll be there for at least some of it as I hit the home stretch of my stay in the desert.

The Rangers assume the victory formation after an 8-2 win over the Reds.

The Rangers assume the victory formation after an 8-2 win over the Reds.

As always thanks for reading,

Alex

Deion Sanders and Day One in Surprise

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I think I remember my first visit to an MLB Spring Training.  I’m a little hazy on the year (sometime in the early-90s), but I remember it was in West Palm Beach, Florida and the teams that trained there were the Atlanta Braves and the Montreal Expos.  My family used to spend a week down in Florida during February vacation* and it usually coincided with the first week of Spring Training.  So while the games hadn’t yet started, my dad and I took advantage of the opportunity to watch players work out and just be around baseball whenever we made it down to the Sunshine State.

* – Yes, I realize that most folks reading this are scratching their heads about this. In a few northeast states – I grew up in Massachusetts – the schools would not be in session for a week in February, partially to help save on heating costs during one of the coldest months of the year.

Growing up, the Braves were my second-favorite team and one year my dad bought me a new Braves cap to wear to Spring Training.  I loved the hat and was pretty sure I was going to wear it for the next six months straight.  He also bought me a baseball so I could get as many autographs as I could during our visit.  I filled that sucker up and still have it.  I’m pretty sure John Smoltz is on there, I just have no idea where because I’m not sure a hieroglyphics expert could decipher all of those signatures.  After a successful day of signings, we headed to the parking lot to drive off when someone walking toward the stadium caught our eye.  He was wearing a dark leather jacket, sunglasses, earrings and gaudy gold necklaces. It didn’t take much deduction to figure out who was headed our way.

It was Prime Time himself, Deion Sanders.  With no one around him but dad and me.

I quickly ran up to Deion and asked him to sign my ball.  He didn’t stop, but did slow his pace as we walked stride-for-stride through the lot.  He pushed his sunglasses down toward the end of his nose so he could inspect the baseball with no filter blocking his view and raised an eyebrow.  I know what he was thinking, or at least I think I do: “I’m Deion Sanders. You want me to share a tiny amount of space on this baseball with a bunch of nobodies (minus John Smoltz, I think)?  I don’t think so; I’m Prime Time.”

Deion eyed my Braves hat, which featured no writing other than a white, stitched “A” on top of a blue background, and said, “Flip me your cap.”

At this point I froze.  The 6- or 7-year-old in me knew that if Deion Sanders signed my hat, it would immediately become a piece of sports memorabilia that would need to go up on the mantle and could never be worn again.  I stammered, “I don’t know,” while my dad pleaded for me to let Deion put his mark on my headgear.  As I stalled, not knowing what to do, other fans realized who it was walking to Municipal Stadium and began to swarm Prime.

By the time I was ready to hand over my Braves cap, it was too late.  Too many people had gotten in between Deion and me and the opportunity was lost forever.  Yes, as a boy I turned down an autograph from Deion Sanders because I didn’t want it to spoil my new, $12 Atlanta Braves cap.  While I regretted that foolish decision for years, it at least led to a pretty decent story and my defining Spring Training memory as a child.

We went to a few more Spring Trainings in the years after “Deion Day.” (Including the 1995 Spring Training, which featured replacement players during the MLB strike. The West Palm Beach Expos gave away bumper stickers that featured the slogan “Where the only strikes are on the field!”)  Eventually both the Braves and Expos moved to other sites in Florida and it became more difficult for my family to make the trip down south together.  My last visit to Spring Training was in 1999 when I saw the Cardinals and Marlins at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter.

***************************************************

For the first time in 15 years I am back at Spring Training, but in a place I’ve never been before.  I write to you from Surprise, Arizona, where I will be for the next few days at Rangers Spring Training.  The east coaster in me visualizes February and March baseball in the presence of the palm trees and orange groves of Florida, not the cacti and desert scrub of Arizona.  I am excited for the new experience and to bring you a taste of life out here in Cactus League.  Before I begin, a big thank you to the RoughRiders and Rangers organizations for allowing me to make it out here.  I would certainly not be here without their support.

Here’s a recap of Day One under the hot, hot sun.

Sunday, 4:45 a.m. - An early wake up call to catch a morning flight feels even earlier thanks to the commencement of Daylight Saving Time.  I only start to see the sun come up after I’ve boarded my plane.  When I get to DFW Airport, I am instructed to use a self-serve kiosk to print my boarding pass.  After the machine fails to find my pass, it sends me back to the humans who eventually locate my reservation.  The security line is pretty long, but an employee directs me to another security screening area further down in the terminal which, she ensures, has no line.  Following a five-minute walk, I reach the other screening area, which features an even longer line.  Airport efficiency is batting .000 so far this season.

Downtown Phoenix from the descent. Chase Field sits right downtown with mountains lining the background.

Downtown Phoenix from the descent. Chase Field sits right downtown with mountains lining the background.

7:55 a.m. -  My flight from DFW to Phoenix took 20 minutes, my phone says.  We took off at 7:35 a.m. Central Daylight Time and landed at 7:55 a.m. Mountain Standard Time.  The reason for this little oddity? Arizona does not recognize Daylight Saving Time, so we’re essentially operating on Pacific Time out here.

I’ve never been to New Mexico or Arizona, so the flight was my first opportunity to see the desert landscape of the southwest United States.  Disclosure about me: I am a geography nut.  I love maps, vistas, and human, social and physical geography.  Seeing the parched earth from high above on a clear day was fascinating.  We are a nation of well over 300 million people but there are vast expanses of our country that are not populated at all.  I flew over land that might as well have been Martian soil: mountains of rock, dry riverbeds, no vegetation and a stillness that was borderline eery.  From above, you wonder what makes the land that Phoenix sits on any different and the inhospitable territory that seems to line all sides.  It really is amazing that a metropolitan area of 4.3 million people are able to live and thrive here.

Driving past the home of the Arizona Cardinals and next year's Super Bowl in Glendale. Yeah I know, not very safe.

Driving past the home of the Arizona Cardinals and next year’s Super Bowl in Glendale. Yeah I know, taking this was not very safe.

9:00 a.m. - After a visit to the rental car area (the RoughRiders will be happy to know I graciously declined an offer to rent a much more expensive Ford Mustang in favor of a much more practical, if less sexy, Nissan Versa), it’s time to hit the road for the 40-minute drive to Surprise.  I had a nice conversation with the rental agent about Minor League Baseball, as he and his wife are season ticket holders for the Oklahoma City Redhawks (Did I mention that I was conversing with him over a video connection at the rental kiosk?  Efficiency makes a comeback.).  Once in the car, I find a local sports station on the radio, but they’re discussing Carmelo Anthony’s future in New York if Phil Jackson takes over the Knicks.  Not gonna cut it for me today.  Today’s hits and Taylor Swift: 1, ESPN Radio: 0.

9:45 a.m. - As the line of fans outside the practice fields swells to its longest point, I pull into the Rangers’ & Royals’ shared spring training complex in Surprise.  Thanks to the Rangers’ minor league equipment manager, I’m able to park among the coaches and players.  Unfortunately every spot is filled, so I park the Versa in a nearby auxiliary lot, which I discover is also being used by Colorado Rockies players and coaches who are commuting for that afternoon’s game against Kansas City.  I am very, very, very careful to make sure I don’t put any dents into the brand new Jaguar S-Type that’s next to me.

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One of the practice fields in Surprise. It’s only used for infield drills, thus the strangely petite “outfield.”

After finding my way to the clubhouse, I cross paths with old friends Teodoro Martinez, Zach Zaneski and Kevin Pucetas.  Seeing these players (all RoughRiders in 2013) again is a little like coming back from summer vacation as a kid and reuniting with friends you haven’t seen for months.  Lots of smiles and catching up  It really is so great to be here.

10:30 a.m. - After picking up my Rangers media credential in the team offices, I find Frisco trainer Carlos Olivas who takes me aboard his golf cart and we speed away to Fields 3, 4, 5 and 6, where the minor leaguers are practicing.  Most of the fans are watching the big league guys finish up batting practice, so it’s not too crowded.  I meet the RoughRiders’ new manager, Jason Wood; he seems like a great guy and I’m looking forward to working with him this season.  I find the rest of our coaching staff, spread out among the fields as the different position groups work out together.

Eventually the players will divide into four groups categorized by the Rangers’ top four minor league affiliates.  But the final roster decisions haven’t been made yet, nor will they be for several more weeks.  Because there are so many players in big league camp (59), a lot of those players will end up on the Opening Day rosters for Round Rock, Frisco and Myrtle Beach.  Most of the Triple-A team will be made of up of players who will be cut from the big league team (guys like Jim Adduci, Kensuke Tanaka, Robinson Chirinos, etc.).  The current “Round Rock” team on the minor league fields consists mostly of players who will actually open the season in Frisco.  The guys currently on the “Frisco” team will more than likely be in Myrtle Beach, and so on down the line of affiliates.  Right now Wood is working with the Round Rock group, which will likely look pretty similar to his team once it gets back to Dr Pepper Ballpark.

You can kind of see the Peoria Sports Complex somewhere in the distance from my parking spot.

You can kind of see the Peoria Sports Complex somewhere in the distance from my parking spot.

12 noon – 1 p.m. - As the minor leaguers wrap up their work for the day, I decide to head over to Peoria to catch the Cactus League game between the Rangers and Mariners.  It’s only 11 miles from one stadium to the other, but it takes me an hour to drive there thanks to the hell that is Bell Road.  Traffic lights every 100 yards and practically everyone in town heading to the Peoria Sports Complex lead to a miserable ride.  By the time I get into the lot, I am directed to what I am told is the second-to-last open spot the entire facility has to offer.  As you can see from the photo on the right, I’m not exactly in a tight orbit around the ballpark.

1:05 p.m. - The lines to get into the ballpark are crazy.  This is obviously going to be a massive crowd (more than 10,000 in the reported attendance) to see this game and it makes sense.  It’s a beautiful day (a Sunday) and the Rangers have a very interesting team to both a casual hardcore fan.  I walk in through the media entrance alongside Tim Cowlishaw and make my way up to the press box as Felix Hernandez gets settled on the mound for Seattle.

The view from the Peoria press box is fit for royalty as King Felix faces Prince Fielder.

The view from the Peoria press box is fit for royalty as King Felix faces Prince Fielder.

1:30 p.m. - As I chat with some Rangers beat writers, I turn to my right and all of a sudden, Peter Gammons is standing next to me.  I awkwardly introduce myself, but he seems more concerned with the on-field events than hearing about how I read his

Dan Plesac leaving the MLB Network set as the game continues behind him.

Dan Plesac leaving the MLB Network set as the game continues behind him.

baseball columns in The Boston Globe growing up.  I can’t really blame him.  I mean, it’s King Felix on the mound and the intriguing Colby Lewis hurling for Texas.

2 p.m. - I take a lap around the ballpark concourse to get a better feel for the place and find MLB Network with a temporary set tucked away down the first base line.  Dan Plesac is there for what I imagine is an in-game report.  When he leaves the set for a moment he signs an autograph on the sweet spot of a fan’s baseball and thanks the fan for watching his show.

2:15 p.m. - Because I’m wearing a media badge, a fan mistakes me for an usher and requests that I ask some fans who are standing in front of him and blocking his view to move to the side.  I tell him that I do not work at the ballpark, but understand why he thought I did at first glance.  Still, assuming that the fans impeding his view will believe the same thing about me, I pretend to be an usher and kindly ask them to step aside.  They apologize and oblige as I give a fist bump to the original fan and continue my walk.

Former RoughRiders pitcher Nick Tepesch warms up in the bullpen. Not seen the picture, but fellow Missouri Tiger Brett Nicholas catches.

Former RoughRiders pitcher Nick Tepesch warms up in the bullpen. Not seen the picture, but fellow Missouri Tiger Brett Nicholas catches.

The lawn section was absolutely packed for the M's and Rangers.

The lawn section was absolutely packed for the M’s and Rangers.

A look in from where Michael Choice's homer landed.

A look in from where Michael Choice’s homer landed.

The Padres' office in Peoria. Apparently their cacti need a stringent support system.

The Padres’ office in Peoria, across the street from the ballpark. Apparently their cacti need a stringent support system.

3 p.m. - Having not eaten in about ten hours, I down a mediocre cheeseburger and fries.  The concession stand selection in Peoria leaves much to be desired.

3:50 p.m. - Rangers 2013 first rounder Alex “Chi-Chi” Gonzalez makes his first appearance in an “A” game this spring and allows three of four batters to reach base.  All eventually come around to score as part of a six-run Mariners eighth inning.  What was once an 8-3 Texas lead devolves into a 9-8 loss to Seattle.

4:45 p.m. - The current and previous voices of the Frisco RoughRiders likely create some disturbance in the space-time continuum, as I run into Mariners broadcaster Aaron Goldsmith once he wraps up his postgame show.  It was great to finally meet Aaron after corresponding with him several times over the past couple of seasons.  After sharing Frisco war stories, it becomes a veritable Texas League reunion as Rangers broadcaster Matt Hicks joins the conversation.

5:15 p.m. - Not even needing a sherpa for the journey, I make it back to my car in a now empty parking lot.  It’s been a long day with two more sure to come.  I just need to make sure I pick something up from the store before hitting the back fields…

Today's lesson: next time, try sunscreen.

Today’s lesson: next time, try sunscreen.

As always, thanks for reading.

- Alex

Russell Wilson: A worthwhile gimmick for Rangers

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Whether it’s a football or a baseball, Russell Wilson shows good form on his throws. (photo credit to Louis DeLuca/Dallas Morning News)

This story appears in the March 7 edition of Sports Page Weekly, which is a free publication available in the Metroplex.

During the early portion of spring training for the Texas Rangers, much of the focus has been on a young second baseman who burst onto the pro sports scene in August 2012.  He impressed observers with his skill and a cool sense of confidence which was uncanny for someone so young.  His notability and importance have only grown because of recent events.  Come late February, the Rangers, as well as fans, were wondering when they’d finally see him take to the field out in Surprise.

No, this discussion does not concern Jurickson Profar and his balky right shoulder.  The above also applies to newly minted Super Bowl champion quarterback Russell Wilson. 

Last December, the Rangers plucked Wilson, better known for his stellar work on the gridiron and whose pro baseball career had been on hiatus since 2011, from the Colorado Rockies in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft.  The cost to formally acquire the baseball rights of the undersized signal caller? A mere $12,000, roughly the same amount of signing bonus money a team might allot toward a late round draft pick in June.

Throughout the off-season, we’ve read numerous stories about how the Rangers drafting Russell Wilson was not a gimmick.  Let’s be clear: this whole episode has been a complete gimmick.

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines the word “gimmick” with the following description: a method or trick that is used to get people’s attention or to sell something. 

Enter the Rangers and Wilson.  On March 3rd, the team held a “Russell Wilson Day” of sorts.  The Seattle Seahawks quarterback traveled to Surprise, worked out with the team, fielded ground balls, took in the spring game against Cleveland (a 6-4 Rangers loss) and gave a speech to players within the organization.  And, yes, Texas has begun selling Rangers jerseys with “3” and “Wilson” on the back, as well as other Wilson-themed merchandise. (I’m sure Frisco RoughRiders shortstop Luis Sardinas, whose jersey number is 3 on the Rangers’ 40-man roster, gave Wilson his blessing to temporarily use the number.  Maybe Wilson even persuaded him with financial incentives.)

Now, no one inside or outside the Rangers organization expects Wilson to trade in his facemask and shoulder pads for a glove and some pine tar on a full-time or even part time basis.  This was a singular opportunity to stage a cool photo-op, grab some friendly headlines and sell some Rangers gear.  In other words, it was a gimmick.  For his part, Wilson seems to sincerely enjoy baseball and his respect for those within the game is evident.  But other than throwing out the first pitch sometime this summer, he’s not suiting up on a diamond again anytime soon (unless he somehow transforms into some sort of Anthony Wright clone).  The Rangers knew this when they took him off the Rockies’ hands a few months ago.

But the fact that drafting Russell Wilson and having him spend a day at spring training was a gimmick does not necessarily make it a bad thing.  I realize there’s a negative connotation with the word, but gimmicks can have positive value, as this one does.

First of all, the Rangers should be commended for recognizing and seizing a terrific promotional opportunity and making the most of it in a pseudo-organic way (at least compared with, for example, the Red Sox’ explicit marketing deal with Johnny Manziel, which brought the former Aggie to Fort Myers for a day, wearing a #2 Boston jersey to boot).  Additionally, it has brought a bevy of positive attention to a club coming off a mildly disappointing season, fans are buzzing over their team’s connection with the best young quarterback in the NFL (go ahead, compare his numbers with Andrew Luck and tell me who comes out on top) and it allowed the players in the clubhouse to bask in the glow of a bona fide champion.

And therein lies a big reason why the Rangers want to be so closely associated with a second baseman who owns a career .229 batting average in 93 professional baseball games (all below the Advanced-A level).  As this organization strives to maintain a team that consistently competes for championships, the hope is that through osmosis this group can absorb as many positive attributes as it can from winners like Wilson.  Especially ones who are young enough for current professional athletes to relate to.  That sort of thing can potentially go a long way toward developing a team’s culture and identity. 

If Adrian Beltre is lifting the Commissioner’s Trophy high above his head come October, I’m not sure he’ll be pointing back to March 3rd and Wilson’s spring training visit as a big reason why, but it could be an intangible piece of the foundation that makes up this team’s season.  Intangibles are immeasurable by definition.  But in this case for the Rangers, it cost $12,000.

Yes, drafting Russell Wilson and bringing him to spring training was a gimmick.  A gimmick that may already be worth the gambit.

 

 - Alex

Champions! Recapping the Rangers in the Arizona Fall League

The 2013 Arizona Fall League champion Surprise Saguaros (Photo courtesy of Baseball America)

The 2013 Arizona Fall League champion Surprise Saguaros (Photo courtesy of Baseball America)

You could be excused for having missed out on this year’s championship game for the Arizona Fall League.  It fell right in the middle of a busy slate of college football games this past Saturday (which was a beautiful, 76-degree day here in the Metroplex) and, for the most part, only the most diehard followers of the minors would be punching their remotes to tune into MLB Network for the broadcast in the middle of November (other potential viewers might have included those who didn’t want to see his alma mater serve as a collective mop for the Florida State Seminoles to clean Bobby Bowden Field with).

Those who did flip over to the game were treated to the Rangers-affiliated Surprise Saguaros winning their second-ever league championship (and first since 1995).  After winning the West Division with an 18-12-1 record, the Saguaros blanked the East Division-winning Mesa Solar Sox 2-0 for the title.

Of the nine Rangers players who suited up for Surprise this season, just two played in the final game.  Top Texas prospect Jorge Alfaro caught all nine innings and drove in the game’s first run with an RBI single up the middle in the second inning; it was his lone hit in three at bats while holding down in the seventh spot in the order.  Righty reliever Keone Kela pitched a perfect eighth inning and didn’t let a ball out of the infield to complete the Rangers’ contributions to the victory.

***

So how did the Texas talent do during the AFL out in the Copper State?  Here’s a rundown of the Rangers minor leaguers:

(Note that for a variety of reasons, the AFL generally is quite hitter-friendly, so you will want to take some of these numbers with a grain of salt.)

C Jorge Alfaro: 19 G, 80 PA, .386/.438/.500, .938 OPS, 6 2B, 3B, 0 HR, 11 RBI, 18 R, 5 BB, 17 K, 2-5 SB, 3 E, 5 PB, 7-14 catching basestealers

There’s a lot to like about Alfaro’s performance in the circuit, as well as some indications that Rangers fans should exercise some patience while waiting for the Colombian backstop’s Arlington arrival (it’s unrealistic to think he’ll be the 2015 Opening Day catcher – he spent nearly the entire 2013 season with low-A Hickory).  In addition to a cannon throwing arm, Alfaro’s other calling card has been his power (rare for a catcher).  Although he did not go deep in his 19-game stint in the desert, that’s a pretty triple-slash line.  The sixth-youngest player in the league, the 20-year-old was the Saguaros’ primary catcher (his 15 games behind the dish were tied for the most among all AFL players), and he gunned down 50 percent of attempting basestealers.  That mark was bested only by Peoria’s Austin Hedges (Padres), who caught 12 of 22 (55%) runners.  Alfaro is still a work in progress defensively, however, as his league-leading five passed balls indicate (only one other player had more than two).  Still, the performance was very encouraging for arguably the Rangers’ most exciting minor league prospect.

RHP Lisalverto Bonilla: 3 G, 1-0, 0.00 ERA, 5 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 8 K, 1.00 WHIP, .167 BAA

One of the newest members of Texas’ 40-man roster, Bonilla is a changeup specialist with an electric fastball and a solid slider.  After flaming out in Triple-A, he spent the last half of the 2013 regular season with the RoughRiders.  The word “dominant” doesn’t come close to describing what Bonilla, Picked up in the Michael Young trade, did this summer in Frisco; because “Santeria” is currently playing as I type this report, I’ll go with the word “sublime” to label his efforts.  In his short time in the AFL, Bonilla simply continued what we saw him do on the mound at Dr Pepper Ballpark.  Of Bonilla, Frisco pitching coach Jeff Andrews told me that if he can consistently throw his fastball at the knees of hitters, he will have a long and extremely profitable big league career, because the heater and change are that good.

RHP Ryan Harvey: 3 G, 0-1, 1 SV, 5.40 ERA, 3.1 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 6 K, WP, 1.50 WHIP, .273 BAA

Harvey started the AFL with Surprise, but the Rangers elected to remove him from the Surprise roster for non-injury reasons after only three appearances.  The thought here is that the organization wanted to limit his innings after tossing a career-high 58 innings in a variety of roles for Myrtle Beach this past season.  I would expect to see the former Seton Hall Pirate with the RoughRiders in 2014.

RHP Keone Kela: 7 G, 0-0, 2 SV, 0.00 ERA, 8.2 IP, 5 H, R, 0 ER, 5 BB, 10 K, 1.15 WHIP, .172 BAA

The youngest pitcher on the Saguaros (20), Kela may be a candidate to skip the Advanced-A level and begin 2014 in Frisco after an impressive AFL campaign (I would doubt it, however, given his age).  A hard-thrower, Kela overwhelmed opposing batters by proving very difficult to make contact against.  His walk rate was  a bit higher in the AFL (5.19) than it was during the regular season (3.46), which he split between Hickory, Spokane and the AZL Rangers.

LHP Will Lamb: 6 GS, 1-1, 8.69 ERA, 19.2 IP, 29 H, 22 R, 19 ER, HR, HB, 19 BB, 10 K, 2 WP, 2.44 WHIP, .349 BAA

After starting 32 of his first 43 professional appearances in 2011 and 2012, the Rangers moved their former second round draft pick into the bullpen this past season, making all but one of his 39 appearances for Myrtle Beach as a reliever.  Lamb responded with his worst statistical season as a professional despite pitching in the hurler haven the Pelicans call home.  He got another shot at starting in the AFL, but as the numbers above indicate, it did not go well.  The former two-way player at Clemson will still be just 23 for the entire 2014 season, so time is still on his side and left-handed pitchers with good stuff are always valued.  Next year will be a very important one for Lamb and for the Rangers to see what they have in him.

Nick McBride’s Texas League troubles followed him to the desert. (photo credit to Grant Nelson)

RHP Nick McBride: 10 G, 1-0, 6.43 ERA, 14 IP, 21 H, 12 R, 10 ER, 2 HR, 8 BB, 9 K, BK, 3 WP, 2.07 WHIP, .339 BAA

McBride split 2013 between Myrtle Beach and Frisco while also making a cameo appearance in May with Round Rock.  He was very effective out of the bullpen for the Pelicans but did not have much success as a starter in the tougher Texas League.  The former fifth rounder worked out of the pen for Surprise and appeared to have the same difficulties he had with the RoughRiders: too many baserunners.  His fastball command was not sharp and his breaking ball needed a lot of refinement in his time with the ‘Riders and, despite showing flashes within starts, would often get burned by putting himself in too many difficult situations.

1B Brett Nicholas: 17 G, 66 PA, .230/.273/.393, .666 OPS, 7 R, 7 2B, HR, 6 RBI, 3 BB, 11 K

Nicholas earned the opportunity to showcase his abilities in the prestigious AFL by way of his breakout regular season with the RoughRiders.  One of the most complete offensive players in the Texas League this past season, Nicholas struggled a bit with the bat out in Arizona, as the numbers indicate.  That may be the result fatigue from playing essentially every day over a full season for the first time, so I wouldn’t necessarily read too much into those numbers.  His AFL campaign did have a few highlights, however.  He was tied for fifth in the league in doubles, named the MVP of the Rising Stars Game with a two home run performance and he got married just as the fall season was beginning.  I’m not sure how much he will be looked at for the Rule 5 draft next month, but he gets a lot of Chris McGuiness comparisons and McGuiness was selected by the Indians last year before being returned to Texas in the spring.  While Nicholas does not have the same power that McGuiness has, he does have more versatility with his ability to play catcher.  He played the position in college and has a decent amount of professional experience behind the plate (he’s often told me he’s still a catcher at heart playing first base).  He is expected to catch full-time in the Dominican Winter League following his stint with Surprise.  Nicholas would seem to be a good fit with a National League team with his ability to play multiple positions and swing a solid bat.

Ryan Rua had four trots like this with the Saguaros in the AFL. (photo credit to Grant Nelson)

3B Ryan Rua: 17 G, 71 PA, .175/.268/.385, .633 OPS, 13 R, 4 HR, 15 RBI, 7 BB, 24 K, 6 E

Perhaps the most unexpected breakout season across the minors, Rua exploded onto the prospect scene with a 32 home run campaign for low-A Hickory (104 games) and Frisco (23 games).  That tremendous power was on display in the AFL with four home runs, which tied for fifth among all players.  Those homers, however, were his only extra-base hits in 71 plate appearances and it is apparent that he had some of the same contact issues he had with the RoughRiders.  Like Nicholas, it could be the result of a long season that led to the diminished numbers.  Rua is a very polarizing prospect for those in the business.  His power is genuine and obviously comes out in games, not just at five in the afternoon.  In addition to improving his contact, he needs to improve dramatically defensively.  After primarily playing second base for the Crawdads, he shifted to third base with Frisco and played there for Surprise as well.  Rua committed six errors in the AFL and while his arm is good enough for the position, his positioning and hands need work.  At times he looks a little stiff with hands that are too hard at the hot corner.  Hopefully the increased reps he gets at third will allow the defensive aspects of his game to catch up to his power.

RHP Matt West: 10 G, 1-0, 3.72 ERA, 9.2 IP, 12 H, 4 R, HR, 7 BB, 10 K, WP, 1.97 WHIP, .293 BAA

A member of the 40-man roster, West (who turns 25 today) has spent the bulk of the year rehabbing from the Tommy John surgery he underwent in 2012.  A former second round pick out of high school (originally as a position player), West made one appearance for the AZL Rangers in August and saw his workload significantly increased with Surprise.  The biggest signs of encouragement from West’s numbers are his ten strikeouts – indicating he can still gas it to get elite hitters out – and his ten appearances without any injury complications.  His performances seemed to get better as the AFL season went on, hopefully setting the stage for a successful comeback season in 2014.  If all goes well, he could put himself in position for a big league role at some point next year.

***

Finally, a reminder that, despite the AFL getting the MLB Network treatment with some of the best minor league prospects on the field, it’s still not close to the big leagues at least when it comes to the strike zone.  Two screenshots from the strike three call on a 3-2 pitch in a 2-0 (championship) game.  This was the final out.

AFL Ump 1

AFL Ump 2

Yikes.

- Alex

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