(Dustin Ackley jumps out of the way after forcing Milwaukee’s Rickie Weeks during a spring game last year. Photo by Associated Press).
With the Mariners clearly going young this year (as colleague Jerry Brewer wrote about today), director of minor-league operations Pedro Grifol is a key person in the organization. At last week’s spring-training luncheon, Grifol spoke about the Mariners’ farm system and gave insights into several players who could contribute at the major-league level this year or, if all goes well, in the near future.
Here’s a transcript of some of Grifol’s remarks, followed by a portion of the Q & A with the media:
“2010 was a pretty productive year for us down in player development. We had a real nice combination of winning and development. Obviously, development is the most important thing. We’ve got to get these guys ready to play in the big leagues, and I think we did that. We had 22 minor-league player of the week selections, we had 29 All-Stars, we saw (Dustin) Ackley go to Double-A and struggle for the month of April and bounce back, face adversity and bounce back and end up in Triple-A having a real nice year. (Greg) Halman battled injuries early and ended up with 30-plus home runs. (Matt) Mangini emerged, really, out of nowhere and became a good prospect for us and ended up here in the big leagues. Alex Liddi led the league with 92 RBIs, Carlos Peguero in home runs with 23. Johermyn Chavez, our coaching staff in High Desert revamped his swing and he ended up having a phenomenal year. He’s turned into one of our top guys. Kyle Seager led I think all of (minor league) baseball with 192 hits, and Rich Poythress with 130 RBI. We had a couple of young kids from the Dominican and Venezuela in Pulaski, and one of them, (Ramon) Morla, hit 17 home runs in a short season, and (Jorge) Agudelo with 24 stolen bases. We were able to add a kid named (Vicente) Campos from Venezuela, throwing mid- to upper-90s. So our minor league system, as far as development is concerned, our staff did a great job and they performed. On that end of our player development department, I was extremely pleased with our staff and our players.
“On the winning side, I think we had one of the better years in Mariner history. We were second in all of baseball in winning percentage, we had eight out of nine ballclubs participate in the playoffs, two of them winning championships, one of them playing until the very last day.
“I’ve said it time and again, if you’re not from SEC, ACC, Pac 10, you don’t play meaningful games unless you play playoff baseball. So winning is a very, very important part to us in this organization, and to our development and our players. I remember a couple of years ago in High Desert, they were in the playoffs in Rancho, and (Michael) Pineda toed the rubber. If you’ve seen Pineda pitch, he’s calm, he’s relaxed, he’s in control, and here this kid’s on the rubber in Rancho and his breathing patterns are off. I asked him after the game what was going on. His answer was, “This is the biggest game of my life.” Those kind of statements, they hit home. For us in player development, we have to really change the culture and say, ‘You know what? Winning is a big part of development, and we have to put these kids in a position to play tough, meaningful games all the way to the very end.
If you look at our Clinton ballclub, they had an 18-inning playoff game, where no one scored from the ninth inning on, and they ended up winning that game. Think about the pressures our A ball pitchers were put in in that ballgame, and our hitters, and our defense, and our fundamentals. So it’s very, very important. I thought we had a great mix last year in both development and winning.”
How do you determine where to place prospects? Do you know already going into spring training? “We have an idea. We try every year to, at the end of the year, to try to give these guys a little taste of the level they might be in the following year. This year, fortunately and unfortunately, we had eight clubs in the playoffs. So the movement was some, but there wasn’t a lot. Franklin ended up the year in Double-A. We sent him to the Double-A playoffs. They got eliminated quickly. We had an injury in the Midwest League, so we were able to send him back to the Midwest League and get really double playoffs. He got a taste of Double-A. It doesn’t mean he’s going to go there. He could be capable of playing there, but it’s something we have to discuss as a staff, see how he comes into spring training, see how his spring training is, what he looks like, what he does, what kind of adjustment he makes, and we’ll discuss it then and make that decision. There’s a chance he could make that jump.”
On Carlos Triunfel: “The most important thing with Carlos was getting a full year in. We were able to do that, and then he missed the playoffs because he broke his finger. But the most important thing was just play baseball. Play 142 games, get back in the swing of things and just go through the experiences and adversity you need to go through to become a major-league player. He missed all of the ’09 season. At that age, when you miss a full season, it certainly sets you back a little bit. I wouldn’t say that Franklin is ahead of Carlos. I’d just say it’s a very healthy, competitive situation.”
On Rich Poythress, and how much of his production was a function of the High Desert ballpark: “I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s not a hitters ballpark. It is one of the best hitters ballparks in baseball. But at the same time, you have to square up a baseball, and you have to have a knack for driving runs in. He does. The kid gives us quality at-bats with runners in scoring position, day in and day out. That’s why he had 130 RBIs. He’s a very good hitter, he’s smart, he’s a hard worker. This is going to be a very big year for him. He’s going to have to go to Double-A and he’s going to have to continue to improve and produce.”
On Pineda: “When I saw Pineda throw 85 mph an hour in the Dominican Republic, he was probably 6-5, 180 pounds. What he’s done in the last three or four years has really been incredible. He’s put on about 40, 50 pounds, and it seems like every pound he puts on, it’s another mph. He’s come a long way. What happened this year was he got to Double-A, and he experienced success real early. Success breeds confidence and he just took off. There was a point in the season…when we move a player, we talk about, is it too soon? That’s the one question we always ask ourselves – is it too soon? The answer to that question was, he’s better than the league, so we have to move him and we have to put him in a situation where he might be facing a little bit of adversity. He did. He moved to Tacoma and he figured out that with some older hitters and some guys with experience, he’s going to have to command the strike zone as opposed to just control the strike zone. He got away with it early, but when he went around the league once or twice, and they started figuring him out, he realized, I need to make some adjustments, and I need to really command the strike zone and command my fastball. That’s the adjustment he’s going to have to make. He throws a lot of strikes, and he mixes it up real well. He has a smooth delivery, he’s got real good arm action, but at the end of the day, he’s going to have to command the strike zone. He’s certainly capable of doing that.”
On how Pineda is handling the expectations: “That’s a big part of development for us. Our job, through the media training and all the stuff we put the kids through – especially a kid like him, who started off in Dominican summer league; we have to prepare these kids for this. He’s moved pretty quickly, and if he comes into camp and continues to prove he’s capable of winning a spot in the rotation, it’s going to be even quicker. Once you get up here, there’s even less room for error. I think he’s handling it well right now. Our job is to prepare him for any situation that could come his way. We’ll see how that plays out. There’s really no telling what a kid’s going to do when he’s getting dressed in that major-league clubhouse and toeing the rubber between those white lines out there.
On Tom Wilhelmsen: (whom Geoff Baker wrote about last spring): “That’s a great story. He came to us, really, in spring training. He really wasn’t healthy, he was thin, he hadn’t played ball in awhile. Everyone knows his talent. The most important thing and the biggest thing for last year’s development for Tom was the patience that he had. At no time did he come to us and say, I’m ready, I’m getting impatient, I want to go out there and pitch. We had a plan for him and we were able to carry that plan out with him buying into that plan. And it happened. He got healthy, he put some pounds on, he took his time in extended spring, he went out and he touched a couple of levels. He’s now in a position to be in that Double-A rotation. Again, he’s going to have to come into spring training and compete, which is what we preach. You have to come into spring training and win a spot. But with what he did last year and the work he’s put in – he moved to Arizona and spent the winter in Arizona, he had a good fall league. This kid is ready to pitch. That’s the reason he’s on our 40-man roster.”
On what they want to see from Ackley this spring: “We just want to see him continue to improve every day. What he did last year, changing positions and learning a new position, facing adversity and all the things that came his way, moving up a little, and the improvements he made from that first day we took him out to Field 2 to see if he could catch a ground ball…All we want to see is him continue to progress, and if he does that, he’s going to be a big league player for a long time.”
Was it good for Ackley to get a short break? “I just saw him a couple of weeks ago, when he came back. He really needed the break. Again, the makeup is unbelievable. When we made this move to second base, one of the things we told him was, it’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be a lot of hard work, you’re not going to have any time off. Are you willing to do it? He was all in. He knew what was in front of him, and he was willing to put the work in. After a full year of baseball, not only the body needs a break, but the mind. When he came back to Arizona a couple of weeks ago, he had put on eight, nine pounds. He looks really, really good. He’s fresh. He was ready to work. He got a small break, but he was itching to get back, and he’s down there catching ground balls and doing work. Darrin Garner is down there with him. He’s hitting the ground running.”
On Ackley’s gap between being a major-league ready hitter and second baseman: “Certainly, the offensive side is ahead of the defensive side. Just because he’s an advanced hitter. He understands the strike zone, he understands what a good at-bat looks like. He understands how to play winning baseball, situational hitting. He understands the offensive side of the game. He’s a very smart kid that’s starting to understand the defensive side. He’s starting to figure out where he needs to be. He’s starting to figure out who’s on the mound, situations, cutoff plays, fundamentals. You don’t start to understand that until you go through the process, and you go through the experiences of the game. We can sit on a back field and go through all these fundamentals a hundred million times. Until he goes through it in a game, until he goes back on that first popup, or cover first base on a ground ball, or the first bunt, or the first double play, he’s not going to be able to create a library. What he’s got now, he’s got a year of information stored in his library defensively. On the offensive side, he’s got 15 years of experiences stored in his library. Sure, his offense is ahead of his defense. But him being that smart of a kid, and such a hard worker and having such great makeup, there’s no doubt in my mind he can be a big-league second baseman.”
On the new weight program instituted last year (and again covered by Baker): “There’s a year of data. Our kids are getting stronger, they’re getting more flexible. We don’t know yet exactly if it’s preventing injuries. It’s a year of data. All I can say, when you go in our weight room and watch our kids doing exercises, emulating the movements they’re doing on the field, and you watch, for example, our catchers and their hips and the way their flexibility is coming along, I can only say this is something that is really going to give us an edge as far as development.”