We caught up with Mike at the end of the year for his thoughts on the players he saw this summer in the Summit City.
This past year Fort Wayne had one of the best pitching staffs that the Midwest League had seen in a long time. What stood out to you the most about the TinCaps starting starters in 2013?
Mike Couzens: What stood out was their success relative to their inexperience. I had calculated that for the opening day rotation, Justin Hancock had 139 1/3 innings of pro experience, while Walker Weickel, Max Fried, and Zach Eflin combined had 38 2/3 innings combined. I hesitate to call it one of the best pitching staffs the Midwest League has seen in a long time, but rather one of the most highly touted. The 2011 Dayton Dragons pitching staff set the Midwest League record for strikeouts with 1,292, breaking a record that had been held since the 1998 Wisconsin team put up 1,274. It says a lot of what the Padres think of Burt Hooton, who had never worked with the organization before, that they were willing to send him three first-round picks from 2012 and a first-round pick from 2011 all in one season. That Fried, Weickel and Eflin were able to make the smooth transition into this league without playing in the Northwest League speaks highly of the job that Billy Gasparino's scouting department has done, in finding high-caliber players who are ready for the next level, and of the player development staff as a whole to keep improving those players as the season goes along.
Max Fried will go into the year ranked as one of the Padres' top prospects. What were his biggest strengths this year and what does he need to work on?
Mike Couzens: Max's biggest strength is unquestionably is curveball. It's a tremendous pitch that has tons of break to it…when he's able to throw it well. That was a big if in 2013, though. What Fried has, and what all of the 2012-drafted pitchers have, is great composure. There were plenty of starts that Fried had that didn't go his way, but I can't say I ever felt like he lost his cool on the mound. He did miss one start early in the season due to flu-like symptoms when the team was in Burlington, Iowa, but beyond that he remained healthy and composed throughout the season. I think what he needs to work on is finding a consistent release for his curveball. He told me late in the season that when he's throwing the pitch for strikes, that it just felt ‘right' coming out of his hand, but that was something that he would find in his bullpen session before the game. With repetition will come familiarity, in which I think he'll find that. It's important to remember that when these guys were in high school, they didn't have to be quite as precise with their pitches, and now that opponents are going to tee off on their mistakes, they're forced to think more about the process of throwing a pitch, sequence of an at-bat, previous at-bats, etc., which takes plenty of time.
We had Zach Eflin as our pitcher of the year at this level. How does his "stuff" compare with some of the Padres' more heralded pitchers such as Joe Ross and Max Fried?
Mike Couzens: If slow and steady wins the race, Zach Eflin is certainly your winner from the 2013 season…although the emphasis is on the steady part, to be certain. In 21 of his 22 starts, Zach Eflin surrendered two earned runs or fewer, and that one start where he wasn't steady was a six-run game in his second outing of the season. While his pure ‘stuff' might not be better than Ross or Fried when it comes to the breaking ball, Eflin has high-level control. His ERA of 2.73 was the best among starting pitchers in the league and his 31 walks were the fourth-fewest among qualifying pitchers. Most pitchers in this league, not necessarily on the TinCaps' staff, struggle with throwing strikes, let alone landing their secondary and tertiary pitches for strikes, and Eflin had a great handle on that, which was impressive. Off the field, he's very even keel. He's not the type of guy who will be loud and boisterous in the clubhouse, but he's certainly funny, which is endearing to his teammates.
I liked what I saw from Joe Ross last year in Eugene and he put together a very good first half this season. What happened in the second?
Mike Couzens: Quite simply what Joe told me was that he pitched to contact more in the second half. I think there's more to it than that. A quick look at his 2013 halves compared to each other shows a stark contrast:
First Half: 66.1 IP, 2.71 ERA, 56H, 20ER, 1HRall, 51K, 1.98 GO/AO
Second Half: 56IP, 4.98 ERA, 68H, 31ER, 6HRall, 28K, 0.94 GO/AO
His ERA took a monumental leap, he gave up more hits, more earned runs, struck out fewer batters and had fewer than half as many ground balls induced than he did in the first half. But the after all of that, he goes out in the playoffs against Bowling Green and throws six one-hit innings recording (if I remember correctly) 12 ground-ball outs. Go figure, right? It seems like he didn't keep the ball down in the zone quite as much in the second half, whether it was with his slider or how much he utilized his two-seam fastball, which he told me was the key to the ground balls in the game against Bowling Green. Ross does not lack confidence, and I don't mean that to say he's cocky. He's the last player I'd say that about. He comes from a great family, has a brother in the majors to lean on, and on top of that, has great stuff to back it up. While the younger group of pitchers never showed a lack of composure in tough situations, I found it easy to read Ross when he was frustrated on the hill. I think that's a detriment for him, and if he's able to mask his frustration in tough outings, it should help him in 2014.
In spring training Padres' pitching coach Daren Balsley compared Walker Weickel's curve ball to Adam Wainwright's - albeit in the developmental stage. What type of upside do you see for Walker?
Mike Couzens: Weickel had 24 outings in 2013, and I only need one to show me the type of potential he has to be a tremendous pitcher. On June 20th against South Bend, the team that beat Fort Wayne to move on to the Championship Series, Weickel was bumped to the bullpen because a rehabbing Adys Portillo was in town. After Portillo's 3.2 inning start, Weickel threw 5.1 innings, struck out nine batters and allowed one hit. He was completely locked in that night, and if that's the type of pitcher Weickel can be, the Padres got a steal at #55 overall in 2012. However, he also had outings where he really struggled and that was reflected in his 5.04 ERA. What separates Weickel from any other pitcher I've ever met are his cerebral qualities. This is a guy who, when I met him, thought he was in his thirties. He is mature beyond his years, not to mention he grows facial hair like no teenager should. (His Twitter bio reads, in part, "facial hair farmer".) While he's got four days between starts to think about things, he might think a lot, just because that's what he does. But I think that as more information like scouting reports and video becomes available to him at higher levels, he's the type that will jump all over that and utilize it to make himself a better player.
Hunter Renfroe was the Padres' top pick this season. According to many he is a five-tool players despite not putting up great numbers with the TinCaps. What did you see?
Mike Couzens: Throw out Renfroe's numbers from Fort Wayne in 2013, OK? I say that because through 15 games with the TinCaps, he hit .226 (.293 OBP and .434 SLG) with 2 home runs and 7 RBI. Here's how other recent top picks fared through their first 15 games with the TinCaps:
2012: OF Travis Jankwoski (44th, ‘12): .230 AVG / .273 OBP / .361 SLG / 0 HR / 7 RBI
2012: SS Jace Peterson (58th, ‘11): .295 AVG / .386 OBP / .459 SLG / 1 HR / 6 RBI
2011: 2B Corey Spangenberg (10th, ‘11): .172 AVG / .238 OBP / .190 SLG / 0 HR / 6 RBI
2012: OF Donovan Tate (3rd, ‘09): .172 AVG / .222 OBP / .190 SLG / 0 HR / 9 RBI***
2009: OF Jaff Decker (42nd, ‘08): .317 AVG / .548 OBP / .659 SLG / 3 HR / 9 RBI
*** Tate played 6 games with the TinCaps in 2011
Some good, some not so good. Performance over such a short span in this league means little. I think back to when Nick Castellanos of the Tigers played for West Michigan in 2011—he started off 1-for-12 and didn't consistently hit over .250 until June. Now look where he is. What I saw with Renfroe is a guy who excelled at the college level and has the tools to be a star player. We saw his power, his natural hitting stroke, his great arm and fielding ability, too. From talking with Josh Byrnes and Gasparino about the amount of research that goes into taking a player in the first round, I'm sure that they believe Renfroe has what it takes to be a consistent five-tool player. That's the round where you can't afford to miss, and I think they've hit the nail on the head here. We just need more time, more games to see Renfroe show what he's got.
Chris Nunn was one of the sleepers on the staff. Many think the left-handed reliever is someone that could really move up the system rapidly. What makes him so good?
Mike Couzens: He's got a funky delivery. He looks like he's tucking his body down into his leg when the throws, and I think that helps him obscure the delivery of the ball until the very last moment, which can prove to be deceptive for the batter. One thing that stood out to me with Nunn was the difficulty he had in retiring the first batter he faced. According to my unofficial stats that I kept in the game notes this season, Nunn retired just 34 out of 58 (59%) of the first batters he faced. For comparison, Trevor Gott and Matt Shepherd were at 79% (23-29) and Ruben Mejia was 76% (16-21). If he's going to be a middle-to-late innings guy, he's got to be able to get that first man out and keep inherited runners from scoring.
Rodney Daal has always been able to hit. How was his defense behind the plate?
Mike Couzens: Average at best. Take that with a grain of salt, though, as Daal was only 19 years old the entire season and won't turn 20 until March of 2014. The two areas where he stands to improve are in a) calling a game and b) blocking the baseball. Perhaps the biggest drop-off the TinCaps saw behind the plate from '12 to '13 was in the game-calling department. Austin Hedges has a great mind for knowing how to read the flow of a game, and neither Dane Phillips nor Rodney Daal had a great handle on that. Then again, Hedges is one of the top prospects in all of Minor League Baseball, so there was bound to be a drop-off there. Daal could stand to become a better blocker on balls in the dirt and could improve his framing of pitches, too. Even though the umpires in the Midwest League are in development, too, they're not going to be fooled when the catcher sets up outside and tries to frame a pitch as a strike when it missed inside. While the location of the pitch is on the person who threw it, some of baseball's best catchers are able to work their way to more strikes with great framing. I wouldn't be surprised to see Daal back in Fort Wayne in 2014 to start the season as he continues his progression.
Maxx Tissenbaum was a player everyone likes; very good control of the strike zone. Do you think he will be able to hit for more power at higher levels and be able to maintain his strong on-base skills?
Mike Couzens: Simply: No and yes. I don't think that Tissenbaum is or will be a power hitter. He's a tremendous contact hitter who strikes the ball well to the opposite field, but is not a guy you should expect to hit home runs, and I think he would tell you the same. He said to me during the season that he knows his swing is ‘right' when he's hitting the ball the other way. That's when he thinks he's at his best. When it comes to getting on base, I don't see that changing. He has a great eye for the strike zone and led the team in walks for a good part of the season, although Mallex Smith ended up as the team's best in that category. It'll be interesting to see what happens with Tissenbaum position-wise. In instructional league 2012, he was tabbed as a corner infielder because he was a little bit heavier. So over the winter he dropped weight with a rigorous diet and exercise program, and they allowed him to play second and short in 2013. Now in instructs this year, he's been moved to catcher. How will that end up? We'll see.
Last question. Who was the best TinCaps' position prospect that you saw this year and who was the best pitching prospect that you saw?
Mike Couzens: The position prospect I'd say was best was Gabriel Quintana and pitching prospect I'll go with Trevor Gott.