Since their inaugural season in 2000, the Long Island Ducks have had a knack for luring notable former major leaguers looking to continue their professional careers and get back to MLB. Earlier this year, the Atlantic League club signed Dontrelle Willis, Vladimir Guerrero, and Ramon Castro all inside of one week. I spoke with club President/General Manager Michael Pfaff about the team's operations and the latest on their current big names.
Vladimir Guerrero is still in the Dominican Republic, will he be joining the team this year?
We've been told that he's dealing with some family issues at this time. He was going to be here from the start of spring training, we signed him, we started the process of getting him here and his representative called and said that he had some family issues to take care of before he left for the summer. He didn't want to leave a situation that he didn't feel was buttoned up open for the summer. He wouldn't have felt comfortable here if he didn't have it all taken care of. We respect that. Family comes first. When Vlad gets here we have a spot for him and he's certainly entitled to do that.
Is there a chance that he might not join the team this year?
I really don't know. I can't speak for him, you'd have to ask him. I've only been told what I've been told by his agent. We've put him on the inactive list and we told his agent that when he arrives he'll have a spot waiting for him.
Why are you able to draw in so many big names to your team?
I think the [Atlantic League] in general has proven of the course over its 15-year history that it is the league of choice for players that are interested in continuing their professional careers at a high level and getting back to major league organizations. They've had the most success here, baseball is a small world, and players discuss amongst each other. Obviously, the players are teammates at some juncture in their careers and they talk about good places to play and the places that help their careers. Usually the Atlantic League is the choice for those guys.
It seems like the Ducks have had more success with signing those types of players though. Is that the case?
We've taken as many chances as any team in the league, I'll put it that way. We've provided opportunities for more than our share of big name major leaguers. I think if you look at the rosters of other teams in the league and compare them to the Ducks, you'll see roughly the same amount of former major leaguers over the past five years and 15 years as well, but yes,we've had more than our fair share of the bigger names. Whether it was guys in our past like Carlos Baerga, Edgardo Alfonzo, Carl Everett, Juan Gonzalez, Danny Graves, John Rocker…those experiences are part of our history and more recently we've had guys like Dontrelle Willis and people like him are utilizing this league as a platform. I think its been a win win for everyone really, the fans get get a great product at an affordable price and they can continue to do what they love.
What do you do to help draw MLB attention to the players that you have on your roster?
We have open lines of communication with major league ballclubs, the way that player purchases in this league work are that clubs call the league office and I think that is part of what separates us from other leagues that look to sign players that are free agents. In the Atlantic League, no one from the Yankees is going to call me and say we want your first baseman. They're going to call [Atlantic League Executive Director and former MLB GM] Joe Klein, they're going to call somebody that has no stake in it – not that the Ducks would stand in the way of it – but there's probably a team or two in another league that might. If a team has a vested interest in winning for their own organization, it might be different. In other leagues, teams kind of control the destination of the player.
In the Atlantic League, they call the league office, they call [Klein], he completes the purchase transaction of the contract and sometimes I'm the last to find out. They'll say "go find a new pitcher, or a first baseman, whatever the case may be, so and so got signed." I think that's probably the biggest challenge from a player personnel perspective, you lose your best players and have to fill them in with free agents; we don't have a feeder system in this league.
I think in terms of drawing scouts, the scouts watch this league via the internet as much as anything. When they see teams that are winning and having success, when they're in need of player and over the course of a few weeks they see him having success, they do come out and I think that all of the teams are conveniently located and compared to large major markets, Long Island is as large as it gets. Being part of the New York metropolitan market doesn't hurt us, we're conveniently located, we have a great facility, big league coaching staff, and over the course of 15 years we've shown that we're a great destination.
What are the advantages of signing with an independent ballclub rather than an affiliated one?
We're very very forthright with everyone who is interested in signing here. We have two goals from a player personnel perspective. Number one, we want to win. This is not a developmental league. We're not going to let someone throw 100 pitches because they need to get the work in. If you don't produce, you don't play. Our manager's job is to win with the best nine names in the lineup. Number two, we want to help players with their careers, help them continue their careers, and help them get back to the major leagues and want to help them accomplish their goals and objectives as individuals, but it's team first. We want to win and we also want to make sure that the individuals have success when they perform here.
It's really simple for us and I think that a lot of players have responded to that in a positive fashion because that's refreshing to a lot of guys. A lot of guys have been in minor league organizations, Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A, where it is a developmental league and developing talent for the big league teams, its not all about winning…We wont stand in anyone's way, we'll always promote the player and help them achieve their individual goals and objectives too.
When did the Ducks first get into the business of luring in big names?
The team started in 2000, I think there were major leaguers on that very first team, Chuck Carr was there, he was the center fielder from the Marlins. In 2001, Carlos Baerga came and he went back to the majors after playing here and was the perfect example. It was the Ducks' second year, he hit .315 with the Ducks and he was back at the big league level with the Boston Red Sox a year later. He would have been out of baseball without the Ducks and has always spoken highly of the Atlantic League. He was one of those guys who utilized the league and we've had those big league names continue to come here throughout our history.
Has the Ducks' reputation gotten to the point where the club doesn't have to recruit and big names just sort of gravitate to the team?
Its a lot different than it was ten years ago. There's no question In 2013, agents, players, and managers that are with or work with major league organizations know about the Atlantic League at this point. We've had more than 600 players signed to major league deals.
Let's look at it from the perspective of a major league organization. If you're running player development for a big league club, and you have a player that makes, say, 10K a month, and you want to give a younger guy an opportunity to see if he can perform at that level, you would have to keep that guy at 10K a month in Triple-A or spring training or extending spring to give your young guy a shot. Now, if he goes to an Atlantic League club, we really only have major league clubs to purchase our contract to repay the integrity of our contact. It's not to profit from it, its not a big revenue source for us, we make our money from ticket sales and such.
If you're a major league organization, and you go and you spend 4K to purchase that player, two months into the season, you would have paid that player 20K to have him. Not only did you give your younger payer an opportunity to prove himself, you've got 16K to spend elsewhere..Economically, we've benefited major league organizations, they see that using the Atlantic League as a place where they can pluck talent from.
Did you anticipate signing Dontrelle Willis, Ramon Castro, and Vladimir Guerrero in the same week?
Well we signed the nucleus of our ballclub and as we were getting closer to spring training, we were waiting on the catching position. In fact, I got quite a few tweets and emails and inquires like "Hey, are you going to sign a catcher?"…That was by design, we anticipated that a number of very talented catchers would be available late in spring training. Ralph Henriquez is a perfect example, he became available three or four days before we starting spring training and [Castro] was hot on his heels. IT happened quickly but its something we anticipated happening. We know that major league teams were carrying a lot of catchers in spring training and we knew that there would be highly talented catchers out there. Luckily, our patience paid off and Ramon and Ralph both become available late.
Castro obviously has a reputation as a very good player, especially in this market thanks to his time with the Mets. He handles a staff well and is a solid veteran leader but he also can take opposing pitchers deep, which is something that not a lot of catchers do often. So we were excited that he was available and it came together rather quickly once we talked to his representatives.
Dontrelle, I didn't anticipate [signing him]. His agent reached out to me and we discussed where he was and what he was trying to do. While that came together quickly, I was surprised that he didn't stick with a big league club. He's 31, a left-handed pitcher, he's had a tremendous about of success at the major league level. I didn't see him becoming available, but when he did become available, we jumped on it.
As far as [Vladimir Guerrero] goes, that's a situation that I monitored for a couple of months wondering what we he was going to do. If his desire to play was gone or not, his representatives indicated that it was not so I stayed in touch with them. The opportunity came to sign him and that's what we did…the timing of it all was a coincidence.
What players are drawing big league attention right now?
I think that Dontrelle has been an excellent teammate and has been vocal in the clubhouse in a big way…Ramon has done very well with the bat and at the plate. I think any team in need of catching would benefit from either one of our catchers. Ralph Henriquez, I know I mentioned him, he's a young switch-hitting catcher. It's very surprising to me that a team doesn't have room for him in their organization.
Our first baseman, Ryan Strieby, he's a 27-year-old with Triple-A experience…he has hit for power at all stops in his career and I'm surprised that he too doesn't have a spot in an organization. I also think that Dan Lyons is an excellent fielder, has proven himself as a clutch hitter, has a great attitude, and he's guy that goes out there every night and proves himself…I think that all the guys on our club are capable of playing at a high level and playing in affiliated baseball. Otherwise we wouldn't have signed them.