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Over the years, third baseman Cody Asche has drawn comparisons to Chase Utley from wishful Phillies fans. However, even though they’re both infielders that bat left-handed, Asche is a different type of player and is still working towards making that major step forward at the big league level. This spring, Asche has given the Phillies plenty of reason to believe that 2015 could be his year to break out. Last week against the Twins, Asche took Mike Pelfrey deep for his third homer in just five games. Prior to his next outing against the Astros on Wednesday, Asche spoke with MLBTR in the team’s Clearwater clubhouse about his representatives at Arland Sports.
On how he first came in contact with his primary agent, Jason Wood:
He was close to one of my summer coaches in high school and he represents one of my good friends, Jake Odorizzi (Odorizzi spoke with MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes back in 2013 about Arland Sports). We kept in contact a little bit and when it came time in college to find someone, me and my family just felt really comfortable with him. We didn’t really interview anyone else, we just knew that he was a good guy with the same kind of morals as us so we went with him.
On whether there’s an advantage to being with a smaller agency like Arland Sports:
I think for sure there’s an advantage, just because you get to know him on such a personal level. I wouldn’t even consider him my agent first, I would consider him my friend first before calling him my agent. But, being that he’s a smaller agent, only having a couple guys in the big leagues, we get a lot more attention than someone might get at a bigger agency.
On the things his agency does for him outside of baseball:
Anything, you name it. He’ll help me with restaurant reservations, tickets to games, lots of stuff like that. A lot of the time I’ll just reach out to him so that I can go to dinner with him. Obviously, he also helps me line up things like apparel deals. Also, my wife Angie is a dietician and he’s helped a lot with her startup business, Eleat Sports Nutrition, and getting that off the ground. Overall, I try not to ask Jason for too much though and I’m not the most demanding guy, so there’s not a ton of stuff I really want.
On whether he’s tried to recruit other players to the agency:
I haven’t done that a lot, I’ve had it more the other way actually. I’ve had a lot of guys say to me, “If you ever want to talk to [my agent] about making a change you can,” but I think everyone knows that I’m rock solid with Jason and all of Jason’s guys are rock solid and a lot of people in the business know that. Myself, Jake Odorizzi, and David Phelps are the three main guys we have in the big leagues right now, all three of us know what he’s about, we’re loyal, and I couldn’t foresee a situation where any of us would ever want to leave.
Last season, Aaron Harang was a pleasant surprise for the Braves. Signed to a cheap one-year pact, the veteran hurler pitched to a 3.57 ERA with 7.1 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, and a 39.4 percent ground-ball rate in 204 1/3 innings, a major step up from his 2013 campaign where he went from team to team and finished with a combined 5.40 ERA. Some, including yours truly, felt that his bounce back season would put him in line for a two-year deal. Instead, Harang wound up signing a one-year deal with the Phillies worth $5MM. It’s conceivable that something more lucrative could have materialized with time, but Harang didn’t want to be left without a chair when the music stopped.
“The Phillies were the most aggressive team as far as just getting things moving. I had a few other clubs that were talking to me at the same time but there were some other pieces that needed to fall in line before things could move forward with them,” Harang told MLBTR on Wednesday morning in Clearwater, Florida. “The Phillies moved the fastest. I knew that with some clubs, if I played my part and waited, there would be opportunities there. Obviously, I learned from last year that I didn’t want to sit around and wait so at that point I wanted to go to the team that was most aggressive, and that was the Phillies.”
Harang was also drawn to the Phillies’ rotation and felt that he would be a solid fit in the middle of the starting five. He was admittedly wary of some things about the roster, including the December trade of Marlon Byrd, but he says that he felt good about the organization as a whole and he believes that the lineup will get a boost from an improved Ryan Howard.
Still, the Phillies’ edge above the other potential suitors came from their readiness to make a deal. Like many other starters on the open market, Harang was left hanging by teams as they waited to see how the top of the pitching market would play out.
“There were a couple of East Coast teams and then a couple of West Coast teams that we had tentative conversations with, but a lot of it had to do with when [Jon] Lester was going to sign and when [James] Shields was going to sign and waiting for the dominoes to fall. But, [Phillies GM Ruben Amaro] called up and they were being the most aggressive out of anyone,” Harang explained.
Heading into the winter, Harang heard from a number of people in baseball who felt that he would wind up getting a multi-year deal. Still, he didn’t dwell on that and went in with the attitude that the market would determine the appropriate deal for him. After being traded twice in April of 2013 and spending time with four clubs in total that year, Harang felt that it was more important to find a place that valued him highly as a starter. Harang also indicated that he was disappointed by Braves’ level of effort to re-sign him early in the offseason, but he sounds plenty happy with his new home in the NL East.
Last offseason, Jerome Williams was on the shelf for quite a while as he waited to find out where his next home would be. The veteran had just turned in a career-high 169 1/3 innings for the Angels in 2013 and even though his core stats weren’t stellar, the advanced metrics indicated that he would have had a much better ERA with some luck on his side. Ultimately, Williams was left in limbo until February when he signed a one-year deal with the Astros with $2.1MM guaranteed. All in all, that offseason experience is one that the 33-year-old is glad to have in his rear view mirror.
“It was kind of nerve racking. Going through a season where I was with the Angels and I felt like things would have gotten done earlier, I proved to people that I could [start and pitch out of the bullpen] at that time. I was the only pitcher that had 25 starts and ten relief appearances, I think I was thinking at that time that people would come out and offer me something and it didn’t happen. It was kind of nerve racking but we got it done and that’s all that mattered,” Williams told MLBTR in the Phillies’ Clearwater clubhouse.
Even though he was biting his nails a bit, Williams says he wasn’t phoning agent Larry O’Brien to get constant updates. The Full Circle Sports Management rep has been in the field for more than 30 years and, as Williams put it, “he knows what he’s doing.” Indeed, O’Brien was relentless in his efforts to find a suitable deal for Williams and eventually he found a solid one-year platform for him to showcase his talents.
Unfortunately, things didn’t work out in Houston and the next stop in Texas wasn’t fruitful, but he found success with the Phillies when he landed there in August. In nine starts for Philadelphia, Williams pitched to a 2.83 ERA with 6.0 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9 across 57 1/3 frames. After ending the year on a high note, Williams jumped at the chance to skip the free agent process and stick with the Phillies with a one-year, $2.5MM contract extension.
“This was a no-brainer for me,” Williams explained. “Playing with them for the couple months I was with them, it was a no-brainer. The atmosphere, the guys in the clubhouse, the city, it was a no-brainer to come back.”
Williams credited his Philadelphia battery mates Carlos Ruiz and Wil Nieves for his improved performance to close out the year. His comfort level with the Phillies also helped matters. With seven different major league stops over the course of his career, Williams knows what he likes in a clubhouse and what he would rather avoid.
“I like being here because everybody treats everybody like family. When I came in, I was a new guy but I’ve been a long time and I knew a lot of the veteran guys here, so that made the transition a lot easier. I started talking to Jimmy [Rollins], Chase [Utley], I played with Chase in the [Arizona] Fall League, I played against Marlon [Byrd], I played against A.J. [Burnett], so it’s like, whoa, I know these guys.”
“Just seeing the younger guys mature, it was like a family, so that’s what the clubhouse is all about. This is your domain, this is our family, this is our place. So if we can be one as a family and as a unit, we can do things together,” Williams said.
Family is a concept that’s hugely important to Williams. In honor of his late mother who lost her battle to breast cancer in 2001, he’ll once again be donning a multitude of colorful gloves to raise awareness for different forms of cancer. Williams’ top choice is pink in recognition of his mother, but he’ll also be mixing it up with four different colors to put the spotlight on prostate, pancreatic, liver, and childhood cancers.
After a stress-free winter and a productive spring, Williams is eager to take the mound in April and build on his strong performance at the close of 2014. If all goes according to plan, Williams won’t find himself waiting around for a call next winter either.
Phil Hughes was two years away from free agency but both he and the Twins realized that they wanted to hammer out something for the long term. In December, Hughes agreed to a three-year extension that will pay him $42MM but also allow him to cash in again at the age of 32.
For both sides, the deal appeared to be a win-win. The Twins locked up Hughes following his best season to date and Hughes will get to hit the open market roughly at the same age as James Shields when he inked a four-year, $75MM deal with the Padres in February. In a pre-game scrum with the Twins’ beat writers on Monday, I asked GM Terry Ryan if the club ever pushed for a longer deal with the right-hander.
“I think that’s kind of where our comfort level was, he was signed for two and we tacked on more…In essence, I think that’s where we felt pretty comfortable in terms of his age and what he accomplished in his life and all that stuff,” Ryan said. “We were comfortable with it and so was he. At the end of the deal he’ll be  and that’s getting to an age when you start to have a bit of…concern at that point but then again, that’s how old Ervin Santana is and we signed him to a four-year deal. He’s a young guy, he’s been around for a long time. That’s what happens when you sign out of high school and move into the majors quickly.”
Meanwhile, this spring, Eduardo Escobar has presented the Twins with one of those good problems to have. Escobar’s production at the plate has made some wonder if he could force shortstop Danny Santana back to the outfield, unseating Aaron Hicks. I asked Ryan about that possibility and he seemed to downplay the chances of that happening.
“No, we’re still going with that path, there’s still competition but Santana is certainly playing well at short. Paul [Molitor] said he’d like him to be there if he plays well and to this point he has. Escobar has had a fine spring and I’ve stated this many times. It’s going to be tough to get him out of that position because he played well last year and he played well this spring,” Ryan said. “I don’t think I’m prepared right now to tell you who is going to play center and I’m not prepared to tell you who is going to play short, but Hicks is certainly in the mix and Santana is in the mix.”
Later, Escobar saw some time in the outfield in an effort to get him comfortable with playing multiple positions off the bench, as Ryan explained to MLB.com’s Rhett Bollinger and other reporters after the game.
In a spring start against the Phillies on Monday, Mike Pelfrey made his final argument for joining the Twins rotation. Unfortunately for the right-hander, a few bad breaks (including Cody Asche‘s two-run smash early in the afternoon) might have punched his ticket for the bullpen. The veteran has been in a strange spot this spring; while Pelfrey was fighting hard to make the starting five, he also knew there was a good chance that he would be asked to pitch out of the bullpen instead. One might see the uncertainty as a potential stumbling block in Pelfrey’s preseason preparation, but he refused to make excuses in a postgame chat with reporters.
“It hasn’t been that big of an issue. It’s all about routine. I’m not saying I can’t do it, I’ve just never done it. I’m a competitor, so I’ll make an adjustment if I need to. At the end of the day, pitching is still pitching,” Pelfrey explained, while adding that he’s “at peace” with what he’s shown over the past few weeks.
Between his seven years with the Mets and his two seasons with the Twins, Pelfrey has made a grand total of four relief appearances. Of course, during his time in New York, the former No. 9 overall pick had fans dreaming that he would blossom into an ace. For all we know, Pelfrey could have been on his way to that status in 2012 before he tore his UCL after three solid outings in April. Later that year, the Mets elected to non-tender Pelfrey rather than wait and see how things would shake out for him after surgery. I asked Pelfrey if he wishes that he had gotten another chance to put it all together in New York.
“I understood the business side of it, when they non-tendered me the GM [Sandy Alderson] actually called me and said that he appreciates everything I did there. I have no problems with that. I get it,” said the 31-year-old. “Then the Twins called and I have some family in Minnesota and I thought, man, this is a good opportunity, and like I said, I came back early [from Tommy John surgery]. Now is probably the best I’ve felt since I’ve been in Minnesota.”
Pelfrey would rather be gearing up every fifth game, but he says he’ll do just fine pitching out of the pen and he’s prepared to do whatever is asked of him to help the Twins win. However, one has to wonder if he could be helping another team in need of a starter instead. A contending club with a hole in its rotation could do a lot worse than adding Pelfrey, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the Twins received calls on him once the season starts.
In March, it’s not uncommon to see over-the-hill veterans in camp looking to extend their careers for just one more season. By the same token you don’t normally see marketable 30-year-old players call it quits, but that’s what reliever Blaine Boyer did three years ago. Boyer didn’t fall out of love with baseball, but he was decidedly heartsick and missing his family back home. When the right-hander told his wife Ginsey that he wanted to retire and potentially leave a mountain of money on the table, she understood the way he felt and the reasons behind his decision.
“I grew up in a household that was broken early. My parents divorced when I was three and there was just so much inconsistency there,” Boyer told MLBTR in the Twins’ dugout prior to their afternoon contest against the Phillies. “I’ve had to live with that for a long time. I was coming and going and I wasn’t consistently there for my boys and my wife and that brought back a lot of what I went through when I was little, so she understood that. It wasn’t about me not wanting to play baseball anymore, it was much deeper.”
While Boyer’s sabbatical from the game effectively amounted to a boxer’s retirement, he was confident that he was done with baseball for good. When the pull of the sport was too strong for Boyer to resist, he and his wife came up with an unorthodox game plan: she and their two young sons would travel with Boyer on the road as much as humanly possible throughout the season.
Boyer, 33, feels as though he has found the right balance between being an active parent and doing what he feels he was put on this planet to do professionally.
“The boys, they’re 3 and 4 now, they’re at the point where they’re kind of expecting baseball season and they love it. My wife especially, she loves the atmosphere of the games, she loves sitting back and eating a hot dog, watching the boys and the seventh inning stretch and it’s just so much fun for her to be their mother watching them watch their daddy,” Boyer said. “For me, I’m able to experience this as their father and my wife always being with me, it’s kind of like the Boyer family adventure and it’s a blessing.”
For the right-hander, traveling with the family entourage means that he doesn’t have to live with regret in the present or in the future.
“I feel like God has given me the ability to throw a baseball and he hasn’t given that many people this kind of ability. So, when I have to answer to him about the gifts he has given me, I don’t want to have to say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry I wasted that one.’ On top of that, I didn’t want to be 60 years old and thinking what might have been,” Boyer explained. “So, the whole no regrets mindset and still playing baseball gives me the opportunity stand up and talk about family and talk about God. Helping people understand my relationship with Jesus Christ is important to me.”
Boyer has taken his family with him all over the map, even internationally in 2013 when he pitched for Japan’s Hanshin Tigers. Boyer, who bristled at the thought of takoyaki and some of the country’s more adventurous cuisine, experienced a bit of culture shock, but he also fell in love with Japan’s baseball culture and its people. It also helped that friend Jason Standridge was pitching with Hanshin and, of course, his family was by his side.
For now, the Boyer family adventure has landed the traveling clan in Minnesota, but that could change in a matter of days. The reliever has a March 30th opt-out clause that can be exercised if he has not been added to the 40-man roster by that time. Boyer doesn’t know how that will play out yet, but he’ll have his own personal cheering section with him no matter where he winds up.
Entering his fifth major league season, Justin Smoak knows that he hasn’t accomplished everything that he set out to do when he was regarded as a top prospect. He also believes, however, that it’s not too late to turn on the jets and fulfill his potential.
“I’ve learned a lot over the years. I think I’ve had some good few weeks, a good month here and there, but I haven’t been the player that I know I can be and what a lot of people thought I was going to be, so it’s just about getting better and doing what I can day in and day out,” Smoak told MLBTR after the Blue Jays topped the Rays 3-0 in Dunedin. “I feel like I’m at a point where I’ve learned what works for me and I’ve learned a lot. I’ve just got to make it happen.”
Just four years ago, Smoak was the centerpiece of a trade package that sent ace Cliff Lee to the Rangers. Smoak didn’t blossom into the fearsome bopper Seattle hoped he’d become, and last October, the Blue Jays claimed him off waivers. Soon after, they declined Smoak’s $3.65MM option and non-tendered him, but he knew all along that he was still wanted in Toronto.
“Yeah, that was the first conversation I had with them. That was already a known. I knew that was going to happen, and I’m still arbitration-eligible, so I just tried to come to a deal and it ended up being what it is now,” Smoak said, referring to his one-year, $1MM pact.
Late last year, Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet learned from Smoak’s agent that he turned down more money elsewhere to sign with the Blue Jays. Predictably, Smoak cited playing time as a reason for his decision, but not the only one.
“Probably more just the opportunity, you know, the opportunity to play and be in this lineup and be in the American League East and some hitter ballparks, that was probably the number one thing for me,” said the 28-year-old.
Toronto could provide a springboard for Smoak to make that money back and then some, but, above all else, he believes the change of scenery will help him get his career back on track.
“In Seattle, I had some good times and I learned a lot, but it’ll be a fresh start in Toronto and, hopefully, I’ll get things going here.”
Long before people were eyeing Daniel Norris as the next spokesman for Dos Equis beer, he was a wanted man around baseball. When the Cubs were shopping ace Jeff Samardzija last summer, Theo Epstein & Co. were reportedly targeting Norris as a centerpiece in a potential deal with Toronto. Ultimately, of course, the Blue Jays stood pat and held on to one of the brightest young pitching prospects in baseball. Through it all, Norris says he didn’t allow the trade talk to be a distraction, but he couldn’t avoid hearing about it on a daily basis.
“At first it was like, I would never see it, but I would always get text messages from buddies back home like, ‘Dude, are you getting traded?’ and they’d send me screenshots of MLB Trade Rumors and I’m like, ‘What the heck?’ But, at the end of the day, it’s just about throwing a baseball,” Norris told MLBTR. “Whoever it’s for, whether it’s for the Blue Jays or for the Cubs, whatever, that’s all I can control. It’s not like I can say, ‘Hey, please don’t trade me, I like your organization.’ So you just have to take whatever is given to you.”
Even as speculation mounted about the Blue Jays making a play for Samardzija and the potential pieces that could be involved in a swap, no one from the organization approached the young pitcher to let him know a trade was imminent. His representatives at Excel Sports Management thought enough of the buzz to keep him apprised, but Norris wasn’t exactly waiting by the phone.
“I got a call from my agent once when I was in Double-A and he said, ‘Hey, there’s a possibility you might get traded, it’s out there, I wanted to let you know,’ and I was like, ‘Okay, whatever,’ so that’s about the extent of it,” the pitcher explained.
By all accounts, the 21-year-old (22 in April) is the frontrunner to land the final spot in the Blue Jays’ rotation, but he refused to pat himself on the back for what he’s displayed this spring. With some prodding, he acknowledged that he did well for himself in his Friday night outing when he allowed one run across 5 2/3 innings against the Rays, but he’s determined to improve on his command and delivery as the season draws near. Norris hopes that if he has everything clicking to start the year, he can direct the conversation away from his fascinating off-field life and back to his pitching.
“I don’t think it’ll be long before the focus is back on my playing again,” Norris said. “I just want to go out there and take care of business.”
Dioner Navarro was gearing up for his second season as the Blue Jays’ starting catcher when Toronto decided to make a massive splash by signing Russell Martin in November. Navarro, an offensively-gifted catcher is his own right, was understandably unhappy with the prospect of seeing less at-bats at a new position. Navarro asked for a trade days after Martin’s arrival and weeks ago he said that the D’Backs and Tigers were among the teams that have called on him. For now, however, he’s keeping his focus solely on the field.
“No not at this point. I really try to stay away from it now [laughs],” Navarro told MLBTR when asked if he’s heard of additional clubs that have interest in acquiring him. “I already said my feelings about it, whatever happens is going to happen.”
Navarro had a chat with Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos earlier this offseason where both men were able to explain their positions. In the weeks that have followed, Navarro said that he hasn’t heard from AA or anyone else in the front office about a potential deal.
“No, I just had a conversation early during the offseason and we spoke our piece. Since Spring Training started he expressed his feelings and I expressed my feelings and we’ll leave it at that. We don’t need to be saying anything else, we gotta get ready for baseball season.
“I think I’m at that point where I don’t even pay attention anymore, whether it’s here or somewhere else. I’m just trying to get ready and let my agent do what he’s got to do. If he gets something done, he’ll let me know,” the 31-year-old said.
In other words, if a trade is merely days away, Navarro doesn’t know about it. The catcher also told MLBTR that he hasn’t given any thought to where he might potentially be a good fit. In the interim, his plan is to do whatever is asked of him, even if he’s not all that gung ho about playing primarily in the DH spot.
“There’s a little bit that I like about playing DH, but, I mean, I love playing behind the plate. I love being in there every pitch every play, I love playing behind the plate, and I feel like myself behind the plate. But, right now I want to help my team win. In this case, if I stay with the Blue Jays I’d love to help them win and help them be in the postseason this year,” said Navarro.
It remains to be seen whether the Tigers, Diamondbacks, or another team will make a move for the well-traveled veteran, who will be a free agent again after the season. Even if the outside interest is significant, a deal might not materialize for a while as Anthopoulos knows how valuable Navarro can be for a catching-needy team and is demanding a quality return for him. In the interim, Navarro says he’s ready to give 100%, even if he’s only doing 50% of what he loves at present.
MLBTR is re-launching its Draft Prospect Q&A series this season in order to give our readers a look at some of the top names on the board in this year’s draft. MLBTR will be chatting with some of the draft’s most well-regarded prospects over the next couple of weeks as they prepare for the 2014 draft on June 5-7.
In a draft that’s light on impact college bats, many clubs will be looking toward the high school ranks in search of adding some thump to their lineup down the road, and first baseman/outfielder Braxton Davidson of T.C. Roberson High School in Asheville, N.C., figures to be one of the top prep bats off the board in the 2014 draft.
The 6’3″, 215-pound Davidson boasts a strong left-handed swing and the ability to drive the ball to all fields, per scouting reports. Both Baseball America and MLB.com rank him 36th among draft prospects, while ESPN’s Keith Law is even more bullish, pegging him as the No. 16 prospect in the 2014 draft class.
Davidson’s pop drew quite a bit of attention at last June’s Tournament of the Stars, as noted by both BA and MLB.com in their scouting reports. He set a tournament record with three homers in four games, including one that traveled an estimated 500 feet. BA notes that improvements in his hit tool this season may have that tool ahead of his power in game action, and Law notes that he has “no wasted motion” in his swing when he’s at his best.
Davidson was kind enough to take some time out of a very busy schedule for a phone interview with me and discuss improvements to his game over the past year, his defensive preferences and his close relationship with a current big leaguer…