Interviews Rumors

Chase Lambin Q+A

At 34, infielder Chase Lambin is the oldest current minor-leaguer who hasn't yet played in the Majors. Drafted in the 34th round in 2002 as a college senior, he faced an uphill climb even to make it to the upper levels of the minor leagues, but more than a decade later, he's played at the Triple-A level for the Mets, Marlins, Nationals, Twins and Royals organizations. He has also played for the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan, and in independent baseball. He is currently a free agent. MLBTR recently spoke to him about his career as a minor-leaguer, and about trying to break into the big leagues. This interview has been edited for length.

When did you feel like you got the closest to the big leagues?

Probably '05. I was still with the original team that drafted me [the Mets]. I was having my best year, and I got called up halfway through the year to Triple-A. I was 25 years old, I was playing as well as I ever had, and I thought it might happen then. But then the next spring training -- actually I wasn't in big-league camp. I got called over a couple times from minor-league camp and ended up getting like 30 at-bats because the World Baseball Classic was going on, and I did really well. [Then-Mets manager] Willie Randolph was like, "We really like you, but we don't have a spot for you right now. Go do your thing in [Triple-A] Norfolk, and we'll see you soon." And I went to Norfolk and batted like .180 the first two months (laughs). So I kind of blew it.

What is it like to go through the minors as a 34th-round pick, as compared to if you were, say, a second-round pick?

I'd say the incline is a lot more steep. There's less room for error. The window of opportunity is much smaller. I didn't get much [of a] chance when I first got to Brooklyn in short-season, but once I did get some at-bats I did well, which bought me some time. And then the next spring training, I actually caught a couple breaks, and they had an opening at shortstop in high-A, so I skipped low-A completely. So I was playing every day for HoJo [Howard Johnson]. HoJo was my manager in Brooklyn, and I think he stuck his neck out for me and gave me an opportunity, and I ended up being an All-Star. I had that first year and a half to really impress, and I did, which let me hang around. But if I [hadn't], I would have been out a long time ago.

What's it like waiting to be picked?

For me, it was tough, just because I was eligible every year. It wasn't just my junior year and senior year in college. I was eligible my senior year in high school, and then I went to junior college, so I was eligible after both of those years. So for four or five years in a row, I was able to be drafted. And I was told I had a chance, so I kind of frustrated because I thought I would be, and then I wasn't. It ended up working out for the best. I had four awesome years in college that I really needed, because it took me a while to come into my own as a player.

What do you see yourself doing when you're done playing?

I see myself coaching. I feel like I have a gift to get on the same level with hitters. I feel like I can help guys with their plan and their mentality.

As an older player in the minors, do you feel like you're helping your teammates now?

Yeah. The last few years, I've really embraced it, mainly because I wasn't playing every day, so I had to take the focus off that, and just make the most of it. It was surprising to me how rewarding it was to really help a guy and see him do well. I felt like I was in the box getting the hit.

Is it frustrating to see younger players get promoted?

Of course, when I was younger, it was probably more frustrating, just because of my ego. You just always feel like it should be you. But over the years, you shift your perspective, and I got to the point where I was just trying to support a family, and I was grateful that I had a job, that I got to be playing baseball at age 32, 33, 34. You can really get bitter if just sit and think about how you're not getting what you think you deserve. I'm happy for my teammates who get called up. I always pray that it will be me next, but I just decided to focus on the positive.

If the opportunity to play in the Majors didn't exist -- if you were just doing what you do without the possibility of playing in the Majors, with all the travel you do and the salary you make -- is that a lifestyle that's sustainable on its own?

Yeah, yeah. I'd play as long as my body would let me if I could support my family. Of course, that carrot you're chasing is always good motivation, but if you told me there was a zero percent chance of going to the big leagues [but] that I could still play baseball and support my family, I'm pretty sure I'd still do it. That's pretty much what I've been doing the past few years. I really enjoy playing baseball and traveling. It's gotten tougher now that we have children, but my wife loves the game, and loves to travel and support me.

How did you end up in Japan in 2009?

I had multiple options from different teams. I got an international agent in the middle of the 2008 season [who] called me out of nowhere and said he had some connection to Japan if I was interested. That offseason, it was like, "I can get you a workout in front of Bobby Valentine in Japan if you want to go." I was like, "Sure, why not?" I just decided at my age, and [with] my financial situation, it would be dumb to pass up guaranteed, good money and a chance to have a great life experience. We went and had an amazing time. We were married right before we left, [so] we were newlyweds in Japan. It didn't work out the way I envisioned -- I only got 100 at-bats. [But] I would've gone back, and I'd still go back, in a heartbeat.

Now that you're back here, what is the process of looking for minor-league opportunities like? Is that something you leave to your agent, or is that something you pursue on your own?

When I was younger, I just would lean on my agent, but as I've gotten older I've gotten a little more proactive. I've developed a network of connections that I email and call, and try to just get in people's ears. My agent is still working for me, but I do my own work. I don't know how much it helps or not, but I feel better about doing everything I can. With my age and no big-league experience, it's a tough sell, but I think there's value in guys like me who can provide production at multiple positions, switch-hit, and also be a good mentor. It takes a lot of things to shake out, because on the totem pole, I'm the low man, so everybody else usually has to get signed, and then if there's any extra spots, that's where I fit in. So I've got to be patient.

You feel like something might develop for you when spring training starts, or something like that?

It's hard to say. I think so. I'm an eternal optimist. All I can do is be ready to play when I get that call.

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C.J. Nitkowski Q+A

Lefty pitcher C.J. Nitkowski's fascinating career began when the Reds drafted him in the first round in 1994. From there, he pitched in the Tigers, Astros, Mets, Cardinals, Rangers, Yankees, Braves, Pirates and Nationals organizations, also pitching in a number of Triple-A towns along the way, before playing in Japan and then Korea. With big-leaguers like Kevin Youkilis, Luis Mendoza, Chris Volstad and Luke Scott now heading overseas, and Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka in the process of signing with a North American team, Nitkowski's unique perspective seems more timely than ever. Nitkowski's career ended in 2012, and he currently works as an analyst for, CBS Sports and MLB Network Radio. He can also be found on Twitter. This interview has been edited for length.

MLBTR: What is it like to have to [bounce around] from year to year and not know where you're going to be?

CJN: I really thought my career was over in 2002, and it didn't end until last January, so I always felt I was on borrowed time anyway. [And] at least early on, for me, I always felt like I was still going to be in the game. It's just a matter of where you're going to be. It wasn't that bad. It was probably harder on my wife, as far as the travel goes, or getting released suddenly. I just kind of got used to it, to be honest with you. I think, probably because I was traded my first full year -- I was drafted by the Reds in '94 and traded at the deadline in '95, so right away, I was on that carousel. Almost immediately in my career, I was used to moving around. I never got frazzled by it. If anything, the stress level would have been on her, just because she had the kids, and a lot of times she was doing things by herself, and moving by herself. But for me personally, I'd gotten so accustomed to it.

As a Triple-A player, how do you follow big-league baseball? Do you look for situations where you might be able to help?

Oh, sure, especially [when] I was older. When you're younger, you're in an organization, you're paying attention to what's going on up top, and you kind of know what your opportunities are going to be. Your job is just to make sure that you're ready. But as you get older, if you're fortunate enough to get an out clause in your contract, which I had a bunch toward the end of my career, then you're paying attention to everything that's going on.

Some guys completely leave that stuff up to their agent, and aren't involved. [But] I was always proactive, especially in the second half of my career, making sure I really knew what was going on in different organizations, and where I thought there were needs and where I could sell myself as a potential fit. Having that out clause was big, just because you see what's going on, you say, "Wow, there's a team that really has a need right now," and you try to use that to your advantage. A good agent should be on top of it, but I always tell guys, especially when you're in the minor leagues and you're older, there's not a lot of benefit for your agent. It's more work than it probably is worth. So you really need to be proactive and take a little more control of your career. I was always a guy who did that, and there were quite a few times when it worked for me.

Like what?

When I was with the Pirates in '05, I was pitching really well in Triple-A, probably the best I've pitched, and really just paying close attention to what was going on. [I] saw the Nationals had a need, and we were able to work something out where I had my out clause and went to pitch for them. When I got released by the Braves in '04, [I] called the Yankees myself, because I realized they had a need. I was on a guaranteed contract with the Braves anyway, so I knew I was going to get a big-league salary the rest of the year. I called them, and they called me back, and within a couple hours, they said, "Yeah, it's a good fit." I knew what was going on there.

What do you think organizations owe people who are in your situation, Triple-A veterans who might see opportunities in other organizations?

It can be frustrating, because if you don't have the out [clause], you're sitting there going, "Ugh, I cannot believe I decided to sign with this team, and gosh, if I were in that organization right now, of course I would get a callup." [You don't] know whether you actually would or not, but you believe you would've. You see an opportunity with other teams in the big leagues, and you might see it as, "They have nothing in Triple-A." And here you are, pitching great for an organization that doesn't have opportunities, or an organization that just doesn't particularly see you as a guy that they're going to make a move with.

A lot of times, guys will feel like they've been lied to or misled [by] organizations that want to stockpile some older veterans. Which we don't see as much as we used to. But there would be teams that would just want to get a bunch of veteran guys around, and then kind of hold onto them. It can be really frustrating when you feel like you're doing a good job, or you feel like you're absolutely ready to go back to the big leagues or get to the big leagues, but you can't get out. I've always told guys to be very careful, when you become an older guy, about where you sign, and what organization you sign with.

It's a really good idea to talk to other players, and see how their experience went with a front office. I remember a good buddy of mine -- two years in a row, he'd call me and ask me about organizations, and both times, I told him not to sign with them, because I had a bad experience [with] the front office, and both times, he did it anyway. And both times, he called me in the middle of the year, going, "I can't believe I'm stuck in this organization." I said, "Man, I told you." You're in your mid-30s in Triple-A. That was not a place you want to be. Even though it might look like there was opportunity up top, it's not the right spot. You look around, you pay attention, you talk to other guys, make sure you get an organization where you feel like you'll be treated like a professional.

A lot of players who take opportunities overseas [wouldn't] be starters in the big leagues, but might be just an injury or two from being starters in the big leagues. What is it like to have to make that decision between going overseas and having to wait for an opportunity that might [present itself] in the US?

The first time, I turned it down. I finished the '02 season with Texas, and pitched pretty well, outside of my usual walks being too high. Everything else was pretty good. And I had a choice to either go to Japan for a salary of a little over $500K, or sign back with Texas, and if I made the team I would have been making about that same salary. There was nothing guaranteed, [and] the money to go to Japan was guaranteed. But the opportunity [with the Rangers] looked good.

That was a tough decision for me. And probably a month into the season, I regretted it. It was actually really bad for me [with] Texas, probably the worst I ever pitched in the beginning of that '03 season, and then [I] sat in Triple-A the rest of the year and probably made $100K total for the year. I could have made five or six times that going to Japan. When you get on the cusp -- I was probably 30 at the time -- when you're not sticking in the big leagues, or you're not getting that opportunity, but guaranteed money comes up in Japan, it's really difficult.

The second time around for me, in '06, it was a no-brainer. I spent the entire season in Triple-A. I was 33 years old. I couldn't wait for another opportunity to try to get over to Asia, because they're not easy to come by. As soon as it came, it was a really easy decision to go at that point in my career.

It's hard for guys. They feel like they're giving up on their dreams, giving up on being a big-leaguer. But that's not necessarily the case, especially now. Guys come back all the time. Guys go to Asia all the time. You always have that opportunity to come back, but if you don't have a guaranteed contract here in the states, and you have some really good guaranteed money to go over to Asia, I'd recommend taking it. Now, that's because I personally loved the experience over there. Not everybody does. It's not for everybody.

What's the most surprising about playing your first season in Japan?

The coaches. They're light years behind on sports psychology compared to where [US baseball is] these days. And even then, over the evolution of my career, when I first came up, there were no mental skills coaches, and there were by the end of my career. That became pretty common. I don't know about every team, but probably pretty close.

Over there, they're a good 20, 30 years behind. Expectations can be pretty unrealistic. That was tough. I had a couple very difficult coaches, and a couple instances where they were really, really tough on me, and it seemed pretty undeserv[ed].

You mean expectations in terms of your work ethic, or they wanted you to be a superstar, or what?

Just more on-the-field performance. They would say the wrong things. I remember my translator coming out with the pitching coach one time. I had just got done warming up. I was a reliever in Japan. And my pitching coach, through my translator, says to me, "Hey, I really need you to pitch perfect today, in this game." Of course, that's ridiculous. If I could pitch perfect, I wouldn't be in Japan.

The first time I got sent down to the [Japanese] minor leagues, they were really upset because I [allowed] a base hit to a left-handed hitter. He hit a line drive over the shortstop's head after I got ahead in, like, a 1-2 count. And they were really upset about it. At the time, my ERA was under one and a half, and I got sent to the minor leagues. And I was like, "This is crazy." I think I was probably in a more stringent coaching situation [with] the team that I was on. Not all the teams are like that. But mine definitely was.

How is playing in Korea different from playing in Japan?

Korean baseball, even though they're years behind as far as how long they've been playing the game, especially professionally, they have a little bit closer to an American style of baseball. They're a little bit bigger and a little bit stronger, and generally, as a culture, they're a little bit more aggressive. That definitely plays out on the baseball field. They're just behind. The country is obviously smaller, too. If they had the same population size and they had been playing the game as long, I tell people the Koreans would be better than the Japanese. You get a little bit more of an aggressive style of play. [In] Japanese baseball, [there's] a little bit more contact, a lot of running, not a lot of power. And I hate to use the phrase "small ball," but that is kind of how they play. They'll bunt in the first inning in Japan, where you won't necessarily see that in Korea.

Can you comment on Masahiro Tanaka's workload? How do you think that will affect him as he [adjusts] to the Major Leagues?

I'm not too worried about him. [Yu] Darvish was a guy who wanted to throw a complete game every single time he went out there, [and] he didn't care how many pitches it took. I never worried about it for him. He's now at that two-year mark that seems to be the mark where you have to keep an eye on guys. That's about the time when Daisuke [Matsuzaka] started to struggle and eventually got hurt. I think Darvish is a little bit different because of his body type [and] how strong he is, and it seems like the Texas Rangers have done a pretty good job of keeping an eye on that.

I'm not worried about it, as long as [Tanaka] gets in a situation with a team that's aware of that. If he's on a six- or seven-year deal, you've got to treat it like you're in it for the long haul. He's a pretty strong kid. I know people get worried and they see the 160 pitches, and he comes back and [pitches in] relief the next day. I've done that in college before. We've gotten smarter about pitch counts, but I remember throwing 155 pitches in a game and then coming in in relief.

The big thing, when he gets here, is the workload away from games. The pitch counts in bullpens are [what] always blew me away. Tsuyoshi Wada was a teammate of mine in Japan. He's a smaller guy, doesn't throw as hard. He was a guy I was worried about. He threw a 247-pitch bullpen in spring training one year, and I remember sitting there and watching the end of it. It was ridiculous. He was exhausted. And he wasn't even doing anything productive.

But there was always such a pride factor in how many pitches they would throw in spring training. The team that I played for, it would be on the front page of the newspaper, the total number of pitches guys threw in practice. And we just had this first-round draft pick, this guy coming out of college, and he basically had to be first, and he was. That, to me, worries me more than [Tanaka's] actual game usage. There's an adjustment for those guys coming over, especially going to the five-day rotation.

Generally, in that culture, they think completely the opposite of the way we do, in the sense that we'll say, "Get quality work in over quantity." Leo Mazzone was big on that. Just get what you have to do done, make it count, do it well, and get out of here. Over there, it's completely the opposite. It's, "How long were you working? Whether or not you're dead tired and the quality of your reps is not good anymore doesn't matter. Just keep doing it." It's more about the practice in between, which I think [Japanese pitchers transitioning to the US] will love [once they change to the US system]. It takes a little while, because there's a mental adjustment for them. But for the most part, I think they end up liking it that way. But you do have to sell them on it a little bit.

You never know. But I wouldn't be too concerned about [the innings]. If anything, his career will last longer by coming here. [There's] certainly a much better chance that he [wouldn't have lasted], had he stayed in Japan for the bulk of his career.

Was that a concern you had when you were over there?

No, I didn't have to worry about it too much. They let us do our thing. I remember spring training my first year with the [Fukuoka SoftBank] Hawks, say practice would start at 9:00. The foreign guys, especially the pitchers, could get out of there by 1:00. So we were pretty much on a normal schedule. Japanese guys would be coming back to the hotel [at] 7:00 at night still in their uniforms. It's all about the quantity and not necessarily the quality. They would just work those guys to the bone. I felt terrible for them, especially the pitchers.

I watched a teammate of mine throw a 150-pitch bullpen in spring training, which is way too many, and then come back the next day and throw ten minutes of live batting practice. And I said, "What are you doing, man? Do you realize the wear and tear on your arm?" And he was joking with me, he said, "Oh no, I've got Japanese power and Japanese soul." It's the back-to-back stuff, and doing stuff while you're already fatigued, which is when your risk of injury goes up. He ended up having a cast from his elbow to almost his shoulder for, like, three or four months. That, to me, is the bigger concern. Not so much the pitch count during the game. I know that's a big deal now, and I understand why, and I'm not saying I'm against it. But it's more of the other work that goes into it.

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Jamey Carroll Q&A

Yesterday I had a chance to talk with Dodgers infielder Jamey Carroll.  Click below to read his preferences in free agency, how he's affected by the Dodgers' ownership situation, and what he was thinking facing Trevor Hoffman in the Rockies' 2007 tiebreaker game against the Padres.

Tim Dierkes: You've played second base, third, shortstop, and the outfield you have a preference?  What position did you play in college?

Jamey Carroll: I grew like everybody else, I played shortstop.  I played a lot of short throughout the minor leagues. It wasn't until the last couple of years in the minors that I started to bounce around everywhere and came to an understanding that if I was going to have a shot that was going to be the way, playing everywhere.  The more positions I learned the better I was going to be able to get my opportunity and help the team.  I think each position has something different, something a little exciting about it.  It keeps everything fresh, being able to go out and play something different.  It keeps it challenging for me.  You get to do something new every day when you bounce around.

Each position has something fun about it.  I love turning the double plays from second.  I love playing short because it's a position where you have to be in on everything.  At third it's a whole different world over there.  And when you throw me in the outfield after being so close in the infield I feel so far away.  There couldn't be anything more different than playing in the outfield.  But I definitely love playing in the middle of the infield because it's really in on the action. At the end of the day it doesn't really matter. As long as you do something to help contribute, that's the bottom line.

TD: The reaction time at third base must be the biggest difference over there.

JC: It's either smoked to you or just chopped like no other, so you're either racing for your life or sprinting for your life.  If you're playing third base for a little while and you go back to the middle infield you kind of forget how much your feet have to be in motion.  That's why for me it's important to make sure I'm always taking groundballs at short. 

TD: You scored the last run in Expos history.  How was the relocation experience for you?

JC: It was definitely something different. It was cool to know that I was a part of something like that.  I had mixed emotions - I enjoyed Montreal because 1) it's a great city and 2) it's the place where I got my shot, my opportunity. At the same time for years they had been talking about moving out of Montreal. To get some finality to that and know you're going to DC, the nation's capital, and being a part of the first year back there was something special in itself too. It was mixed emotions. You're sad to leave one place but excited to start anew somewhere else.  I'm thankful to have been a part of that in my career.

TD: How would you feel about adding the designated hitter to the National League?

JC: I'm old, so I like the NL - that's the type of player I am.  At the same time it was fun to play in the AL and it does add that hitter and it does open up another spot for a hitter to have a chance.  I grew up watching the NL and played most of my career in the NL.  For example last night for us Clayton Kershaw gets a big hit to help himself with the bases loaded in the eighth.  It's just kind of exciting and fun to see, but then again seeing the big guys hit some homers is just as exciting.  But I like the strategy, double switches and stuff like that, so if I had to choose I'm an NL kind of guy.

TD: What was it like being traded to the Rockies in 2007? 

JC: It came at a good time for me.  My mom had passed away and I joined a group of guys that were phenomenal for me outside of the game of baseball.  I developd a lot of unbelievable friendships with guys on that team.  It was something different - I only knew one place, the Expos/Nationals system.  I was a little nervous but at the same time I couldn't ask for a better group of guys to get traded to.

TD: You'll be entering free agency coming off a strong year.  What factors are most important to you in deciding where to play, if you receive multiple offers? 

JC: Obviously I think you want to win.  That's the bottom line.  I think that's a big factor.  I also think it's how you fit in with the team and the organization and where I feel like my family has the best fit.  It's not about me anymore.  Being in the playoffs once was incredible and I'd love to have that opportunity again.

TD: Do you have a geographic preference?

JC: We couldn't be any further from home than where we are now and we've really enjoyed it.  It depends on who wants me, you take those options and go from there and make the best decision out of that.

TD: Tell me what you were thinking during the 2007 tiebreaker game when Todd Helton was intentionally walked and you're coming up against Trevor Hoffman with a chance to send the Rockies to the playoffs.

JC: I was basically a defensive replacement - I wasn't really doing anything at the plate that year and so I'd end up getting pinch-hit for. Just knowing that I was on deck I kind of turned around and looked because I'd been getting pinch-hit for every other time and wasn't sure why this was any different.  I kind of turned and looked at the bench and Brad Hawpe, who was up behind me, just looked at me and told me to go up there and get it done.  I turned back around and it was almost somehow a little vote of confidence in a sense.  I was just going to do anything I could to get him in.  I knew how Hoffman approached it.  I'm not a first pitch swinger but I knew I was probably going to get a fastball away and tried to take advantage of it.  I think I hit it just far enough so Matty could get in there.

TD: Did you think Holliday was safe on the play?

JC: I didn't think it was going to be as close as it was.  From where I was, still running down to first, it was the longest few seconds of my life to see Tim McClelland finally call him safe.  But he was safe as far as I'm concerned.

TD: How closely do you and your teammates follow Frank McCourt's divorce and the stories about the team's finances?

JC: We've taken the approach that there's nothing we can do about it and it's not our situation.  We probably learn more about it when we get asked about it.  It shouldn't affect we way we prepare or hit a ball, field a ball, pitch a ball.  Obviously we're aware of it but at the same time I really don't believe it has much of an effect on us. 

Draft Prospect Q&A: Anthony Rendon

As the 2011 Draft draws closer, MLBTR will be introducing you to a handful of the top eligible prospects with a series of Q&As. The series includes four of the top college pitchers in the nation and a top college position player. Here's another position player to watch.

Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon is considered the top college position player in the 2011 draft and he remains a candidate to be the first overall pick this June. Both Baseball America and have reported within the week that it appears Rendon will either go first overall (to the Pirates) or second (to the Mariners) with UCLA right-hander Gerrit Cole going to the other team.

Rendon entered the season as the top prospect in the draft after being named Baseball America's Player of the Year in 2010 and the publication's Freshman of the Year in 2009. Ankle and shoulder injuries have slowed Rendon down this year and limited his time at third base, where he is considered an excellent defender. The 20-year-old Houston native shines at the plate as well and has a .350/.552/.552 line with 62 walks so far this season.

I spoke to Rendon earlier today about his injuries, the team he rooted for growing up and the hype surrounding the draft. Here's a transcript of our conversation:

Ben Nicholson-Smith - Not to start off on a bad note, but I’ve got to ask you about your injuries. Your ankle and your shoulder injuries - have those been the biggest challenges that you’ve had to face as a player this year? 

Anthony Rendon - Yeah, definitely. You want to keep on playing the game that you love, so it’s always going to be on your mind, but it’s part of being a player - actually getting over those injuries to be stronger when you come back and I feel like I’m doing that.

BNS - How are you feeling now? 

AR - I feel good. The ankle’s fine. I’m still on my throwing program with my arm, so I’m just trying to get it back stronger so I can go back 100% on the field and not have to worry about it down the road.

BNS - Is that the goal - just to be able to go out there and basically relax? 

AR - Oh yeah, definitely. That’s a whole part of the game. When you play you’re supposed to be relaxed, you’re not supposed to be tense out there and you’re not supposed to be thinking about too many things. If you think about things too much, you’re not going to be as great as you can be because you can forget about other aspects of the game and it can hurt you in the long run or you might make an errors.

BNS - One of the things I hear a lot is that you’re a strong defender. How do you go about preparing defensively and improving yourself on the field? 

AR - I like to get loose out there, I like to get free out there, but at the same time, you’ve got to be prepared so you can read the hops and stuff like that. I like to take practice seriously and I like to have fun out there and just focus on little things because when little things add up - just keeping your head down on a ground ball or keeping a free hand on top to guard against bad hops - those little things add up.

BNS - A few years ago the Braves drafted you and you were a 27th rounder back then. It’s pretty apparent that the industry sees you as a completely different player now than you were back then, but do you see yourself differently? 

AR - I do see myself differently. I’ve changed physically and mentally. Back in high school I was probably about 5’10” and 165 pounds and I’ve grown since then [Rice's website lists him at 6'0", 190 pounds] because we’ve got such a great strength program. And ... it’s not only the physical, but the mental aspects, too. Handling the problems that may arise, the different issues and the different aspects of the game. I’ve learned the game a lot more. I can kind of predict what’s going to happen next or what the other team’s going to do in a certain situation, so I’ve actually started to appreciate the game more and learn the ins and outs of the game instead of just going out there and playing. 

BNS - Are you in touch with any of the guys who have come through [the Rice] program like David Aardsma or Lance Berkman? Any of the current big leaguers who went through the same things that you did? 

AR - It’s not that much, but I’ll talk to Berkman every now and then ... we’ll talk about baseball and he’ll just keep us laughing the whole time. [He has gone through] pretty much the same thing as what we’re going through now, so we just talk about the game and how he is and how the program is.

BNS - Were you an Astros fan growing up, coming from Houston?

AR - Yeah, definitely. They’re the hometown team. They haven’t always been the greatest team, so some of the years you get mad at them because they haven’t done so well, but deep down they’re the hometown team. 

I remember growing up, watching [Jeff] Bagwell and his weird stance and [Richard] Hidalgo and his arm in right and left field. I definitely enjoyed watching the Astros growing up. My Dad would take my brother and I - though I only went to one game at the Astrodome [before the Astros moved].

BNS - In terms of talking to guys like Berkman, have they given you any advice about the draft, because it’s obviously going to be a different experience for you this year than it was a few years ago.

AR - You know the funny thing is you try not to worry about the draft too much, so that hasn’t been a topic that we’ve talked about. But the people that I’ve talked with say ‘just take it one step at a time.’ 

One of the things one person told me was ‘don’t let your highs get too high or your lows get too low.’ It’s just baseball, it’s just a game. With the draft if it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.

BNS - Are you trying to embrace all of this coverage and all of this buzz or are you trying to ignore it as much as possible?

AR - I mean you can’t ignore it with everything out there and it is a lifelong dream to play professional baseball so it’s not just that I can’t ignore it, I don’t want to ignore it. It’s what I want to do. I want to play baseball, it’s why I’ve been playing for the last 17 years of my life. So you can’t ignore it and if anybody tells you differently they’re lying. But you can’t get ahead of yourself and I’m not in the pros. If it happens, it happens. I can’t get ahead of myself and think about pro ball right now. We’re still trying to make it to the College World Series. 

BNS - In terms of developing as a player, what are your goals for the rest of this season and potentially further on? What kinds of improvements might you want to make?

AR - I want to get faster. I tell everybody that. I’ve never been the fast guy on the field, so I want to bring a little speed.

And obviously I’ve got to treat my body better or something like that. Drink more milk or something. I’ve been injured for the past year, so maybe I should start taking some vitamins or something. I think I can take care of my body more, because I don’t want to be known as the guy who’s injury-prone. I don’t want to be that guy, I just want to be a reliable guy that plays every day.

BNS - What about all the walks that you’re drawing? I know they’re pitching around you, but how do walks fit into your offensive game?

AR - It definitely has a big impact. I mean I’m not trying to walk. As a hitter, I want to hit the ball every time I go up there, so that’s what I’m looking forward to doing. But it definitely plays a big part in my game.

Once you get so many walks, you can’t get into that rhythm. If they walk you intentionally one at bat and you only see four balls outside, you can’t get a read on his arm angle or pick up little tendencies, so you really get out of rhythm. 

BNS - Have you allowed yourself to think about what you’re going to do on the day of the draft?

AR - We’re going to be playing baseball actually, so I can’t be worried about the draft, we’re going to have a game to win!

Draft Prospect Q&A: Danny Hultzen

As the 2011 Draft draws closer, MLBTR will be introducing you to a handful of the top eligible prospects with a series of Q&As. The series started with three of the top college pitchers in the nation and a top college position player. Here's another arm to watch.


Danny Hultzen was the ACC pitcher of the year and a semi-finalist for the Golden Spikes Award last year, but even he is a little surprised by how well the 2011 season is going. The Virginia left-hander has helped lead the Cavaliers to a 36-3 record and the top ranking in the country thanks to his arm and his bat.

Baseball America's Midseason Player of the Year is climbing up draft boards and may be the third-best draft prospect in the country behind Anthony Rendon and Gerrit Cole.'s Keith Law reported last week that the D'Backs, Orioles and Royals are among the teams eyeing Hultzen. Anyone picking much later on can likely forget about him, since he doesn't figure to be available for long.

Earlier today I spoke to the 21-year-old about his team's title hopes, his two-way play and the draft. Here's what he had to say:

Ben Nicholson-Smith - I know that you were expected to be a pretty good team, but did you expect going into the season that you would be 36-3 and doing as well as you are.

Danny Hultzen - Well that’s a lot to expect of any team. I’m not surprised that we’re doing well, but there were some questions that had to be answered after coming off of last year. We lost a bunch of guys into the draft, lost a bunch of guys to graduation, so there were a lot of holes to fill, but a lot of younger guys have slipped right in and filled those spots really, really well. 

BNS - If I had come up to you before the season and said you’re going to be 36-3 as a team and you’re going to be personally 8-0 with all of these strikeouts [99 in 61 innings this year], which one of those things would have been more surprising to you?

DH - Definitely my success. I knew that we were going to be a good team. It doesn’t really matter, whatever my stats are. That’s nice to have, but it’s all in the effort to help the team win. We’re a very confident bunch and we were very confident going into the season, so it doesn’t surprise me that we’re doing so well.

BNS - When you start breaking these records - the all-time wins leader for the school and the all-time strikeouts leader - and there’s recognition in the media, is that a distraction, or is it invigorating to get that recognition?

DH - I think it’s an honor. It’s an honor to be recognized in that kind of way. It feels good to be recognized like that, but at the same time, you’ve got to stay level-headed and realize that just because someone says you’re good doesn’t mean you’re very good. You’ve still got to go out there and compete. So it’s very cool to have your name out there like that, but you’ve got to stay humble and just go out there and play baseball.

BNS - What kind of an arsenal do you have and how do you go about your business on the mound?

DH - I’m a typical left-handed pitcher. Fastball, change-up and slider. But the main thing I do when I go out there is just compete with an aggressive mentality every time I pitch. You’re not going to have your best stuff every day, so to compensate, you’ve got to go out and be competitive and be aggressive and attack hitters. I think that’s really important and it’s something that I try to do every time I go out there. 

BNS - And is that [aggressive approach] the reason that you have so few walks?

DH -  It’s definitely a result of attacking the hitters. We’re not going to try to avoid contact. We’re not going to try to strike people out [at all costs]. We’re going to throw strikes and make them beat us and not let us beat ourselves by walking people and getting behind in the count. So the aggressive mentality that I was talking about feeds into that.

BNS - If you think of some MLB left-handers who don’t walk a lot of guys, Cliff Lee comes to mind. If you were to compare yourself to any Major League pitcher, not obviously in terms of where your game is now, but in terms of who you might look up to as a pitcher, who would you point to?

DH - I don’t necessarily compare myself to Major League pitchers, but I do try to learn from Major League pitchers and watch them and Cliff Lee is definitely up there as one of my favorites to watch because he has that aggressive mentality that he’s going to throw strikes. He’s going to make you beat him and he’s not going to walk people. He’s going to be the attacker.

I watch Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels and I really liked watching Andy Pettitte when he was playing. So there’s guys like that who I look up to and try to learn from.

BNS - What about you as a hitter [Hultzen entered the season with a .316/.405/.426 career line as a first baseman and outfielder]? How would you describe yourself?

DH - I’m just out there to try to hit the ball hard somewhere. I’m not going to hit many home runs, if any at all. I’m just up there to try to hit the ball somewhere where they’re not. I’m not a power guy, I’m just going to try to put the ball in play somewhere in the hole or in the gap.

I try to take that same competitive mentality to hitting, too. I know the pitcher’s now up there to walk me, so I try to take my aggressive mentality to the plate, too. I wait for a good pitch to hit and try to hit it somewhere hard. 

BNS - When you look ahead, say, a couple years from now, do you see yourself still hitting and being a two-way player, or do you see yourself focusing more on pitching and trying to develop your career in that way.

DH - I’m not really sure yet, but my guess is that I’d probably be focusing on pitching. I’m a lot more confident on the mound, not that I’m not confident at the plate, but I feel better pitching than I do hitting, even though I love doing both and I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to be a two-way player in college. Probably down the road I see myself as a pitcher.

BNS - How much are you looking forward to the rest of the season now that you’re off to such a great start?

DH - It’s awesome. We’ve been playing well right now, but I think if you ask any of my teammates, they’ll say that we haven’t peaked yet and we all feel that we’re capable of playing better baseball, even though that may sound a little arrogant to say given the record we have, but I think that we’re confident that we still haven’t played our best baseball yet and we’re working to get there and try to reach that goal of playing our best baseball when it matters most - in the postseason.

BNS - Are you thinking of the draft now? Is it even in the back of your mind? How much of a role does it play in terms of your state of mind at this point?

DH - I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it, but it’s in the back of my mind. That kind of stuff can overwhelm you a little bit and I don’t want that to happen to me. I don’t want to be concerned about focusing too much on my personal situation, so I’ve been focusing on the team’s success and not personal goals. My personal goal and every player on the team’s personal goal is to win the national championship and we’re just working hard to reach that goal.

BNS - Have the Diamondbacks approached you about selecting you again or is that something that you would be open to giving them permission to do if they were interested in taking you? [The D’Backs drafted Hultzen in 2008 and would need his permission to select him again. They have the No. 3 and No. 7 selections this June] 

DH - That’d definitely be something I’d be interested in. I haven’t talked to them at all and I haven’t talked to any scout like that at all, so that’s a little bit down the road, but that’d be something that I’d be willing to do.

Photo courtesy University of Virginia Athletics.

Draft Prospect Q&A: George Springer

As the 2011 Draft draws closer, MLBTR will be introducing you to a handful of the top eligible prospects with a series of Q&As. The series started with three of the top college pitchers in the nation and continues today with a college position player.

Teams looking for powerful outfielders with speed to spare will be intrigued by George Springer of the UConn Huskies. The 6'4" 21-year-old has improved his draft stock dramatically since the Twins selected him in the 48th round of the 2008 draft; Springer is now a projected first round pick.


In its college baseball preview, Baseball America described Springer as one of the nation's best power hitters, who's a superb defender and a "plus-plus" runner to boot. 

He hit 18 homers with 33 steals, 60 walks, 84 runs and a .491 on-base average last year, prompting's Keith Law to rate him second among eligible prospects last month. Law described Springer as "an athletic outfielder with an above-average arm who projects to hit and hit for power and just needs to refine his approach, especially with two strikes." 

Springer started slowly and some said to ESPN that he changed his mechanics. After collecting just three hits in his first six games (22 at bats), Springer appears to have rediscovered his stroke, as his numbers are on the rise.

He spoke with MLBTR after UConn's loss to Sacred Heart today. Here's what he had to say:

Ben Nicholson-Smith - I wanted you to start by describing your game for me. I’ve seen it written up in a few different places, but I wanted to get your assessment of your overall game.

George Springer - I just go out and play as hard as I possibly can - I think that’s basically it. I just go out and play as hard as I possibly can and just let my approach and my style of game happen and just go out and put it one the line.

BNS - When you’re at your best, what might be some of the specific things that we would see from you on the field?

GS - One hundred percent - this’ll probably sound dumb - but just balls out all the time. Not playing with any fear. Not afraid to fail. I just go out and I let the game come to me - I just go out and I play as hard as I possibly can and if for some reason the game says that I have to run into a wall, I’ll run into a wall.

BNS - I’ve seen your game written up as a combination of power and speed. Do you see yourself as a power guy, or a speed guy, or somewhere in between.

GS - I see myself as a guy that can hit for power, but I don’t necessarily see myself as hitting for power [primarily]. I see myself as hitting the ball hard and however far it goes, if it stays in the ballpark, I just keep running. 

BNS - Is there a major league player who you would compare yourself to as far as a guy who maybe has that gap power and occasional home run power?

GS - Well there’s actually a guy - I wouldn’t necessarily say I do things like him - but I model my game, my style of play, after him and it’s Hunter - Torii Hunter. I used to watch him play when he was in New Britain. When he was in Double-A [in 1997-8] I watched him play with the Twins. He’ll get after it. He plays without fear. He’ll run into a wall or he’ll run through a wall. He’s not just going to swing to swing, he’s going to swing hard. I think that seeing him play as a kid [influenced] who I resemble the most.

BNS - Any other major leaguers, or mostly Torii Hunter?

GS - It’s him, but one other player who has a good overall approach is Robinson Cano. He goes out and he’s basically the same way as Torii Hunter, but he’s a very, very smart hitter. There are certain situations where he doesn’t necessarily swing at a 3-0 fastball because he knows he’s going to get a 3-1 pitch to hit. 

He does the small things. If you need a fly ball to score somebody, he hits a fly ball. Or if he’s got to roll one over to get someone from second to third, that’s exactly what he does.

BNS - If we were to fast forward to five years from now, which of those two guys do you think you would resemble more? Hunter or Cano?

GS - I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. I’d like to say it would be a combination of both. Not afraid to fail, but at the same time being smart, being patient.

BNS - Having guys like [former UConn teammate] Mike Olt drafted last year in the first round and then [UConn pitcher] Matt Barnes, who could also go in the first round with you potentially, does that change things at all? Does that make it any easier having some guys who are going through some of the same things that you are?

GS - I can say yes and I can say no because to me Mike Olt is Mike Olt. I played with him for the last three years of his [college] career and I’ve seen him grow as a player and as a person. Yeah he’s Mike Olt and he went in the first round, but I just see him as Mike Olt and it’s who I played with for three years.

The same thing for Matt. I’ve known Matt my whole life. I’ve played with him the last six, eight years. So having them there I would say has helped, but at the same time, he’s just Mike Olt and Matt is just Matt Barnes.

BNS - You talk about Mike developing as a player and as a person at UConn. What might those [developments] be on the field for you since you started playing college ball?

GS - I’ve been taught my whole life to let the physical stuff happen. The strength, the speed, the power - let that come. But I think the biggest development in my eyes is developing the mental side of the game, which can help me go out and play if I learn about the game. And that’s something that I’ve been working on the last four or five years. 

I’m not in the big leagues, so I obviously have some stuff hitting-wise and fielding-wise and baserunning-wise [to work on]. But I think the biggest thing I’ve tried to learn has been the mental side of the game.

BNS - Is that through coaches or is that through books or videos or just talking to people? How do you go about doing that?

GS - Through experience. You’ve got to learn pitch to pitch and at bat to at bat. The last three or four years, I’ve had the privilege to talk to guys and play with guys who know certain things that I wouldn’t have thought about.

Being with guys like Matt Barnes - being with Matt I can get the pitcher’s side of the game and I can learn from him what I have to do as a hitter in certain situations and learn what he’s thinking and what the other guy’s thinking and learn from my mistakes and my successes and learn from the success of my teammates. There’s always something I can learn and over the past three or four years it’s been mainly just through playing and just learning at bat to at bat and pitch to pitch, but I’ve also played with guys like Matt Barnes and [2011 draft prospect] Jackie Bradley Jr.

BNS - What about your season so far? A slow start and now it seems like you’re hitting better. How do you evaluate the season so far.

GS - So far it could obviously be better. It could obviously be worse, too. I think one of the main things for me is just to not try to do too much, to not press. Just to get in the box and play hard and swing and slow everything down and eventually they’ll start falling.

BNS - What about the draft? Last time, going in the 48th round was probably different than what you’ve experienced so far and what you’re looking ahead to.

GS - I look ahead to it as June 6th to the 9th because if I think for one second that the draft is set or anything like that that’s when I let down my team. That’s when I don’t play as hard, that’s when I don’t stay positive or get a big head and say ‘here’s the hype, here’s the potential.’

But that’s not what I’m about. I’m about the success of my team and my teammates before myself and if something happens in the draft, it’s something that I can’t focus on now because I have to help our team win.

Photo courtesy University of Connecticut athletics.

Draft Prospect Q&A: Gerrit Cole

As the 2011 Draft draws closer, MLBTR will be introducing you to a handful of the top eligible prospects with a series of Q&As. The series started with two of the top college pitchers in the nation and continues today with another one.

Gerrit Cole

UCLA right-hander Gerrit Cole was one of the top draft prospects in the country before last week, but his performance against Nebraska on Friday sure didn't hurt his stock. Cole pitched nine innings of two-hit, shutout ball, taking a perfect game into the seventh inning and striking out eight.

It's not particularly surprising to see the 6'4" 20-year-old thriving. Baseball America announced earlier in the year that his mid-90s fastball and devastating slider give him "best pure stuff in the [2011] draft" and Cole struck out 153 batters in 123 innings last year, helping the Bruins reach the College World Series finals.

Cole has been a known commodity for years, since the Yankees selected the power pitcher in the first round of the 2008 draft out of high school. He will likely go higher than 28th overall in 2011;'s Jason A. Churchill and Keith Law suggested last week that Cole is a threat to surpass Anthony Rendon and go first overall this June.

MLBTR chatted with Cole about his most recent outing, turning down the team his family cheers for and having Charlie Sheen show up at his team's practices. Click through to read our conversation:

Ben Nicholson-Smith - We’ll start with the game you had last week. Was that the best you’ve ever felt on a pitching mound?

Gerrit Cole - No. Not really, especially because I had great defense behind me. I felt good, but I’ve felt just as good or better a couple other starts. Things were going our way, we were playing really good defense and when you make a lot of really good defensive plays, you tend to get a lot of quick outs.

BNS - What about your repertoire? Can I get you to break down your different pitches for me?

GC - It’s a traditional three-pitch mix with a fastball, a slider and a change-up. I don’t necessarily go to the slider all of the time. I like to change it up quite a bit, right on right, right on left, it depends. I’ve had good control of both off-speed pitches this year, allowing me to go in and out of the zone with both of them so I’m comfortable throwing all three pitches in really any count. 

BNS - When you were in high school, did you have that confidence in your off-speed pitches, or was it just rear back and throw the heater?

GC - It was definitely more rear back and throw the heater compared to now, but I’d say for a high schooler, I think I mixed pretty well. When you have a pitch that you can get guys out with consistently, your coaches are going to want to call it most of the time and you’re going to want to throw it, so there was really no need to set up guys very much. But I did throw the change-up in high school and I did throw the slider as well. 

BNS - The Yankees liked your stuff well enough to draft you 28th overall. What’s it like when the Yankees are calling and they say they want to sign you, what’s it like to say ‘no’ to the New York Yankees? That’s probably not a feeling that many people experience.

GC - I mean obviously when you get called on draft day, it’s really exciting and it was a tremendous honor to be selected by such a prestigious organization, but I wouldn’t call saying no a joy. That’s the way that my family and I had planned on going - to UCLA. You never want to say ‘no’ or give the impression that I was throwing it in their face or anything like that, because that’s not what it was about.

BNS - It would appear that after last year’s run to the College World Series and this year with the potential the [UCLA] team has, it would seem that that’s a decision that’s gone pretty well. Is that the way you look at it?

GC - I definitely would say that it was probably one of the best decisions of my life. I’ve had an unbelievable experience here. I’ve made a lot of friends and we’ve had our highs and we’ve had our lows and learned a lot. It’s the whole college experience here, being surrounded by a lot of stuff that’s surreal - like when Charlie Sheen shows up to your practice it’s kind of weird -

BNS - Did Charlie Sheen show up to your practice?

GC - Yeah he did a couple weeks ago [Cole said this happened before Sheen’s recent stint in the international spotlight]. We have a lot of big leaguers who stop by the park and take BP, ‘cause it’s L.A. and a lot of people come through here and need a place to hit, so it’s been a pretty surreal experience with all of the surroundings and all of the friends and to have the opportunity to take classes at a school like this. Because I would never have been able to do it without baseball. I wasn’t necessarily your 4.0 [GPA] type of guy in high school, so it’s been exciting to take advantage of an opportunity like this.

BNS - Sorry to go back to this, but what was Charlie Sheen doing? Was he just watching practice or what was he doing?

GC - He just showed up and took BP. He’d been there a couple times before, but recently he showed up about four weeks ago before we started playing.

BNS - Do you look up to any past or present big leaguers and model yourself after them at all?

GC - I really loved watching Roger Clemens pitch when he was in his prime. He was such a bulldog on the mound and I try to replicate that mentality, that aggressiveness the best I can. Obviously without throwing bats at other people. But he was someone that I liked to watch and I like to watch Mariano Rivera because it’s kind of polar opposites when you look at a guy who’s really fired up and really emotional versus a guy who’s consistent and really disciplined and just goes about his work. You try to combine the best of both worlds and see what you get out of that.

BNS - A couple Yankees there - are you a Yankees fan or are these just your players because they’re Hall of Fame caliber guys?

GC - Because they’re Hall of Fame caliber guys, but my dad went to high school in New York and he was a big New York Yankees fan and passed it on down to me when I was growing up, so we’ve been Yankees fans for quite a long time, which kind of made the decision [in 2008] that much tougher.

BNS - Knowing that it’s a few months away, is it hard not to think about the draft? 

GC - If anybody tells you that they aren’t looking ahead to June, they’d be lying. You really have to take it day by day and focus on what’s most important at that time, which would be what’s going on that week or what’s going on that practice. You just take it slow, because it’s a long process and it’s easy to get caught up in. Fortunately for me, I’ve already done it before. You can never really prepare yourself for the unexpected, but you kind of have an idea of how the process goes and it makes things a lot easier. You have a better understanding of what’s going to happen, so you can really slow things down and not really get yourself caught up in what’s about to happen.

Photo courtesy UCLA Athletics.

Draft Prospect Q&A: Matt Purke

As the 2011 Draft draws closer, MLBTR will be introducing you to a handful of the top eligible prospects with a series of Q&As. The series debuted last week with one of the top college pitchers in the nation and continues today with another.

Matt Purke

Matt Purke pitched well enough as a high schooler to go in the first round of the 2009 draft. He didn't sign with the Rangers, who selected him 14th overall, and instead joined the TCU Horned Frogs. He led the team to its first ever College World Series appearance last year with a shiny 16-0 record and 142 strikeouts in 116 innings. 

The 20-year-old sophomore is draft eligible once again and, according to Baseball America and's Keith Law, should go in the first round once again, possibly first overall. Baseball America called Purke "a bona fide ace with a lively 91-94 mph fastball and a wipeout slider" that can overmatch hitters. Purke calls his breaking ball a curve, but he isn't going to get into an argument about semantics with the publication that named him the 2010 Baseball America Freshman of the Year.

Purke talked to MLBTR this afternoon. Here's what we discussed:


Ben Nicholson-Smith - Can you describe yourself as a pitcher - what pitches you throw and what your approach is on the mound?

Matt Purke - I’d just say I’m a normal pitcher like any other. I just throw three pitches: fastball, curveball, change-up and my approach to pitching is to be very aggressive and get guys out as quick as possible. 

BNS - What about your off-speed pitches. Which one would you be more likely to throw in a go-to situation?

MP - I’d say I’m equally confident with both [the curve and the change] at any point in time. 

BNS - You say you’re like any other pitcher, but do you think you resemble any current major leaguers or past major leaguers in the way that you go about pitching?

MP - I’d say I get compared to Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers, a young kid, and Cole Hamels of the Phillies. I have kind of the same body build, the same arm action, things like that.

BNS - Two pretty good pitchers that you just named. When people compare you to those guys is that a comparison that you like to hear?

MP - Definitely, definitely. Any time that you get compared to someone playing professional baseball it’s definitely a compliment that you take pride in.

BNS - Do you watch those guys during the season as fellow left-handers and see how they go out and attack hitters?

MP - I watch baseball when I’m not playing baseball, so I’ll catch them every now and then. So I try to watch them and just use some of the stuff that they do to help me out.

BNS - You’ve been through the draft before as a first rounder before, so does that make it any easier having already experienced the rigors of being drafted?

MP - Yeah. The experience is nothing you can take away - it just helps. I know what to expect with the months coming and know what to expect the few days before. That’s already transpired, so obviously I’m in a more comfortable state than I was when I was first drafted out of high school.

BNS - You have the whole rest of the season ahead of you here, but what is there to expect once that draft actually comes around?

MP - I don’t have any control in it, I have no say in what happens. All I can do is sit there and watch ... It’s definitely an opportunity to be drafted and have the opportunity to play professional baseball, but really it’s another process you’ve got to go through. So it’s an exciting time and a stressful time, but it’s nothing that you wouldn’t want.

BNS - Can you compare Matt Purke the 2009 pitcher and Matt Purke the 2011 pitcher?

MP - I’d say now I’m definitely a lot more seasoned [now]. I learned a lot more, not only on the field but off of the field. After ’09 I was a young high school kid that really just played baseball and I only knew what I had done in the summer with team USA and in high school. And now I’m in college, I’ve been able to travel and learn how travel and also have a social life and be able to take care of my academics as well. So I’ve definitely learned a lot more, have a lot more experience now and I’m a lot more prepared for the travel that’s in the future.

Photo courtesy Michael Clements.

Draft Prospect Q&A: Sonny Gray

As the 2011 Draft draws closer, MLBTR will be introducing you to a handful of the top eligible prospects with a series of Q&As. The series debuts today with one of the top college pitchers in the nation.

Vanderbilt right-hander Sonny Gray has "the best curveball in college baseball," according to Baseball America, and's Keith Law suggested last week that he has an outside shot of being the first overall pick this June. According to Baseball America, some scouts wonder if Gray's future is in the bullpen. But with an above-average curve, a 93-96 mph fastball and a change-up, he could become a starter like Mike Minor and David Price, two Vanderbilt products who were selected in the first round.

Gray talked to MLBTR about his size, his curveball and Roy Halladay. Here's a transcript of our conversation:

Ben Nicholson-Smith - Can you describe your pitches and what kind of pitcher you are?

Sonny Gray - I’m a guy that has a pretty good fastball and I like to use it a lot. I also rely on my curveball quite a bit. It’s been a pitch that I’ve been able to go to for a while - ever since I can remember pitching. I like to throw mainly a lot of fastballs and curveballs and I’d say between fastball and curve that’s probably 85% of the pitches I throw. 

Varying speeds on my curveball of course, so some are a few miles an hour harder, which can make a difference, and I mix in change-ups. I kind of like to just go after the hitter and just throw my stuff against their bat and see what I can get out of it.

BNS - It sounds like you’re pretty comfortable with your curveball at this point.

SG - Yeah, I’ve always been pretty confident in it. It’s always been something I can use and it’s always worked pretty well. If I need to make a big pitch, I’ll go to either that or my fastball, but I’m pretty confident in [the curve]. 

I’m really confident in my fastball as well and I’m gaining confidence in the change-up. This year I’m going to end up throwing it a lot more and I threw it quite a bit this summer, so I’ve just got to gain more confidence in that pitch and I’m starting to get that, since I’m starting to have success with it.

BNS - Is that one of your goals for the season? To keep working the change-up into the repertoire?

SG - It’s not one of my goals. My goal is to get outs and win games. If it’s throwing a change-up that certain night, then I’ll throw a change-up. If it’s not throwing any, I won’t throw any. If it’s mixing everything, I’ll mix everything. It’s just the way the flow of the game goes.

I don’t think that’s a goal - ‘today I’ve got to make sure I throw a change-up.’ I don’t really look at it that way. It’s just whatever I need for each particular outing.

BNS - Tell me about how you’ve changed or evolved as a pitcher since the Cubs took you back in [the 27th round in] ’08.

SG - I’ve changed a lot actually. I still go with the fastballs and curveballs, but I’ve added I think 25 or 30 pounds. Back then I was 5’11” and 170 or 175 [pounds] and now I’m right at 200. 

I’ve learned how to pitch a lot more. In high school you can kind of throw it by people, but here you have to learn how to throw the ball to both sides of the plate - which is important - and I’ve learned a lot about the game. I’ve learned how to pitch, I’ve learned a lot about myself. I’m able to correct things now if something’s not going well, I can correct things in the moment which was something I wasn’t able to do then. Back then I’d try to rear back and throw as hard as I could if something wasn’t going right, but now I know why stuff happens and I’m able to correct if from one pitch to the next.

BNS - You said that throwing change-ups is not one of your goals, but what goals would you say that you do have for the rest of the college season?

SG - The goal is just to get out there and give the team a chance to win every game. There’s going to be outings when I’m really good, when my stuff’s real good and there’s also going to be outings like last Friday when my stuff’s not quite there and the offense is going to have to pick me up [Gray pitched 4 1/3 innings, allowing three runs and four hits and striking out six against the University of San Diego on Friday]. But to be able to give the team a chance to win every Friday night I go out there is one of my main goals.

BNS - Do you watch a lot of big league baseball? Are you a big baseball fan in general?

SG - Yeah, I am actually.

BNS - What major leaguers do you look up to?

SG - Roy Halladay does things the right way. His team follows around him; he knows how to come into a new place and maintain his work ethic.

Also the guys coming out from Vandy, guys that I’m pretty close with. I check to see how David [Price] does every time he pitches. We’ve developed a little bit of a relationship, coming from Vandy. So I look up to him and his success as well.

BNS - How much does the success of a guy like David Price or Mike Minor drive you?

SG - It does. Just to be able to see what they’ve done and try to build on that. To think what they’ve been able to accomplish and by doing it the right way. Especially coming here - the program has high expectations and I think that they kind of brought this program to a new level that hadn’t been pushed before. 

And me being here I’m just trying to get to the next level that they weren’t able to make it to. And I’m going to leave it to the guys that come behind us. But we want to push the program far - to where it hasn’t been [a College World Series championship].

BNS - When you look ahead, say, five years from now, do you see yourself as a starter or do you see yourself as a reliever?

SG - I’ve always thought of myself as a starter. Some people say 'he’s shorter,' but I’ve seen myself as a starter. I closed my freshman year here at Vanderbilt and it was the first time I’d ever been out of the bullpen and it was actually an enjoyable time, I actually had a lot of fun with it.

It was a new role I hadn’t played before but once I got used to it it was something I enjoyed doing. I looked forward to throwing more than once in a week. So I’ve always seen myself as a starter, but if anything were to happen, I’m versatile, I’m not someone who’s just stuck on something and doesn’t want to try to experiment or do whatever needs to be done.

BNS - What about all of this interest in the draft? You have people like me calling, you have Baseball America writing about you, you’re on ESPN. How much of that stuff is exciting and really cool and how much of that is a distraction?

SG - I think it’s very exciting. It’s nice to receive recognition for the hard work you’ve put in from way before college, growing up playing the game. It’s nice to receive some kind of recognition, but then again you kind of have to take a step back and take a deep breath and look at the bigger picture. And for me right now the bigger picture is next Friday night and the next Friday after that. It’s just this season and this team, putting this team in position to win and stuff off the field can come off the field. It is nice to receive that stuff, but you have to take it with a grain of salt and just do what you can do.

Ian Stewart Q&A

Rockies third baseman Ian Stewart broke out with 25 home runs last year, and he's raking early on in 2010.  The 25-year-old Stewart is Internet-savvy as well - he answered questions for MLBTR's Ben Nicholson-Smith recently and can be followed on Twitter here.

MLB Trade Rumors: You made it to the majors as a 22-year-old. What was the biggest adjustment you've had to make as you've gone from rookie to regular?

Ian Stewart: The biggest adjustment I have had to make is just making sure that I am ready to play every day. Since I got to the big leagues in 2007, I haven't been a starter. I used to come to the field knowing I probably wasn't going to play that day because we had Atkins at third and Helton at first. Todd hurt his back in 2008 so I ended with a lot of playing time toward the end of the year and when Jim Tracy took over last year I played a lot as well. I think those two examples helped me prepare for being the starter during this 2010 season.

MLBTR: It's funny when Dexter Fowler introduces Todd Helton to Twitter in one of the Rockies' new commercials, but seriously - is it distracting to have so much information about you and your teammates online?

Stewart: Personally, I don't think it's that big of a deal. For me, there really hasn't been anything too personal showing up on any website or anything. We have such a good group of guys that I'm not you would find much out about anyone.

MLBTR: What was it like to hear Garrett Atkins come up in trade talks last year, when you would usually be mentioned as the reason for why the Rockies could afford to move on and get younger?

Stewart: Honestly I didn't pay much attention to it. Garrett was a teammate and friend of mine so I hoped he wouldn't have to leave. I realize this is a business though and am grateful for the opportunity the Rockies have given me.

MLBTR: Some people give the Rockies lots of credit for having a homegrown roster. Others doubt that it makes much of a difference in terms of wins and losses. Does the fact that so many players came up through the system together mean the Rockies win more games?

Stewart: This is a tough question to answer because I don't know any different than what the Rockies do here. We have a very special thing going on in Denver. Our whole team has practically all grown up in the minor leagues and big leagues together and I can't begin to explain how awesome that is. Does it give us any kind of an advantage? I don't know. But you definitely won't find a closer-knit group of players anywhere else.

MLBTR: If you were running a major league team, what kind of club would you put together? Lots of pitching? Lots of speed? Lots of power?

Stewart: You forgot defense. I would say a mix of pitching and defense. I feel that pitching and defense wins championships.

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