Matt Bakers covers the S-Cards for the Springfield News-Leader, and has stepped right in where Kary Booher has left off in putting together some great coverage for the team. You just don’t get the sort of coverage he brings from most AA teams, and he was kind enough to take some time out of his schedule and answer some of my questions about the team and his impressions of the players.
Kary Booher left some big shoes to fill, leaving the News-Leader to a full-time gig at Baseball America. Is it exciting, nerve-wracking, stepping in his role covering the Springfield Cardinals?
It’s definitely exciting, regardless of whose shoes I’m filling. I’m a youngun a year out of college, so I’ve been excited to show what I can do. I’ve been a lot more places than you’d expect for someone my age, and I’ve enjoyed my time on the beat so far, breaking news, finding stories and watching prospects develop.
Kary’s a good guy and a great reporter. He set the bar high for our readers in Springfield — and all over Cardinal Nation, for that matter. His work speaks for itself. As for following in his footsteps, I’m going to sum that up with my all-time least favorite sports cliche: It is what it is. I’ve just got to go out there and do what I do, and the rest will take care of itself.
But seriously, it’s been awesome.
You had a strong opinion on why Wallace not only doesn’t belong in the majors this year, nor AAA. Care to elaborate on that a little?
For the record, I only said that Wallace doesn’t belong in St. Louis this year – not Memphis. I received a little flak about it from people afraid I was bashing Wallace. That’s not the case at all. I saw him start the season with two massive home runs…and hit walk-off home runs on back-to-back nights. He’s got a tremendous amount of talent. With Rasmus in St. Louis, I think Wallace is the top prospect in the system.
That said, he had holes in his game during the time I watched him. I thought the promotion to Memphis was too soon, but Freese’s injury forced it. That’s a moot point.
His defense remains an issue. And his swing had flaws when Texas League pitchers threw around him. If he couldn’t pull the ball, he wasn’t as effective. Pitchers threw him outside or wayyyy inside, and, based on what I saw, he hadn’t figured out how to get around that.
A few days before the promotion, Wallace apparently found problems with his swing. And he’s fixed them. The numbers in Memphis show that. But he’s not ready for St. Louis. He needs to struggle. He needs to go through slumps. And he needs to learn from them. Slumps happen to everyone, even Pujols. It’s better for him to go through them in the minors where the pressure (and money) aren’t as big. If he found the flaw in his swing and corrected it, then I’ll give him props for that. It’s a sign of maturity and shows that he’s closer to St. Louis than I thought.
There’s also the money aspect. I think the club would like to keep him off of the 40-man roster this year and give him the chance to compete for the starting 3B job in spring training.
Wallace is an extremely hard worker. He spent a lot of time with Derrick May and others working on his swing. And he’s put in time working on his glove and range, too. Because of his body type, he might not ever become an average MLB defender. If that’s the case, it won’t be because of a lack of effort. I just think he needs a full season in the minors before he’s in the discussion to replace Troy Glaus.
There are some pretty impressive offensive numbers we’re seeing from some of the S-Cards. Since you get to see the team play more than any of us probably do, how much of this would you say is Hammons Field/Texas League-inflated and how much of this would you say is the real deal?
It’s a little of both. When Curt Smith hit his first home run here the other day, he only got one arm on it. But, with the wind blowing out of Hammons Field, it carried over the left-field wall. “Welcome to Springfield,” Steven Hill told Smith after the game.
But this lineup definitely has some pop. Hill, Smith, Henley, Jones and Descalso have powerful bats, as does a healthy Mark Hamilton. Tyler Herron told me this spring that he knows the team’s offense will be there. If its pitching is solid, there’s no reason to think they can’t compete for the Texas League title. I agree.
What have you seen from the Cards’ supplemental first rounder Lance Lynn so far? What do you feel his upside is?
Unfortunately, I haven’t seen very much. He’s only pitched one game at home, so I’ve only seen that plus a few bullpen sessions. His fastball is solid (up to 93), and his curve is better than I heard. Didn’t see enough of the change or slider to give a scouting report.
One thing I did see: composure. The defense collapsed around him when Hamilton didn’t charge a grounder and Pete Kozma made an error. Lynn kept his cool and pitched 6.2 solid (but unspectacular) innings. Plus he’s a fellow Indiana boy. Nice to have another native Hoosier around.
Best-case scenario: No. 3 starter. Worse-case scenario: A bulldog in the bullpen, capable of spot starts.
Daryl Jones has been viewed with some skepticism because of his previous struggles, but it seems to me he’s now doing it two years running. Give me some of your impressions of Jones.
Last year definitely wasn’t a fluke. His bat is definitely there, although the power is down from last season. He said that’s because he’s shortened his swing, which means fewer strikeouts but also fewer home runs. That’ll help him as he continues to move through the system. His glove is fine, and I do think he has a below-average LF arm.
He’s a little flashy with a great personality. One of the best guys in the clubhouse to talk to and a pretty hard worker who puts in the swings he needs to. The front office is very high on him, and I expect him to be in Memphis after the All-Star break, if not before.
The biggest question from scouts is about his speed. Most scouts I’ve talked to have him at average or below-average speed from home to first. That’s a major problem for a guy with a game built around his wheels. He can turn his speed off and on. I saw him sneak into home Monday with a great heads-up play, so I know he has wheels. It’s just a matter of using them — and the rest of his tools — all the time. But consistency is the biggest thing most guys need to work on in the minors, so let’s put that in proper context.
Trey Hearne was the Viva El Birdos approved sleeper prospect a few years back, and is back putting up some strong numbers in AA. What’s been the key to his success?
Throwing strikes, plain and simple, as he’s told me repeatedly. He locates his fastball well, and he’s got a plus curveball. One scout told me that’s been the biggest reason for his success — not a lot of hitters at this level can hit really good curveballs. And he has a really good curveball.
A better sign — he’s put his team in a position to win even when he doesn’t have his best stuff. See, Sunday: 6 IP, 4 H, 4 BB 2 ER and only 2 K. He didn’t look great, but he left with the team was in a position to win. It helps that Hearne doesn’t get flustered and doesn’t sweat the small stuff. He’s a very laid back guy, which helps him on the mound.
I didn’t see Hearne’s breakout coming. I thought that when Mura came back from the DL, Hearne would go from the rotation back to the pen. But the way Hearne is pitching, I think it’s more likely for him to earn a promotion to Memphis than a trip back to the bullpen.
Mark Hamilton looked poised for a break out and before hitting the DL. What’s his status?
He’s on the DL, obviously, after pulling a muscle running out a grounder Friday. Which means I regularly get to ask the most awkward question in all of sports journalism: So, how’s the groin?
Hamilton said he’s felt better each of the last few days and will be back in about a week. The rest also gives him time to heal a foot injury that’s been nagging since spring training.
I think he’s figured out Double-A pitching. He was great in his first game here after extended spring training (2 for 5 with two doubles) and hasn’t slowed down (7 home runs and a .333 average in May). When he comes back, he’ll be fine and continue to hit well until he gets a chance to move up.
I’m going to go all James Lipton on you (hopefully sans the freakiness) and just say a name, and you give me what pops into your head.
Daniel Descalso. Scrappy. Hard worker, blue-collar ball player with a plus glove and a much-improved bat. Some scouts wonder if he can be an everyday second baseman in the majors…and I think he can.
Steven Hill. Chicken-fried. Hill is one of the many Texans in the clubhouse, and he looks and acts just like you’d picture someone from Stephen F. Austin State. His walk-up song is “Chicken Fried” by Zac Brown — a stark contrast to the rap that guys like Rapoport and Descalso prefer. As far as his game? Good bat (although he’s been struggling over the last week or so, hitting .178) with plenty of pop. He’s got work to do behind the plate, but he’s making progress.
Tony Cruz. Steven Hill’s alter ego. Lame, I know. They entered the year with similar enough scouting reports: good bats trying to find a position. Now they’re opposites. Hill’s bat is definitely there (overlooking this mini-slump), but the glove needs work. One scout told me Cruz has the defense to become a backup catcher, but his bat hasn’t been great this season.
Tyler Herron. Improved. He struggled here last year and, from what I’ve heard, wasn’t impressive in spring training (I didn’t get to see him pitch much when I was in Jupiter, Fla.). Now he’s looking like a first-round pick with four ER in his last four starts. Average to slightly above average fastball and a plus curveball.
Kenny Maiques. Oy. One scout used the dread four-letter word — wild — when he saw Kenny up here. He struggled, to say the least. I saw him face two batters one game, throw eight consecutive balls — including a pitch-out that sailed into the backstop. Obviously he’s going through a tough time right now with his drug suspension, and I wish him the best.
Curt Smith. Hitter. Dude can hit, plain and simple. Lightning-quick bat with some power. Fielding needs to improve, but his bat can play. Plus, the major leagues need more Curacao natives who became 39th-round draft picks out of Maine and speak four languages. Right?
Tyler Henley. Football player. He looks, acts and talks like a running back from a big high school in Dallas, and that’s the mentality he brings to the ballpark. I’ll add another thought: Underrated. He’s hitting a very quiet .333. But after his grand slam and a 3-for-4 game this homestand, he’s not under the radar anymore.
Francisco Samuel. Good Sammy/Bad Sammy. One game, he’s lights-out. 100-mph fastball. SICK 90-mph slider. Unhittable.
The next? He’s all over the place with no command whatsoever. And, dare I say, that four-letter word. Wild.
I will say this about Sammy: I think he’s the best prospect in Springfield. One scout said he could be a major-league All-Star closer. Others willingly and easily project him as an MLB closer. I’ve heard that one scout said he’d take Sammy on his major-league club by the end of the year. If he gets his fastball command down, he’s got the stuff to be a star. And I think between guys like Dyar Miller and (eventually) Duncan, he’ll iron those problems out.
Eddie Degerman. Catapult. Or someone throwing a grenade. Or someone giving someone a pie in the face. Take your pick. But he’s looked better in his last few appearances, regardless of what you think about his motion.
Jeff Luhnow. Northwestern Wildcats. Bet you didn’t see that one coming. Luhnow got his MBA at Northwestern — my alma mater. Regardless of how you feel about his number crunching, draft picks and willingness to take players like Degerman and Joe Williams whom others wouldn’t touch, the guy’s brilliant. I don’t think anyone will argue that.
Ron Warner. Competitor. Winning is something that gets overlooked a lot in the minors, where developing prospects is (understandably) the goal. Pop is a good teacher and can help young guys along the way…but deep down he’s a competitor who hates to lose.
Can you tell me why Pete Kozma is in AA?
I can try. This organization believes in promoting top prospects aggressively, and the front office thinks Kozma is a top prospect. The Cardinals have already invested a lot in him ($1.395 million signing bonus), and they want to see what kind of return they’re going to get on their investment. That means moving him up and letting him struggle, if that’s what happens.
Kozma’s numbers haven’t been great, but he’s not a lost cause, like some fans seem to think. He’s made some sensational plays in the field, and he’s got a good arm — once he settles down, takes a breath, sets his feet and fires. When he rushes his throws and tries to force things, he has problems. He said that was his biggest problem in the field in Palm Beach, and it’s been an issue here in Springfield, too. His bat is OK, but he hasn’t always been able to find holes in the field so far. It’s a long season, so that’ll balance out. There’s also the age factor: Koz just turned 21 and is in Double-A.
Kozma is certainly taking his lumps (.214 average, 7 errors). But he’s struggled in the past, too. He hit .130 in Palm Beach last year, worked in the off-season and boosted his average to .315 there to start this season. Who’s to say he can’t do the same in Springfield this year?
Players will struggle, either in the course of a long season or in a long career. That goes for first-round picks and for undrafted guys, for All-Stars and for players who won’t make it out of A-ball. The key is to see how they react when that happens. Do they try to force things (as Kozma said he’s done in the past)? Do they try to fix things that aren’t broken? Do they learn from their mistakes?
I expect him to spend the full year in Springfield with the expectation that he’ll be in Memphis at the start of next year (or shortly thereafter). It’s fine for him to make mistakes now. As Pop Warner said recently, you’ve got to make mistakes in order to get better. If he’s making these same mistakes in two months, then it’s time for Cardinals fans to worry. But not yet.
Any passing thoughts on the Joe Williams experiment?
I respect anyone who bar tends to pay the bills and refuses to give up on his/her dream. Extra props for anyone who gets a baseball contract just before they were supposed to ship out with the hopes of becoming a Navy Seal. Too bad he couldn’t cut it on the field. So it ends with this epitaph: It was fun while it lasted.
Shameless plug — make sure to check our Cardinals blog at the News-Leader and you can follow me on Twitter (MattBaker31). I’m always happy to hear from readers, and I answer questions as quickly (and honestly) as I can.