So far it hasn’t been a bad gig for Mike with the Missions winning championships in two of his past four years. We caught up with Mike at the end of the year to discuss some of the prospects Padres’ fans may be hearing more of in the future.
How did this year’s championship team compare to the one in 2011?
Mike Saeger: Very different ball clubs in my opinion. That ’11 team, particularly in the first half, absolutely dominated the league and had the best defense in the league, anchored by perhaps the best defensive shortstop I have ever seen in over 20 years covering minor league baseball, Beemer Weems. That team was pretty much the Ft. Wayne club from 2009 that ran over the league, so that group expected to win and the Missions were expected to win it all by the time the playoffs rolled around.
This year’s club didn’t have nearly the same offensive firepower and for the first half of the year was a very poor club defensively. I think this year’s pitching staff was better from top to bottom. This team was sort of like the little engine that could, particularly after Fuentes was promoted in early August and then the one true power source, Medica, got pulled up right after the team won the division championship series. You were going into the championship series kind of wondering how they were going to score enough runs to back the pitching. Just goes to show you the strong parallel between excellent pitching and solid defense as it relates to winning games.
Tommy Medica really impressed many people when he got called up to San Diego at the end of this year. How would you describe him as a player?
Mike Saeger: Unfortunately we didn’t get to see as much of him as we would have liked due to his oblique injury in late April. When he was in the lineup he showed that he could carry an offense, which he did over a couple of red-hot stretches that lasted for a few weeks at a time.
Got off to a hot start and then I think he started seeing more breaking balls and sliders and cooled off a bit but had some good swings right before the injury. In fact, I believe he hit an oppo homer in his last game before going on the DL. Hit several home runs to the opposite side though most of his hits went pull side to middle. He has good pop and had a respectable strikeout rate for a guy who hits for power.
Defensively, I think Rich Dauer helped him at firstbase by how he positioned Tommy on the field, particularly late in the season, putting him in a better spot to make plays. A couple of scouts I spoke with during the year weren’t sold on him being a future big league first basemen, though he only made a pair of errors in over 50 games at first base for us.
Why did Reymond Fuentes improve so much from last year?
Mike Saeger: I interviewed Rey sometime in late May and asked him about that. His thought was that things just kind of spiraled out of control last year and he dug himself too big of a hole. It was really the first time in his life he ever experienced failure and I don’t think he really knew how to deal with it at the time. Probably not unusual for a young player.
That being said, he told me he really dedicated himself in the offseason to make amends and prove he was/is a better player than what he showed in ’12.
I also recall Dauer telling me a little earlier this season that he had spoken with Rey about using the entire field. If you were to look at his spray chart you’d see that he got a fair number of hits to the left side. He also did a much better job of cutting back on his swing and misses.
He showed improvement in baserunning as the season progressed, particularly in being more successful stealing bases and not getting picked off at the rate he was early in the year. I think he really came a long way in reestablishing his prospect status.
Cory Spangenberg started slow but picked it up in August. What did you see that you liked about him this year and what does he need to improve upon?
Mike Saeger: Aside from pitching, to me Cory is a major reason the club made it as far as it did and won the championship.
Offensively, I think he perhaps tried to do a little too much when he first came up, which happens to a number of guys. Once he got back to doing what he does best, he became one of more steady hitters in the league from about the all star break through the end of the year. He also showed some nice pop over the last month or so that he didn’t show over the first few weeks with the team.
Defensively he became the glue of the infield and was one of the biggest reasons the ballclub went from being statistically one of the worst fielding teams in minor league baseball to one of the best in all of Double-A over the last two months. He has tremendous athleticism and extremely quick hands. Again, like with Medica, Rich Dauer deserves a lot of credit for his positioning of the fielders, shifting Cory or Valdez toward the middle depending on the hitter. That turned a lot of would-be hits into outs. Several times, Spangenberg made a play from the shortstop side of the bag on a ball up the middle to get an out at first. Our double plays also increased significantly once he became the everyday second baseman.
Austin Hedges is considered one of the top prospects in the organization and was promoted midway through the season to the Missions. What were your impressions of him?
Mike Saeger: Pretty darn solid backstop from what I saw. Very calm behind the plate. No unnecessary movement back there. Makes himself big behind the dish for his pitcher. Blocked balls well. Nice footwork and very quick release. I think at times it looked like he may have rushed a few throws before he could set his feet, but that’s something easily correctable. Overall, a very fine defensive prospect. I can see how a pitcher would be comfortable throwing to him.
He came on with his bat late in the season and showed some power to the opposite field. Also showed pretty good pitch recognition. It’ll be fun to see his progression next year here, assuming he starts the season in Double-A, which considering his age and limited time in the league last year, I would expect.
Matt Wisler may be the top prospect in the organization. What made him so good this year?
Mike Saeger: He was a treat to watch, particularly how much better he got month by month.
Has a great fastball/slider combo that was deadly on righties. Also has a pretty nice changeup and a decent curveball.
Obviously did a terrific job making adjustments to the higher level. He also had the luxury of working with pitching coach Jimmy Jones, of whom I think the world for his ability at what he does working with young pitchers.
Matt had a few shaky outings early in his AA career but was nearly untouchable for about the last two months of the season. He was for us what, in a way, Kershaw is to the Dodgers. Give him the ball and then sit back and enjoy the show.
What made it even more impressive is when you consider that had he gone to Ohio State, Matt would have been in his sophomore year.
He should have no problem being a solid #3 in a big league rotation.
Juan Oramas really looked good at the end of the year despite not being cleared to pitch until June 30. Is he all the way back and can you give us a brief scouting report on what type of pitcher he is?
Mike Saeger: Juan gradually got back to the Oramas we remembered from the ’11 campaign. His velocity was back to the low 90’s. Still has that terrific change. It’s amazing how quickly he bounced back from surgery.
It took him a number of starts before he said his arm finally felt comfortable. I don’t know what TJ recovery is like, but I would imagine that most recovering pitchers experience certain feelings, tightness, or twinges in the arm when they first start pitching after surgery, not to mention just getting over the mental hurdle of trusting your arm and not fearing that it might blow up if you cut one loose.
One thing that stands out for me is his competitiveness and lack of fear on the mound. He doesn’t get rattled or scared out there. Case in point, he turned in 12 scoreless innings over his two postseason starts, with the second outing being a possible elimination game for the Missions in the title series.
Keyvius Sampson was demoted from Tucson and returned to San Antonio and arguably was the team’s best pitcher. What turned it around for him?
Mike Saeger: Slider, Jimmy Jones, and increased confidence that was born from the success he had.
That slider turned him into a different pitcher and it was JJ who was instrumental in the development. He didn’t have that pitch in ’12 and his curveball was just too inconsistent, which presented issues when facing righties. Has always had that good changeup.
It took about 4 or 5 starts before things really kicked in and after that…..dominant. He had the quiet confidence to know that no one was going to hit him, and they didn’t.
Have to mention as well that Keyvius is one of the nicest and most polite people that you’ll ever meet in or out of baseball. Easy to root for a young man like that.
Your bullpen was very good this year. Who stood out for you?
Mike Saeger: Wow. It was almost like who didn’t?
How many clubs could lose a closer like Quackenbush, then lose his replacement in Stites, and still not feel the pain to a large degree? You look at the first half of the season when Quack was closing, Stites was setting him up, McBryde was more or less the set-up guy for Stites, and you had an excellent lefty in Chris Rearick and we had Colt Hynes for a short time. Those are some quality arms.
Fans should know that this year’s pen set a San Antonio record for saves in a season, dating to when the save became an official stat.
As for one individual, I know that the scouts loved Stites. He was our one reliever they seemed to talk about the most.
When we lost some key bodies in the 2nd half I thought that Dauer and JJ did a really nice job trying to put guys in specific situations that would give them the greatest chance to succeed coming from the bullpen, and it worked out more than it didn’t.
Last question. Who was the top Missions’ position player prospect that you saw this year and who was the top Missions’ pitching prospect that you saw this year?
Mike Saeger: Position player, I’d probably have to say Spangenberg. Got to see him play more than Hedges because Austin didn’t join us until August. We had so many good pitchers that it’s a tough call there. Very close between Wisler and Sampson.
It seems that the scouting community I spoke with was still a little undecided on whether Keyvius profiles more as big league reliever or starter, whereas I don’t think there was any question about Wisler being a big league starting pitcher. So if we’re basing it on that, perhaps you give a slight edge to Wisler, but they were both exceptional in my opinion.