You can access more information on Rich and the Beavers at his website.
The Beavers had quite a bit of problems this year with their starting pitching? What happened?
Rich Burk: Well, the team did have a lot of call-ups. Mike Thompson was leading the Pacific Coast League in wins when he got called up, and we also lost Brian Sweeney, who was supposed to be in our rotation. Both of them are great guys and I’m happy for them, but at the same time it hurt us as well. I think both Sweeney and Thompson had a lot to do with the Padres success this year, and both are the type of players that you want to root for.
It also hurt us when Seth Etherton got traded, seemingly for a bucket of bolts. And we thought we’d have Cesar Carrillo, but he got hurt and only made one start for us.
Can you give us a little more information on Mike Thompson, what does he throw and why was he so successful?
Rich Burk: Mike is mostly a sinking fastball type of pitcher; he gets a lot of outs with that pitch. His ball starts towards the middle of the plate and then it runs to the corner.
Tim Stauffer seems to have regressed and hasn’t been as effective as he was in 2004 or 2005, and this year was his worst in three seasons with Portland. Can you put your finger on anything specifically that may have affected his performance?
Rich Burk: In the latter half of the season his velocity was up 89-90 and some nights he was up to 91-92, but he was always plagued by one bad inning, usually the first. Sometimes he can look like a man among boys. One night, a night Kevin Towers and Grady Fuson were in Portland, Stauffer retired the first eight hitters to face him. Then, he suddenly lost it, and nine of the next 13 batters reached base. He just seemed to lose focus momentarily.
There were times when Gary Lance [the pitching coach at Portland] thought Stauffer was not getting full extension, and Gary said it might have been because he was still protecting the shoulder that he had hurt a few years back. When he did get full extension his velocity went up, but he got beat when he got too much of the plate.
Jared Wells has been a prospect that we have been writing about for quite a while but who really had a tough time in Portland. What happened with Jared this year?
Rich Burk: It’s really kind of confusing. Jared would go six innings and pitch really well. Then, other times, he couldn’t get out of the second inning. He tried too often to blow the ball by hitters and couldn’t do it at this level. He also frustrated the staff because he thought he had a better idea of what pitches to throw, instead of relying on our catchers, guys like Luke Carlin who knew the league well.
The Beavers did produce quite a few good relief pitchers this year, any specific reason for this?
Rich Burk: A lot of it has to start with the hunches that Kevin Towers and his staff have, which have brought in so many good pitchers that other teams gave up on. The poster child for that is Scott Linebrink. Another big factor is the pitching coach we have here, Gary Lance, who has really worked well with some of these guys. Jon Adkins, Scott Cassidy, Brian Sweeney, Clay Hensley, Cla Meredith — all those guys benefited to varying degrees. Gary is an expert at diagnosing someone’s mechanical problems and correcting them.
Jon Knott had a tough year in 2005 after a good 2004 campaign. What changes did he make which resulted in so much more success this year?
Rich Burk: A lot of it had to do with being around Jack Cust. Cust has such a patient approach at the plate, and he gets so many more good pitches to hit than a lot of guys. Jon said he learned a lot by watching Cust go about his business. And it also helped that Cust hit behind him much of the year. Jon struggled early on, but really turned it up after getting in the lineup every day about May 1st.
Jack Cust put up some monster stats this year but is still always referred to as a “4A” player. What did you think? Some writers have speculated that his offensive approach won’t work on a major league level.
Rich Burk: I disagree that his offensive approach won’t work in the majors, but defensively he is not a big leaguer. I’m surprised he didn’t get more of an opportunity with the A’s organization, where he was last year. It seems like he’s exactly what they’re looking for — a patient hitter with power. When the A’s didn’t sign Cust, they had no idea they were going to get Frank Thomas, and it seems like they would’ve thought of Cust as a guy who could be their DH. I think he deserves a chance at the big league level as a DH to show what he can do; there are not a lot of holes in his swing.
What are his defensive problems?
Rich Burk: Its mostly an issue of quickness. Jack hustled and made diving plays, but they were usually on balls most other outfielders would have caught standing up. His arm is slightly below average, but at times it was pretty accurate and he threw a number of guys out.
Who is better defensively—Cust or Knott?
Rich Burk: Knott is slightly better defensively and can play right field.
Can Paul McAnulty play third base?
Rich Burk: The jury is still out. I did see improvement with McAnulty at third base throughout the season; he just needs to play there more. Some people in the Padres’ organization think he can become a major league third baseman, while others do not. He made some very good diving plays, but he had some problems with routine plays and throws. During the year a few times he made a couple diving plays that saved games; he’s more athletic than people give him credit for. He needs a full season under his belt at third base to really show how he’d respond.
Both Ben Johnson and Terrmel Sledge spent parts of the season with the Beavers. How would you assess their performances this year?
Rich Burk: Last year, Johnson was more focused because he knew he was going to be in Portland for the whole year playing everyday, unlike this year where he was up and down. I like him a lot as a player and a person. He can play all three outfield spots. Last winter, I did a number of speaking engagements around the city and state, and I told people Johnson was my dark horse candidate at NL Rookie of the Year this season. If he’d gotten the chance to play every day, he might’ve done something like that. In a way he’s somewhat like Xavier Nady and Adrian Gonzalez — he needs an extended consistent playing time to show what he can do.
Sledge is a good defensive outfielder. He doesn’t have a great arm, but he’s going to get to a lot of balls. I think if he played everyday he would be a slightly above-average left fielder, although he doesn’t really have the arm for right field or the wheels for center. If he played everyday, I think he would hit around .290 to .300, with maybe 20 home runs and 90 RBIs.
Third baseman Justin Leone started out really hot in April and then tailed off before his eventual release late in the year. What happened?
Rich Burk: Basically, he got figured out. At the start of the year a lot of pitchers fed him fastballs, and he eats fastballs alive — I think Justin could put wood on a bullet. Once they figured him out, they started feeding him more breaking stuff and off-speed stuff. It seems like he guesses a lot up there, and too often he guessed wrong.
Final question, which was the best hitter and pitcher in Portland this year?
Rich Burk: That depends how you define “best.” Our best player was Jon Knott. If you’re talking about our best prospect, I think that was Ben Johnson. The best prospect that was with us for most of the year was McAnulty.
For pitchers, I’d say Cla Meredith. Even before his success in the big leagues, I knew he was unique — most side arming right-handers are murder on right-handed hitters, but they can’t get lefties out. Not Cla. With his sinker, he is able to retire left-handed hitters as well. It’s still unbelievable to me that Boston gave him up.