This year Mike broadcasted and traveled to every Wizards game and agreed to share his views and opinions on the team from the Summit City.
Two of the better pitchers this year for the Wizards were Steve Delabar and Greg Burke. Could you give us an idea of what they throw and what was successful for them?
Mike Maahs: Stevie threw three pitches---fastball, slider, and change-up. When I asked him which of the three pitches was his "best" pitch, his response was..."the next pitch" [“that I throw”]. That mentality was great on some occasions (such as on June 3rd at Peoria, when he threw 6 1/3 shutout innings, scattering 5 hits, walking 1, fanning 6, at one point retiring 12 batters in a row, and out pitching Mark Prior of the Cubs, who was making a rehab start). It was not good on other occasions [such as on August 20th at South Bend, when he walked four batters in a row to force in a run after having retired the three previous batters he faced in order]. He has the tools [pitches/attitude/mentality] to be successful, but he needs to avoid concentration lapses as he moves up the ladder.
Greg Burke pitched in Independent Ball last year and really helped out our rotation a great deal, especially in the second half. He had “Tommy John” surgery at Duke and has really come back. He started out in the bullpen, but after making a spot start Randy [Ready, the manager of the Wizards] liked what he saw and put him in the rotation for the second half. His best pitch, or his “out pitch” is a very good slider. He would try to throw it with two strikes, which resulted in a lot more strikeouts than you would have thought he would be able to get. He’s got the same three pitches that Delabar has, fastball, slider and change. He throws somewhere in the neighborhood 88-92 and he threw harder as the season went on.
Two draft picks from the2006 draft really came on this year with Fort Wayne, Wade LeBlanc and Nathan Culp. How would you describe their performances?
Mike Maahs: The two best moves the organization made this year was bringing up David Freese and Wade LeBlanc. LeBlanc was the best pitcher that we had in the end. A change-up is his best pitch and he will throw it any time in the count and he believes it is his ticket to the majors. Just a tremendous amount of confidence in his ability to get batters out. He will throw three or four changes in a row and then spot a 90 mph fastball. Right now he throws a fastball, change and a developing curve.
Nathan Culp I think can be a dependable pitcher, but he doesn’t have the ceiling of others like LeBlanc, Delabar and Burk. He profiles more as a back of the rotation pitcher on the major league level. He throws two fastballs; two and four seam, curve and change. He will mix it up and like a lot of college guys that you take out of the draft he got a little tired as the season went on.
Two relief pitchers really stood out for me this year were Brandon Higelin and John Madden. What was the reason behind their success?
Mike Maahs: Brandon Higelin reminds me a little of Kyle Stutes who we had here last year, a situation lefty who doesn’t throw that hard. What makes him successful is that he mixes up his pitches very well and a on a good day might hit 90. He is another guy who throws a fastball, slider and change and was a very good situational pitcher for us this year.
John Madden is a guy that everyone likes. He has some tenacity and comes at you sidearm. On one of our road trips this season Randy Ready [Wizards manager] pointed out, that, in order to be a closer, you either have to have a solid strikeout pitch, some sort of gimmick delivery, or a certain intensity - and Madden possesses all three. After moving into the closer role [following the promotion of Neil Jamison to Lake Elsinore on April 17th]), he got a little frustrated over the lack of save opportunities in the first half [five saves in seven save opportunities]; but more than made up for it in the second half [15 saves in 17 opportunities], thus finishing the season with 20 saves in 24 opportunities.
Will Venable put together the best season in Fort Wayne after a tough split-season in Eugene last year. What was the big reason for the turnaround?
Mike Maahs: His teammates voted him the MVP. He only played one full year of baseball in college, his other two were cut short because Princeton was in the NCAA basketball tournament his sophomore and junior year [Venable also didn’t play baseball his senior year of high school]. He was one of the top players in the league in nearly every offensive category and he improved every month defensively. I think playing basketball helped him because he gets great jumps on the ball.
His power picked up as the year went on and in a game against Cedar Rapids he hit a home run to tie in the 9th and a home run to win in extra innings. The biggest reason for his success this year as compared to last I believe was that he stayed here the entire year and worked with his dad [Wizard’s hitting coach Max Venable], which I really think made him a better player. I really believe the sky is the limit for him as he develops more of a baseball feel.
Someone that we have been following is “Gigantor”.a.k.a. Kyle Blanks who had a great year in the Midwest League, especially since he is only 20 years old. Tell us a little bit about him.
Mike Maahs: On opening night in Grand Rapids [April 6th], Kyle hit two balls out of Fifth Third Ballpark [Wizards won 5-3] that really impressed me. He's an extremely patient hitter at the plate. It seemed like he went to a full count nearly every other at-bat [in reality, in 355 at-bats - including walks and being hit by a pitch - he went to a 3-2 count a total of 49 times, to a 3-1 count 25 times - to a 3-0 count 11 times - and to a 2-2 count 34 times]. If he can learn to turn on a pitch early in the count and go with it more later [in the count] he could go far. He plays a good defensive first base [and will get better with more experience], and I thought he was our best defensive first baseman. If he could stay healthy, lose some weight (thus getting himself in better shape), and continues to show a desire to learn, you will be hearing more from him.
How about Daryl Jones, his platoon partner at first base?
Mike Maahs: Daryl is an athlete that needs to learn to become more of a baseball player instead of relying on his athletic ability. In early May he was up there among the league leaders in hitting, but then he started pressing. He had troubles with the ball up and in, and the breaking pitches away. He needs to relax a little more and not try to pull everything. He does have potential and big time power.
Seth Johnston was one of the leaders in the Midwest League in doubles and had a real up and down season. How did you rate his season?
Mike Maahs: He’s much better at second base that at third because he’s played there more. One thing that did help Seth was playing at the University of Texas, a big time college baseball program with a great coach in Augie Garrido.
He had an up and down season, but there is talent there. He had some injuries towards the end of the year and missed around 20 games. I thought he tried to come back a little too quick at the end of the season from a hamstring injury, but he was trying to help the team.
Someone who really got hot at the end of the year was centerfielder Mike Sansoe. What type of prospect did you think he was this year?
Mike Maahs: He finished strong. He got a lot more consistent playing time in August and really delivered. Mike has a knack for scoring when got on base; he’s a very smart base runner. He led the team in stolen bases and was very good defensively in center.
The outfield situation [defensively] this year in Fort Wayne was one of the best that I've seen, with Will Venable [in left], Nic Crosta [while he was in Fort Wayne] and Mike Baxter [who made tremendous strides in making the switch from first base to the outfield] in right, and either Sansoe, Josh Alley, or Javis Diaz in center. The thing about Sansoe is that he has to be in the line-up everyday to really get an idea of what he can do. When he plays regularly he can do some damage [in August he batted .355 in 25 games, getting 33 hits in 93 at-bats, scoring 22 runs, driving in 15 runs, and stealing 5 bases].
Two players who were only in Fort Wayne for part of the year, but made a significant impression on the Wizards this year were David Freese and Nic Crosta. What did you think of them?
Mike Maahs: David Freese got called up here and hit from the beginning. He definitely has some pop, has a good idea of the strike zone and he played a very solid third base defensively. He’s got a good arm and he moves well there.
Nic Crosta was leading the Midwest League in hitting when the Padres promoted him to Lake Elsinore. He can flat out hit, has good power and a strong arm. He doesn’t get the best jumps on the ball but it was a really impressive performance when you consider that he didn’t play that much last year.
The catcher that a lot of people talked about as one of the reasons that the Padres were able to trade George Kottaras is Nick Hundley. What were your impressions of him?
Mike Maahs: Nick Hundley is going to be the catcher of the future in San Diego. It sounds strange but the best thing that happened to him was getting hurt. He had to go on the disabled list for a week and it forced him to just slow down and focus on what he needed to work on. The first month he was just snake-bit, he was hitting everything hard but right at someone.
When he came back he just raked and was much better defensively. He threw out 43% of the runners that attempted to steal on him (31 out of 72) and was charged with just 9 passed balls (in 57 games behind the plate) before being promoted to Lake Elsinore. He's got a great attitude, and I like his chances [of getting to San Diego] a little bit better than Colt Morton or Kottaras.
How did Matt Bush look this year compared to last?
Mike Maahs: He hit better, but only played in 21 games. What really helped him was playing with the big leaguers in spring training. It helped him learn how to relax and not put as much pressure on himself, but also forced him to learn more because for once he wasn’t the best defensive player on the field. He has a lot of talent, especially on the defensive side of the ball, he just needs to hit better. If he goes into next year healthy, I think he has a chance to really improve.
Last question, who was the best player, best pitcher and best overall prospect?
Mike Maahs: Will Venable without a doubt was the best player. As far as the best pitcher is concerned, it's a toss-up between Wade LeBlanc [pure talent] and Greg Burke [mental standpoint]. The best prospect was Nick Hundley.