The Padres’ affiliate in the Summit City is part of the Midwest League, one of two Low-A leagues (the other being the South Atlantic League). The Wizards began play in Ft. Wayne in 1993 as part of the Minnesota Twins’ organization after minor league baseball’s forty-year absence from the city. When the Padres opted not to continue their working agreement with Clinton after the 1998 season, they came to an agreement with Fort Wayne and have built a strong relationship with the community over the last ten years.
The league is divided into two divisions with a split-season format. At the end of the year, the division champs and a wildcard from each half go into a three-round playoff to determine the league championship.
For hitters still adjusting to wood bats, the cold and rainy weather of Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin provides a significant challenge, making the Midwest League a pitchers’ league. Because of this, many collegiate pitchers put up impressive numbers on the circuit, sometimes building unrealistic fan expectations for future success. This is particularly true for hurlers who rely on control and deception for success.
Mike Maahs has covered the Wizards in one capacity or another since they began playing in Fort Wayne (radio and newspaper reporting from 1993 through 2001, official scorer in 2002, 2003, and 2004; and the team’s radio broadcaster since 2005). In the off-season Maahs broadcasts NCAA basketball and volleyball games for IPFW (Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne), but, like all of the other broadcasters in this series, his passion is for the one hundred and forty plus games he will call in the summer, long bus rides and all.
The past few years, the Padres have begun to send younger players to the Midwest League, promoting the more advanced college players directly from Eugene to High-A Lake Elsinore, or with only the briefest of stops with the Wizards. The upside is Wizards fans will get to see young, and probable future major league players such as Kyle Blanks and Cedric Hunter for a full season; the downside is the growing pains can sometimes be torturous from a won loss record perspective.
In this season-ending interview, we caught up with Maahs to get his thoughts on the season, including his views on Cedric Hunter, Drew Miller and Aaron Breit, among others.
It was a pretty tough year in Fort Wayne this year for the Wizards. What were some of the bright spots?
Mike Maahs: Two things come to mind; one was the first half of the season with Nathan Culp, who was here in the latter half of 2006, but who really showed some leadership and added stability to the staff. He made the All-Star team in 2007 and has the ability to throw four pitches, fastball, change, curve and slider.
The other would have to be watching the beginning stages of Cedric Hunter’s development.
Cedric Hunter didn’t put up the big numbers this year but played pretty well – what did you think of him?
Mike Maahs: You have to remember that just last year, 2006, Cedric was playing high school baseball in Georgia. He’s only 19 and Doug [Dascenzo, the Wizards’ manager] wanted him in the #2 spot [in the batting order], but was forced to put him in the #3 slot for most of the year. Defensively, he needs to work harder both physically and mentally. On the physical side he needs to work on strengthening his left [throwing] arm. Mentally, he needs to be able to concentrate on every play, and not give up on a play. For example, on three different occasions this year he tried to make a shoestring catch, missed it, and didn’t make an effort to go after the ball, with one of the other outfielders having to retrieve the ball. On two of those occasions the play had a direct bearing on the outcome of the game, a loss. He has a world of potential but just needs to play more of the whole game.
What other position player caught your eye this year?
Mike Maahs: Tom King, who played second base for us this year. What set Tom apart from anyone on the club is that he will go to war any and every time. He sometimes got too hard on himself, but he is a leader. When the team was playing well he was a big part of it. He took a lot of pitches, really worked the count and showed some range at second base. If he didn’t play well in the game he would stay afterwards and work on his game. A couple of times I caught him in the cage late after the game working on his swing.
Jesus Lopez is a very steady shortstop defensively and led the Midwest League shortstops in fielding percentage [.967, with just 19 errors in 580 total chances], but struggled at the plate, hitting just .232. If he can ever start to hit, he could move up the ladder.
Rayner Contreras is an interesting kid. He’s an infielder by trade, but has bad footwork at both second and third. He needs to find a position, and there was talk that they (Padres) may put him in the outfield. He’s a hard worker and is still very young (20). If they keep him in the infield, third would be a better position for him. Rayner really needs someone to work with him on his footwork.
How about Jeremy Hunt and Daryl Jones?
Mike Maahs: Jones was disappointed that he came back to Fort Wayne at the beginning of the year instead of playing at Lake Elsinore in the California League and it showed. It was my understanding that there were three guys, Kyle Blanks, Craig Cooper and Daryl, fighting for two spots, and Blanks and Cooper beat him out. Daryl was starting to put some numbers together then got hurt in late July and missed the rest of the season. His attitude improved as the season went on because he started to realize if he didn’t pick up his game he wasn’t going to be around for that long. He’s a dead-red [fast ball] hitter, and opposing pitchers would try to jam him in or get him to chase down and away.
When he started to lay off certain pitches and become more selective and not try to pull everything, his numbers started to pick up. Also, his defense was much better this year. He has a lot of potential and is not yet 21 but has also been in the Padres system now for four years. He’s going to have to start demonstrating more of his potential on a regular basis, and needs to have a really good spring in 2008. It’s just a question of how hard he wants to work.
Jeremy Hunt impressed me by how much he wanted to play. He’s a first baseman by trade, but volunteered to play third and would really play anywhere the team needed him. He led the Wizards in home runs this year with 13, and didn’t do badly at third defensively, except for one game where he had two errors. Offensively, he needs to learn to be a little more patient at the plate; as he really likes to swing at the first strike that he sees. If he can control that a little better I think his numbers will pick up. He was a little old for the league at 23, but has some talent and I could see him having the potential to be a twenty home run guy or more.
He’s a hard worker, just a little over aggressive at times.
Two pitchers who were supposed to big guns for the Wizards but struggled at different times were Drew Miller and Aaron Breit, but seemed to pick it up at the end of the year.
Mike Maahs: Wally [Whitehurst, the Wizards pitching coach] worked a long time with these kids. Aaron felt that he had a ton of pressure on himself; he has a world of potential, can throw the fastball and the breaking ball, but needs to work on his change and on becoming more of a pitcher rather than a thrower. Mainly Aaron needs to command his fastball better.
Wally worked with Aaron more than any other pitcher and going to the pen and missing a few starts helped him immensely. Late in the year, he got back in the rotation and felt more relaxed. He started to pitch to locations instead of just trying to blow people away. If he keeps healthy he could have a very bright future.
I was more impressed with Drew Miller this year. He has the heat, but he was really focused on developing his secondary pitches, especially his slider and changeup. I was really impressed with his mental outlook and it was very frustrating for him to get hurt not once, but twice this year.
R.J. Rodriguez, the Wizards close – does someone that small really throw that hard?
Mike Maahs: R.J. was interesting. He got the ribbing from his teammates because, on three separate occasions, he came in from the bullpen in the final inning of a game trying to complete what would have been the first no-hitter thrown by the Wizards in team history, yet gave up a hit on each occasion. At the beginning of the year, it was a choice between Rodriguez and Rolando Valdez for the closer role and the Padres went with R.J. I see his potential more as a set-up guy, which is what Lake Elsinore used him as. There were a few times it seemed he let some questionable calls get to him, which upset his concentration and caused him to try to force pitches in there, and he caught a little too much of the plate.
What pitcher was you most impressed were you most impressed by that wasn’t mentioned.
Mike Maahs: Allen Harrington came out of Lamar University and was very competitive right from the beginning. He had a great quote to me one day after the game when I asked him if he was tight at any time in the game. His response was, “ The day I fear any batter is the day I get out of the game.” He worked primarily out of the bullpen, though, he did make a couple of starts late in the year, has a strong left-handed arm, and the Wizards were very impressed with his performance and attitude this year.
Talk about two of the 2007 draft picks this year in Fort Wayne, third baseman Justin Baum and second baseman Eric Sogard.
Mike Maahs: I think Sogard had some problems adapting to the pro game from college. It was a long season for him coming from Arizona State, playing 64 games and then Eugene with 31 games. He wears glasses and I think he had some problems sometimes picking up some ground balls. I know the team tried to get him fitted with contacts, but he just never got comfortable with them. He didn’t hit that bad [.253], but I’m not sure what type of hitter he can become. He doesn’t have that much speed and I’m not sure about his power.
Justin Baum is an interesting character. He’s very smart and understands game situations very quickly. He finished the season hitting just a bit under .300 [.286], and his bat is what will take him up the ladder.
Cory Luebke has gotten quite a bit of attention, what impressed you most about him?
Mike Maahs: I think he can eventually make it to San Diego. I was more impressed with him than I was with Nick Schmidt [the Padres first-round draft pick in 2007] in the limited amount of time that I saw both of them. Cory seems to have a lot of confidence about him on the mound. He’s more of a control guy who uses his fastball to set up his breaking pitch. He has a really good idea of how to pitch, knowing what the situation is, and what pitch to throw.
Ok, the $64,000 questions pick the Player and Pitcher of the Year.
Mike Maahs: For Pitcher of the Year, I would have to go with Nathan Culp. He went 8-3 and made the Eastern Division All-Star team. He knew when he came in here he was going to be the ace of the staff, and he really set the tone with six perfect innings against Great Lakes in the season opener.
For Player of the Year, I would have to go with Cedric Hunter, who was here until the last weekend of the season. He really has it all, size, speed, and youth, batted .282, and just has tons of potential. Sam Carter did some nice things, but his age  may work against him in his bid to make it all the way to the majors.
How about the top prospects, the players you feel have the most potential?
Mike Maahs: For pitching it would have to be Drew Miller. He has the fastball, it’s just a question of how far his secondary stuff progresses and if he stays healthy. For everyday players it has to be Cedric Hunter. He’s only 19 years old, was hitting in the three spot and was the team’s main power source outside of Hunt and Carter, 20 doubles, two triples, seven home runs, and 58 runs batted in. With him, again, it’s just a matter of how hard he’s going to work, as the ability is there.