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Rays Digest: You have been playing for Leones de Caracas in the Venezuelan Winter League. Can you tell me a little bit about your experience down there and how the game differs from playing in the States?
Stephen Vogt: I've really enjoyed my time down there. I'm actually going back for the last three games of the regular season on the 27th. Baseball down there is so different. Every game is Game 7 of the World Series. Every game is win or lose - that's the most important thing. Where as when you're playing in the States in the minor leagues it's about developing - and if you can win on top that - that's great. Down there every at-bat is the most important at-bat of the season. Every game is the most important game of the season. It's win at all costs. Win no matter what. So it's a really high-pressure situation to play in. The fans are absolutely crazy down there. They're loud every pitch. It's the best environment to play baseball in that I've ever experienced and I've been to World Series' games. It's definitely a great experience to play down there.
Rays Digest: I went to a couple of World Baseball Classic games here in the United States when Venezuela was playing the Dominican Republic and the atmosphere, like you said, was absolutely insane. So I'll bet it is a really cool place to play.
So you said that you're going back for the last three games of the regular season. I'm a little confused about how rosters work in the Winter Leagues. Are you basically allowed to travel back and forth like that?
Stephen Vogt: Well you can't just do it at any time. I had agreed before the start of the season to play through the 23rd of December and then with us being so close to the Playoffs they asked me to come back for the last three games. So being that we have a four day break right now for Christmas, they allow the Americans to go back home for Christmas and then come back for the end of the regular season - which is only three games. So I'll be going back on the 27th and then returning to the United States on the 31st.
Rays Digest: Obviously one of the big stories this winter was the kidnapping of Wilson Ramos, the Washington Nationals catcher. So I think a lot of people in America have gotten the impression that Venezuela is an unsafe place. Could you talk a little bit about your experience there and how safe it is and what kind of security measures the team's provide for players?
Stephen Vogt: I was never alone. I think that is kind of the gist of it. We live in Caracas and Caracas is the most dangerous place that we play from what I've heard from some people. Whenever we are in our hotel, we are in a secure area. There's a mall attached to the hotel, so when we are at home we never have to go anywhere outside. We're always inside where it's secure and you're not going to run into too much trouble. We always have multiple security guards with our van or bus that takes us to and from the field. The fields are lined with security guards and police officers in the stands.
The sad and unfortunate thing that happened to Wilson Ramos was an event that happened while we were down there and it was just one of those things that was scary. It happened about three days before I went down there. I was definitely aware of it. As an imported player, your safety is their first concern because we don't know the country. So we are very well taken care of down there.
Rays Digest: Right around the time you went down to Venezuela the Rays added you to the 40 Man Roster in advance of the Rule 5 Draft. That has to be a really good feeling for you. The Rays are kind of searching for a designated hitter and a first baseman. They have said that that is what they are looking for on the free agent market. Obviously those are two positions that you could play. Is your mindset going into Spring Training to focus on trying to do whatever you can do to try and win one of those jobs, or at least be part of a platoon at one of those positions?
Stephen Vogt: Obviously our goal as players is to try and make it to the big leagues, and being added to the 40 Man Roster was a great honor for me. I was down there - it was actually right before the very first game I played - when I got the call that I had made the 40 Man.
Obviously I pay attention to who the Rays pick up and who they get rid of. Going into this Spring Training I don't know necessarily that my sights are on one of those spots. Obviously I would love to have one of those spots and I'm going to work hard and be ready to compete for that. My goal is just to come in and be ready to go in the spring and be in the best shape that I can be. If I am given the opportunity to fight for one of those positions I'll be ready. If not, I'll be ready at some point during the year. I'll always stay hungry and ready for my chance to play up there.
Rays Digest: You were drafted as a catcher. You have caught quite a bit, but you have also been playing a fair amount of first base and left field. Do you consider yourself to be a catcher first over a first baseman or outfielder? How does your preparation for playing differ knowing that you might have to play a different position every day?
Stephen Vogt: I definitely consider myself a catcher first. Obviously I have been playing mostly outfield and designated hitter with first base and catching right behind that. But I think of myself as a catcher first, mostly because you just never know what's going to happen over the course of a season. You don't know about injuries - I myself missed an entire year to injury - so if I prepare myself to catch, then I'll be prepared to do everything else. The shape that I need to be in in order to catch a full season is different than playing elsewhere for a full season. So I always prepare myself in the off-season by doing yoga and my weight-lifting and cardio are geared towards being able to catch a full season.
As far as the preparation every day - once I get to the field I assume I'm catching throughout the day, just because that's the best way to prepare to play. Once I see where I'm playing, then my routine differs from there depending on what position I'm playing.
Rays Digest: Do you think that moving around the diamond like that hurts or helps you at the plate in terms of your preparedness?
Stephen Vogt: The hardest part of being a catcher is hitting because your legs are tired. I think the fact that I do get breaks from back there and play elsewhere helps my numbers and helps keep my legs stay fresh. I don't think either one affects the way you swing. That is the one constant, if you're in the line-up, you're going to be hitting. My hitting is the best part of my game obviously. (laughs) That's what's going to keep me going, so that's where I get my work in every day. Then the position stuff kind of takes care of itself. Whatever position I'm playing that day is where I'll get my work in prior to the game.
Rays Digest: You mentioned doing yoga and weightlifting in the off-season. What sorts of other preparations do you make to get ready for Spring Training? Will that routine differ at all since you are playing winter ball? Will you back off a little bit?
Stephen Vogt: I think I've backed off a little bit. The last couple of seasons I have played winter ball and I kind of figured out last year how you do the whole winter ball thing. It's about keeping your workouts going while your playing, but at the same time not as intensely as you would be if you weren't playing, because you're still taking a toll on your body.
The last couple of months I've been doing yoga two to three times a week and really working on my flexibility. The more flexible you are, the more you're going to last through the long season - especially being behind the plate. At first base and in the outfield it can't hurt you to be more flexible too.
January 5th is when I'll really kick it into overdrive with the workouts. As far as right now, it is doing yoga two or three days a week down in Venezuela and lifting maybe one or two days a week, just because I'm playing every day and it's been a long season. You definitely have to learn a good mix between how much to do your off-season workouts while your playing winter ball and what is the more important thing that you need to be doing. It's kind of tough to weigh those options out sometimes.
Rays Digest: With winter ball, is that something that the Rays' organization comes to you and says " Hey listen we want you to go play winter ball."? Or is it something that is up to each individual player?
Stephen Vogt: It's different with each individual player. For example, in 2010 I was coming off an injury and I only had 340 at bats or so in the Florida State League. Being 25 with only A ball experience and catching only a handful of games, the Rays wanted me to go play winter ball - and that option was Colombia. So I went to Colombia last winter to get more at bats and catch. So that was a request from the Rays.
As far as this year goes, when the Rays asked me if I was going to play winter ball I said, "yeah, just for about five or six weeks". They said I didn't have to if I didn't want to, because I had so many at bats this year and I played in a lot of games. But it was something that I wanted to do for myself.
So it just depends on each individual and the individual year. The Rays may ask somebody to play winter ball and then others might just do it on their own because they want to.
Rays Digest: You had a fantastic year last season, mostly with Montgomery, but with Durham as well. You were named the Rays' Minor League Player of the Year, so I think that it is pretty impressive that after that instead of taking the winter off you decided to play winter ball anyway. What was your motivation for playing again this season?
Stephen Vogt: Most of the decision for winter ball was to stay sharp, get more work in, get more at bats - get more quality at bats. The Venezuelan League from about December 1st through the end of the month is about as good of baseball as you're going to find anywhere - without including the Major Leagues obviously. Our line-up alone has Asdrubal Cabrera, Yorvit Torrealba and Jesus Guzman - those are three pretty good big leaguers right there. (chuckles) Then you've got some really good arms coming out of the bullpens and good starters as well. So it's just to come down there and see some higher level pitching and continue to stay sharp.
The other part about winter ball for American players is that it gives us a chance to boost our salaries a little bit. A minor league salary is livable, but at the same time - it's not. As a guy with wife and a child, I need to provide for my family. Winter ball presents some good opportunities for that as well.
Vogt has some interesting comments about the word "prospect", and how the term affects young players. You'll be able to read those remarks in Part 2 of this exclusive interview that will run on Monday. He also discusses social media, his community involvement, what he wants to do when his baseball career is over and much more.
I also did an in-depth profile on Vogt back in November which you can find here: Rays 40 Man Roster Profile: Stephen Vogt.
John Gregg is Publisher and Senior Editor of Rays Digest. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaysDigest. He can also be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
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