While watching Minor League Baseball, you always tend to know who the players drafted in the high rounds are. Who's making the most money, and have the most so-called potential. There's nothing wrong with those players, but sometimes you find guys in the minor league system that just standout from the rest without the high dollar contract, or being a high draft pick. I tend to prefer those types of prospects, and I found an unorthodox one that was interesting as could be. A sidearm pitcher who throws in the low to mid 80's, but excels from the mound. His name is Eric Cendejas.
I'll give you the brief, baseball-reference statistics and card on the young prospect. Cendejas was drafted in the 33rd round of the 2010 June Draft out of California State University Stanislaus. He's 25-years-old and grew up in Corona, California, about 20 miles north of Angel Stadium, and yes, he grew up an Angels fan. Cendejas has pitched in 142 games over the past three seasons as a right handed reliever, spending the majority of his time in the hitter friendly California League. However, the statistics won't show that hitter's are having a good time with Eric, as he's posted a career 3.32 earned-run-average, 1.128 WHIP, and has struck out 7.2 per nine innings in the California League. Cendejas was given some well deserved time in Triple-A Salt Lake this past season (five games, 12.0 innings pitched), where he faced bigger prospects and former Major Leaguers. Also this past campaign, as a setup man out of the 'pen, Cendejas was a big part of the California League Championship run for Angels High-A affiliate, Inland Empire 66ers. Cendejas throws four pitches, a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, slider, and changeup, and all range in the speed category from 80-85.
I was able to get in touch with Eric, and set up an interview over dinner this past week. After jokes about the California League, poking fun at mutual friends, memories of the Championship run of he was involved in this past season, and even one great story about Cendejas' at bat at the professional level, we got on to the actual interview, and this is how it went:
Scout : First off, the question everyone has to ask, how is your off-season going?
Cendejas : Off-season is good. I'm just staying busy, trying to keep active and just stay out of trouble (laughs).
Scout : How is pitching for what is basically your home team?
Cendejas : It's great! I grew up an Angels fan. My grandfather had season tickets for about eight years, so I always went to the games and that was a lot of fun.
Scout: Pitching at Inland Empire, do you have a lot of family that comes out to the games?
Cendejas : A decent amount of family comes out, it's a little hit-or-miss. Immediate family mostly, my mom and dad, my grandfather. My sister has brought her dog Sammy for "Man's Best Friend Mondays." Other than that, I have cousins that come out from time to time, it just depends on how busy everybody is.
Scout: How do you excel pitching in the hitter friendly California League, and force yourself to keep the ball low?
Cendejas : Pitching in the California League is different (laughs), it's definitely a hitter's league but fortunately I pitch in San Bernardino which is a pitcher's park. It plays big for what it is, but in the Cal League especially, you talk to hitter's and they don't like coming there. Now going on the road, especially in the Southern Division where you have Lancaster, High Desert, even Lake Elsinore the wind blows out, and Rancho Cucamonga, the wind is constantly blowing out it makes it tough. You have to keep the ball down and go for your groundballs.
Scout : How was winning the California League and being a big asset to the Inland Empire 66ers as an almost daily setup man?
Cendejas : It's pretty awesome, especially the team we had this year. I don't want to say it was a bunch of mismatched guys but we made it work. We had a lot of guys who came from Burlington last year that didn't have a lot of success at all. This year they really stepped it up. Last year I was here and we had a seven-million dollar infield alone and we couldn't do much with it. This year our total roster maybe averaged around two-million dollars and we did a lot with it.
Scout : Tell me about having "Has" (Bill Haselman) and "Manny" (Brandon Emmanuel) as coaches.
Cendejas : They were awesome, probably the best coaches I've had since I've been with the Angels. Just their chemistry together, the fact that they had the same game plan all year long, they knew what they were doing. From a pitching stand point, Manny is one of the better pitching coaches I've had. He stuck with what he wanted to do with you and he would change little things but nothing major unless you had big issues. Towards the end of the year for myself, I kinda lost the slider, and both of them worked to get it back, broke down what we needed to do and got to where we needed to be for the playoffs.
Scout: You pitch from the sidearm slot with the same release point and arm slot for each pitch, does that help you be deceptive on the mound?
Cendejas : It helps me be deceptive, it's definitely different. Particularly in the Cal League, I feel like it gives me a little bit of an advantage, you don't see too many of us come through there. Especially in the big leagues right now, there's only three or four guys that throw like that. The hard part for me is you get overlooked. You might have success but you don't throw 95 and that's what everyone is looking at now-a-days, especially with a pitcher, you're looking at radar guns. "Who's lighting up the gun?" because we'll have potential there. I have to know how to pitch and know how to setup hitters and use what's going to benefit me to my strengths.
Scout: With not being able to throw in the 90's, how did your teammate Chad Cordero and former Major League All-Star help you out this year?
Cendejas : He didn't really work with me, it was more just talking mentality. More so how to setup hitters, what he looks for, and how reading a hitter's swing benefits him, more that kind of stuff. Those were little things I picked up on from him. Same thing as Triple-A, I talked to him a little more and a few other guys that were in the same boat who had some big league experience. Same idea, reading swings, learning how to use your pitches to your own strength, and reading the hitters. Seeing what adjustments they're making, if there's situations that come into play, especially coming in with a reliever's role. Runners on first and third, runners on first and second, coming in late in the game, early in the game, understanding where you are in the game and what you can get away with.
Scout : You've had two bigger-scale Angels catching prospects catch for you. Who did you have a better connection with behind the plate, Jett Bandy or Abel Baker?
Cendejas : More with Baker, I had him in rookie ball in 2011 and we had a real good connection there and kind of brought that into this year and made it a lot easier. Bandy, I had a good connection with last year but I felt like it could've been a little better. It was just a little hard for him to adjust to me. I'm different (laughs), it's harder for someone to adjust to. We had that with [Zach] Wright this year, same thing we had this last year with [Anthony] Bemboom, it took him awhile to adjust to me. It's a little different, especially for someone who throws 80-84.
I'd like to thank Eric for taking time out of his schedule to meet with me. I told him right after the interview that it wasn't anything personal, but I hoped I wouldn't see him in Inland Empire again, and we shared a laugh. You can expect to see Eric pitching at the higher levels following Spring Training this upcoming season, so if you're a fan in Arkansas or Salt Lake, or just love the Minor League system, go ahead and cheer loud for the sidearm pitcher on his way to "The Show."
If you'd like to follow Eric Cendejas and his journey, follow him on Twitter, @EricCendejas, and for more player interviews and updates on the Los Angeles Angels, follow me on Twitter, @TaylorBlakeWard, and don't forget to follow @ScoutAngels as well.