As he racks up the years in professional baseball, Gulf Coast League Cardinals manager Steve Turco achieved a first throughout his lengthy career in the organization in 2016, a minor league title as his team captured its first-ever GCL crown. The Cards had come close before, losing in the first round in three of the prior four years.
"It feels great, like a monkey off my back," Turco told MiLB.com after the title win. "You figure I only have a couple years left, but I want to stay in the game as much as I can. I don't know if this day was going to come, but I'm so glad it did, thanks to the hard work these guys did."
Turco, 58, started his professional career in the Cardinals organization, spending six seasons as a minor league utility man, topping out at Double-A. In 2017, the longtime GCL Cards skipper will return for his ninth season at the helm in his 38th year overall following separate stints as a manager and amateur scout for the Cardinals. Among notables, Turco signed Jon Jay, Chris Perez, Shane Robinson, and Adron Chambers.
In Part 1 of this exclusive two-part interview, Turco discusses his 2016 GCL team that reached the pinnacle and chats about a few of his pitchers that contributed along the way.
Derek Shore: What was it like to win the Gulf Coast League Cardinals’ first-ever championship after having been the manager all these years?
Steve Turco: "I didn't start out as the original manager. We had someone else - Eudo Brito was the first manager, who was there for a couple of years and then I took over. We had gotten to the playoffs several times, but had never gotten past that first round. Just to get past that second round and to the Best-of-Three Championship series was a tremendous accomplishment for us.
"Then to go on and win two out of three and finally get that elusive championship was exciting."
DS: How do you blend talent into a winning product at a level where the teaching aspect is emphasized?
ST: "I'm going to answer that with a story I used to tell a long time ago when I first started. People used to ask me, 'Where's your job? Is it to develop talent or win?' My answer for me at that time was my job is to develop talent and get those guys to play at higher levels. After seven or eight seasons (as the GCL Cards skipper), I was asked again, 'What's your main focus?'
"I said, 'You know what development and winning go hand-in-hand. It's important that you do both to develop their skills to the fullest and see what players you eventually have.'"
DS: Please recap how your team came together on the journey to the GCL title.
ST: "These kids', it's funny because we started off the season slowly, we were a couple of games under .500 several times, and they told me when we were 7-9, "We are going to win a championship.' We had several players that would tell me that on a regular basis. I said, 'Look, it's not about you're going to tell me. I'm from Missouri - you have to show me.'
"So, they continued to play hard, even though things weren't going the way we had hoped in the beginning. They started to gel, and the players started to get more comfortable. When you have young high school kids and young Latin kids, who are playing in the states for the very first time or playing professional baseball for the first time - it's a transition time.
"Usually when you have a good combination of college, pro experience, and then you have young players, who are talented, but aren't expected to carry the whole burden of winning, then you have a chance to have a good season.
"We did just about everything this year. The kids really performed. They believed in themselves. Success breeds confidence and confidence these kids started with was able to make it simpler for the success we eventually had. I was so proud of these young men and the job they did throughout the season."
DS: What did you see in Dakota Hudson, who was on the "Wacha Plan"?
ST: "Michael Wacha started that trend for us. It's not where the college kids should necessarily be playing - at the Gulf Coast level. It was a way to go ahead and monitor their innings, get their feet wet, and have them move on after the Gulf Coast after they had had some time to recover from their hefty loads during the season in college.
"Dakota Hudson was one of those guys. This kid is a consummate professional. Great competitor. Good size and great stuff. You just knew he was going to have success in his first pro season. I would venture to say this young man is going to be a big-league pitcher, not next year, but as early as the following year you'll see him in the big leagues."
DS: What about Connor Jones?
ST: “Connor Jones is a good sized young man. Connor was 93-94, I believe he was able to touch 95 - might even had hit 96 for us with a heavy, heavy sinker and really good arm speed with feel for a changeup. His breaking pitch lagged a little bit. He didn't throw it much in college, but what I remember about Connor was he wasn’t allowed to call his own games in school.
“We told him once he got here, it was going to completely change for him. Dakota Hudson called his own game, as did Zac Gallen, but Connor was unable to. We gave him the freedom early on. It wasn’t going to be what it was in college as he is now a professional and he was going to have an accountability for what he did.
“He is another young man who is going to have a stellar career for us in this organization."
DS: And Gallen?
ST: "In size and stature, Gallen is smaller than Hudson and Jones, but he's a very athletic young man. Not that he's got the same stuff or arm strength as Joe Kelly, but I love both of their athletic ability. Joe was able to hit 96-97 as Zac didn't show us that this first season."
"He left to go back to school prematurely during the season. So, Hudson got a chance to play in A-Ball and Jones went to a short-season A-Ball club for us. Zac left to go ahead and go back to school, but his innings were also limited for us.
"He's a kid that has a repertoire of pitches. He's got four different pitches he can throw for strikes, and they're all quality pitches. He's got the sinking fastball, the slider, the curveball, and the changeup. He's got a skill-set that not only belies his size, but I envision him as a reliever as a setup man even though he's got an arsenal of four pitches.
"Could he be a starter in the future? Absolutely. Like a Mike Leake-type. Can he be a quality set-up guy for us in the big leagues? See that's what I envision him as. I think he's going to be another quick mover. All three of those guys were great draft picks for us."
DS: How about staff ace Alvaro Seijas?
ST: "It's funny because he was only 17 years old. By his last regular season start, we had four starters that had ERA's of under 3.00, so that was the strength of our club this year. Our starters had great numbers and Alvaro was no different except for his last regular season game which I believe he gave up five runs in a shorter stint. Had he not, his ERA would have been under 3.00 as well to finish the regular season. He came in and pitched that first game of the playoffs for us and did a tremendous job.
“He is a guy that’s got three plus pitches and tremendous competitiveness. His maturity is way above the chronicle of his age and it’s funny because Brayan Pena, who was on the DL, came down and caught a few games for us and Seijas was pitching in one of the games.
“This was something we really weren’t in favor of at the time, but it’s expected of in pitchers at the higher levels. At our level, we emphasize fastball command, and we try to get them to throw a higher percentage of fastballs. When Pena caught Seijas that one game, that’s a game he struggled, but he threw six breaking pitches in a row and nine out of 12 pitches were breaking pitches or off-speed pitches.
"He has the ability to do that at a very early age and get back in the count with his fastball, but he’s capable of throwing the curveball and changeup for strikes. He flashes plus with those pitches right now, but with consistency will certainly be plus in the future. He’s another exciting young player in this organization.”
DS: Is Seijas six feet tall or more?
ST: "Yeah, I want to say closer to 6-foot-0, but he's certainly not 5-foot-8. He's steadily built, and I think he's equipped to handle the workload of a starting pitcher. I think he's going to be an exciting young man for us."
DS: Did Seijas show progress with his composure?
ST: "He did. There were times when you saw a tremendously poised young man and then there times when things didn't go quite his way where you would see him get frustrated on the mound. We spoke to him about it, and we said, 'Look the one thing you can't take your emotions out on the field.'
"This is something that comes back in the dugout or go down the runway when you play at higher levels. If you get frustrated, you need to get away from anyone else who is going to witness it. We tried to get him to understand that things he has no control over he can't worry about.
"When you talk about the lower minor leagues, the defenses are not quite what they'll be when pitchers get higher. So balls that might be put in play will be recorded as outs later on are hits when we didn't make plays, and there were errors made. The frustration did grow for him, and these young umpires are learning just the way these players are learning.
"The umpires weren't as good at this level when they will be when he pitches at higher levels. Yes, he did get frustrated at times, and he would let his emotions get the best of him at times. There were also times he would show you a great deal of composure and his mound presence was carried by it.
"He wasn't constantly showing outbursts; it would flare up from time to time, and we spoke to him about it. I think he improved with it towards the end of the season."
DS: Which other pitchers stood out who were not mentioned?
ST: "We had some young arms and Franyel Casadilla, who did a really nice job for us. He's an aggressive young pitcher with good size, a good downward plane. He likes to pitch inside. His curveball got better as the season went and had a good changeup. I think he's got some ingredients with his size, I think he'll throw harder than he did for us this year.
"He's a kid that tops out at 94 mph. You may see some more consistency with the velo as he gets stronger. He did a real nice job for us. We had some college relievers and college starters, who did a real nice job for us as well, who I'm curious to see what they do in the next couple of years.
"The college kids at our level typically will do a better job because they're more experienced and polished at what they do. Those kids generally do better in the Gulf Coast. I'll hold off on those guys, but Casadilla did a real nice job for us."
What is next?
In Part 2 of this exclusive interview, Turco will discuss some of the standout offensive performers on the 2016 GCL Cardinals.
Follow Derek Shore on Twitter @D_Shore23.
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