Today we continue and wrap up our season ending question and answer session with Cleveland Indians Short-A Mahoning Valley hitting coach Justin Toole. If you missed part one, it focused on players such as Andrew Calica, Todd Isaacs, Mitch Longo, Gavin Collins and Erlin Cerda.
Onto the Q&A…
Q: Outfielder Gabriel Mejia (65 G, .322 AVG, .753 OPS) had a nice transition to the Singe-A level and seemed to get more comfortable as the season went on. What did you like about his season?
JT: He did a phenomenal job of taking what the defense gave him. If the third baseman was back far enough he would lay down a bunt. If the four-hole was open he would hit it there or if the six-hole was open he would hit it there, too. Obviously his speed speaks for itself. He is fun to watch. I just liked his consistency over the course of the year and the way he puts the ball in play. He made a lot of improvements defensively as well in center field talking to coaches who had seen him in the past compared to this year. He is just kind of developing and continued to keep that same confidence. It has been fun to watch.
Q: What is the biggest area of focus for Mejia moving forward?
JT: A little bit of everything. The more at bats you give a guy the more comfortable he will feel. If you look at his numbers throughout his career he has done very well at the plate, and as he continues to move up he will be able to make the adjustments he needs to make to have success. [He needs to work on] his baserunning, outfield and swinging with more intent to keep defenses honest. He is definitely an exciting guy. You waited for him to hit that speed bump during the season to slow down a little bit, but it seemed like whenever he had a rough game he would just hit the gas even more the next game and keep it going.
Q: First baseman Emmanuel Tapia returned to Mahoning Valley this season recovered from a foot injury that prematurely ended his 2015 season and had a solid but inconsistent season (59 G, .251 AVG, .721 OPS). What are your thoughts on his return this year?
JT: Definitely coming back from injury the biggest thing for him was getting his confidence back being able to move defensively and finding his swing. He started to get into that groove. The biggest thing he did was he was able to make some adjustments on offspeed pitches. I think coming into the season he struggled a little bit with that but made the adjustment this year. He is a big, strong kid and can drive the ball out of the park and puts on a show in BP. He is the type of guy you like to have as a hitting coach just because of the possibility of driving the ball out of the park on one swing.
Q: Tapia has long struggled with his defense. Has improving his defense been a focus?
JT: Absolutely. He made a huge improvement with his defensive work. He worked with Edwin on his early work almost every day before games and made huge improvements there.
Q: Infielder Alexis Pantoja struggled with the bat this season (57 G, .197 AVG, .463 OPS) but brings a lot of value because of his versatility and defense. How did he come along this season?
JT: His defense was phenomenal at shortstop for us. He is a guy in the last few weeks of the season where in any pressure situations with guys in scoring position late in games he did a phenomenal job of getting the job done - whether it was a single to score a guy late or sac bunt to get a guy over. That was good to see despite a season statistically was maybe not where he wanted it to be. He did a good job of battling, continuing to work and did such a good job defensively.
Q: What is the biggest key for Pantoja to improve with the bat?
JT: Just getting the consistency. A lot of the guys who moved up from [extended spring training in] Arizona struggled at the end of the year. Each level provides new obstacles. This level is the first real level of professional baseball where you are traveling around, staying in hotels, late night bus rides and getting back and playing the same day. So it is a little bit of an adjustment. For a lot of these guys it is just adjusting to what professional baseball is like. And with that, finding a way to be consistent every day and bringing your best swings every day. He is no exception to that.
Q: Catcher Logan Ice was a high profile selection in this year’s draft, but struggled in his pro debut (39 G, .198 AVG, .631 OPS). What insight can you provide into his year even though it may not have been up to the standards expected from such a high round pick?
JT: He made some good adjustments at the end of the year. Like I said earlier, especially being a college catcher like him, when you get to the end of your first pro season you are tired. I think that affected him a little bit. He won’t tell you that because he works so hard. I think the first professional season and catching all of those innings and in college, I think you will see a different kid with a little more energy and different swing in spring training next year. But he still made some good adjustments offensively. Defensively, he was great back there and handled the pitching staff well. He is a good guy to have around and is someone the organization is excited about.
Q: You mention a lot about how in the first pro season – especially for college players – it is more a feeling out process and how players have to battle fatigue from such a long season. Can you elaborate more on how that first offseason after the first pro season is so important?
JT: Your first offseason is big. All of these guys have been playing and going to school their whole life. Except for a handful of guys who might go back and finish a semester and things like that, this is really the first time in their life that baseball is their job and number one. This is a good opportunity to go into the offseason to start eating right, start working out and start building that foundation that will carry them into these next couple of years and offseasons to where they can recover, get strong and focus in on injuries to let them heal. This is definitely a huge opportunity to recover, get stronger, and then build on what happened in the season whether it is adjustments offensively or defensively. It is a good time to get that going so they can come to spring training ready to go.
Q: Outfielder Silento Sayles had a tough season in the system this year (71 G, .198 AVG, .600 OPS) and spent most of the time at Mahoning Valley. How is he coming along?
JT: From personal experience, I know it is tough to bounce around and move around from team to team. It is tough to get into a rhythm sometimes. He did a good job of maintaining a solid routine and kept it all year. He made some good adjustments with his swing. There was a point in the year when he hit a walkoff home run for us and some different things which were cool to see and had some big hits and was able to drive in runs late. It is just a matter with all young guys of trying to get the consistency. He has the ability, but just putting it all together and being able to do it consistently is something he has gotten better with and he made some strides with this year.
Q: Infielder Nathan Winfrey looked like he took a step back this year hitting a combined .165 with .524 OPS in 82 games between Low-A Lake County and Mahoning Valley. While the numbers were not very good, was there something you maybe saw which showed he played a little better than they suggest?
JT: He made some really nice adjustments recently in the last few weeks to get harder contact and put better swings on the ball. He is one of those guys who was taking good swings but was not getting results. It was kind of tough luck on some swings as he would hit a ball hard right at a guy and wasn’t getting those few balls to fall that would give him confidence and get things rolling. He did a phenomenal job late in staying aggressive and ready to hit and taking good swings. He stayed through the ball better [at the end of the year] and I think that helped.
Q: Shortstop Luke Wakamatsu was limited to just three weeks of games because of injury, but continued to work out with the team (17 G, .232 AVG, .616 OPS). Even though he didn’t play the last two months of the season, what kind of impression did he make?
JT: He is a strong kid. Being a switch-hitter he has a lot of ability and room for improvement to drive the ball from both sides. He has been able to do that. As with a lot of these young guys, it is just a matter of being consistent with that. With his baseball background with his family he is a great kid to be around. Being injured and not playing the last month or so he was still able to come in here and get his work in and be a good teammate. Things like that from a young kid are impressive. He shows up to the field focused and for his teammates – something you wouldn’t expect a young kid like that to be able to do knowing that he would not be playing the rest of the season. He is definitely a guy who is exciting. The power potential is there. Being young, I think he will get bigger and stronger. He just needs development.