Pedro Grifol has been a member of the Mariners for 12 seasons now. Along the way he has been a scout, a manager, and is in his third season as Director of Minor League Operations.
He recently gave SeattleClubhouse's Rick Randall some time to talk about the development of the farm system and some of the ways that the club looks at development outside of the numbers.
SeattleClubhouse: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today, Pedro.
Pedro Grifol: Absolutely, thanks for having me.
SC: You have been with the Mariners since 2000 in various roles but have been the club's Director of Minor League Operations since General Manager Jack Zduriencik took over in November of 2008. What have you noticed as the biggest philosophical differences between Jack's approach and those that came before him?
PG: I think everybody brings a different approach--obviously everybody is different. I wasn't in a Director's position or a decision making position under Pat Gillick or Bill Bavasi, but Jack came in with a plan. And that plan was to build through player development and scouting. Pro scouting, amateur scouting, international scouting, acquire as much talent as we can and develop these guys. And he's followed through with it. We have a lot of talent now in the minor leagues, top to bottom. We have guys that we've been talking about for years now getting to the big leagues and performing. We just had another, in my opinion, fantastic draft--Tom McNamara has done an amazing job for us in the three years he's been here--and we have Bob Engle, who's always been fantastic in all the years he's been here. And we've made some nice trades to acquire depth and made some moves that are key to competing at the major league level. Are we where we want to be? Probably not. But we're moving in the right direction.
SC: In 2010, it was very common to hear front office personnel speak about the success of the system while referring to the collective records of the minor league affiliates—in all, eight of nine affiliates advanced to the post-season. While the individual teams didn't fair quite as well in 2011, I'd argue that—from a player development standpoint—this year has been far more successful. Would you agree?
PG: You know what, I don't think it has necessarily been more successful, I just think it has been very different. Both years were very successful. Last year, everybody stayed in the minors, all the prospects--the Ackley's the Pineda's the Kyle Seager's the Peguero's and so on--all stayed in the minors all year. When you look at the amount of rookies up now that have come through the system--whether they were drafted by us or not, came in a trade like a Carp and been here two, three years--and you look at all these kids and when you go through a minor league season when most of them are in the minor leagues, then you have the capability of putting together a year like that. We keep these guys together and they play together and win together. That season is going to be hard to duplicate--eight teams, two championships and Clinton played until the last day--it's really unbelievable. Then you look at this year and we didn't win as much. But my goal as Farm Director is to put these kids in situations where they are playing big-time meaningful games come September to try and give them the experience of tough playoff baseball before they get to the big leagues. But when you look at our system, we have seven teams in the states--most clubs have six--and you look see how so many players got called up to the big league club, we have to replace all of those minor leaguers on all of those clubs and sometimes it just doesn't work out. But both seasons were very successful. I think that last year prepared those players for this year.
SC: On that note, while the record for the team at the big league level hasn't improved much from the 2010 season, the influx of young players—-many of whom are a product of the current regime's work in the draft—-have made the club much more exciting. Where would you rate the success of this year's crop of big league rookies against the club's expected level of performance for them?
PG: I think as an organization you always try to find out where you're at. And not just at the minor league level but at the big league level. And that goes for Jack (Zduriencik), too. Who are we? Where are we? How close are we to where we want to be? Those are the types of questions that Jack needs the answers to from everyone. And I think sending that many guys to the big leagues this year has allowed Jack and Eric (Wedge) to evaluate where we are as an organization and how close these players are to being productive major league players. That will help Jack know what he needs to do going into next year to compete. That's tough to do when you've still got guys in the minor leagues but they haven't produced at the big league level yet. So this has allowed Jack and Eric to evaluate and say, "Okay, where are we? How good are we? How close are we?", and so on. As far as this year's crop is concerned, if you have one or two guys in any given season that turn into contributors, you've done a good job. When you go past that and you have four, five, six, then you're doing a great job. And not just a great job in player development, we teach these guys, but they have to have talent. And I give a lot of credit to everyone here. Our scouts--I know how hard it is to be a scout since I did it for six years and I know how difficult it can be, not just identifying talent but signing guys that want to play baseball. It is an all-around thing that is happening here.
SC: I've heard it mentioned before that you and your staff seek out ways of fitting prospects into holes. Dustin Ackley and second base, for example. Are there any current minor leaguers that the club is very high on who you are moving around defensively with a specific eye on their big league future, i.e. Catricala and Littlewood?
PG: Our philosophy is to move guys around. When I look at players and evaluate rosters with my staff, Roger Hansen who is now my right-hand guy, when we look at those situations, we're not looking at it saying, "Okay, we need Littlewood to be a catcher because we're jammed at shortstop,". That's not what we do. What we do is we try and branch these guys out in the system if we feel they can play at the big league level and teach them as many positions as possible so that when the time comes to play in the big leagues, they are available for Jack and Eric when they ask for a player. Vinnie Catricala for example: he came to us as a third baseman but now he has seen a lot of time at first base and left field. Do we think he is a third baseman, first baseman or a left fielder? We're not sure. Justin Smoak and Carp could go out and have a big year and Seager or Alex Liddi could go out and have a big year. But Vinnie, if he's a bat that we need, will have some options. My goal is create as much versatility possible at the minor league level so that our guys don't get pigeon-holed into one position that we don't have a spot for.
SC: Speaking of Ackley and second base—He seems like a natural. Could he have performed any better in the big leagues defensively than he has in your opinion?
PG: Not really. Just because I was on that back field the first time he ever took a ground ball and if you saw the first day, then you saw the fifth day, then you saw the 20th day and you saw the aptitude and ability that he has, all we needed for him was that experience. We needed him to experience those slow rollers, those fly balls he goes back on, things like that. And you know, as good as he's been, this is still just his second year playing the position. And that is pretty amazing that he is playing so well in the big leagues and how quickly he has learned it. He's just going to get better and better every time out.
SC: Getting back to Marcus Littlewood, when he was selected it seemed like the club liked his instincts, his hands, his build and his defense. Obviously those things play well at catcher, too, but as you mentioned versatility earlier, are you looking at Marcus as a catcher only going forward?
PG: We're experimenting because we think he can be a front-line catcher. And the more he goes out there with Roger (Hansen), the more Roger cements that he can be. We didn't make a move with our (2010) 2nd round pick to be a backup or a utility guy. This is a move that we made with the intentions of him becoming a front-line major league catcher. We feel that he has all the tools necessary to be an impact guy behind the plate, and we're going to try it. And the most important thing is that Marcus wants to do it, is happy about it and he loves the position.
SC: When looking at promotions and position shifts, how much does current defensive performance play into the decision?
PG: I think it's an overall thing. Sometimes I let it prevent the move, sometimes I don't. You never want to slow down a bat, but at the same time, you have to continue to make progress defensively because if you can't play defense at the big league level, there is only one position for you and that is designated hitter, and usually that spot is already taken by an established guy who's been at the big league level a long time. How good is the bat, how close is the defense, how bad is the defense--there are a lot of factors, but we try and keep them where they need to be.
SC: Depth is certainly never a problem, per se, but the club seems to be flush with talent in some positions while lacking in others. What can you do from a player development standpoint in a situation like that?
PG: Continue to do what we do, which is experiment with these guys in other positions. Play them at all three outfield positions, create some versatility. You never know who's going to step up and take the bull by the horns eventually and be our left fielder of the future. It could be Mike Carp, it could be Carlos Peguero, it could be...who knows. We don't know, but what we have to do is prepare these guys. In case there is an injury, and so on. Our goal is to make sure that the first time these guys play a new position it isn't at the big league level.
SC: The AFL is the most popular league to fans, but it isn't the only place where pro ball players get "off season" work. In a recent interview you did the number thrown out there was 75 players participating in such leagues. Is that accurate?
PG: That number is approximate. We have a team and a half in Venezuela. We have our academy plus our Lara team, where I will be managing again this year. So we have about 40 players there, we have seven in Arizona, plus four in Australia, plus all the Dominican leagues, plus seven imports, plus all the guys that play with me. That's a bunch of guys playing all over the place.
SC: What type of planning goes into where the club sends players? What I mean is, how do you determine who goes where and does it have to do with the strengths and weaknesses of the leagues and the strengths and weaknesses of the players themselves? Are those assignments made with particular areas of focus in mind, and do the players usually know what those areas are?
PG: Yes to all of the above, really. Every league has different things to offer. We try hard to send the right players to the right league, sometimes we try to challenge them with a higher level, sometimes we try to challenge them with an environment to get them to take the next step. Like the guys going to Australia: we feel these guys are just a step below the Arizona Fall League, and that's how we feel about that league, in our opinion. So really all of the above. The one thing that is constant is that everyone has a plan when they go there and they do have areas of focus, things that they need to work on. You use the offseason to get bigger and stronger, but one philosophical thing for me is that baseball needs to be played for you to get better. There is enough time off during the Winter Leagues to get your weight room work in, but you need to continue to play to get better on the field, no matter who you are.
SC: How hard is it for clubs to get a handle on what is happening with the young kids in the foreign rookie leagues? I know there is video and there are scouts on the ground, but does the lack of first-hand knowledge of these players make it difficult for the club to evaluate the progress, or lack thereof, of these youngest and, typically, rawest prospects?
PG: You've got to trust your player development people. They see them every day. That's why they're there. They travel with them, they eat with them, they practice, they play, they're always there. You've got to trust them. And if you've got good player development people then you've got a good grasp on what you've got in the organization. You gather all of the information they give you, and then when you get to see them for five or six days, you build on that. I'm a hands-on Farm Director, so I like going on the field and throwing BP and I spend time with them in the dugout, and so on and so forth, same goes for Roger. But getting back to the core of your question, you have to trust your player development people.
SC: When I spoke with (Everett Pitching Coach) Andrew Lorraine earlier this season, he mentioned the difficulty that a lot of International players face in their first few seasons in pro ball—not only playing the game at a higher level than ever before, but playing away from home in a foreign country for the first time. What do the Mariners do to try and relieve some of the stresses from outside the baselines that can face these players?
PG: Our first two levels here--Arizona and Pulaski--we get a team hotel. Everybody stays together, including the coaches and everybody, and they do meals together and everything. It's still a controlled environment. Once they get to Everett they obviously have host families and start going out on their own. But I think it starts in the academies with our career development programs--and actually we are starting one on Monday--where we go through sort of an orientation about the organization and some of the things that you may encounter in the states, whether you are from here or you're from another country. We are constantly trying to come up with ways to give these guys an edge when it comes to adjusting to the United States and the way things are done here. It starts in Latin America, we do the Rosetta Stone there, we have kids graduating. We've got to do the best we can to eliminate all interferences that we possibly can. If a kid is on the mound and he's worrying about what he's going to eat tonight because he doesn't know how to order, that's an interference, and we try to help them with that. If they are worrying about how to cash their check because they don't have a bank account, that's an interference. So we try and give them all the information we can to help them. We have a great staff with Rafael Colon (Mental Training Coach) who does a great job with the mental program, Casey Brett (Assistant Minor League Operations) is hands on with these guys down here, Hide Sueyoshi (Director, Minor League and International Administration) is hands on with these guys. We have so many guys who play such a great role to help these kids adjust, it's a great thing. Major League Baseball has their program, but they take three guys and we have 200 guys. So we started this four or five years ago so we've had 200 or more players go through our career development program. Little-by-little, we try and touch as many players that put on a Mariners uniform as possible.
SC: I've heard you mention the stat "Quality Plate Appearances" before as a tool that you use for an additional way of evaluating hitters' performance in the minor leagues. Can you talk about that stat a little bit?
PG: It's a subjective statistic that I've asked of our hitting coaches and our hitting coordinators, and we have them be tough. You may go into a ballpark and see a guy walk after 10 pitches and think, "what a great at bat". But, in reality, maybe it wasn't. Maybe he's a middle of the order guy that took two pitches right down the middle with one out and guys on 2nd and 3rd before he got that walk, then the next guy hits into a double-play and we're out of an inning, well, we're teaching and training that kid in the middle of the order to be a run producer and he took two hittable pitches, then that's not a good at bat. It comes down to trusting your staff, trusting your hitting coaches to give us what we feel is a quality plate appearance. Case in point, Nick Franklin this year: he was hitting .275 in High Desert but his QPA was really, really good--over .420 I think. That was one of the decision makers that we used to determine that he was ready for the promotion to Double-A. And he ended up playing well there. It's not the only statistic that we use, but it has proven to be helpful to us as an organization. Same thing with Dustin Ackley last year. We were getting questioned all over when his promotion happened, but Jack and I had a number of conversations and we knew he would be alright based on this statistic that is beyond the statistic that everyone else uses. You can never have too much information; you just need to know how to use it.
SC: Kind of on the topic of QPA's, what can the club do with 22-24 year old prospects that flash a lot of tools but still struggle making contact? It seems that all minor league systems are filled with such players—how do some end up succeeding?
PG: I think a lot like Eric Wedge does: I don't mind walks, I like walks and think they're an important part of the game, but I also want our kids to be aggressive. We like the term "controlled aggression". In other words, you're swinging at every pitch until your eyes tell you it's a ball. Your discipline comes from your vision and your pitch recognition, but you have to stay aggressive. Taking an aggressive kid and teaching him to take and getting him into situations where he's always hitting 0-2, 0-1, that's not helping the problem. Taking the aggressiveness from a guy like Carlos Peguero and teaching him to take pitches isn't going to help him. It's going to hurt him. Keeping him aggressive and staying on him and grinding it out and teaching him to look in his zone, "where are you good?", and what type of pitches he looks for. Again, you are swinging at every pitch until your eyes tell you that it's not a strike or it's not in your zone. That's the type of aggression I'd like our kids to take. The other thing that we have, that's mandated here is that every kid has to know what kind of player they are. You can't lie to yourself, and you can't lie to them. If you've got a guy like Danny Carroll that has 60-plus stolen bases and has the ability to draw 100-plus walks, he's not a homerun hitter. He hit 18 this year, but he's not a homerun hitter. And we're not going to tell him he is, we're going to tell him the truth--keep him in his game. These kids all are taught to keep within their game. The other thing is that we teach them to make sure that their swings match the situation. We're trying to move a guy over and these guys are taking big swings trying to hit the ball to left field, that's not the right swing for that situation. Those are the three things that we try and engrain in these kids so that they have the best shot to become team oriented players.
SC: Do you have anything along those lines for pitchers? For instance, how does the club look at guys pitching in Adelanto (High Desert) and see if they are getting good results outside of their numbers?
PG: I'll give you an example: contact in three or less pitches. Or outs made in three or less pitches. Guys attacking the strike zone, that is what we look for. And I'll give you a perfect name and a prime example of that: Brandon Maurer. He had a 6 ERA (6.38) in Adelanto (High Desert). Well, in my opinion Brandon Maurer had a great year. I saw him pitch three or four times, never gave in, kept throwing strikes. Kept using his changeup, kept throwing his breaking ball. Yeah, he'd give up a cheap home run on a slider that the kid just pokes off the end of the bat with a 40-mile-an-hour back wind that went 320 feet over a 315 foot wall and he'd pop right back. That's the kind of thing that we look for from kids down there. Sometimes we can skip these guys from that level, sometime we can't, but Brandon Maurer will pitch in Double-A next year and my bet is that he will be a very good pitcher in the Southern League.
SC: Do you ever specifically skip a player because of the environment and the crazy stats that happen in the California League, or do you make sure that they are ready to move past that level?
PG: That's the key: they have to be ready. If you're going from Clinton to Double-A, it's because you're ready, not because we don't want you to pitch in Adelanto. It's happened before. I'm not afraid to skip a guy, but in my eyes they have to be ready.
SC: The seven kids heading to the Arizona Fall League, what are you looking for from each of them during their time there?
PG: Each of them will have their goals and their coaches. Darren Gardner is here, I'm here, Adam Moore will be here with Roger (Hansen), (Danny) Hultzen will have Rick Waits here. Its seven different guys so they have seven different needs analyses, but as a group, we're going to continue to play the game the way it needs to be played, with respect, with pride and the things we do in a Mariner uniform. But individually they're going to have their things to work on.
SC: Last question here Pedro. Before we go can you give me maybe two or three player names in the organization that perhaps we don't hear a lot about from the "prospect gurus" that are high on your lists and that fans should keep track off, say a Danny Carroll or someone?
PG: That's definitely one right there. Danny Carroll did a great job this year. He had a lot of strikeouts but he also had a lot of walks. He's going to Puerto Rico to work on cutting down the strikeouts, but he had 60-plus stolen bases, great stolen base percentage, he's a plus outfielder with a plus arm, but we just need to work on the strikeouts. I like Danny Carroll a lot. Maybe he breaks in as a fourth outfielder, but again, that's why he's played a lot of left--gives them options. Erasmo Ramirez is another guy. He's just 22-years-old but he's starting in Triple-A and doing a great job. Forrest Snow, we called him up (to Tacoma) for a spot start and he turned into a legitimate Triple-A pitcher. (Tacoma Manager) Darren Brown told us at the end of the year, "if I had three games to win and had to choose three pitchers, Snow would definitely be one of those pitchers", so he's another guy. Another guy, I know he's on the map now, but he wasn't on the map before this year, and that's Vincent Catricala. He hit .300+ in Pulaski, hit .300+ in A-Ball, hit .300+ this year. That's the great thing is that there are players that aren't expected to do much and then, boom, they're right there for us. He can be a left fielder for us or he can be a first baseman or he can be a third baseman, we're just creating some versatility for Jack and Eric, but he's got a bat.
SC: Great stuff Pedro. I really appreciate your time here and wish you good luck this Winter.
PG: Anytime Rick. Thanks a lot.