Following the 2011 season, the Seattle Mariners made a change at the top of their Minor League Operations Department, officially hiring Chris Gwynn away from the San Diego Padres on November 1st, 2011.
2012 will be Gwynn's 27th in professional baseball and his 14th as a member of a Major League front office. With a background in scouting, he was the Padres Director of Player Personnel for the past two seasons and was in their front office for 12 years overall. Gwynn was brought in to replace Pedro Grifol, who expressed his desire to the Mariners front office to return to coaching full time (Grifol will head the High-A California League High Desert Mavericks in 2012).
Chris graciously gave SeattleClubhouse's Rick Randall some one-on-one time at the 32nd Annual Mariners Pre-Spring Training Media Luncheon Event to talk about the system he is taking over and his overall thoughts on player development, player performance and player promotions.
SeattleClubhouse: Thank you for agreeing to talk some prospects and prospect guidelines with me today, Chris.
Chris Gwynn: No problem, Rick, no problem.
SC: Take me back to your career in San Diego. What roles did you fill for the Padres during your tenure in the front office there?
CG: I was involved in...everything. Down in Spring Training, I was involved in every player development meeting, period. Once Spring Training ended, I was going to watch Friday Night (amateur) starters, for the draft. Depending on the matchup or rosters of those player's teams, I was staying for the entire weekend to scout other players, too.
SC: Was that just California that you covered, or was that a national role?
CG: No, nationally. Alabama, Connecticut, Florida...everywhere.
SC: Frequent flyer, got it. What about your involvement in the draft?
CG: Yes, I worked on the draft a bit, too. I assumed a National Cross Checker-type role leading up to the draft. And once the draft rolled around, I functioned as a sounding board as players were being discussed. I was definitely involved heavily in the process.
SC: How about when it came to the club looking at trades and such?
CG: Yes. Any trades that we were discussing, I was sent out to see the players on the teams that we were interested in dealing with. Trying to come up with names of guys we liked. I actually got to see a lot of Seattle's guys a few years back from that angle.
SC: What other sorts of responsibilities were on you throughout the year for San Diego?
CG: Well, I was also responsible for writing up our entire system of Padres players for Kevin Towers and Jed Hoyer. Putting a preference list on our players in categories such as, "I would not move", "I'd only move if we get a giant piece coming back", etc. So that the front office had a better idea of my thoughts. I was involved in the instructional league, international signings...my year was pretty busy up until after the Winter Meetings. I wore a lot of hats there my last three or four years.
SC: Coming from an organization like San Diego, where obviously they have a lot of upper-end talent as well, over to Seattle, how do the systems compare in your mind?
CG: They were able to get some good kids, without question (in San Diego). Sometimes when the big club is not playing well, you obviously end up with higher picks and get to grab some of that top talent. But as far as comparing the systems, I think that Seattle definitely has a lot better talent on the high-end, high-impact pitching side of things. They might have a little more depth on the hitting end, but not by a lot. I like (Austin) Hedges a lot, but Seattle has some very good bats here, too.
SC: So now that you are a part of the Mariners, are you noticing a lot of overlap on the players that you are or were scouting while in San Diego?
CG: To a point, yes. It sounds like we were on a lot of the same guys, talking to Tom McNamara. Cory Spangenburg (Padres 2011 1st round pick), Jace Peterson ( their supplemental 1st rounder), Danny Hultzen -- we didn't think there was any way that he'd get to us at 10, so we didn't even really scout him -- but we were on a lot of the same guys. I ran into Mac at a lot of games during the year, and I worked with him a while back in San Diego. With Spangenburg, he was a guy that we couldn't pass up. We had an unprotected pick, but a guy like that who is a 70 runner and can hit a little bit in a place like Petco Park -- or Safeco -- we couldn't pass that up.
SC: Does ballpark come into consideration in the draft or on the player development end for you?
CG: Not really on my end. What I do from a player development standpoint is just work hard to get that player to be playing at their optimum level. I am taking the players that I'm given and working them to be the best player that they can be. Getting the kids to the best place they can be for the club as far as value.
SC: We all know that the Padres and Mariners both train in Peoria, but how often on those back fields were you peeking at the M's guys and not your own? In other words, how well versed on the system as a whole where you when Jack Zduriencik called you over here for your interview?
CG: Well, I did get to see them a lot in my various roles over the years -- including watching some of the prospects specifically at certain times -- but I definitely studied up on the organization before my interview (laughs). Jose Campos is one of the guys that I knew about, one of the guys that just jumped off the page at me when I was looking at stats, too. The Padres reports on him were through the roof as well. But I've done my homework. I've still got a lot of learning to go on the system, but the familiarity is starting to come.
SC: Something that I talked with Pedro Grifol about last season when I interviewed him was some of the advanced tools that the club uses to evaluate prospects. Outside of just your typical stats, Pedro mentioned the "Quality Plate Appearances" metric. Is that something that you plan on continuing to use now that you are heading the department?
CG: Absolutely. Everything that the club has been using, the stats that they have in place, it has obviously been working really well. And we plan on continuing to use QPA as a means to evaluate our young hitters. Not all .280's are built the same.
SC: Did the Padres implement anything similar there -- anything you plan on bringing over?
CG: I'm not positive on weather they did or not. Randy Smith was in charge of handling that aspect of the department on a day-to-day basis in San Diego. Regardless, I felt that it would be best for me to learn the ways that they do things here rather than bring in my own way of doing things and change it all up. We may tweak some things along the way, based on what I see, but I just want to make sure that the kids in our system are ready to play mentally and physically and know that when they reach the big leagues that it isn't just about getting here, but being productive and earning the right to stay here.
SC: Switching gears, you mentioned during the briefing that in regards to promotions you really want to see a guy dominating a level before you do a promotion. Can you expand on that?
CG: Yes. I want him to dominate the level. The reason for that is confidence. I want the player to be confident in himself in moving to that next level. In the perfect world, you're looking at the so called magic number of at bats or innings, but everyone is different. So I'd like to see them showing that they can dominate on the field. There are a lot of little things, too. On the field, how he's acclimating himself off the field, things like that. A lot of little stuff goes into that and, as a player, they aren't always thinking of that. I just think back to when I was playing and my only thought was, "tell me where to go and what to do". But I want them to be prepared when it comes to promotions.
SC: As you get to learn this system inside and out during Spring Training, are you going to sleep at all?
CG: (Laughs) Probably not! I'll be busy. A lot of names to learn, a lot of players to learn. I'll get my sleep in, but I don't know if my mind will ever stop. I'll be up at 5 AM, hop on the treadmill, and get going. It's a little different than what I've been doing, but I'm excited to help these kids attain their dreams. And I'm here to help them get there. Jack and I have talked, and we know there is no magic potion, so we'll be working with kids to learn themselves, too. Get the kids to understand themselves and take stock in what we're doing with the Mariners and when they might be deficient in some areas, acknowledge it and focus on it.
SC: Can you speak about your thought process for how you treat workloads for pitchers and hitters alike? Do you let the players go until you see a sign that tells you that you should shut them down, or do you head into a season with an idea of a limit that you want them to hit or stop at? I'm thinking about how James Paxton and Taijuan Walker were handled last season, for example.
CG: I think the starting point is preparation. The fact that all of those top guys will be in big league Spring Training this year is a big plus because we know how their feeling, how their doing from the start. You mentioned Taijuan, he threw 96 2/3 innings in Clinton, but he also pitched a little in extended, so you have to consider that, too. We'll have Rick Waits, Jack and Eric (Wedge) -- everybody will be involved in setting innings limits or game limits if and when we go that route with guys. Pitching, every guy is different, but you also have weather, so. A lot to consider.
SC: Can I interrupt you there for a minute? You bring up the weather -- and I know you're a California guy and haven't been here in Seattle a lot -- but it is cold here in March, April, May. If you had your druthers, would you rather start Danny (Hultzen) and James (Paxton) in Jackson to keep them out of the bad weather?
CG: (Laughs) You know, it depends on their spring and where we feel they should be. If we all agree that they are ready for Triple-A, then I think that's where they should be. But we won't know that until we see them, and see how they react. They'll be in some Spring Training games and we'll see how they handle if they get hit around for a minute, how they react to that. Those guys will be interesting decisions. Either way -- if they start here in Tacoma or down in Jackson -- the future is bright for both of those guys, and they know that it is about getting better every day. Rick (Waits) and I were already talking today about where we see guys starting out in 2012. You see, it used to be different -- guys used to come to Spring Training to get ready to compete for the season and they'd come down to get themselves in shape. Now they better be ready to compete from day one. You're fighting for your job the minute you get out of your rental car. They know they need to have a presence, and show that they belong. That's why Seattle is such a great opportunity for these kids. Think about it. Who wouldn't want to be part of this right now? This is a great city, great fans, you're going to get your opportunity, and the culture of competition is great. They'll learn to turn it on. I think this is the best possible opportunity for those two kids, especially, because they'll know where they fit in by the end of the year. I don't know about Taijuan, but Hultzen -- he threw a lot of innings last year with how deep they went and then instructs and the AFL -- and Paxton, we all will know a lot more about them by the end of the year. Then, right below them, you've got Erasmo Ramirez, Forrest Snow and a few other guys -- there is a lot of talent to work with. And Rick Waits knows it. He's excited, I'm excited. A lot of talent.
SC: Well since were talking about them, what do you think about the big three arms?
CG: You know, like I said, I was talking with Rick Waits today, and he said, "these kids make me look good." But we obviously all know that these three are a big part of our future. Two of the three could be here...they could be here real quick. We just have to dot our "i's", cross our "t's", and make sure we're giving them all of the right tools to be the best they can be. They could be here real quick though. I've seen it before, and the entire big league staff will be involved with those types of decisions, but I've seen it happen before, you just don't know. It's up to them, but I've seen it before. Danny just has a real good feel for pitching. I saw him beat my (San Diego State) Aztecs back when he was a freshman, and he beat Strasburg in that game. So he's good, and he's been good for a while, and he was swinging the bat out there, too! But he really has an advanced feel and poise out there.
SC: Tied into the QPA stat that we talked about before, Pedro Grifol said that a similar "non-stat" that they focus on with pitchers is getting to contact or getting the batter out of the batter's box in three or fewer pitches. Is that something that you plan on continuing to impress upon these young arms?
CG: That's great. Like I said before, the things they have in place here are obviously working, and I don't plan on changing things that are working, but I like that approach a lot. We need to teach these kids that nibbling just gets you out of the game quicker. Why pitch four innings if you could pitch seven, right? Teaching them to be efficient teaches them to stay in the game, and being in those later inning situations is important for seeing how they compete. It keeps them in the game and "in the game", it all ties together.
SC: Last couple questions for you Chris. Either in your time with the Padres or since you've come aboard as a member of the Mariners, is there a player or players that perhaps are just below the radar that you or the club think very highly of in terms of potential?
CG: Good question. You know, before last season I think that guy was Vinnie Catricala. But you look at him now and see what he did not only in the Cal League, but he actually put up better numbers after he was promoted out of that league. I mean, .350? That's crazy. That is dominating your level. But now that he's getting recognized, I think there are a few of those arms -- like (Erasmo) Ramirez and some of our younger bullpen arms and then a lot of the 2011 draftees that people haven't really clung onto yet -- that will make a name in 2012. But as for the right here, right now, there is no secret out there. The big five or six guys are all who everyone thinks they are.
SC: Finally, how much would you say that the trade to acquire Jesus Montero changed the dynamic of the organization?
CG: Great question. You know, I liked (Michael) Pineda a lot. He is a definite number two, with a chance to grow into a possible number one and I also felt like he could handle the back-end (bullpen, ninth inning) if they went that way. For one inning, he would be even more dominant. But when you can get your hands on a young, very young, hitter the caliber of Jesus; that is a move that I think you have to make. And it certainly changed the dynamic of the organization in a big way.
SC: Great stuff, Chris. I thank you again for your time and wish you the best. Welcome to the Seattle Mariners.
CG: Thank you very much, and I appreciate the questions.