Mike was gracious enough to take some time out of his day and answer some questions about this year's team in the Summit City.
Rymer Liriano just had a huge year. Many describe him as a true five-tool player. Do you believe that too?
Mike Maahs: I do believe that Rymer can be a five-tool player, if he is able to (a), stay healthy (he did miss a few games with some assorted injuries), (b), continue to mature, both as a baseball player and as a person, remember, he's just 20 years of age), and (c), show the desire to excel as he did in the Midwest League playoffs (11 hits in 17 at-bats, with 3 runs scored, two doubles, one home run, six runs batted in, and three stolen bases, in four games that were played).
Cory Spangenberg struggled his first month and then really turned it on hitting .350 in August. What did you think of his offensive game and how did he look defensively at second?
Mike Maahs: I feel that one of the reasons why the TinCaps played better in the second half than they did in the first half was the arrival of Cory Spangenberg from Eugene. There is an intangible about Cory that may be difficult to describe, but fun to watch. The term that comes closest is "spunky".
There is no doubt that he can hit the baseball; he can run (15 stolen bases in 19 attempts), and his defense isn't that bad either. I don't know if I have ever seen anybody turn the back half of a double play as quickly and as well as Spangenberg did in the 19 seasons that I've covered minor league baseball here in Fort Wayne (either as a Twins affiliate or a Padres affiliate).
Many us were shocked about how well Connor Powers hit. Why did he hit so well and how do you think he will perform going forward?
Mike Maahs: Connor Powers had an interesting 2011 season. He began the year at extended spring training in Arizona and didn't show up in Fort Wayne until June 3rd.
His bat seemed to warm up when the weather warmed up here in the Midwest. He batted .255 in June (13 x 51, with 5 doubles and 5 runs batted in), .323 in July (31 x 96, with 11 doubles, two home runs, and 10 runs batted in), .385 in August (42 x 109, with 12 doubles, a triple, four home runs, and 24 runs batted in), and .368 in September (7 x 19, with a double, two home runs, and six runs batted in). He mentioned to me in a pre- game interview that he just felt more and more comfortable at the plate as the season progressed.
He also played some good defense as well, especially at first base. There were two games played at Lansing late in the regular season, that, if not for for two outstanding plays made by Powers at first base, one each night, would have ended up in the loss column; losses that would have kept Fort Wayne out of the playoffs.
Hitting Coach Kory De Haan felt that a big reason why the team improved in the second half was when the decision was made to play Powers at first base defensively instead of rotating him between first and third.
My one concern (in regards to the future) is the fact, that, in the four most important games of the season (the playoffs), Connor went hitless in 15 at-bats, with a run scored, two walks, and six strikeouts. Can he do well as he moves up the ladder? Yes he can, if he continues to attack the ball (as well as the opposing pitcher) when he comes to bat.
When I came out at the end of the year I was really impressed with the team speed – Chris Bisson, B.J. Guinn, Rico Noel, Liriano and Spangenberg – was this the fastest and most athletic team that you have seen in Fort Wayne?
Mike Maahs: I think so, regardless of the affiliation, again, Fort Wayne was a Twins affiliate for the first six years of their existence before switching over to San Diego. Liriano tied a franchise record with his 65 stolen bases (in 85 attempts) in the regular season.
Noel had 50 stolen bases in 54 tries (not counting the 12-for-13 performance he had at Lake Elsinore); Guinn, 34-for-44; Bisson, 21- for-31, and Spangenberg, 15-for-19. In fact, the TinCaps were second in the Midwest League in stolen bases as a team with 220 (trailing only Dayton, which had 228, led by their speedster Billy Hamilton, who stole over 100 bases by himself). Yes, speed was definitely a weapon for Fort Wayne in 2011.
Keyvius Sampson had one of the better years of any of the Padres' pitchers in the system this season. Why was he so good?
Mike Maahs: Two factors. First, was the tremendous amount of self-confidence that he possessed, not to be confused with cockiness, which he did not show.
Second, was the remarkable maturity he showed for someone so young, he's just 20 years old. Remember, he missed a portion of the 2010 season due to injury, and, sometimes a player never gets back to the level he was prior to the injury. Sampson felt both comfortable and confident every time he went to the mound in 2011, beginning with his outstanding performance against South Bend on Opening Night, when he pitched six perfect innings and struck out 10 of the 18 batters he faced.
I see that continuing in 2012 and beyond.
All of us though Adys Portillo, with his big fastball, would be much better than he was this year. What did you see as his biggest problem this season?
Mike Maahs: We spoke in the last question about the tremendous amount of self-confidence that Keyvius Sampson possessed. When we talk about Adys Portillo, we need to go in the opposite direction.
There's no secret that Portillo possesses a very good fast ball. The problem is that a pitcher cannot rely on one pitch alone and hope it's good enough to propel him up the ladder and eventually, to the big leagues, Mariano Rivera not withstanding.
There were several occasions this year where Portillo showed stretches of brilliance, retiring on some occasions anywhere from 7-to-10-to-12 batters in a row. However, the brilliance turned into frustration once the opposing batters started timing the fast ball and turned outs into hits and runs.
Age and maturity also have to come into the conversation. Remember, Portillo was just 16 when he signed with the Padres, and is still a teenager, 19, today.
My feeling is, that, until he can learn to throw other pitches for strikes (be it a curve ball, slider, or change-up), and, have the confidence in himself that is required of a pitcher, perhaps the best place for him is in the bullpen instead of in the starting rotation.
Zach Cates was a high draft pick last year and only recently started to pitch full time. How well did he adapt to being a full time pitcher and how well do you think he will do going forward?
Mike Maahs: Cates was a lot like Portillo this season, a lot of talent, but, not much success in terms of wins and losses, as he posted a regular season record of 4-10.
He struck out nine batters in his first outing of the year (against South Bend in the second game of the season in April), and would end up fanning 111 batters in 118 innings of work in the regular season, which is nearly one strikeout per inning.
However, he gave up 107 hits in those 118 innings (again, nearly one hit per inning), and uncorked a total of 15 wild pitches, some in some critical situations.
As was the case with Portillo, Cates was, more often than not, a victim of his own lack of self-confidence. An example was his outing at Lake County on August 23rd. Cates retired 16 of the first 17 batters he faced that night, and seemingly was in complete control.
He hit the next batter he faced on an 0-2 pitch, walked the following batter on a 3-2 pitch, a border-line pitch that could have gone either way), then, gave up a two-run triple that resulted in his being removed from the game, replaced on the mound by a relief pitcher.
Showing frustration in being removed after losing control of the situation in just a matter of a few pitches, Cates chirped with the home plate umpire on his way to the dugout and was ejected from the game.
Once he can control his emotions in tough times and obtain a huge dose of self-confidence, I feel that success on the mound will follow.
A late round pick Mark Hardy had a very good year in the Midwest League. What were the reasons behind his success?
Mike Maahs: Mark Hardy was a nice success story for Fort Wayne in 2011.
He began the season as a member of the bullpen crew, but, made some spot starts in second games of doubleheaders, and, eventually, was placed in the starting rotation.
Once in the rotation, Hardy seemed to thrive, as Shawn Wooten (manager) and Willie Blair, the pitching coach) could count on a solid and somewhat lengthy performance, 11 of his 19 starts in the regular season lasted six innings or longer, and that doesn't count the season-high, eight-inning performance he had at Bowling Green in the playoffs.
Mark was one of two pitchers on the team (Keyvius Sampson) who finished the regular season in double figures in wins (11), and, like Sampson, finished in the top 10 in the Midwest League in best earned run average at 2.78 (Sampson's ERA was 2.90).
The fact that he was one of older pitchers on the team (23) didn't hurt either.
As was the case with Sampson, Mark had a tremendous amount of confidence in his pitching abilities, as was evidenced in a television interview prior to his start at Bowling Green in the playoffs.
He told the reporter, and, indirectly, the Bowling Green team as well, that he was comfortable and confident in his ability to throw his slider for strikes in key situations and then backed it up with his performance. At one point Hardy retired seventeen batters in a row.
Mark Hardy is not flashy on the mound, but, he is confident, and his future, especially being a southpaw in the San Diego organization that I feel is a bright one.