Barajas, 40, played 14 years in the big leagues, primarily as a catcher with his best season coming in 2005 when he hit 21 home runs with the Texas Rangers. In 2014 he began his coaching career, and tenure with the Padres’ organization, with the short-season Arizona League Padres.
We caught up with Rod before a recent game to chat about some of the top prospects with the Chihuahuas this season.
What has been his biggest improvement offensively?
Rod Barajas: Consistency. It’s not swinging at bad pitches and when he gets that pitcher’s mistake, he’s not letting it go by. When you become a good hitter that is what usually happens. When you get the good pitches, you take them or foul them off and take advantage of your pitch or the mistake.
He’s also not putting himself in bad counts and laying off of the breaking balls that are out of the zone. He’s really just turning himself into a better all-around player. We’ve always known he has some sneaky power, so there is strength there.
He’s also using the right side of the field more and now it’s just a question of doing it on a daily basis, which for a catcher is tough. Austin is alsor really starting to understand what it takes to prepare himself for each day, which is a big part of his development.
It seems to me the ability to drive the ball to the opposite field is really big.
Rod Barajas: Yes and also learning how to pull the ball the right way. When the pitchers miss inside its learning how to hit the ball inside so you don’t foul it off. Learning how to hit the ball to both sides of the field has helped him a lot.
There is no longer the need for him to cheat on fastballs if he takes the right swing he will hit the ball. He can wait on balls a little longer because he can hit the ball to the right.
The other day after the game you said that you didn’t want your pitchers throwing over to first base because you want guys to try to run on him. Seriously?
Rod Barajas: [laughs] I’ll take that challenge any day. He loves to throw and it’s always been his best tool. If I know the pitchers are under 1.5 [seconds to the plate] I’m not going to do a lot of throwing over to first because I want them focusing on the hitter.
I have a lot of confidence in Austin that he is going to throw the guy out. It makes my job and the pitcher’s job easier. You don’t have to throw over four or five times and get distracted.
So yeah, I want guys to run. I’m not going to pitch out because this is his strength and it’s nice to have that. We preach to the pitchers try to be under a 1.4 because if you can do that, you are going to get a free outs when they try to run.
He’s that good.
You stated that Hunter is asking the right questions this year about hitting. Can you elaborate on that a little?
Rod Barajas: I had this conversation with Morgan [Burkhart, the hitting coach for El Paso]], and both he and I coached Hunter last year in San Antonio. Morgan noticed that Hunter has started coming up to him in games and asking pretty advanced questions about hitting; what he should or should not do in certain situations. In essence, he’s looking at more of the mental challenges of the game than just the physical, which didn’t happen as much last year.
He’s taking more ownership of his career and wants to become a better hitter and better baseball player. He just can’t go out there and play with talent, because that isn’t possible at this level. With all of the information that teams have, even at this level, they have a plan on how to pitch Hunter Renfroe.
So I think he is starting to realize what they are doing and how to make adjustments. The most important thing is he not only wants this information, but wants to know how to process it and take it onto the field.
I saw him in Lake Elsinore when he killed the league and that was on talent. He was just better than everyone. Now he’s starting to figure out that to become a better player it’s going to be on more than just physical skills.
His defense in right is pretty impressive.
Rod Barajas: He has every tool, he always has. He has a cannon in right and I am hoping the third base coach will send the runner. It’s fun to watch.
He’s always been solid out there. Every now and then he might misplay a ball, but he has always been a plus defender. He charges the ball well and he likes to throw.
He’s comfortable in center too.
Rod Barajas: He played a lot out there last year and he can play there. I am not afraid to put him in center. If Manny needs a day off, Hunter will be out there.
When we were out in spring training Manny was the talk of the camp but has started out a little slowly. Obviously it is very early in the season, but do you think he has been pressing a little?
Rod Barajas: I think so. It’s his first year in Triple-A and he’s in a new organization. In the coaches’ back rooms when we were evaluating players, there was a lot of excitement about Manny. He missed a few weeks at the end of spring with the arm injury that he had when he crashed into a wall, so that set him back a little.
Any time you miss from seeing live pitching will take a bit of an adjustment. When a new season starts it’s so easy to start pressing when you have a few bad outings because you see that batting average up there around .100 and you want to try to do more.
He’s a guy that can do everything also. He might be trying to do a little too much. Once he gets a little looser he’ll be fine. He looks like he is squeezing the bat a little too hard right now.
It’s just a matter of time.
There are not a lot of top prospects in the rotation. What are your general expectations of the staff for this season?
Rod Barajas: There is a lot of experience in terms of a few of them have spent some time in the big leagues. They are not going to wow you or blow you away with upper-90s fastballs, but all of them are capable of pitching; locating the ball to each side of the plate, pitching off of the plate, changing speeds and keeping the hitter’s off-balance.
They can all do it, but they will have to become the unpredictable crafty veterans to make it work where guys are walking back to the dugout shaking their heads.