The Texas League is a brutal testing ground for position players, not only because of the heat and old stadiums, but because it consistently features some of the best pitching in the minors. In fact, many of the top young arms in the game, including Dontrelle Willis, Jake Peavy, Josh Beckett, Scott Kazmir and C.C. Sabathia, have bypassed Triple-A and made the jump to the big leagues directly from this level.
Ironically, hitters who call Nelson Wolfe Stadium home must also deal with a park in which the ball doesn't travel very well because of the high winds blowing in, which will provide some training for PETCO Park.
Stu Paul and Roy Accuff were the two announcers in the Missions broadcast booth that covered the ascent of the Missions to the Texas League championship. Paul has been broadcasting minor league baseball, hockey and basketball games for over twenty years and with the Missions since 2001. The New York native broadcasts some games for the University of Texas-San Antonio basketball teams, both men and women, in addition to doing some account work for the Missions in the off-season.
Paul's passion is clearly baseball, and he was gracious enough to spend some time with us in the off-season to reflect on one of his more enjoyable summers.
At mid-season, the team was in last place of the Texas South division but then went on to win the Texas League championship. What was the reason behind the turnaround?
Stu Paul: We got off to a good start but then stopped hitting – and the pitching wasn't great. We couldn't beat Frisco, which is a big thing when we played them eight straight times at one point.
The big change was we got some re-enforcements from Lake Elsinore in mid-season, Matt Antonelli, Chad Huffman and Wade LeBlanc who really helped us quite a bit. Antonelli was a great table-setter and really helped us out because Sean Kazmar was struggling. Huffman hit well also, he drove in over 100 runs between Lake Elsinore and San Antonio. Will Venable started to hit better and for a little more power. Wade LeBlanc probably throws one of the slowest and most unhittable changeups that I've ever seen. Neil Jamison started out well, then struggled, and picked it up by the end of the season. Paul Abraham then closed for a while before he went down in July. Then we got some help in the pen from Edwin Moreno, a pitcher the team picked up from the Mexican League.
Chase Headley had the best year of his career with the Missions this year. How would you describe his all-around game both offensively and defensively?
Stu Paul: Defensively he did a good job at third base. He struggled somewhat in the second half, with some nagging injuries. He's a very patient hitter; I've never seen someone that selective. He drove in some key runs. He's not a gold glover yet, but he has the potential to be one and improved every month.
Josh Geer was the Texas League Pitcher of the Year but doesn't seem to get a lot of respect from most minor league pundits? What was the reason for his success this year, and how effective do you think he could be on the major league level?
Stu Paul: He doesn't throw very hard but has a great change and a good slider. He's a very intelligent pitcher and knows how to pitch. If he could just add a little more velocity on his fastball, I think he could really take off. He's a good athlete, good fielding pitcher, but I would like to see a little more velocity on his fastball.
Nick Hundley had a better second half offensively than his first, but was consistent all year behind the plate. What do you think is the biggest strength of his game?
Stu Paul: He's really strong and has some power. The ball jumps off his bat. He struggled a little bit at first at the Double-A level learning how to hit. He was around .200 the first two months and then really progressed. I think in the future he will hit around 15 to 20 home runs and drive in around 75 to 80 runs.
Matt Antonelli is being mentioned as the Padres' possible opening day second baseman, which is quite a jump for someone who began the year at High-A. He put up some good numbers with the Missions, but had a very good July and a bad August. What were the reasons for his slump and do you think he's ready now?
Stu Paul: I think he needs at least a little more time. He's a very aggressive base stealer and a good contact hitter. He may have been pushing a little too much in August. To me the big difference between Double-A and High-A is that the pitchers can throw their secondary pitches for strikes.
Two outfielders that have gotten some attention are Will Venable and Drew Macias. How would you describe their games?
Stu Paul: Macias is a very good outfielder, but early in the year, he struggled at the plate. He seemed to be reaching for too many pitches. When he came back from Portland he was a much better hitter. He was hitting the ball much harder. He will hit a home run here and there, but he's much more of a gap hitter and again he's a very good fielder with a good arm.
Venable had a few good hitting streaks, met the ball, didn't try to do too much with it. He was hitting around .300. In the outfield, he's a good athlete. He doesn't have a great arm, but he can get the job done. I would like to see his arm strength pick up a little more along with his power, but I think it will eventually come.
Stu Paul: I liked him. He's 20 years old and has a very good curve. I think he needs more experience. He has a decent fastball and change, and if I were Grady (Fuson), I would hope they would start him here next year.
How about Wade LeBlanc?
Stu Paul: He has an amazing change. Geer, Inman and LeBlanc aren't going to throw hard but all of them know how to pitch and change speeds. LeBlanc's change is incredible; he has a good two-seamer inside and after seeing a diet of changeups the 86 MPH fastball looks like it is coming in at 96.
How about Chad Huffman he seemed to be a little dinged up in San Antonio?
Stu Paul: Chad has a good arm out there; he was a backup quarterback at TCU. I think he could hit some in the big leagues if given a chance and yes, he seemed to have some nagging injuries with us.
Talk about the job Randy Ready did this year.
Stu Paul: Randy did a really good job. He has a great sense of humor and treats his players like men and sticks up for them. He's very patient, really focuses on the fundamentals and makes sure that everyone can play solid defense and knows what is expected of them. He's very dedicated and coached a lot of the players before in Fort Wayne, so he knew what they were capable off.
Although he's pretty calm, he can get excited. I saw him get up in the faces of a few umpires this year. Some people thought he was too patient with some of the players, but he knew what he was doing and it paid off in the end.
Who were your Pitcher and Player of the Year for San Antonio?
Stu Paul: Josh Geer and Chase Headley, no two ways about it.
How about for your top pitching and position prospect?
Stu Paul: I would still have to go with Headley I really liked him. Geer was the ace of the staff but LeBlanc's change is just amazing. I would have to give Geer a little bit of the edge because he has a few more pitches and I really like his presence out there on the mound.