Factor in some sub-freezing games in April and having to compete with players that were also all-something in college or high school for over 140 games, this is where you begin to find out who can play.
Chronicling it all, as he has for the past three years as the voice of the Wizards, is Mike Maahs. Mike has been involved with the Wizards in some capacity since 1993, and although he also does basketball broadcasts in the off-season, is the embodiment of the term ‘baseball lifer', which means when its spring, he is always going to be around the diamond in some capacity.
This year, the Wizards were a bit different than Padres' fans have seen in the past with some speed and potentially some very good pitching. Mike was kind enough to take some time between his off-season basketball duties and give us his impressions of the final year of the Wizards before they become the TinCaps and move into their new downtown stadium.
What was the biggest surprise with the Wizards this year?
Mike Maahs: The year before was one of the two worst from a wins and losses standpoint. I think Doug (Dascenzo, the Wizards manager) felt more comfortable and it was reflected in the better record this year. The team was more competitive with a little more stability. There was still quite a few player moves, but not nearly as many in previous years. The pitching staff was better, really one of the best I've ever seen here. Many of the guys had worked with Tom Bradley (the Fort Wayne pitching coach) in Eugene the previous year.
We got off to a bad start, won our first game and then lost the next seven, but the team began to pick it up and just missed making the playoffs, which was a big disappointment. We were in contention until the last series and to only fall one game short was something to be positive about.
Offensively, how was this team different from teams that you have seen in the past?
Mike Maahs: The speed factor. There have been other Wizard teams in the past, but not like this. Lance Zawadzki stole 28 out of 31 bases. We had three or four guys that if they could get on could steal a base, which we didn't have in the past. It allowed us to put the opposition on their heels a little. It would have been nice if we could bunt a little better and play more small ball, but still you could see the difference this year. Also, we had the emergence of Felix Carrasco in the first half, which gave us some power. I wish the Padres fans could have seen the show he put on in the All-Star game, three rounds he hit 20 home runs.
How about the pitching this year?
Mike Maahs: As I said earlier, it was probably some of the best pitching that we have had in a long time. I really hope Allen Harrington is able to get healthy because last year he really helped us out. The development of Jeremy McBryde this year was huge – he could become very good. No one knew what to think of Wynn Pelzer because he had to sit out last year with an injury, but he was also something special. Jeremy Heffner was probably our best pitcher day in and day out this year. Our closer Jackson Quezada may have been the biggest surprise this year. At the end of the season, he was the best closer in the Midwest League. I also think getting out of the eight-man rotation, which we had at the beginning of the season, helped out. Once we went to the five-man rotation everyone seemed to relax and understand what their role was.
The biggest position prospect everyone talks about that was in Fort Wayne this year was Drew Cumberland. Do you think he can stick at shortstop and what else did you notice about his game?
Mike Maahs: I thought he had the strongest arm of any infielder, a little erratic, but strong. The whole key with him is he's only 19. I think the key for some of our fans to understand that many of these kids were teenagers who are prospects that have great potential, but they are prospects, not major league players, which is why they are in the minors. Some nights you will see all of their ability, other nights you won't.
I think he is definitely a prospect and besides staying healthy just has to work on all the nuances of playing shortstop. This year, we had three guys that could play short, Drew, Zawadzki and Andrew Parrino. Drew just needs to become more comfortable with certain parts of the game so they become routine, and this will only happen if he stays healthy and gets the reps. Offensively, his big weapon is his speed, and if he stays healthy and learns how to use it effectively, he could become very good. I would also like to see him put on a few pounds, but the best thing about him is he has that type of football toughness that is hard to find.
Lance Zawadzki, who has always had quite a bit of talent, really put together a solid second half. What was the big difference with him and what do you see in his future?
Mike Maahs: I think the biggest difference was Lance knew where he was going to be in the order and where he was going to play on the field. When he started playing more short, he seemed to get more comfortable, which also helped him at the plate. He has some pop in his bat and led the team in extra base hits and stolen bases. In the field, he has a strong arm and some quickness. You have to think he could have a bright future, a switch-hitter with speed and some pop. Right now, he has a little more base running expertise than Cumberland; he really knew what he was doing when he got on. Lance is a very good base runner as opposed to Drew who used his athleticism a little more. I also thought in the second half he became more of a leader and was more vocal on the field and in the clubhouse.
Yefri Carvajal has always gotten quite a bit of attention. What do you think of his potential and how much did you see of it this year?
Mike Maahs: On a scale of 1 to 10 for potential, I would give him a six. Yefri got better as the year went on, and I saw a desire to really work hard, especially on his defense. At the plate, he has to learn to lay off pitches certain pitches and pitch sequences. It seemed like every pitcher in the league would pitch him up and in, then down and away. As the season went on, he got a little better at laying off some pitches. He has good power, but right now he needs to focus on making more consistent contact. He can get some extra bases because of his speed, but the big thing right now for him is to not swing at the pitchers pitch and force them to come to him.
Luis Durango has always been able to put the bat on the ball, but there are some questions about his defense. What did you think of it this year?
Mike Maahs: Offensively, he has unlimited potential. Luis can bunt, is a switch-hitter and has great hand eye coordination. Defensively, I think he relies too much on his speed along with some concentration lapses in the outfield. The big key for him is how much better he can get defensively, which is a big reason why he got sat sometimes by Doug when he wanted a stronger defensive outfield. Defensively, he was probably the weakest of our four outfielders.
Last but not least, Justin Baum very quietly led the team in RBI and was second in extra-base hits. What did you think of him?
Mike Maahs: A good kid. Justin had a great outing in Lansing in June where he knocked in seven runs, with two home runs. He may have the best eye on the team; it seemed he was in so many 3-2 counts, usually when starting 0-2. One of the things he needs to do is not focus on pulling the ball so much. He's a better hitter when he uses the whole field and actually has a little more power. He did have some problems defensively, but has a strong arm. I thought his biggest problem was that he needs to learn to relax a little more out there. So many of his errors were caused by him rushing throws after he knocked the ball down.
I know you didn't get to see Mat Latos that much this year, but when you did what were your thoughts?
Mike Maahs: A world of ability. Although he has a great fastball, Mat needs to develop into a three-pitch pitcher if he is going to stay a starter. He needs a change and has to pick between the slider and curve, but the fastball, wow! I don't think anyone threw as hard as he did in the Midwest League. If he stays healthy, as I said, there is a world of potential.
When I was in Fort Wayne, I was very impressed with Jeremy McBryde's potential. How well did his secondary stuff come along later in the year?
Mike Maahs: He improved by leaps and bounds in the second half. In the last six weeks, he may have been the most dependable starter. He sat behind me all year long on the bus and finally Tom Bradley got through to him that he needs more than one pitch. They kept pointing out that he needed to get ahead in the count and put the batter on the defensive. Jeremy wasn't as consistent in first half of the year because he threw too many pitches. When he started to get ahead in the count, he started to throw the change and slider more instead of trying to blow away guys he was very good. Jeremy really made some strides as the season went on. If he continues learning how to be a pitcher, he could have a big year in Lake Elsinore.
Jeremy Hefner was arguably your best pitcher this year. Why?
Mike Maahs: A good kid and he is going to go places. Jeremy can throw three pitches for strikes – our winning pitcher opening night. This year he threw a game in Lansing for the opening of the second half that was just amazing, one of the best pitching performances I've seen since I've been doing this. It's a confidence factor with so many guys in that it's not going to be just one pitch that is going to get them to San Diego.
Wynn Pelzer and Jackson Quezada both had big years. Could you give Padres fans an idea of what type of pitchers they were?
Mike Maahs: Quezada led the league in saves and games appearances. He just has a confidence about him that he always wants the ball. He would come off of the bus and would always say, ‘I'm going to close the deal.' He can throw the ball hard and low. His change really improved this year, but as a relief pitcher sometimes you can get the job done with one pitch; and the man has a fastball.
Pelzer is a great kid, another guy that just needs to stay healthy. This year he was drilled by a line drive in the head and not only didn't miss a start, came back better than ever. Remember, he lost last season because of a line drive off of his knee in the Cape Cod League. Wynn is just very mentally tough. He's a very intelligent and articulate guy. His best pitch is probably the two-seam fastball. Really, this was the best pitching staff that we have had for a long time.
Who stood out in middle relief? Bryan Oland comes to mind.
Mike Maahs: Talk about set up guys, Bryan Oland may have been that guy. When Doug and Tom would bring him in, he didn't care what the situation was, he was just going to get the batter out. A very mentally tough pitcher, and he threw strikes from pitch one. I think he could have a bright future at upper levels. Between Oland and Quezada, we had the best set-up close combo in the Midwest League.
Last questions who was the batter of the year and the top pitcher?
Mike Maahs: I would have to go with Lance Zawadzki. He was in the lineup every day; hit third, led the team in stolen bases and just has a world of potential. The best pitcher was Bryan Oland who really excelled at his role, got the job done, and allowed so many pitchers to really have a great year, a bridge between the starters and Quezada.
Who was the top hitter and top pitching prospect?
Mike Maahs: I would like to have seen Cumberland stay healthy and see what type of numbers he would have put up in the number two spot. I think he would have hit over .300, played a little better defensively and become even better on the bases. I think the best pitching prospect down the road is Jeremy Hefner. I just see a maturity in him over the other guys. He has the ability to throw three pitches and a willingness to learn and ability to succeed.
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