On hand to catch all of the action was Sean McCall in his 12th year of broadcasting with Lake Elsinore. Anyone who listens to the Storm games will instantly recognize Sean's laid back yet straightforward approach to the game, always emphasizing the positive, but still keeping his listeners informed of what is happening on the field.
As is our yearly ritual, Sean gave us his impressions of the Storm after a long season with baseball still a few months away.
What was the biggest surprise with the Storm this year?
Sean McCall: I'm not sure if it was a surprise, it was just a change of pace from the offense in '07. For me, it's what minor league baseball about, just knowing that every year is going to be a different season. Which is one of the joys of the job, you never know what you are going to get and some of the guys this year were just amazing to watch.
One player that really stood out to us was Kellen Kulbacki who after a slow start just had about as good a three month stretch as anyone I've ever seen. What were your impressions of him?
Sean McCall: I really enjoyed watching him develop into a pro player. What I saw was someone that was getting adjusted, he was injured before the season, and when he joined us in early May, he didn't hit a home run for the first 20 games and ended up being a game from setting the Cal League record for a consecutive game hitting streak; he had an 0-for-2 day with a HBP and a walk midway through. Watching him develop his confidence was nice from the perspective of a fan and a broadcaster. The backspin that he gets on balls that he hits is amazing. I really think the Storm were an injury away from winning the Cal League championship. If Kulbacki hadn't been hurt diving for a ball in right center at the end of August, we may have won it.
Think about it, he hit 20 home runs in a little over 60 games, all legit.
How was he defensively?
Sean McCall: Obviously, he was more known for his bat than his glove, but at the same time, you can see that he really works on his defense. He takes pride in it, is aggressive and those of you that have been to the Diamond know that he wasn't afraid of the wall. During the year he ran right through it to get a ball. He has an accurate and decent arm, and I think a good chance to stay in right field.
Another top prospect that I thought was nearly as impressive was Cedric Hunter, who led the minor leagues in hits this year. How did he look in center field this year and what type of power do you see for him down the road?
Sean McCall: I saw a recent top fifty ranking for minor league players and Cedric wasn't a part of it, which surprised me. What I saw this year was a 20-year-old player that showcased his skills on a daily basis. He gets good reads, jumps, and when he has to dive makes the play. He just plays a very solid center field. He's very confident out there and may have some question marks about his arm, but I really think he can go get it, which is what you look for in a center fielder. At the plate, his strongest attribute is his hands, very good hand-eye coordination and has a consistent at-bat every time. To see him go about his business on and off the field this year was impressive.
Mitch Canham had a good year offensively, especially in terms of plate discipline. How did he look behind the plate, particularly with his throwing?
Sean McCall: It's tough to judge a catcher at this level because so much of the success in throwing is about the team, how well he's working with the pitchers, the type of pitch he gets to handle and so on. I like Mitch and think he is the complete package in terms of his leadership, toughness, and ability to be clutch. He will do whatever it takes to win and every organization needs someone like that. It's still basically a new position for him and is something he needs to work on, which I think he will. He has a very solid work ethic.
Eric Sogard had three months where he hit over .330 and two months at .243. What were the reasons for his swings in performance at the plate?
Sean McCall: In the spirit of the tortoise and the hare, he not only started fast, but finished fast. Really, I think it was just a long season where he took some nicks and bruises, but he still played in 130 games. Eric finished the season with 15 doubles in August. I'm curious how he will do at Double-A. I watched him defensively, and I know he was the PAC-10 defensive player of the year. He has great range going to his left, comes in well and staying healthy and getting better each and every day are huge to him.
Two players that would fit under consistency this year were Hunter and Sogard. They both combined for over 170 RBI. Sogard was also the best bunter on the team and must have had at least 12 bunt singles this year and was in the top 3 in the league in batting until the last day when an 0-for-5 day took him out of the running. All in all, a very solid year.
How was his defense? We spoke with Grady Fuson at the end of the year, and he made the point that Sogard's pre-pitch routine was especially important because he doesn't have great natural quickness.
Sean McCall: I could see some of the points on his lateral quickness, but at the same time he makes plays and that is how you are evaluated in the end. Could he be quicker? Yes, but he has the skill and makes the plays. Will it translate into a major league second baseman? That is what the Padres get paid to decide.
Allan Dykstra came to the Storm late because of long contract negotiations and will probably be with Lake Elsinore next year. Can you give Padres' and Storm fans an idea of what type of player that he is?
Sean McCall: Unfortunately, I only got to see him play in about seven games and it's very difficult to assess what he may or may not be. In his favor, you do have size and plate awareness and that almost always equals potential. I remember he got his first professional hit in Bakersfield and I told him to remember this is where it all began, beautiful Bakersfield (laughs).
I think it was tough to acclimate yourself to this level when you are coming in at the tail end of the season, especially when you factor in the long time between when he stopped playing at Wake Forrest and started playing here. Throw in the fact that he is a first-round draft pick with all the expectations that come with that, and it's a big jump. Let him get adjusted to the environment before we start making any real statements.
Sean McCall: Sam Carter was just a joy to watch this year. He developed so much working with Shane Spencer (Storm hitting coach). He hit three grand slams when he had never hit one before in his life at any level. Most of the year he was our RBI leader, played some outfield and a passable first base; also for the first time in his life. He made some great adjustments as the year went on and certainly earned his opportunity to play at Double-A. Throw in the fact that he is a very likeable person, and he has the whole package.
Brian Joynt joined the team in late May from extended spring training, homered in his first game and never really looked back. He just continued to improve throughout the season. He has good size and can obviously hit, the challenge will be to find the right position for him. Offensively, he had an outstanding year, some big base hits and was averaging nearly an RBI a game. The big question is will he be able to have the same type of success at higher levels.
Coming into the season we thought Drew Miller had as much ability as anyone in the organization and had largely mixed results. What did he do well and what did he struggle with?
Sean McCall: For most minor leaguers, we need to look at this with a proper prospective. The idea is to keep advancing. It's about advancing a level and improving every year. This year, Drew had plenty of innings to get his work in and hopefully he will take these lessons and apply it to Double-A. When you are a prospect that is what you do. When he was on, he would throw his fastball with command, had bite on breaking ball and was effective with the change. I thought he showed good poise when things didn't go his way, and he grew along the way. There were moments when I thought he was a Top five prospect but other times when he struggled in the typical minor league way.
During the year, there were times when he left the ball around the plate too much and was easy to run on, but those things are going to happen at this level. In the end, I thought if you win 10 games and make 25 starts that is a good sign. But, I do think the Padres might want to see more consistency on a regular basis.
Tell us something about Mike DeMark, who was the Madfriars.com Pitcher of the Year.
Sean McCall: I'm thrilled for him and think the way he finished at Double-A gives him great confidence for the off-season. It's not that far away from San Diego, and he's someone that I believe feels he has to prove himself even more as an Independent League player and converted position player. Mike has a good arm and good fastball and slider. I'm not sure if dominated is the appropriate word, but he definitely showed what he is capable off.
Rolando Valdez is a converted outfielder that moved into the rotation in July and pitched as well as anyone on the Storm. What made him so successful?
Sean McCall: Had about a stretch where if you throw out one start, he was 6-0 with a 1.30 ERA. Out of the pen, he was good, but once he found his groove as a starter, he was very good. He has a good fastball, throws strikes with a plus change and has an effective breaking ball.
Nathan Culp seems like the quintessential innings eater, lefty that keeps the ball down and relies on control. What made him so successful and where did he struggle?
Sean McCall: Nathan is successful with his confidence and ability to work quickly on the hill. He gets his grounders; he had 19 double plays behind him this season. He's around the plate so he is going to give up some hits. Although he is not afraid of contact, if he misses, he will get hurt. To me, the big thing is he is paid to get wins and he's had 27 in the last two years. Where does he fit in the Padres plans? To be determined. Nate walks less than a guy a game, which is what you like. He deserves a chance to be tested in Double-A.
Sean McCall: Wilton is someone that has good stuff, but likes to rely a little too much on his fastball and hitters sometimes took advantage of it. If he changed speeds a little more often and wasn't as stubborn, I think he could become a little more effective, especially in the closer's role when there is so much on the line. I'm rooting for Wilton to throw a few more off-speed pitches next season.
I love R.J. He was such a key component in the playoff run in ‘07, but in '08, he didn't have the same command or confidence. He was moved out of the closer's role, but still pitched well in relief as the season went on. He finished up ‘08 with more confidence, and I think he has a nice future. R.J. has a good fastball and change and is a fierce competitor.
Anyone else stand out for you on the mound this year?
Sean McCall: I thought are relievers did an outstanding jobs. (Brandon) Gomes did a good job. (Former pitching coach Wally) Whitehurst changed his arm slot, which allowed his velocity to pick up and he had a 6-to-1 K-to-walk ratio this year. Evan Scribner, who was part of the Tony Clark trade, helped us out too. He not only pitched for us, but also against us this year. He went 2-1 with a 31-to-3 K-to-walk ratio and has a solid fastball and curve combination.
Last questions who was the batter of the year and the top pitcher?
Sean McCall: I only get one, so I'm going to pick Cedric Hunter as the batter or position player of the year. His contributions defensively and offensively were among the best in the Cal League. I certainly would put a star on Sogard and Kulbacki as well.
For pitchers, I have to go with 14 wins and Nathan Culp, just a consistent player. Fans and broadcasters like his fast work on the hill.
How about the top hitting and pitching prospects?
Sean McCall: I just think that Kellen Kulbacki is an untapped commodity. He has shown the ability to do it all, hit for power, average and drive in runs. That is not take away from Hunter and the ‘old' man is 23, but what he showed in that stretch, he didn't play in April or hit a home run in first 20 games, but that three-month stretch was good enough to get him named a full season All-Star. If an injury didn't derail him, we may have won a championship.
I don't know where DeMark will finish but for a player in the Independent League and chasing the dream, I am going to root for him in spirit of potential and prospects. Although he's 25, he has a young pitching arm and you have to like his poise.
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