Ortiz looking to build on momentum

First baseman Michael Ortiz got back on track with a solid 2009 campaign, but the 20-year-old is looking to take an even bigger step forward in 2010. Lone Star Dugout sat down with the Miami native for a Q&A session.

After his first full season in professional baseball, things looked rather bleak for Michael Ortiz.

The Rangers' 28th round pick in the 2007 Draft had an excellent debut summer, batting .302 with eight doubles and three home runs for the rookie-level AZL Rangers.

Ortiz opened his '08 campaign with short-season Spokane, but he was sent back to Arizona after going 0-for-3 with three strikeouts in the Indians' season opener. His struggles continued upon his return to Arizona, as he batted only .256 with a .661 OPS.

Even during his struggles, Ortiz has always been regarded as a tireless worker. Searching for a way to better himself and get out of the slump, he chose to attend Dominican Instructional League after the '08 season.

As Ortiz explains in the following interview, that's exactly where he began to pull out of his slump.

Playing in the AZL for a third consecutive summer in '09, the 20-year-old posted his best performance, hitting .304 with 10 doubles, two triples and two home runs. He also showed some plate discipline, with 24 walks in 49 contests.

The performance earned him a late-season promotion back to Spokane, where he was 4-for-15 [.267] at the plate in five games.

Ortiz's development process has taken some time, but he is beginning to improve in all facets. The first baseman played just one season of baseball at Miami's Palmetto High School, and while the Rangers liked his promise, they realized he was raw at the time they drafted him.

AZL Rangers coaches Bill Richardson and Jason Hart often speak highly of Ortiz's work ethic, and they believe he made huge strides both offensively and defensively this past season.

Lone Star Dugout spoke with Ortiz after he wrapped up a month at Fall Instructional League.

Jason Cole: You just finished up your third season in pro ball. What are your overall thoughts on how it went?

Michael Ortiz: Obviously in my first year, I hit well. Offensively, it was a good year. But defensively, I was new to the position and did the best I could. I worked and worked, but I had to get games in–I made a couple errors.

The second year, I had that downfall when it came to the offense. I didn't hit much. But my defense was much better. I worked on that again.

Then finally, in my third year, I felt like I put it all together. I added some other elements to my game, and I feel that I showed them I can put it all together. It took me three short seasons, but it's better late than never.

It earned me a spot on the Instructional League roster. I went there and tried to carry over what I did during the regular season to Instructional League, and I did. I felt like I did a great job. I'm just going to work from there and keep working. I want to get better every day.

Cole: When you were having those offensive struggles last year, I remember you telling me you thought a lot of the problems were mental. At what point did you start to notice that you were turning it around and getting out of that funk?

Oritz: I finally realized that when I went to Dominican Instructional League. They still gave me an opportunity to go to some form of Instructional League to get some extra games. When I went there, I felt like I had a clean slate from the '08 season. Even though it was just really a month after–it wasn't that much longer. I felt like I could just rewind the tape and play all over again.

I realized that all I need to do is relax, because I know that I'm able to hit. I know that as long as I keep working at it, I'm always going to hit and I'm going to keep getting better. I felt that I had to do so much defensive work that I maybe focused a little too much on defense and kind of slacked off on the hitting. I was thinking that I had it–that I had it in the bag when really, you see these Major League veterans that work years and years and they go into slumps.

When you're in the game, you're always trying to get better. You're never going to be perfect. You've always got to be fine-tuning every little thing every day. I felt that the Dominican gave me a good chance to do that–put it all together. I just carried it over to Spring Training. I just felt that the entire 2009 season for me, I improved in every aspect. Hopefully this year I can do even better. Just keep getting better every year.

Ortiz also improved defensively.
Cole: When you went to the Dominican, did you change anything mechanically, like with your swing or your approach? Or was it just the time off and getting a fresh breath and a change of scenery?

Ortiz: I think it was just the change of scenery and the fresh breath. A new place, a new team, new teammates. I love all my teammates, they're all great. Just the fact that I felt like overall I had a clean slate. I could start fresh and forget about the year before and start here for the next season. I did it there.

As far as mechanics, I've developed a routine. So I just try to do my routine every single day. I never slack off on my routine, because if I do my routine every day, physically and mentally I'll be set. I know I'm ready physically and mentally for the game every day if I do my routine.

But in 2008, I didn't have a routine. As far as offensively, I was still learning what I needed to do–what worked for me every day in pregame. As soon as I figured out a routine that could help me, that's how I turned it all around. I worked with coaches down in Extended Spring Training–Jason Hart, Ryley Westman, Bill Richardson–and all those guys were great at helping me out.

Cole: From talking to coaches and from watching you in the AZL, you were hitting the ball the other way with success a lot more than you had in the past. Was that something the coaches came to you with? Did you do anything that taught you to go the other way more often?

Ortiz: I've hit the ball to the opposite field every now and then. I've shown that I can hit the ball to all fields. But consistently, the biggest change for me was that I got with Jason Hart and he was saying how I should try working on a couple rounds of just hitting the ball up the middle every day. Not necessarily hitting the ball into left field, because you're going to have to hit the ball where it's pitched–inside, outside, or over the middle. But if I stay to the middle of the field, it'll help me hit the offspeed pitches better. That's what I struggled with in 2007 and 2008.

I gave it a try–I just started trying to hit low line drives wherever he pitched it. If he threw it outside, I tried to hit a low line drive to the shortstop. If he threw it inside, I'd go low line drive to the second baseman. I wasn't trying to pull the ball down the line or flare the ball down the left field line. I just wanted to stay up the middle of the field.

It definitely helped me. I hit the offspeed pitches and the breaking pitches much better this year than I ever have before. I think being able to hit the offspeed–pulling the offspeed because I'm early on the ball–helped me take the fastball the other way, just because I'm seeing the ball longer. If I had to stay up the middle in batting practice, I'm keeping my eyes on the ball. I'm not pulling off. Basically, the longer I can see the ball and the better I see the ball, the better I'm going to hit it. That's how everything worked out for me.

Cole: As a reward for your solid AZL season, they did let you go to Spokane for the last week of the season. I know you played one game in Spokane in 2008, but talk about the experience of getting up there after having some success? I know it must have been nice to get away from the complex league thing.

Ortiz: It was great. I knew I was going to be somewhere sooner or later, whether it was this upcoming year–I didn't know if I was going to get that opportunity at the end of this season, but I did, so I'm happy about that. Going there, I took the same routine I had all year. I think I did pretty well there defensively. I think I did real well–I helped the team.

Everything about professional baseball that I'd dreamed of–playing in front of fans, going on the road, and all that kind of stuff–just making your way up the ladder. I felt, for the first time, like I was a professional baseball player.

The three years before, I felt like I was really learning the game. You're not playing in front of fans, there's not people at the games. You're just learning how to play the game right–the fundamentals of the game. And I felt like after three seasons in Arizona, I felt like I had learned the fundamentals. So now I've got to show them that I can do it on a full-season team. It was a great opportunity.

Cole: After putting in all that time and hard work over the last year, how much did it say to you that the Rangers invited you to instructs this year?

Ortiz: It was a great feeling. Bill called me into the office and told me. I have a good relationship with him–he's a good guy. He told me, ‘Hey, they're going to invite you to Instructional League. I'm proud of you.' He's been with me for three years, so he knows the struggles and how hard I've worked to get where I am now. He was happy for me.

It just tells me that they believe in me. They have faith that even though I've spent three years in Arizona–for most players who spent three years in Arizona, it means they can't play at a high level. But I know I can. I showed them that. I feel like them inviting me to Instructional League shows me that they have faith in me. Whatever team they assign me to this upcoming year, I can help a team win. I can have a big role on a team.

Cole: I know you had an injury towards the end of Instructional League this year. What exactly was the injury and how is it feeling right now?

Ortiz: The injury was a strained muscle–an intercostal muscle in the ribs. The back rib area. I couldn't really rotate on it. I hurt it during batting practice. I had been lifting weights pretty heavily during Instructional League, just to get started on my offseason workouts. I was thinking that I was fine.

I thought that I was healthy enough to do it, but once I got the injury, I realized that the seven months in the heat in Arizona and working every day like a dog–if I didn't slow down on the weights, I was going to get hurt. I did slow down–I thought I felt good. And then one day, I was feeling good, so I took one swing and that was all it took.

I strained it and then basically I missed six or seven games. Now it feels 100 percent. I'm already working out every other day. Starting November 1 is when I'm really going to start my program. I'm going to hit the weights all week. I'm going to try and pack on as much muscle as I can. That's my goal.

Cole: We've talked a lot about your defense over the last couple of years. Your coaches in the AZL were quick to point out how far you came defensively this season. Can you expand on that a little bit? Talk about how far you came, and in what areas you progressed the most.

Ortiz: Everything. I needed to work on every part of defense. Obviously, my whole career I'm going to continue to do that. But as far as this year, it was really working on anticipating every play. For me it was mental. I know I have the physical ability to catch and throw the ball. If you can play catch, you can play defense.

The reason why some guys can and some guys can't is the mental part. Do you have the mental capacity for 140 games in a season–every inning and every pitch telling yourself that this ball is coming at me? If you can learn, which I felt like I did, every single pitch of every single game, I'm going to be able to play defense. Anyone can play defense if you just have that mental awareness.

It's hard. Sometimes you're tired. Sometimes your body hurts and you have all kinds of aches and pains. But you have to be able to pull through it and say, ‘Forget all of that. I'm just going to focus on this pitch. Every single pitch of the game.'

It wasn't really certain things that I did. It wasn't drills. I worked hard, and obviously I took endless ground balls and scoops and all that kind of stuff. But it was more mental than anything. Just knowing that I can play defense, and that every ball is coming at me. Once I learned that, that was it. I started playing defense.

Cole: Now that you've got quite a bit of momentum going into this 2010 season, talk about how much you're looking forward to it. Are you looking to break with Hickory? Are you even thinking about that?

Ortiz: I want to say that I would like to break with a full-season team. But right now my focus is mainly capitalizing on what I did this past year and in Instructional League. I want to come in bigger, stronger, and faster–get the physical part down and show them that I'm here to win a job. Just because I had a successful year last year–and I thought I could've done much better.

I'm going to show them that I'm here to take someone's job. I'm here to make a team. I'm not here to play around anymore. I'm not here to stay in Extended Spring Training. I'm here to win a job, start, play well, and help the team win. Right now, my focus is on everything physical. Once I get to Spring Training, I'll turn on the mental part. But for these few months that I'm here at home, I'm just going to try and get as much power behind my swing and behind my arm as I can.

Cole: One final question–name a couple of players that really impressed you at instructs.

Ortiz: Definitely Profar, being how young he is. He's 16-years-old. He showed maturity. I'd say the biggest thing for him is maturity on the field. He plays like a veteran. He doesn't get scared–he's a competitor. I think that's going to carry him far if he works hard. He has got a lot of natural ability, and he's got that competitive spirit. He is going to be a good player for years to come.

And everyone else, I had played with. So it wasn't a surprise. We had a bunch of great players, but none of them surprised me because I had played with them, so I knew what they could do. The only ones I hadn't seen really were Sardinas and Profar. And both of those guys show maturity and promise. They're good players.

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