Q&A with Staten Island Manager Mario Garza

We sat down with Staten Island Yankees Manager Mario Garza for a Q&A session. In part one of this two-part series we concentrate on the hitters, including his thoughts on Ty McFarland and his abilities at second base, what he thinks of the development of Luis Torrens so far, what he likes best about Chris Breen's breakout season, his initial impressions of Connor Spencer, and much, much more.

PinstripesPlus.com: The first guy I want to ask you about is Chris Breen since you've had an opportunity to see him over the years even before managing him this past season. What did you see from him this year?

Mario Garza: I'll start by saying it was really, really good to start seeing what he's capable of. He has a big frame that has raw power that didn't show up all that often in games [in previous years] so it was nice to see him drive the ball this year. I believe he led the league in OPS which is really, really exciting. The two things that really impressed me were his ability to drive the ball and number two, which is something I did not know about him until this year, is his ability to play defense. He's sneaky athletic. That might come across with a negative connotation but he's a really good defender and that kind of took me by surprise in a good way. He's a really good thrower, extremely accurate with arm strength, and I really believe his best position is left field which is a new position for him so it's great to see how quickly became a plus outfielder.

PinstripesPlus.com: You mentioned him driving the ball and we know he's a big dude who is still quite young. Do you think he is just now scratching the surface of what he can do offensively?

Garza: I think so. I think this past year was really big for him. After going through a couple of Extended [Spring Trainings] I'm sure he was beginning to question his ability to reach his potential and I think this year was huge for him to become a little more confident in himself and for the organization to back him a little bit more. I think we're going to see good things from him with power numbers because of that. I think a lot of it is just going to be because he has belief in himself.

PinstripesPlus.com: You mentioned Breen leading the league in OPS. Connor Spencer led the league in hitting. What did you see from Spencer this season?

Garza: I saw incredible hand-eye coordination. The guy has really, really good feel for the barrel. Shoot, it seemed like whenever he needed to get the hit he got the hit. He's a tough out whether it's lefty against lefties or lefty against righties, it doesn't matter. That's the sign of a guy who is going to be able to hit.

PinstripesPlus.com: He didn't hit any home runs though and plays first base. Do you see power developing in his bat or do think that might be some tough sledding for him?

Garza: He's got some raw power but I can't predict with confidence that he's going to hit 20-plus home runs, but I do think that he's a guy who has the chance to hit some home runs. How many I don't know, it's to be determined, but he shows power in batting practice, he's a really good hitter, and he's able to find the barrel. Guys like that you've got to give them the opportunity to hit and just see where it goes. He's such a good hitter. My recommendation to him would be to just keep hitting because you're going to get a job if you keep hitting like he's been hitting. If he keeps hitting above .300 he's going to have a job and eventually when he matures as a hitter he might be able to make those adjustments and pick different pitches in various counts [to drive the ball]. I think he has that ability and we'll see how it plays out.

PinstripesPlus.com: There's been some talk of him moving to the outfield next season. Did you see enough athleticism from him this year to think that he could wind up being a pretty good outfielder?

Garza: I do and I think that's going to be in his best interests, to diversify his defensive abilities. I do think in the outfield he'd be able to hold his own.

PinstripesPlus.com: Let's talk about one of my favorites and I know one of your favorites, Luis Torrens. You've had an opportunity to work with him quite a bit the past couple of years being a former catcher yourself. Where does his development stand right now?

Garza: He's exciting. I have not seen a more natural exchange-throw guy. You saw it Patrick during Instructional League, it was just incredible. It's the best I've seen and I've had some of the top prospects behind the plate. From an exchange-throw, quickness, accuracy, arm strength standpoint he's the best I've ever seen with consistency. What really excited me about him this year though was him being able to make remarkable strides in the areas of receiving and working with pitchers. That's something we really tried to hammer this year, communication with pitchers. For a kid from Venezuela it's obviously difficult to come out of your shell right away and communicate with the American pitchers, and I think the difference between this year and last year and the pride in his defense was huge. He sat next to pitchers in between innings talking about game plan, he worked hard in the clubhouse studying hitters and working with his pitchers, stuff people don't see. His pitchers really gained a lot of respect and confidence in him, which was really fun to watch.

PinstripesPlus.com: Offensively, let's talk about his development at the plate.

Garza: He's special in the sense that there's no panic in his swing and I've said that from the very first time I saw him. You can just see it, he's not the kind of guy that tries to do too much. He'll take what he can get. He's at his best when he's hitting the ball all over the field like many hitters but what he has the ability to do, which can surprise some folks looking at his physical frame, is drive the ball into the right-centerfield gap. He even burned a couple of right fielders straight over their heads this year. The ball carries off of his bat and that's something for a kid his age-- the way the ball jumps off of his bat I do expect to see power numbers develop as he gets older. It might not happen for two or three years but it wouldn't surprise me to see him become a 15 home run per year kind of guy in his early 20's.

PinstripesPlus.com: For me one of the more intriguing guys from your club is Ty McFarland. What were your impressions of him this past season?

Garza: I saw a guy who can hit. I thought we did a really good job in getting him in the tenth round, a guy who can hit. Like Torrens, a guy we just talked about, he's a guy who can hit the ball to all fields with some power. I think he's more of a doubles guy to the opposite field but he can get into some balls and show some power to the pull-side. I tend to think that's going to be his game. He has the ability to spray the ball all over the field but really most of his power is going to come from the pull-side. He's a fifteen a year home run guy I'd say. I think that he has that in him, maybe twenty. He's a good hitter so if he can get on a hot streak I could see him putting up some power numbers that could add up quickly.

PinstripesPlus.com: He doesn't strike out very much.

Garza: No, and it's a really good thing. I think once he matures I'll be curious to see if those strikeout numbers go up a little bit with him driving the ball a little bit more too. With two strikes he's trying to make contact which is a good thing but I'll be curious to see if we can get him to drive the ball more with those two-strike counts.

PinstripesPlus.com: Defensively he played third base in college but played second base mostly for you guys. He's a bigger guy too. Did you see enough from him to think he has the ability to stick at second long-term?

Garza: I think if he can stick there long-term you'd have a lot of value there with the bat. There aren't too many second baseman with that kind of bat. It's a position he's going to have to keep working though. It was new for him and the errors showed it but the kid worked his tail off at learning the new position. He made big strides too from the beginning to the end of the year too. I would like to see more of him there and I really hope he can make that work.

PinstripesPlus.com: Another one of my personal favorites is Thairo Estrada. What did you see from him in 2014, not just in Staten Island but also in Extended Spring Training and Instructs?

Garza: He's exciting like you said. He may be my favorite player that I've ever managed -- he's definitely up there. He's one of the most fun players to manage. It's not just what he does on the field but him as a person. He's a competitor. He's that guy that you don't want in the opposing dugout because he's that guy that's a gamer, a competitor, one of those gritty type players. He can do some things. He's a tough out. His speed actually plays up because of his baseball instincts and intelligence. He's not a Jorge Mateo raw speed guy but he'll steal bases, he'll go first to third, but he has enough speed where he'll get some infield hits. He's a special player. He's got a chance to play shortstop [long-term] all the way through and in some organizations he would but I think you're going to see with a lot of our shortstop talent I think we may see him some at second base and maybe even third base, and even if you needed him to he could probably play some centerfield. That's just the kind of guy he is and he will. He'll do whatever he can to get on the field. Really, what a special kid he is.

PinstripesPlus.com: It seems to me that he's a bit of a sleeping giant in prospect circles.

Garza: I agree 100 percent. He's a tough kid and he wants to win. He doesn't want anybody beating him and he takes losing hard, but then he's also ready to go the next day. He's the kind of guy you want in your clubhouse. You're not going to have any issues with him. He's a coach's dream.

PinstripesPlus.com: The numbers weren't all that impressive from shortstop Vincent Conde this year but what did you see from him?

Garza: One of first things I noticed with Conde was how he can make the shortstop position look easy and that's not something you can say about too many people. He has that ability. It was nice to see a college guy come in there and defensively made it look how it's supposed to look. He made some great defensive plays and he has the ability to make the play in the hole, his arm strength plays up with his release and accuracy. Offensively I don't think we saw what he's capable of. He struggled and part of that was it just being a long year for him. I would imagine that being a big part of it, jumping right from the College World Series to pro ball so I don't want to make any judgments on him offensively just yet. The numbers didn't show great but the ball comes off of the bat well, he's got a good swing, and I think maybe once he's had an offseason to get in better shape some of that bat speed will sustain throughout a whole year. I'd image he'll have a better offensive year next season.

PinstripesPlus.com: With Mateo, Estrada, Angel Aguilar, and others, there seems to be a glut of shortstop prospects at the lower levels. How does Conde fit into the mix in your opinion? Is he a guy who might get lost in that shuffle?

Garza: Well I hope not for his sake. It's going to be real big for him to come out strong in Spring Training and put on a good showing. One thing he has over those guys is he's an experienced college guy and I don't think we would hesitate to push him a little bit faster. I think if he has success that's going to be how it goes for him because I'm not going to lie, yes it will be tough for him if he gets stuck down at the lower levels but if he can make a quick jump from Charleston to Tampa fairly quickly he might have the chance to move.

PinstripesPlus.com: Let's talk about Austin Aune. He just hasn't hit consistently really since he was drafted but did you see any signs from him this year where you like the progress he's showing?

Garza: No doubt. He was one of those guys like a [Chris] Breen -- going to play under the lights gives you a chance to exhale and start to trust yourself again and believe in yourself again after a couple of Extended Spring Trainings and a couple of years of struggling. It was really promising and exciting to see the way he drove the ball as well. He's kind of like Breen in that the ball just jumps off the bat and there's a lot of raw power in there.

PinstripesPlus.com: He had just 15 walks and 97 strikeouts but behind the numbers did you like the approach?

Garza: Absolutely. There's still a lot of swing and miss there but what we did see was a more aggressive approach which is what he needed. I don't really have an issue with his walks at this point. I think he's in a good place right now to where he can believe in himself again and I think that's really, really important. I think he's in a good place mentally.

PinstripesPlus.com: Could the same thing be said about Nathan Mikolas too? His numbers weren't great either.

Garza: He had some big hits for us. The balls comes off his bat nicely but I'm hoping he's able to come back next year and kind of regroup. It was a tough year for him. He never really got comfortable, that's the way I saw it. He does have the ability to hit and hopefully he's going to come back and it was good experience for him playing under the lights. Next year is going to be a crucial year for him.

PinstripesPlus.com: You know last year he was using the whole field more and seemed to be turning a corner. Was he back to being more of a pull-hitter in 2014?

Garza: Yeah, and that goes back to my comment that he never really got into a comfort zone this year. I think he was trying to do a little too much at times, he was trying to get the head out as opposed to staying relaxed and using the field more. Yeah, I agree, in 2013 he was driving the ball the other way and get his base hits up the middle and this year we didn't see as much of that.

PinstripesPlus.com: I know he wasn't on the Staten Island team but you got to see Jorge Mateo in Extended Spring Training and Instructs. Thoughts?

Garza: He's special. Where do you begin? That dude is a special player. I talked to Drew Henson one time and this kind of stuck with me -- he reminds him of some of those elite receivers [in the NFL] as far as athleticism. So when you get a guy like that on a baseball field? My goodness, you have something special. This dude has the ability to be a five-tool guy. It's in there. There's power, speed, he can do anything. I saw him do some things I never thought was possible on a baseball field. One day there was a base hit to right field, and the right fielder threw a perfect throw to third base. [Mateo] cut it off at his shortstop position and ran the runner down who was rounding first base, from the cutoff position on the dirt! We looked at each other and said "I can't believe that just happened". Stuff like that, you never know what you're going to see from him because it's going to be special. I'll probably never see that again unless it's him.

PinstripesPlus.com: Before we get to the pitchers, who at Instructional League stood out for you? It doesn't have to be one your Staten Island guys either, just anybody that comes to mind.

Garza: Who really impressed me was Mason Williams. I am impressed with where he is now compared to -- I hadn't seen him since I had him in Tampa a couple of years ago -- I know that people have been up and down on him and he hasn't exactly lived up to some of the expectations but it seemed he was really in a good spot. It would have been easy for him to not want to be there and to just go through the motions but he really impressed me with the way he went about his business, he was driving the ball and hitting it hard, and I wouldn't close the book on him yet by any means. I think he's a guy that has his best days ahead of him. [Angel] Aguilar also impressed me but he always impresses me. He's a guy who can do some things.

PinstripesPlus.com: One last question on the hitters, especially since you've been down to the Dominican quite a bit this offseason -- congratulations on your new position as the Assistant Latin American Coordinator by the way -- who among the new International signings has stood out for you in the early going?

Garza: Dermis Garcia is a guy who has the chance to be special...just big, big tools. He's a kid that wants to be good too. I'll rephrase that -- he wants to be great. He's a good kid, works hard, a good teammate, and I was real impressed with him.

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