Hello, LSB, and welcome to the 2018 Minor League Baseball season. If you’re like me and the limited optimism you had for the big league club is already nosediving, you too might be jonesing for a little MiLB action, and for you DFW types the RoughRiders fire up their season on Thursday and will provide their usual amount of good clean baseball fun for the summer.
Frisco, much like the 2017 RoughRiders, lacks any top 10 Rangers talent to start the year, but they’ve got a number of 15-30 types and several more generally interesting dudes who you can see a possible Major League role for in the future. The RoughRiders were kind enough to send a few of these guys out to talk to us at media day, and they started things off with the always-interesting skipper Joe Mikulik.
Entering his fourth year as the RoughRiders’ manager, Mik brought his usual extremely-apparent energy and it couldn’t be clearer that it rubs off on his players from what they had to say about him. I think the main thing to take away from what Mik offered was that, again, positional versatility is a heavy focus for the type of roster Mik has been given. There’s really not anyone who you can point to and say “He’s a shortstop, mark it down” so Mik plays everybody everywhere as much as possible in hopes of making his guys as useful as possible before they move on. Michael De Leon, Luises Mendez and Marte, Juremi Profar, they’ll mix their infield positions around, as will Josh Morgan, who will add in some games at catcher as well.
Mik briefly compared Morgan with Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who played the unique MIF/C role for Frisco last year that Morgan will be taking over in 2018. “It’s a tough comparison, you know, the conversion is not easy.” Mik said. “The way [IKF] caught, I thought it was exceptional, for the transition he made… You have to be mentally tough enough to do it, and both of those kids are. In those regards, I think they’re equal.” It’s been rumored that Morgan hasn’t totally taken to catching as smoothly as Kiner-Falefa showed he had last year in Frisco, and if I can put my speculation hat on I think it sounded like Mik knows Morgan has some work to do to get to that point, but a vote of confidence from Mik in the toughness category definitely means something.
What he said about the pitchers is what you might expect, because there seems to be a system-wide emphasis on lowering pitch counts and throwing strikes, and Mik stressed the importance of that, especially for his starters.
After Mik we heard from Wes Benjamin, a pretty interesting lefty who will be making his Double-A debut in 2018. Benjamin spent all of 2017 with the Wood Ducks in High-A, starting 22 games and holding his own. He posted a 3.94 ERA and struck out 7.7 per 9, but most importantly he stayed healthy, taking the bump every six or seven days for the entirety of the year and pitching into at least the 6th inning in each of his last seven starts. Wes said in 2018 he was going to try and focus more on the 4-seamer rather than the 2-seamer in hopes of more swing-and-miss, to go along with a sinker, change, curveball and slider. He seems like a fairly cerebral kid that knows the importance of adjusting at the upper levels, and he mentioned that he was looking forward to playing the seven other teams in the Texas League and the chess match that comes with that familiarity.
Shortly after this he showed off a pretty gnarly Tommy John scar. He had TJ in 2014 in his final year at Kansas, and he had some thoughts about the recent Cole Ragans development. “I went up to him and said if you ever need anything, let me know. We’ve been through the ropes...you notice people who have the zipper [scar], so to speak... so it’s a good talking point, like “Oh wow, so you play baseball, you’ve had this,” so it kind of bonds people together in that sort of way.”
Wes later offered a strong one-liner when discussing how the unknown suburbs of his hometown Chicago are similar to the unknown suburbs of Dallas. “Like, oh, Frisco, I like their melts.”
Speaking of Tommy John, Adam Choplick has had two of them, and like Benjamin he’s a lefty who will be making his AA debut in 2018. He’s got about eight inches on Benjamin and pretty much everyone else, though. The lefty reliever is every bit of his listed 6’8”, and he’s not the tall and lanky type, either. He’s 275 lbs. and the mass of hair he’s added over the winter hasn’t done anything to make him look less imposing. He’s not a dude I’d enjoy stepping into the box against, what with his release point being like three feet away from home plate and all. It sounds like he’s done a hell of a lot of work on his repertoire in the offseason, and, for the time being, will be scrapping his slider in lieu of a splitter he tinkered with a ton in the winter. “I started throwing it towards the end of Down East last year...then over the off season I threw it with a grip for about a month and realized it wasn’t getting any better, so I switched grips, threw it for about a month, didn’t really get better, then I finally found [the right grip], on the third try.” He’ll mix in the new split with a fastball/curve combo that worked very well for him in 2017.
Choplick took over the closer role from Ricky Rodriguez when Ricky was called up from Down East last year, and Choplick said he wasn’t really named the closer so much as he was tossed out there and pitched well enough to claim it. As for Frisco, Choplick said there haven’t been any roles set for the bullpen guys yet, and Mikulik used a myriad of late-inning guys to close games last year, but you gotta figure Chop’s gonna get a major chunk of the late-inning pen work. If he lowers the walk rate while the strikeouts stay steady, he’s got a serious shot at a 2018 MLB debut.
Outside the lines, Choplick has a “Most Interesting Man In The World” level of bulletpoints. He was drafted three times and has had Tommy John twice. He was born and raised in Denton and is the son of two former UNT basketball players, so he’s at home playing in Frisco. He went to OU. He got married in Germany over the winter. And with all the hair, he kind of bears a resemblance to Khal Drogo now. I think those are all the bulletpoints.
Tyler Davis is working on a splitter as well, but it’s a work in progress. He’s an interesting one to watch; he spent the first half of 2017 between Down East and Hickory and wasn’t good for either club, then he was promoted to Frisco and spent the last two months of the season looking very solid with great command and posted a 2.32 ERA in twelve starts. He’ll be part of what looks like a possible 6-man rotation.
Mik didn’t reveal the order yet but Collin Wiles will go in the opener on Thursday night, and Brett Martin will go Monday.
Another lefty making his AA debut, everyone, including Brett, knows that his number one focus this year is health. Martin’s had issues with his elbow, his hips, his back, and when he was healthy in 2017 he wasn’t very good. A 5.40 ERA and a .303 opponents’ average in his last 11 starts for Down East capped off a frustrating year, but Martin is healthy to start 2018 and has worked on getting sound mechanically while spending time with the big leaguers now that he’s been added to the 40-man. “We had these work groups in camp and it was like, Minor, Hamels, Moore, Fister, pretty much the starting five...I would just sit back and watch ‘em, and they’re always doing something. When they come in in the mornings, they would not sit down one time until the end of the day when we left...Just kinda seeing like Hamels’ daily routine, what he does to stay healthy…”
Martin throws a low-nineties fastball and an above-average curveball, and dependent upon his health he could project somewhere between a third and fourth starter with an ETA of late 2019.
Opening Night is Thursday at 7:05 at Dr Pepper Ballpark against the Dodgers’ AA Tulsa. Come out and sit behind home plate and say hi and watch baseball, or otherwise park your rear in an inner-tube and float around the lazy river for three hours. I don’t care, you do you.
I’ll be posting frequent farm updates on the front page and almost-nightly RoughRiders notes in the minor league threads once they get going. Looking forward to getting after it, and glad baseball is back.
Here’s what /had/ to have been Frisco’s most viewed video from last year, mascot/bat dog Brooks form-tackling some whippersnapper and then showing just the utmost apathy.