The Year of the Crawdad

I like hyperboles. Can’t help it. I like often unnecessary, flowery descriptions of otherwise mundane objects. I especially like practical and useful hyperboles. In the hands of writers far more capable than myself, a proper hyperbole can give life to a description that may have otherwise been boring. So, I’m inviting all who are interested, go see the 2013 Hickory Crawdads. Bring your best hyperbole.

I expect this to be the most exciting team in the Texas system next year. It should have a roster that indicates the Rangers’ acknowledgement of a lack of impact bats and outfield depth. The Crawdads will be representative of the push Texas made into an imminently changing international market. The Rangers splurged on a few of these kids, and they’ll find out next year if the kids at least have the look of money well spent. There are also some wildcards- kids who are out over their skis a little bit, but expected to perform nonetheless. Hickory is where players are first exposed to a big 140 game season and crappy bus rides, and stadiums with wooden outfield fences. This is professional baseball’s first step and it’s a path littered with the Chipotle wrappers of minor leaguers who stalled out at this point. In short, this is exciting.

So lets name names. First of all, I’ll end the speculation with a bit of wishful thinking. I truly believe (and truly hope) that the big lumber from the ’12 Arizona Rookie League champs makes the jump to full season baseball. I think it’s a given that 6’5” baby behemoth, Joey “Gobbles” Gallo plays third base for Hickory in ’13. He’s a huge kid with unmistakable raw power, a good attitude, and an arm big enough to make the 3rd base throw with ease. He’s also a recent high school graduate whose actions/size in the field may limit his position and whose go-for-gusto swing, without alterations, will be successfully exploited by any decent professional baseball pitcher. It’s going to be a challenge for him and his adjustments and learning will be constant. I think he’ll be joined by the two bonus babies, Ronald “Condor” Guzman, and Nomar Mazara. Reports from the two Jasons (Parks and Cole) were positive about Condor’s footwork and general abilities at first base during Fall Instructs. This is a very good sign, because not only can he not really play any other position, but at 6’6” and left handed, he can essentially just reach out and have the second baseman hand him the grounders he fields. Chuck Knoblauch’s career would have been 3 years longer if Guzman would have been playing first. (rimshot)  As for Mazara, another lefty, I think he makes the jump. Neither of these guys played in Spokane last year, but I think the club will challenge them with a big boy assignment rather than hold them back in extended. If that is the case, for the second year in a row, Texas likely has the youngest player in full season baseball. (Roogie Odor held that honor on Opening Day 2012) Mazara, a typical right field profile, will be 17 when the season begins in 2013. He was born in 1995, so that should make you feel good. Or not. Anyway, let’s assume Mazara plays RF for Hickory in ’13. Now things get complicated. Well, not entirely. I think centerfield is safely Sweet Lew Brinson’s job. People need to get excited ‘bout Brinson. He can hit and field and throw and has shown a little more pop in the bat than what was expected by some. He’s a player and he’s ready for a real season. For whatever reason, maybe teammate continuity, maybe because of his .313/.375/.448 with 15 stolen base Rookie League numbers, I think left fielder Nick Williams makes the leap to Hicktown as well.

Ready for the dilemma?  These guys are outfielders, and in 2012 Spokane had some outfielders too. Guys like Preston Beck, Royce Bollinger, and Chris Garia are likely to be on the Hickory roster. The outfield is crowded and that’s without the X factor of Jordan Akins. The Rangers were aggressive with his 2012 assignment to Hickory, and it didn’t go very well. His approach was profoundly poor, his pitch recognition nearly non-existent, and he remains a raw, tool shed. The Crawdads beat writer, Mark Parker, told me that there were times Jordan would square up a pitch and not only was it always the hardest hit ball of the day, but it bordered on looking dangerous for those who dared get in it’s way. But, do the Rangers promote a kid to the pitcher friendly Carolina League after he hit .199/.224/.323 with 12 walks and 162 strikeouts in the Sally? I dunno. Guess we’ll find out.  As Coach Don Welke famously put it when discussing Akins, “if he’s ever able to put it together, it won’t be normal.”

Some of the lesser known names I expect to ply their trade in Hickory next season are infielders Ryan Rua, Gabe Roa, and Cam Schiller. I think catcher Pat Cantwell begins the season there and boy, howdy, if there’s one kid for whom the door is wedged open for a rapid ascent, it’s Cantwell. The former Stony Brook backstop is known for his mouthy, take-charge attitude on the field and if he can consistently put the bat on the ball in Hickory, he’ll be putting himself in a good position in a catcher-light system. (no, his is nowhere close to Alfaro’s skillset, but he could be a solid, if unspectacular, option down the road)

On the bump there will be some names of note. First up, for me, is CJ Edwards. I mean, come on, the kid was taken in the 48th round. They don’t even have 48 freakin’ rounds anymore! All wires and muscles, Edwards works a typical FB, CB repertoire, and he came out of nowhere, well, actually rural South Carolina and burst onto the scene in 2012 with a combined 85K in 65ip between the rookie and Spokane teams. I’ve been rootin’ for this kid from day 1, he’s from a town called Prosperity for pete’s sake and he may be Hickory’s opening day starter. Joining him in the rotation will likely be 6’6” 220lb kid Jose Valdespina. JV is a massive dude with a + FB that became better as the Spokane season wore on in 2012. His command improved and he maintained his mid-90’s velo. So, yes please. 2012 1st Rd-er Collin Wiles is a distinct possibility to join the rotation, but he could also be Spokane-bound. Conor Sadzeck will be in Hickory and I expect Taylor Texas native Eric Brooks to be a part of the rotation as well. The bullpen should have the interesting velocity monster that is Keone Kela, though I’ve heard rumblings of him starting. Either way, he throws hard as hell and that’s often what you want, right?

So, yes, there are going to be some exciting arms in Hicktown, but you ain’t gonna pay to see the pitchers. Nope, you’re gonna pay to see the bats. Gallo, Mazara, and Guzman are all at least 6’4” 210lbs, and left handed, and I thoroughly expect them to torment some Sally pitchers next year. There are going to be strikeouts and ground outs and put outs, but there are also going to be some blast outs. If you live out there, please prepare the piney woods beyond the right field fences of the stadiums. If it sounds like I am excited about this team, it’s because I am. 2013, the year of the Crawdad.