Batavia Muckdogs Partnership With Minor League Baseball Primed To End

The city of Batavia, New York has known baseball for over a century. After the founding of a team in the city in 1897 during the playing tenure of Jack Burns, the franchise has seen names such as Doc Ellis, Cito Gaston, Manny Sanguillen, Ned Yost, Andy Ashby, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and, most recently, some of the Marlins’ brightest budding stars don its garb. But despite how rich its history in the game is, the county of Genesee may have seen its last MiLB affiliated game played on its surface at Dwyer Stadium.

Since 2008, the financial funding situation for the Muckdogs has been a unique one. With the team up for sale due to financial losses from the non-profit Genesee County Baseball Club, the nearby Rochester Red Wings volunteered to operate the club.

“The Genesee County Baseball Club became strapped for funds and in order to sae baseball in Batavia, the Red Wings offered to manage the club under Red Wings Management,” Red Wings’ Director of Communications tells us.

In return for running the team, the Red Wings would gain a share of the team’s ownership with each passing year. That share was set to cap at 50% this past season. Despite another very generous offer from the Red Wings to virtually run the team for free, it was decided on December 19 that, with the GCBC unable to satisfy their half of the team ownership agreement, the franchise would be surrendered to the New York Penn League.

“The Red Wings will receive 50% of the sale price (5% per season of operation for a maximum of 10 years,” Rowan said. “We still offered to operate Batavia next season and were denied.”

If a new Muckdogs’ owner cannot be found, the league has stated that there is no guarantee the team will play in 2018. In the ten years the team has been up for sale, only one suitor has come along but was denied purchasing power because of its intent to relocate the franchise to Bowie, Maryland, a territory occupied by the Orioles’ Bowie Baysox.

Lack of interest in buying the Muckdogs may be being driven by the condition of their park, Dwyer Stadium. As a frequent visitor of the park built in 1996 and baseball photographer, Mike Janes points out to us, it isn’t the age of the stadium that is problematic; it is the lack of improvements and upkeep of it that have led baseball fans to seek a more desirable experience.

“Dwyer is a throwback to what Minor League Baseball used to be,” Janes said. “The park doesn’t have a ton of amenities that newer parks have. There is room for improvement throughout but that could be done drastically for very little as compared to building a new stadium somewhere else.”

Going into further detail on the state of Dwyer Stadium, Janes states that the stadium is in definite need of some TLC but also says that all of the improvements needed could be completed at a reasonable cost. Overall, Janes says that although the atmosphere is different from most newer stadiums, it isn’t a long ways off from being a competitor in the crowded northern New England baseball market. However, the financial situation surrounding the team with GCBC operating completely off of donations and volunteer work and the Red Wings running the team at a loss while also having a primary objective to their own baseball team, the work the park needs is simply not monetarily possible. According to Janes, fans have worked together with GCBC in order to give the park the facelift it needs but those efforts always seem to fall by the wayside.

“Dwyer is hard to compare to other places since most others are in bigger cities but even in its current state, it still manages to stack up against others,” Janes said. “In general they need a massive cleaning, painting, many seats need replacing (city put in some new ones few years ago), and just bringing it back to what it should of been all along. Small group of fans have been discussing doing a volunteer cleanup for years, but nothing ever materializes. Auburn which has an identically aged stadium as Batavia uses local prisoners to clean the park. That was also suggested by a season ticket holder but hasn’t happened.”

While the conditions of Dwyer from a fan’s perspective are subpar but not terrible, life through a player’s eyes there is quite grim. As one former Muckdogs player tells us, despite great support from Batavia fans and natives, due to the state of the field and clubhouses at Dwyer, the team perferred and eagerly awaited the occasions they got to play at other New York Penn League venues.

“The people of Batavia are nothing but supportive and invested in us as players and that was really nice to have that support system day in and day out. When we’d walk around town, people would always wish us good luck,” he said. “Other than that, though, the facilities definitely gave us a little extra adversity to deal with compared to some of the other teams in our league. We would always look forward to road trips because the fields we played on when we traveled were almost always better than our home field and the same could be said for the hotels. I really think a move would benefit the club.”

With the decision now in the hands of Minor League Baseball as to the future of the Muckdogs, there is nothing left for the city of Batavia to do but wait. While an exodus by the MiLB from a city and group of fans synonymous with baseball for centuries would be heartbreaking, it wouldn’t necessarily mean the death of the Muckdogs altogether. Because the GCBC own the rights to the team’s name and logo, the ‘Dogs could find partnership in either the independent or amateur ranks. But as for the MiLB, from a business standpoint, if a potential owner does not rear its head and very soon, relocation is hard to argue against. Expect the resolution from the league to be announced in the coming months ahead of the start of the short season in June.

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Rating The Return: Dee Gordon To Seattle For Nick Neidert, Robert Dugger, Christopher Torres

Two weeks ago, Derek Jeter and the new Marlins regime began the rebuilding process by trading second baseman Dee Gordon, the final four years of his five year, $50,000,000 contract and international bonus pool cash to the Mariners for three minor leaguers.

Before we look at the pieces coming back to the Marlins, I’d like to pay tribute to one of the most exciting and likable players to ever pull on a Marlins’ jersey. A maximum effort player in every at bat and every inning, Dee leaves the Marlins as the franchise’s second best for-average hitter (.309), its fifth best triples hitter (23), its fourth best stolen base man (148) and eighth best defensive WAR player (2.7). He was also center stage for one of the Marlins’ most magical, storybook moments. On September 26, 2016, the game after Jose Fernandez‘s untimely passing, the left-handed hitting Gordon, wearing Jose’s helmet, stepped into the box right-handed and took the first pitch of the game as tribute to his friend. On the next pitch, this happened.

It is a moment that will live on forever, not only in Marlins lore but in the spirit of baseball, teammateship and the bonds of botherhood it brings forever. For that memory and the many others he brought the Fish, Dee Gordon will forever be enshrined in the minds of Marlins fans everywhere. And we are all grateful to him for that.

Now on to the return, three young men who hope to one day make their own legacy in a Marlins’ uniform.

RHP Nick Neidert


2017 (A+-AA) – 127.2 IP, 3.45 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 122/22 K/BB

The centerpiece of the return, the Mariners’ 2015 second rounder spent most of 2017 in A+ where he racked up 10 wins via a 2.76 ERA and 22.1 K/BB%, all tops in the California League amongst pitchers who tossed at least 100 innings. At the end of the year, he got his feet wet in AA which is where he should begin his Marlins career. Despite limited 6’1″, 200 size, Neidert creates advantageous deception by hiding the ball behind his plant leg and following through to the plate lightning quick. The delivery is extremely fluid, smooth and repeatable which should allow Neidert to continue to work deep into starts.

The 21-year-old has four usable pitches, all of which are either already Major League quality or show similar potential. His heat sits around 90-93 but he can ramp it up to 95 at will. Formerly a straight and narrow offering, Neidert is beginning to plane the pitch, giving it better movement and creating a fifth pitch sink piece, a great commodity for the 3/4 release point control artist he looks to be blossoming into. This past season, improved arm speed allowed Neidert’s 84-87 MPH changeup to move past his 72-76 mph curve as his best offspeed pitch but both offerings have plus-plus potential and give him a nice 20+ mph velo mix. While the 9.4 K/9% Neidert posted in A+ last year should temper a bit when he gets to the upper minors and beyond, his deep arsenal, high arm slot, and pinpoint control give him a great chance to develop into a ceiling 2-3 rotational starter by as early as 2019. Neidert should easily be ranked among the Marlins’ top 10 prospects this coming season.

RHP Robert Dugger


2017 (A-A+) – 117.2 IP, 2.75 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 116/32 K/BB

Dugger is a 22-year-old righty who began his pro career at Cisco Junior College where he was teammates for the first time with Marlins’ draftee James Nelson. He spent two years at Cisco, throwing 133.1 IP and producing a 4.86 ERA. While those numbers don’t fly off the page, he did hold down good control numbers, posting an overall 2.32 K/BB, including a 3.06 marker in his sophomore season. Those figures punched Dugger’s ticket to Texas Tech for 2016. There, against much stronger Big 12 competition, Dugger pitched in relief but also pitched much truer to his potential, holding down a 2.67 ERA over 60.2 innings. The good control persisted as he posted a 54/23 K/BB.

Upon being drafted by the Mariners in the 18th round, Dugger bounced around from rookie ball to A ball to AAA to end his year but most of his time was spent with the Everett AquaSox. There, he made six starts and threw 26.1 IP to the tune of a 5.47 ERA as he clearly went through a stark adjustment process, going from throwing 70 JuCo innings a year previous to throwing the last 38 out of a total of 99 innings against professional hitters who were on average nearly two years his elder. This past season, the Mariners returned Dugger to single A and transitioned him to the bullpen in order to reduce strain on his arm and allow him to work on pitching around the plate rather than living over it. His arsenal features a low-90’s fastball, a high-80’s changeup and a mid-70’s curve. He has a good feel for all three pitches and controls them well, though the release point on the curve is a bit inconsistent at the moment but again, he needs to develop better command if he is to make it as a starter. His biggest hinderance lies in his tendency to fall off to his glove side on the follow-through of his windup delivery. Dugger is much more effective out of the stretch where after a high leg kick, he is extremely quick to the plate. While there is still time for the bespectacled 22-year-old to work on becoming a corner painting Rembrant-style to-contact back end starter, the more likely scenario is that he is converted to a full-time reliever.

SS Christopher Torres


2017 (ROK-A) – .238/.329/.446, 69/28 K/BB, 22 XBH, 14 SB

Torres is a 19-year-old infielder out of the Dominican that had quite the interesting start to his professional career stateside. Then 16, Torres came to America with a deal in place from the New York Yankees for seven figures. However, due to severe weight gain, New York apparently backed out of the deal. The Yankees deny they ever had a deal in place with Torres. Whatever the case, Torres eventually agreed to a deal with the Mariners worth much less, $375K. Since then, Torres spent two seasons in rookie ball posting a .253/.374/.358 (with most of his success coming in the Dominican Summer League back home) before playing in short season A last year where he slashed .238/.326/.435 and placed second in the Northwest League in triples (6) and seventh in runs (44). He was also 13/16 in stolen base attempts. Clearly, Torres’ most advanced skill is his raw speed and good instincts on the bases but he will need to work at making better decisions with the bat (64/25 K/BB last year) if he is to make it as the tablesetter he projects to be. Despite weighing in at just 5’11”, 170, the switch-hitting Torres will show surprising pop when he does barrell up.

Torres earned high praise for his defensive abilities headed into the international draft. He did suffer an arm injury in his rookie season in the DSL, a contributing factor to his 34 errors in his last 88 games. Still, there is believed to be plenty of room for growth.

Combine Torres’ quick feet with a good first step towards the ball off the bat in the field, his line drive contact capabilities and the ability to turn anything that drops into extra bases, and — though it will take some time — there is five-tool potential here. Torres should slot in somewhere in the Marlins’ top 15 prospects this season.

From the outset, it looks like just another salary dump for the Marlins who rid themselves of 2015’s NL batting title winner, a perennial 50+ stolen base guy and a lockdown fielder up the middle. And while that clearly was Jeter’s goal, Miami did get back three quality pieces, one of which is a 3-5 slot starter that is but a year — if that — away from his MLB debut and one of which could develop into a cornerstone shortstop. Throw in Dugger who’s future is unknown at this point but will, barring injury, undoubtedly include MLB service time and this is an equitable return.

Grade: B

2017 Minor League Player Of The Year – Brian Miller

Mark Prior, Jason Marquis, Jayson Nix, Brian Jordan. These names make up an esteemed class of MLB draftees who have made a profound impact on the game after they were selected with the last pick of the first round of their respective drafts. After being drafted in that same slot last season, outfielder Brian Miller took a huge leap towards joining that group.

Reading up on Brian Miller’s background you might learn that after going undrafted he made the North Carolina Tarheels as a true walk on. However, as Miller tells us, it wasn’t exactly like that.

“It was actually a little different than a typical walk on situation. I ended up doing a workout for one of the assistant coaches at Carolina in the early summer, then they offered me,” Miller explained. “They added me to their class as a late addition because they were going to lose a lot of high school commits to the MLB draft. So I was technically a preferred walk on. I didn’t have to do a tryout during the year or any of that stuff to “make” the team.”

Despite not having to go through a formal try out though, Miller still had to prove himself worthy of cracking one of the nation’s best baseball programs. That would happen a little later that summer when he was amongst nearly 50 players trying to crack a 25-man roster.

“We had like 44 guys on the team in the fall, and had to cut it down to 35 by the end of the fall,” Miller said. “The whole fall felt like my actual tryout.”

Miller made the team as the Tarheels’ starting center fielder and proceeded to hit .288/.375/.326 as a freshman. He stole 10 bags in 12 attempts and was second on the team in K/BB% with a lowly 0.84 marker (16/19). A native of Raleigh, North Carolina, Miller often spent time on the other side of the fence at Boshamer Stadium, dreaming of pulling on the Carolina blue and white. Now, that dream was a pleasant reality, even if not in the way Miller envisioned it.

“North Carolina was everything I could’ve asked for as a baseball program and school as a whole,” Miller said. “I’ve been a huge UNC fan since I was very little so it was definitely a dream come true being able to go there. Growing up going to games and being around campus a lot I sort of formed my own image about what it would be like to go there, but then when I actually fulfilled that dream I realized the experience was a lot different than I had expected… in a good way!”

After his solid rookie campaign, Miller took his talents to the Coastal Plain League where he placed second in BA (.389) and led the league in OBP (.476) via its most hits (77) and also racked up a league-most 38 steals. He parlayed that to his sophomore year at UNC, where he absolutely exploded, hitting .345/.440/.469. His batting average ranked amongst the top 15 in the ACC, his 21 steals (in 26 chances) ranked fourth in the conference and his 56 runs scored ranked 10th. The 19-year-old continued to exhibit excellent plate vision, posting a 0.85 K/BB, a nearly identical mark to that of his rookie year and in almost 100 more ABs. During that breakout year, Miller started to become acclimated with the close-knit fabric that binds that UNC Baseball program together. According to Miller, it was a major catalyst in his success.

“There’s a huge feeling of comfort at UNC knowing that you’re a part of such a tradition of winning and excellence on and off the court/field. I think all of my teammates and peers would agree with that feeling. I can say very confidently that if I hadn’t played ball at UNC I would be no where near the player I am today,” Miller said. “The knowledge, resources, and facilities that we have access to helped me grow tremendously as a player in all areas of my game.”

After a .327/.369/.387 showcase in the 2016 Cape Cod League, Miller’s comfortability and compatibility with the UNC program continued to show true in his junior season last year when he hit .343/.422/.502. The biggest addition to his game here was a surplus of power as he slammed seven homers after managing just two in his first two seasons at the collegiate level. Once again, the emphatically patient Miller walked more than he struck out (38/35 BB/K), and he continued to be a menace on the basepaths where he added another 24 steals in 30 chances. He appeared on multiple ACC leaderboards including BA (11th), total bases (136, 9th), steals (2nd), hits (93, 2nd) and runs (61, 5th). All of it came in 271 ABs, most in the league. Miller was a key contributor to the Tarheels’ 23-7 record, their division title and their #11 ranking in the nation. Indeed, Miller and the rest of his UNC teammates did big things that year, but if you ask any of them, including Brian, they will tell you they weren’t the least bit surprised in themselves. According to Miller, the team is accustomed to success and counts on it day in and day out. According to Miller, this attitude had a profound impact on his career.

“The ideology surrounding the program is just to win and compete,” Miller said. “We expect to win and once I was surrounded by other players and coaches that embodied that mindset it really helped me improve as a baseball player.”

Enter Draft day 2017. Miller, by way of his five-tool type junior year, entered projected to go off the board in the second round only to hear the Marlins, with their competitive balance pick, call his name in the first round, 36th overall. Yes, the same Brian Miller that went unrecruited out of high school had become a first round draft pick. However, while he admits it was exciting hearing his name get called so early in the draft, Miller says his draft stock wasn’t really a concern while he was playing for UNC. Instead, Miller had his sights set on making his friends and family proud.

“Getting picked in the first round was pretty cool, but it’s not really a goal I had all along because I just wanted to play for a team that valued me and gave me a chance to succeed,” Miller said. “There are a lot of very very good baseball players that didn’t get picked that high and will have great careers. Your junior year there’s so much noise out there about you as a player or where you might get picked. I was very blessed to have great friends and family around me that helped me tune all of that out and just play as hard as I could for my school.”

Upon being selected, the Marlins forwent sending Miller to short season Batavia and instead sent him to full season A in Greensboro. This was music to Miller’s ears as it was a short 80 mile trek from his home in Greensboro and an even shorter 50 mile hike from Chapel Hill, meaning he would continue to be surrounded by his friends and family and could keep reaping the benefits of his college coaches’ expertise.

“Being close to home was such a blessing,” Miller said. “Having my parents and other family/friends at a lot of games was a really cool environment to start my career in.”

Feeding off the in-person support of his family and friends, Miller, despite being over a year younger than the average South Atlantic League player, started his big league career by slashing .322/.385/.416. He tore up the basepaths, stealing 21 bags in 27 attempts and scored 42 runs, quickly solidifying himself as the Grasshoppers’ leadoff hitter. Though he admits there was a noticeable leap in the opposition’s skill level that he had to adjust accordingly, Miller credits the successful start to his big league career to the time he spent facing some of baseball’s top rising stars in the ACC such as fellow 2017 first rounder Brendan McKay (Tampa Bay) and 2016 second rounder Connor Jones (St Louis) and picking the brains of his star rotational teammates, Astros’ 2017 first rounder Jacob Bukauskas who owned a 3.06 K/BB at UNC and Cardinals’ 2016 third rounder Zac Gallen who posted a 3.67 K/BB in Tarheel blue.

“The competition level was definitely a step up from college ball but I think the ACC helped prepare me for mostly everything I faced this past season in Greensboro,” Miller said. “I wasn’t really familiar with many pitchers or players in the SAL, so it took a little bit of time to adjust to how different teams and pitchers like to throw. There are some really good players in the SAL and it was fun being able to compete against them all for a few months.”

A contact-or-bust singles swinger, Miller uses his plus-plus jets to collect extra bases. He exhibits fantastic plate vision and patience via a knowledge of the strike zone well beyond his years, allowing him to work at least deep and usually favorable counts. Miller’s swing is one of the quickest in Miami’s system. Using his excellent vision, he is able to wait out the break of a pitch and follow it all the way to the back of the glove. When he engages, Miller’s swing flashes through the zone straight and narrow. His split stance allows him to step both in and out to his contact point and allows him to barrel up virtually any pitch on either side of the zone. All of that sounds and is great. But if you ask Miller himself, his mechanics are so soundly second-nature that he isn’t concerned with them. Instead, he approaches his at-bats with a very simple, refined attitude.

“My approach is pretty simple in the box. I just try to be on time and hit a ball hard up the middle of the field. I think always staying to the middle of the field puts me in a good position to succeed because it helps me hit any pitch at any location in the strike zone,” Miller said. “Also, when I mishit a ball I have a good chance of beating it out with my speed because the middle guys have to move the most and sometimes make far throws on the run.”

Where Miller wants to do the most of his offensive damage and where he believes he can disrupt the game most advantageously is on the bathpaths.

“When I’m on the bases I’m always trying to steal,” Miller said. “I always want the defense to be on their toes and feel pressured, which can also help my teammate in the box get a better pitch to hit if the pitcher and catcher is concerned with throwing me out.”

Miller uses that same speed to cover ridiculous ground in the outfield, making him one of the best range defenders in the system, rivaling the likes of teammate Aaron Knapp and former/future teammate Corey Bird. If the Marlins’ current system is rich with one thing it’s speedy, top of the order outfielders. However, due to left-handedness, his pre-pro pedigree and his untenable patience and the fantastic beginning to his career, Miller may have the highest leg up on all of them. While the recently turned 22-year-old only competed in 57 games worth of affiliated action last year and while he will have to prove that he can endure a full season’s worth of games, due to his coming virtually out of nowhere, turning into a first round draft pick, skipping short season ball and becoming one of the Greensboro Grasshoppers’ most valuable players, Brian Miller earns our Minor League Player of the Year Award. We expect this will be the first of many times you hear his name this coming year. He should start the season in Greensboro (after a possible spring training invite) but with continued success, could move up to A+ Jupiter by the midseason mark.

Jose Fernandez: One Year Later

There’s an old saying that goes, “When it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go.” No one disproves that statement better than Jose Fernandez, a young man so full of life it seems a sin and 365 days later, still seems impossible that it was taken from him and that this seemingly innocent, playfully childish and infinitely joyful soul is no longer turning everything he touched from a baseball to other’s lives to pure gold.

On the afternoon of September 22, 2016, my girlfriend surprised me with an early birthday present: tickets in Diamond Club at Marlins Park. For those unfamiliar with the stadium, these are the all-inclusive seats directly behind home plate that can and usually do cost upwards of $200 a game. From the seats, you can easily peer down into the Marlins’ third base dugout. As players started filing from the clubhouse, a young group of autograph seekers sitting just above the canopy called to each of their heroes. While some stopped to sign a few and exchange a quick pleasantry, Jose Fernandez went above and beyond expectations. Not only did Fernandez ink every peice of memoribilia presented to him from one side of the dugout to the other, he invited fans who asked for a photo with him to traverse a small set of steps to the right of the dugout and just to the left of the backstop screen. This wasn’t just a case of catching Jose on a good day; this was who Jose was: a man who wanted to share the happiness and joy life in America and in baseball had given him with as many people as possible. There is little doubt that seeing that joy in others, making their day, creating smiles and hearing laughter was more paramount to Jose Fernandez than his own well-being. Watching Jose on the mound and in the media, you became a fan. After one two minute interaction with him, you felt like family. The effect he had on others was just as incomparable as his stuff on the mound.

After the National Anthem was sung and he returned to the dugout, Jose took up his normal alter on the right side of the bench in his high chair against the railing. This two minute span between the anthem and first pitch was the most use that chair would get. You see, even though he only physically took the field once every five nights, his teammates took him to the field with them every single night. The first to get to his feet when the ball was hit deep, the first to raise his arms when a big out was about to be recorded and the first in line to greet a teammate with a congratulatory celebration on their triumphant return to the bench, Jose was invested in every game just as much as he was invested in his own starts. There were no days off. This is who Jose was: a man who cared about the success of others as equally if not more than he was concerned with his own virtue. The Marlins took Jose with them to the mound those nights, they have done so every day since last year’s tragedy and they will do so forever. That’s the legacy he would have wanted and the legacy he has successfully created. Even in the afterlife, Jose Fernandez has remained successful. After all, I don’t even think Jesus Christ himself could touch that slide piece.

However, as selfless as this man — the same one who, as a teenager, jumped into the middle of the ocean to save his mother from drowning — was, he was still a human being. And human beings make mistakes. When I heard the news of Jose’s choices that night after his start was pushed back and after he had a disagreement with his girlfriend, I was admittedly awash with emotions, confusion and anger included. Those same emotions overcame me months later when the toxicology reports were released. However, on both occasions, I refused to let one night of bad decision making trump a lifetime of altruistic nobility. Retire the number, build the statue, name the street, make a spot for him in the Hall Of Fame. He’s more than earned it. He more than deserves it.

One year and I can rewind the events of that day and week in my head with perfect accuracy. How I refused to believe the news when it was first reported, how it was confirmed to me by a former member of the board of directors who frequented my place of employment, the usual party-like atmosphere of the ballpark being replaced by that of a funeral on September 26, every tear I shed into the concrete underneath my seat in right field at the sight of every player donning ’16’, at the sight of Dee Gordon barely being able to round the bases following his lead off homer and at the visual of 30+ Marlins hats left on the field by Jose’s brothers on the spot where he was king, I can tell you about it all. What I can’t tell you is when this wound will heal or if it ever will. As fresh as it still is, it cuts even deeper when I think of the pain in the hearts of Jose’s family including his beloved Abuela and his mother. It seers when I see the face of Penelope Fernandez, a child who will grow up never knowing her father and how miraculous he truly was to know. The search for solace is never an easy quest but one place where young Penny and the rest of the Fernandez family can go is to the memories of Jose being the best at everything he set out to do from dominating his craft on the mound to being a good teammate to being a good friend to being a good son and grandson. And there is no doubt he would have succeeded just the same as in fatherhood. As fans, Jose’s extended baseball family and the innumerable masses whose lives Jose touched, we can find peace in knowing that by never taking one hour of any day for granted and by filling each one with as much joy and happiness then projecting that unto others, he lived well beyond his years and his spirit will live on in each of us that came to know just how incredible he was forever.

To the greatest baseball player I’ve ever had the distinct privilege of getting to know, of getting to watch grow, of getting to watch dominate the game both on the field and off, continue to rest well. You were good, kid. You were good.

Who Is Osman Gutierrez?

This past month, the Marlins gave troubled starter Tom Koehler (1-5, 55.2 IP, 7.92 ERA, 1.72 WHIP) a change of scenery by trading him north of the border to the Blue Jays for a virtual unknown, Osman Gutierrez. I teamed up with Matt Weber and Tom Dakers of Bluebird Banter to scout and place a potential value on this 22-year-old righty.

Gutierrez, a native of the Dominican Republic, was part of the same international draft as part of the same international draft that brought the likes of Yu Darvish, Yoenis Cespedes, Rougned Odor and Roberto Osuna to Major League Baseball. He was signed by the Jays at a time where their GM Alex Anthoupolous had money burning a hole in his pocket.

“From when Anthopoulos was hired in late-2009 until the hard restrictions on amateur spending with the 2011 CBA came into force in 2012, the Blue Jays were really aggressive in the spending in the draft (heavily skewed to high school pitchers) and internationally.” Matt told me.

Matt’s claim is backed up by the fact that Toronto, in the international draft alone, spent upwards of $20,000,000 in that three year span. Gutierrez himself, a late round pick, cost Toronto upwards of $200,000. In the coming years, while his fellow international selection names like Osuna and Hechavarria and his minor league teammate stateside draft names such as Syndergaard, DeSclafani and Nicolino quickly established themselves as legitimate prospects and began a quick journey through the minors, Gutierrez, due to both his still teenage years and the pure rawness of his talent, remained in rookie ball in the Dominican for three years and rarely saw the mound in the first two. However, after holding down an impressive 1.91 ERA in 47 innings and 10 starts in 2014, he was able to make it to North American ball by his age 20 season, quite average for a player of his B type caliber and quite advantageous considering the amount of high priced talent the Jays were currently circulating. Clearly, the organization saw something in this kid.

Gutierrez came to the US in 2015. It was then during his tenure in the GCL that his reinvention began and coaches got to work on teaching him how to pitch strategically rather than allowing him to continue leaning on simply blowing his stuff past the opposition, a transformation many amateur picks undergo in order to make it as a professional. For the very immature Gutierrez, it is a process that has been lengthy and one that is still going on today. In 2015 and 2016, Gutierrez responded fairly well to his coaches and to the changes. Despite his ERA being victimized by a heightened .330 BABIP, he held holding down good combined control numbers including a 2.91 BB/9 and an 8.67 K/9 and a solid FIP that came in under the 3.70 mark as he began to establish a good breaking ball, piggybacking his fiery heat.

“In his July 23rd start, he touched 96 a couple times on the stadium gun, with a mid-80s breaking ball. So there’s some quality stuff to go along with the good stat line,” Matt wrote on Bluebird Banter back in 2016. “[He’s] done everything you want to see: missed bats and worked ahead of batters, and been able to finish them off while still being quite efficient.”

This season, the 22-year-old made the jump to full season ball. In his first 13 starts with the Lansing Lugnuts Gutierrez — there’s no getting around it — struggled mightily. On July 21, after a particularly dreadful 3 inning, 6 run, 4 walk, 2 K start, his ERA sat at a hideous 10.13 via an equally dreadful 2.08 WHIP and .295 BAA. Matt chalks the ugly start to his career in full season ball up to an inability to work ahead and a failure to place his pitches, issues that, if not for a serious lack of depth among the Lansing staff, would have landed him either in the pen or back in rookie ball.

“The struggles until recently were very simple: lack of control and command. He often struggled mightily to throw strikes, got himself behind in counts and into lots of jams, and then got hit hard when he came in the zone,” Matt said. “That he kept a spot in the rotation at all with mostly due to injuries to other players meaning Lansing had little other choice.”

All of that out of the way, there’s something to be said for how Gutierrez has performed recently. Since the aforementioned disaster outing on July 21, the Nicaragua native bounced back by allowing just 14 runs over his next 30 innings pitched (4.20 ERA) which spanned five starts, including a career outing on August 2 in which he went 7 innings, allowing just four hits, one walk and striking out 10 Bowling Green Hot Rods. In his second start with the Marlins’ organization, Gutierrez came within one K of matching that total. Both of his first two Muckdogs starts were of the quality variety, lasting six innings each and consisting of four hits and one earned run. Our colleague at Bluebird Banter says that Gutierrez’s recent success has been due to his slider taking another step forward and turning into a plus-plus offering and the fact that overall, he is throwing with a lot more confidence.

“He’s been vastly improved the last last couple months, including a couple of really dominating outings. One of he keys has been that his slider’s been a lot better, giving him an out pitch. One of the Lansing broadcasters was talking recently about how the coaches wanted him trust his stuff more, not try to be so fine. And against low-A hitters, his stuff should be plenty.”

If given time to develop his changeup that is distinctly a mix in offering at the time being, Gutierrez, still 22, could make it as a starter. However, given the fact that the fastball/slider combo thrower dumbs down his velo to the low 90’s range in order to make it deeper in starts and the fact that he is a minor league free agent after next season, Matt and I both agree that he profiles best as a late inning reliever.

“There will be some impetus to move him along,” Matt said of Gutierrez’s situation. “He should start next year in high-A regardless but if moved to relief, he could get to AA.”

In a straight up trade for a troubled starter who barely touched B-type status as a prospect looking at finishing out his career as a swing man, the Marlins could have done a lot worse than a ceiling 4-5 starter, floor late relief/closing option. I give Michael Hill a passing grade on this trade, one of few he’s turned in in his tenure as President of Baseball Ops. Look for Gutierrez to participate in the offseason winter leagues overseas before starting 2018 in Jupiter.

Prospect Of The Month, July 2017: Ben Meyer

Ben Meyer: A Golden Gopher with a golden arm and a golden future. The Minnesota alum spent the past 30 days continuing to prove himself worthy of those titles, tossing to a 1.01 ERA via a 0.79 WHIP and in so doing, earned himself another accolade: Fish On The Farm’s July Prospect Of The Month.

Monthly Stats
Seasonal Stats
35.2 IP, 1.01 ERA, 0.79 WHIP
100.1 IP, 2.06 ERA, 0.94 WHIP
39/3 K/BB, 10.0 K/9, 0.75 BB/9
121/21 K/BB, 10.9 K/9, 1.88 BB/9
.188 BAA, .266 BABIP, 73.3 LOB%
.204 BAA, .298 BABIP, 76.8 LOB%

 

Benjamin K. Meyer was born on January 30, 1993 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In his high school days at Totino-Grace, Meyer lettered in both baseball and basketball but upon his graduation, Ben, who comes from very athletic bloodlines, followed in his father’s footsteps rather than his twin siblings and gave up the court in favor of the mound. In 2012, he became a second generation University of Minnesota pitcher proceeding his dad, Bob and by so doing, made a childhood dream reality.

“I wanted to do the same [as my dad] ever since I was younger,” Meyer said regarding toeing the rubber for the Golden Gophers.

Although he became a quality basketball player late in his amateur career, Meyer says he didn’t fully acquire the physical size for it until his high school tenure was finished which made him focus more on and gain more of a passion for baseball.

“I was a late grower, so I was better at baseball at a young age,” Meyer said. “I wasn’t done growing until my freshman year of college, so my basketball skills developed later in my high school career.”

Even though his basketball days are behind him now, Meyer credits his time on the hardwood to his ability to adjust to his body, remain well conditioned and most importantly for him, keep baseball fresh and exciting.

“I think it’s important for kids not to specialize in one sport too early to keep from burning out,” Meyer said. “Basketball helped me become a better all around athlete which correlates to success on the mound.”

Focusing solely on baseball, Meyer quickly became the anchor of the Golden Gophers’ bullpen, holding down a 2.37 ERA via a 1.08 WHIP in his first 38 collegiate innings. This all came after he dropped two subpar offerings from his arsenal and rapidly developed two brand new pitches that backed up his low 90s cut fastball more advantageously. Meyer credits his Minnesota coaches for immediately turning him in to an effective collegiate arm and for starting him down the road to becoming a professional rotational arm.

“When I got to college I switched out my splitter and curveball for a changeup and slider,” Meyer said. “I worked a lot with my college pitching coach to improve their consistency and make them look more like my fastball out of the hand to keep hitters off balance.  I’ve also found a bigger need for the changeup at the pro level as hitters bat speed is quicker.”

In his sophomore year, Meyer began the transition to the rotation, playing in 15 games and starting eight, doubling up his inning count from the year previous. The increased workload showed a bit as his WHIP rose .2 points and he gave up 2 more hits per nine than the year previous but he still held his ERA under 3 (2.80), improved his BB/9 by .45 points, tossed two eight inning shutouts and one complete game shutout, proving he belonged in the rotation.
The Golden Gophers staff took notice of Meyer’s overall successful tenure as a starter and made him one full time in his junior year. Despite taking on an even bigger workload and putting by far the most stress on his arm he ever has, tossing in his conference’s third most innings (98), Meyer placed sixth in the Big 10 in ERA (2.39), 12th in WHIP (1.13) and fifth in strikeouts (67). His K total combated the only area where the high inning total showed any effect on him, his heightened but still respectable walk rate (2.57). That career high BB/9 was completely offset by his career low 7.62 H/9.

After starting the Big 10’s second most games in his junior season, Meyer once again proved his durability by tossing in 14 more in his senior year. However, that same season and his draft year, Meyer’s stats became the victim of circumstance when the Big 10 modified their official baseball in an attempt to increase offensive production. Although his great control persisted (7.29 K/9, 2.46 BB/9), the result for Meyer was a 4.31 ERA by way of a H/9 over 9 and a HR/9 over 1.00, causing his draft stock to plummet. In hindsight though, Meyer says the change was an advantageous for him in that it allowed him to hurdle over some common struggles for young professionals at an earlier age.

“My last year of college they lowered the seams on the baseball. This made it more similar to a minor league baseball, which was a good transition for me,” Meyer said. “It taught me to pitch more effectively down in the zone and forced me to mix my pitches a little more.”

Meyer admits he sweated through the draft process as he watched the rounds pass him by, hoping to not have a bad case of deja vu from the year previous when he was not selected. His relief came on the final day in round 29 of 40 when he got his call from Stan Meek and the Marlins.

“The last day of the draft was definitely the longest day of my life as well as one of the most exciting, especially after I didn’t get drafted after my junior year of college.” Meyer said. “I was just hoping for an opportunity and was very grateful when the Marlins called saying they were going to take me.”

After seven innings in the GCL and five in Greensboro, Meyer lived out the rest of 2015 in Jupiter pitching against competition a year and a half older than him. That fact along with the wear on the 22-year-old’s arm (he racked up a total of 120 innings pitched, by far a career high), led to a 1.54 WHIP via a 9.13 H/9 and 11.7 BB% but thanks to a 76% LOB%, Meyer was able to hold down a 3.18 ERA, which was very respectable when all things are considered. His overall successful cup of coffee with Jupiter that year planted a good seed within the organization as he found himself just outside of its top 20 prospects.

Meyer lived out 2016 in Greensboro where he began his transition to starting as a pro. It was a bit of a learning curve for Meyer as he went 0-8 in 10 starts with a 4.23 ERA and 1.41 WHIP. He was much more effective out of the pen. Throwing in eight more innings as a reliever as opposed to a starter, he held down an ERA a full point lower (3.10), walked one less (10 vs 11) and striking out nearly twice as many (60 vs 34). However, Marlins didn’t give up on the prospect of one day seeing Meyer in their big league rotation. After beginning the year regaining his confidence tossing out of the Grasshoppers’ bullpen where he held down a 2.15 ERA and 0.95 WHIP, the Marlins brought Meyer back to A+. There, Meyer has started 10 of his 16 games appeared in and rewarded the confidence the organization has shown in his ability by producing a 2.03 ERA by way of a 0.93 WHIP, marks which rank second and first in the Florida State League among qualified players (>70 IP). Within that same group, Meyer’s 28.7 K% and 23.4 K/BB% each rank second. Even though he divulges that all of the moving around between the rotation and bullpen was a bit tedious, taxing on his body and wracking on his nerves, Meyer, ever the “big picture” guy, says the experience was a major catalyst in making him the pitcher he is today, able to pitch in any circumstance, understanding the mind of a hitter and mastering the art of pitch selection and location.

“Moving to the bullpen after college was a big transition for me because I was only in the bullpen for my freshman year of college.  I had to learn how to warm up quicker, and come into the game with a different mentality,” Meyer said. “When I moved back into the rotation in 2016, the biggest adjustment for me was learning to throw on a 5 day rotation vs the college 7 day. It took some time to get my body to bounce back quicker. This year, my velocity has been up a little bit, which has helped, and my slider has been more consistent than it was last year. I have had more confidence in my slider to throw in more situations and keep hitters off balance.”

The impetus behind Meyer being allowed to experience all the things he has, learn from them and grow so quickly has been excellent health. In his entire baseball career, even though the stress on his body has doubled and sometimes even tripled, Meyer has never made a trip to the disabled list and has never been out of action for more than a few days. In addition to his overall fantastic athletic background imparted on him at birth and fully realized very early in his amateur career, Meyer attributes his good health to good fortune, staying active every day, and to the medical regimen assigned to him by the attentive Marlins’ medical staff.

“I have been very fortunate to stay healthy over the years,” Meyer said. “The Marlins have a great arm care program that I follow between starts, as well as running every day and staying on top of our strength program has helped keep my body and arm healthy.”

The fact that Meyer once succeeded as a basketball player is evident as he stares down his opposition from his towering 6’5″, 180 build. Meyer maintains his height advantage over hitters as he winds up from a straight up-and-down stance but creates deception as he planes his pitches in downhill. Viewing the strike zone from a birds eye, overhead angle, Meyer commands it wonderfully with all of his pitches, something he has done his entire career, something which he is very satisfied with and the basis of his confidence as a hurler. He plans to ride that confidence to the upper levels of the minors and beyond.

“I have always prided myself on my command of 3 pitches and ability to work ahead in the count.  I would rather give up a hit than walk somebody and give them a free base,” Meyer said. “It’s definitely tougher as the competition gets better as the strike zone shrinks, and hitters get better eyes, but it comes down to trusting my stuff and preparation.”

Meyer will rarely touch any higher than 94 MPH with the fastball but his plus plus secondaries both of which he created in college and has established during his great minor league run more than make up for it. He throws all three of his pitches with the same arm speed which adds to his nearly impossible to pick up motion and mixes them beautifully which makes him nearly impossible to time or wait out. As a result, Meyer works quick tidy innings and limits pitches. Six of his 10 starts, including four in a row in July, have been quality outings. Meyer’s best pitch is his go-to slider which sits in the 82 MPH range, has hard bite and which he likes to run in on the hands of guys inducing plenty of whiffs. He will also bury it in favorable counts and due to the late break, get guys fishing. The Meyer changeup sits in the 86 MPH range. Due to its good depth and his shortened stride to the plate, it is one of the more deceptive pitches in the Marlins’ system right now. As with all of his pitches, Meyer will throw it in any count but he shows an affinity for pitching off of it. The change sets up Meyer’s “show me” fastball, a 9o-94 MPH offering which he can run to either corner and which he likes to put in the eyes of hitters in two strike counts. In most cases, a three pitch arsenal isn’t translatable to Major League rotational success but in the case of Meyer, who throws all three pitches interchangeably with similar arm speed and great control and command, he should be able to succeed with it. If not, judging by how quickly he established two brand new pitches, he has the ability to quickly re-develop and fall back on the split change and 11-6 curve that he threw as a high schooler.

A battle tested thinking man’s thrower, Meyer sets up as a 4-5 inning eating rotational option and floor bullpen anchor in that same capacity. With similar success in the upper minors which he stands to break into soon, the 24-year-old should be fast-tracked to his MLB debut, realizing not only his dream but fulfilling a family legacy. But for now, Meyer, as per usual, as staying level headed and letting the process work itself out.

“Playing in the big leagues would obviously be a lifelong dream of mine. I’ve put in a lot of hard work, and still have a ways to go, so I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself,” Meyer said. “I’m just trying to stay day to day and get better each outing.”

Meyer should make the jump to AA next season.

Prospect Of The Month, June 2017: Chris Mazza

Adjustment and perseverance. If there are two words that sum up the career of Chris Mazza, these are them. Despite having to adjust to pitching after spending most of his amateur career as a shortstop and although he had to persevere through some difficult mental and physical circumstances including ignoring his doubters and naysayers, coming back from a serious injury and being released by his first team which nearly forced him to contemplate life after baseball, Mazza did it. He overcame. Today, he is one of the best starting pitchers in the Southern League, on the verge of realizing his Major League dream. The latest of his fantastic exports this season is a month of June in which, despite some more rough luck proven by a .322 BABIP, he limited damage, stranding 83% of his runners and holding down a 1.04 ERA lowering his seasonal ERA to 2.71 sixth best in his league. Mazza’s June not only continued to prove his ability to pitch effectively but proved once again his ability to rise above. For those reasons, he is our June Prospect Of The Month.

Monthly Stats
Seasonal Stats
26 IP, 1.04 ERA, 1.46 WHIP
79.2 IP, 2.71 ERA, 1.23 WHIP
14/10 K/BB, 3.5 K/BB%
51/23 K/BB, 8.5 K/BB%
.277 BAA, .322 BABIP, 82.5% LOB%
250 BAA, .287 BABIP, 76% LOB%

 

Chris Mazza was born on October 17, 1989 in the San Francisco area as not-so-distant relative to Joe DiMaggio. He has wanted to follow in the Hall Of Famer’s footsteps ever since he could pick up a baseball.

“He was my grandmother’s cousin,” Mazza said. “I’ve wanted to play since I was 6 years old.”

Mazza attended high school at Clayton Valley High in nearby Concord where he barely reached a nonathletic 5’6″, 120 pounds and struggled statistically, hitting just .238/.322/.266 in his junior and senior years, causing him to go recruited. So Mazza took his talents to nearby Menlo Oaks College where he spruced (pun intended) up and began realizing his true potential. After making the team in tryouts his freshman year, Mazza became the college’s all time leader in home runs and triples. In his junior year, Mazza would usually start games at his normal shortstop but would be called upon to pitch in save situations. Doing so, he posted a team low 2.37 ERA, and 19 saves, another school record thus making him a prominent fixture in Menlo’s first ever Conference Title run. Following his success leading both the offense and defense that year, Mazza, for the first time ever, garnered the attention and selection of clubs at a variety of levels, including prestigious collegiate schools, independent ball and affiliated ball. One of those clubs was the Minnesota Twins who drafted Mazza as a pitcher in the 27th round of that year’s MLB Draft. Although a mixture of flattered, excited and nervous, was faced with what he describes as a very difficult decision in terms of where to and how to continue his baseball career. But with a bit of guidance and some motivation provided by his Menlo squad mates, Mazza chose to accept the Twins’ offer.

“It was a really tough decision to make because we had just won our league and made it to the conference tournament for the first time in school history. It was also tough because I had teams that looked at me to play shortstop and that’s really what I wanted to do because wasn’t 100% ready to give up playing shortstop and becoming a pitcher only,” Mazza said. “But after having a long talk with teammates, my high school coach Bob Rolsten who played in the Twins organization, and my dad, we came to the decision that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and that I didn’t really have anything else to prove in college ball. Also my college teammates said they would kick my butt if I came back for my senior year.”

Mazza broke into his pro career with the rookie ball GCL Twins and Elizabethtown Twins. Even though the numbers looked great over his 18 appearances in his rookie season, (30.2 IP, 2.05 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 28/2 K/BB), Mazza attributes that success to throwing to a similar level of hitters as those he faced in college who were also just beginning to get acclimated to using wood bats. He divulges that despite the solid numbers, he really didn’t have a full understanding of what he was doing on the mound.

“The biggest adjustment for me was learning how to pitch. When I got to pro ball, I didn’t really know how to actually pitch,” Mazza said. “In college, I just got on the mound and threw as hard as could. And when you throw in the mid 90’s in college, you get away with a lot things.”

Here Mazza was, virtually a brand new pitcher who was simply taking the mound and putting the stress of throwing as hard as he can with every pitch on his arm with underdeveloped mechanics. Accordingly, just seven starts into his 2013 season, his arm blew out. Despite every effort to avoid surgery, Mazza eventually went under the knife. It cost him more than an entire season’s worth of playing experience.

“I went on the DL because of an issue with my ulnar nerve. The nerve was popping in and out of the groove every time I would throw cause my arm to go numb. It was like getting hit in the funny bone every time I threw,” Mazza described. “At first, we just tried resting it for about four weeks of no throwing. I was in a brace where I could bend my elbow. After that, I started up a throwing program to build my arm up. About three weeks into the throwing program, my arm started going numb again because of the nerve. About a week later, I had to fly up to Minnesota and have surgery to move my nerve. They call it an ulnar nerve transposition. So I ended up missing the rest of the season.”

Upon returning to the mound on May 26, 2014, Mazza went on to play the best ball of his career. In 25 appearances out of the Cedar Rapids’ bullpen, he held down a 2.79 ERA via some of the best control numbers in the league. Striking out 62 and walking just 11, his 25.5 K/BB% ranked 4th in the Midwest League. He also had the second lowest FIP in the league (1.93). However, much like his rookie season, a lot of Mazza’s success would come at another hefty price. Unbeknownst to Mazza, he threw the final two and a half months of that season with a broken right wrist.

“I fell up the stairs one night during a power outage and broke my scaphoid bone between my hand and wrist on my throwing arm. At first I didn’t even know it was broken. I thought I just jammed my wrist really bad because I could still move it. So I didn’t throw for five days then when I started playing it hurt a little bit but not enough for me to say that I can’t throw. Plus when I would actually pitch it didn’t hurt at all.”

Then, that offseason, things came another very unfortunate head.

“During the offseason, it was still bugging me a little bit until I was working with my dad and I went to hand him up a pile of bricks and my wrist bent back I just collapsed in pain,” Mazza said. “So this whole time from when I fell in July to me handing up my dad some bricks I couldn’t do a push-up or anything that caused my wrist to bend back because it hurt. But since it didn’t hurt to throw a baseball I didn’t think anything of it.”

A few days later, Mazza found himself back in another waiting room with the prospect of once again being absent from baseball for a lengthy period of time very real, if not a forgone conclusion. The diagnosis and treatment curtailed exactly that.

“I finally went a got my wrist looked at and got an MRI and the doctor said I had a broken scaphoid nonunion in my right hand. He told me he doesn’t know how I was even able to throw a baseball. I just said I’ve always had a high pain tolerance which in this case isn’t always a good thing,” Mazza said. “I had surgery in November of 2014 and they had to put a screw in my scaphoid bone to fuse the bones back together. So I had to be in a cast for 6 months because of course the scaphoid bone is the worst bone to break in your entire body because it only has two little veins blood supply so the healing process takes longer.”

Almost eleven months from when he was last permitted to pick up a baseball, Mazza finally did so again on July 3, 2015, beginning a rehab assignment with the GCL Twins. After five appearances there, Mazza was ready to return to Cedar Rapids, to get back on the horse. However, after just two outings back in single A, he was knocked back off said horse once again when the Twins. Being forced off the mound once again after he had just returned from a second hiatus was admittedly a tough pill for Mazza to swallow, especially after the promise he showed when he was healthy (and sometimes even when he wasn’t 100% healthy) but the close relationships he built within the organization including the one he had with his head coach helped keep Mazza afloat in a deep sea of adversity.

“When he called me in to his office I had a pretty good idea was getting released,” Mazza said. “One thing that helped was Jake Mauer who was my manager for three years in the Twins’ organization. Being with Jake for three years, we got to know each other really well and became pretty close. So hearing get choked up as he’s telling me he has to release me because they simply don’t have a spot for me kept positive that this wasn’t the end of my baseball career.”

Mauer had that same confience that he hadn’t seen the last of Chris Mazza and vowed to put in some calls to some independent league teams that he had connections with. But before those calls came to fruition, Mazza got a call of his own.

“About a week later, me and my brother are out golfing and we are on the 14th green getting ready to putt and my phone rings and when I answer it Brett West is on the other end and tells me that the Marlins want to sign me as a free agent,” Mazza recalls perfectly. “I was so excited. I was getting a second chance.”

Mazza, who was able to stay professional through two lengthy injuries, the disappointment of being cut and through one of the best and most relieving phone calls he’s ever received hung up the phone. From there, the emotion poured out of him and created a scene that must have resembled one from Happy Gilmore.

“When I got off the phone I told my brother and he started screaming,” Mazza said. “We were jumping around looking like two idiots out on the golf course.”

After Mazza signed his minor league deal on August 4, 2015 he headed to Jupiter to begin his Marlins’ career as a Hammerhead. After he finished out that season by tossing to the tune of a 3.60 ERA with a 1.07 WHIP over 15 innings and following another 15 innings worth of 1.09 ERA, 0.93 WHIP ball to begin 2016, the Marlins would present Mazza with the biggest challenge of his career: transitioning to the rotation and adjusting to life as a starting pitcher.

“As I got to about my seventh start is really when I felt the number of innings start to catch up to me and wear my body down. At the time I was just doing the same body maintenance that I did as when I was a reliever. So I just I just had to start doing more, whether it was running more, getting more physical therapy or extra work in the gym,” Mazza said. “It was tough because my body wasn’t ready for that extra work load. Unfortunately it led to inconsistency the last month and a half of the season. It was a definitely a learning curve but helped me prepare for the offseason. It gave me an idea on how much more I had to get my arm and body in shape so I can take on the innings of a starter.”

Although he was still relying on the same stuff he used as a reliever, Mazza admits it was tricky having to face hitters more than once and thus having to learn how to select pitches advantageously as he got into more deep counts. However, with some help from his battery mates, he was able to conquer that feat.

“Things really didn’t change much on my approach to attacking hitters that year. I was only a three pitch pitcher so I still went after hitters the same way,” Mazza said. “The biggest thing was not to get stuck in the pitch sequences but I had a lot of help from my catchers with that.”

As much as Mazza learned from himself and his teammates that year, the best piece of advice he got came from Hammerheads’ pitching coach Joe Coleman in spring training. It was then Coleman noticed a hitch in Mazza’s game that the Twins never did, an issue that when fixed, would allow Mazza to become a much more effective hurler and will allow him to succeed at the next level. The issue lay in the amount of effort Mazza put behind each pitch, sometimes throwing the ball as hard as he could trying to blow hitters away and the other painting corners and trying to induce weak contact. Coleman informed Mazza that whichever brand of pitcher he wanted to be, a max effort late relief type or a more methodical innings eating back end starter, was acceptable but he could no longer be both at the same time.

“Joe sat me down and asked me what kind of pitcher do I wanna be. He said after my first couple outings in spring training it looked like I was trying to be two different kind of pitchers at the same time. The first was the pitcher that want to throw the ball past guys and the being the pitcher that wants to sink the ball and get ground balls,” Mazza said. “He told me yeah, I have a plus plus sinker but when I try to throw the ball past guys, it stays straight and doesn’t sink. He said if you want to be a guy that throws past guys, that’s fine and if I wanted to be a guy that sinks the ball. that’s fine too. We just need to pick the guy that you want to be so can have a plan when you are on the mound. Then told me with a sinker like mine, he felt like I would be more successful and have a better chance of getting to the big leagues. So the next day I went up to him and told him that I wanted to be a guy that sinks the ball and ever since then, my career has been going in a positive direction.”

Following his transitional year in 2016, via the assistance of Coleman and his most extensive year of uninterrupted on field experience, Mazza entered the 2016 offseason with a firm grasp on being part of the rotation as well as his own identity as a pitcher. With that knowledge, he dedicated the next six months to one thing: truly becoming a starting pitcher.

“I went in to the offseason last year telling myself that I’m going to get in shape to be a starter. I worked really hard on developing a change-up because it’s just a pitch that you need to have as starter. Even though I’m most really on my sinker and cutter I can throw my change-up a few times a game to keep hitters honest.” Mazza said. “I also need to thank my strength coach Rob and trainer Cesar who have kept me in shape and kept up with physical therapy to make sure I’m healthy and ready to go.”

Coleman’s ability to recognize and fix Mazza’s issue in trying to throw two different styles from pitch to pitch during spring training in 2015 and Mazza’s own drive and extra work put in that offseason had him well on his way to becoming an effective starter. But he still had some work to do mechanically and mentally. That’s where Jacksonville pitching coach Storm Davis’ expertise has come into play.

“I’ve been more consistent in my delivery and being able to make the adjustment when I get out of wack one or two pitches rather then it taking me two or three batters to get back to where I need to be. And that’s all because of Storm Davis,” Mazza said. “Whether it’s looking at film, fixing my arm slot, seeing how hitters are reacting to certain pictures I throw during the game or talking about pitch selection. And when we make a mistake, asking why did we make that mistake and how do we change our approach so we don’t make that mistake again and so much more. He’s really helped me mature as a pitcher.”

Through all of Mazza’s trials and tribulations whether it be going unrecruited, suffering two major injuries early in his career, being released after he finally began to enjoy some success and so many more factors that would have made a lesser man throw in the towel, Mazza is finally a near finished product this year. The exports of that finished product speak for themselves: a 3.01 ERA that ranks 12th in the Southern League, a 1.29 WHIP that ranks 17th, a 7.0% walk rate than ranks 15th and a 75% LOB% that ranks 13th. All of this has been made possible by a very balanced arsenal which includes his bread-and-butter groundball 90 MPH sinker, a 92 MPH cut fastball that he can ramp up to 94 and which he will throw interchangeably with the sink peice to keep hitters guessing, an 84-86 MPH changeup that is emerging as the secondary pitch Mazza has the best feel for despite his learning how to throw it this past winter and a slider that has lessened to a mix-in offering since his surgery but which he will still bury for strikes in pitcher’s counts.

Much like the way he has approached his baseball career, Mazza won’t shy away from any challenge. He is an in-your-face style pitcher who won’t pick at corners but instead comes right after his opposition  and dares them to beat him. He can get in trouble doing so at times, giving up baserunners, proven by his 8.5 hits per 9 innings but his ability to keep the ball down almost exclusively and induce groundballs keeps runs off the board and his pitch counts in check. According to Mazza, that bulldog, win-above-all style mentality approach to pitching as well as every other aspect of his life is something that was inborne in him and has, above all else, been his biggest and best companion along the way. As long as he hasn’t let the beast run completely wild.

“I hate losing. I hate losing more than I like winning. I’ve always been that way. I don’t care if I’ve given up 10 runs, I want the ball in my hand and I’m not coming out off the game. Even though Storm has told me I gotta keep the bulldog on a leash at not let him run out of control,” Mazza said. “I’ve just always been super competitive ever since i was a little kid. It doesn’t matter if it’s baseball or tic-tac-toe; I’m going beat you. My mom gets mad at me cause I don’t let my six year old nephew win when we play video games together.

With the Marlins on the verge of a firesale and Mazza continuing to turn in quality outings, he is on the verge of realizing his Major League dream and in so doing, beating all of those individuals, teams, schools and organizations who thought he would lose. For the 27-year-old and those who have been by his side since the start no matter what, his call to the big leagues will symbolize the biggest win of his life. Without having to actually speak a word, Mazza will tell a lot of people “I told you so.”

“It’s crazy to think about sometimes. I’ve had lot of people tell me I wasn’t able to play at the the next level and the started in high school. I got told I was too small or you good but you’re not good enough to play college ball. And when I got to college it was the same thing people would say, “Go to a Division III school, you can’t play pro ball.””, Mazza said. “I just always had that chip on my shoulder to prove people wrong.”

Attention all naysayers and doubters: grab your foot and prepare to insert it into your own mouth. Chris Mazza is about to arrive.