2017 Batavia Muckdogs Season Preview

2016 Team Stats

.218/.298/.294
20 HR/133 XBH
651 IP, 5.00 ERA, 1.53 WHIP

At the midway point of the season and with All-Star Games are happening all over affiliated baseball, the start of a brand new season is upon us. The short-season single A campgain kicks off this week, including in the New York Penn League and for your Batavia Muckdogs. There, manager Mike Jacobs, a former Marlins’ favorite, leads the likes of Thomas Jones, JC Millan, Shane Sawczak and the rest of a young spirited bunch hoping to become that and more.At the midway point of the season and with All-Star Games are happening all over affiliated baseball, the start of a brand new season is upon us. The short-season single A campgain kicks off this week, including in the New York Penn League and for your Batavia Muckdogs. There, manager Mike Jacobs, a former Marlins’ favorite, leads the likes of Thomas Jones, JC Millan, Shane Sawczak and the rest of a young spirited bunch hoping to become that and more.

After a seven year playing career, Mike Jacobs begins his first season behind the bench at the helm of this year’s Batavia squad. Jacobs was known best for his power hitting game proven by his .253/.313/.473 career slash line and 100 career homers, most of which came in his tenure as a Fish. His career year came in 2008 when he slugged .514, 15th in the NL, slammed 32 homers, 14th in the NL and drove in 93 runs, 20th in the NL all while playing in a pitcher-friendly home park, Pro Player Stadium. The Dawgs are already reaping the benefits of Jake’s power hitting background. Where last year’s squad scored 47 runs via 18  XBH in the entire month of June, this year’s squad has already scored 44 runs via 13 XBH in their first five games. Jacobs’ staff is rounded out by assistant coach and former Muckdogs’ OF TJ Gamba, hitting coach Rigobertio Silviero who enters his ninth season as a Marlins’ affiliated coach and pitching coach Jason Erickson, another former NYPL player (for State College as part of the Pirates’ orgainzation) and third-year pitching skipper.

Lineup

2B Jhonny Santos
CF Thomas Jones
1B Lazaro Alonso
RF Zachary Daly
DH Terry Bennett
3B JC Millan
LF Mathew Brooks
C David Gauntt
SS Marco Rivera

Center fielder Thomas Jones is the Marlins’ third round draft pick out of Laurens High School in South Carolina. He enters 2017 as the club’s sixth ranked overall prospect and third ranked positional prospect. A football standout in high school who earned some of the nation’s best overall rankings as a safety and had multiple offers on the table from some of the nation’s top football programs including Duke, Wake Forest, North Carolina and South Carolina, Jones forwent that career to play baseball in Miami. According to Jones, he used football to improve his athleticism and get his name into the first round of multiple sports’ drafts, but it was always baseball he saw himself making his career in.

“The decision was easy. I always wanted to play baseball,” Jones said of his decision to sign witht the Marlins. “I did well in football which gave me a lot of exposure. Playing football helped me to be quick on my feet. Playing free safety in football and center field in baseball have similar characteristics.”

The characteristics Jones speaks of include blazing speed that allotted him a 4.31 40-yard dash time as well as 16 stolen bases in 17 attempts his senior year and the overall ability to cover both center field gaps advantageously, fantastic hands that allowed him to easily create turnovers as well as maintain superior bat speed and an extremely athletic frame that let him outmuscle opposing wide receivers, bench 260 pounds and squat 500, and which has scouts projecting him to become a 20+ homer threat as he fills out and matures.

Of course, Jones has some things to iron out in order to reach that offensive potential. He needs to add some fluidity and repeatability to his timing and mechanics which currently look slightly stiff at times. He also needs to add some loft to his straight-through swing in order to make the most of his power potential. Jones does well at getting his lower half involved in his approach but he will need to perfect his footwork which currently sees him almost hopping into swings before his back foot pivot, leading to him frequently falling out of the box on his follow-through. While he needs some seasoning, the few hitches in his offensive game are quite understandable for a two-sport athlete and should all work themselves out as he commits all of his time to baseball. Though he admits filling in the holes in his game has been and will continue to be a trial, Jones is trusting the course of action and putting in all the necessary effort to succeed.

“All my time is focused on baseball now,” Jones said. “I’m training to become consistent with all my tools. It’s a process but I continue to grind it out.”

With plus present speed and power and average defensive skills, all of which stand to improve, Jones has a five-tool make-up which makes it easy to see why he comes into this season as the Marlins’ second best positional prospect. However, the intuitive Jones who owned a 3.66 GPA in high school and shows maturity well beyond his years isn’t worried about rankings and he isn’t going to let anything deter his focus from his modus operandi.

“I always keep a positive mind, no matter what,” Jones said. “This game is already hard itself. So I don’t even think about the outside talk and I just play the game.”

Yasiel Puig: $42 million, Yoan Moncada: $31 million, Luis Robert: $25 million. You probably remember reading about these massive international deals being reached which instantly turned poverty-stricken Cuban kids and families into multi-millionaires, all for their services on the baseball field. One you probably didn’t read about was Lazaro Alonso, a 20-year-old native of Pinar Del Rio who signed with the Marlins for $100,000. Although he didn’t receive the fanfare nor the payday his countrymen received upon arriving in America, Alonso hopes, that through hard work, both the money and the adulation will one day come.

“I was just a boy in Cuba, with no history,” Alonso told El Nuevo Herald. “I have only just started in everything. My life is a book to be written. I hope to make noise soon.”

Alonso will attempt to get the band tuned up this short season with Batavia. Regarded as Cuba’s eighth best prospect last season after he hit .299/.436/.494 as a rookie during Serie Nacionale’s 2014-15 season and .395/.495/.535, the second best hitter in Cuba’s 23-and-under summer league last year, Alonso is a massive physical specimen, standing 6’3″, weighing 230. Accordingly, his best tool is his incredible raw power which scouts contend could someday produce 25+ home runs if in the lineup every day.

Alonso’s best secondary tool is plus- pitch recognition ability that allotted him more walks than strikeouts in his rookie season. The disciplined plate approach allows Alonso to see a lot of pitches and force oppositions into making mistakes, a trait rarely found in power-first hitters. If Alonso is to fully reap the benefits of his prodigious power and his solid plate presence though, he is going to need to vastly improve the mechanics behind his swing. With his back leg bent and front leg straight, he strides from a very off-balanced load and fails to get his hands and arms linear to the ball. His inability to get ahead of pitches leads to very subpar timing and a very long swing. Alonso also fails to cover the plate, struggling against pitches on the outer half, particularly against lefties, a downfall that doesn’t bode well for his future against pitchers at the next level who can go corner to corner. Top to bottom, Alonso’s mechanics need a near complete overhaul. He’s also currently quite limited position ally due to  below average athleticism and speed.

Needless to say, Alonso definitely has some work ahead of him, making him one of the rawest prospects in the organization. However, he has already taken a positive first step in realizing his true potential by formulating the understanding that he has a long road ahead of him, accepting it and having the will to learn and grow.

“My swing is not perfect, my mechanics in the box must improve a lot,” Alonso said. “But I trust that I have the strength to improve.”

Terry Bennett is a Marlins’ 12th round draft pick from 2015 out of Atlantic Coast High School in Jacksonvlle. Before signing with the Fish, the exponentially athletic Bennett accepted an offer to continue playing both football and baseball at FIU. However, when Miami came calling, Bennett didn’t think twice.

“Baseball has always been my first love & being drafted was always dream for me growing up,” Bennett said. “After my senior season of football, I knew that I was done playing. My love for doing it everyday wasn’t there.”

After spending the last two seasons getting acclimated to playing baseball full time in the GCL, the Marlins believe Bennett is ready to make the jump to single A. A .340 senior year hitter in high school and Atlantic Coast’s first ever baseball draftee, the 6’0″ 205 Bennett, who was also a stout yet sneaky quick running back in the football world, owns a good combination of power and speed. When it has come to focusing solely on baseball, Bennett says he has made the acclimation quite naturally, not forgetting or completely abandoning his roots but also not being accustomed to change.

“The transition has been really good. I love baseball so know matter if I’m going good or bad I still want to come out everyday and try to get better,” Bennett said. “Football gave me that tough edge so that always comes in handy because baseball can break you down if you aren’t tough enough. I’ve gotten tremendously better from being in high school to now. I also have a lot of room for improvements but the coaches work us hard and know their stuff.”

The lefty hitter favors the pull variety of hitting but has also shown the ability to go to all fields. Mechanically, everything looks pretty good here. Bennett stands from a straight away stance, triggers with a front foot heel turn and steps into the ball. He keeps his back knee and shoulder linear and his head stationary before he engages a quick lofty swing.

The only knock here is that Bennett doesn’t load up much on his back foot and instead relies almost completely on his arms at the expense of his looseness and some of his power potential. Also, his back elbow doesn’t move far from his body which negates even more of his strength and leads to trouble barreling up. However, these are common mechanical flaws for undergraduate hitters, especially those who play more than one sport. If Bennett can get his lower half more involved in his swing and learn to reach back more on his swing while his body matures and his knowledge of the strike zone improves, he could become a solid middle of the order doubles-first threat with the ability to reach fences at any part of the park.

Though his throwing arm has some growing to do, Bennett’s aforementioned furious athleticism and good jets give him eligibility at all three outfield spots. He’s spent most of his time in center field which is likely where he will line up most of the time for the Dawgs this year. Like Alonso, Bennett is another guy who has a lot of growing to do but at just 19 and at the expense of just a 12th round pick, he will not be pressured at all. At this point, he’s viewed as a long-term project but his able-bodiedness, energetic attitude and sponge-like brain could allow him to make leaps instead of steps.

J.C. Millan’s backstory is one which will resonate with many in the Miami community and hit close to home for any Marlins fan who became familiar and got to know the late Jose Fernandez. Millan was born on January 18, 1996 in Havana, Cuba. A middle child in a family of limited means and the son to a father who he rarely saw due to him chasing his own baseball dreams, life wasn’t easy for Millan growing up.

“Living in Cuba wasn’t easy for us. My parents had to work really hard to always find a way for me and my sisters to always have food on the table, especially my mom since my dad was most of the time.”

During his teenage years, J.C.’s parents came upon the opportunity to relocate some of the family to the United States. Some of the family, but not all. Still, Millan’s mother jumped at the opportunity and although life in America wasn’t much easier at first, J.C. eventually found comfort.

“We had the opportunity to come to the US and my parents never hesitated because they wanted the best life for us and for me and my sister to one day succeed,” Millan said. “At first it was hard for us to adjust to the system here, especially me going to a new school, speaking no English and sitting in classes when I didn’t understand a word the teachers would say. But as the years passed by, we settled in.”

Much like Jose Fernandez and his family were faced with and made the difficult decision to leave Jose’s grandmother and his entire extended family behind in hostile Cuba in order to better their own lives, J.C. and the Millans parted from one of J.C.’s two sisters and her child, J.C.’s nephew, when they made their trek to Florida, a process and experience which has admittedly taken its toll on him.

“It’s pretty hard to take sometimes, leaving mostly your entire family behind and not being able to see them every day and instead maybe once every couple years,” Millan said. “I would love for them to be here but I don’t know if that will ever happen.”

Before each game, after he takes the field, Millan has made it a ritual to spirtually show gratitude what he has been given these past few years. Then, he audibly recites the same phrase for both his parents who allotted him the opportunity to take that field and for those whom he was made to leave behind back home.

“Every game I get on one knee in any position I play and give my thanks to the man above,” Millan said. “Then I verbally say, “This game is for my family.””

When told the story of how the organization made it possible for Jose’s grandmother to flee Cuba and join him in the United States to share in the realization of his dream, Millan, although still a bit skeptical given the still arduous political relations between Cuba and America, is a bit more hopeful of one day playing on an MLB diamond in front of his entire family, including his sister and nephew who, for the time being, remain in Havana.

“I feel like it’s impossible for my other sister and nephew to be here right now,” Millan said. “But it would mean everything in the world for them to be here with us, and I wouldn’t know how to thank them for that.”

Millan, a 6’0″ 185 pounder attended Brito Academy in Miami before spending a season at Broward College where he hit .324/.407/.443/.850, placing fifth in BA, third in OBP, fourth in SLG and third in OPS. His 18 steals ranked second in his conference and his .846 BB/K by way of a 26/22 K/BB also ranked third. From there, he took his talents to the GCL. There, as he got his first taste of big league ball, his stats weren’t nearly as glorified but as long as he was learning, Millan wasn’t concerned with them. He enters this year in Batavia with the same mindset: control what he can control and not get too far ahead of himself.

“I learned a lot at Broward as far as always being prepared before at bats and always have a plan when i go to the plate,” Millan said. “GCL wasn’t the year I wanted to have numbers wise but I’m not worried much about how my numbers were as long as I felt I was competing every single at bat and not getting overmatched. I have the same mindset coming into this year with the Muckdogs: compete every at bat, be on time and get a good pitch to hit. That’s all I can control. From there on, the ball will take care of itself.”

From a wide split stance that stretches to both ends of the box, Millan bends his plant leg and straightens his front leg as he leans over the strike zone, leading to a preloaded approach. He forgoes a timing trigger by being able to determine location and exhibit patience well beyond his years. The swing itself generates plenty of contact via the use of his quick hands but the timing needs to improve, specifically on breaking pitches where it can get a bit long.

On the basepaths, Millan has the speed and ability to wreak havoc. A long striding runner who gets good jumps, what he lacks in power he makes up for by turning any on-base chance into extra bases with his legs. That same speed serves Millan well in the field where he can play a pluthera of positions. He has eligibility at all three outfield spots, second base and third base and he will play all of them and then some in the same night, as long as it keeps him on the field.

“I feel comfortable at all three outifled spots but I feel like I have worked really hard in the infield to be where I am,” Millan said. “I can play second and third with no pressure but I’ll play any position that keeps me on the lineup every night, even if I have to pitch an inning or catch a whole game. Whatever it takes to be on the lineup, I’ll do it.”

Thankfully for Millan, his skill set as a singles-first bat with good speed and good range to both sides of the field projects him best as a top of the order second baseman. After a challenging start to life which born in him the need to grow up and mature fast, things are finally beginning to go Millan’s way. With success in Batavia, he should get the chance to finish out the year in Greensboro and get a look at the full-season level. As long as Millan’s road has been to this point, he still has a long way to go in perfecting his game and reaching the upper minors but a few years to him probably sounds like a few minutes. The right mindset and will to succeed should carry him a long way to pulling on a Marlins jersey sometime in the 2019-2020 range.

Pitching Rotation

1. Sam Perez
2. Edward Cabrera
3. Alejandro Cabrera
4. Alberto Guerrero

Sam Perez is a Marlins’ fifth round pick from last year out of Missouri State University. Exclusively a reliever over his four year collegiate career with the Bears, Perez tossed to a 3.31 ERA and 1.15 WHIP via fantastic control numbers including a 9.33 K% and a minuscule 2.75 BB%. But the Marlins saw something more in Perez than a late inning reliever. Last year in Batavia, they eased him into starting as he got the ball to begin a game in eight of his 16 appearances. Usually a long, strenous and difficult process and frequently a failed experiment, Perez, despite having to modify his game quite extensively, got through the transitional process to the rotation quite smoothly, holding down a 3.72 ERA by way of a 1.38 ERA.

“The adjustment to the rotation wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be but it was somewhat stressful at first mainly due to the mindset,” Perez said. “Out of the bullpen, you would get a signal to start throwing and you would try to get hot as fast as possible. In your head it’s, “okay, who’s up to bat, who’s on deck, go, go, go, get hot.” Being in the rotation you have so much time you have to make sure to pace yourself in the pregame warmup.”

Another big change for Perez as part of the rotation has been pitch selection. A zone pounding interchangeable fastball/slider thrower with a very infrequently used changeup out of the pen, he has had to develop the changeup to the point where he can throw it with just as much confidence as the slider and more frequently than it. In order to keep stress down but also keep his velocity consistent, he’s also had to learn how to set hitters up with the fastball rather than just coming right after them. Despite being a lot to tackle, it seems Perez has his recipe for success forumulated.

“As a starter I am throwing more fastballs instead of high stress pitches. The goal for most starters is usually to get as many outs as possible with your fastball and use your offspeed pitches when necessary,” Perez said. “But I would say that fastball and changeup usage go hand in hand with trying to go deeper in games. My velocity hasn’t suffered in order to go deeper in games. My pitch selection is what should allow that. Throwing a pitch with full conviction is a must for all pitchers, starters included, therefore my velocity has remained the same. The ability to be an efficient pitcher is what should help me go deeper in games.”

It’s a testament to Perez’s work ethic the strides he’s been able to make with his changeup which less than a season ago was nothing more than a mix-in waste pitch. Since, it has become arguably as good as his bender, and, at 82, a perfect companion to his mid-90s heat. Thrown with the same arm speed as his slider, he effectively keeps hitters guessing, no matter how many times through the order he goes. Perez attributes his success as a starter and ability to get deeper into games to that pitch.

“The changeup is a must for any starting pitcher. This is a big change from the bullpen because you attack hitters with your best stuff as soon as you’re in the game. As a bullpen pitcher you’re lucky if you go through a lineup once. That’s why my changeup wasn’t used as often as my slider: I wasn’t having to think of how to approach hitters more than once. The only times I threw changeups out of the bullpen was in a hitter’s count and they were expecting a fastball over the plate,” Perez said. “I feel as though my changeup has good movement and enough speed differential to help my fastball play even better. I have great confidence in my changeup and that allows me to throw it in any count to any batter, right or left. In order to become the most successful starting pitcher I can be, my changeup will be thrown more often in order to make the fastball more effective. For me as a starter I use the changeup to help set up the fastball and induce ground balls.”

With an obvious great understanding of how to effectively eat innings despite coming up as a reliever and his ability to make great strides with his changuep, Perez has successfully molded himself into a future 4-5 starter and the ace of this year’s Muckdogs staff. With a good 95-82 velo mix, a tricky slide step to short arm right handed delivery, and the aforementioned similar arm speed on all three of his pitches, Perez can still live all around the zone without getting hit too hard. He will need to improve his command and ability to get his stuff to the corners and not catch as much of the plate as he matures to the upper minors but that should all come as he logs more innings. At 22, Perez should be among those called up to Greensboro at short season’s end. With continued success there, he could be pushed rather aggressively to A+ and beyond, making him a candidate to contribute to the pitcher-needy Marlins in some capacity by 2019.

Shane Sawczak, a local kid out of Lake Worth and former student at Palm Beach State, was selected by the Marlins in the 19th round of last year’s draft. As Sawczak puts it, he was thrilled just to be drafted but to be drafted by his hometown team which has allowed his family to continue to share in his dream on a regular basis, turned the moment from great to amazing.

“Being drafted in general was a dream come true, but being drafted to the Marlins was an incredible feeling,” Sawczak says. “I would like to thank the organization for giving me the opportunity to pitch for them. I just got lucky I’m from south Florida. I grew up watching and attending the Marlins games with my family. It gives me better opportunities to see my family still and get to train and prepare myself for the upcoming season.”

After the draft, an energetic and pumped up Sawczak spent 2016 stifiling hitters to the tune of a 1.93 ERA via a 1.13 WHIP and 26/13 K/BB in 17 appearances for the Muckdogs. After getting a look with the Grasshoppers to end 2016, he is back with Batavia to begin this season as the anchor out of the bullpen. He is one of quite a few returnees that make up the core of this year’s Muckdogs squad, a core which Sawczak describes as kindred, making showing up to work every day comfortable and fun.

“This year, the Muckdogs have a special bond,” Sawczak said. “We all have spent a year together and are having fun playing together on the same diamond. We all have each others’ backs and we pick each other up.”

Sawczak relies on mid-90s moving heat, an 84-86 mph changuep and an upper 70s breaking ball. He pounds the zone with the fasbtall which he has found success with at the lower levels but he will need to learn to place the breaking stuff to succeed in the upper minors. If he can, Sawczak lines up as a quality late reliver based on a lively fastball with projectable secondaries. Keep him on the radar as a future closer.

Projected 2017 Team Stats

39-41
.245/.322/.336
38 HR/157 XBH
647 IP, 4.26 ERA, 1.42 WHIP

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