August 2011

Astros lineup 8/14 at Dodgers. First pitch 3:10 p.m. CT

Minnesota native Kvasnicka knows hockey, but baseball is his game.

I knew two things about Mike Kvasnicka before I sat down to chat with him earlier this week in Lexington.

1. He looks a little like Shane Reynolds.
2. Jeff Bagwell butchered his name on MLB Network when announcing him as a draft pick in 2010.

(Poor Bags. It was his job to announce the Astros’ supplemental pick and he gets saddled with Mike Kvasnicka. The Commissioner fared no better when announcing the Astros’ second first-round pick, Mike Foltynewicz. I’m guessing by the time these two reach the big leagues, we’ll be a lot more forgiving when Milo and Millsie inevitably shorten their names to Folty and Kwasie.)

Anyhoo, Kvasnicka, whose name is pronounced kwaz-NICK-ah, is from the north. Way, way, way up north, in Minnesota. He, like most of his teammates, was a multi-sport athlete in high school. But, unlike his teammates, one of those sports was hockey. That comes as no surprise when taking into account the importance of hockey to most northern cities, especially the ones that are anywhere near the Canadian border.

Kvasnicka played football, baseball and hockey and was part of state championships in the latter two. There were glaring differences in the intensity of those games: few paid attention to the baseball tourneys, whereas the hockey games were played at the arena where the NHL Minnesota Wild plays, and drew tens of thousands of spectators.

“I could win five state baseball championships in a row, but it’s nothing compared to playing one game in a state hockey tournament,” he said. “There were 40,000 people watching 16, 17, 18-year-old kids. It was more fun than the baseball tournaments because no one was paying attention to those.”

Times have changed for the 6-foot-2, 200-pound 22-year-old. He was drafted to play baseball, and these days, people are most definitely paying attention. The Astros are in a massive transition, rebuilding for the future, and it’s likely they’ll be staying away from big-ticket free agents and relying heavily on the players they took in the last few drafts and the players they traded for at the deadline.

The team hopes Kvasnicka, a switch-hitter, will be part of that blueprint. Like the other farmhands we’ve written about, Kvasnicka changed positions when he joined the Astros’ organization. He was mainly an outfielder at the University of Minnesota with a little experience catching, too. The Astros drafted him as a third baseman, however, a position that was largely foreign to him.

In that respect, Kvasnicka is similar to teammates Delino DeShields Jr. and Telvin Nash in that they were profiled differently as professionals than what they were in high school and/or college.

“Very few players in the big leagues are at their amateur positions,” Asst. GM of scouting Bobby Heck said. “We just decided to transition earlier. Not all were pre-decided position changes, but as our talent base has grown, others have had to be flexible to get in the lineup.”

Third base is still a work in progress for Kvasnicka. He feels a lot more comfortable there this year than last, mainly because he’s been able to concentrate solely on what’s happening on the field, whereas last year, the added element of the stress level leading up to the draft created a bit of a distraction.

Nowadays, he’s focused on hitting and getting better at third base, a position that required him to improve his reaction time and get used to being so close to the action. These issues aren’t as relevant in the outfield.

“The majority of hitters are right-handed hitters and the majority of young hitters are dead pull hitters,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of extra work and early work. You’re basically starting from scratch. Reaction drills, slow rollers, swinging bunts. General working on backhand. I never had to use the backhand as an outfielder. That’s the best way to do it — just pound ground balls at you until you’re good at it.”

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Telvin Nash: a power-hitting first baseman with a swagger.

Lexington Legends first baseman Telvin Nash is an easy person to like. By all accounts, he appears to have all the makings of a very good future Major League player too, but even without that very essential element, he’s still an easy guy to root for.

First of all, his baseball mentor is Michael Bourn. In fact, as a professional, he’d like to be just like the former Astros center fielder, whom Nash spent most of his time with during Spring Training and thinks of as “a big brother.”

Also, Nash, a native of Griffin, GA, comes from a family of educators. His mom is a fifth-grade teacher. His dad, Ray Nash, a former pro football player, is a school principal. As a result, Nash is gifted both athletically and academically. Sports were important to the family, sure, but he had to keep up his grades, too.

“I had no choice,” he said. “I had to be a good student. There was no other way in my household.”

Nash, like most professional athletes, was exceptional at every sport he played growing up. As a kid, basketball was his strength, but when he got older he realized “I wasn’t going to be 6-foot-6 or seven-feet tall. So I had go to the next level, which was baseball.”

He took to football a little later on, and was again among the best at that sport among his peers. He was recruited by many colleges and was pretty set on playing for the University of Miami, but that changed when he was selected by the Astros in the third round of the 2010 draft.

The 20-year-old Nash has dedicated himself fully to baseball but still feels the tug of football from time to time. In fact, during his first Spring Training, he began to second-guess his decision to forgo the college experience in order to play baseball.

“I had really re-evaluate myself,” he said. “I had to decide if this is really what I want to do, or do I want to go back to school and play football. I had to dedicated myself to play baseball and that’s what I’ve done.”

Nash was primarily an outfielder in high school, but the Astros drafted him as a first baseman. He has been identified by every evaluator in the organization as having the best power in the Astros’ system, a potential middle-of-the-order slugger, which, typically, is a prerequisite to having longevity at that position in the big leagues. He also doesn’t swing at a lot of bad pitches, atypical among many players his age.

May of the Astros’ recent high draft picks were drafted at different positions than they played in high school and/or college. Delino DeShields was moved from the outfield to second base. Mike Kvasnicka, the Astros’ supplemental first-rounder in 2010, was a catcher/outfielder in high school until the Astros drafted him as a third baseman. Nash is another example of the Astros taking the best athletes available in the draft and worrying about positioning later.

“You have to put in the time on the offensive side and you don’t want to go out there and look lost, so you have to put time in on the defensive side,” Nash said. “I guess as you get older or play a lot more baseball you get adjusted to the new position. I’m starting to get adjusted to first base and I’m starting to like it. At first I was like, I don’t know about first base. But now I’m starting to like it. I’m more involved in the game. I touch the ball the same amount of time as the catcher.”

Nash missed a good chunk of this season with a broken hamate bone in his hand, an injury severe enough to require surgery. He returned to the lineup a few weeks ago and is slowly working his way back to being an everyday player, while receiving days off here and there as he builds up his strength. In an abbreviated 52 games played this year, Nash has 11 home runs, 22 RBIs and a .263 average.

Like most of the Astros’ farmhands, Nash isn’t clueless as to what’s been happening with the parent club this year. The Astros are an organization in transition, and plenty of Minor League players with seemingly no chance to reach the big leagues this year are doing just that. And thriving.

So when asked if he’s been paying attention to what’s going on in Houston, Nash had an answer similar to his teammates: How can you not?

“Oh, it’s lovely around here,” he said with a grin. “This is the organization you want to be with. You have a good year, a couple of good months, people notice that. Everybody has a chance, you know?”

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Minor League memories and six degrees of a left-handed reliever.

Random thoughts during a two-hour flight and one-hour layover in Houston on the way to Lancaster (coming soon: feature story on first base prospect Telvin Nash)…

Every time I go on one of these minor league tours, it takes me back to the old days, 15 years ago, when I worked for the Double-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians. This was 1996, the last year the team played in Canton before it moved up to the new ballpark in Akron.

As anyone who has worked for a Minor League team knows, you can usually land a nice fancy title when you’re hired, but your actual responsibilities don’t even come close to syncing with what’s on your business card.

I was, by my best recollection, the Canton-Akron Indians’ Director of Advertising and Publications. I was also a beer pourer, hot dog distributor, stadium cleaner, Dizzy Bat Race coordinator, and — most visibly in my mind all of these years later — tarp puller.

For those not familiar with Northeastern Ohio, in the spring, it rains. A lot. Some years, every day. In the big leagues, the grounds crew pulls the tarp. In the minors, “tarp crew” and “front office staff” are synonymous.

Tarp pulling had two shifts. The easy shift, obviously, was the one that occurred while we were at work. The rain would start, someone would yell out, “TARP!” and everyone would bolt out of the offices. If it started raining during a game, everyone would simply drop what he or she was doing, pull on the tarp clothes — warmup pants, a pullover jacket and team-issued really dorky gym shoes — and head to the field.

The other shift was not so well-received. It began loosely at 6 a.m., because the tarp has to come off the field before the sun comes up, or the grass below it will burn. That was the really fun part — working until midnight on a game day and heading back to the field at six to remove the tarp.

The Canton-Akron Indians had a ton of prospects on that team in 1996. I think 11 eventually made it to the big leagues, an abnormal amount when considering only around four percent of all Minor Leaguers ever reach the Majors. A couple of those Tribe prospects ended up pitching in the NL Central division as relievers in the years following, including two lefties, Mike Matthews and Steve Kline.

When I’d see them during batting practice at the Astros’ ballpark, we’d say hello, chat a bit, and, inevitably, the tarp situation would come up in conversation. Both had vivid memories of sitting in the dugout during rain delays at old Thurman Munson Stadium, laughing at the “tarp crew” — and by “tarp crew,” I mean, one very unhappy Director of Advertising and Publications who had more bad hair days in a single Minor League season than the past 14 years combined.

Kline stuck around the big leagues for more than a decade, pitching for the Indians, Expos, Cardinals, Orioles and Giants. He’s one of those unique characters who loved people, loved talking with people and never, ever forgot a face. He retired from pitching three years ago. Yesterday, as I was walking from the parking lot into the Lexington Legends ballpark, who’s standing there, but Steve Kline. He’s the pitching coach of the Augusta GreenJackets, who were in town playing the Legends.

In baseball, if you stick around long enough, it’s not six degrees of separation — it’s more like one or two.

(Sadly, this time, Kline didn’t mention the tarp.)

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Visiting Minor League affiliates reminds me a lot of being at Spring Training — the small ballparks, the quietness that blankets the field as the team begins its warmups, the simplicity of the whole operation. Working in the Major Leagues is fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but there’s never a quiet moment from the time you arrive to the ballpark to the time you leave. Going to a Minor League ballpark is a wonderful diversion during a long (and, as the case this year, somewhat excruciating) season.

Interviewing Legends players and coaches near the dugout while making sure not to be hit by wide throws while the players warmed up sparked another Spring Training memory, from many moons ago. I remember sitting on a bench, directly behind a dozen or so Astros as they played catch before the daily practice began. Looking back, I have no idea why I thought that was a good, or safe, idea. Fortunately, then-manager Jimy Williams had my back (and my front) as he let me know, in his own special way, that my location was perhaps ill-advised.

He walked over, took out his front teeth and held them up in the air.

“Footsie,” he said. “You think maybe you should move?”

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Images from a fun two-day visit with the Lexington Legends:

Legends manager Rodney Linares talks with third base prospect Mike Kvasnicka during batting practice.

Former Astros reliever Dave Borkowski is now the pitching coach for the Class A Legends.

Catcher Roberto Pena is considered a good prospect and could be in the big leagues in three or four years.

PFP -- Pitchers Fielding Practice

Conditioning drills

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How J.D. Martinez went from a Minor League roster filler to a Major League outfielder.

We’ve already written about J.D. Martinez’s memories of his first exposure to professional baseball, and now, I thought it would be interesting to hear from Martinez’s first manager, current Lexington skipper Rodney Linares.

Linares was managing the club’s Rookie League team in Greeneville when Martinez joined the club as a 20th round draft pick in 2009. Martinez wasn’t supposed to play a lot — he was considered a roster filler — but the perception changed immediately, literally after Martinez took his first swing during batting practice.

Pitcher Juri Perez was throwing live BP and offered up a 94 mph fastball, which Martinez deposited over the center field wall. Linares immediately grabbed his phone and called Ricky Bennett, then the Astros’ farm director.

“I said, ‘Ricky. This is my No. 3 hitter,'” Linares remembered. Bennett told him he would leave it up to Linares to decide how and when to play Martinez, but reminded him there were players higher on the depth chart who needed to get playing time. “Find a way to let them play,” Bennett told Linares.

Linares stuck to his guns and inserted Martinez into the starting lineup. Martinez had a terrible day at the plate, and the second game, Linares didn’t play him.

“It was killing me,” Linares said.

Then center fielder Grant Hogue got hurt. Linares shuffled the outfield alignment and put Martinez in right field. Martinez got two hits, including a home run. The next night, Martinez played again and logged four hits. The same thing happened the next night. Again, Linares called Bennett.

“I said, ‘Ricky, this guy needs to play. The bat is there.'” Linares recalled.

The temporary solution? Move Martinez to first base. That experiment lasted about 20 games.

“When you’re moving guys around, the best transition is when you take them from the infield to the outfield,” Linares said. “If a guy’s an offensive player, moving them to the outfield takes away a lot — they’re not worried about making plays, bunt plays, all of that. But when you moved a guy from the outfield to the infield, you’re putting all of that stuff in their minds.”

And the rest is history. Martinez moved back to the outfield and by the end of 2010 was named the Astros’ Minor League Player of the Year. He was fast tracked to the big leagues, receiving the call up while with the Double-A Hooks a few weeks ago. One of Martinez’s first calls was fittingly to his former manager, whose belief in his pupil was the sole reason Martinez was getting this opportunity.

Linares was shopping at Wal-Mart and talking with his wife on the phone when Martinez’s call beeped in.

“I said to my wife, ‘I have to take this call,'” Linares said. At first, Martinez played it coy — just, as Linares remembered, “calling to say hi.”

“I said, ‘If you’re not calling me to tell me you’re going to the big leagues, I’m going to be upset,'” Linares laughed.

While some of the players the Astros have called up to the Majors are probably being rushed a bit, Linares feels Martinez will benefit from being forced to learn on the job, in the spotlight. The pitching is obviously better at this level which might be beneficial as Martinez continues to work to being a better pull hitter.

“He came in last year and there was still a lot of criticism because he wasn’t hitting home runs,” Linares said. “But when they get to the big leagues, it gets easier, because pitchers are more crisp, they’re around the zone. Hitters can focus more on getting the barrel out.”

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Danny Sheaffer, the Astros’ catching coordinator, is in town with the Legends this week. He is fresh off a visit to Kissimmee, Florida, where the Astros’ Gulf Coast League team plays. Catcher Jason Castro has been in Kissimmee for about four weeks, continuing he rehab from knee surgery resulting from an injury he suffered during Spring Training.

Sheaffer said that while Castro isn’t quite ready to start catching bullpens, he looks good, is in great shape and is hitting well.  Catching ‘pens should be coming in the near future. Castro is still on target to return to playing in 2012.
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Here’s a fun blog I came across on Twitter, titled, “What the Heck, Bobby? An Homage to Bobby Heck’s Efforts to Rebuild the Astros Farm System.” In this entry, we are given the rundown of the average ages of all of the Astros’ farm teams.

According to their research, the average age of the entire system — including the big league club and all affiliates — is 22 years, 306 days. The average age of the Lexington Legends? 22 years, 22 days.
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Other notables:

Keep an eye on Roberto Pena, a 19-year-old catcher from Puerto Rico who many feel has a future in the big leagues. He’s drawn comparisons to Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina at the same age. If Pena continues to progress, he could be Major League ready in a few years. …Legends reliever Murilo Gouvea relieved Tanner Bushue in the third inning Wednesday and pitched five shutout innings, striking out six batters and walking one. The Brazil native was signed by the White Sox as a 17-year-old in 2006. In his last 10 games, he has a 1.95 ERA, allowing 6 earned runs over 27 2/3 innings.

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Former No. 1 pick DeShields honing his skills in Lexington

When Delino DeShields Jr. was taken as the Astros’ first pick in the 2010 draft, he was an outfielder — a high school center fielder who had a little experience playing third base and no familiarity with second.

DeShields was elated to be taken in the first round, and then felt slightly confused when he found out the Astros took him as a second baseman. “I said, ‘Why is that?'” he said, laughing at the memory. “Now, it’s all second base.”

Draft picks don’t get to pick what position they play. They go where their teams tell them. DeShields signed late in 2010, played 18 games in the outfield and was told then from there on out, he was going to be a second baseman. “Don’t even try to go to the outfield,” DeShields remembered them telling him. “Don’t bring your outfield glove here, because you’re not going to be out there.”

The transition started during Instructional ball that fall and continued in earnest during Spring Training earlier this year. Before and after games, he was by himself on the backfields of the Astros’ spring complex, practicing, practicing, practicing. He had a few instructors looking after him, including Astros special assistant Matt Galante, who 20 years ago took on the daunting task of converting Craig Biggio from catcher to second base.

The tutoring sessions were relentless then, and that tradition apparently continues today. Galante had DeShields work with the same flat ping-pong type glove that Biggio used, although these days, it’s softer than the hard pad Biggio used.

The transition is an ongoing project, but after a couple of not-so-great games, DeShields, now the starting second baseman for the Class A Lexington Legends, started to take to the new position.

“It was rough at first,” he said. “But I got used to it and settled down a little bit.”


Legends manager Rodney Linares first saw DeShields play in Instructional League. He saw a very raw defensive player, and it was the consensus of the staff that this kid probably was going to struggle in the early-going. They were right.

“The first three games of the season, he had six or seven errors,” Linares said. “After that, I think he’s had eight or nine. He was Defensive Player of the Month for two months. He’s just been outstanding.”

It’s easy to place enormous expectations on young players who were drafted high. It’s also easy to forget just how young these players are. DeShields was all of 17 when he was drafted, and now, in his first full professional season, he’s still a week shy of his 19th birthday. He was drafted because of his superior raw athleticism. He was a high school standout in both football and baseball, lauded for his blazing speed and quick bat with the ability to hit line drives consistently.

Now, it’s just a matter of waiting for it to all come together. DeShields is not on the cusp of the big leagues — don’t expect a jump to Houston anytime soon — but Linares sees the Astros in DeShields’ future, someday.

“He’s still young,” Linares said. “He still has a lot to learn. Offensively, he’ll develop. He’s got short swing, great knowledge of the strike zone. He’s struck out a lot but he’s still learning a lot. I love what I’ve seen of Delino and I think he’s going to develop into a very solid major league player.”

DeShields struggled with the bat to start the season but hit a stride in July, batting .320 with 14 RBIs and 10 stolen bases. That was a vast improvement over his first three months. He hit .208 in April, .236 in May and .154 in June, contributing to a .222 overall average this year.

Admittedly, the early part of the season was more about getting acclimated at his position, and not so much at the plate.

“The first half, I was really just focused on second base and not hitting as much. And it showed,” he said. “The second half it was more about getting my hits, working on fundamentals at the plate and mixing in some bunts here and there which has helped me out a little bit.”

Linares has also noticed that DeShields, known as polite and quiet, has taken on a more serious demeanor these days. In the past, he’d mope if a play or a call from an umpire didn’t go his way. Now, he’s thinking more analytically.

“A few times we’ve talked in the dugout and his comments have been not Delino-ish,” Linares said. “At the beginning of the year he’d say something funny or whatever. Now it’s more of a Baseball 101. He’s always talking about what he should have done when he’s not playing.”

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Astros lineup 8/10 at Diamondbacks. First pitch 8:40 p.m. CT.

Minor League Report, August 10, 2011

By Rachel Frey

Three players from Short Season-A Tri-City ValleyCats have been chosen as New York-Penn League All-Stars: 3B Matt Duffy, CF Justin Gominsky and LHP Kyle Hallock. Duffy has a .291 batting average, with 15 doubles. Gominsky has a .269 batting average, and is fifth in the league with 31 total runs scored. Hallock is leading the league with a 1.79 ERA, and has struck out 39 batters and walked only eight batters over 40.1 innings pitched. The NYPL All-Star Game is on August 16 at LeLacheur Park in Lowell, MA.

Triple-A Oklahoma City RedHawks

IF Anderson Hernandez has a .294 batting average and 22 doubles and 44 walks during 110 games. He has also stolen 18 bases. RHP Andy Van Hekken is second on the Pacific Coast League’s pitchers with a 7-4 record and a 3.22 ERA and 97 strikeouts. RHP Sergio Perez is also on the list –he has a 4.25 ERA and 71 strikeouts.

Double-A Corpus Christi Hooks

IF James Van Ostrand has a .308 batting average with 21 doubles, and 11 home runs. He is one of the Top 10 ranked batters in the Texas League. IF Brandon Wikoff has a .316 batting average and has only struck out 24 times in 263 at bats. RHP Blake King has a 3.31 ERA over 32.2 innings pitched.

Class A Lancaster JetHawks

OF Austin Wates is batting .314 over 430 plate appearances, with 19 doubles, seven triples and six home runs. He also leads the team with 20 stolen bases. IF Jonathan Meyer leads the team with 11 home runs, and has a .260 batting average. RHP Kirk Clark ranks third in the league in saves with 17 over 45 innings pitched.

Class A Lexington Legends

IF Ben Orloff is batting .308 for the Legends, and has struck out just 18 times during 247 at bats. IF Mike Kvasnicka is batting .277, and leads the team in doubles (26) and runs batted in, with 51. RHP Jorge DeLeon is tied for the third lowest opponent batting average of all relievers in the South Atlantic League, with .211. He also has a 2.85 ERA over 47.1 innings pitched, and 13 saves.

Rookie League Greeneville Astros

IF Chase Davidson is ranked third on the Appalachian League list of Top 10 batters. He has a .342 batting average and has 54 hits, 11 of which are home runs. He also hit a grand slam on Sunday night. OF Jordan Scott is ranked fifth on the list, with a .330 batting average and 60 hits with 22 RBI. LHP Jeremiah Meiners has a 1-3 record, with 1 save over 29.2 innings pitched. He has also struck out 29 batters.

Rookie League GCL Astros

IF Yonathan Mejia has played in 32 games for the GCL Astros, and has 35 hits, seven doubles and 21 RBI. OF Wallace Gonzales is batting .333 with 12 hits over 10 games. Before he was promoted to Greeneville yesterday, RHP Juan Mojica had a 1.42 ERA over 19 innings pitched. He had 19 strikeouts, and had only walked nine batters. LHP Evan Grills currently has the second best walks to innings pitched ratio in the league, with just five walks issued over 24 innings pitched.

DSL Astros

OF Teoscar Hernandez leads the DSL Astros with a .298 batting average over 188 at bats. He also ranks third in the Dominican Summer League in extra base hits, with 25. LHP Reymin Guduan leads the team in  strikeouts with 54, and has a 2.25 ERA over 40 innings pitched. RHP Manual Sanchez has a 4-0 record with a 2.55 ERA, he has walked 12 batters.

Rachel Frey is the Social Media and Broadcasting Intern for the Houston Astros. She studies Public Relations at The University of Texas at Austin, where she spends most of her time attending Texas Football & Baseball games. Connect with Rachel on her Twitter account:@RachelFrey or on her MLBlog, A Temporary Perspective.

Astros lineup 8/9 at Diamondbacks. First pitch 8:40 p.m. CT

Astros lineup 8/8 at Diamondbacks. First pitch 8:40 CT

Today’s game can be viewed by all Astros fans on MLB.tv. The game will not be shown on FS Houston.

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