Featured Image: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports
Media Day is always a hit or miss venture. You can only know a pitcher’s favorite pitch, a batter’s ideal walk-up song or a coach’s winning formula so many times. But the Frisco RoughRiders are always at the forefront of finding new ways to make the potentially droll task interesting.
So they invited FC Dallas soccer star Jacori Hayes to kick it around with some of the Riders’ players. Pitcher Yohander Mendez gave an admirable effort but it was Juremi Profar who really shined next to a professional soccer player.
“I grew up a soccer player. (Played) a lot of soccer. That’s our second sport,” Profar says about him and his older brother Jurickson, who you may have heard of.
Jurickson, now in Arlington with the big league club, played 126 games with the Riders in 2012, means Juremi is familiar with his new surroundings. “When he played here, I came here on vacation to watch him play. I like it here so much, I’m happy to be here right now.”
The former unanimous top prospect in baseball’s advice? “It’s the same baseball, keep doing what you’re doing. You’re gonna be good, it’s gonna be fun.”
Also on hand was the team’s “unofficial fifth mascot” (and yes they have four regulars), Brooks. The golden retriever is going to have a part in in-game entertainment this year, another way the organization is trailbazing the Minor League Baseball game. If you want to follow the adorable Brooks on Twitter, it’s 2017 and you can.
Joe Mikulik enters his third season as the Manager of the Frisco RoughRiders. Affectionally called “Mik” by well, just about everyone, he’s beloved in and out of the clubhouse and you can feel the excitement in his voice as the new season begins.
He’s inheriting a large number of new players (again), players with championship experience. Led by top prospect Mendez, 13 of the opening night RoughRiders were on the 2015 championship team in Low-A Hickory. A whopping 17 played on 2016’s High Desert championship squad in High-A.
“I talked to some of these guys about the accomplishments they’ve had,” says Manager Mikulik. “It’s not easy to win a championship in the Minor Leagues. It’s very difficult. What they’ve done the past couple years and their journey to here has been outstanding. Nothing changes, it’s the game of baseball.
“I think the biggest thing for them is to maintain their confidence. Embrace the struggles that come along the way. Double-A is a challenging level. Back in the day we called it ‘the separator.’ I believe these young men are ready for the challenge. If you ask them, they’ve got that confidence.”
A player on both of those teams is catcher Jose Trevino, ranked the #7 prospect in the Rangers’ system by MLB.com. A shortstop in college and drafted as a second baseman “or something” as he puts it, he’s become one of the entire league’s top catching prospects. Mikulik is excited to coach the renowned clubhouse leader...even though for him it’s a year too late.
“I’ve been a Trevino fan ever since I met the guy. He’s been outstanding. I tried to get him here last year. I almost got fired trying to get him here (laughs). I wanted him here. He’s such a leader. They call people natural born leaders, he’s such a leader. Without me appointing a captain, he came in my office today and already started asking ‘what do we do here? what are we gonna wear?’
“Every once in awhile you’ll find some guys that lead. We’ve had them in the past. I think he takes it to the next level. He’s not afraid to call you out. The thing about it is when you watch him play, watch him prepare and watch him work, he’s gonna lead by example. Not only vocally but by what he does and what he brings to the table everyday.”
He’s talked ad nauseam about his leadership skills, but still speaks with excitement, as if the opportunity to answer the questions over and over is the highlight of his day.
“It’s just something that always came to me. My high school coach would always say ‘hey there’s no “C” on your jersey but this is your team so take control of it.’ It’s just something that comes with it. Especially being back behind the plate, you’ve gotta take on that role.”
Moving to catcher made a player that was already a born leader a literal leader. Historically, catchers are in charge of a lot of what a team does and Trevino embraces the challenge and privilege to be that guy.
“Yeah, without a doubt I think it did. Like I said, as a catcher you have to have that. I tell young kids coming up (that catch) ‘you’re not designated this but you are the captain. By me, I don’t even know who’s on your team but you’re the captain. Shortstop yeah, pitcher yeah, but everybody’s looking at you.”
The RoughRiders will begin the year with an impressive trio of pitchers: Yohander Mendez (ranked #2 by MLB.com) reached the Majors last season but will step back to Double-A to further materialize his arsenal. Ariel Jurado (#3) tasted Double-A last season and is now back for the full course. Connor Sadzeck (ranked #11) will be the opening night starter.
He’s predictably ecstatic. “First one of my career so yeah, it’s pretty cool. It’ll be fun, I’m really looking forward to it and being able to kind of set the tone for the season. It means a lot to me.”
Sadzeck, 25, has been a difficult player to figure out. A member of the 40-man roster, he was a phone call away from a big league spot start last season. He’ll return to Double-A with a fresh mindset about the pitcher he wants to be.
“At the end of your day, I think you’re gonna pitch to your strengths. Depending on the situation of the game. If you look earlier in my career back in 2015, I used a lot of two-seamers and I got a lot of ground balls, (had) low strikeouts and I got deep into games. I think the shift was after surgery and starting to throw hard, to kind of get away from that and throw the four-seamer because that might be sexier. (Rangers closer Sam) Dyson told me that a 94-95 two-seamer is gonna be better than a 99 straight nine times out of ten.”
With so many new players coming in from successful teams in Low-A and High-A, Sadzeck has over 150 innings of experience in Double-A and is one of the leaders of the clubhouse.
“I think we have a lot of guys on this team who are leaders and some veterans. I think it’s just a lead by example thing and we’re all gonna collectively go about our business the right way. Hopefully the young guys will grow and we’ll all get better together, older or younger.”
A sentiment echoed by Mik. “I think the clubhouse is handled by the players. This is a time where I think you allow them to police themselves. You gotta get them ready because if you go to our big league club, there’s a certain group that are policing that clubhouse. It starts with Adrian Beltre policing that group. These guys have to understand that it starts here.
“In A-ball, you’re more hands on. You’re more getting into a routine, learning how to wear a uniform, how to show up. Here it starts where you’ve got to be more of a man and understand your responsibilities. Nobody is gonna babysit you anymore. Throughout the system --being in big league camp around Banny (Rangers Manager Jeff Banister)-- that’s what we’re trying to do throughout the Minor League system is to get guys to hold each other accountable and make each other a better player.”
One of the more intriguing prospects in the Texas farm system is Isiah Kiner-Falefa. Like Trevino, he is an infielder turned catcher. But “Izzy” (or “Kiner)” has remained an infielder, obtaining flexibility as a potentially high-valued utility player.
In 2016, he played every position of the diamond except pitcher and the corner outfield spots. The plan for this year is already in place.
“He’s gonna catch,” Mikulik tells me. “I think we’ve got him slated for about 40 games behind the plate so I’ve gotta manage that accordingly. Jose’s gonna catch, we’d like to get him 100 games. You manage that accordingly with the schedule, the travel and all that’s going on. Kiner has to play second, he has to play short, third, he has to get behind the plate for 40 games.”
Kiner-Falefa played an emergency inning of outfield last season and I asked Mikulik if he’ll return to the grass beyond the dirt in 2017. “Not right now. I’ve got six outfielders so I wish I could say yes to that. So eventually maybe. Unless the higher-ups say ‘throw him in left field.’ It’s not a bad idea. Last year he ran out to center field when we had nine guys. I would trust him out there.”
The RoughRiders clubhouse is once again going to be a very fun place, a cohesive environment and a place for young players and veterans to grow as players. Exemplified by Profar’s attitude to where he’ll play on the depth chart, as he’s played all four infield spots in his Minor League career (and caught a game, but don’t expect that to happen again), you can see what kind of mutual respect takes place in Frisco.
“I mean it’s Mik’s call. Wherever he puts me, I’m good with it. I’ll play everywhere in the infield. I’m good with that.”