Starting this month, Pirates Prospects will be introducing a new feature to the site called “The View From the Booth”. On the fourth Monday of every month, we will interview a different broadcaster from one of the minor league affiliates, getting their opinion on how the team they follow looks, as well as some insight on that level of the system. With the 2011 draft recently taking place, and new players entering the system, it was only appropriate that we started off with Joe Putnam in State College, as most players from the draft start off with the Spikes.
Joe is the Media Relations Manager and a radio broadcaster for the Spikes, a position he has held since 2008. In 2007, he worked with the Auburn Doubledays as the assistant director of broadcasting and media relations, and covered Auburn as they won the 2007 New York-Penn League title. He graduated from Syracuse University in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in Broadcast Journalism.
1. What’s been your impression early in the season with the Spikes?
It’s tough to tell. It’s early in the year. Obviously there’s been some offensive struggles, a couple of shutout losses, but also a shutout victory. That was important, and they battled back against Auburn. Overall, this is a team that’s really influx, because you’ve still got college guys on the way. I mean, I know (Alex Dickerson) from Indiana, I’ve heard that he is destined to come here at some point. It’s just a matter of when. And he would obviously be a big help. And there are guys that are still to be signed from the draft that are coming here, that can help. In years past you have guys like Matt Curry, who signed in the middle of last season, came in and immediately jump started the offense, was smashing the ball all over the place. We’ve had other guys like that as well.
More-so it’s for hitting purposes that you see guys coming in the middle of the season that really help out, because the pitchers, usually they’ve been worked in the collegiate season, coming off the draft, and they come in, and you only see them maybe an inning, two innings, and they ramp them up, and by the end of the year you see them three or four, maybe even five. Right now it’s a team that has certainly seen some struggles, but then again, this may be in no way, shape, or form the team we see in September. I hate to kind of cop-out, but it’s too early to tell.
2. How does it affect the clubhouse with new players coming in from the draft, players leaving to make space this early in the season. It seems like it’s almost every day that a new player is added at this point.
At this point every day is turnover. I’m kind of surprised that it took five days for us to add new guys. That’s just the way it is. The guys, I think, are really good about dealing with it, because a lot of them, even the ones that come up from (Extended Spring Training), they’re used to roster turnover. They’ve been to the Gulf Coast League, and even if this is their first year, they know what they’re getting in to. They know the rules of the game. It’s just a matter of adjusting, and at this level more-so than others there may be some more constant adjustments just because, for some players this is their first professional experience. For some, they may be in their third or even fourth years. You know, you have Dominican guys who have played two years down there, and then they come up here and play in the GCL, and this is their fourth professional season, maybe even their fifth. I think the guys handle it pretty well though.
3. The big prospect at the level is Stetson Allie. You saw his debut the other night. What were your thoughts?
Stetson started off with a strikeout, strong start for him. First professional appearance, and he said after the game that he thought maybe the strikezone was squeezed a little bit on him. But Stetson is still a guy who’s learning, just like all of these guys are. He’ll readily admit that, and that’s what he’s here for this year, is to learn. Actually, it was funny, he was talking with TribLive in Pittsburgh, and they asked him ‘Are you looking to move up?’, and he knows, he’s just 19, but he knows you know ‘I’d like to, but what I want to do is learn’. In terms of that, it’s a great attitude to have. So I think we’ll see a lot of improvement out of Allie. I don’t think he’d say that was his best outing, but then again, it was his first, and he hasn’t pitched in official action since last Spring. So it was nice to see him, and I know the crowd enjoys seeing a top prospect out there, and I think we’ll see good things going forward with Stetson.
4. With the pitchers, a big thing that’s talked about is the “fastball academy” here in State College. Pitchers throwing 90% fastballs, opposing pitchers knowing what’s coming. How does that go over here, with the development taking priority over focusing on winning games?
The fans here would certainly love to see the team win games, but we try to kind of educate fans from day one that this is a level that…we all want to see wins too. Everybody wants to win, all the players, all the coaches down there want to win. But the most important thing is getting guys ready to go for the next level. It can still be an enjoyable time, we have all sorts of promotions here at the park. Tonight’s comedy night. And we have all the offers for fans that help them save some money, coming out to the games here in this economy. It really goes to the fact that the coaches, they know that they’re looking to develop guys, but at the same time you talk about the “fastball academy”, it is important to learn the fastball, and I know from talking to the coaches that have been through here that the fastball is the most important pitch in your repertoire, unless you’re a specialist like a knuckleballer, or a total junk thrower. But you don’t see too many of them at this level, and if you do, you usually don’t see them last too long.
I think they have tried to change that up, that it’s no longer first pitch fastball every time, and I know that was something that has been talked about. But they have tried to vary it up. 2008 was a realization of that, that they just had to vary things up. And I think Kyle Stark would say that. It’s just something that is kind of a balance between development and winning games. The thing about it, and I think Gary Robinson expressed it best, if you develop well here, you will win games as a result. I think that’s the tack they’re taking, and I think that’s a good tack they’re taking.
5. The last two years we’ve seen a lot of toolsy guys, like Mel Rojas Jr. last year. Do you notice any improvement from when those guys first enter the level to the end of the year with their development?
Definitely. There’s definitely improvement from those guys. You see guys like Rojas, and you see guys even throughout the season who are speed guys strictly from the beginning. And I think we see a lot of speedy outfielders from the beginning, but they’re guys who are learning additional skills, and they’ll develop those tools. Same thing with the pitchers. They may come in, have an A-plus fastball, and they’re working on their change, on their curve, on their slider. Sort of helping that along. And I think you definitely see improvement. You can’t help but see improvement. These guys play pretty much every day for two and a half, three months. So really, I think it comes down to the fact that just the repetitions they get here really help their improvement, and help them move up to the next level, whether it’s West Virginia, Bradenton, or whatever is next.
6. You’ve been here since 2008. Who are some of the memorable prospects who have come through here during that time?
I was in the league in 2007, I worked for Auburn at the time, and I came in and saw Danny Moskos here, back when “Daniel” was all he was known by. Seeing him, it was nice to see him. It was obviously just one outing, so you can’t draw anything from it. But he definitely has become a great reliever. Tony Watson, I saw in 2007. He was a great prospect. I mean, he dominated this league. He had I think something like a 2.6 ERA (Editor’s Note: it was 2.52), which was top five in the league in that season. So he’s a guy that impressed me. Brock Holt, another guy, shortstop. I mean, he was a gamer for sure. And he could hit the ball. They actually put him in the leadoff spot, kind of a third of the way through the season, and that’s where he really thrived, because he has that perfect comination.
And then two other guys, actually three guys who really impressed me. One was Cole White. Coming from the US Army, he was a great leadoff hitter himself, before he got called back to the Army, and then coming back here and seeing him perform again was just a thrill for our fans, really impressive. And with very little training time, obviously serving our country, he still was able to maintain those skills and really bring them to the fore here when he came back last season. And then the other two guys are Matt Curry, pure hitter from day one here. Was smashing the ball all over the place. And David Rubinstein is a guy that really exemplifies what this level is all about: improvement. He came in year one, he had some struggles in 2008. Picked it up later in the season, in his first pro season out of Appalachian State. Then the second season he came back, he was a steady, productive player, and he’s just moved up the ranks since then.
7. The mixture of guys at the level, you’ve got a lot of guys from the Dominican League, you’ve got a lot of guys from the high school ranks, but then you also add a lot of older guys who were college juniors, college seniors coming from the draft. Generally it seems like this league is more, because of the draft, college friendly. Do you feel it’s kind of an aggressive push to put high school players here, and do you notice any players struggling with it from the Dominican or high school ranks?
In terms of high school, there is definitely no push to get high schoolers up here first. The really talented ones, the ones that you can tell from just watching them on tape from wherever they are that they are going to be studs one day, those are the guys that come here, and those are very, very rare. So this is definitely a college friendly league, in terms of the draft. In terms of Dominican players, and the mixture, and how they react and adjust, it really is an adjustment for them. Usually they’ll go in the Gulf Coast League, and they’ll get used to playing in America, and then come here under the lights, game in and game out. That takes some getting used to. I think we see it from Carlos Mesa here this year. He’s Cuban, not Dominican, but he’s still going through that adjustment as well. Cayonez, the same thing. So it is an adjustment for them, but really it’s just like any other player. The talent shines through. Emotionally, yeah there may be an adjustment away from home and all of that. These guys do find ways to cope, and in our technological era, with Skype and all of that, it becomes a little bit easier. It isn’t always the easiest thing. But if a guy can hit, if a guy can run, he’ll show it. He’ll be here, and he’s just a contributor, just like everybody else.
I think the biggest thing is, with the mixture of players, with the crossroads that we have, it’s the language barrier. But I think a lot of guys in baseball know that there is a strong, Spanish speaking contingent, and so I kind of like to say it’s “Ballplayer Spanish”. Everybody knows that, so they can communicate with each other. Kind of that Spanglish sort of thing. But they find ways to communicate, and it’s great that they do that here, because that’s what they’re gonna have to do all the way up in to the pros. You see it more and more now up in the majors. The Venezuelan players, the Dominizan players, they are right there in the thick of things with the American players. The earlier everybody can make the adjustment to just being all together, the quicker you can put a successful product out on the field, here and in higher levels.
8. You mentioned Carlos Mesa. He’s kind of a mysterious signing, he just showed up on the roster one day. Has there been any insight, and back story to his signing?
To be honest with you, we are still digging for details on Carlos. But he, defecting from Cuba, we just picked up a detail today that he went to El Salvador, and flew from there to America. He just wanted to get here, get away from there, and find his way. I’ll tell you, he’s the happiest guy in the club house. He’s all smiles, all the time. I mean, sure, after a loss everyone is kind of down, but before the game there’s nobody who is more up than him. He knows, probably more-so than any other player, what it’s like to not be able to do this the way you want to, to not be able to earn a living doing this. For Carlos, another big adjustment, but he’s been through so much already that what’s out there on the field probably doesn’t phase him all that much.
9. The Pirates have placed a large focus on the draft, ever since the new management group took over. We’ve really been seing that a lot the last two years, with guys like Zack Von Rosenberg, Colton Cain, Zack Dodson last year, and then again this year with Stetson Allie, Nick Kingham. Has that led to an increased interest in the Spikes, and in guys at this level?
Oh, for sure. Last year it was almost an embarrassment of riches. We had five guys, grew to six, seven, that were really tip-top prospects for the Pirates, here with the Spikes. This year Stetson Allie is a guy, we’ve been hyping him up, and he’s worth the hype for sure, and fans will see that as the season progresses. There’s always an interest in the top prospects. You see a mania that’s come about for guys like (Stephen Strasburg) and (Bryce Harper), and I don’t just say that because we’re playing the Nationals’ affiliate today. But you see the mania that accompanies them, and it’s well justified, because people are always looking for the next phenom. They’re always looking for the next big thing, and they’re able to see it right here in front of them in their own home town. Stetson Allie coming here, and guys like Von Rosenberg, like Dodson, Cain, (Brooks Pounders) last year as well.
That’s always the thing. The Bucs Start Here. This is where guys like Tony Watson, like Daniel Moskos got their start. Guys like Chase d’Arnaud played here. Matt Hague, Brian Friday, I mean, they’re guys at AAA right now, on the doorstep to the majors. That’s a real big attraction for people around here, I think. Of course this is a winning town, I mean Penn State is just across the street, you’ve got Beaver Stadium there. So people around here know winning, but they also know talent, and that’s what they’re seeing out here pretty much every night now.
10. You’ve got the players, but for the fans, what are some of the things you guys do, some of the regular promotions you have to kind of give the fans more incentive to come out and see the games?
Everyday of the week we have the daily fan value promotions. Every day of the week there’s a special offer that benefits families, that helps their wallets as they come out to the game. It’s “Central PA’s Best Family Value” is what we promote it as. On Mondays it’s “Dollar Dog Mondays”, every hot dog is just one dollar. Tonight is a half price Wednesday. Our bleacher tickets are half priced. We’ve got half priced sodas, half priced beers. So those types of things, Buc Bleacher Tuesdays, 4 for $44 Fridays, you get four seats right behind the plate, four hot dogs, and four sodas for $44, I mean that’s a great deal. And I think people really respond to that. And in addition, you have the promotions that are just times to have fun. Like tonight’s comedy night. It’s the first time we’ve ever had a comedy night here at the ballpark, but we’re going to have comedians performing throughout the game, it’s all about laughing it up here this evening. So you have things like that. I know later on this season, we have the “First Base Giveaway” on the night of tribute to managerial implosions. Any coincidence is strictly coincidental. But it’s all about keeping it a fun, family atmosphere around here. Giving fans the most entertainment for their dollar, and I think we’re able to do that on a night in, night out basis.