Great Lakes, single A affiliate of the Dodgers, and defending league champs, have won two straight games as they begin to warm up along with the weather. It has been a cold start to the Midwest League for the entire region. Average temperatures in the 40’s, wind chill factors below that, with the occasional game snowed out. That chill has certainly extended to the Loons bats. Until Luis Paz got hot the last couple games, with his walk off home run on Sunday and 3-4 performance yesterday, he was hitting south of .100. At a glance it would appear many players have had a tough time at the plate to begin the young season. Oneil Cruz, Mitchell Hansen, Cody Thomas and Gage Green all have batting averages below .200 currently. To only peak at the box score would ignore the quality at-bats that these young men are having and hard contact they’re making. Some of the outs are smashed, but, right at a defender. Loons fans have seen all of these players hit some scorchers, unless they fall in for a hit, the box score still shows a zero for that plate appearance. You can’t see minor league development from numbers alone. Perhaps the most perspective one could truly attain on these players, and the team as a whole, is to speak with their leader. Loons Manager Jeremy Rodriguez told me, “this team doesn’t quit. They have a lot of heart, a lot of energy, a lot of passion and that’s all I really want from my guys.”
Jeremy Rodriguez, born in Burbank and grew up in Southern California, is in his first season with the Dodgers Organization after spending the last seven years with the Padres. He was a minor league catcher for five seasons and Managed for the Friars’ Dominican Summer League team the last two years. Before his professional career, Rodriguez played collegiately at California State University, Bakersfield. He prepped at Crespi High in Encino. Before he played for a varsity team, before he attended high school, Jeremy took lessons on baseball and hitting from Reggie Smith. Perhaps there is no one more qualified to impart knowledge on the game than Mr. Smith. The Loons dropped their first four games of the season against the Lansing Lugnuts, before winning at Lake County 6-2 on April 10th. Win number one for the Padres former 16th round draft pick, the Roadrunner alum responded, “Great experience for me to get that first one as a Dodger and the first one in the United States. Definitely awesome to get it out of the way, the guys really pulled together and it was great.” Wondering about such an achievement, I asked who he felt shares in that victory with him? “My father,” was his statement after telling me that he could go on for a half hour about all the people that helped him along the way. Jeremy continued, “he was my number one coach my whole life, still is.” The Manager at Midland went on to speak of his high school coach at Crespi, the late Scott Muckey, and his coaches while in college, Bill Kernen and Joey Robinson. “I have been very blessed with a good group of coaches.” Pure baseball wisdom. Patience, a virtue for any Manager, particularly one managing 19 year old talent in the Midwest League. Jeremy has that engrained in his baseball DNA. A true benefit for the development of the Loons players of today and the future.
In our interview from spring training last month, Interview with Jeremy Rodriguez ST ’17 , we spoke about players who’s talent “jumped out” at him. Carlos Rincon and Keibert Ruiz were two names the former catcher mentioned immediately. Rincon has started the 2017 season as the Loons most productive and arguably most consistent hitter thus far. He and Brendon Davis, .333 and .327 respectively, are the main-stays of the lineup in this young season. When scouting reports begin to circulate about you, as they have about Rincon, the true tests come. The Midwest League has already begun to pitch him differently. Rincon, like any young power hitting prospect, must make the necessary adjustments. According to his Manager, Rincon is passing his early tests. “He is learning, which is great!” Rodriguez added, “he is making adjustments.” Those are high remarks from the skipper about his young hitting protégé. Rincon has seen much more off speed and breaking balls lately. He has remained on the ball, with his weight back. Going deep in counts and hitting the ball sharply. Carlos Rincon is the #24th ranked prospect on the Dodgers very talented Top 30 List.
Carlos Rincon 2017 Stats
Keibert Ruiz is also ranked on that list, #13. The young catcher from Venezuela that the Dodgers organization is so excited about has shown great promise early. In late March, Manager Rodriguez said, “I expect my catchers to take control of the defense and the pitching staff. I expect great communication and leadership.” That department has not been a concern for the Loons as Ruiz and Steve Berman have been more than effective in handling the pitching staff. Watching Ruiz behind the plate, his footwork, poise, and framing abilities, it is easy to see why he is valued so highly. Catching and defense may be the first thoughts when the name Keibert Ruiz is mentioned, but his at bats have been solid as well. The young backstop has come up with some important run producing at bats. As Jeremy Rodriguez noted, “he clutched up that at bat! He grinded it out.” We had been speaking of Keibert’s recent 6th inning at bat, with 2 outs,and Rincon at 3B. Ruiz had a 9 pitch at bat before stroking a single to centerfield. When the Manager confirms it as a “professional” at-bat, you know it’s accurate.
Loons Pitching Well
The Loons pitching staff have shown early success and strides to keep pitch counts down and limit runs. Starting pitching, in particular has been especially consistent and impressive. Led by A.J. Alexy and Jordan Sheffield , the staff has kept the Loons in position to give the team a chance at a victory. Dustin May (2.93 ERA) and Devin Smeltzer (2.25 ERA) have also had great starts to the ’17 season. Parker Curry and Willian Soto have pitched “lights out” coming from the bullpen. Jeremy Rodriguez and his catching staff have some of the most highly touted pitching prospects in the system, pitching for them. That’s got to be a good feeling, especially in comparison to the cold of the Midwest League. I asked the general of the Loons dugout about one of his youngest starting pitchers. The Skipper describes A.J. Alexy in this way, “He competes…like every time he goes up there I can never tell if he has his best stuff or he has his worst stuff that day because of his confidence on the mound, his attitude and the way he goes about his business. That’s something I have been impressed with especially for such a young pitcher.” As far as compliments a Manager could bestow on a young pitcher, this quote is among the best. It will be interesting to watch these young pitchers develop this season.
If the hitting can heat up and match the pitching, this team will be doing plenty of winning this season. However, the best thing that can happen to these players is to stay injury free and to develop. These young men will benefit from the experience that Jeremy Rodriguez brings to the clubhouse and the field. He has played in countless games behind the plate, for some of the most knowledgeable coaches baseball has to offer. The Dodgers family as a whole benefits from the new Loons Field Manager. Two more games at Dow Diamond versus Lake County, then the Loons travel to Dayton to play a four game set against the Reds affiliate. No shortage of talent on this roster! Go Loons and Go Dodgers!!
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Loons Manager Jeremy Rodriguez told me, “this team doesn’t quit. They have a lot of heart, a lot of energy, a lot of passion and that’s all I really want from my guys.”