As part of the festivities surrounding the Class AAA All-Star Game in Buffalo last week, the players were given a tour of the Niagara Falls museum and taken on a spray-filled boat ride that brought them within a long home run of the famous falls themselves.
Like the falls, Reno All-Star Ryan Wheeler just keeps on rolling.
Wheeler had a single in the Pacific Coast League’s 3-0 victory over the American Association in the All-Star Game, then homered after returning to the Aces two days later while continuing his breakout season in his first year at the top minor league level.
Wheeler, 23, led the minor leagues with 90 RBIs through games of July 17, six more than anyone else, and was hitting .353, fourth in the PCL and third on his team behind leadoff hitter Adam Eaton (.388) and No. 2 hitter Jake Elmore (.373).
With Eaton and Elmore setting the table, the run-producing opportunities for Wheeler are bountiful since he moved to the No. 3 spot in the order a month or so ago, as he acknowledged the other day.
“To get RBIs, you have to have a good team, and luckily I do,” Wheeler said.
About Eaton, Elmore and occasional top-of-the-order hitter A.J. Pollock, Wheeler added, “They’re fast, too. They get on first and you hit a double, it’s an RBI. That’s nice.”
Wheeler is not necessarily a power hitter, although he homered off former teammate Jarrod Parker in mid-April and has 15 home runs for the Aces, one short of his career high set at Class AA Mobile last season. He was a key contributor on the BayBears Southern League championship team in 2011, when his gap-to-gap approach helped him to 30 doubles. He already has 26 at Reno.
The home runs are part of the natural evoluation of a hitter, D-backs director of player personnel Mike Bell said.
“He understands how to pull the ball, when to take a chance and pull the fastball, but he also stays with his strength, which is using the whole field. That’s something he will never get away from,” Bell said.
The step up to Class AAA required a bit of an adjustment to the higher level of pitching, but Wheeler hit his stride in late April and has seemingly played himself into consideration as a third base option for the D-backs going forward. He has a .574 slugging percentage and a .965 OPS while playing with many of his teammates from Mobile.
“It’s easy to show up to the park,” he said. “You know you are going to have a good time with the guys. It took me a couple of weeks to kind of slow the game back down. Even though the game didn’t change much, the guys are better here. I just had to swing at better pitches and just kind of let the game come to me.”
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Wheeler has played both corner infield positions and left field for Reno manager Brett Butler this season, moving around after the Aces signed third baseman Josh Bell in May. He was selected in the fifth round of the 2009 draft as a third baseman and spent most of his previous seasons two seasons there. He has taken it upon himself to do extra work at third this year, and at least once every series does footwork and agility drills with Reno strength coach Vaughn Robinson.
“I think that first-step reaction stuff has helped in the field,” said Wheeler, who has only six errors this season. “I know I’ve gotten to some balls in the hole that maybe I haven’t gotten to in the past. I was flailing my arms a little bit inefficiently. It was slowing down my body. So I’ve tweaked some technique stuff, too. I feel like I’m a little bit quicker.”
Wheeler has the ability to play third base at the top level, Bell said, although his versatility could work in his favor.
“He might be a guy who shows up in the big leagues and bounces around the field a little while he gets his feet wet,” Bell said.
In the long run, the position is less important than his eventual landing spot, Wheeler said.
“If they are trying to develop me as maybe more or a utility guy, that’s fine. I’ve always felt comfortable at first. I can stick at third, and I want to play there in the future. But it doesn’t matter to me. I just want to be in the lineup,” he said.
The D-backs have identified third base and shortstop as possible areas to firm up, and like almost everyone else, Wheeler has seen those stories, not that it has affected his play.
“I don’t know what to think, really,” he said. “It’s exciting. I’m glad I can play third base and they think they have a need. At the same time, if they really need a star there, you just kind of hope they don’t go out and get some big name.”
“It’s kind of mixed when you hear that, but I’ll be glad to fill the role if they think I can do it. I feel like I can hit with anybody. I know I’m going to have to continue to make adjustments, but I’m happy with how it’s progressed so far.”