MadFriars’ Year-End Recap: Fort Wayne TinCaps

Nick Torres for the Fort Wayne TinCaps.  

Jeff Nyez

Summary: The TinCaps were again one of the youngest teams in the league. After a rough April and May, they found their groove and turned into one of the better stories in the Padres’ system as they qualified for their seventh straight playoff appearance before falling in the first round.

Top Players: Outfielder Nick Torres established himself as a professional hitter with the TinCaps before being promoted to Lake Elsinore in mid-July. His 44 doubles were good enough to finish second overall in the minor leagues but in order to further establish himself as a big-time prospect, he will need to get some more of them over the wall. First baseman Trae Santos also got some attention but shortstop Ruddy Giron was the top position prospect and may have one of the highest ceilings of anyone in the organization.

Pitching was the biggest difference maker for the TinCaps this summer. Righty Dinelson Lamet came out of nowhere to emerge as the top pitcher and top pitching prospect. Left-handed starter Thomas Dorminy also stood out and relief pitcher Colby Blueberg led the organization in saves.

Fort Wayne has the most media coverage of any team in the organization, with its home games all broadcast on television. MadFriars had interviews with Kevin Fitzgerald who bounced between the television and radio booth and long-time TinCaps’ radio announcer Mike Maahs along with Chris Goff, the beat writer from the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette.

As can be expected, Sam Geaney, the Padres Direct of Player Development, couldn’t have been happier with the way the season turned out, and especially with the job by first year manager Francisco Morales.

Minor League Announcer Series: John Nolan

John Nolan is the broadcasting and media relations manager for the Fort Wayne TinCaps. In addition to his managerial role in the front office, Nolan also spends countless hours in the clubhouse and the broadcast booth. Nolan has been with the TinCaps for the past three seasons and is a graduate of Syracuse University’s prestigious Newhouse School of Communication. He was gracious enough to share his thoughts on what was a great season for the TinCaps.

You have been covering the TinCaps for a while now. How does this team compare to previous years?

John Nolan: For the third time in as many years for me in Fort Wayne, the TinCaps made the Midwest League Playoffs. But the path to get there this season was unique from the get-go. (It was the seventh season in a row overall the TinCaps made the postseason, by the way, which is the longest active streak in all of Minor League Baseball.)

First, you have the opening three games of the season at Great Lakes wiped out by rain and a bad field. Then you finally play an Opening Day and blow a ninth-inning lead at home. The next day, your hometown star, and a prospect, Josh VanMeter, breaks his leg. You wind up beginning 0-3 and then all of a sudden you’re 12-25 by mid-May.

At that point, I think most would’ve responded to an inquiry about making the playoffs in Jim Mora fashion, and understandably so. The TinCaps were leading the league in the categories you don’t want to — most errors, highest ERA, most walks, fewest strikeouts, etc. Well, yada, yada, yada, it ends up being the third winningest season in Fort Wayne franchise history and the team wins a division title for the first time since 2009. Along the way, the TinCaps set franchise records for consecutive home wins (17) and walk-offs (11), while tying the franchise record for consecutive wins overall (10).

It was really a tale of two halves. The team couldn’t win a game in the first half, and looked like an unbeatable juggernaut in the second half. What was the biggest contributor to the change in the team?

John Nolan: The turning point came midway through the first half. On Sunday, May 17, the TinCaps were no-hit for seven innings at Bowling Green and were blown out to drop to 11-23 on the season. As the team then took a 7-8 hour bus ride to Lake County, Ohio, things looked pretty bleak. In 2014, the TinCaps were bad, but then Trea Turner arrived and the outlook changed. Since the Padres didn’t have a top 50 draft pick this year, it was a challenge to "stay positive," which was the mantra of manager Francisco Morales ("Mo") from the moment he arrived in Fort Wayne in April.

Anyway, the next day, the Padres assigned an 18-year-old shortstop from the Dominican, Ruddy Giron, to the TinCaps. Ruddy hit .168 in the hitter-friendly Arizona League the year before. It was hard to imagine he’d make much of an impact in the Midwest League. If nothing else, there was no way he’d do anything in his debut since he had to travel all day from Arizona to suburban Cleveland. Then… boom. He became just the second player in franchise history, and the first in 22 years, to have a six-hit game. His sixth hit in the victory was a towering home run. All of a sudden, the TinCaps had another catalyst for success playing shortstop.

The turnaround wasn’t that simple, though. The TinCaps actually lost the next two days at Lake County and were about to lose the series finale on a Thursday afternoon. Down 5-3 in the ninth, Mo called on Duanel Jones (the team’s best hitter in April and May before his promotion to Double-A San Antonio) to pinch hit with a runner at first. Sure enough, D.J. hit a two-run homer to tie it (off J.P. Feyereisen, a guy who allowed only those two runs in 16.2 IP in the MWL before he was called up himself), and the TinCaps went on to win their longest game of the season, 9-5, in 14 innings.

You also can mark that day down because of how the bullpen pitched — six consecutive scoreless innings to end it. Through the first 37 games of the season, the bullpen had a 4.65 ERA. Over the final 101 games, the bullpen posted a 2.20 ERA. Along with the relievers, the starters progressively improved, too. By season’s end, the TinCaps led the Eastern Division in ERA (3.35) and WHIP (1.28).

Going back to Ruddy’s arrival — that was big not only because of how he took the league by storm offensively, but also because of how it helped to shore up the team’s defense. With Ruddy at short, Franchy Cordero moved to left field.

The team had two of the youngest players in the league in Luis Urias and Ruddy Giron. They went from relatively unknown players to top prospects. As someone who sees them playing every day was there any part of their game that the average fan wouldn’t know just by checking the box scores every day?

John Nolan: Despite being the youngest players in the league, I think both Luis and Ruddy are mature beyond their years, and that shows on the field and off. Considering how if they were American, they would’ve been worrying about prom and high school graduation this summer, it was amazing to see how they performed and carried themselves like true professionals. While both obviously have tremendous talent, their respective work ethics have set them apart from their peers at this stage. They’re humble and soft-spoken, yet still confident.

I’d say the box score doesn’t tell you that the majority of Luis’ hits were line drives the opposite way to right field. He showed defensive versatility and a strong arm by playing seven games at shortstop and five at third base, and looked capable at both spots, although second base figures to be his best position. Also, he prides himself on his hustle, as evidenced by Instagramming a photo of his uniform entirely covered in dirt after one game.

Ruddy may have hit nine home runs from May 18-Aug. 6, but in his own words, he’s not a power hitter. He says he’s a line-drive hitter who’s able to generate some power as a result of his incredibly quick hands and bat speed. He may have been charged with 24 errors, but I’d say he’s very impressive defensively. A few errors were tough breaks, while he certainly took away hits from opponents with his range and arm strength. After his six-for-six debut, he hardly seemed impressed with himself and said straight-faced that it was his goal to do it again the next day.

Both Giron and Urias also seemed to slump towards the end of the season. Do you think this was a matter of MWL pitchers finally catching up to them, or more of them just being tired after their first full season?

John Nolan: I’d say it was a combination of both. In the case of Luis, with his propensity for hitting the ball the other way, pitchers started to challenge him inside more often. For Ruddy, it was the opposite, as he saw more breaking balls away.

I think they’re both capable of making the necessary adjustments going forward, but surely it was tough for them to do so down the stretch of the season. Luis played in 16 more games this year than he did in 2014, while Ruddy doubled his use, going from 48 games played to 96.

Thomas Dorminy was a surprise pick by the TinCaps to be their opening day starter (a game that was rained out). He held the title well, being either first or second in nearly every pitching category. What stood out to you about Dorminy?

John Nolan: Before going into what impressed me about Dorm from a pitching standpoint, one thing that stood out when he was on the mound was his demeanor. Regardless of the situation, he was pretty much unflappable. Now he was consistently good, so most of the time he remained even-keeled as he managed success. But even when things weren’t going his way — and he had the worst luck of any TinCaps pitcher this season — he stayed stoic. Dorm ended the season with back-to-back starts of seven scoreless innings and struck out a career-high seven in his final outing. I think only then did we see him show as much emotion as a couple fist pumps.

Along with that, Dorm is one of those pitchers you’d describe as a "bulldog." Pitching coach Burt Hooton paid Thomas a great compliment by comparing him to Dallas Keuchel. (Burt coached Keuchel in Triple-A Oklahoma City in ’11 and ’12.) His stuff isn’t necessarily electric, yet this year it was highly effective. He can command not only his fastball, but also his changeup, slider, and curveball. Heck, if Burt would’ve allowed it, I think we could’ve seen a decent knuckleball, too.

Expanding on that "bulldog" comment, his ability and competitiveness kept the TinCaps in essentially every game he started. There were a couple times when he didn’t seem to have a good feel for his fastball, but made do relying extensively on his secondary pitches — more so than anyone else here this year.

And again, he’s one of those guys who put in the work to get better. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he was at his best finishing the season when many others around the league tend to fade. 

Colby Blueberg blew away the MWL. The last half of the season he was nearly unhittable with batters hitting just .150 off of him. He did so well that people are comparing his numbers to former TinCap Kevin Quackenbush who also demolished the MWL (0.84 ERA, 12 hits, 38 K in 21.1 innings). Do you think this is a fair comparison for Blueberg?

John Nolan: There’s no denying both were dominant as TinCaps — Blueberg for four-plus months and Quackenbush for his couple months in Fort Wayne in 2011.

With that said, I don’t recall Blue ever sporting a beard this season, although he did have a pretty nasty mustache going on for a bit. (You can interpret nasty however you want, haha.) Another stark difference between the two would be their physical builds. Quack’s a big dude at 6-4, 220. Blue’s more averaged sized at 6-foot, 185.

Now despite that, you could make a case for them having similar styles. Beyond how they’re both right-handers, they have effective low-to-mid 90s fastballs and keep hitters off-balance with a good breaking ball. For Quackenbush, that’s a curveball and for Blueberg, that’s a slider with a curveball grip. Maybe the most important similarity is having the confidence to attack hitters even without a 100 MPH fastball, they still had the mental toughness to do it in late-game, and in high-pressure situations.

Ever since Dan Robertson was a TinCap in 2009, I always thought an award should be given for hustle and heart. This might not be the player who puts up the best numbers, but someone who comes to the ballpark every day, gives 110% every time, and whether the score is tied or down by 15, they are willing to do anything to help the team. Who on the TinCaps do you think epitomizes this player?

John Nolan: It’s tough to select only one guy here. This was an exceptionally hard-working team, and I think that helps to explain how this group had the biggest increase in wins from one half to the next in Fort Wayne franchise history (+13). Back in early June, a veteran scout from the Nationals told me that the infield practice the TinCaps took before a game at Beloit was the best he’d witnessed in 30-plus years on the job.

I can recall only a couple instances in the first month of the season in which someone didn’t bust it out of the box during a game. And on those occasions, no one got choked in the dugout by Papelbon, but Mo did pull prospects out mid-game. I think that helped set the tone for the rest of the year. Not to say there wasn’t an emphasis on hustle the last couple years I was here, but I know the Padres’ new regime running player development preaches an old school work ethic, and that was evident in how this team was coached, prepared, and played.

But to give you a name, I have a lot of respect for the way Edwin Moreno carried himself this season. Here’s a guy who slashed .238 / .270 / .368 through the first four years of his career entering 2015. He was the fourth or fifth outfielder to start the season and stayed in that role, not playing every day, for most of the year. Nevertheless, he made the most of his opportunities (hitting .308 / .343 / .450 with 15 doubles, 8 triples, 4 homers, and 31 RBIs in 89 games), was clutch (e.g. three walk-offs plus a pinch-hit, ninth-inning double in a road comeback), and played himself into a bigger role by the end of the season. 

Again, Edwin was far from alone in doing whatever it took to help the team win. I initially thought of just position players in regards to hustle and heart, but if you want to highlight a pitcher, Chris Huffman selflessly went from the rotation to the pen back into the rotation. He always seemed to be the first one out on the field on days he wasn’t starting and was someone who put everything he had into preparing to pitch and then left it all out on the mound in games.

One of the things that made this season special was how everyone, 1-25, seemed to have at least one moment when they were "the man" in a big win.

Was there anything else you would like to add to summarize the 2015 success that was the Fort Wayne Tin Caps?

John Nolan: The 2015 TinCaps were a pleasure to be around. Mo was an outstanding leader in guiding this team through adversity, while his charismatic personality made him a hit with fans as well. As the numbers show, Burt worked wonders with the staff yet again in his third season here. Hitting coach Lance Burkhart picked up where his brother Morgan left off as far as working exceptionally hard to develop the youngest lineup in the league. And maybe most impressive of all, hats off to athletic trainer Ricky Huerta and strength and conditioning coach Gabe Lazzaro, as the TinCaps had only four players go on the disabled list all season (including VanMeter’s broken leg in Game 2 and reliever Nick Monroe suffering an allergic reaction in the final week). Players also benefitted from working with video coordinator Ethan Dixon, and clubhouse manager Jacob Dwiggins always had everyone well equipped and, better yet, well fed. Finally, the Padres’ rovers were present more this year than ever before, and their tutelage aided the team’s development in a big way, too. If this club is any indication, then Pads fans have reasons to be optimistic about the future of the organization.

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