Tracking The Affiliation Shuffle
The affiliation shuffle kicks off Sept. 16 and begins a two-week period when clubs can negotiate agreements with unattached affiliates. Consider it free agency for minor league teams. Teams had […]
Compiled by Geoff Wilson
Atkins' Diet: Pitchers
By Marlon Morgan
At 23, Atkins has already shown the poise, instincts and physical tools needed to be a consistent major league hitter. The only thing keeping him from donning a Rockies uniform these days is a handle on playing third base. If Atkins can come close to playing third as well as he hits the ball, hell be smacking balls around Coors Field.
For now, though, Atkins is in his first season at Triple-A Colorado Springs, trying to master a position switch that began last season in Double-A. With Todd Heltons hold on first base for the Rockies, Atkins moved to third, where the Rockies could use help.
Atkins has the arm for the position, but last season he struggled with his footwork at times, which hindered his accuracy. Since then, he has worked hard to correct those problems.
"Ive just worked every day on my throws," Atkins said. "Its a constant battle for me to stay over there, because thats where I want to be. I know thats my best ticket to the big leagues. I just keep working at it."
And thats what Colorado Springs manager Rick Sofield likes about his young playerhis desire to get better.
"I think we have a lot of work to do," Sofield said. "When you take this game for granted, it has a tendency to want to punch you in the nose and get you back to reality. Garretts trying to make himself a complete player. He works very hard on defense, works very hard on the bases. Hes elevated that aspect of his game as well."
Rebounding From A Down Year
At the plate, its a different story. Atkins made a big splash in his first month of Triple-A ball, hitting .386-2-7. He was coming off what he felt like was a down year at Double-A. For the first time in three minor league seasons, he hit below .300, finishing the year at .271-12-61.
"I hit like .250 the whole first half," Atkins said. "It was miserable for me, because it was the first time Ive ever really struggled. I adjusted my swing a little bit because pitchers started throwing me inside. I think those inside adjustments really helped me get where I am now. Those struggles all seem worth it now.
"It was hard going to the park every day knowing you dont have the swing you want to have. I just went in early every day and tried to get my swing better. Toward the end of the year, it started to come for me."
By the time he got to the Arizona Fall League, Atkins had regained his stroke. He hit .353-2-14 in 33 games and carried that over to spring training, when he went .525-1-12 in 23 games with the Rockies.
What makes Atkins such a good hitter is his ability to use the entire field, a rare quality in a player his age. This year, he has even learned to pull the ball more.
"Hes an unbelievably talented guy at home plate," Sofield said. "God has blessed him with tremendous hand-eye coordination. And his approach is what makes him so impressive. Hes a very unselfish guy at home plate. He doesnt try to do more than hes capable of. Thats the key to hitting.
"He stays within himself. Hes clean and very tension-free. He doesnt try to hit home runs. Greed is the downfall of every aspect of life, including home plate. When you get greedy at home plate, guys at the upper levelsTriple-A and the big leagueswill exploit that."
At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, Atkins would like to become more of a power hitter. He has hit just 26 homers in his minor league career, including the two this season.
But rather than trying to hit homersa great temptation playing in the thin Colorado airAtkins has remained a line-drive hitter.
"I have the power to occasionally hit one," he said. "Every time I go into a slump, its because Im trying to do that. I just have to constantly tell myself to stay line drives and the home runs will come."
The strength of the righthanded hitters approach is hitting up the middle and to right center. Sofield said all players could learn from Atkins.
"He stays up the middle, and hes a reactionary guy," Sofield said. "Its extremely impressive. I think its the reason for the success hes having. He uses the entire field.
"Hes a very offensive player in the sense that he will hit the ball to the right field or the left field corner."
Atkins has done what he set out to do, which was to get off to a good start. His next goal: remain consistent throughout the season. From there, who knows? Particularly if he can continue improving in the field.
"It feels good knowing anything could happen," Atkins said. "But you cant think about the big leagues. Youve got to kind of stay here, put up numbers, focus and play good every day. And hopefully the phone will ring for you."
The nasty weather in the eastern half of the country created an unusual situation for the Toledo Mud Hens: They were able to add a home game. Wearing their road grays at Fifth Third Field, the Mud Hens eked out a 3-2 victory over the Richmond Braves in the makeup of a game scheduled for Richmond a week earlier. (They also won 2-1 in the second game of a doubleheader.)
Richmonds mascot, the Diamond Duck, made an appearance at the game, but Toledo didnt fully take on the visiting mantlethey took the field first. "Weve called the other 12 teams in the league in hopes that they would like to move some of their home games to Fifth Third Field," Toledo general manager Joe Napoli said. "For some reason, our calls have not been returned."
The Mud Hens were succeeding where their parent club was failing. While the Tigers were off to a 1-16 start, Toledo was tied atop the International League West standings and boasted the leagues top home run and RBI man (Kevin Witt, at .393-7-17) and two of the leagues top three pitchers: righthanders Shane Loux, 2-0, 0.51 in 18 innings, and Seth Greisinger, 3-0, 1.23 in 22 innings.
Charlotte outfielder Willie Harris was off to a blistering start, leading the league in hitting at .418-4-10. Harris on-base plus slugging percentage was a whopping 1.202, and the Knights rode the leagues top team batting average (.295) to a 10-5 start and first place in the IL South.
Buffalo outfielder Jody Gerut went 4-for-5 with a home run and four RBIs in the Bisons 6-4 win over the Ottawa Lynx. Gerut was tied for second in the IL with 16 RBIs.
Durham outfielder Jason Tyner collected hits in his first four at-bats and finished 4-for-5 in a 9-1 Bulls victory over Louisville. But despite Tyners .393-0-4 start, he wasnt the first outfielder summoned to Tampa Bay; that honor went to George Lombard, whom the Devil Rays picked up on waivers from the Tigers. Lombard hit .327-2-14 in 52 at-bats to get the call, then hit a homer in his first game for Tampa Bay.
As part of the ongoing experiment of having him play both ways, Indianapolis Indians outfielder/ righthander Brooks Kieschnick earned his first professional victory with three scoreless innings of relief in a 4-3 win over Charlotte. However, his overall numbers were still high on the mound (nine earned runs in eight innings for a 10.13 ERA) and low at the plate (hitless in eight at-bats).
On the heels of John Wasdins perfect game for the Nashville Sounds, lefthander Wilson Alvarez and his Las Vegas 51s teammates almost accomplished the same feat, settling for a two-hit shutout in a 6-0 win over the Portland Beavers. Alvarez was perfect in six innings of work, and reliever Rodney Myers continued the perfect game into the eighth, when Brady Anderson broke it up with a two-out bloop single to right. The 51s bolted to a 12-6 start and first place in the Southern Division, and outfielder Bubba Crosby was leading the league in hitting at .489-3-11.
The Sounds continued to distance themselves from the rest of their division with a 14-2 start. Led by three pitchers (righthanders Nelson Figueroa, Ariel Prieto and Brian Meadows) with ERAs of 1.00 or less, the Nashville pitching staff had a collective ERA of 1.72more than a run-and-a-half better than the next-best team ERA in the league. Meadows, who was recalled to Pittsburgh when the Pirates placed Josh Fogg on the disabled list, teamed with outfielder John Barnes to help the Sounds sweep the PCLs second player and pitcher of the week awards for the season.
Fresno Grizzlies outfielder Jason Ellison, who jumped from high class A San Jose to Triple-A at the end of last season and hit .311-3-8 in 196 at-bats, picked up right where he left off in 2002. Ellison hit safely in his first 13 games and 15 of his first 17. He was batting .343-1-6 with seven steals in his first 70 at-bats. His steal total was third in the league.
The Albuquerque Isotopes got two grand slams in the same inning to win an 18-10 slugfest over the Oklahoma RedHawks. Second baseman Dusty Wathan connected first, then outfielder Rob Stratton added another in an 11-run fifth. The last team in the minors to have two grannies in the same frame: the Isotopes franchise in its previous incarnation, the Calgary Cannons, in 2001.
Never at a loss for offense in Tucson Electric Park, the Tucson Sidewinders had two of the leagues top four hitters in third baseman Chad Tracy and shortstop Alex Cintron. Tracy started the year on a .416-2-11 tear in 77 at-bats, with three hits or more in six of his teams first 18 games. Cintron, in his third tour of duty in Triple-A, missed three games with a pulled hamstring but still managed an 11-game hitting streak to begin the season. He was hitting .414-1-11 in 58 at-bats.