Young Padres' Learning Begins In Fort Wayne
FORT WAYNE, Ind.—The home clubhouse at low Class A Fort Wayne's Parkview Field is small, just large enough just for a couple of card tables, a couch and a folding table loaded with baseball's essentials—bubble gum and scouting reports. With a little more than an hour until game time on the second day of the 2012 season, TinCaps players are sitting around the card tables, eating dinner and watching the Masters. A few sit at their lockers, which are tightly cramped along the walls.
In a sparse office down the hall, manager Jose Valentin eats alone at his desk. The Padres have given him a bountiful roster in his first season of managing in the Midwest League. San Diego had 11 of the first 233 picks in last June's draft. Of those 11 players, eight can be found in Fort Wayne this season, in addition to Donavan Tate, the third overall selection in 2008, and Adys Portillo, an international bonus baby in 2008.
"I got a lot of first rounders in here," Valentin said. "A lot of money."
To be specific, the signing bonuses for those 10 players add up to $16.167 million. And all that money means the Padres are keeping a watchful eye on Valentin.
"I got some rules from the staff that I have to follow," Valentin said. "There are some guys that I have to play every day, it doesn't matter what their average is. There are some pitchers that have to have several innings or minimum pitch counts."
The TinCaps' core of bonus-babies from the 2011 draft also features righthanders Joe Ross (the 25th overall pick), Mike Kelly (48), Cody Hebner (143) and Matt Wisler (233), shortstop Jace Peterson (58), catcher Austin Hedges (82) and outfielder Kyle Gaedale (203).
Valentin said he's focused on teaching his players how to play the game the right way. Having spent 16 years in the majors, his experience has extra resonance with the TinCaps. He's been where they are now and became a solid big leaguer for almost as long as they have been alive.
"I hope to pick his brain every day," Hedges said. "He comes up to us individually and tells us things that we would never know because we haven't experienced all the things he has, playing in the major leagues for so long."
Learning To Play
Hedges is part of a large group on the roster who played together in short-season Eugene last year. Hedges was a part of the team only briefly after signing at the deadline, but he and 11 of his current teammates spent at least part of last summer together in the Northwest League.
From his time with his teammates in Eugene and Fort Wayne, Hedges said he views them as a hard-working group.
"Everyone is extremely talented and everyone works really hard," he said. "Everyone comes to the ballpark prepared every single day."
Those are some of the traits Valentin really hopes to hammer home with his team this season. Despite his long big league career, he notes that he never hit .300 and often wasn't hitting a lot of home runs, either. He hopes he can pass on some of his knowledge about how to impact a game even if you're not an elite hitter.
"Just be aware, play winning baseball," he said. "Look what's going on around you when you're not playing. There's a lot of things you can do without being in the game that can help your team win."
Tate has a lot of experience with not being in the game. Almost from the moment he signed for $6.25 million in 2008—a record for a high school pick at the time—Tate has struggled with injuries. He missed all of 2009 and much of 2010 with various injuries. He briefly played in Fort Wayne last season before he hyperextended his knee in an outfield collision. Later in the summer, Tate was suspended for drug abuse, costing him 25 more games. Coming into 2012, Tate had played in just six games in full-season ball.
While just staying on the field is an important step for Tate to take, Valentin said he doesn't want him worrying about getting hurt.
"One thing I told him is, 'Go out there and play hard. Forget about injuries,' " Valentin said. "Don't be afraid. Play, smile and have fun and whatever happens, happens."
Tate said he learned a lot about the game last season when he wasn't on the field, whether it was because of his injury or suspension.
"I got to think about my approach to the game," Tate said. "What I needed to do to stay on the field and what I needed to do off the field as well."
Happy And Relaxed
Things look good for the TinCaps on this particular chilly night in early April. Tate goes 2-for-4 with two RBIs. Hedges throws two runners out. Portillo throws four no-hit innings. Peterson, a supplemental first-rounder last year, goes 3-for-5 with three runs scored. Fort Wayne beats Lake County 9-3 for its first victory of the season.
Valentin knows his job isn't to win games, but he believes wins will come naturally as the talent on his roster becomes more refined as baseball players. For now, however, this is just how it was drawn up.
The TinCaps will do this 140 times this season and Valentin wants to keep the mood as light as it has been at the start of the season. This, he believes, is the key to development.
"All I want is for them to come here every day happy and relaxed," Valentin said. "That's the only way they're going to go down there to perform and work hard."