Friday, September 16, 2016

Getting to Know Greeneville Astros 1B Connor MacDonald

Greeneville Astros 1B Connor MacDonald isn't all that comfortable talking about himself, but Greeneville Manager Josh Bonifay certainly didn't mind helping out. Bonifay has worked with MacDonald since he was 17 years old, shortly after MacDonald signed with the Astros as the first Australian player inked by the team in over 20 years.

Connor MacDonald - August 2016
Photo by Jayne Hansen

Bonifay first encountered MacDonald when managing in extended Spring Training in 2013 and has worked with him on and off ever since. Bonifay shared his insight into MacDonald with me. "I love that guy. He's just a really awesome kid. He's improved so much defensively from where he started. He's outstanding in the clubhouse.

"He spent a year down in the Dominican, playing in the DSL and he was MVP there. And it really helped him communicate. It really helped him understand where a lot of our kids come from and they love him. They call him 'Pollo,' like MacChicken. He's really awesome. I can't say enough good things about him.

"He's come out of his shell this year and he's made a lot of strides. He hit for the cycle this year which was just awesome, in Princeton. I've never seen anything like it. There was a ball hit to centerfield. He was at second base and he just kept on coming. He slid in (to third). They called him safe and I was so happy for him. It was a big night for him. All the kids, they wanted to do something special, so they all signed the line-up card, all signed the baseball, and it was really neat.

"But MacDonald's just a phenomenal person. He works. He grinds. He's just awesome to have on the ball club."

I asked MacDonald about that time he and a few other fellow Aussies spent playing in the Dominican Summer League. "Lachlan Madden ... was already down there. I flew down to the Dominican with a lot of Latino players and just walking through the Dominican airport was an experience. I didn't know where to go. Lucky, my teammates helped me out. Just seeing how people live down there ... it's an eye-opener to see how lucky we are to live in the countries that we do."

In speaking about his 2016 season, MacDonald told me, "I feel that my power numbers have been better this year than last year. Obviously, hitting more home runs is good. More RBI's. That's my job as a first baseman. That's a production position and that's what I was trying (to do). I'm always working to improve ... obviously, trying to take better at-bats with runners in scoring position, become more consistent with that." MacDonald hit .267/.322/.441 with eight doubles, one triple and six home runs in 43 games in 2016. With two outs and runners in scoring position, he hit a whopping .304/.360/.696.

He's also working on cutting down on the strikeouts, a common theme for hitters with developing power. "That's something I'm confident I can improve on. This year I was a lot better. I think I had a lot more hard contacts than last year. In the zone, I'm confident. I don't miss too much in the zone, but I just need to minimize my chases. Once I improve that ... working in the offseason, just still try to make more quality at-bats ... that's going to be exciting. I'm looking forward to it," said MacDonald.

Asked to give a scouting report on himself, MacDonald said, "I think I play the game hard. That's something I take pride in. I definitely think I've got a bit of pop. Again, I just have to improve my plate discipline." Of his defense, he told me, "Being 6'5" and being bigger than a lot of people, I've just got to make sure I keep my feet moving. Sometimes, I get anchored up and get bad hops, but I take pride in my defense and I think I'm good. I've just got to keep my feet moving."

Which of his Greeneville teammates would he least like to face in the batter's box? "Any kids that throw 100. The least pitcher would be [Jorge] Guzman. He throws 103, 104. That wouldn't be too fun so probably him," said MacDonald.

Another Greeneville teammate who stood out for MacDonald was Miguel Sierra, a shortstop who had been promoted to Tri-City at the time of our interview. Of Sierra, MacDonald said, "I really like him as a baseballer. I feel like he's mature. He handles failure well. He hit 11 homers. He swings it well. He came up big a lot for us and he plays defense really well too."

After spending a lot of time in Kissimmee during his first pro seasons, Greeneville was a nice change of scenery for MacDonald, literally. "Greeneville's nice. I drove up with one of me teammates. That was a really nice drive. You're used to Florida. It's flat as a biscuit. There's nothing to see. (Then) you're driving through these really nice mountains." He's also enjoyed the opportunity to play under the lights in front of crowds. "This has been my most enjoyed year of baseball because of that because in the Dominican, no one comes to watch and same in the GCL."

If he didn't play baseball, MacDonald would probably be working with his uncle back home in Queensland. "He's a sheet metal fabricator, welding and making stuff out of steel. I help him out a bit in the offseason, but I'd probably get my apprenticeship there if I wasn't playing baseball. Me best mates back home, they're doing their apprenticeships there. They're starting their degrees and I'm playing a game that I love, travelling, seeing the States. You've got to pinch yourself sometimes. I've got it pretty good."

Asked if baseball is becoming more popular in Australia, MacDonald replied, "I think so. Since they brought the Australian Baseball League back, I definitely think it's gotten more popular. More people are coming to the games. The game seems to get more media attention back home, which is good. They televise the ABL All-Star game and the Championship series on ESPN. So I think so.

"It was funny. There was a brawl (a couple years back) that was all over social media. Sports Center posted it, ESPN and all that, and I was just reading through the comments and Australians were commenting, 'damn, I didn't even know we had baseball in Australia!' I think people heard about it and it's getting out there."

MacDonald has been playing in the ABL since he was 16 and plans to play for the Brisbane Bandits again this offseason. But he also hopes for the opportunity to play for Australia in the upcoming World Baseball Classic. "That would be an awesome achievement," said MacDonald.

My final question to MacDonald elicited an unusual response. Asked for something that most people don't know about him that might surprise them, MacDonald offered this, "I've got a fake tooth. I play a lot of party tricks. I lost my front tooth when I was 10 or 11 and I play a lot of tricks on people."

I will leave my readers with that note and with this photo of MacDonald's glorious coiffure.




Thank you for your time, Connor, and best of luck with the Bandits (and hopefully the WBC)!


 


Wednesday, September 14, 2016

California League South Division Final: High Desert 7, Lancaster 2

High Desert wins series 3-1.

W- Matt Milroy
L- Andrew Thome
S- Nick Gardewine

Lancaster home runs: None.

And with the JetHawks bowing out, the 2016 season in the Houston Astros minor league system has come to a close. The Mavericks seized the momentum in this game by scoring three runs in the 8th and three more in the 9th. Lancaster had their chances, but they only finished 1-8 with runners in scoring position and left ten men on base.

Kyle Tucker went 2-5 and scored both of Lancaster's runs; he came home on a wild pitch in the 4th and on a Jamie Ritchie bases-loaded walk in the 8th. Osvaldo Duarte went 2-3 at the bottom of the order.

Jose Luis Hernandez was excellent in what turned out to be his final appearance of 2016 as he allowed an unearned run on six hits and recorded a strikeout over seven strong innings. The Mavericks teed off on Andrew Thome and Scott Weathersby, who both pitched an inning and allowed three runs on four hits in their time on the mound.

Many of the players in the system will be headed home for some well-deserved rest and relaxation. For others, their season isn't over; some will be plying their trade in Arizona (Arizona Fall League) and a few will be headed off to the Caribbean to continue playing baseball.

Getting to Know Greeneville Astros SS Stijn Van Der Meer

When you see SS Stijn van der Meer play, the first thing you'll probably notice is his stick thin 6'3" 170-pound build. The second thing you'll probably notice is that he can hit. Greeneville Manager Josh Bonifay said of Van der Meer, "He takes a really good at-bat. He's got a line drive stroke. He's got a pretty good understanding of the strike zone." In his first 21 games with the Astros, he hit .329/.404/.418 with three doubles, two triples and 10 RBI.



Van der Meer, originally from Netherlands, was drafted by the Astros in the 34th round in 2016 out of Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. When I talked with him last month in Greeneville, Tennessee, I asked him about his journey so far. "I actually came here [to the U.S.] four years ago, my freshman year of college. I got an opportunity to play junior college in Oklahoma. I took it, went there, played there for three years. [I] played pretty well and then Lamar University of Texas recruited me, played there for two years and then I got drafted and now I'm here."

Van der Meer elaborated a bit about that college experience, "Typical junior college [Eastern Oklahoma State College] -- it was in a town called Wilburton in Oklahoma. There was literally nothing there [Population: 2843] so it was basically campus, baseball and working out, and that's all you could do there. Then I went to Lamar University. There's really nothing to do there either so basically all I did was play baseball and worked out and school." Being close to Houston, he was able to catch a couple of Astros games with his father when he visited from Netherlands.

When asked about his draft experience, van der Meer said, "I did know that [the Astros] were interested. I just didn't expect them to draft me, to be honest. I saw it on twitter and my phone started blowing up and things started rolling from there." He wasn't really worried about not getting drafted, though, because he had a pretty good backup plan. "I have a great opportunity to play baseball back home so even if it wasn't going to be here, I was going to play baseball regardless." Van der Meer has played in the Dutch Major League since he was 19, compiling a .341/.408/.401 batting line over 121 games.

Once van der Meer's season with Greeneville came to an end, he was headed back to Netherlands to participate in the European Championships, an experience that he hopes will lead to an opportunity to play for Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic next year. He's been on the National Team for some time but making the WBC team isn't a given. "We're the Kingdom of the Netherlands now so we have Curacao, Aruba. They have some great infielders already playing in the major leagues so I'm hoping to make the roster because it would be a great experience, but you never know. You just keep working hard," said van der Meer.

Of his first brief professional season since being drafted, van der Meer told me, "The pitching here is definitely a lot better than I see at home. I see good pitching every day. It makes me a better hitter, just seeing the pitches and trying to hit them. I feel like I've become a better hitter. Just hoping I can keep improving."

But there is one improvement that he may be hard-pressed to make. "I'm not the biggest so they're probably going to tell me to gain weight. They've told me that for the last six years. I've been trying everything to gain weight. It's just not happening," said van der Meer. And genetics aren't working in his favor. His father and six uncles all range from 6'1" to 6'4" and 170 to 185 lb.

Asked to give a scouting report on himself, van der Meer obliged, "I have a good eye at the plate. I can put a barrel on the ball. I don't really strike out that much. I will not hit for power. I will steal an occasional base. I'm not the fastest. I'm not the slowest either. I make the routine plays in the field. Every once in a while, I make an extra play. That's basically it."

Bonifay said of van der Meer, "He can play a premier position, shortstop, and he can play second base and [you can] put him in the game at third. He has very good actions, good arm strength." Van der Meer doesn't necessarily have the speed that you would like to see at the top of the order, but Bonifay noted, "His ability to get on base and his ability with runners in scoring position, especially with a runner at third and less than two outs has been awesome. You can count on him on a daily basis. He's just a very steady hand, very steady fielder."

Switching gears, I asked van der Meer which Greeneville Astros pitcher he would least like to face in the batter's box. He responded, "That probably would be [Patrick] Sandoval because I'm a left-handed hitter and he's a left-handed pitcher. [In Sandoval's final appearance of the season], he had a really good outing. His slider is one of his best pitches and his change up was really working too. You could see all the Twins hitters were really having problems with him. And the other guy would probably be [Jorge] Guzman. He just throws really, really hard." Van der Meer may not want to face Sandoval, but he fared quite nicely against lefty pitchers in a limited number of at-bats in his first pro season, hitting .435/.436/.478 off them.

But he was also impressed with what he's seen of RHP Forrest Whitley, "I know he's our first round draft pick. For being a high-schooler, an 18-year old, it's just so easy how he throws and commands all his pitches. I'm very excited to see how far he can come."

Something people may not know about van der Meer is that he is a "decent" soccer player. "The big sport in the Netherlands is soccer. All my friends play soccer. Here, they either play baseball or pick up basketball. What we did, we played soccer every day after school," said van der Meer. Unsurprisingly when asked what he would do if he didn't play baseball, the quick response was, "I'd probably play soccer." Baseball may not be as popular as soccer in his country, but it is on the upswing.

Stijn van der Meer - August 2016
Photo by Jayne Hansen

The first things you may notice about Stijn van der Meer when you see him play may be his less than impressive physique and his ability to hit, but the first things you will notice when you talk with him are a ready dimpled smile, a twinkle in his eye and a deep and surprisingly unaccented speaking voice. It was a pleasure speaking with him and it was a pleasure to watch him play.

Thank you for your time, Stijn, and best of luck with the WBC and the coming season.


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

California League South Division Final: High Desert 9, Lancaster 4

High Desert leads series 2-1.

W- Collin Wiles
L- Brock Dykxhoorn

Lancaster home runs: Osvaldo Duarte (3, solo in 5th), Bryan Muñiz (2, solo in 6th), Marc Wik (2, 2-run in 9th)

The JetHawks launched 3 home runs that accounted for all of their runs in this game, but the Mavericks had already built up an 8-0 lead after the 3rd.

Osvaldo Duarte put Lancaster on the board with his solo homer in the 5th inning. Bryan Muñiz went 3-5 and smacked a solo shot of his own in the 6th, and Marc Wik came on as a pinch-hitter for Duarte in the 9th and clubbed a 2-run homer.

Brock Dykxhoorn went 5 innings and allowed 8 runs (6 earned) on 12 hits (solo and 2-run homers) and struck out 3. Ralph Garza Jr. stopped the bleeding by allowing a run on 2 hits, walking 1, and striking out 2 in 4 innings.

Jose Luis Hernandez will start game 4 of this series. First pitch is at 6:35 Pacific.

Game 3 Stars

Bryan Muñiz, 1B
3-5, solo HR (2)

Ralph Garza Jr., RHP
4 IP, 2 H, ER, BB, 2 K

Marc Wik, UTIL
Pinch-hit 2-R HR (2) in 9th

Monday, September 12, 2016

California League South Division Final Game 2 Recap

High Desert evened the South Division Final at one game apiece with their 15-7 victory on Sunday. Jason Martin and Johnny Sewald launched 2 home runs in the game; both of Martin's homers were solo shots, while Sewald hit a solo home run in the 1st and a 2-run shot in the 9th. Bryan Muñiz finished 2-4 with a 2-run single in the 5th inning and allowed a run on 2 hits in the 8th.

Martin now has 4 home runs this postseason, while those were Sewald's first two of the playoffs.

The pitchers.... got shelled, and I'll leave it at that.

Game 3 will be in Lancaster at 6:35 Pacific. Brock Dykxhoorn will take on Collin Wiles.

Game 2's Stars


Johnny Sewald, OF
2-5, 2 HR (2), 3 RBI

Jason Martin, OF
2-4, 2 solo HR (4)

Bryan Muñiz, 1B
2-4, 2 RBI; IP, 2 H, ER

2016 Astros Rule 5 Draft Primer and Eligible Players

With the recent addition of James Hoyt, Teoscar Hernandez and Brady Rodgers to the 40-man roster, there is only one player currently listed on MLB Pipeline's Top 30 Prospect list that isn't currently protected on the 40-man roster, LHP Reymin Guduan at Number 28. However, Guduan is slated to become a minor league free agent this fall as he has now played in the minor leagues for seven seasons (UPDATE: Guduan was added to the 40-man roster in advance of the date upon which he would have become a free agent). As of today, there are 40 players on the 40-man roster (roster is at 37 as of 11/10).


Jon Kemmer - June 2016
Photo by Jayne Hansen

Here is a primer based on my understanding of how the Rule 5 draft works, as well as some preliminary information about this year's draft eligible players. The draft will be held on December 8th at the Baseball Winter Meetings in National Harbor, Maryland.

RULE 5 ELIGIBILITY

The Rule 5 draft (don't call it the Rule V draft or baseball purists will jump down your throat) has both a major league phase and minor league phases which I'll cover later, but first things first ... eligibility. Those players who are eligible in a given year fall under these guidelines:


[That is directly from the 2008 Major League Rules which was originally found on the now-defunct Biz of Baseball site. If it has changed since then, I haven't seen that information.]

What that means in English is that this year's eligible players basically include: 1) any player who signed prior to the end of the 2012 season; and 2) players who signed after the end of the 2012 season and prior to the end of the 2013 season who were 19 years old or older when they signed. That means most 2013 drafted college players are eligible, but high school players (and some community college players) drafted in 2013 are not eligible until next year. For the international free agents, one needs to know when the player signed their first professional agreement and their age at signing to make the determination. There are exceptions, but that is the basic gist of it.

MAJOR LEAGUE PHASE OF THE RULE 5 DRAFT

The first phase of the Rule 5 draft is the major league phase. In order to protect an eligible player from being drafted in the major league phase of the Rule 5 draft, they must be on the major league club's 40-man roster prior to November 20th (if that falls on a business day). Players on the 40-man roster at that deadline are considered "protected."

Obviously not all of a team's best players can be protected on the 40-man roster. That is where the 38-man AAA Reserve List helps. If a player from the AAA Reserve List is drafted in the Rule 5 draft, that player must remain on the drafting team's 25-man major league roster for the full season or he will have to be put through waivers. If claimed, the new team will be subject to the same conditions regarding that player. If not claimed, the player will be offered back to the team from which they were drafted.

The cost of drafting a player in the major league phase of the draft is $50,000. If the player is offered back to the team from which he was drafted, the original team must pay $25,000 back to the drafting team. If the original team declines, the player will be put on waivers.

Last season RHP Juan Minaya, IF Nolan Fontana, OF Andrew Aplin, C Alfredo Gonzalez, RHP Jandel Gustave, RHP Joe Musgrove and RHP David Paulino were all added to the 40-man roster by the Astros in advance of the deadline. The front office made the determination that these three players were the most likely players to be taken in the Rule 5 draft. The front office took a calculated risk by not adding players such as OF Teoscar Hernandez, RHP Brady Rodgers and others to the 40-man roster, but only included them on the AAA Reserve List. They made a determination as to which players, if drafted, were more likely to "stick" on a major league roster for a full season and were very successful in that none of the unprotected players were claimed in last year's Rule 5 draft.

Since players taken in the Rule 5 draft have to remain on the drafting team's 25-man roster for the full season, pitchers are taken much more frequently than position players simply because it's fairly easy to use a pitcher sparingly out of the bullpen. Position players can't be tucked away quite so neatly if they struggle. It all comes down to another team's ability to find room on their 25-man roster for a full season. It's simply not that easy to do and that's why so very few players are drafted in the Rule 5 draft and stick with a team.

It's also the case that often minor league fans overvalue prospects. We may think much more highly of a player than the other teams' front offices do. When all is said and done, the Astros front office will take some risks in leaving players unprotected, but it will be a highly educated guess based on many factors, including future needs.

MINOR LEAGUE PHASES OF THE RULE 5 DRAFT

There are two minor league phases of the Rule 5 draft as well. The players on the 40-man roster and the 38 players on the AAA reserve list aren't eligible to be taken in the minor league phases of the draft. So, in essence, you are protecting your top 78 players from the minor league phases. (As far as I know, AAA Reserve Lists are not made public so we are left to guess who the Astros will be shielding from the minor league phases of the draft.)

In the AAA Phase of the draft, a player who is on the AA Reserve List or lower can be drafted for inclusion on the drafting team's AAA Reserve list for a cost of $12,000. In the AA Phase of the draft, players at all of the levels lower than AA can be drafted for inclusion on the drafting team's AA Reserve List for a cost of $4,000.

The kicker on the minor league phase of the draft is that the drafted player basically becomes that team's property. There is no requirement to offer the player back if he doesn't work out. He can be traded, released, etc. at a team's discretion.

ASTROS 2016 RULE 5 ELIGIBLE PLAYERS

The following are those players who will be eligible for the Rule 5 draft in December if they are left unprotected. I have organized them by the level at which they were assigned at the end of the minor league season. Players who are first year eligible have been #'d.

AAA Position Players
C Tyler Heineman
#OF Jon Kemmer
#IF Jack Mayfield

AAA Pitchers
#LHP Chris Cotton
RHP Edison Frias
RHP Mike Hauschild
LHP Brian Holmes
RHP Jordan Jankowski
#LHP Albert Minnis
RHP Tyson Perez
RHP Aaron West

AA Position Players
#1B Conrad Gregor
#1B Chase McDonald
#OF James Ramsay

AA Pitchers
RHP Kevin Comer
#LHP Kent Emanuel
RHP Angel Heredia
RHP Kyle Smith

Position Players at High A or lower
C Marlon Avea
IF Rodrigo Ayarza
3B Randy Cesar
IF Arturo Michelena
#OF Brauly Mejia
#OF Luis Payano
#OF/1B Hector Roa
#IF Kristian Trompiz
IF/OF Marc Wik

Pitchers at High A or lower
RHP Agapito Barrios
#RHP Elieser Hernandez
#LHP Sebastian Kessay
RHP Andrew Walter

#First year eligibility for Rule 5 Draft

In addition to the above, the following players will be minor league free agents at the conclusion of the major league season in which case they are free to explore free agency.

Minor League Free Agents
LHP Evan Grills
LHP Reymin Guduan - added to 40-man roster before becoming a free agent
IF Chan Moon
C Roberto Pena

Here is some basic information from MLB about the Rule 5 draft.

Astros Farm Report: 9-12

An abbreviated Farm Report today. Come back later today for Astros 2016 Rule 5 Draft info!

WISHING A HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO

9-12: IF Samir Caraballo (18)
9-15: RHP Forest Whitley (19)
9-16: RHP Ian Hardman (21)
9-16: RHP Cristofer Melendez (19)
9-17: RHP Brady Rodgers (26)
9-18: 1B Jon Singleton (25)

Forrest Whitley - August 2016
Photo by Jayne Hansen

ROSTER MOVES/TRANSACTIONS

There's still a little maneuvering as the JetHawks advanced to the South Division finals.

9-10: RHP Juan Santos assigned from Lancaster to Quad Cities
9-7: LHP Framber Valdez assigned from Lancaster to Quad Cities
9-7: LHP Matt Bower assigned from Quad Cities to Lancaster

Also, according to Baseball America, the Astros signed RHP Martires Arias who was released by the Padres on August 16th. Arias last pitched for High A Lake Elsinore in the California League.

RANDOM FORMER ASTROS UPDATE

After C Alfredo Gonzalez was traded to the White Sox in early July, he was assigned to that team's AA affiliate, the Birmingham Barons. In 39 games for the Barons, Gonzalez hit .296/.358/.341. He was promoted to the AAA Charlotte team for the last game of the season. Although the Venezuelan-born Gonzalez spent parts of eight seasons in the Astros system, he only turned 24 in mid-July.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Astros Minor League Playoff Recaps

Results for Saturday, September 10, 2016

One team bowed out, but another was able to strike first in the next round.

Texas League South Division Series: Midland 5, Corpus Christi 2

Midland wins series 3-1.

W- Brandon Mann
L- Cy Sneed

CC home runs: None.

The Hooks couldn't really get much of anything on offense despite recording 9 hits.

Ramon Laureano finished 3-4 with a double and spoiled the shutout with an RBI single in the 8th, and Drew Ferguson, who went 2-5, hit an RBI single in the 9th. Corpus had something brewing in that 9th inning, but they left the bases loaded to end the game.

Cy Sneed went 4 innings and allowed 3 runs on 5 hits, walked 2, and struck out 3. Kyle Smith allowed 2 runs on 5 hits in 3 innings, and Kevin Comer allowed 2 hits and struck out 2 in a scoreless 8th.

With the Hooks' season coming to an end, Lancaster is the last team standing in the Astros' minor league system.

California League South Division Final: Lancaster 6, High Desert 4

Lancaster leads series 1-0.

W- Albert Abreu
L- Shane McCain
S- Andrew Thome

Lancaster home runs: Osvaldo Duarte (2, 2-run in 6th)

The JetHawks matched each of the Mavericks' scoring innings and then took control with 3 runs in the top of the 8th to strike first in the South Division final.

High Desert opened the scoring with a run in the 2nd, but one half-inning later, Lancaster got on the board with an RBI infield single from Myles Straw. The Mavericks scored 2 in the 5th, and Osvaldo Duarte provided the answer with a 2-run homer in the 6th.

Straw and Johnny Sewald both walked to lead off the top of the 8th, and Duarte joined them on the bases by beating out a bunt single. Bryan Muñiz took advantage and came through with a 2-run single to give the JetHawks a 5-3 lead. One batter later, Trent Woodward added an RBI single. Duarte and Woodward both finished with 2 hits on the evening.

Elieser Hernandez went 5 innings and allowed 3 runs on 4 hits, walked 3, and struck out 3. Albert Abreu tagged in for 2.2 innings and allowed a run on 3 hits and struck out 3. Andrew Thome retired all 4 Mavericks he faced to secure the victory.

Saturday's Stars

Osvaldo Duarte, UTIL, Lancaster
2-5, 2-R HR (2), 2 R

Bryan Muñiz, 1B, Lancaster
Go-ahead 2-R single in 8th

Andrew Thome, RHP, Lancaster
Save; 1.1 IP

Ramon Laureano, OF, Corpus Christi
3-4, 2B, RBI