The 2017 Minor League Baseball season kicked off Thursday as the Inland Empire 66ers faced off against the San Jose Giants. The 66ers roster has some familiar names from last year’s team, including Michael Hermosillo and Jake Jewell, but also brings some new faces, including 2016 draft picks Matt Thaiss and Connor Justus. The long season ahead begins as many players will continue their path towards reaching the next minor league levels and, hopefully, the major leagues. Their path to reaching that stage continued on Thursday night. In the longest Opening Day game in Inland Empire’s history, the 66ers came away victorious in a 16 inning walk off win.
Jaime Barria, the Panama born right hander, is the youngest player on this 66ers roster and was the Opening Day starter. The 6’1″ right hander, who posted a 3.85 ERA and 3.42 FIP in 117 innings with Low A Burlington last year, had a fine first outing. Barria pitched 4 innings of scoreless ball, striking out 2 batters and walking 2 while allowing 3 hits. He struggled throwing first pitch strikes, throwing 8 first pitch strikes to 17 batters and had a 61.3% strike rate on the night. Barria was flashing an above average fastball in the 89-92 mph range and commanding it well, making the pitch even tougher to square up. His change up, is best secondary offering, was flashing above average and even plus at times, sitting in the low 80’s with good deception and depth. His curveball is behind those pitches in terms of quality but Barria utilized it a lot as more of a change of pace or get me over pitch.
The 66ers started off the first few innings with 4 hits and 2 walks but only managed 1 run due to 2 outs made on the bases by Michael Hermosillo and Jose Rojas. Connor Justus, a newcomer to the 66ers, laced a RBI double down the RF line to start off the scoring in the 1st inning. Jared Walsh, the Angels 2015 39th round pick, crushed a solo home run to left center field in the 4th inning to give the 66ers a 2-0 lead.
Garrett Nuss was the first 66ers reliever to enter in the 5th inning. He struggled a bit in 1.2 innings as he allowed 3 hits and a walk in his outing and loaded the bases with 2 outs in the 6th inning. Justin Anderson, who started for Inland Empire but is in the bullpen this year, came in and got out of the jam. Anderson was throwing 93-96 mph fastballs with sink and showing an above average slider in the 83-86 mph range at times but also threw some loopy sliders that were hittable or out of the zone. Anderson struggled with his command in the 7th inning but also didn’t get some help behind him when the lead was coughed up. Jake Yacinich and Michael Hermosillo both committed errors in the 7th inning, helping lead to the Giants taking the 3-2 lead.
Matt Thaiss, the Angels 2016 1st round pick, uncorked a solo shot in the bottom of the 7th inning, tying up the game at 3. Thaiss got a fastball low in the zone from Giants reliever Caleb Simpson and hit a bullet over the right field wall. Ontario native Conor Lillis-White was the 4th 66ers reliever of the night in the 8th inning and threw 2 scoreless innings, striking out 3 batters and walking 1. Lillis-White is a tall 6’4″ left hander who sits in the upper 80’s with a sinking fastball and throws a sweeping curveball. Tied up after 9 innings of play, Sam Holland entered in the 10th inning as the 5th 66ers reliever and pitched 2 scoreless innings, flashing a nice sinker-slider combination from a sidearm angle. The Australian born right hander had a 0.83 ERA and 5.14 K/BB ratio in 2016 and looks like an interesting bullpen piece potentially down the road. Tyler Warmoth, an undrafted free agent, pitched 2.1 scoreless innings following Holland, flashing an average slider. Maybe the most impressive pitcher of the night was left hander Winston Lavendier, who was sitting 93-96 mph on his fastball and punched out 4 batters. In the 16th inning, the 66ers finally finished the night with a win, as Connor Justus took a walk with the bases loaded in the 16th inning. Jeremy Rhoades was the winning pitcher on the night, pitching a scoreless 9th inning, as he got 3 straight outs thanks to a firm 92-93 mph fastball.
Here are some noteworthy pregame quotes from the 66ers manager, Chad Tracy, and a few of the players about the 2017 season and what lies ahead.
On the 2016 season and the poor W/L record: “There’s multiple ways to judge a minor league season. One being the wins and losses and the other being player development. By last year’s record, we weren’t where we wanted to be but there was a lot of good stories that came out of it. We promoted a lot of position players to AA and Keynan Middleton was a huge question mark coming into the season and ended up in AAA and almost made it the major leagues. Those are the kinds of things we are looking for. Our main job is to get guys to the big leagues and help out Mike Scioscia. The more that happens, the better. We definitely want a nice record but the main goal is to get guys playing at the AA and AAA level.”
On balancing winning games and developing players: “It’s a balance that you have to weigh. There’s certain things that you do and you think, man is that going to help us win tonight? Maybe not but it might not be in the best interests of that particular player that we are talking about. If that particular player is important to the organization that we want to advance, that takes priority every time. I don’t want to say we don’t care about winning, we’d love to win a championship like Orem did last year, which was really cool, but we ultimately want to win a championship in Anaheim. Whatever is best for our organization, that’s what we are going to do.”
Any players on this 66ers team who is flying under the radar: “We have some interesting stories this year with some pitching. We have some guys who were in the rotation here last year who went through some struggles that we believe in. They are now back here in a bullpen role. It’s not that we necessarily don’t believe in them but because they have power stuff who we think could do well in the bullpen. We’ve got some guys like Jeremy Rhoades and Justin Anderson who have really good stuff who can pitch 2-3 innings out of the bullpen instead of 6 innings in a start. We’re hoping the stuff will play up and make them guys to keep an eye on. Many of the position players are guys who were drafted last year who were highly thought of so there might not be any guys flying under the radar there but there are a lot of quality players. Matt Thaiss and Connor Justus are quality players who played at big schools. We have quite a few good athletes that we just want to see go out there and do their thing. Hopefully, more of them than less will end up in Mobile with Sal Fasano before the year ends.”
On utilizing certain new advancements such as launch angle measure: “Not so much since it’s tough to see from the naked eye. There’s obviously a lot of accessible stats and metrics out there for people to view. From the standpoint of hitting, Brian Betancourth, our hitting coach, spends a lot of time with out hitters to help get their routine down. He can help get them mechanically right when things might not be looking so good. Launch angle may come up but if it does, it’s more of something based on the eye test. For me, it’s hard to measure up a guy and say hey, he’s hitting the ball at this launch angle and needs to be. From our perspective, we want our guys to control the strike zone, get a ball in the strike zone and hit it hard. If our guys are getting strikes and not squaring them up, we might want to try to evaluate where they’re going wrong. If the guys are squaring up baseballs but making outs, we can live with that.”
When he thought about becoming a manager: “I’ve always wanted to do it, even when I was just getting started playing. I wanted to have a long playing career and 9.5 years was pretty long although I wish I could’ve played longer. There were different things with my body that didn’t allow me to play longer. I always knew I wanted to manage though, due to me growing up around baseball in a baseball household and having my dad(Jim Tracy) helped. I always loved the cat and mouse games and the strategy involved with it. I’ve also really liked players. I was a player myself and always thought connecting with others on the team was fun. Having 25 guys on a team and trying to manage them is something I’ve always wanted to do and I’m very grateful I got the opportunity to do this.”
On his first Spring Training: “It was awesome. It was a great experience getting to know some of the older guys and learn through them. It was cool seeing how they go about their business and how they conduct themselves and separate themselves from the rest of the world. It was definitely a growing and learning experience for me.”
On any of the players reaching out to him: “I just tried to learn and grow from just watching these guys. I actually knew Shane Robinson, who I worked out with during the offseason, so I tried to ask him a bunch of questions and he helped me a lot. I asked him a few questions about Andrelton Simmons since we play the same position. I tried to eat up as much information as I could and just see how these guys went about their business.”
On being in the same organization employing Andrelton Simmons: “it’s awesome. He’s a really laid back guy. If you ask a question, he’ll be the first one to answer. He’s a great mentor by just watching him. He’s so great on the defensive side and he’s really grown on the offensive side. He’s a glove glove guy and that’s awesome. I grew up in Atlanta so I was able to watch a lot of him so being in the same organization now is great.”
On his interest in advanced stats and the new Statcast information: “During the offseason, I did some mechanical stuff with things like my launch angle. Things that can help myself on the offensive and defensive side are always going to be looked at by me. During the season, I try to not tweak too much since I’ve already laid down a great foundation for myself. During the season, I try to go about my business and have fun and make little tweaks here and there. We have trackman installed in the ballpark but during the season, I’m more concerned about the quality of my at bat. How hard I’m hitting the ball and how I’m feeling at the plate and seeing the ball are more important in season. If I’m hitting the ball hard but not seeing the results, those results will eventually come.”
On his 1st big league camp: “It was a good time. It was a cool experience. I got to learn some things and watch some guys on and off the field and take things to implement into my game. A lot of guys, such as Kaleb Cowart and Eric Young Jr., went out of their way to help me out. I was in the same BP group as Eric Young Jr. so he was definitely helpful. These guys have recently been through the same position I am in and they were able to talk me through certain things”
On any offseason changes: “I got a little bit stronger and put on a little bit more weight. Everything else was the same for the most part.”