The Oklahoma City RedHawks begin their 2014 season on Thursday, a year removed from having the best record in the Pacific Coast League at 82-62. The RedHawks are benefiting from their parent club's ineptitude over the past several seasons, as the Houston Astros has been able to stack up many high draft picks, flooding its minor league organizations with young talent.
The past two years, that talent has played out on the field, as the RedHawks went 74-70 in 2012 and 82-62 last season. This year, many new young players who spent the season in Corpus Christi—the Astros Double-A affiliate—have made the trip north to Oklahoma City, causing expectations to soar.
"It's unbelievable," catcher Max Stassi said at the team's media day on Tuesday. "I was talking to a couple guys on the team the other day and we were talking about how we think we could beat a lot of big league teams with the talent we have here. We're ready to roll."
Oklahoma City opens the season Thursday night on the road against Round Rock. The home opener will take place April 11 against New Orleans at 7:05 p.m. Until that time, check out our preview of the RedHawks as they look toward another successful season.
Starting The Year Without DeFrancesco
Manager Tony DeFrancesco was diagnosed with cancer during Astros spring training and will miss the first six-to-eight weeks of the season. DeFrancesco said he expects to rejoin the team in May after receiving treatment in Houston.
In his stead, Tom Lawless, who was the RedHawks infielding coach last season, will handle the interim manager duties. Lawless is familiar with the organization and doesn't expect many challenges from a chemistry perspective.
"I was here all last year doing my other job and I know the kids and we've got a lot of young, exciting kids coming up, so it should be a fun year," Lawless said.
While DeFrancesco plans to be back in May and is in high spirits according to Lawless, chemotherapy is a rough experience and Lawless knows DeFrancesco's absence could be longer than the initial timeline.
"It just depends on how he feels," Lawless said. "It's a serious thing he's going through so it's going to take some time for him to get his strength back and his motivation back. He may be kind of down in the dumps when it's over because going through chemo and radiation is not an easy thing to do."
Lawless' familiarity with the players and the organization is a positive thing the players are thankful for. Even still, the players want Lawless to manage how he sees fit rather than simply try to imitate the style DeFrancesco has used over the years.
"Definitely for him to manage in the way he's most comfortable," first baseman Jon Singleton said. "He's been around the organization for quite a long time; he was the infield instructor prior to this. We have an idea of what he's about and how he goes about business so there's not too much that's going to surprise.
"Tom is a little bit more laid back and I think that's going to beneficial for our group to start the year. Tony D and Lawless definitely manage differently and we'll have to get used to it."
Unorthodox Pitching Rotation
One of the luxuries of lots of young talent is more often than not, you end up with an abundance of players at a particular position. For the RedHawks, that position is starting pitching. To deal with that, as well as make sure the Astros organization doesn't overlook anyone who could start in the big leagues, the RedHawks will employ a platoon starting pitching rotation this season.
"We don't want to overlook any possible starting pitchers so we want to give an additional three pitchers instead of the five-man rotation," pitching coach Steve Webber said. "We use an eight-man rotation and it's a tandem system so we're using two starters each game that will go five (innings), 75 pitches, hopefully. If we have to bridge with a reliever to get to the sixth, we will. Then the second pitcher in the tandem will finish the game and if not, we'll bring in our closer."
The RedHawks tried the experiment last season, but injuries to several pitchers at the beginning of the season put an end to it before the season was a month old. However, the lower affiliates were able to continue the experiment much deeper into the season. Corpus Christi was one of those teams, and pitcher Mike Foltynewicz said it was an interesting way to work.
"There's nothing I can do about it," Foltynewicz said. "I just have to go out there and do what they tell me to do. We've got a lot of guys that are starting pitchers and really talented and they just want to get a good look at them and use them in the starting roles. I think it's a good thing and there are some good and bad things about it."
Foltynewicz said the platoon system changes the way he prepares each day, particularly when he is placed in situations where he is the second pitcher, coming on in relief to protect a lead the first starting pitcher may have built.
"It's a little different because once you get in the higher levels, the relieving mentality of it gets really tough," Foltynewicz said of his preparation. "You're coming in, you've got another guy's game on the line. It's different and we're trying to continue off that and get better as the reliever role. It's tough but we're trying to cope with it for now."
While some of the pitchers throughout the entire Astros organization may not agree with the experiment, Webber said almost every pitcher in the minor leagues hasn't established themselves as a starter or reliever just yet.
"It's giving them extra opportunities to show what they can do," Webber said. "I think that's the whole basis of it. We feel like we have a lot of young pitching prospects and we want to keep as many of them in the starting role as we can. I think it's a good idea from an organizational standpoint to not overlook any starters because starters are the basis of every winning team."
The idea is an interesting one, but only time will tell if it's going to result in success for the RedHawks.
Springer Unexpectedly Back In OKC
After posting 37 home runs, 108 RBI and 45 stolen bases between Corpus Christi and Oklahoma City a year ago, few expected George Springer back at Bricktown Ballpark this season. However, spring training has come and gone and Springer has yet to be called up to the big leagues.
Springer was the No. 11 overall selection in the 2011 draft and has dominated everywhere he has gone in the minor leagues. When asked if he was disappointed to not be in Houston, Springer chose to look at the positive side of things.
"I'm just going out and having fun," Springer said. "This is a great time for me to go out and play and learn and develop, have some fun and help us win."
Springer's average in OKC last season was higher than his average in Double-A Corpus Christi, but he said the biggest adjustment between the two levels was the strike zone.
"The strike zone is actually higher (in Double-A) because there are a ton of power arms there," Springer said. "The guys here, obviously are still extremely talented, but (they are) more experienced and they pitch more. There's not really guys who throw and hope you swing through it. For me, it was all about slowing myself down and understanding who I am as a hitter and looking for a certain pitch and if it isn't there, I have to smart enough to not swing at it."
OKC hitting coach Leon Roberts knows the talent Springer—and first baseman Jon Singleton—have, but also emphasized the importance of spending plenty of time in Triple-A.
"As far as mechanically, they're both pretty sound, but they both haven't had a full year of Triple-A yet, which is an important level in this game," Roberts said. "Going through that, they'll get that full year or part of a year in Triple-A and if they prove otherwise, they'll probably get a phone call."
Springer said he isn't looking to improve anything in particular in his game, but said he's trying to slightly improve everything.
"There isn't necessarily one thing that I have figured out yet," Springer said. "I haven't hit 1.000 so I'm working on just continuing to hit the ball hard and whatever happens, happens."