Adelanto, Calif. -- The Modesto Nuts aren't where they were hoping to be now 55 games into their 2016 season at 21-34, but there's good news on the horizon: the California League's All-Star Game. Not necessarily because of a large group of players will represent the Nuts (though I'll share who I think is likely to make it below), but because along with the break comes a reset of the league's records and a clean slate for the second half.
Sitting at the bottom of the California League's North Division, the Nuts could use the do-over. Not that they're too far away from being a good team, of course; it just hasn't happened yet when they've needed it in close games.
"I think we’re going to turn it on in the second half, I really feel that," Nuts pitcher Sam Howard (No. 34 PuRP) said outside the visiting clubhouse in Adelanto after throwing eight innings of one-run ball in Modesto's win on Friday night. "We’re so close. We’re close in a lot of games. It’s just that things are not going our way right now. Sometimes we hit, sometimes we throw well, but we’ve just gotta keep grinding and working every day. It's getting better."
One thing that's going very well in Modesto revolves around Howard and his colleagues in the starting rotation. The lefty has been brilliant this year, most recently twirling back-to-back eight inning, one-run outings against San Jose and High Desert in the last eight days, and he's flanked by more good work from starters Ryan Castellani, Parker French, and Yency Almonte. The club just can't seem to score runs to support their starters and win the pitchers' duels in which they continually find themselves.
|May 29||@||San Jose||L, 2-5||June 5||@||Lancaster||2:05 pm|
|May 30||@||San Jose||L, 0-3||June 6||@||Lancaster||6:35 pm|
|May 31||—||OFF DAY||—||June 7||@||Lancaster||6:35 pm|
|June 1||@||High Desert||L, 1-8||June 8||—||OFF DAY||—|
|June 2||@||High Desert||L, 3-5||June 9||vs||San Jose||7:05 pm|
|June 3||@||High Desert||W, 2-1||June 10||vs||San Jose||7:05 pm|
|June 4||@||Lancaster||L, 4-7||June 11||vs||San Jose||7:05 pm|
"It’s frustrating, because the number one thing [the starting pitchers] can do is keep us in the game, and I feel like as a staff we are doing that, and that’s all we can do," Castellani (No. 19 PuRP) said.
Castellani would know a thing or two about that, of course; he's allowed just six earned runs in his last four starts entering Sunday, lasting seven innings in each one. All he has to show for that hard work, though, is three charged losses thanks to the Nuts' inability to get timely hits to break his tight games.
"Everything will come," he added optimistically. "We are early in the season, and it's kind of like last year in Asheville, we struggled in the first half and then we turned it on in the second half. I’m not worried about the record, I just want us to win, really. I’m just going to keep pitching my game, getting ground balls, and keeping us in it."
Dom Nunez (No. 13 PuRP), Castellani's teammate last year in Asheville and again now in Modesto, seemed frustrated with himself and the general team results now that he's experienced a slow first half of play two years in a row.
"Why are our pitchers going out there and only giving up one or two runs and yet we still can’t win?" Nunez asked rhetorically. "It’s going to take the offense to pick it up for the pitching staff. They’ve been doing a good job putting us in the right position to win ball games and either we blow it defensively with an error or a passed ball by myself, or we don’t come through with timely hits."
Nunez cited specific reasons why the Nuts aren't playing better, predominantly centered around the club's consistent inability to get a timely hit with runners on base, while stressing the team isn't far from breaking out of their prolonged slump. But another Nut, newcomer Josh Fuentes—recently promoted from Low-A Asheville—is more psychologically-focused as to the cause of the trouble, linking it to that similar first-half performance with the same group last summer.
"Honestly, I don’t know why it always seems to keep going like this, because we have a good group of guys, we are good as a team, and we’ve played together for more than a year," Fuentes said. "I think it’s just confidence. Maybe guys just get in their own heads and one thing goes bad, another thing goes bad, and it continues, or something like that."
Howard, ever the thoughtful man of few words, succinctly summed up an attitude I've heard from countless Nuts over the last ten days: with the right approach, it'll all work out eventually.
"The tables will turn," the lefty told me after leading the club to their only win of the week on Friday night. "[Pitching coach Brandon Emanuel] talks to us all the time before batting practice about staying positive, picking up the hitters, and staying motivated. We’ve just gotta keep pitching, and soon we’ll start hitting and playing some defense."
★ ★ ★
The balance between development and winning
I had a long conversation with Nunez on Thursday; much of that will be revealed in a feature on the Rockies' catching prospect that will appear on this site very soon. In the meantime, though, I wanted to share more on another wrinkle directly applicable to the Nuts' poor last week (and really, last two months) of baseball, and the team's struggles to break through and win games, as so many players have discussed above.
As Nunez and I discussed the club's slow start this and challenging first half, I introduced the topic of balancing game-to-game competitiveness and long-term career development. Of course, professional baseball players are expected to develop towards the ultimate goal and win games simultaneously, and these guys understand those joint responsibilities. That doesn't mean things always fall that way in the real world during the season, though. Nunez conceded that at times, especially when players are dead-set on improving themselves and prolonging their careers, the daily nature of the here-and-now California League playoff race can get lost.
"Sometimes with the developmental part, guys look at their numbers and say, 'what’s going on with my swing, why am I not producing like I have produced in the past,'" Nunez offered after Modesto's batting practice in Adelanto on Thursday afternoon, "and it's that, rather than 'hey, why are we losing ball games? Why are we getting swept? Why are we losing series?'"
"We just had a talk with all the players, talking about just trying to win ball games," the catcher continued, acknowledging several team meetings centered on improving the energy around the club. "This group was together last year, and we went through very similar slumps. What was the difference between the first half and the second half [last year]? Just trying to win ball games."
Hang around these guys for a few days, let alone a whole season, and you see it's a delicate balance in which they must put themselves. Save a Jon Gray here or a David Dahl there, very, very few of these guys are anywhere close to sure-things to reach the Major Leagues; even Nunez, Ryan Castellani, Forrest Wall, and other extremely highly-regarded prospects are right now light years away from the Major Leagues, and thus, it's certainly understandable that personal development with the ultimate end goal of succeeding in their career would be paramount, even more so than winning at this level.
But not for nothing, as much as the Cardinal Way may be reviled, there's something to be said about St. Louis' organizational philosophy to demand all their minor league affiliates win while developing. Fuentes tried to put his finger on that relationship between development and winning, and provide context as to how players view it.
"Last year [in Asheville] we had a lot of college guys and a few high school guys, and I don’t think the high school guys got it until we said, you know, when you’re playing for the team, the team gets better, and then you get better as a player and as a person," Fuentes hypothesized, citing third baseman Shane Hoelscher as one teammate that stood out to him when it came to playing with the team in mind.
"I’ve only been [with Modesto] for a week so I don’t know too much about what happened before, but I can definitely sense it," he continued. "It’s the same thing as last year, and it takes some time. Guys are so focused, and it’s High-A, so you’re getting closer and closer. Maybe we put a little too much pressure on ourselves."
Nunez can feel that, too.
"I think some guys lost touch with [the need to win], but we need to focus on it and like the coaches tell us, defense and pitching wins," Nunez said. "Honestly, I want to start winning some games. This game isn’t fun unless you’re winning some games."
For Fuentes' part, at least, the newcomer sees his role on the team as one that can help spark a culture change specifically centered on all those close games.
"I think part of my job was to come here and, since I know the guys very well, I want to get them relaxed," the new corner infielder offered. "We play very well together as a team, so we can't worry about individual outcomes. I think a lot of guys are feeling pressure though, just because if you play well here you can go up to Double-A, and then you're right there, you know? But it just takes time. We'll figure it out."
If this squad is anything like the Asheville team from last summer, the second half can't come soon enough for the Nuts—and if all goes right, well, Nunez's desire for baseball to become fun will soon be fulfilled.
★ ★ ★
Josh Fuentes gets his feet wet at first base
The Nuts are trying to get Fuentes' bat in the lineup to take advantage of his hot hand after a stellar period in Asheville necessitated his promotion to Modesto in the first place. To do that, they've been working him out at first base alongside Collin Ferguson, as Shane Hoelscher holds down third base, in an effort to jumpstart the Nuts' lineup and test Fuentes' ability at what is thus far the highest level of his career. But though he's a third baseman by trade, Fuentes isn't a complete stranger on the other side of the diamond.
"Last year was my first year that I played first base, so I’m still getting used to the position," he offered about his history at the position in Asheville. "I feel like I’m athletic enough to play first, I just have to learn the ins and outs. I like the position, and I like being an athletic first baseman, because it gives me a tool that not a lot of first basemen have in being quick and good with my hands."
Fuentes—about whom a longer feature will run on this site in short order—also spoke to me at length about how he's open to position changes away from third base if it means he can get in the lineup every day and keep his bat going. In that vein, he believes his athleticism and experience can play across the entire infield.
"I’m just here for whomever needs a day, or if they feel like I’m the right man for the job, then I’ll play," he said, "and playing every day gets me comfortable. The more I do that, I’ll start doing well."
Below, here are the first Fuentes at-bats we've gotten on camera since his promotion a few days ago to Modesto:
As you can tell from the video, he's obviously struggling at the plate, going just 1-for-17 in his first taste of time with Modesto entering Saturday night's game at Lancaster. And while he told me he's not pressing yet as he adjusts to High-A pitching and new opponents, he still wants to produce sooner rather than later for the Nuts' offense.
We'll have more on Fuentes very soon.
★ ★ ★
Watch him work: RHP Parker French
Even though Castellani, Howard, and Almonte take the majority of outside notice on the Nuts' pitching staff, and Carlos Polanco can dazzle with what may be the hardest fastball on the team, righty Parker French just keeps chugging along every fifth day, throwing strikes and attacking hitters with his own special attitude towards command and control. Even after allowing nine hits and five runs in a loss Thursday to High Desert, French's numbers are more than respectable, at 2-4 with a 3.06 ERA in seven starts for Modesto, and 4-5 with a 2.44 ERA in 11 total starts including his time in Asheville. Furthermore, his consistency and maturity have impressed his teammates.
"He knows what he wants to do, he has a great routine, and every outing he has good sink," Nunez offered about the University of Texas product. "At 90, 91, whatever the velocity is, it's really good sink and he knows how to pitch."
French wasn't at his sharpest on Thursday night (see video from his outing, the first clips we have of him from Modesto, below), but he still came away throwing nearly seven full innings and walking just one hitter, proving that once again, he's not going to beat himself on the mound.
With a fastball that can run anywhere from 88-93 mph, think of French as a Castellani-type with slightly less velocity; the righty showcases a hard, running fastball that does real damage to right-handed hitters and can get him a ground ball seemingly whenever he needs it. While French's long-term ceiling likely isn't as high as Castellani's, when you factor in the Texas native's maturity and bulldog nature on the mound, it's easy to imagine him as a future back-end starter or long reliever for the big league club.
★ ★ ★
Former Rockies reliever Josh Roenicke resurfaces
He's not a Nut, and he's not a Rockie, but Josh Roenicke is pitching in the Cal League — and it's not a rehab assignment. Surely, you remember Roenicke from his time in 2011 and 2012 with the Rockies. He was proficient those two seasons coming out of the bullpen for the big league club (4-2 with a save and a 3.33 ERA in 82 games/105.1 innings pitched). Afterwards, he moved on to pitch in the big leagues in 2013 for the Minnesota Twins.
Roenicke then spent most of 2014 and all of 2015 as a starting pitcher in Triple-A with both the Brewers and Nationals, after which he must have decided a reinvention was in order. Now nearly 34 years old — and with 190 big league appearances to his name — Roenicke finds himself in the Angels' organization, pitching out of the bullpen for the Inland Empire 66ers... as a sidearmer.
Here's some video from his most recent outing for the 66ers, which took place Wednesday night against the Lancaster JetHawks:
Roenicke threw 2.1 innings of scoreless relief in the game, working 85-88 mph when coming from the true sidearm angle, and occasionally flashing an over-the-top 90 mph fastball to mix up hitters' eyes on his release point. Despite the sidearm look being relatively new, Roenicke seemed fairly proficient with it, and commanded the ball consistently down in the zone. As you'd expect, his fastball has quite a bit of arm-side run and sink to it, and I have to imagine that at his best, he gets hitter after hitter to pound the ball into the ground.
Best of luck to Josh as he continues his career; considering some of the Angels' organizational depth woes, you have to imagine a strong few weeks in Inland Empire could land him a promotion (and maybe even another big league opportunity!) some time soon.
★ ★ ★
Nuts closer Jerry Vasto continues to cruise
At this point, he's nearly automatic—and it'd seem at his age and with his success, he must be gunning soon for a promotion to Double-A Hartford—but take a look at one of Jerry Vasto's recent appearances, Thursday night against the High Desert Mavericks (below):
This particular appearance was just Vasto getting some work in a Nuts loss, but the very next night, he threw another perfect inning with a strikeout and earned his eighth save of the summer. Entering Sunday's contest in Lancaster, Vasto has no record, those eight saves, and a 1.25 ERA in 19 games (21.2 innings). Most importantly, he's allowed only 12 hits and five walks against 28 strikeouts.
Vasto is still working between 92-94 mph with his fastball, and his strikeout rate would indicate he's missing bats just fine with the slider for which he has become well known. I've floated this before—and, admittedly, I have no insider information from the Rockies' front office to back up this specific point—but Vasto is consistently dominating High-A and he's already 24 years old. Expect him to get a shot in Double-A Hartford sooner rather than later.
★ ★ ★
The case for several Nuts to make the California League's All-Star team
The California League's All Stars will play those from the Carolina League on Tuesday, June 21 in Lake Elsinore, CA, and several Nuts will likely help represent the league in the showcase. Media and team voting ended this week, and though I can't reveal too much more about that, several Nuts have strong cases to make the All-Star team, including the players below. Rosters should be announced by the end of this coming week.
Omar Carrizales, OF
Carrizales (No. 27 PuRP) has cooled off in the last ten days, but entering Saturday night, he was still slashing .315/.361/.399 hitting at the top of the Nuts' order. That's good enough for seventh-best in the Cal League, and a notable accomplishment for a guy on a team that's hitting just .238 collectively (which is ninth in the ten-team league). There is quite a bit of outfield talent in the Cal League this year, but perhaps Carrizales has done enough to warrant a spot.
Sam Howard, LHP
If Sam Howard doesn't make the All-Star team this summer, it'll only be because league coaches and media members felt Castellani (below) did slightly more, and/or they ran out of space to include both pitchers on their ballots. Howard has worked deep into games, been brilliant night in and night out, and he's wrapping the season's first half on an especially high note. In total, he's 4-3 with a 2.47 ERA in 11 starts. He's fifth in the league in ERA, second in innings pitched, first in strikeouts, and third in WHIP among qualifying pitchers.
Ryan Castellani, RHP
Ditto to the above blurb on Howard; if Castellani doesn't make the team, it'll only be due to limited spaces and Howard's election in his place (assuming the Nuts can't get both in the game, which is certainly possible). Casti is 1-5 on the season, but his 2.83 ERA is sixth-best in the league, and he's 11th in WHIP and fourth in strikeouts, to boot. He also won a League Pitcher of the Week honor earlier this summer.
Jerry Vasto, LHP
Vasto is likely a lock to make the team as a reliever, in part because of his strong stats and dominant outings that I've showcased above. He's third in the league in saves and tenth in games pitched, so he's certainly showed enough to warrant a spot on the midseason club.
Shane Hoelscher, 3B
Hoelchser is probably a dark horse All-Star candidate, but his overall numbers are very strong, and he could benefit from a relative dearth of talented and productive third basemen elsewhere in the league as the final roster decisions are made. The slow start to his season may doom him, as could a stint on the disabled list, but Hoelscher has been hot of late. Overall, in 39 games, he's slashing .301/.347/.506, and is 13th in the league in both average and OPS.
★ ★ ★
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