The Spokane Indians finished last in the North Division of the Northwest League in the first half, but just by four games as the four teams in the division were bunched together without a standout.
If the Indians could have finished closer to .500 on the road than their disappointing 4-15 away record – including losing their first 12 consecutive contests away from Avista Stadium – they might have contended for the first-half title.
Two weeks into the second half, the Indians (7-6) are one game behind Vancouver (8-5), tied with Everett for second in the division.
Maybe that helps to explain how a last-place team was awarded with more midseason all-stars than any other team in the league.
The NWL All-Stars face the best of the Pioneer League on Tuesday at 5:40 p.m. at Suplizio Field in Grand Junction, Colorado.
Representing the Indians in the NWL starting lineup are first baseman Curtis Terry and third baseman Diosbel Arias, while pitchers Hans Crouse and Emmanuel Clase and catcher Francisco Ventura are reserves.
Paul Kruger, the Texas Rangers’ assistant director for player development, said that while the emphasis of short-season Class A baseball is development, the organization wants to build a culture of competition from the beginning.
“We preach winning. Winning is a big part of development,” Kruger said last week during the Indians’ long homestand. “The phrase we use is ‘Develop to win.’ Winning is a byproduct of what we do on the field.”
Kruger said that the work the players put in the five hours before the game at this level is as important as what happens at game time.
“All the work that we do, whether that’s situational defense, batting practice, bunts, whatever the case may be – it’s preparing us to learn how to play the game.”
He said the training time is critical at this level to get the most out of the talent the players possess.
“Baseball’s a different sport – we don’t get to send them right to the major leagues. We have to build those building blocks all the way through. There’s just so many different elements that go into it.”
Kruger acknowledged the recognition the all-stars received is an important part of their development and thinks each are a big part of the Rangers’ minor league system.
Crouse is 5-1 with a 2.37 ERA and 0.95 WHIP, both numbers that would lead the league if he had pitched enough innings to qualify, with 47 strikeouts in 38 innings. He possesses a mid-90s fastball, two breaking balls and a changeup in progress.
“Hans is a special kid, on and off the field,” Kruger said. “You see the emotion every night here. And it’s positive emotion. It’s excitement. It’s competitive.”
Crouse has had moments of dominance, but the Rangers seem like they will allow Crouse – in his first full pro season – to work his way through the entire circuit.
“The atmosphere that Spokane provides was one of the main reasons we wanted to keep him here rather than shoot him up through the system,” Kruger said.
“It allowed him to develop his fastball. Changeup is something he’s really been working on lately. Throw it. Throw it in games where you know you can at time overpower hitters with your fastball. You’ve got an above-average breaking ball, but can you work on your changeup? Can you do different things within the game that you may not get a chance to do at a higher level? The work that (manager) Kenny (Holmberg) and Jono Armold, our pitching coach have done has been tremendous. I think the future is really bright as a front-end type guy for the organization.”
“I think once he gets through this year, that real first season as a professional player, I think the sky’s the limit. He’s a guy that can move quick, but we don’t want to miss a step. So everything we’re doing now we think is very calculated to get the best of him. Not just for the short term, but for long term. We expect him to be a Ranger for 15-plus years.”
Kruger said it’s calculated on the part of the Rangers to draft high school players, send them to the Arizona rookie league after signing, then assign them to short-season in Spokane their first full season.
“This is a very tough league,” Kruger explained. “It’s a college-based league. It’s a long season, very few off-days – which is why we slowed it down and allowed these guys to thrive in Arizona that first season then come here and really understand what it means to be a pro, rather than just jump right in to this level. I think we’ve been really successful that way.”
As for the other all-stars, Kruger said each of them has things they need to work on to move up the ladder, but all are intriguing to the parent club.
Kruger thinks outfielder J.P. Martinez, the organization’s No. 3 prospect, can be special even though he isn’t an all-star this season.
“I think he’s got a chance to be an everyday centerfielder in the organization with plus speed, plus raw power,” Kruger said. “He’s got a good idea of the strike zone.
“He’s got a chance to be a No. 1 hitter in the organization for a long time.”
Clase, the Indians closer, was acquired from the San Diego Padres organization in April. He throws 99 mph and has shown terrific fastball command.
“Great job by our pro scouts to find Emmanuel,” Kruger said. “He’s been great here. He’s been put in big situations here late in games and that’s what we want to do.
“We want him to grow into a back-end type pitcher – obviously with his velocity – but his breaking ball is getting tighter and tighter as we go.”
Terry – who led the NWL in homers last season with 12 – has 13 homers, 38 RBIs and a .629 slugging percentage, all tops on the circuit.
“He’s had a tremendous year here after a terrific year last year,” Kruger said.
While players don’t strive to repeat a minor league level, Kruger said it was all about where the organization could find regular playing time for Terry this year.
“Once (Terry) gets an opportunity to go into a full-season (league) he’s going to continue what he’s doing. But I think No. 1 and most important, as we tell all of our guys throughout the system, is where can you benefit yourself the most? And that’s playing.”
“Here he gets that opportunity at multiple positions and be in the lineup nearly every night.”
Arias’ has been among the league’s top average hitters all season, and his .338 average at the break is fourth in the league.
Kruger said Arias has come along way since signing as an international free agent last July.
“I think the strides that he’s made, the strength, his ability to move around in the infield, and his strike zone awareness has been something that really been – surprise isn’t the right word – a pleasant success story in his first season coming to a new culture in a new country.”
Kruger said Arias can command the strike zone, wherever that might be for a particular umpire on a given night.
“I think (Arias) has a little more power that initially thought that he would. It’s great plate coverage, it’s a disciplined approach. Everybody’s learning here so the zones may be different from game to game, but his ability to hone in on the 17 1/2 inches has been a huge plus for him.”