Under Contreras’ leadership last season, a young and inexperienced TinCaps club floundered in the first half before cruising all the way to the Midwest League Championship, where they fell to the Houston Astros’ affiliate, the Quad Cities River Bandits.
This year, Contreras again faces the challenge of helping a youthful squad acclimate to the rigorous competition of full-season ball, managing the youngest group in the league.
After the team’s latest home-stand, Contreras was gracious enough to talk with MadFriars about both the team dynamics and the highly touted prospects in Fort Wayne.
MadFriars: This is your third year as the manager for the TinCaps. Is there anything unique that stands out to you about this squad compared to the past couple of teams?
Anthony Contreras: The obvious answer would be the youth. There is something like ten teenagers on the team…and also a lot of guys who have jumped straight from rookie ball to here. It’s uncommon for players that young and inexperienced to jump to full season right away, but I think where our farm system is right now, with the talent level we have, it’s understandable for the Padres to think it appropriate for these young guys to be at this level.
You know, they’re all going through [this transition] together for the first time, so it’s a lot of uncertainty for these kids. They’re all going through the ups and downs, and it’s a good thing I think. It certainly makes for an interesting coaching experience.
Managing at this level, how do you balance development and fostering a culture of winning?
Anthony Contreras: You set a standard and a culture early. I take what I’ve learned from my years of professional baseball and put it into effect. You let these kids know that this is how you go about your business if you want to be successful. These are things you do on a daily basis if you want to grow and you don’t shy away from it.
You’re always going to have those guys who want to stray away from the process and that’s natural, but you just have to reel them back in and make sure everyone’s on the same page. And that is a daily thing for me. Not everyone’s going to have their best day, but I have to stay diligent with them about what our culture and ways are, and if I do that, we’re able to stay the course and be successful.
With the array of age, experience, and culture, how do you go about cultivating unity?
Anthony Contreras: I think it starts in the clubhouse. The best teams that I have been on and the best teams I have coached, in my five short years of coaching, always have tight chemistry inside the clubhouse and outside of the field. You see the way they function when things are going bad. I think that shows a lot about a team and how they keep their camaraderie, and also, I try to keep an environment where it is easy going.
We’ve got a ping-pong table in the clubhouse where guys like to get away, but they stay competitive [even though] their minds are not on baseball. You need to have that break from the game because it gets monotonous and redundant – day after day doing the same thing. It gives them their space to be themselves but stay competitive and keep sane because this game can be a humbling thing.
After an up and down start, Mason Thompson looked solid in his last outing. How has he grown since you saw him last year?
Anthony Contreras: He is definitely still growing- he is still a young kid. You see him making his adjustments from outing to outing. He’s had his bad ones and his good ones this year, so it’s trying to create that consistency where he is not having to go up and down like that.
I think that comes down from the time he pitches to the next outing. The preparation in between [games] where he needs to refine his skills. And he is making good progress right now; though, it’s a slow maturity process when you’re this young playing at this level and going into pro ball in your first or second year. But you see a lot of good things from him and that’s encouraging for us and the Padres. You just want to see him create that consistency and repeat those good outings
Do you attribute any of the dip in velocity and the inconsistency to the mechanical changes he made this offseason?
Anthony Contreras: Yeah, I really haven’t dug into his velocity. It’s really about his control and his command at this point. I think he has to start to nail that down before he starts to add back that velocity he had coming out of high school and the draft.
You see when you get to this level that its command and control that will save you. Guys can throw it a 100 mph, but if they can’t locate it, then it does us no good. We want him to continue establishing that repeatable delivery and then he can go back to adding that velocity. From what I see right now, he looks good on the mound and the confidence is starting to creep back in and get where we want it to get for him to be where we want with his outings.
Nick Margevicius seems to be a real cerebral pitcher, relying on a well-thought-out attack and striving to work efficiently. How impressed have you been by him in the early going?
Anthony Contreras: Being consistent with his control and command is Nick’s strength right now. Being able to put the ball where he wants with all three pitches. I listen to him in his bullpens with Burt, and he’s a thinker. He makes good adjustments on what he is trying to do, and when he gets in the game, he has this tunnel vision where he’s locked in and focused at competing better than most. You mix all those intangibles together and you get the results and the pitcher that you see.
That’s going to carry well as he works through his career and gets to the big leagues. Because his ability to make adjustments and analyze hitters is huge, and if he’s doing it this well already, it’s only going to get stronger as he works his way up the minors.
Anthony Contreras: Let’s start with Ruiz. He comes in from the trade with the Royals and wins the MVP last year in rookie ball. He comes in as an established hitter where his offensive game is probably number one, and you see that. He is a very poised hitter at the plate; if you watch him at batting practice or in the cage, you can tell he knows what he wants to do. He’s a worker and very serious when it comes to his game. It’s a good thing because you want these young kids to take their game seriously, so I think it benefits him as tries to play his game at this level
For Ornelas, he’s a big strong kid that looks the part. I keep forgetting that he is so young with the way that he carries himself. He’s got a good make-up for an 18-year-old kid. He’s been very selective at the plate and is very similar to Ruiz in the way that he works.
If these young kids can work like that, it’s only going to benefit them as they rise through the ranks and face better competition. He’ll be able to make adjustments. It’s just fun to see these kids grow together… Ruiz, Ornelas, and Rosario going through their ups and downs together. They’re able to lean on each other and get through the grind of this full season together, and I’m here to make sure I do everything I can to help them get to the big leagues.