The Fort Wayne TinCaps missed the playoffs for the second year in a row, but the Midwest League squad had plenty to talk about. Between top prospects Ryan Weathers and Xavier Edwards, and Joey Cantillo putting himself on the map, there was plenty of excitement at Parkview Field despite the 62-76 record.
Radio play-by-play announcer Mike Maahs saw many of the TinCaps games from the press box. Maahs has worked for the Wizards/TinCaps for 18 years, 17 of them as a broadcaster. In addition to his responsibilities for the TinCaps, Maahs is in his 25th year as a broadcaster for Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he calls men’s and women’s volleyball and women’s basketball.
Mike was nice enough to answer some questions about the 2019 TinCaps.
MadFriars: The TinCaps once again had the youngest roster in full-season ball. How do you think that affected them on the field, and how did they mature throughout the season?
Mike Maahs: The TinCaps have had the youngest team in the 16-team Midwest League every year from 2014 through 2019; this year’s average age was 20.2 years old. There were nine teenagers on the opening day 25-man roster, with all of them coming from warm weather climates.
The weather in Indiana in April is very different than the players are accustomed to. The change in weather combined with the youth of the team and their inexperience in playing full-season professional baseball more often than not translates into a rough start of the season (especially in terms of wins and losses), and such was the case in 2019.
This year, the weather really didn’t turn warmer until the end of May and the beginning of June, when the season was almost halfway complete. When the weather did turn warmer, you saw better performances on the field.
Part of that can be attributed to the change in the weather, and part of it can be attributed to the players finally becoming more comfortable with each other, both on and off the field. That’s baseball.
Two years ago, Fort Wayne had Tatis Mania. While the 2019 TinCaps did not have a Tatis Jr, they were led by a teenage middle infielder in Xavier Edwards. What did you see from Edwards this past season?
Mike Maahs: What I saw from Xavier Edwards while he was here in Fort Wayne was a talented player who loves to play baseball, and a player that had a maturity beyond his age (remember, he was just 19 on Opening Day).
He also showed a willingness to put in the extra effort to improve, in all facets of the game. He doesn’t have all that much power, but, he was among the league leaders in several offensive categories (first in batting average and hits; second in swinging strike%; third in on-base%; fourth in stolen bases and K%; and tied for ninth in triples).
He was the starting second baseman for the Eastern Division All-Star Team in the Midwest League All-Star Game and was named to the post-season Midwest League All-Star team as the second baseman. Not bad for a 19-year-old from Florida.
The TinCaps struggled for most of the year to hit for power. The one bright spot might have been fellow teenager Justin Lopez who led the team in home runs and total bases despite showing virtually no power in April. What were your impressions of him, and do you see him growing into a 20+ home run hitter as he continues to grow?
Mike Maahs: The first thought that comes to mind is, “wow, he’s still just a teenager.” His ticket to moving “up the ladder” in the Padres’ farm system is not going to be his power, but the “shotgun” of his right arm, when throwing out runners from the shortstop position.
Especially in the second half of the season (remember, he was on the injured list for a period of time in the first half), Justin was asked to play at both second and third base in addition to shortstop.
It became obvious (at least to me) that he was more comfortable at shortstop as the season progressed. Yes, he did lead the team in home runs (13) and total bases (163), and he had 17 doubles and 3 triples as well; but, his batting average was just .228, with an OBP of .278 and a slugging % of .368. It should also be noted that Justin is a switch-hitter, with 12 of his 13 home runs coming lefthanded.
Can he become a 20 home run hitter? The possibility is there for sure. However, in my opinion, for that to happen, he needs to raise his batting average at least to a solid .250 or higher, and he needs to accept the fact that he may have to become more comfortable playing at either second and/or third base because Fernando Tatis Jr. is already in San Diego, and Gabriel Arias may not be far behind; both of them are shortstops.
What other TinCaps position player stood out as someone you think Padres fans should keep an eye on moving forward?
Mike Maahs: There are three players, all of whom were in Fort Wayne for the entire season, that the fans should keep their eyes on. Two are outfielders Dwanya Williams-Sutton and Jawaun Harris, and the other, catcher Blake Hunt.
DWS batted .236, with 9 home runs and 52 runs batted in. He was 12-for-14 in stolen bases, led the Midwest League in OBP (.411), and set a Fort Wayne franchise record by being hit by a pitch over 30 times, including four times in one game alone.
Harris, after playing both baseball and football in college at Rutgers University, made the decision to play baseball alone professionally. That is a big adjustment for any athlete to make, and that adjustment takes a lot of time.
The final batting average was .200, with 8 home runs and 37 runs batted in (in 113 games). He was among the league leaders in stolen bases (29 in 35 attempts), and he had a very respectable OBP (.346). He possesses very good speed and played a strong center field defensively.
Blake Hunt got off to a rough start offensively in his first 35 games, but, then made some adjustments and batted almost .300 after that. He ended up batting .255, with 5 home runs and 39 runs batted in. He also finished third on the team in doubles with 21.
It is the way that he handles pitchers (especially his roommate for most of the season, Joey Cantillo) that is the primary reason to keep an eye on him as he progresses through the system.
Cantillo was arguably the best pitcher in the Midwest League this. In your opinion, what made him so unhittable, with opponents hitting just .173?
Mike Maahs: The numbers that Joey posted in Fort Wayne were incredible. He was named the Midwest League pitcher of the week on three different occasions and was the Uncle Ray’s Midwest League Player of the Month for June. When he was promoted to High A Lake Elsinore, Cantillo was leading the Midwest League in ERA (1.93) and strikeouts (128), and was second in wins (9).
What made him so good? Here’s where the mental part of the game comes in to play. Cantillo had a somewhat rough month of April and had experienced a couple of bad starts in a row.
In early May, he basically had a heart-to-heart talk with himself and became determined to show everyone that he was a better pitcher than he had shown previously.
He basically decided that nobody was going to beat him, and (literally), that’s exactly what happened. Again, not bad for a 19-year-old.
While Cantillo came into the season barely scratching most top 30 prospect lists, the one top pitching prospect the TinCaps did have was Ryan Weathers. Weathers had an up and down season, looking unhittable early in the season, before looking like a completely different pitcher in June/July. As someone who got to see all of his starts, did you notice a difference in either his mechanics or demeanor on the mound? How did he look to you?
Mike Maahs: In his first five starts, Ryan Weathers was perhaps the best pitcher in the Midwest League. However, on April 28th in South Bend, he departed after just 2 innings of work, thanks to an injury to his throwing arm. He was out of action for nearly an entire month, and really wasn’t the same for almost the rest of the season. Part of the reason may have been the injury (physical), but part of it (I think) was also on the mental side.
When a player misses any amount of time due to an injury, more often than not, they can’t wait to get back into action. Sometimes, however, the longer that the player is on the sidelines, the more frustration may build-up, based on the fact that it’s perhaps takes longer to get back into action than one would like. I’m not a doctor, and would never pretend to be one. However, maybe it took longer for the injury to completely heal than anybody thought.
When he did come back, Ryan had some stretches where it was easy to see why the Padres made him the 7th overall pick in 2018, retiring as many as 10 and 12 batters in a row on a couple of occasions.
There were also some stretches where he almost inexplicably gave up two, three or four hits in succession with all of his good work seemingly floating away. If Ryan Weathers can come to spring training totally healthy in 2020, I’m confident that the road to Petco Park will become a much shorter road to cover.
While not with the team for a very long time, Mason Fox was about as dominant a TinCap reliever since David Bednar a few years ago. Fox struck out 16 of the 27 batters he faced, what made him so electric?
Mike Maahs: With hindsight always being 20-20, maybe, just maybe, Mason Fox was too good for the Midwest League.
Though it’s a short sample size, the numbers may point this out: 6 games, a 1-0 record, a 0.00 ERA, 8 innings of work, no runs, just 3 hits, no walks, 16 strikeouts, 2 saves, and a 0.38 WHIP. Think of it: 24 outs in 8 innings of work, and 16 of those 24 outs were strikeouts! That’s domination, regardless of the level of play.
I think that a large part of his success was the self-confidence he possesses, not to mention an outstanding fastball. He also knows that he was one of the older pitchers on the staff and that if he didn’t produce at this level that the road to San Diego may get longer rather than shorter.
I know that Mason was hit a little bit in the California League playoffs, but, with that fastball and his determination, the future is bright for him.
“Little Bartolo” led the team in innings and second in strikeouts. Outside of a rough July he also had a great season, despite not having that upper 90s fastball. What stood out to you about Efrain Contreras?
Mike Maahs: I really think that Efraín Contreras really took the “Little Bartolo” nickname to heart. Not just the physical similarities, but in the manner that Bartolo Colon has pitched in his long career as well (from a mental standpoint). Remember, Efraín was one of the teenagers on the Opening Day roster.
One of the things that a youngster can do is learn from his teammates. I’m convinced that Contreras learned from Cantillo, Weathers, Gabe Mosser, and others as to how to prepare for each start, how to maintain composure when things aren’t always going your way, and trusting your catcher to call the right pitches. I’ll be anxious to see how he progresses through the Padres’ system.
Was there any other pitcher that really impressed you this season?
Mike Maahs: I think that the other pitcher on the staff who really impressed me in 2019 was Henry Henry.
We need to go back to the 2018 season for a moment. In 2018, Henry came to Fort Wayne as a hard-throwing, 19-year-old, string bean righthanded pitcher who lacked a bit of patience and control. He was sent to short-season Tri-City to work on those shortcomings and returned to Fort Wayne in mid-to-late August. The TinCaps travelled to West Michigan to close out the regular season, needing to win 2 of the 3 games against the Whitecaps in order to make the playoffs for the 8th time in 10 years.
In game one of the series, Henry Henry pitched seven sensational innings, and Fort Wayne picked up the victory. Although they would lose the final 2 games and miss the playoffs, it was an outstanding effort by Henry.
Flash forward to 2019.
Henry Henry was again on the opening day roster, this time as a relief pitcher. Throughout the season, he utilized his lanky right arm and his good fastball to his advantage. Henry was one of three TinCaps named to the All-Star team, and, at the break, led the Midwest League in wins. He struck out one of the two batters he faced in the All-Star Game.
He would go on to win seven games in the season, and collected a team-high 10 saves; striking out 80 batters in 81.1 innings of work. The one thing that impressed me the most about Henry in 2019 was the fact that he seemed unflappable when he came in to pitch. Just a quiet, self-assurance that he would get the job done. Most of the time, he did.
While the 2019 season, unfortunately, saw the TinCaps miss the postseason for the second year in a row, what was your highlight from the 2019 season?
Mike Maahs: Without a doubt, my favorite memory took place on July 18th at Parkview Field. That was a “Thirsty Thursday” night, which are always the most attended. That was when “The Dan Le Batard Show’s executive producer Mike Ryan flew up from Florida.
Peoria scored two runs in the first inning, three runs in the second inning, and three more runs in the top of the fourth to take an 8-0 lead. The score became 11-2 halfway through the fifth. That’s when things began to change.
Home runs by Jawaun Harris and Blake Hunt highlighted a four-run bottom of the 5th for Fort Wayne, trimming the deficit to 11-6. Then with one out in the eighth, the TinCaps loaded the bases thanks to three straight walks. That would bring Harris to the plate, and he belted a 1-1 pitch over the wall in left-center field for a grand slam, which tied the game at 11-11. A few batters later, Blake Hunt was at the plate, and Fort Wayne successfully executed a double steal, with Ethan Skender scoring what proved to be the winning run, as Fort Wayne rallied from a 9-run deficit to beat Peoria by a score of 12-11.
It was the largest come-from-behind deficit in TinCaps history, and the second-largest deficit overcome in franchise history (the then Fort Wayne Wizards rallied from a 10-run deficit to defeat South Bend 11-10 in 1995).
That was my favorite memory from the 2019 season.