As many of you know the Rays are blessed with an abundance of young talent on the field as well as in the front office, we had the pleasure to interview one of those budding stars from the organization, and the results are after the jump and his answers in bold.
Chaim, you're a Yale graduate, you wrote for one of the more prestigious baseball sites around in Baseball Prospectus, and now you're an executive within the Rays' organization, all of this and you're in your early 20's, what's left for you to accomplish in life?
There's no doubt that I'm fortunate to have had these wonderful educational and professional opportunities. I've been able to meet and learn from some incredible people, and it's amazing to spend so much time around this game. As appreciative as I am of all that, I still hope that this is only the beginning, and a small fraction of what lies ahead. I find that the more I learn about the game, the more I realize just how much I don't yet know. It seems to me that the people who have success in baseball are those who carry that kind of attitude throughout their careers, whether they're 24 or 74.
Assistant to Baseball Operations is your official title, what are your day to day responsibilities?
The bulk of my time is spent in player development, helping to run many aspects of our farm system: the administrative aspects (e.g. visas, payroll), our relationships with our affiliate clubs, oversight of our instruction and our programs with the help of our roving coordinators, and of course evaluation of our players. We've been able to expand our programs a good deal in the last couple of years, and it's great to have ownership and management that recognize how important player development is to our future and take care to give us the attention and resources that we need.
In addition, I have a supporting role in some of the other areas of our
department, from international operations to the major league club.
Each day is different but there is always a lot going on.
A lot of your work is done alongside Mitch Lukevics, one of the instrumental supporters of opening facilities across Latin America, what about Mitch have you tried to pick up on and apply to your work?
Mitch is on the short list of the best people I've met in baseball. He has a lot of experience in a number of different roles, including some great success building that Yankee dynasty in the early '90's. Because he's been here almost from Day One, he also has perspective on what we are trying to do and how we need to do it. He understands the importance of a foundation and a plan in bringing many different people
and ideas together in the same direction.
Mitch is also an outstanding person who cares deeply about the well-being of both players and staff, and who tries to keep their best interests at heart no matter what. That seems obvious but it isn't always practiced in this industry. Is what we're doing in the player's best interests? Are we doing what's expedient or what's right? He's been great to learn from and work with, and he's very open to discussion and new ideas, whether mine or someone else's. We constantly review everything we do to try to make it better and stay ahead of the industry.
Have you had a chance to travel to any of the camps yet?
Yes; I've been to see our operations in both the Dominican Republic and
Venezuela. In the Dominican, of course, we're sharing Campo Las Palmas with the Dodgers, but this year we have our own team in the Dominican Summer League, and we've built our own batting cages there and have almost finished building our clubhouse. On my last trip there we had two exciting come-from-behind victories before a heartbreaker in which the Dodgers beat us and stole bragging rights in the dining hall for a couple of weeks. It's so refreshing to see the energy with which those kids play. Their passion is contagious. I always hate seeing us lose when I'm with one of our minor league clubs, but I couldn't help taking this one a little harder than usual because of how much the players wore their emotions on their sleeves.
Our new complex in Venezuela is a major step for us as well. There, we have a place all to ourselves, and we've already signed around two dozen Venezuelan players, and a few Argentines to boot. It's very exciting--we have a new facility and an absolutely amazing staff, and between that and the guidance of Andres Reiner, we have a chance to become one of the leaders in Venezuela.
We've seen a few of those international signees head over in Mayobanex
Acosta and one of my personal favorites; Diego Echeverria, at what point does the team decide the player is ready to play A-ball rather than in the DSL/VSL?
On one hand it's similar to any other promotion: our staff has to weigh whether the player would benefit more from developing in extended spring training and Princeton than he would in the Dominican or Venezuela. But of course we also have to weigh if the player is mentally and emotionally ready for the transition. It's a much bigger jump than the ones our domestic players face early in their careers. We try to prepare them culturally as much as we can, but it's impossible to simulate the experience of coming to the States for the first time.
What we can do is make baseball the constant. Our goal is to teach the same things on the field in Latin America as we do in Princeton and Hudson Valley. Our Latin American coaches spend time here during spring training, extended spring and the instructional league, and we also send our roving instructors down there to work with the Dominican and Venezuelan players. When they get to the States, there will be a lot of adjustment but also a few familiar faces and they will still be doing the fundamentals the Rays way.
Also most of these players are still pretty young, roughly the same age as American high schoolers, how do the camps go about deciding who plays what?
It takes different physical tools to play each position. For instance,
a certain amount of arm strength is important for a catcher, and middle infielders need to have their feet work differently from corner infielders. Our scouts will sign players whom they feel profile for certain positions--that is, they project to be able to meet the physical demands of that position. Of course, there are different expectations offensively from each position--if they're going to play somewhere less physically demanding, they'll have to hit! That factors into the decision as well.
Versatility is also important to us, and our young players will often play a number of different positions, both to broaden their horizons and also give them a chance to tell us, through their play, where they fit best.
How often if at all do you interact with the prospects in the system?
Quite a bit. They're here every day during spring training, and many remain in extended spring training after that, and come in at the endof the season for instructional league as well. During the season I'llsee them occasionally when I visit the affiliates. They'll have many questions throughout, some of them minor and some major, and all of us want to be as accessible as we can.
We believe in being open with our players; we think it's most fair to them, and that they will respond well to an honest approach. We also want to know our players well so that we can help them individually,and so that we can evaluate them as accurately as possible. The interaction is important.
Let's say you're Andrew Friedman for a day, what would you do when Rocco Baldelli returns and let's say B.J. Upton is still tearing the cover off of the ball?
That's going to be a great problem to have. B.J. has adapted to center field about as well as we could have asked and has shown tremendous range out there. Rocco's also a very gifted outfielder, and we can't wait to have him back. The surplus will give us options and depth.
We'd love to have more problems of that nature!
How involved in the drafting process are you? Did you scout David Price yourself or sit in on a game or two of his?
I've never seen David Price pitch, except on TV, but I've heard some great things about his talent and character. I enjoy the relationship I have with R.J. and his staff; it's a very collaborative atmosphere and I'm available to help them however they need. But on draft day, it's important to trust your scouts, not only on the abilities of a player but on his intangibles and makeup. These guys are in the trenches and they know the players better than anyone.
Two, three if you count Steve Andrade, of the Rays' recent minor league Rule V selections have had success so far in Maiko Loyola and Erold Andrus. When you're looking for options during that portion of the event, what aspects do you focus on more, potential or past success?
We won't chase past success if we don't think the player can carry it forward in the role we have planned for him. It's obviously a good indicator, but sometimes the players that are unprotected in the minor league portions of the Rule 5 haven't had much success, and that's why they're available. We don't mind taking a chance on those players if we have reason to believe that they can improve. For instance, in Andrus's case, we knew he had played through an injury in 2006 and we had great reports on his performance in the Venezuelan winter league.
What's it like working with Friedman and Matthew Silverman, forming
possibly one of the youngest and most talented front offices in the league? On that same note, what does Gerry Hunsicker bring to the equation?
As much as people focus on the youth of our group, I think one of our strengths is our diversity. We have an enormous challenge here given our market and the competition in the AL East, and we need a lot of different things to go right in order to succeed. I think that Andrew and Matt have tried to create a very open environment here that's going to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. They have incredible field vision--they can see beyond the immediate problem to the larger picture.
Gerry did that same job for many years in Houston, and it's apparent why he was so successful. One of the first things I noticed about Gerry when he came here is that he asks outstanding questions. He's very blunt and doesn't fall for double-speak--he just has a sense for what is at the heart of an issue and cuts right to that. He's been great to work for and his oversight has really helped our scouting and development departments.
We have a pretty strong dynamic in the office. There are some people here who don't get enough recognition but who really keep this place going and anticipate problems before they happen. It's a good group and one of the best things about it is the desire for constant improvement. We certainly appreciate the kind words, but we aren't focused on how talented people might think we are. We're a last place team and we know we have an enormous amount of work ahead of us.
One of the things the team tried to improve this off-season was infield defense, unfortunately up the middle the range is still less than desirable, with a groundball pitcher like Camp, heavily dependant on his defense, how did the team weigh what was his fault compared to what was just plain poor luck?
We try to isolate those factors as much as we can; the more precisely we can evaluate, the better. It's a constant process of refining our analysis to understand how we can put our players in the best position to succeed.
What has the process been like trying to make Tampa a desirable free agent local? Does the team use incentives like no state taxes to their advantage?
Some players and their agents will factor those things in, but our focus is on making this a destination because of the organization itself and not the tax laws of our home state. We know that as our team grows more competitive on the field and as we all work to improve the organization top to bottom, players will notice that just as our fans will.
In your eyes when will we see Jeff Niemann, Mitch Talbot, Wade Davis, Jake McGee, and even David Price in the majors?
We think it's extremely important to let each player develop at the pace that is best for him. Our goal is not just to get players to the big leagues but to develop players that will be able to stay there and have an impact. We have individual development plans for all of our players and we have certain expectations of them at each level, certain things we want to see them accomplish before they move on. We want them to perform, but these things are rarely statistical. For instance, we might want to see a pitcher stay over the rubber longer, or use his secondary pitches with more authority. We also might want them to make strides with their mental game or their work between starts.
Also, we'd like our players to benefit from our player development staff. We have some truly outstanding coaches and think that our players can learn different things from each one as they progress through the system. But if we move them too quickly, they won't be in any one place long enough to reap those benefits. The full year that
Wade and Jake spent in Southwest Michigan, the time that Jeremy Hellickson pitched in extended spring and then in Hudson Valley, to name just a couple of examples, really contributed to the success they're enjoying now.
Though we have a rough idea in our heads of when a player could be ready for the big leagues, we'll never throw a specific ETA on any of them because that, in our minds, betrays the development process. This should be a constant pipeline, not a race, and our job is to produce players who are fully armed for success at the highest level.
When Evan Longoria is ready for the majors where do you foresee him
playing, and what comes of the current player(s) at that position?
That will be another great problem to have. Evan has obviously made outstanding progress; he has a chance to be a very good major league player for a long time. We have a pretty darned good third baseman on our big league club right now, and we're excited that we may have a lot of depth there in the future.
What's your advice for a young sportswriter hoping to turn into the next Chaim Bloom?
That question makes this line of work sound a bit more glamorous than it is. As a fan, you see the final product, but a lot of the stress and labor behind the scenes doesn't come to light. The game also places huge demands on your personal life and free time. This isn't for everyone and you really have to love what you do.
There's no way around it--the competition for internships and jobs in baseball is intense and unless you know someone, there aren't going to be shortcuts. I don't think there's a formula for finding a position, but I would say that it helps to identify what you think separates you from the pack and makes you a good candidate. Make sure you are able to demonstrate both your passion and your ability. Follow any lead, no matter how insignificant, and be willing to start small and do anything.
If you get an opportunity, show that you can complete a wide variety of tasks quickly, accurately and cleanly. You will need a lot of persistence and patience, and a bit of luck doesn't hurt.
Will you be holding the Baseball Prospectus get together at the Trop
I've seen that Will Carroll is making a return trip to Tropicana Field on August 22nd, which ought to be a great event. I'll be traveling that day, but I visited the first event and there were some great questions.
A few years back BP called Brendan Harris the next Albert Pujols, were you with BP then, and if so did you play any role in pushing for the acquisition of Harris?
I can't recall that comparison being made in any discussions in which I took part while at BP, but Harris was a guy we had followed for a while here. We thought he had a chance to contribute with the bat and could play a number of different infield positions. The fact that he was out of options this year gave us the chance to acquire him. To his credit, he got an opportunity and took full advantage of it.
Chaim, it's been a pleasure, thanks for giving us some of your time.
Never a problem. The support of the online community here is important
to us. You folks are some of our best fans and we appreciate what you do.