by Ben Davey

On the third leg of the tour we caught up with senior writer John Conniff as he visited the Fort Wayne TinCaps, the Padres low A affiliate in the Midwest League. Fort Wayne is the first full season league, playing 140 games or more, and has just moved into a brand new facility, Parkview Field at Harrison Square.

1) My first question has to be why is this team so dominant? In the past month they have lost Carroll, Darnel, Clark, Schmidt and Bass all to Lake Elsinore, yet they still have a 20-4 record in the second half of the season and an unearthly 65-20 record overall.

John Conniff: I think you partially answered the question; it’s just a very deep team. Carroll, Darnel and Clark were all with the team until mid-June, so when that is combined with Decker, Tekotte, Robertson and Cumberland, all of whom are patient hitters it was a pretty formidable lineup. The promotions allowed Robertson to play more, who has really produced. The late addition of second baseman Cole Figueroa, who is producing the way the Padres always thought he would be during spring training, you have five pretty good players in the everyday lineup.

Even with the promotions of Latos, who was only there for two starts and four games, Schmidt and Bass, they still have three pretty good starters in Castro, Osuna and Watt. Brach, Herr and Gonzalez have been very good in the pen; Brach is leading the organization in saves.

Finally, the defense is good, especially in the outfield. Both Decker and Robertson played some centerfield last year and both can really throw. Tekotte is very good in center and makes many plays appear much easier than they are.

2) Last year in Eugene, Dan Robertson broke the all time Northwest League hitting record by amassing 114 hits in only 73 games and ended with an amazing .377/.443/.497 line. Yet he was a 33rd round pick, so many of scouts and fans were unsure whether it was a fluke, or if he might be the real deal. I know Fort Wayne isn’t the best indicator of MLB success but what is your opinion on Robertson? Is he someone that you can see succeeding at higher levels?

John Conniff: It is a long way from Fort Wayne to the big leagues and most people can find many reasons why Robertson won’t make it, but then again most the same people doubted he would have the success he is having now. Regardless of what anyone does or does not think about him he’s performing and is going to keep getting that chance until he demonstrates that he can’t.

Defensively, he has speed and is a natural center fielder that has the arm to play right field as well. At the plate he has some pop, but what most impressed me was his understanding of situational hitting and forcing the pitcher to throw something he didn’t want too. In three games I didn’t see him have a single bad at-bat and he has a very quick short swing.

3) Sticking with the outfield theme what are your impressions of the other two outfielders in Fort Wayne, Jaff Decker and Blake Tekotte? How do they look defensively? Are the Padres viewing Decker as almost solely a left fielder now?

John Conniff: It’s easily the best defensive outfield that I have seen the organization put in the field since I’ve been with Madfriars. Decker can really play either corner and Tekotte has everything you want to see in a center fielder. All three of them move and throw very well.

4) With 3/5 of Fort Wayne’s April rotation gone (Latos, Schmidt, and Bass) and another one (Musgrave) being sent to the pen, the Tin Caps have had to greatly adjust their rotation. They are now being led by Stiven Osuna and Simon Castro. I know Madfriars thought a lot of these two going into the year. Have they lived up to expectations? You had the chance to see both of them pitch, how did they look, and what is their best pitch?

John Conniff: Castro has tremendous upside. He’s a legitimate 6’5” with a fastball that sits in the low 90’s and can touch 94 to 95. He has a good slider, but the big advantage for him is the development of his changeup, which is especially devastating when you throw as hard as he does. He is still has a ways to go in terms of consistency, but he has a chance to be very good.

Osuna relies more upon change of speeds and location. He was their best pitcher in the AZL last year and his catcher Robert Lara claims that since he has come back from the bullpen, with a few mechanical adjustments, he’s a different pitcher. Throwing changeups in fastball counts and essentially not missing with his location.

5) Is there any player outside of the top prospects that we should keep an eye on? Is there any player(s) who is playing a lot better than their stats might indicate? Anyone playing worse *cough* Dykstra?

John Conniff: I saw both Kyle Blanks and Cedric Hunter when they were in Fort Wayne and Jaff Decker is head and shoulders above them. Great looking swing, very advanced idea of what he is trying to do at the plate and an underrated all around player. Additionally, I think he’s a plus corner outfielder defensively.

Drew Cumberland looks much better at short than he did last year. The Padres got him to separate his arm a little more from his body which has increased the strength of his arm and its accuracy. He’s also put on some weight and is starting to really drive the ball.

Dykstra is an interesting case. If you listen to the Padres he’s getting called out on many bad calls by inexperienced umpires. There have been certain adjustments to his swing and a wrist surgery that set back from his off-season preparations. They think he’s still going to be able to hit, but others who aren’t affiliated with the big club have their doubts, especially with his swing and ability to make solid contact. The positive side is he still has a near .400 OBP, but he’s slugging less than .400 and when you are straddling the Mendoza Line for the whole year it’s tough not to be disappointed and put a positive spin on it.

To his credit he’s taking extra batting practice and working as hard as they will allow him. Additionally, he doesn’t hide from anyone and answers every question that you will ask him and takes full responsibility for his performance.

Bonus Round

I feel justified as this isn’t a question pertaining to players, but Fort Wayne opened a new park this year. What is your impression of it?

John Conniff: A great park, easily the best in the system. It’s helping to revitalize downtown Fort Wayne and the park seats a little over 8,000; which means nearly every seat is a good seat. The park plays pretty fair, but is slightly skewed towards pitchers.

Also I like the new logo.

Next Month: Eugene