We've hinted at it all week, and now it has finally arrived. I had a chance to sit down today in the rowdy Tacoma clubhouse to spend a quick half-hour with Tacoma Rainiers pitching coach Rafael Chaves. Chaves was about as cooperative as anyone could hope, and I came away from the interview trusting him even more with the young Tacoma arms (Felix, especially). This interview was the first of several Rainier interviews we plan on getting done throughout the season. We don't know who's next up, but it'll probably be a player.
For the readers, the written transcript is below.
Lookout Landing: All right, we're here with Rafael Chaves and we're here to ask him a few questions today regarding this season and seasons previous. First off, I'd just like to say thank you to Mr. Chaves for coming and answering a few questions for us from Lookout Landing.
To start off, tell us a little bit about what you've seen from your pitching staff here early in 2005. Has anyone performed above or below expectations so far?
Chaves: Well, so far for me we haven't pitched as good as we can. You know, we're falling behind in the count a little bit too much. And it's hard to pitch that way in this league where the ball jumps out of the ballpark pretty good. When you're working behind in the count, your results should not be too good and that's exactly what's showing right now.
LL: Do you see a significant difference between your pitchers' attitudes coming in and pitching in a more hitter-friendly park than Cheney, which is more pitcher-friendly?
C: Well, if we're going to into that, you know, right now our pitchers are throwing way better on the road than they are pitching at home in Cheney. So, you know, the attitude, I don't think they're pitching with as much confidence as they should be pitching here. They're trying to be too fine and they're falling behind in the count and that's what the feeling is right now.
LL: How about Jorge Campillo? Nobody really knew much about him when he signed with the organization. What are your impressions of his ability?
C: Well, Jorge is a well-polished pitcher, I would say. He doesn't throw very hard but he can locate his pitches, he has the ability to change speeds very good and he has an idea of what he wants to do on the mound.
LL: Do you feel as if Campillo is ready for major league ball at this time?
C: I think he could go there and compete. You know, it all depends on the needs that the Mariners have...I'm sure he could go to the big leagues and compete.
LL: Having lost Travis Blackley for the year and then seeing Clint Nageotte go down with an injury for a little while, how have you juggled the staff to compensate? Are certain guys adjusting well to the new roles?
C: Well, the guys we have starting are supposed to be starting and the guys we have relieving are supposed to be relievers according to what we think, what the organization thinks. So, Blackley and Nageotte, of course those are two valuable arms in the organization, and tough luck for us that they've had setbacks in their careers.
LL: With last night's spot start for Brett Evert, do you see him starting again this year?
C: Well, we think we want to use him as a reliever and somehow build his arm strength. Back in I think it was 2002 he was a starter. I think he was a starter for Atlanta for a few years and then he went to AAA and he was a reliever and he was a starter, so he's done both. But we feel like we need to give him an opportunity to be a reliever so he can work on some stuff on the side and develop some arm strength.
LL: A few more questions about this year's staff -- first of all, what's going on with Jeff Heaverlo? It feels as he's had just rough outing after rough outing, do you have any comment on that?
C: Well, number one we know the history behind Jeffrey. Jeffrey was a very effective pitcher prior to the last two years simply because he's had only five innings over the past two years. So, he's kind of learning about himself again and last night he had a better outing but it's going to take him a couple more outings for him to get more comfortable around the mound.
LL: And Felix Hernandez, what has impressed you most about his game?
C: Well, Felix has the ability to throw not only a fastball with tremendous velocity but the ability to change speeds and to throw a good breaking ball, an outstanding breaking ball. He's throwing his change-up this year a little bit more often and it's given him great results. The ability to take anything you tell him that should help him, he's one of those guys who right away puts it in play and it seems like he doesn't forget what you tell him.
LL: And then of course the question everybody wants to ask -- what kind of adjustments do you think Felix needs before he's ready for the majors?
C: We're trying to make sure he commands his fastball a little bit better. His mound presence, you know, we just want to make sure he's a polished pitcher before we call him up. The organization does have a plan for him and when we feel like he's ready that will be the day he gets called up.
LL: Now, there are a few interesting guys with the Mariners whom you've coached in the past. Perhaps most notable is Gil Meche, who was sent to Tacoma after a rough first half last year and then came back to the majors throwing strikes. What kinds of things did you and Gil work on during those two months to get him back on the right path?
C: Well, I'll be honest with you. I did nothing but follow instructions. The organization and Bryan Price gave me basically a said way on the things he wanted me to do with him. And being down here in AAA he felt more comfortable trying to adjust to the things Bryan wanted him to do and basically I did want I was told to do.
LL: Speaking of Bryan Price, how often do you and Price speak during the season?
C: Maybe a couple times, maybe once a week, maybe twice a week. It all depends on the information I have to offer to him. Sometimes he e-mails. He e-mails me or...but we communicate pretty often.
LL: How frequently does the subject of injuries come up during your talks with other team officials, both with the Rainiers and with the Mariners like Bryan Price?
C: We don't talk about injuries unless we have injuries, you know. I think you want to know why we've had some injuries and those are flukes. You don't know when an injury is going to happen.
LL: So, you don't feel as an organization...since we've seen so many high-profile young arms go down or go under the knife with severe injuries, you don't feel that the injuries are any more (numerous) than any other organization?
C: I can't tell you about any other organization. I know that we've had a few and that's all I know.
LL: Is there any consistent problem that you've noticed with the team pitchers relating to injuries? Are there any mechanical problems? Delivery, wind-up, anything like that that you have seen and that you've had to work on with these pitchers who have gone down with injuries?
C: Well, my number one pet peeve is the pitchers throwing across their bodies and I think they put much more strain on their elbows and shoulders. And as much as I can I try to make sure they correct their direction to the plate so their body can absorb the impact of the end of the delivery and not so much the arm per sé.
LL: To what extent do you feel the element of luck comes into play regarding the injuries? Do you feel that these are kind of freak or do you feel as if there may be a common element causing these injuries?
C: For me, it's very hard to predict. You see a guy like Cha Seung Baek who any scout, any pitching coach, any person who has a little bit to do with baseball will tell you that this kid has the most unbelievable, perfect mechanics basically and he's still having Tommy John surgery. So it's hard to predict, you know? You don't know why, maybe it's something he had since he was a little kid and he kept going and he kept pitching through it and finally it just snapped. So, it's hard to predict.
LL: What role do pitch counts play in your game-to-game staff management?
C: The organization has a set way on how many pitches they can throw up until a certain point in the year and then after that we go a little bit higher. But there is a limit; basically its 100 pitches prior to June 15th and after June 15th we go up about 15 pitches.
LL: Is Felix on a specific pitch count right now or is he on the 100-pitch limit? Or is he under that?
C: He's just like everybody else. We've established that for everybody we just try to make sure that what they do is monitored all the time. Felix is on the same page.
LL: Matt Thornton is a guy you just can't seem to get rid of. You've had him for at least part of the season for every year since 2000. We know he has plenty of ability but what kinds of things does he have to do to become a complete pitcher?
C: Well, Matty's right now, you know, his first couple outings in the big leagues he's struggled a bit with his command. But, it seems like every time out he pitches he's getting more comfortable and he's throwing more strikes. So, number one he needs to command his fastball and he needs to come up with an off-speed pitch. His slider is getting better and better and the change-up, he needs to continue to work on that.
LL: Do you think Bryan Price will be able to help him make those changes?
C: Of course, that's why he is who he is. He's been a very successful pitching coach and he knows exactly what he's talking about and he doesn't make it complicated for pitchers. Number one, he's very honest to the pitchers and he let's them know where they stand and what they need to work on. And he always has a game plan for every pitcher he has. So, I have total confidence on Matt and Bryan being able to do something good together.
LL: Alright a quick two-part question:
Who is the best pitcher you've ever coached?
Who is the best arm you've ever coached?
And if they're different, could you explain why?
C: Well, definitely the best arm is Felix Hernandez, that I've ever had. Most fun might have been Rafael Soriano, because he was an outfielder transformed into a pitcher, converted to a pitcher and that was a lot of fun. I had Rafael for a few years and I remember when he was an outfielder and I said, "This is a guy who is going to be a major league pitcher very soon".
LL: Obviously, you moved with Rafael through the system. Was the transition from outfielder to pitcher easier than other conversions we've seen? Did he have the mechanics down pretty well, and did he have that down quickly, or did it take a long time to develop him into the effective power pitcher he's become?
C: The reason why we thought he could be a pitcher was because he had a loose arm and he took that to the mound and it did not take him long. Obviously, you can see what he did throughout his minor league career and what he did when he was healthy in the big leagues. I think it was an easy decision and the organization is very lucky to have Rafael.
LL: Along the same path, which current pitcher do you think doesn't get the attention that he deserves? Or perhaps better phrased, who's your favorite sleeper on the team?
C: They all are. I mean, that's the reason they are here...because we think they have talent. For me, any guy isn't any different than any other guy, I mean all of them have an opportunity and that's why we sign them. And our job in the minor leagues is to develop the talent that we get from the scouts. I cannot give you one name, I think I can give you twelve names right now that I have on my staff.
LL: As far as you yourself are concerned, where would you like your coaching career to end up?
C: Well, number one, I always want to have a job in baseball and like anybody's dream I would love to be a pitching coach in the big leagues one day. But I know there is a time and a place for everybody. We have probably the best or one of the best pitching coaches in baseball right now in the big leagues so I feel like I am where I belong right now. And if one day I get an opportunity to be in a major league uniform as a pitching coach, that would be my dream helping a club out, winning a championship, win a World Series, that would be my main dream, you know?
LL: At this point, if tomorrow you received a phone call and a major league club was willing to give you a major league pitching coach spot, would you leave the Mariners system?
C: Like I said, my dream is to be able to help at the major league level one day. I love what I am doing right now and if that happens then we'll get into that later. But for now I am concentrating on doing my job here and trying to develop the Mariners pitchers, which is my job.
LL: Well, I just want to thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions, Rafael, and good luck with the rest of the season.
C: Thank you very much and thank you for having me also.