I recently had the opportunity to speak with Brandon Liebhaber, Manager of Media Relations and Broadcasting for the Jackson Generals, the Mariners' Double-A affiliate. Liebhaber is in his second year with the Generals and has enjoyed other stints with the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes of the California League and the Chatham Anglers of the Cape Cod League.
Over the course of the conversation, we discussed everything from the charm of the Southern League to D.J. Peterson's progress to the correct way to say ".gif". You will find the entirety of our conversation below:
EN: First off, Brandon, let me just say everyone in the Mariners community is excited about what's going on in Jackson this season. There is an abundance of talent out there. We'll get to all of that in a second, but first I'd love to know how you came to work in baseball.
BL: A good question. Well, I played in high school but it became clear rather quickly that would not be my future professionally. I grew up in Los Angeles listening to Vin Scully and watching SportsCenter as a kid while my friends watched cartoons (I still watched plenty of cartoons, don't worry).
From a fairly young age, I've wanted to be a sportscaster. Being able to work at a baseball field and travel with the team seemed like the next best thing if I couldn't play. I graduated from Northwestern University in 2014 and was fortunate to land a broadcast internship with the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, the Dodgers Cal League affiliate. I had a blast, and wound up seeing a lot of these guys in High Desert.
At the Winter Meetings in 2014, I met Chris Harris who used to be in my shoes with the Generals. It worked out that he was moving to Biloxi to call games for the new team down there, and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to call Double-A baseball. It has been a lot of fun, and this team has made 2016 even moreso.
EN: How are you enjoying Jackson after spending seemingly a large portion of your life in Southern California?
BL: It is certainly different from Los Angeles and Chicago (where I went to school). Could do without the humidity, but the people here are very nice. They've welcomed me, which is nice considering I'm the only guy driving a Prius with California plates in these parts.
I like traveling, and this job has afforded me the opportunity to see a part of the country I was wholly unfamiliar with. Memphis and Nashville are close by, and I see a lot of interesting history on the road with the team. Nice bonus that the team was in Biloxi on my birthday last year and will be in Jacksonville this year. So long as they keep sending me to the beach, I think I'll be okay.
EN: What's been your favorite road trip so far? I hear Biloxi has a beautiful park and I'm sure there's an endless amount of delicious food to try.
BL: Ah, the food. Being in this part of the country has certainly made it hard to maintain a healthy lifestyle. This league offers everything from Tennessee barbecue to awesome seafood.
The Southern League features a lot of awesome ballparks. I love Pensacola's, as it is right on the water in the bay, and provides ample opportunity for Great Gatsby references. Biloxi is similar, though a little further from the beach. The casinos are a fun way to lose my per diem. Birmingham's relatively new ballpark is honestly an 8,500 seat big-league ballpark.
There is great history here, too. I went to last year's All-Star Game in Montgomery and went to the Rosa Parks Museum. I went up to Lookout Mountain when we were in Chattanooga, and learned a lot about the Civil War. I'm kind of a history nerd.
EN: That all sounds incredible. I really need to get out there and catch some games in the near future. Well, if you don't mind, I'd love to talk some Generals baseball now. I think the biggest story down there has been the emergence of Tyler O'Neill. I think you talk about him as much as anyone. What about him impresses you so much?
BL: What has really stood out this year is his ability to make adjustments and show that he is not just a power hitter. Obviously, that is his loudest tool but to see him almost halfway through the season with almost as many walks as he had all of last year is impressive. For a 20-year-old to make the jump from the California League to the much less hitter-friendly Southern League and put up better numbers in many respects has been awesome to watch.
The power is prodigious. I always say that you can't really comprehend it until you see him in person or get a good look at his upper half. He has hit some jaw-dropping shots, but he consistently makes hard contact. Would love to see his average exit velocity. He actually doesn't lead the league in homers (gasp!) right now, but is hitting well above .300 and always seems to do something productive.
The strikeouts are still high, but you're willing to take those with the production he provides. He has cut down on those and has done a great job of embracing the Control the Zone approach. This year has proven he is more than just a guy with 75 or 80-grade power, and the front office members I've spoken with have all had extremely good things to say about the adjustments he has made so far.
EN: Yeah. People really only mention his power, but you don't hit .324/.388/.559 with just a power tool. He's starting to look like a legitimate hitter and I'm very excited about his progress. Another guy down there who has people talking is D.J. Peterson. Now, we all know Peterson's story. He came into the system and just started bashing, but massive struggles in 2015 have set him back a long ways. Now, suddenly, he's starting to show flashes of his old self. In your opinion, how has he developed over the course of the season so far?
BL: This recent stretch from D.J. has been fantastic. He just had a 17-game hit streak, the longest in the Southern League this year, snapped but has looked much more comfortable at the plate. The staff has worked with him on standing straight up and not pulling off the ball even though he can mash to left. The tools are still there, and now we're seeing them on a consistent basis. He already has more home runs than last year. He is staying through the middle and has been more selective at the plate, much like Tyler.
Also, I want to bring up his defense at first. He has looked really good this season. D.J. is picking the ball, making diving stops and communicating well with pitchers on balls hit his way. He has become a staple in the lineup, and is one of the reasons the team as a whole has been so good this season.
EN: His progress has been wonderful to watch. With a talent like his, you sort of just knew there was a chance he'd get back on track given everything we know about him. Speaking of which, there's a guy down there that we honestly knew nothing about heading into 2016: center fielder Guillermo Heredia. Now, as I'm sure you know, a few of us were calling for his promotion to Seattle when Leonys Martin went on the DL. What kind of read have you gotten on Heredia, and do you think he's capable of one day manning center field in a Mariners uniform?
BL: First thing about Guillermo is that he is honestly the funniest guy on the team. His transition from Cuba has been as smooth as could be expected. His attitude in the clubhouse is infectious and he made it clear from day one he wanted to be a part of the team.
The tools are certainly there. He has the speed to cover an awful lot of ground in the outfield and has a great arm. Offensively, he has done much better than offseason scouting reports would indicate. He's an ideal top of the lineup guy, with more walks than strikeouts at the moment. He puts the ball in play and forces the pitcher to throw a lot of pitches to start a game.
He plays an all-out style that sometimes can cost him. He's been thrown out on the bases a few times and occasionally overruns balls in the outfield, but that is also an asset of his.
I could definitely see him playing in the Majors at some point. He has the tools to do so and can play all three outfield positions, which makes him very valuable. He even has some pop as well, with a couple of home runs this year. We did not really know what to expect from Guillermo coming into the season, but he has become a mainstay in Jackson's lineup.
EN: You mentioning his arm just reminded me of something I meant to ask you: who has the best outfield arm on the team? As much as I've drooled over O'Neill's bat, I haven't watched him defensively nearly as much as I'd like.
BL: We're fortunate to have four really good outfielders in Jackson with O'Neill, Heredia, Ian Miller and Leon Landry. All four have pretty good arms and this team does a great job of keeping guys from taking extra bases.
O'Neill plays very solid defense. He is good coming in on balls and has made some great catches. Heredia has made some impressive throws as well, but I might actually have to go with Ian Miller as far as best outfield arm. He had a really key outfield assist last night. It's surprising to see his throwing ability considering Miller is a speedster with a slender build, but he has been great wherever he has played this year. Miller is a guy who gets lost in the fray on this team, but he has been one of my favorite guys the past couple of seasons.
EN: I won't take up too much more of your time, but my goodness can we talk about that pitching staff? Even with the loss of Diaz, you still have plenty of great arms out there in Ryan Yarbrough, Dylan Unsworth, Emilio Pagan, Ryne Harper, Andrew Moore, and so on. What's been your impression of the pitching staff so far?
BL: There isn't enough I can say about the staff right now. As you rightly said, the Generals have an abundance of arms and there is nobody who comes in that I don't have confidence in at the moment. We're on track to have more quality starts in the First Half this year than in all of 2015.
My main takeaway is how reliable everyone has been. We rarely if ever see guys have a meltdown inning, whether it's a starter or a reliever. Seems like Yarbrough goes six every time out, Unsworth rarely walks guys and Moore is starting to come into his own at this level.
The bullpen has to be mentioned as well. With better pitching prospects generally in the rotation, you don't expect minor league bullpens to be as dominant as Jackson's has. Emilio Pagan is nasty and already has more saves this year than last. Harper has an incredible curveball that he can manipulate and just toys with hitters. He was a great find in the offseason. Dan Altavilla is finding himself as a reliever and throwing gas now.
Seems like this team is always in games. I've rarely had to call blowouts this year because this staff gives the Generals a chance to win every single night.
EN: It's all been very good and the Generals have practically become must-watch baseball for those who follow the Mariners' system. Speaking of which, LL writer Kate Preusser was wondering how you managed to develop such a strong .gif game for the Generals' Twitter account. She is very impressed.
BL: I certainly can't take all the credit. David Lauterbach (@LauterbachDavid) has been a humongous help this year with all the broadcasting and media relations duties. He does a lot with the social media. Twitter's new .gif (it's a hard "g" by the way. Don't care what the inventor says) keyboard makes it very easy to locate good ones to tweet.
The other thing is that I've spent lots of time watching TV and movies in my life. Sometimes, I read as well. So I've got a wealth of useless references in my head to make at any given time.
The main thing for us is that this is baseball and we want it to be fun. Having a first-place team helps, but just being able to be ourselves online while also keeping you all informed makes it great for us. Helps us know that we're actually providing a service and getting you all to have as much fun as we are nightly.
EN: Your efforts are greatly appreciated. I think I speak for most, if not all Mariners fans when I say you guys are doing great work out there. Jackson's broadcasts are routinely on in my apartment. So, final question before you go. I hate to get all political here and potentially turn half the fanbase against you, but, carrot cake: good or not?
BL: Putting me on the spot here. Going to have to go with good. I enjoy carrot cake, and I can feel like less of a terrible person while still eating cake.
EN: Sounds reasonable to me. Thank you so much for your time, Brandon! Here's hoping your Generals manage to grab that first-half title sooner rather than later. I believe the magic number currently sits at four?
BL: Actually, three! We hold the tiebreaker over Montgomery (and every team in our division, for that matter) since we're 8-2 against the anthropomorphic Biscuits this season.
EN: Fantastic! Congrats on the great start, all of us at Lookout Landing are greatly enjoying your tenure with the Generals. Have a great day (and rest of the season)!
BL: Thank you. Y'all (I'm in the South now) do a great job. Lookout Landing has helped acclimate me to a new team and a new system. You guys have a great community and I'm glad to be a part of it. Hoping to make it to Seattle after our season ends in September one of these years.
You can follow Brandon Liebhaber on twitter at @B_Liebhaber. Thanks again to him for taking time out of his day to talk some baseball.