FORT WAYNE – Somebody’s gotta come up with a catchy nickname for this particular boy band, but what’s it gonna be? New Kids on the Mound? NSinkers? Won Direction?
There have got to be some T-shirt deals in there somewhere, what with four starting pitchers under the age of 20 coming to the TinCaps this season.
Former major leaguer Burt Hooton will be more than the team’s new pitching coach this year; he’ll have to make sure the boys’ homework is done before they can stay up and watch Glee.
Right-hander Joe Ross, whom TinCaps manager Jose Valentin designated as tonight’s starter for the season opener, is the oldest of the group. He’ll turn 20 on May 21.
Next in age comes Walker Weickel, whose 20th birthday will be Nov. 14, and left-hander Max Fried will be 20 on Jan. 18. The kid is 18-year-old Zach Eflin, who will join the 19-and-over demographic Monday.
How about TeenCaps?
The last time a baseball team had four pitchers this young, it was the Kalines of the Wildcat League at Foster Park.
Young? You betcha.
Inexperienced? Working on that.
Confident? Hoo, boy.
In my opinion this is probably the best starting staff in minor league baseball, said the 6-foot-6 Weickel, whose hands are as big as his statement.
We’ve got some real talent on this team; not only on this team, but organizationwide. It’s a real privilege to be part of such a talent-filled team.
He may be onto something.
Weickel was a supplemental first-round pick of the 2012 draft and was a member of the 2011 Team USA U-18 team that won the gold medal at the Pan-American Games in Colombia. The Padres signed him for $2 million.
The 6-3 Ross, who pitched six games with the TinCaps last season, is a 2011 first-round pick.
Eflin, 6-4, is also a supplemental first-round pick and 33rd overall.
And Fried, 6-4, was the seventh overall pick in the 2012 draft. His signing bonus was $3 million.
Ewing Street Boys?
I’m extremely excited about this, from Joe to Walker to Zach – even Justin (Hancock, also a starter, from Defiance, Ohio), Fried said. They’re extremely great people; unbelievable teammates; extremely supportive. They’re just as good talent-wise.
Fried is the SoCal guy who turned down a full ride to UCLA to pitch for the Padres; a graduate of Studio City’s Harvard-Westlake High School, whose alumni include Jake and Maggie Gyllenhall, Jason Segal and Jon Lovitz.
Valentin figures that because of the TinCaps’ pitching success last year under his guidance, the big club sent the young, big arms to him again for the 2013 season. Last season the TinCaps staff tied for the fourth-best ERA in the Midwest League (3.69), had the third-most shutouts (11) and led the league with a .242 opponents batting average.
I don’t know why, Valentin said of being the guardian of what could be the Padres’ future staff. I like to see it happen to me. I guess it’s because of the success we had. I don’t say it was my job, doing that. I think it was about (former pitching coach) Willie Blair. He’s the one who worked with those guys.
Blair went from the Midwest League to the major leagues, where he begins 2013 as the San Diego bullpen coach.
I was really close to Willie, Ross said. I liked him a lot. He was great.
After wowing the Arizona League last season with a 2.02 ERA, Ross came to Fort Wayne and struggled with a 6.26.
Looking back, he says it was fatigue, mostly, that did him in. The arm was fine. He just got tired.
You always have something to prove, whether you have a 1 ERA or a 6. I definitely have something to prove this year and show why you’re here, and be able to do what I can do.
Now comes a new group.
We’re all in the same situation, said Eflin, who shrugged off a two-week bout of tricep tendinitis back at his high school in Florida. We all have to go through the same, exact thing, but that’s good. We can learn off each other and build our game that way.
He says he wants to work on his game; on certain pitches – the slider, mostly, to complement a fastball that has been clocked in the mid-90s. But I want to not only grow as a player, but also grow as a man on this journey.
Boyz II Men? But that’s been taken. How about Boyz II Win?