The Long Island Ducks officially began their spring training workouts on Monday in advance of the 2018 All-Star Summer, presented by Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center. Despite inclement weather preventing the team from doing much in the way of outdoor activities, position players did take the first swings in the team’s batting cage while pitchers did some throwing exercises and light toss.
We caught up after the workouts with Ducks manager Kevin Baez, returning shortstop Dan Lyons and infielder/MLB veteran Jordany Valdespin:
A total of 30 players are on the Ducks spring training roster, with 24 having been signed. The roster includes 11 former Major Leaguers, 19 players who have reached the Triple-A or MLB level and seven who are originally from Long Island or reside locally.
CLICK HERE for the full roster
The team has invited the following six players to spring training:
Cody Puckett (INF) – Puckett played 33 games with the Ducks in 2017, totaling three home runs and 12 RBI, before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He has spent four seasons with Long Island, compiling a .278 batting average, 31 homers, 215 RBI, 203 runs, 462 hits and 61 doubles in 426 games. The 31-year-old was selected to play in the 2015 Atlantic League All-Star Game at Bridgeport and garnered Post-Season All-Star honors that year as well. The California native earned also earned Second Team Post-Season All-Star honors during his first year with the Flock in 2014. Puckett was originally drafted by the Puckett was originally drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the eighth round of the 2008 amateur draft.
Tyler Levine (RHP) – Levine spent time in 2017 as a starter and a reliever with the Ducks. He appeared in 23 games (eight starts) and posted a 3-3 record along with 36 strikeouts in 60 innings of work. In his first start with Long Island, the East Meadow NY native stymied the York Revolution with seven innings of two-run ball, striking out five and earning the win. Prior to joining the Ducks, the 25-year-old played with both Joliet and Evansville in the Frontier League, as well as Old Orchard Beach in the Empire League and Brownsville in the United League.
Max Almonte (RHP) – Almonte has three seasons of professional experience, all in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. He pitched in 32 games for Single-A Peoria in 2017, accruing a 3.40 ERA, two saves and 44 strikeouts over 45 innings. The Far Rockaway native was superb over his first two years of pro ball with Single-A State College, combining to go 3-2 with a 2.82 ERA and 33 strikeouts over 51 innings of work, spanned across 29 games. The 26-year-old Villanova University alum was originally drafted by the Cardinals in the 16th round of the 2015 amateur draft.
Jason Creasy (RHP) – Creasy earned a spring training invite after participating in the Ducks open player tryout on April 14. He spent the first six seasons of his career in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, reaching as high as Triple-A in 2016. The North Carolina native collected Eastern League Mid-Season All-Star honors with Double-A Altoona in 2015 and was 12-8 with a 4.41 ERA, one complete game, one save and 147 innings pitched over 27 games (25 starts). The 25-year-old pitched with the St. Paul Saints of the American Association in 2017, making 11 starts and striking out 49 batters in 57 innings. Creasy was originally drafted by the Pirates in the eighth round of the 2011 amateur draft.
Robert Garcia (OF) – Garcia earned a spring training invite after participating in the Ducks open player tryout on April 14. He has five seasons of professional experience, all in the Chicago Cubs organization. The Elwood Park, New Jersey resident played a career-high 108 games for Single-A Myrtle Beach in 2017, collecting two homers, 31 RBI, 42 runs, six doubles, three triples and 16 stolen bases. The 24-year-old was named an MiLB.com Organization All-Star in 2015 after hitting .341 and posting a .409 on-base percentage with the Cubs’ rookie-level affiliate in the Arizona League. He was also chosen as a Northwest League Mid-Season All-Star in 2016 with Single-A Eugene. Garcia was originally signed by the Cubs as an international free agent in 2013.
Wagner Gomez (C) – Gomez earned a spring training invite after participating in the Ducks open player tryout on April 14. He has five seasons of professional baseball experience, all with the Cincinnati Reds organization. The Richmond Hill, NY resident began his career as a catcher and infielder, totaling nine home runs, 54 RBI, 47 runs, 18 doubles and three triples over 130 games. The 26-year-old then converted to a pitcher in 2013 and appeared in 36 games over two seasons, striking out 43 batters in 38 and two-thirds innings. Gomez was originally signed by the Reds as an international free agent in 2010.
The complete spring training schedule is as follows:
Friday, April 20 – 1:00 p.m. – Ducks at New Britain
Saturday, April 21 – 1:00 p.m. – New Britain at Ducks
Monday, April 23 – 1:00 p.m. – Black Sox at Ducks
Tuesday, April 24 – 1:00 p.m. – Black Sox at Ducks
Stay tuned for updates throughout the course of the week regarding team workouts and other news. As a reminder, the 2018 season gets underway on Friday, April 27th when the Ducks visit the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs at 6:35 p.m. The Home Opener will follow on Friday, May 4th as the Blue Crabs make the return trip to Long Island for a 6:35 p.m. start.
It’s officially April folks! That means there is less than a month left before the Ducks take the field to embark on their 19th season of play in the Atlantic League. The roster has been taking shape since the calendar flipped to 2018, and there are a lot of key pieces to the puzzle already complete. However, there is surely more work to be done before the first pitch is thrown on April 27th down in Southern Maryland.
One of those important figures added to the roster is none other than former Major Leaguer Jair Jurrjens. The pitcher first entered the big league radar in 2007 when he was called up by the Detroit Tigers. After making seven starts with the club, he switched leagues in the offseason when he was traded along with Gorkys Hernandez to the Atlanta Braves for 1997 World Series hero Edgar Renteria.
After a solid first full season at the game’s highest level in 2008, a year in which he finished third in National League Rookie of the Year voting, he fully stepped into the spotlight with a memorable 2009 campaign. Jurrjens led the NL in games started (34) and posted the league’s third-best earned run average (2.60). His 215 innings pitched ranked ninth in the league as well. The Curaçao native struggled in 2010 but bounced back with an All-Star season in 2011. Jurrjens went 13-6 that year with a sparkling 2.96 ERA and a pair of complete games.
Though he would spend time in MLB over the following three years, injuries and struggles prevented him from maintaining that All-Star status. The 32-year-old would go on to pitch in the Baltimore Orioles, Cincinnati Reds and Colorado Rockies organizations before spending the 2017 season with the Los Angeles Dodgers organization at Triple-A. Now, after posting strong numbers in the Dominican Winter League with Tigres del Licey this offseason, Jurrjens finds himself with another new home: Central Islip, N.Y.
The Ducks signed the eight-year Major League veteran at the beginning of March, and he is now gearing up for his first season in the Atlantic League. Like many before him, this season presents an opportunity for the righty to prove that he deserves a spot with a Major League organization and that he could once again pitch in the big leagues. Jurrjens seems determined and ready for the challenge ahead.
We caught up with the starter to get his take on joining the Flock and reflect back on his memorable time in the Major Leagues:
How do you view this new chapter of your baseball career with the Ducks and the Atlantic League?
“I’m going to look at it like a new challenge and take it as I would in any game or any league. I’m going to try to do my part to help the team win and be the best teammate and role model I can be.”
As an eight-year Major League veteran, are you looking to use this opportunity to mentor some younger teammates while also learning from them?
“I’m always open to share my knowledge. Just because a kid hasn’t played in the big leagues, that doesn’t mean he can’t teach me something. I’m always open to teach and learn from a teammate, and if they ever have a question for me, I’m willing to answer and be the best role model possible.”
Will you lean on the guidance of Atlantic League veterans regarding how to pitch to certain players?
“Yes, but it will come down to making my own adjustments when I’m on the mound and trying to see what will work for me. I’m always open to hear suggestions and go over scouting reports, but at the end of the day, I need to make my own adjustments during the game.”
Being that you pitched in the same organization as former Duck Rich Hill in 2017, did his experience with the Ducks have any influence on your decision to come play on Long Island?
“Yeah, definitely! When you’re in my situation, you want to play for the team that has more recognition. You want to put yourself in the best situation possible to get seen. Knowing the history of the team and the players coming out of there, it made it easy for me to choose the Ducks.”
What does it mean to you to be the first pitcher from Curaçao to reach the Major Leagues?
“It was a fantasy, a dream come true. When I got the call, I thought I was going to get traded because there were rumors at the time. When the minor league director asked me if I was ready to pitch on Tuesday for the big team, I was like, ‘Stop playing with me!’ I was walking through a Circuit City store, which was still open at the time, and when I got the news I just sat down in the middle of the store. I had some problems calling my dad and telling him that I was going up. It was a memory that I’m never going to forget. I still think about it sometimes.”
How special was it facing fellow-countryman Andruw Jones for the first time in 2008?
“It was an honor because Andruw and my older brother played on the same team back home, and I used to be the bat boy for them. It was surreal to see him do everything he did in the big leagues before I got there, then to share a field with him and be the first pitcher to face a position player from Curaçao. He’s a legend back home, and to be able to strike him out, I think I’ll cherish that forever. We joke about it still today. We have a great respect for each other.”
You flourished in your second full season in the Majors (2009). What enabled you to be so successful?
“Everybody talks about the ‘sophomore slump,’ and I just prepared myself mentally to not go through that and not be another name. I like to prove to everybody that I’m better than a lot of people think I am. I trusted myself and tried not to do too much. I just tried to attack the hitters and let them hit the ball. When I needed a strikeout, I would step up my game to get that.”
Is there one memory that stands out most from playing in the 2011 MLB All-Star Game?
“Just sharing it with my family. That is one of the things I’m never going to forget. It was one of my dad’s dreams, and I was able to accomplish that. I’m always going to cherish that. It’s an honor to have the words ‘All-Star’ next to your name, but when you go to the game, it’s all about sharing the time with your family and appreciating the support they give you off the field.”
Does it give you added motivation this year to play in the Atlantic League All-Star Game because it’s being held in your home ballpark?
“The main thing is going out there and giving 100% to my team. I don’t have control over the All-Star situation. As a starting pitcher, your job is to keep the team in the game and give them a chance to win. To be an All-Star, it’s about winning and ERA and personal level numbers like that. If I keep the team in the game and give them a chance to win, there’s a good chance that I can be an All-Star too.”
How much of an honor was it to represent the Netherlands twice in the World Baseball Classic (2006, 2017)?
“A lot of people might not believe me, but I think playing for your country is more challenging and nerve-wracking than playing in the big leagues. In a way, you’re representing your family, your friends and your whole country. It’s really an honor to be able to put that flag and that name on my chest.”
Injuries derailed your 2011 season toward the end. Do you think that contributed to your subsequent struggles in the Majors?
“I was actually pitching on one leg that whole year. After the surgery I had the year before, I started to lose strength in my leg and my knee started swelling up. I wasn’t able to push off the mound and had no velocity. I think I had some personal health issues too that didn’t help me recover from a game or a workout. By changing my diet and seeing a doctor, that helped me get back to where I wanted to be.”
Do you have any personal or team expectations going into the 2018 season?
“On a team level, everyone wants to win. I’m not going to come there just to play baseball. I’m trying to come there to win. On a personal level, you are always trying to impress somebody to get an opportunity to go back to the Major Leagues or go overseas. That’s the goal, but it begins by being a good teammate, playing for your team and trying to win. If the team is winning, scouts are going to come to see you.”
What are you looking forward to most about coming to Long Island?
“Just to have fun! I want to be the best pitcher I can be, have fun with the game, be a good teammate and give 100% percent every time I go out there. I want to be a role model for the community and my teammates.”
Good things often come to those who wait.
That saying could not be truer for Giovanny Alfonzo. After putting together the best season of his professional career with the Ducks in 2017, the infielder had to wait all offseason for a Major League organization to call. Fortunately, the New York Mets did just that late last week, offering him the opportunity to join the team for spring training in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
“I got a phone call from [Mets Director of Minor League Operations] Ronny Reyes, and he invited me to come to a workout/free agent tryout type of deal,” Alfonzo remarked via telephone this week. “After it was all done, nothing too much was said. Just, ‘Thanks for coming, you looked great, keep up the good work and we’ll be in contact with you if something comes up.’”
The 25-year-old was gearing up for a return to Long Island. He had already signed a contract to play a second season with the Ducks, and he was looking forward to making the trek north in approximately one month. Instead, Alfonzo needed to reverse course and head further south from his home in Tampa to earn a place in the Mets’ system.
“A few days [after the tryout], I got my Ducks uniform on and was ready to do a video to announce that I signed back with the Ducks,” Alfonzo recalled. “Right when I put on my shirt, that’s when my agent called me, and that was pretty cool.”
Of all 56 players that put on the Ducks uniform in 2017, few, if any, were more deserving of this opportunity than Alfonzo. He led the team in batting average, hitting .309 over the course of 106 games during the regular season. That average was good for sixth-best in the Atlantic League. He also set career-highs in nearly every other offensive category, many by a wide margin. Yes, last year was just his third in pro ball. However, the dramatic increase in production despite playing against higher-caliber talent was certainly impressive.
“Playing in the Atlantic League, I got the experience of being a Major Leaguer in the sense that I was playing Major League Baseball,” Alfonzo opined. “Most of the pitchers from the other teams were Double-A, Triple-A or Major Leaguers. I learned a lot from the pitchers that threw against me. I’ve played at a high level, and I can say I’ve hit against big leaguers and gotten big hits against big leaguers. That’s something that I’ll use as confidence and take with me to each at-bat that I have.”
Here’s a closer look at Alfonzo’s career progression:
|2015 – Batavia (A-)||2016 – Greensboro (A)||
2017 – Ducks (IND)
|Runs Batted In||
Along with the challenge of facing tough competition and experienced players, Alfonzo also needed to find a way to earn playing time. He came to Long Island in a utility infield role behind the likes of veterans such as Dan Lyons, Cody Puckett and Elmer Reyes. However, some key injuries among his teammates forced Alfonzo into the spotlight early.
“The week that [Nolan] Reimold went down, that was the week that I got my feet wet,” he said. “I was able to play seven days in a row. That’s when I gave myself credit for being able to play in the Atlantic League, because it is high-level baseball.”
During the week he filled in for Reimold, Alfonzo hit safely in every game and compiled a .381 batting average (8-for-21). He then proceeded to collect walk-off RBIs in back-to-back games against the rival Somerset Patriots on May 19 and 20. By the end of the month, Alfonzo became the starting third baseman after Puckett went down with a season-ending knee injury. Thanks to his previous opportunity earlier in the month, the University of Tampa alum was ready to transition seamlessly.
“I wasn’t nervous,” Alfonzo affirmed. “I didn’t stress because I already knew I could play at that level. The only thing was, instead of going all out during practice to try and get my reps to stay in shape, I had to tone it down a little bit. I just took quality [swings in] batting practice and quality ground balls to be ready for each day rather than a thousand of each. That was the only real transition I had to make.”
There were several key factors that Alfonzo was able to point to regarding what made him successful last year. One was certainly the veterans that surrounded him, both in the Ducks clubhouse and that of his opponents. He was able to work with teammates every day on improving his craft and taking his game to the next level. In addition, the experience of those he faced in the opposite dugout forced Alfonzo to prove that he belonged on the same field with such competition.
“Having Delta [Cleary Jr.], Reyes, [Ruben] Gotay, [Marc] Krauss, Quintin [Berry], [Alex] Burg and all those guys with experience that were there for the majority of the season, each one of them taught me something different,” Alfonzo reminisced.
“It was just little things that we worked on throughout the entire season. A lot of it was mental and just not letting the game get to you. Just playing the game. I think that’s the reason why I had such great success.”
Along with those playing the game in the Atlantic League, Alfonzo was also able to enjoy some tutelage from another MLB veteran. That person just so happened to be his uncle, too. Former Ducks infielder Edgardo Alfonzo, who played 12 seasons in the big leagues, including eight with the New York Mets, worked with his nephew every day. Edgardo was in his first year managing the Brooklyn Cyclones, a Single-A affiliate of the Mets, and was able to watch Gio play and work with him when not on the job.
“I lived with [my uncle] last year, and he got to experience the season that I had with the Ducks every day,” Gio recalled. “Before I went to the stadium, we would watch my at-bats from the night before, or he’d talk to me about what I did the night before and how I feel.”
Now that 2017 is in his rearview mirror, Alfonzo is focused on what 2018 can bring. His ultimate destination at the culmination of spring training is unknown, as he will need to prove he belongs in the organization. However, he is not worried about what league or what city he might be playing in. He simply is looking for carpe diem; to seize the day.
“Basically it’s just ‘earn a spot,’” Alfonzo noted. “It’s a clean slate for spring training just like how it was when I was with the Marlins. Any player that goes through spring training with an affiliate knows everybody has to earn their spot for that season. They’re giving me an opportunity to prove what I have.”
Everyone, including his teammates, coaches and fans on Long Island, will be rooting for the popular infielder in his new opportunity with the Mets. They all want to see him playing under the lights at Citi Field one day. If the road leads him there, mission accomplished. Should it bring him back to Long Island, Alfonzo would welcome a return with open arms.
“That was a conversation I had with [Ducks President/GM Michael] Pfaff when I found out the Mets were bringing me to spring training,” he detailed. “I wanted to make sure that I was still a Duck regardless of what happened. He said, ‘D4L man, Duck for Life.’ If things happen, I’ll be coming back up there and playing for the remainder of the season whenever that time comes. I’ll always be a Long Island Duck, and I had the best time of my life last year. I’m going to miss those fans the most.”
Those same fans will certainly miss him. However, you can bet they will be following along, even if it’s from a thousand miles away.
Andrew Barbosa is back in a familiar place.
Three years after first donning the black and orange, the left-handed pitcher will begin his second tour of duty with the Long Island Ducks. He was signed by the team earlier this month, becoming the first pitcher added to the 2018 roster.
“I’m ready!” Barbosa exclaimed via telephone this week. “Last time I played, it was great. The fans are amazing. The organization as a whole is very professional. It’s great baseball out there.”
It’s been quite the journey for the 30-year-old over the past four seasons. He first came to the Ducks in 2015 after getting released by the Arizona Diamondbacks, the same team that drafted him in the 36th round back in 2012 out of the University of South Florida. The move came as a shock to Barbosa at the time, as he was named a Post-Season All-Star in 2013, a Mid-Season All-Star in 2014 and had compiled a 21-17 record with a 3.78 ERA over 64 games (62 starts).
“To be honest, I never knew what independent baseball was when I got released,” he recalled. “It was two weeks into the season, and I knew there was no chance of a minor league team picking me up because rosters were full. I didn’t know what to expect.”
Despite the uncertainty that can come with a new situation upon being released, Barbosa used his opportunity with the Ducks to prove his worth to Major League clubs. He made nine starts for Long Island, totaling a 4-1 record, a sparkling 2.82 ERA and 59 strikeouts to just 19 walks over 51 innings of work. His devastating changeup kept hitters around the league off-balance, and his 6-foot-8 frame made him an imposing presence on the mound.
“When I got [to Long Island], I realized the competition was great,” Barbosa noted. “It was up there with Double-A and Triple-A. It felt like I picked up where I left off.”
He continued to say, “The coaching staff was great; from the pitching coach to the manager everyone was professional…Being here makes you realize that you have to work hard to get back to where you were, and the team helped me so much.”
Thanks to his performance, the Atlanta Braves came calling. They purchased the southpaw’s contract in July and assigned him to the team’s Double-A affiliate in Mississippi. With the gratification of achieving his goal with the Flock and a fresh start in an MLB organization, Barbosa’s success continued. He made 16 appearances (five starts) to finish the year and posted a 5-2 record, a 2.68 ERA and 51 strikeouts over 43 and two-thirds innings. He was even named the Southern League’s Pitcher of the Week at the end of July after tossing 11 scoreless innings over two starts.
“Initially when you get to a new team you say ‘Okay, they’re giving me a new opportunity,’” Barbosa reminisced. “It felt so good to get picked up by the Braves. When I got there I just kept rolling.”
Although he was successful with the Braves, the organization decided to move on from the Puerto Rico native in the offseason. He was granted free agency in early November, but just over a month later, Atlanta’s NL East rival gave him an opportunity. The New York Mets signed him to a minor league deal, making them Barbosa’s third National League organization. 2016 presented a bit of a challenge, as a lat injury sidelined him for nearly two months between May and July and then for another couple of weeks in early-August.
When healthy, though, Barbosa was magnificent. He split time at four different levels in 2016, including Triple-A for the first time in his career, and in 16 games (15 starts) accrued a 3-0 record, a miniscule 1.51 ERA and 71 strikeouts to 19 walks in 71 and two-thirds innings. He was chosen as the Florida State League’s Pitcher of the Week as well on September 4. During that week, he fired seven no-hit innings while striking out 11 on August 29 at Charlotte. After a promotion back to Double-A, he tossed eight innings of one-hit, scoreless baseball on Sept. 4 at Erie to end the season. His numbers were tremendous, especially to close out the year, yet the Mets felt his injuries proved questionable enough to avoid keeping him. He was granted free agency once again on November 7.
“Going into free agency, I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Barbosa remembered. “They said they’re going to move on and I was disappointed, but when I got a call from my agent saying there were three or four teams that wanted to pick me up, that reassured me maybe I’m still where I want to be.”
He added, “I still often think about why the Mets didn’t want me back. On one hand it was cool to have a new opportunity, but I always wonder why they didn’t want to pick me up again.”
Much like the previous year, it did not take long for an MLB club to consider Barbosa worthy of a contract. This time, it was the Milwaukee Brewers who signed the lefty in a month’s time following his release. The team invited him to spring training and elected to have him pitch out of the bullpen with Triple-A Colorado Springs once the season began. Despite a pair of minor stints on the seven-day disabled list, Barbosa remained healthy enough to appear in 36 games (four starts). In his primary role as a reliever, he compiled a 7-2 record with a 3.68 ERA.
While he was with the Sky Sox, he also had the opportunity to reconnect with his previous Ducks roots. After pitching with Ducks teammate Mickey Jannis in the Mets organization during the 2016 season, he became teammates with 2017 Ducks outfielder Quintin Berry after the Brewers purchased his contract from Long Island in August. Though Berry’s time in Colorado Springs lasted just 10 games before he was promoted to the big league club, Barbosa was able to chat with the MLB veteran about his time on Long Island and recall the great memories both players made there.
“He came over one day, and I said ‘Hey man, how are the Ducks?’” Barbosa recalled. “He said, ‘It’s good to be here, but it was so much fun over there.’ Quintin’s the man. He got called up at the end of the season, and it was awesome to see that. It showed that if you want [to get back to the Major Leagues], you have to grind it out. There are players who get released, get bummed out and stop playing baseball even though they are so talented.”
Following his release by the Brewers last November, the Florida resident made three starts with Indios de Mayaguez during their abbreviated winter season. Now, three organizations and three seasons of winter league baseball in Puerto Rico later, Barbosa is back on Long Island. Having previously gone through an experience with the Ducks that exceeded his expectations, his focus this season is no longer guided by the promise of getting back to an affiliated club. Instead, Barbosa is fueled by the desire to win and let everything else work itself out.
“I’m just going to take it one pitch at a time,” he stated. “I can only control what happens there, and I’m focused on the Ducks. I want to win games and do well, but I have to take it one pitch and one out at a time and everything else will fall into place.”
And not only will the southpaw have competitive baseball to look forward to. After getting married earlier this offseason, he and his wife, Mallory, are expecting their first child together later this year.