The Long Island Ducks certainly made headlines this week throughout the Atlantic League, professional baseball and sports communities. Their first bit of news came on Tuesday when the Rockland Boulders announced the hiring of Kevin Baez as their manager for the 2019 season. The hire brings an end to an eight-year run as skipper of the Ducks for Baez, one that was highlighted by six Atlantic League Championship Series appearances, back-to-back league championships in 2012 and 2013 and the most wins by any manager in franchise history (600 total, including 571 in the regular season).
That announcement was followed up on Wednesday with the introduction of the sixth manager in Ducks history: Wally Backman. The 59-year-old will guide the Flock after spending one season managing in the Atlantic League with the New Britain Bees. Backman’s Bees were 33-30 in the first half of the season a year ago, finishing just two games behind Somerset in the Liberty Division. His club ended the season at 61-65 overall after he saw six players have their contracts purchased during the season, including five by Major League organizations, four of whom reported to Triple-A clubs.
Overall, Backman brings 20 seasons of managerial experience to the Ducks, including 11 with MLB organizations. He has amassed over 1,100 regular season victories and a .511 winning percentage as a manager, and he has won three league championships as well. Prior to his coaching career, the Oregon native enjoyed a 14-year career in the Major Leagues. Nine of those were spent with the New York Mets, where he helped the team win the 1986 World Series and drew the admiration of many local baseball fans in this area.
Members of the media had the chance to speak with Backman on Wednesday following the announcement of his hire. Here is a transcript from the conference call:
What made you want to join the Long Island Ducks?
“I think what made me want to join the franchise is the people that I have to work with. I think they’re good baseball people. They care about the same things I care about, and that’s winning and trying to put a good product on the field every day.”
How excited are you about coming here, and how quickly did all of this happen?
“It happened pretty quickly. I’m excited about it! I’m back in my old stomping grounds, and I always showed my interest in being in the New York area. With this opportunity becoming available, I thought it was a great opportunity to go back to where I really wanted to be, and that was in New York.”
What did you learn about the Atlantic League last year from being in New Britain?
“Well, I think one of the positives was just how good the baseball was. It was very good caliber baseball. I think I had 14 or 15 guys that had played in the big leagues. I liked the level of play and the way the league was run. I had done independent baseball before I ever went and did affiliated ball, and to come into the Atlantic League last year and see the way it was run and the people that were involved in the Atlantic League, I was excited about it.”
Why did you want to be back in New York?
“The knowledge of baseball from the people of New York. The playing days that I had in New York and the respect that I had for the people because the knowledge of the game was so much different in New York than it was in any of the other cities that I played in or even managed in. They keep you on your toes. They expect good things to happen, and they’re knowledgeable people about the game. That part of it excited me and just coming back to be around the New York media. I’ve always had a good rapport with those people. I know a lot of them are a lot older, like I am…but I’ve always enjoyed the media and had a good relationship with the media. I look forward to the upcoming season.”
Is getting to the big leagues still a goal for you, and how many obstacles have you faced to get there?
“I’ve faced some obstacles, there’s no question, but it’s definitely my goal still. I’ll say this, and I’ll say it to anybody else, that my focus this year is 100% on the Ducks. Yeah, I would like to get back to the big leagues at some point in time, but again, I just signed a contract with the Long Island Ducks, and they’re going to get 100% of Wally Backman.”
How much of a challenge do you think it will be to get to the big leagues?
“You know what, I’m not even really thinking about that at this point. I’m excited about where I’m going. Everything’s a challenge, but I’ve never been a quitter and I’m not going to quit at anything I do. I would like to reiterate though that my focus is the Long Island Ducks and trying to win a championship there now.”
How much of a factor was it coming to a team that has the foundation and culture of success?
“Well, it’s huge. Knowing that you’re coming to an organization that really wants to win, is about winning and will do just about everything to try to help you accomplish that, I hope that I’m one of the ingredients that puts us over the top and helps us win a championship.”
What’s the biggest difference between managing at Triple-A and in the Atlantic League?
“Probably the biggest difference would be development. You’re trying to develop players in affiliated baseball. You’re still trying to develop, somewhat, in the Atlantic League, but it’s really more based on winning and trying to get guys back to where they can get an opportunity to go back to affiliated baseball or even to the big leagues.”
How nice will it be to reconnect with Bud Harrelson?
“Well, it would be huge. We did reconnect last year when I would come to town when I was with New Britain. Buddy and I have a long history together. I wish Buddy the best, and I hope he’s out there every day with us.”
How does it make you feel that your reception from New York fans always seems to be universally positive now more than three decades removed from that special 1986 championship team?
“Well it’s too long ago, that’s for sure. I’m getting too old now. Like I said, I enjoyed my time in New York. I always did, and I always wanted to come back to New York. To get this opportunity, I’m very grateful for it and hopefully good things come out of it.”
In the analytics-driven world that baseball has become, how much can analytics play a part in managing at this level?
“I’ve been using analytics since they’ve been available. I use the things that I believe help me, things like ground ball percentages, fly ball percentages and the way guys pitch in certain situations. All the information that I’m able to get, I try to go through all of that and use it to the best of my ability to help the team win.”
Do your instincts play a part in making managerial decisions as well? Do you balance the two?
“I think you’ve got to use both. You’ve got to use your eyes and use the things that are on paper too. These are human beings that are playing against you, and the analytics make a big part of that. It helps you tremendously on your defense, and it also helps your players. If you can give them certain parts of that to where they can analyze it themselves, it also helps make them a better player.”
How would you describe yourself in terms of managerial style?
“I’m an aggressive manager but under control. I use the information that’s given to me. I like to be aggressive on the bases. I like to see our guys go first to third. Those are things that I really demand of the players, just not to go through the motions. But I’m a player’s manager as well. I played for some of the best managers in the game, starting with Joe Torre as my first manager in New York to Jim Leyland, Davey Johnson and Lou Piniella. I could go on with other guys that I played for in the big leagues, but you try to take a piece from each one of them. The way that Jim Leyland communicated with his players, I thought, was one of the best that I had ever seen. Davey was a smart manager, and we had a great team in ’86. You try to take pieces from a little bit of all those guys and try to use it as an asset for yourself and go from there. I’m still Wally Backman, but I’ve taken a piece of a lot of those guys and tried to use it to the best of my ability in the way that I manage a game.”
Is it in some ways more fun at the minor league level now because it seems to be more of an old-style, fundamental type of baseball?
“I think it’s a big part in winning. Fundamentally, you have to be able to bunt and move runners over. Everybody loves the home runs, but you can win baseball games a lot of other ways than just the home runs. The strikeouts are a concern with me. A lot of people say, ‘an out is an out,’ but a strikeout, to me, can never be a productive out.”
How much time have you spent on Long Island previously, especially here in Suffolk County?
“Well, I lived in Dix Hills. I built a house in Dix Hills in the 80’s when I was playing in New York, so I’m pretty familiar with the Island.”
What have you learned in 20 years as a manager? How are you different from when you were managing with the White Sox organization to now?
“You know, I’m not a whole lot different. I respect the game, and I expect the players to respect the game. The thing that I probably have changed in those 20 years is the analytics. I’ve tried to use the analytics as far back as I can remember, whatever it might have been. Everything’s available to you today, and I think if you go through certain parts of the analytics, it can really help you win games.”
Is the rotation of players the most difficult part of independent baseball, with guys often going back to affiliated ball?
“Well, I think that’s a part of the Atlantic League. I think that’s why the Atlantic League is, without a doubt, the number one independent league there is in baseball. I don’t know exactly how well we’re affiliated with Major League Baseball. I know we follow all the guidelines and all the rules, but I think it’s important to show those players that we care about the players and are trying to get them back to affiliated ball. Whether it’s the minor leagues or overseas or back to the Major Leagues, we’re there for them. They can show what they can do on the field, and we get scouted very heavily. There are opportunities for those players, and we’re just a piece of it. We’re giving those players an opportunity to show what they can do on the field and possibly give them another opportunity to get back to the big leagues or just get to the big leagues.”
What did your year managing in Brooklyn teach you about managing in New York that you can bring to Long Island?
“I don’t know that it really taught me anything. I know I played the game a long time, but I think the first and utmost important thing that you do with a player is you earn the player’s respect. Once you can earn the player’s respect and the trust of the player, then it’s like a good marriage. Things go better, and you can get more out of a player. For me, I think respecting the players is one of the most important things for a manager because once you earn a player’s respect, you’re going to get everything they’ve got.”
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.
Jim Fuller could see the summit. After seven seasons in the minor leagues with three different organizations, the Major Leagues were in sight. The left-handed pitcher joined the Pittsburgh Pirates in the offseason and was flat out dominant after receiving an invitation to Major League spring training. In 10 games, he allowed just one run over nine and two-thirds innings, walking none while striking out eight. It appeared as though his big league dream was finally going to be achieved. But then, in the blink of an eye, everything changed.
“Last year was, by far, one of the tougher years I had to go through,” Fuller recalled via telephone this week. “I got hurt right at the end of spring training. Numbers were great in spring, and everything was feeling real good. All of a sudden, injuries happened and kind of set me back. It was real frustrating just sitting there watching the games and not being able to play.”
Fuller suffered a forearm muscle strain that would keep him out of action until the end of May. After recovering from the injury, he appeared in three games for the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians and allowed two runs in three and one-third innings. Despite overcoming the initial injury, it had residual effects on his left shoulder which had been surgically repaired in 2011 after tearing his labrum. Fuller’s season was over in a flash, and that reality was difficult for him to bear.
“It’s one of the toughest things you have to do in sports,” he stated in reference to sitting out the remainder of the year. “You know you can go out there and compete at a high level, but you physically can’t because you’re injured. It’s really tough mentally. I have good family that love me, support me and give me good words of encouragement. It’s just going out there and knowing that everything is going to eventually be okay, and you just have to fight through this.”
The 29-year-old made the decision this winter to ensure that all would indeed be just fine. The positive support he received during the year, coupled with his strong performance last spring, gave him the confidence to get back up on the proverbial horse and begin his quest back towards the big leagues. Most importantly, Fuller dedicated his time to figuring out what might have been the reason for these injuries and how he could correct the problem.
“I took some time this offseason and really thought about what could possibly be causing me to have the same arm issue year after year,” he noted. “I looked at some video of myself and kind of narrowed it down to these little things that I was doing which were putting a lot of pressure on my shoulder. I really took some time and did a lot of things to help out my mechanics and take a lot of that pressure off.”
The results thus far seem to be exactly what he was hoping for. Although he has yet to pitch in a game, the Massachusetts native is feeling strong, both physically and mentally, and believes he has found his groove once again.
“I’m in a good spot right now,” Fuller said, his voice teeming with excitement. “The ball’s coming out great, and my velocity is really good. It’s probably among the best it has been in my career.”
2017 will present a new experience for the former New York Mets draft pick. After spending eight seasons in Major League organizations, Fuller will get his first taste of the Atlantic League. Even though he does not have a vast knowledge about the league as a whole, the reviews he has been presented with have made him eager to run head-on at this new opportunity.
“My agent had a couple of guys who played on the team last year,” Fuller noted. “He said it’s a really good place to play and that I’ll have a fun time. I know it’s good competition, and I’ve heard everyone who has played [in the league] has said it’s a blast to play there. Honestly, I love playing the game and competing and that’s probably the thing I’m looking forward to the most.”
Fuller has done a little bit of everything in his career. He spent most the first three seasons of his career in the starting rotation and did incredibly well, compiling a 16-11 record and a 2.29 ERA in that span. After missing the entire 2011 season and most of 2012 with his shoulder injury, the Mets organization moved him to the bullpen. Despite the switch, Fuller found success in a relief role too. He posted a 0.84 ERA in 2013 at Advanced-A St. Lucie, went 3-1 with a 2.84 ERA in 2014 with Double-A New Britain in the Twins organization and was 2-1 with a 2.78 ERA while at Nashville (AAA, Athletics) in 2015. The lefty has enjoyed both roles, and though the Ducks view him as a reliever, his versatility could be an asset.
“As a starter, I really liked going out there every five days and getting the ball to throw five or more innings,” Fuller stated. “I like to compete, and I like to have the ball as much as I can. I’ve really enjoyed relieving as well. It’s a little different than as a starter, but I like getting the ball and having a chance to pitch every day. I enjoy that mindset of going out there and just letting it go for an inning.”
With spring training underway among Major League organizations and the Atlantic League season approaching on the horizon, it is nearly time for Fuller to take the mound again. With the frustration of 2016 well in his rearview mirror, it will be important for him to make sure that those negative thoughts and memories remain in the past. One of the key factors in helping him do that will be the relationship he forges with new Ducks pitching coach Billy Horn. After focusing all offseason on altering his mechanics to avoid injury, Fuller will look to Horn to make sure that he is doing all the right things.
“I think it’s important to have a good relationship with your pitching coach,” he opined. “They see things that you can’t see yourself. Any kind of advice you can take from the pitching coach you have, every little thing helps. If he sees something I can’t pinpoint that I’m doing, we’ll work together to try and figure things out.”
In addition to developing that bond, Fuller knows that the onus will be on him to keep his good vibes in place. He took it upon himself to overcome the injuries, figure out the problem and correct it this winter. Now, his mental toughness and focus during the year will be the key in maintaining both health and success. When asked about what it will take to avoid thinking about his past, Fuller was confident in his reply.
“I’m just going to think about what I did this offseason. I put in a lot of hard work, looked at a lot of video and did a lot of work off the mound. I’ve done just about everything. I’ve figured things out, and I think I’m in a good place right now. I’m going to take that into this season and not think about the past couple of seasons.”
With a mindset like that, Fuller just might be able to soar back up the mountain and land at the top.
We have highlighted the exciting journey for former Ducks knuckleballer Mickey Jannis here on the blog recently. The right-hander was flat out dominant for the Ducks (6-2, 1.18 ERA, 16 G, 11 GS) early in 2015 before he was signed by the New York Mets organization. He went on to post a 2-1 record with a 2.98 ERA in eight games (seven starts) at Advanced-A St. Lucie and got some experience at Double-A Binghamton as well. The Nevada native then received an opportunity to pitch in the Arizona Fall League and was 1-1 with a 2.48 ERA in six starts there, further increasing his chances of accelerating up the organizational ladder with the Mets. Now, he might have some familiar company joining him for the ride.
The Mets announced on Monday that Andrew Barbosa was signed to a minor league contract. The left-hander will be joining his third affiliated organization after previously pitching with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Atlanta Braves systems.
“I’ve heard many great things about the Mets organization,” Barbosa said in an interview on Friday, “and I’m just excited and blessed to have an opportunity to chase my dream.”
The 6-foot-8 hurler began the 2015 season in the Diamondbacks organization with the Double-A Mobile BayBears. It was the highest he had ever advanced in his career and an opportunity to continue building upon his success from the previous two seasons. He began the year with three scoreless innings in two relief appearances before earning a start on April 20 at Montgomery. However, in that outing, Barbosa lasted just two-thirds of an inning, yielding five runs on three hits and three walks. He would be released three days later and was in need of another opportunity to continue playing.
“It was pretty tough getting released because it was something that was unexpected,” he recalled. “I made a spot start, and I had no excuses. I just didn’t have a good outcome. Stuff was happening in the big leagues, people were being moved and unfortunately, I was the one to go.”
After a few weeks at home, the Long Island Ducks were able to sign Barbosa on May 19. The team was in need of some help in the rotation due to an injury to Sergio Perez and the struggles of Eric Niesen and Mark Rogers. The lefty came into his new surroundings with a bit of uncertainty, but he was eager to take the new experience and run with it.
“I didn’t know what Independent Baseball was, so when I got a text from [Ducks pitcher and former high school opponent] Carmine [Giardina] I had mixed feelings and immediately talked to my agent,” Barbosa noted. “It ended up being a great choice, and I’m thankful for the opportunity.”
He went on to say, “When I got released, for those couple of weeks I was home, reality hit me. When one door closes, God opens up another one, and I wasn’t going to let that one shut. I started having fun, playing a game…It’s funny how stuff starts to click when you really think about it.”
Barbosa threw three scoreless innings in his Ducks debut on May 19 at York as part of a 4-1 win. He would then go on to allow just one earned run (two total runs) over his first four starts, spanning a total of 22 innings. In that stretch, he gave up 13 hits and seven walks while striking out 26 batters, including back-to-back 10-strikeout performances on May 30 at Somerset and June 5 at Camden. Despite not having a fastball that blows hitters away, he has found a way to use other aspects of his game to his advantage.
“It’s funny I get asked that question all the time: Do you consider yourself a strikeout pitcher?” he said. “Over the years, I’ve learned that we, as pitchers, each have to work with our own strengths. I have found that for me, keeping the hitters off-balance is key. Everything works off my changeup, and though I don’t throw very hard, my inside fastball works to my advantage for opening up the outer half.”
Jannis added, “Being 6-foot-8 gives him a huge advantage. He has great angle on his ball and mixes speeds very effectively. The angle creates a lot of swings and misses and a high strikeout rate.”
The 28-year-old’s only true hiccup with the Flock came on June 10 when he surrendered six runs on eight hits over four innings to Southern Maryland. However, like the Ducks’ offense did so many times in the first half last year, they rallied back with seven runs in the seventh inning to earn a 10-9 win. Speaking of wins, the Ducks did just that in eight of Barbosa’s nine starts. The lone exception came on June 27 at Sugar Land despite him striking out nine batters over six innings of four-run ball.
Regardless of the one loss, his numbers through nine starts were very impressive. He compiled a 4-1 record with a 2.82 ERA and 59 strikeouts over 51 innings of work. The Ducks had two splendid arms in their rotation in Barbosa and Jannis to go along with familiar faces such as John Brownell and Bobby Blevins. Being newcomers to the Flock helped them also create a strong bond that continues today.
“It was great playing with Mickey,” exclaimed Barbosa. “Talk about a great down to earth guy and very humble! He’s not your typical knuckleballer when he can also throw 91 miles per hour. He throws knuckleballs at various speeds but also knows how to pitch with his fastball.”
Jannis shared the sentiment. “I really enjoyed playing alongside Andrew last season. We had a good connection from the beginning, and he fit right in with the team…He is a very funny person and really helped keep things light around the clubhouse.”
Early July proved to be a difficult time for the Ducks’ organization. Not only did they just miss out on a first half title and guaranteed postseason berth, but they also began to be picked apart by Major League clubs. Jannis was the first go, being signed by the Mets on July 1. Just eight days later, Barbosa became the second. The Atlanta Braves, one of New York’s division rivals, saw the success he had in the Atlantic League and gave him the chance to continue his trek to the big leagues. Barbosa would be assigned to Double-A Mississippi and be kept mainly in a starter’s role despite his bump in the road earlier in the year with Mobile. His first outing: Seven innings, three hits, no runs, one walk, 12 strikeouts. It was a statement from him that he was ready to take advantage of this second chance.
“Signing with the Braves was a blessing,” he reminisced. “To get back into affiliated ball and to prove myself again, it was very motivational. I just wanted to carry over what I was doing with the Ducks to the Southern League. Baseball is baseball no matter where you are.”
After a rough outing on July 16, he bounced back in a big way during the week of July 20th. Barbosa made two starts and won them both, defeating Jackson on the road and his former Mobile squad at home. In the two games, he combined to throw 11 scoreless innings, surrendering just six hits and two walks while striking out 10 batters. For his efforts, he was named the Southern League’s Pitcher of the Week. Although he had been successful, Barbosa was moved to the bullpen after those two starts and made only one more start in his final 12 outings. He would finish the season strong though, posting a 5-2 record and a 2.68 ERA along with 51 strikeouts in 43 and two-thirds innings with Mississippi. However, come the offseason, Barbosa chose to elect free agency on November 6.
“The Braves were a great organization, and I enjoyed playing with them,” he assured. “My agent and I just didn’t come to an agreement and decided to see what opportunities came through free agency. I have to say that my agent, Francis Marquez, handled everything and was talking to multiple teams before we made our decision.”
Fortunately, he was able to latch on with the Mets and now joins an organization that clearly has a heavy focus on pitching. Their Major League starting rotation is arguably the best in baseball, with the likes of Matt Harvey, Jacob DeGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz highlighting the group. However, their minor league arms are quite impressive as well. With Jannis and Barbosa now on the fold, it is quite possible the two could end up pitching together next season either at Double-A Binghamton or Triple-A Las Vegas.
Barbosa commented, “He deserves this opportunity, and hopefully I am able to reunite with him and pitch. Nothing like some friendly competition to keep you zoned in!”
As for Jannis, he also is in favor of a reunion. “It would be great to pitch alongside him again next season in the Mets organization. We kept in touch after we were both picked up by organizations last year, and after I sent him a ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ text he told me he signed with the Mets. It was a little bit of an early Christmas present in a way.”
Neither have ever advanced as high as Triple-A before, so that would be a major accomplishment in and of itself. However, they both have their sights set on Citi Field and the hopes of one day achieving their big league dream. Thinking out loud, Barbosa spoke his mind: “The big leagues is always the goal, and it would be amazing to throw in Citi Field. I can’t even imagine that environment.”